of the Swan River Valley
100 Years in the
Swan River Valley
1898 - 1998
Charles and Kathleen Banks
Charles Waters (Charlie) Banks reached his homestead in the Swan River Valley on the SE Quater of 16 35 29 in June of 1898, the first person to settle in the township. Just 21 years old, homesteading was the latest in a series of adventures that had taken him around much of the world. Many of his experiences are preserved in letters and a personal journal that he kept for most of his life.
Born January 1, 1877, in London, England, Banks was the son of a writer and a Baptist minister. He began dreaming of emigration to Canada in his early teens, when he first saw promotional literature describing Canada as the “the Garden of Eden”. At the age of 15, while working on his aunt’s farm in the Coswolds, he wrote to tell his mother that he was now on the way to fulfilling his dream of becoming a Canadian farmer. After his mother’s death in 1894, he obtained passage to Halifax, where he found work on a farm outside the city. When his employer was unable to pay him, he was forced to hitchhike into the city and obtain emplyment on a cable-laying ship, the S.S. Minia. After a year, funds prompted him to stow away on a British government troop ship, the Warwick Castle. He soon became a favourite of the Captain, and journeyed to South America, the West Indies and Africa. His next stop was in America, where he landed in Buffalo, New York and found work in a bicycle factory. His brief stay came to an abrupt end when he was caught being paid to vote William Jennings Bryant for President- an offense compounded by his status as an underage alien! Banks left the United States in April of 1987, and 30 days later, arrived in Treherne, Manitoba with $400 in his pocket. He began shovelling coal for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and also worked as a farm hand for the town doctor and W. Vansickle, from whom he received a wage of $18.00/month. While there, he became friends with W.I. Ford and R. Emmond, and together, the three young men considered journeying to the Klondike. Their plans changed, however, when Banks heard that the Dominion Government was opening up a new expanse of land for settlement in an unfamiliar area called the Swan River Valley.
On June 4, 1898, Banks and his companions embarked for their new home, travelling by way of Arden, Manitoba. After a rough trip over the east flank of the Duck Mountains, Charlie got his first glimpse of the Swan River Valley. Its beauty so impressed him that he was instantly convinced that it was truly the “Garden of Eden” he had read about years before.
Following the Pelly Trail, Banks reached his homestead. He had chosen this particular 160 acres of wooded land for several reasons, not the least of which was advice from land agent Hugh Harley, who believed that the proposed rail line being constructed from Prince Albert would pass near or through the township. He had also been advised, by a Treherne farmer, that wooded areas made the best farm land. Finally, Charlie believed that his new homestead was strategically located, being situated immediately adjacent to the Pelly Trail. Used by Fur Traders and First Nations people alike, the trail extended from Swan Lake to Fort Pelly, and was the primary overland route through the Valley at the time.
Banks lived alone in his wagon box for six weeks, until he one day saw a plume of smoke rising to the northeast. Upon investigating, he met Henry Goodman, recently arrived from Kansas. He later said that after that day, he felt much less alone. During those initial weeks of isolation, he had broken land for a garden- “the first land broken in the township”- cut 15 loads of hay with a scythe and stacked it with a rake made from willows. Later, his companions helped him build a log shack roofed with poles covered by hay and clay. Following the Pelly Trail, Banks reached his homestead.
With only $2.00 in savings and no food, Banks left his homestead in mid-August to work building grade for the railway. The first year, he drove his team of horses for 10 hours a day, pulling a scraper. He was paid $2.50 per day. Working on railroad construction in the winter enabled him to concentrate on clearing his land in the summer, and it soon began to produce grain. Banks was disappionted, however, when political pressure prevented the rail line from being routed through township 35, and until the railway reached Benito in 1906, all his grain had to be hauled 18 miles to Swan River.
In 1901, Banks purchased the NE quarter of 9 35 29 from the Canadian Northen Railway for $3.01 per acre, in partnership with E. Martin. In 1904, he built a two storey frame house on this new land, while Martin lived on the homestead property (he later sold the homestead to Martin in 1910). Through friends he met while working for the railway, he was introduced to Sara Colquhoun of Morrisburg, Ontario. The couple was married in the summer of 1905, and had two childrem, Marjorie (later Mrs. Herb Schneider) and Sam, who married Dorothy Goodman (daughter of Henry Goodman, the first friend Charlie had make after his arrival in the Valley). The early years were a struggle, and Banks later wrote that “it was 10 years before every penny was not required to operate the farm”. With hard work came prosperity, however, and in 1917, he was able to build a “state of the art” home with electricity and running water.
As the valley became more populated, Charlie Banks played an active role in the local community. He helped to establish the Anglican church in Thunderhill, and served for many years as a director of the Swan Valley Agricultural Society. He was a founding member and secretary of the Benito Farmer’s Elevator until it was sold to the Manitoba Pool in the mid-1920s, and was a member of the Canadian Seed Growers Association, exhibiting prize-winning samples of seed in Chicago and at the Toronto Royal Fair. For many years, he maintained a herd of registered Angus cattle and purebred Percheron horses.
With the passing of Sara Banks in 1925, Charlie later married a distant cousin, Kathleen (whose Maiden name was also Banks). The couple had a single son, Richard, who died infancy.
Charlie Banks lived a long and prosperous life, passing away in 1966 at the age of 88. He is buried in the Riverside Cemetary, in the soil of his Garden of Eden. The Banks farm is still owned by Charlie’s son, Sam, who lived on it until 1994.
Submitted by: Fred Sigurdson
Manitoba's Swan River Valley is an area rich in history. These family histories were a part of the 1998 Pioneer Centennial History Book project. If you would like the history of your area available online, have your historic group contact the Key Rock Group for information on electronic publication. We offer publication free of charge and also provide the option for making your history book available on CD.