I recently took over the PastForward project at the Winnipeg Public Library. If you aren’t familiar with it yet, PastForward is our “digital repository”; a system and website where we can preserve and provide public access to historical documents, photographs, audio recordings, and videos (among other things). With an information technology background, I had come to the Library already interested in digitization projects from a technical point of view. What I didn’t realise is just how much I would love researching Winnipeg’s past!
So far, most of the time I’ve spent on PastForward has been adding descriptive information to scans of postcards from the Rob McInnes Postcard Collection. We call this information “metadata” and we create it so that people can find what the metadata describes. For example, the senders and recipients of used postcards are described in their metadata. So, for example, if you were researching your family tree, the sender metadata might allow you to find a postcard one of your ancestors wrote, which you could then read on PastForward or print for yourself.
Most of the postcards I’ve worked with are from the early 1900’s. Born and raised in Winnipeg, I’d learned as a child that our city was, and still is, a transportation hub. What I hadn’t appreciated was just what a booming, exciting place it had been before air and automobile travel superseded riverboats and railways. Many travelers would stop in Winnipeg on their way to their destinations and send a card back home to let their loved ones know that they were safe. A number of these travelers would comment on what a fine and exciting city this was.
There have been a number of surreal moments in this work, such as discovering this photograph of an, as yet unidentified, City business that apparently was a bizarre hybrid of gun, music, and jewelry stores; with signs advertising, “Guns for rent” and “Watch repairing done here.” I’m not sure what it means that the violins, guitars, and accordion are kept behind glass, while the long guns hang outside the shop windows.
There was also Happyland, an amusement park in what is now Wolseley, from which elephants and other circus animals escaped and roamed the City’s streets not once, but twice! In a scene reminiscent of 12
Monkeys, on a stormy night in 1907 future Mayor, “Richard ‘Dick’ D. Waugh’s hired man was awoken in the early morning hours by the family dog’s incessant barking. According to the article, an enormous brown dog was trying to join the Waugh dog in its kennel. ‘The man gave him a kick and was greeted with a roar that could be heard all over the neighbourhood. Taking a closer look he saw the head of a fine lion with toothless gums snarling at him.’” (Cherney, Part 1, Part 2). The lion tamer later retrieved the beast which had lain down on the Mayor’s steps.
I’ve also been linking the scanned postcards in PastForward to Google’s Streetview images. Sometimes it’s eerie how little things have changed as in this postcard of the Union Bank Tower…
…or this one (below) of the duck pond at Assiniboine (née City) Park. The family in the latter seems like ghosts, haunting the pond. Saddest, though, are when I find a parking lot where a beautiful building once was.
I consider myself lucky to have been able to work on this project. I’ve always considered myself a Winnipegger, but I’m not sure I was ever so proud of my home until now.
Comment on PastForward and help us out by adding what you know about the history of our City and its people!