Streets of SelkirkPicture of James Colcleugh

The Birth of Selkirk

Colcleugh Avenue is named for Selkirk’s first Mayor and founder, James Colcleugh.

As a contractor on the telegraph line between Rat Portage and Manitoba, Colcleugh reached a spot tentatively called “Selkirk” which was to be “the crossing” of the Red River. The location was just a mark on a railway map – not even a village.

Colcleugh believed that the railway would have to cross the river near his telegraph line and saw the opportunity to make his fortune.

Small farms of Metis descendants of the Hudson Bay Company fur traders dotted the west bank of the Red River. Colcleugh realized that most of the owners had only “scrip” title to their farms and that their ownership was not officially registered.

Colcleugh bought as much “scrip” land as he could. He would sell it at a huge profit when the railway arrived. He and several of his Masonic Lodge brothers made a town plan and registered it.

As the rail line approached the Red River from the east, hundreds of people bought lots on the empty streets of Selkirk. Land prices shot up as a full-scale land-boom swept Manitoba.

In 1880, when the railway did not cross at Selkirk, land values fell. It looked as if Selkirk would become a ghost town. Businesses and residents left to escape debts and losses.

This is a photo of J. Colcleugh in a black dress coat wearing a white button up shirt and a tie. He has groomed hair and a small moustache.
James Colcleugh, Date Unknown, Selkirk the First Hundred Years, Barry Potyondi

Colcleugh saves the Town

Colcleugh had already built a large wharf on the Selkirk inlet for steamships and fishing boats. He also convinced a large lumber company to ship its logs to a sawmill in Selkirk. In 1881, when the railway went to Winnipeg instead of Selkirk, Colcleugh took drastic actions to save his town. He lobbied the CPR’s General Rosser to get a branch line from Winnipeg (see Rosser Avenue) to Selkirk. He paid Rosser a handsome ‘Bonus’. The town had to incorporate in 1882 to pay for it, but the rail line was built and it secured Selkirk’s future.

Colcleugh was the founder of Selkirk not only because he put Selkirk on the map, but because he brought in other investors, settlers, merchants and industries. Most of all, he believed in this town!

A True Visionary

Resources that arrived by steamship from Lake Winnipeg were processed in Selkirk and then sent to distant markets via the rails. Packing sheds for processing fish, saw mills for cutting logs into usable lumber and dozens of service industries sprang up – all due to the energies of James Colcleugh.

James Colcleugh stayed in Selkirk through boom and bust. He built a house and ardently worked to create a community, not just an investment. He was a true visionary! He established the first wharves, the first church, the first solid businesses and fittingly became Selkirk’s first mayor in 1882!

In 1885, he sold his drugstore to R. H. Gilhuly, whose family ran it for almost a century.  Colcleugh became the bursar of the new Manitoba Asylum that was built on land he owned on Manitoba Avenue. Under mysterious circumstances he left his beloved Selkirk in 1890.  He started a series of successful pharmacies in Winnipeg. Retiring from business in 1910, he travelled the world and died in Vancouver in 1918.

Colcleugh Collection


James Colcleugh Dictionary of Canadian Biography, David R. Dyck

Selkirk the First Hundred Years, Barry Potyondi