Many years ago I was on a bus on Graham Avenue, a very well known street in downtown Winnipeg. I was seated next to a man who knew a lot about Winnipeg history. As we passed the Eaton store, he said, “Graham Avenue is named for a man who went down on the Titanic. His name was George Graham and he worked for the Eaton’s Company. Did you know that?”
I didn’t, and said so. I was eleven and terribly impressed by the story. I knew about the Titanic, but to think there was someone from Winnipeg in the great ship disaster was very exciting indeed.
It was decades later that I became truly captivated by the Titanic, in doing research for my novel, Ravenscraig. I read books, articles and old newspapers, watched every movie, documentary and video clip I could find, and I became totally immersed in the articles and discussion boards on the website Encyclopedia-Titanica as I learned the stories of Winnipeg passengers such as Eva Hart and the Fortune Family. I came across the story of the Graham Avenue tribute to the Titanic passenger countless times.
All the while I was adding to my collection of rare books from Manitoba. One day, while visiting Burton Lysecki’s book store in Winnipeg, Burton handed me an old book of maps he thought I would find interesting: Winnipeg in Maps 1816-1972 by Alan F.J. Artibise and Edward H. Dahl.
In peering at the maps in the book I came across the startling revelation that Graham Avenue had nothing to do with George Graham.
The street had been called Graham for forty years or so before the Titanic sank.
The evidence is seen in this map from 1874, “Plan of the City of Winnipeg”.
The map was compiled and drawn in 1874 by John D. Parr and is made available by Manitoba Historical Maps on Flickr.
More on the person for whom Graham Avenue was truly named later, but first, the story of George Edward Graham:
He was born on a farm near St. Mary’s, in southwestern Ontario, on June 11, 1873, the sixth of seven brothers. As the story is told, he was 17 when he went to work as a clerk at a hardware store. He went on to become a salesman in Galt and then, in 1903 he moved to Toronto and began working for the Eaton’s Department Store. Timothy Eaton, the founder of the successful enterprise also had a history in St. Mary’s. It was the location of his first dry goods store before he bought the Toronto store in 1869.
George did well. He married Edith May Jackson from Harriston, Ontario and a year later, in 1906, he moved his bride to Winnipeg, having accepted a promotion and transfer to the big new Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue where he became the manager of the fine china and crockery department. Life was bustling and interesting for the wealthy class in Winnipeg in the years the Grahams lived there. It was a fast growing city filled with vibrant attractions in theatre, fine restaurants, musical societies and many entertainments to be enjoyed.
While George’s career was soaring in Winnipeg, the couple also was made to suffer heartbreaking losses. Their three year old son, John Humphrey, died in 1911. Edith became pregnant again a few months later, but miscarried.
One can imagine the discussion in the Graham home when George was told Eaton’s needed him to go on a buying trip to Europe in 1912. According to family reports, with Edith still frail and recovering, the couple decided it would be best for Edith to stay with her family while he was abroad, so Edith returned to Harriston.
George boarded the Titanic at Southampton as a first class passenger. According to family legend, he was scheduled leave on the Mauretania three days later, but changed his ticket to the Titanic to get home sooner. He spent time with other traveling salesmen. They had dinner together, and each signed the back of a menu.
George was one of the many passengers on Titanic who dropped by the wireless room, Sunday, April 14th, to send a marconigram to his wife. The message went out just hours before Titanic struck the iceberg in the North Atlantic.
The website, Encyclopedia-Titanica, posts the following news item, said to have appeared on April 16th, 1912, in The Evening Telegram:
“New York Wednesday Morning, Wire Me Sandy Hook. Well.”
It was Sunday afternoon when Mrs. Graham received the Marconigram given above. She had come down from Winnipeg a few days previously to meet her husband, and was planning happily the return journey when she retired Sunday night. On Monday morning came the terrible news of the collision. Later despatches roused in her heart a hope–more, almost a certainty–that her husband would be saved. This morning, weeping, sorrowing as bereaved ones alone can sorrow, she has learned what took place off the Newfoundland Banks.
Edith was never to see her husband again. We know that George Graham did take time to strap on a life jacket. His body was recovered by the MacKay-Bennett (#147). He was wearing a black overcoat, and a blue serge suit. He was carrying the following items – Memo book; cheque for $300.00; pocket book; credit book, T. Eaton & Co.; silver pencil case; fountain pen; pencil case; keys; gold watch; fob and locket; 7 shillings and 3 pence; $105.00; 2 pocket knives; 1 gold collar button.
George Graham had also taken time to look after one more piece of business before he set sail on Titanic. He dashed off a quick letter to a business contact and popped the letter into the mail before the ship sailed. The letter was written on Titanic stationary, and is famous for having fetched the largest sum ever paid at auction for a letter associated with Titanic.
To learn more about Canadian passengers, I highly recommend Alan Hustak’s excellent book: Titanic: The Canadian Story, in which he details the lives of 130 Canadian passengers on Titanic.
Now for the matter of Graham Avenue in Winnipeg.
It is named for James Allan Graham, a fur trader who worked for many years with the Hudson Bay Company. The Manitoba Historical Society Website has details of his life and his contributions to Manitoba.
Graham Avenue has its roots in the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). Named after an HBC factor, or trader, James Allan Graham, the prominent department store still anchors one end of the avenue. The City of Winnipeg designated the street as a central bus corridor in 1994, and the Graham Avenue Transit Mall was born. Today, 29 of Winnipeg Transit’s 87 routes converge on the avenue. The area is popular with surrounding downtown workers, shoppers, people attending medical appointments, area residents and loyal customers.
In closing, if you are new to Titanic enthusiasm, please do visit the Encyclopedia-Titanica website, which I have found to be tremendously helpful in my research.