Heritage Square's Herman Prior Activity Centre has been donned with historic photos of well-known, but now gone, structures in Portage la Prairie. The Heritage Committee was involved in having them displayed along the top windows. 

Local historian, writer, and educator James Kostuchuk outlines how it all started.

"The idea from the project came when the Heritage Committee got a call from the Herman Prior folks, and I guess their board had been chatting and they wanted to do something to improve the the visual appeal of the building. The top floor of the building had internal walls that you could see from outside. So, it was a bit of an eyesore. They came up with the idea that they wanted to put up decals. The other idea that came up was they wanted to celebrate the built heritage of Portage la Prairie. That was the challenge they presented to us to tell the history of Portage through buildings."

Twelve photos of historic sites are displayed across the top of the windows. Kostuchuk explains the project required some careful measurements. 

"It was a little more challenging than people might expect because, of course, when you take a photograph and increase the scale, oftentimes the quality degrades. Not only do we have to find pictures of some of the buildings that they were looking for, but we had to find them in a format that would blow up well. So, high-resolution images that we also were able to use legally. We had to know the source of the images that we were using for each one, because sometimes, people will bring you a photo and it's a photocopy of a photo. Well, that's not going to look great. Or they might have a photo, but they don't know where they got it. But I think we managed to meet the challenge pretty well. I think it tells us a good story about our city."

He notes he was amazed at the quality of the resolution.

Little Portage - -ChurchLittle Portage - Lansdowne College

"The first image is a Little Portage, and that photograph would be from around 1916. Of course, any of the older folks in Portage la Prairie remember Little Portage and it was a service station restaurant. I've talked to people who went there when they were young and it was just a cool hangout, but it also had some eccentric aspects. I remember somebody telling me that when you went into the steakhouse, they had a talking animatronic bear or or moose. I forget which, but apparently, the owner had rigged this stuffed animal head up so that it would greet you when you walked through the door. This is the time of Disney when they were doing animatronics down there. That was apparently quite a stopping space for people coming through Portage."

He notes the next photo is of Lansdowne College which he explains was an early school that no longer stands. 

Church - Albion HotelChurch - Albion Hotel

"Another great landmark was the onion-dome church that Portage had; the Church of the Assumption. Portage has always had a lot of churches, as people come from different cultures, they built. And of course the Ukrainian Orthodox/Ukrainian Catholic style just sticks out on the prairies. We have this beautiful, what we called, an onion dome church. We had one where I grew up in Dauphin. It was designed by a reverend. His name was Philip Raruh, with beautiful paintings on the inside. I have pictures of the interior as well, but these were amateurs that designed these things. So apparently, by the 50s and '60s, they had noticed that this was no longer a safe structure. Sometimes, fixing a structure is more expensive than building a new structure. So, it came down, but it was missed in the North End and was a significant structure."

Next on the display is the Albion Hotel that many residents remember, especially it's fame for catching fire in the '70s. 

"I think they had daily music," continues Kostuchuk. "They had bands from all over the West that went through there, apparently; bands that Canadians might know, like Harlequin or Street Heart -- bands like that would come through Portage and play at The Albion. It was a legendary place."

Lake of the Woods Mill - first residential schoolLake of the Woods Mill - first residential school

Moving on down the windows, there is also the Lake of the Woods Mill which was near the railway tracks. 

"That was a huge employer. One of the things we wanted to do is to represent the First Nations that have been here and that's tough to do when you're doing built heritage. You know, there wasn't much photographic evidence of how people were living before settlers came. But we did include a photo of the first residential school, and it actually is very rare. I think it's the only known photo of that building, but it also has children in front of it. That goes back to the late 1880s."

Merchants Bank - Southport RCAF Air StationMerchants Bank - Southport RCAF Air Station

There is also the Merchants Bank which is on the corner where Tokyo Smoke is currently located. 

"It's worth looking at when you go by the building, and checking that one out because it was our tallest building when you came to Portage la Prairie at that time. I think it was built in 1882. It was an older building, but if you'd come here at the turn of the 20th century, you would have noticed that the building was starting to lean. Just like the famous leaning tower in Italy, Portage had the Merchants Bank. The lean got so severe that they had to strip off the top story. Then they eventually stripped off the second story until it was just one story left, and then it was torn down."

Kostuchuk says Southport couldn't be left out, so they obtained a great photo from there, and Southport and a lot of thought went into what it would present.

"I'm always looking for photos that kind of capture people," says Kostuchuk. "Looking at just a picture of a building can be quite boring and I was quite excited about that photo, because we got a picture of the RCAF Air Station at Southport in 1961, but when they were doing an air show. In the photo, you can see the building, but in front are all the people who have come to see the air show. What I really like about it is that they're all looking up in the sky."

Grand Trunk Railway signal house - Original MDC buildingGrand Trunk Railway signal house - Original MDC building

Then there's the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway signal house. 

"That speaks to the railway. Many people in Portage are familiar with the diamond crossing. It's apparently the only place in Western Canada where you get the CPR and CNR lines merged. That signal building was near the diamond junction."

He then points to the next photo of the original MDC building at that time, which was called the Home for Incurables. That photo dates back to 1912.

"That facility is slated to be closed. I think that decision was made in 2021; or something like that. That may be disappearing from our landscape, as well."

Prairie Giants (grain elevators) - Snack bar that once stood at 350 Saskatchewan Ave. West.Prairie Giants (grain elevators) - Snack bar that once stood at 350 Saskatchewan Ave. West.

There is also a photo of the Prairie Giants, those elevators that used to dot the Prairies.

"If anyone's interested, there's a database on the Manitoba Historical Society website where they actually list which of those grain elevators are left, and they're actually disappearing at a really fast rate. They can't really be repurposed, so they catch fire, or something replaces them. They're coming down everywhere. But if you'd come to Portage in the 60s, I think there were something like six-grain elevators in the community. They would have stood out. You would have noticed that."

The last photo on the building is a snack bar that once stood at 350 Saskatchewan Ave. West.

"They did dining and catering. And that's where the Eagles Fire Youth Centre came to be."

Kostuchuk says looking at the built heritage of Portage, the one thing that would have impressed people coming here in 1900 was the skyline of our city. There were many tall buildings, especially churches.

Speaking of churches, he explains someone once told him that there are those who don't want to worship in a low ceiling, but prefer a high one to celebrate. A university professor shared with him that there are high-ceiling people and low-ceiling people. 

"Low-ceiling people like efficiency and practicality, and high ceiling. People like to be able to imagine something greater. So, you had all these churches that were on the skyline. We had the Merchants Bank building that was also tall. We had a lot of three-story tall brick buildings. So, to someone traveling, the town would have really looked impressive. At that time period, we had a population equal to Brandon. We were a major community outside of Winnipeg. We were one of the major centres at that time period. Of course, Brandon's population kept growing and ours sort of stalled around the '50s. For me, that would be the biggest difference. We had an impressive skyline."