Bank robbers, labour leaders and political prisoners: 140 years of history at Stony Mountain Institution – Manitoba

On Aug. 15, 1877, people in Stony Mountain celebrated the official opening of Manitoba’s first federal penitentiary. (Manitoba Archives/Architectural Survey Collections/ Stoney Mountain 2/ N20820/ 1966)

Aug. 15, 1877 was a Wednesday but people in Stony Mountain were dressed in their Sunday best, clustered together waiting for very honoured guests to arrive to celebrate the official opening of Manitoba’s first federal penitentiary.

Stony Mountain Institution, at the time called the Manitoba Penitentiary, was a sight to behold on top of the “mountain” on the prairie landscape 20 kilometres north of Winnipeg, with only a dusty road leading to its looming main building.

In the 140 years since that grand celebration, the walls and grounds have seen some of Canada’s most well-known and feared criminals but also some that history has determined were political prisoners. The structure has been added to, parts have burned down and others have just changed with the times, but Stony still holds its place in history as Canada’s oldest running penitentiary. 

A drawing of the main building of the Manitoba Penitentiary in 1897. (Manitoba Archives/ Stony Mountain Collection/ Manitoba Penitentiary 2/ N3269)

Fiddle, oxen and a step forward for Manitoba 

After months of planning, a local newspaper boasted that the opening ceremony would include very special guests: His Excellency the Right Honourable Sir Frederick Temple, Governor General of Canada and his wife, Harriet Georgina.

Temple’s visit to Manitoba, which had been a province for less than a decade, had to be marked with fanfare. Temple and his wife were met at a nearby farm and they took a Red River ox cart, drawn by 40 oxen, to another area to hear speeches before actually making their way to the penitentiary.

The procession was led by a local violinist who played Irish Washerwoman and La Marseillaise, according to The Story of Stony Mountain and District, by Edward R.R. Mills.

Temple’s wife, a countess, dumped a wheelbarrow of gravel on the road which was set to connect Stony Mountain to Winnipeg, although it would take 78 years to complete. Following the formal proceeding people celebrated with sports and a quarter-mile oxen race. 

“A modern penitentiary was often seen as a sign of settlement and ‘progress,’ of kind of being there and arriving. Like a university or a new hospital, the penitentiary would signal to the rest of Canada and the world that Manitoba and Winnipeg were…

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