Members of the La Verendrye expedition were the first Europeans to explore this region in 1734. For six years, they searched for the Western Sea, learned from the local indigenous peoples and established Fort Maurepas at the mouth of the Winnipeg River. Local folklore states La Verendrye gave Lac du Bonnet its name, though his journals make no mention of this particular widening of the Winnipeg River. The origin of the name may be a mystery, though Lac du Bonnet began appearing on fur trade maps as early as 1760.
At the height of the fur trade, the Winnipeg River was the main travel route for the two rival trading companies, North West and Hudson’s Bay. On August 27, 1807, HBC clerk, Thomas Miller, and ten men arrived at “Lake du Bonnet” with two boats and a winter’s worth of provisions and trade goods to establish a post. The NWC built a post in the vicinity of Lac du Bonnet that same year. No surviving historical records provide the locations of either post though they would have been at the top of the lake near Galet du Bonnet (McArthur Falls) at the confluence of the Winnipeg, Pinnawas (Lee) and Oiseau (Bird) Rivers to maximize trade opportunities. The HBC men left Lac du Bonnet on May 28, 1808. Limited records remain about the NWC post, though it may have been in use until 1821 when the two companies merged. The HBC winter post did not operate again until 1856, thirty-five years after the merger.
Due to increasing demands for merchantable timber, fish, fur, minerals, agricultural lands and hydroelectric power during the mid-1890s, interest grew in this untouched wilderness found along the banks of the Winnipeg River. Railways and agricultural settlement were pushing back the boundaries: in the West, the optimal homestead lands had been claimed, opening up new areas previously undesired. In 1897, Winnipeg civil engineer, David Anthony (D.A) Keizer, led a voyage of discovery to determine which of the Winnipeg River’s numerous rapids to procure for Winnipeg’s growing electricity demands.
The Lac du Bonnet Mining, Developing and Manufacturing Company formed in February 1898, with some of the most influential men in Winnipeg as executive officers. Early company assets included forty mining claims around Lac du Bonnet and along the Bird River, two miles of clay, two townships worth of timber, and patent rights for potential water power development. By early 1899, workers from Fort Alexander cleared an area at the site of the clay beds for the brick plant and sawmill. Walter Wardrop, of Whitemouth, the newly appointed manager, began hauling freight and machinery. At this time, the only connection to Lac du Bonnet was a day-long trip by horse team from Whitemouth.
A community, built upon a solid foundation of industry, was growing out of the wilderness. The brick works had four acres of cleared land with machinery, timber and lumber, employing fifty men. The manager’s house and a two-storey boarding house were under construction. A stable was already up, housing ten teams of horses. Plans were also in place for a store and brick building.
The CPR constructed a spur line from Molson, along the gravel ridges and high ground of Milner Ridge. In 1901, railway contractor and lumberman, J.D. McArthur, arrived with the railway to find the Lac du Bonnet Mining, Developing and Manufacturing Co. in financial trouble. He purchased the company for an undisclosed sum and created his own economic empire using its assets.
By 1902, Lac du Bonnet was already marketed as the greatest and prettiest summer resort area, though it remained “the ultimate outpost of civilization.” Surveys were completed by the Lac du Bonnet Mining, Developing and Manufacturing Co. and the unincorporated village had four officially registered streets by June 1902. Its location made the village a transportation hub for all hydroelectric generating station construction along the Winnipeg River, with everything stopping at the CPR station on the way in and out. The train also brought European immigrants and their families who took up homesteads.
By 1904, the community had grown substantially. A one-room school house was built on land donated by J.D. McArthur at the corner of Park Avenue and Fourth Street. Two years later, the St. John’s Anglican Church held its first service.
The road arrived along Milner Ridge in 1926, opening the village up to the new era of “motor tours” and cars full of tourists arrived. The area’s first bus, operated by Stuarts Bus Line, ran daily into Winnipeg. By August 1926, the RCAF moved their main base to Lac du Bonnet, which provided a central location for pilots flying throughout Manitoba and interprovincially.
Early the next year, Western Canada Airways, Ltd. became the first commercial airline to operate out of Lac du Bonnet. Based at the municipal dock, which had been built at the end of Third Street during the winter of 1920-21, these fearless trailblazing bush pilots opened up the North and secured Lac du Bonnet’s place in Canada’s aviation history. On June 1, 1927, WCA’s first scheduled flight from the Lac du Bonnet dock, Capt. F.J. Stevenson flew the province’s first semi-official airmail to Bissett, Long Lake and Slate Lake (in Nopiming Provincial Park). The first official airmail was flown out of Lac du Bonnet on October 4, 1927.
Operations out of Lac du Bonnet continued to grow with regularly scheduled mail and passenger service to mines throughout Eastern and Central Manitoba. By 1935, Lac du Bonnet was considered the “busiest airport on the continent.” Manitoba Government Air Service had their hanger just north of the dock, near Park Avenue and First Street. Other airlines, Wings Ltd. and Starratt Airways also established themselves at the dock during the village’s aviation heyday. The community had six general stores to keep up with demand.
The village became incorporated in January 1948 with Joe Sparman serving as the first mayor.
Lac du Bonnet has the distinction of having Manitoba’s first female mayor, Edythe Brown. She served the community for five years, from 1953-57, facilitating the village’s move into modern times: vapor streetlights were installed, wooden sidewalks were replaced with concrete, and roads were black-topped. She also led the village through its last substantial change: the construction of the McArthur Falls generating station, which saw the Winnipeg River raise fourteen feet. Mayor Brown’s business negotiations resulted in favourable settlements from the Hydro Board and a new sewer system for the entire village, a first for Manitoba. The town dock was reconstructed and the Winnipeg River bridge was raised four feet, two and a half inches. The completion of McArthur Falls in 1955 marked the end of power site development on the Winnipeg River.
The village officially became a town on October 25, 1997.
Lac du Bonnet has become known as a summer retreat with something unique to offer year-round.
The dock, a 100-year town landmark, remains a popular swimming destination. It also hosts the annual ice fishing derby each March and is home to the famous Canada Day fireworks that began in 1962.
The Farmer’s Market, a popular summer pastime, began in 1989 with only six vendors and has since grown to sixty. It runs every Saturday from May long weekend to September.
The Lac du Bonnet and District Museum, located in a fully-restored log cabin in Halliday Park, features exhibits and photo displays showcasing the vast history of the area.
The St. John’s Heritage Church, Lac du Bonnet’s oldest, intact building, was designated a Municipal Heritage Site by the Town of Lac du Bonnet on July 25, 2019. It is available for tours on request.
Written by Jennifer Strassel - Lac du Bonnet & District Historical Society