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The Story of West Lynne and the First CustomsHouse in Western Canada


James McClelland

To say that the oldest federal building in southern Manitobahad a diverse and cheqeuered past would be an understatement. Accordingto the old Winnipeg Telegram, this building was originally built in the1850's. The design and architecture were similar to buildings found inthe Acadian region of Canada. The article describes the building as "20x26, and made from hewn oak timbers, dove tailed at the corners." Laterthis building would serve as a symbol of Canadian sovereignty and a floodgate against Yankee commerce. Today it sits just 500km north of the borderit guarded for so long.

The line separating the United States from British territoryhad always been vague and tentative. Agreement that the 49th parallel wouldrecord the western boundary was established as early as 1818, but its exactlocation tended to shift each time a party had been sent out to survey it. Between 1823 and 1870 three different boundary lines had been drawn; allof them controversial.

In the 1840's, agitation began to develop along this linebetween the free traders from the Red River Settlement and the Hudson BayCompany officials at Fort Garry. In 1843, the first regular cart servicebetween Pembina and St. Paul was opened. This provided easy access to theAmerican markets. This bickering heightened as more Red River traders soughtthe higher American prices. It intensified in 1845 when Norman Kittson,an American Trader, opened a store just a scant 4km south of British Territory,at the junction of the Red and the Pembina Rivers.

The door of American commerce was beckoning. In fact,Kittson offered such good prices for fur that the ensuing rush of illegaltrade from British Territory was referred to by the HBC as "Kittson'sFever".

As a counter-move in September of 1845, the Hudson BayCompany opened a post called North Fort Pembina. It was located on whatthey considered their side of the line. The Company put John Palmer Bourke,a retired officer living in the colony, in charge of this new frontier post.

During the winter of 1845-46, Robert Clouston, an employeefrom the Stone Fort visited this place. In his journal, he described theseSpartan surroundings.

"Mr. Bourke has a rough log house, the walls of which, inside and outside are plastered with clay, and the roof covered withearth - it is floored with rough logs: the men live in the same house, withmerely an apparition between them - a mud chimney in each room and a dooropening from Mr. B's apartment to his trading room"

The following day Clouston visited Kittson's store. Theuncertainty of the exact spot where American and British authority met isnoted in his diary. "About < of a mile above the house (the HBCstore) we saw a post planted by Major Long - marking the boundary at a placecalled Monro's Encampment some wag had pulled up the post of demarcationand placed Uncle Sam's initials toward British territory." Cloustonlater reported that Kittson's store was about 3 kms farther south. Here,between Kittson's store and the HBC post, the log house was originally located.

From these squalid beginnings the HBC post at the bordercontinued to develop. A sketch from 1858, shows several log buildings surroundedby a sturdy log palisade.

View of North Fort Pembina, as depicted by W.H.E. Napier

(Public Archives)

However, the strip of land between North Pembina and Kittson'sstore quickly developed into a "no-man's land." Other buildingssprang up and an unsavory frontier community known as Huron City was born.A few years later the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba would complain toOttawa about the rowdy brawling atmosphere and the flourishing trade inwhiskey smuggling that was going on in this "Whisky Post". Bythis time, the log building, had been turned into an inn.

Unquestionably, many travelers passed through the doorsof this establishment, but two guests in particular played a very importantrole in the creation of Manitoba. In the autumn of 1869, the Hon. Wm. McDougall,the Governor designate of Rupert's Land, stayed here briefly after he wasdenied entry into the Red River Settlement by Louis Riel's metis guards.In December, McDougall would return to the deserted post and read a Proclamationdeclaring himself the official lieutenant-governor of the region. Ironically,in August of the following year, Louis Riel himself found momentary refugein the same building after his hasty escape from Fort Garry.

On July 1, 1871, F. T. Bradley arrived to become Collectorof Customs. The log building, empty at the time, became Manitoba's firstregular Customs House. It also served as a telegraph, express and postaloffice. Yet, in October 1871, one of the most bizarre events in Canadianhistory had yet to unfold on these premises.

In the spring of 1871, William O'Donoghue, a fiery Irishmanand one time Riel ally and member of the Provisional Government, was inNew York. He was pressing the Fenian Brotherhood to assist him in his plancalling for the annexation of Manitoba and union with the United States. Aided and encouraged by Enos Stutsman, a prominent Pembina lawyer andpolitician, O'Donoghue drew up a Constitution for the Republic of Rupert'sLand. Among other things this constitution proclaimed O'Donoghue presidentof the new republic. According to the plan, General John O'Neill, presidentof the Fenian Brotherhood, General J. J. Donnelly and Colonel Thomas Curlyalso prominent Fenians, would recruit up to 2000 Irish nationals and invadeManitoba. Maggie Siggins noted, in her recent study on Louis Riel, a realfear existed in Manitoba if Riel's supporters joined the Fenians the provincewould be lost to Canada.

On October 3, Lieutenant-Governor Adams George Archibaldissued a proclamation calling on all inhabitants to volunteer to help thesmall existing military force in repelling the invasion. Interestingly,among those volunteers was a mounted force of Metis buffalo hunters. Fearingthe worst the chief factor at North Fort Pembina packed up all the moneyand papers and sent them into Fort Garry. It was none to soon. On October5, the invasion began. The army, was not the 2000 strong that O'Donoghuehad envisioned. Instead a ragged band of forty soldiers marched north . These raiders captured the Hudson Bay fort, the Customs House and tookabout twenty hostages. Placed under guard and herded into a large log buildingthe hostages waited. The raiders also waited for the anticipated arrivalof the Metis that they expected to join them.

Among the hostages, however, were Mrs. Wheaton, spouseof Col. Wheaton commandant of the U.S. Fort Pembina, and an American soldierwho had escorted her to the store. One of the prisoners, a young childescaped, and word reached Wheaton of the situation. Very quickly, two companiesof American Infantry complete with cannon were marching northward. Surprisedby this turn of events the Fenians were quickly routed. Rounded up by theAmerican military and returned to Fort Pembina, they were left to ponderwhy an American military force scattered them from a supposedly Canadianfacility.

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, news of the invasion hadreached Fort Garry and the militia was mustered and given marching orders. In mud and rain they left Winnipeg that evening. Shortly after their departure,Col. Wheaton sent a telegram to the U.S. consul in Winnipeg informing himthat he had " captured and now hold General, J. O'Neill, General, ThomasCurly, and Colonel J. J. Donnelly." As a reassuring footnote healso concluded that "anxiety regarding a Fenian invasion of Manitobais unnecessary." Thus ended the last incursion by armed foreign nationalsinto Canada. Still, fears of Fenian raids persisted for many years. So,two local militia units were formed, the West Lynne Artillery Battery andthe Emerson Infantry Company. Fortunately the effectiveness of these militiaunits never required testing against a foreign invasion.

In 1872, the Joint International Boundary Commission accuratelyestablished the boundary line between Canada and the United States. Itwas discovered that a good portion of North Fort Pembina was in Americanterritory, and the Canadian Customs House was 280m on the wrong side ofthe line. The building was speedily moved northward. The portion of thefort that was on American soil was likewise moved to Canadian territory.The following year, the Hudson Bay Company, to avoid confusion caused byits similarity with the American fort, changed the name of North Fort Pembinato West Lynne.

The origin of the name West Lynne seems to have been lost. Yet a local history, View From the Portcullis, suggests this possible explanation.Accordingly about this time a young artist, named Washington Frank Lynnwas living in Winnipeg. Trained at the Royal Academy Schools in London,Lynn had arrived in 1872. Unfortunately, painting could not sustain himand to make ends meet worked as a journalist. Lynn had journeyed to St.Paul to try and improve his finances, but was not happy there and returnedto Winnipeg. The story goes that Mr. Lynn arrived at the border on a lumberraft from Minnesota. The lumber was to be used for the new town site beingbuild on the east side of the river. The new town was called Emerson,in honour of the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Speculation is the people on the west side of the riverchose to name their town after a less prominent, but English/Canadian writer,Mr. Lynn of Winnipeg. Later, Mr. Lynn became a successful and well-knownartist. Interestingly, one of his better known paintings is Fort Pembina.Clearly, then Mr. Lynn was not a stranger to the area.

By 1879, the site of the new town West Lynne started togrow. Caught up in the railway and immigration boom of the early 1880'sthe new town prospered.. Stores, hotels, breweries, agricultural implementdealerships, grain storage facilities, churches and a local school suddenlysprang up. Some West Lynne merchants even envisioned a railroad calledthe West Lynne, Rhineland and Rock Lake Railway. Alas, it was not to be. The arrival of the CPR line through Winnipeg meant those trade goods andpeople would now travel west from this growing metropolis 60 miles to thenorth. West Lynne's prosperity and dreams faded. Amalgamated with theTown of Emerson in the mid-1880's, West Lynne became just a suburb of itslarger neighbor. Today, only two original buildings remain. One of themis the stone mansion built by West Lynne businessperson George Pocock; theother is the old custom house.

And what happened to the old log building over the interveningyears? It served as a Custom office until 1879. At the beginning of thiscentury, a picture of the building, serving as a backdrop for the district'soriginal pioneers, appeared in a Winnipeg newspaper. Eventually it endedup on the property of wealthy West Lynne entrepreneur George Pocock. Formany years it served as a stable. In the early 1950's, it was moved tosite near the Red River. Along with another historical building, Emerson'sfirst jail, it served as the Gateway Stopping Place Museum. After the1979 Red River Flood, the buildings were moved to a site 1 km west. Bothbuildings have been structurally restored and should easily last another150 years.

West Lynne, although a ghost of its former self, remainsa distinct part of Emerson. In recent years, because of its highway location,it has seen the establishment of several new businesses. These, along withmany new homes, have continued to give the area some of its former separateness. Canada Custom's decision in 1992 to rename their Highway 29 office Emerson-WestLynne is another example of the recognition given to site that played animportant part in the development of this area of Manitoba.


Winnipeg Telegram, May 15,1899

"Shooting the Stars." Article by Majorie Forrester,The Beaver, Spring 1960.

"Clouston Goes to Pembina." Article by ElaineAllen Mitchell, The Beaver. Autumn 1961.

"West Lynne." Article by H. Mulligan and W. Ryder,Ghost Towns of Manitoba.

"Emerson in the 1880's: The Town, the People andthe Railroad.", Article by James McClelland, The Centennial Historyof Emerson, 1879-1979.

"Manitoba's Own Fenian Raid: A Call to Arms,"Article by Edith Patterson, Centennial Collection Tales of Early Manitobafrom the Winnipeg Free Press.

"A Boundless Horizon," Article by Virginia Berry,Winnipeg Art Galley, 1983

View From the Portcullis. E. D. McClelland. D.W. FriesenPublishing, Altona: 1992

Riel: A Life of Revolution. Maggie Siggins. Harper-Collins,Toronto: !994


View From the Portcullis. E. D. McClelland. D.W. FriesenPublishing, Altona: 1992

Riel: A Life of Revolution. Maggie Siggins. Harper-Collins,Toronto: !994