THE GRAND OPENING OF
WINNIPEG'S HUDSON BAY STORE
"From Trading Post to Modern Store"
by George Siamandas
The Hudson Bay store opened in Winnipeg on November 18 1926. People lined up for blocks around; one of the plate glass windows was broken and car loads of police were on hand to maintain decorum. Fifty thousand Winnipeggers went through the store that first day. But only the basement and first two floors were complete for opening but at least the store was ready for the Christmas trade. Two thousand staff were there to help the throng of opening day customers.
The first customer was Mayor Ralph Webb who bought a silk tie for $1.25. A Mrs Schultz of Pritchard Ave actually was the first customer in line. In the lower level was a supermarket: sirloin steak was 22 cents a pound, corn flakes a dime and sugar sold for 72 cents for a ten pound bag. The lower level also housed hardware, sporting goods. Clothing however was surprisingly expensive at prices of $15 to $150 for women's dresses. There was even a 3,000 volume lending library on the second floor. The Bay would make 5 tons of Christmas cake for the Christmas season and was the biggest fuel dealer in Winnipeg delivering coal till 1960 when gas was introduced.
BUILDING THE NEW STORE
A lot of men worked round the clock to dig the Bay's foundations by shovel, horse drawn scrapers as well as the two steam shovels on the site. Most of the Bay was built with a "Made in Manitoba" philosophy where as many goods as possible were bought here in Manitoba. The Tyndall stone, 1 M bricks, plaster from Gypsumville, the steel frame from Selkirk's Rolling Mills, 2 M board feet of lumber from Winnipegosis. And as a modern fire-proof building, it had 32 km sprinkler pipes and 8,000 heads.
At one time it had its one well which at 600 feet was the deepest in Canada. While not of drinking quality, it was used to flush toilets and to air condition the air. It was used until 1971 at which time it was capped off because the water had turned salty in efforts to dig deeper. Originally the Bay had twelve elevators. Half were removed in 1948 to install elevators. In the 1930s a beacon on top of the Bay helped guide airplanes to the city as air mail service was inaugurated.
WHY WAS THE BAY SO LONG IN COMING?
For a company that had owned a lot of North America (All the land that drained into Hudson Bay) and all of downtown Winnipeg till after 1870, it took the HBC a long time to build a modern store - 21 years after Eatons. WW1 delayed it at least ten years. And Winnipeg seemed to have headed into decline by the 1920s. The original store built in 1881 had been on Main St and York. But the Bay saw the reality of retailing lay on Portage Ave. The first real urban store was in Vancouver in 1887. Donald A Smith who ran the Bay then imported managers from Harrods to run these stores. The trading posts evolved into department stores as the west filled up with new settlers.
At one time the Bay owned everything in downtown Winnipeg and built on the western boundary of its reserve. Ironically it had to repurchase the land from a Col Pierce who made a bundle from advance knowledge of the store's coming before the Bay's own real estate people knew of the store's construction. Hudson Bay did not become a Canadian company till 1970 when it became headquartered in Winnipeg. It had previously been London-based. In 1979 Ken Thompson bought 76% of Bay shares. They sold off the 178 northern stores in 1987 after losing money.