Public Works in Winnipeg

By George Siamandas

On Oct 17, 1884 the first block of pavement was laid in Winnipeg. This marked Winnipeg's emergence from a frontier town of muddy streets and 74 bawdy hotels to a city beginning to develop all the appropriate urban amenities. In annual reports the city boasted of the miles of new road construction completed, all designed to show a city of progress. Main Street was the first street that had been surveyed and graded on May 10, 1871 and was made 32 feet wide.

By 1908 Winnipeg had 43 miles of asphalt paved roads, 40 miles of macadam roads and another 185 miles in graded (gravel roads). Roads, side-walks, and sewers services were paid for by frontage levies. In 1908 a property owner paid 33 cents per front foot over 20 years for an asphalt road. And roads were just the beginning. It was normal to build the roads and bridges, but Winnipeg developed a very active role in providing all of its own municipal services.


From its earliest days, the City of Winnipeg developed a firm tradition of municipal ownership of many of its public services. It owned its own quarry at Stony Mountain, and gravel pits at Birds Hill. And it was the first city in North America to have its own asphalt plant. Winnipeg also developed a cluster of municipal hospitals. Later it built its own power plants and its own water supply. To build the Aqueduct it built its own railway and owned 22 boxcars. It still operates and was a money maker supplying gravel to concrete companies on its return trips. It even operated five market buildings which served as Winnipeg's earliest shopping centres. This attitude of public ownership stands as an anomaly in what was otherwise a free enterpise city.

The man that stands out in Winnipeg's public works history is Bill Hurst who was the city engineer for over 40 years starting in 1931 till he retired in 1972. Hurst is a legend in his own time. Before they ahd commissioners Hurst performed the role of chief commissioner. He was close to Mayor Steve Juba and spent time at city council doing what was necessary politically to get his ideas through. Hurst pushed for the introduction of freeways in Winnipeg. He pushed for the Mid Town bridge and the Disraeli overpass. He developed the self-cleaning steel mesh surface (during snow storms) that had originally been installed on these two bridges. But it became a big maintenance problem and was eventually topped with asphalt. He also advocated the building of an elevated roadway along the Red River from Fort Garry to the Redwood bridge. This was not done.


The City had a giant work force. He built up the city works department into what was known in the 1950s and 1960s as Hurst's Empire, the biggest construction company in all North America. Up until the 1960s the city built all the roads, the sewers and all the works in the city. Contractors wanted to be able to get some of the work. A study carried out in the early 1970s looked at the matter of the city contracting out and basically said the city should not be doing all of it. The issue is still with us today and there is more and more pressure to have outside contractors do the engineering as well as the construction in order to save on costs.


Hurst was known as being very abrupt with staff. Was supposed to be hard to work with. He was interested in the arts. A rounded guy. Did a lot of lecturing after retirement. He was an astute investor in San Diego. Was as good businessman. He was described as a real millionaire but was careful with money. He was a leading figure in his field in all of North America. He was generous with his time in helping other professionals advance the profession of engineering and municipal engineering. He retired just as Unicity was introduced in 1971 and then began a consulting practise and lectured around North America. He edited a book on the industry called Building Canada and has received much recognition such as the Gold medal from the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers.


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