• John G

Reimagined: James Avenue Pump House

Much of downtown Winnipeg was threatened in 1904 when a fire raged out of control at James Ashdown’s Main Street hardware store. The domestic water supply, fed by artesian wells, proved inadequate to fight a fire of this scale. Untreated Red River water was pumped into the domestic supply in a desperate attempt to increase water pressure. The fire was extinguished but contamination of the city’s water supply resulted in 1,300 cases of typhoid fever in the following days.



Winnipeg already had North America’s highest rate of typhoid since much of the immigrant population north of downtown had no access to the artesian wells and regularly consumed river water. Regardless, the business-oriented civic leaders saw fire protection for their new commercial buildings as the priority. James Ashdown, owner of the fire-ravaged hardware store and foremost member of Winnipeg’ commercial/political elite, led the way in the construction of the James Avenue High Pressure Pumping Station. He became Winnipeg’s mayor in 1906.



The Pumping Station was considered the most sophisticated in the world. Water was drawn directly from the Red River and pushed through an eight-mile network of high-pressure lines to more than seventy downtown fire hydrants. The system was completely isolated from the domestic water supply. Four large pumps were each capable of delivering 1800 gallons per minute and two smaller pumps each produced an additional 900 gallons per minute. As a result, any hydrant in the network could produce a 600-foot stream of water, roughly the height of a fifty-story building. By this time Winnipeg had its earliest steel-frame “skyscrapers”. It was anticipated that the new steelframe technology would send buildings much higher in the future. The Pumping Station assured fire protection for existing as well as prospective buildings.



The British built pumping machinery was set in place in working order before the handsome brick building was constructed over it’ a true example of form following function. An excellent example of early industrial architecture, the building is designed in a straightforward and utilitarian manner. The sole decorative feature is the corbelled brickwork above the large arched windows.

In 1919, the station was connected to the new Shoal Lake Aqueduct. This source was preferable to the muddy water of the Red River. A neighbouring coal gas producer plant and large gas storage tank were demolished in 1962 when the engines were converted to natural gas and electricity. The James Avenue Pumping Station was taken out of service in 1986, a victim of higher operating costs, deteriorating water mains, and modern pumper trucks which offer firefighters greater flexibility.


New Development

Two residential buildings connected to the Pump House will be built on east and west end of the parcel. The buildings will be separated from the Pump House by two muses. The development scenario allows for the great pump hall - a well-preserved example of the “golden age” of machinery - to become accessible to the public. At the moment the team is pursuing funding avenues for a dedicated public access and interpretive content.



The architects are going to present the conceptual drawings, models and renderings to illustrate the proposal.


Private Tour for Residents

At our upcoming R:ED event, Colin Neufeld, from 5468796 architecture will take us inside the pump house -- a building that few have seen the inside of. The tour will take residents into the underbelly of the City, a place of beautiful infrastructure, that has been closed for so many years...

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