Three Ems, An Ed, And Echo Lake Revisited

I try in these pages not to slip into plain old nostalgia. It’s too easy and too common: everyone has a decade or so in their past during which the world was a better place than it is now, and already our children are beginning to come over all sentimental about the 1990s, which as far as I’m concerned are still the present. It follows, then, that the world of the past was, is, and always will be better than the world at hand, and that nostalgia, though great fun, is too highly personal to be truly meaningful. So I stick with the Three Ems: memory, meaning—where there is any— and now and then, murder.

Just last year I found that I had a long lost great-great uncle, Edward Hewitt, who’d been edited out of our family history. Perhaps he was already considered a prodigal son when, having left the family seat in Simcoe County, he decided to stop in Winnipegland—as any sane person would—and work for the Canadian Pacific here and in Coldwell, rather than continue west to farm in Saskatchewan with his brothers. As well as his bunk in the company dorm out back of Port Coldwell Station, Ed kept a Winnipeg bolthole by Sturgeon Creek in the then semi-rural St James. I’d like to think his digs were more salubrious than the trio of blue dumpsters now occupying the site. but the more I get to know Uncle Ed, the less I’m surprised by any bad news about him. Certainly his life was sufficiently unsavoury to have ended unsurprisingly at the hands of a still unidentified murderer, on the shore of Echo Lake. Here is the Winnipeg Tribune report published the Tuesday after the killing:

POLICE SUSPECT FOUL PLAY IN LAKEHEAD DEATH: Man Found Dead in Port Arthur With Pockets Rifled Thought Slain
PORT ARTHUR, Ont Sept 8, 1925. Under circumstances indicating murder, the body of Edward Hewitt; aged about 60 years, 10 years in the employ of the Canadian Pacific Railway as rock-cut watchman with headquarters at Port Coldwell. was found on the shore of Echo Lake, 30 feet below the railway track, about 7 o’clock Saturday evening. A wound giving every appearance of having been inflicted by a blunt instrument, was on the right temple. A roll of bills, said to have aggregated about $1000, which Hewitt was known to have carried on his person, was missing. The provincial police are investigating and an arrest is expected. 

Well, there was no arrest, nor any further reportage, so I’ve been doing some research in order to reconstruct some of the detail of Uncle Edward’s life and death, and to bring him, if not back to life, then at least back into the family which has forsaken him for nearly a century.

A rock cut like the one where Edward Hewitt protected slow-moving trains from falling rocks, freeloading rod-riders and larcenous leapers.

A rock cut like the one where Edward Hewitt protected slow-moving trains from falling rocks, freeloading rod-riders and larcenous leapers.

As a rock-cut watchman, Edward helped protect the trains which moved by necessity at a snail’s pace along a pretty dodgy section of track. Eastbound trains carried his brothers’ Saskatchewan rye to Ontario and Québec, but Edward chose to take his share of the harvest in its tastier and more lucrative distilled form on the return journey west. The disappearance of a bottle or two here and there—maybe even the occasional case—was par for the course on that long haul, and minor shortages at the Winnipeg railhead were only rarely investigated by railway police. But Uncle Ed got stars in his eyes when a CPR colleague told him he knew a guy with a boat who could sell as much hard liquor as he could get to another guy who lived on Isle Royale, Michigan, just fifteen miles off the Lake Superior shore and five miles inside the thirsty, jitterbugging, prohibition-stricken USA.

Edward started increasing his “harvest”, and week by week the summer of 1925 he amassed a marketable surplus he hid in the narrow strip of woods between tiny Echo Lake and the mighty Superior, which is bisected by the US border. The first shipment of twenty cases went without a hitch in the wee small hours of Thursday September 3rd. The $1800 take was split three ways by Ed, his CPR crony who had expertly altered the manifests and unlocked the freight-car doors, and the guy with the boat.

Wouldn't you?

Wouldn’t you?

So far, so good, but Ed was now infected with greed and the next night, the start of the weekend, he headed into Port Arthur in search of a big-stakes poker game. He found one, and whisky-addled though he was, he managed to turn his $600 into just over a grand, running out of less lavishly bankrolled opponents one by one till the game broke up. He managed to stagger to the station just in time to hitch a ride home in the caboose of the midnight train to Coldwell. Alone, he thought, but no such luck. He didn’t disembark at Port Coldwell Station. Strictly speaking he didn’t disembark at all, but was bashed on the head and thrown off the train a few miles south of Coldwell, just a stone’s throw away from his Echo Lake stash, where the trains always slowed to a crawl. His $1000 wad was gone, but it didn’t matter, because Ed was dead.

Port Coldwell Station in its (and Edward’s) heyday.                          CPR Staff dormitory to the rear, left.

Port Coldwell Station in its (and Edward’s) heyday. CPR Staff dormitory to the rear, left.

By virtue of his day job, Uncle Ed was bound to have been a tough guy, perhaps not bad to the bone, but certainly no angel. The local police were probably happy enough to let him and his type kill each other off, and it’s clear the “investigating” was neither lengthy nor dogged. Had the Mounties been brought in they would doubtless have “got their man”, but it was not their jurisdiction.

I stand to be corrected on any of this, and would love to know more, but that would require one or more of the killer’s descendants to come forward; I won’t be holding my breath. So this, for the time being, is Edward Hewitt’s story. Sure, it’s not the whole story, but it’s the only one he’s got, and a damn sight more than his family has allowed to be told thus far.

It’s a little nephew’s little gift to you, bad Uncle Ed. Welcome home.

Storing away some future memories at Grant’s Mill, Sturgeon Creek. (Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection)

Storing away some future memories at Grant’s Mill, Sturgeon Creek. (Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection)

https://www.google.co.nz/maps/place/Coldwell,+ON+P0T,+Canada/@48.5762912,-86.7539179,285718m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x4d43795c02a7b557:0x94341db3344f2473

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Subterranean Gopher Homesick Blues

You too can reconstruct entire Winnipegland streets as they were in, say, 1926 or 1956 or 1967 or just about any old year you like. You can find out what business used to be where something else is now; you can find out who lived where (or where who lived) and what they did for a living. Stalking the dead/near-dead, or historical research? That’s between you and your god.

All you need is time on your hands, an unoccupied brain, good closeup eyesight, and some archived Henderson’s Directories. It’s a bit sad, I guess, but I confess that I myself happen to tick all these boxes. Your local public or university library probably has a set of Hendersons tucked away in its nether regions. Or you can share mine, which are lovingly curated by the University of Alberta’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces, bless their cuttin’, pastin’, cowpunchin’ li’l librarians’ hearts.

Thanks to Henderson, I found the Sturgeon Creek site, now occupied by three blue dumpsters, where my great uncle Ed hung his hat prior to getting himself murdered in Northern Ontario in 1925.  I found out that my 1964 classmate Georgina‘s mother worked at Federal Lunch, and that two of her sisters cooked and carhopped at the original and only true Pony Corral. No wonder G always looked so well fed…

Depressingly if not surprisingly I found that the 1960s Pembina Highway commercial strip is unrecognizable just a generation or so later. No more Ringer’s Drugs (my fault), Lee’s Lunch, Larry’s Lunch, Loblaw’s or Shop-Easy. No more Automatic Carwash, Riviera Park Miniature Golf, Pembina Drive-In Theatre, Miss Winnipeg Drive Inn or Pony Corral worthy of the name. No more carhops.  And my point is? I should get over it? Grow up? Get a life? Too late…. someone shoulda told me years ago.

Back then the motels , drive-ins and such petered out after University Crescent, giving way to a semi-rural straggle of small homesteads doubling as automotive cemeteries, not poetically funky or derelict enough to make for a Dylanesque desolation row, and certainly not spiffily earnest enough to be considered lifestyle blocks, and anyway, people didn’t have “lifestyles” or the requisite SUVs quite yet. Their cars looked like cars, their trucks looked like trucks, and both had blown rings and whining diffs. There may have been some gluten intolerance (in the humans, not the vehicles), but its sufferers would have had the good manners not to mention it.

OK, we’ve driven a couple of miles south and arrived at Mary, Mother Of The Church, straight across the tracks from my old school.The Church opened for services on Holy Thursday 1989, 22 years almost to the day since a few of us did a lunch-hour scorched earth policy number on the quarter-quarter section of gopher-infested land on which the Church now stands. The idea was to smoke the little beasts out of their burrows and bop them on the head when they popped up for air and freedom. Of course no one had thought to bring baseball bats or medicine-balls, though one of our number had earlier found and then retrieved a piece of cast iron like this one 

but the gophers were too nimble be bopped. Our little rings of fire were by now one big ring of fire which would be out of control within minutes, and anyway it was time to get back to school. We made a brief token gesture with cow pies, which are really good for putting out flames fast, but you need a lot of cow pies and a lot of fourteen year-old idiots to make much of an impression on a forty-acre inferno. Water? Well, if the Beatles don’t have a lyric for every possible situation, you can always fall back on Mr Dylan, whose song gave me the title above, and closes with the sublime “The pump don’t work cuz the vandals took the handle.”, though being Canadian we rendered it “The pump doesn’t work cuz the vandals took the handle.”.

Anyhoo, we were out of sight when the fire trucks arrived; they took one look at the natural firebreaks on all four sides and turned around for home. We got a blast from our home room teacher (“So who dropped the cigarette?”  “No one…we lit it with matches, sort of on purpose…”) and our fearsome vice-principal, but our parents weren’t told, and we never heard anything from the farmer or if there even was a farmer. The field regenerated itself, all lush and green, within a couple of weeks, the gophers packed up and moved south, and that plot of land had been reverently purified by fire, and made ready for the coming of Mary, Mother of the Church. Or so I choose to believe.


Edward at Echo Lake, and Other Mysterious Deaths

Since I left Winnipeg at the end of the sixties, a number of its signature businesses have died. Some of them probably deserved to live forever, and I feel I ought to take at least some of the blame for their untimely demise. I “spirited away” a shirt, a pair of jeans and some incense from Eaton’s,  several packs of Mackintosh’s Toffee and assorted school supplies from Ringer’s Drugs on Pembina, and I was once late for my Winnipeg Tribune paper route. And now all three firms are gone.

In mitigation, the Mackintosh’s Toffees were required for the daily appeasement and pleasure of my seven year-old dream princess Agnes Lachance, and I happened at that age to be short enough that I could glide past the cashier unnoticed as a pack of toffees slid into my tiny and perfectly placed left hand. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to have  two or three slide in at a time, or from where or whom I got the required sang-froid and how and when I eventually lost it. After a couple of weeks though, Mme Lachance put the kibosh on my dutiful drop-offs, for the sake of her daughter’s moral as well as dental well-being, I think.

Neither of my parents seemed desperately interested in current affairs, so it was odd that they took both the Tribune and the bigger, slicker Free Press. Maybe it was because each offered a 16-page colour funnies section and a rotogravure (look it up, kids)  on Saturday. Before I  became a paperboy for both simultaneously (against the rules), my late little brother Ross and I had a ritual weekly fight for first dibs on the superior Free Press funnies. In funnies as in almost everything else, the Tribune played second fiddle. It was favoured by us paperboys, though, on account of its much lighter weight, and occasionally it did manage to scoop the Free Press on a big big story, such as this one in 1925:

POLICE SUSPECT FOUL PLAY IN LAKEHEAD DEATH: Man Found Dead in Port Arthur With Pockets Rifled Thought Slain                                                                        PORT ARTHUR, Ont Sept 8, 1925. Under circumstances indicating murder, the body of Edward Hewitt; aged about 60 years, 10 years in the employ of the Canadian Pacific Railway as rock-cut watchman with headquarters at Port Coldwell. was found on the shore of Echo Lake, 30 feet below the railway track, about 7 o’clock Saturday evening. A wound giving every appearance of having been inflicted by a blunt instrument, was on the right temple. A roll of bills, said to have aggregated about $1000, which Hewitt was known to have carried on his person, was missing. The provincial police are investigating and an arrest is expected. 

Well, Edward Hewitt was my great-great uncle, little brother of my great-grandfather John, and perhaps the black sheep of the family. Or perhaps not, but he surely didn’t have that much cash from his railway job. Given the year – smack-dab in the middle of the USA’s prohibition era – and the location very close to the border-straddling Lake Superior, I have “decided” that bootlegging was involved. That would be the romantic version, and it will have to do for now, because some unromantic and meddlesome Hewitt appears to have edited poor Edward out of our otherwise well-documented family history. I only found out about his existence serendipitously, thanks to the very thorough Saskatchewan historian Doug Gent.  I can’t find a follow-up story from either Winnipeg paper, or from any in Thunder Bay, so I may never track down the apparently undetected murderer. However, if I ever find out which killjoy relative of mine disposed of Uncle Edward for a second time, that person is in trouble from me with a capital T…. posthumously if necessary. But right now I’m going to try and find out what, besides the missing boyswear, went so wrong for our beloved Eaton’s.