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How water towers have transformed into Manitoba skyline icons

The Winnipeg Beach water tower seen on June 12, 2024. (Alexandra Holyk/CTV News Winnipeg) The Winnipeg Beach water tower seen on June 12, 2024. (Alexandra Holyk/CTV News Winnipeg)

Water towers in Manitoba have seen a transformation over the years.

While some of these pieces of infrastructure, which were designed to bring water to residents, have faded and disappeared over time, others have begun a new life – places that showcase history, where memories are made and a sense of pride is born.

One tower is located right in the middle of Winnipeg at 552 Plinguet St. The St. Boniface Water Tower was built in 1936 and upgraded in 1945 according to the city.

It was part of the St. Boniface Waterworks and was used to improve and maintain water pressure.

"The water tower and pumping station at 552 Plinguet St. were taken out of service in the 1970s after the additions of the Branch II aqueduct and the McPhillips, Maclean, and Hurst pumping stations in the 1960s," a city spokesperson said in an email to CTV News Winnipeg.

The pumping station was eventually demolished; however, the water tower stayed, and was municipally designated a heritage site.

The St. Boniface Water Tower pictured on June 29, 2024. (Daniel Halmarson/CTV News Winnipeg)

The tower still serves a purpose for the city as well. It might not hold water, but it is home to communication infrastructure that supports the city's water system.

While the City of Selkirk’s water tower is an icon, it is also one of the few that is still in operation.

The tower was built back in 1961 and can hold 200,000 gallons of water. Its current purpose is to equalize the pressure in the water distribution system for the entire city.

"The water tower was super important because if a break occurred, the pressure would be maintained until all the water drained out of the tower so there's no disruption in service," said Selkirk Mayor Larry Johannson.

Crews put up scaffolding around the Selkirk water tower as they begin to repaint the 135-foot 200,000-gallon tower in March 2021. (Source: Jamie Dowsett/ CTV News Winnipeg)

Johannson said it was important for the city to keep the tower as a critical piece of its infrastructure.

"Even bulk water filling occurs out of the tower for customers who want Selkirk water, but they're not connected to the system. So there's a lot of companies, they'll bring their mobile trucks in and they'll be able to get water out of there for customers that need it."

But the water tower is so much more than just another building in Selkirk; for Johannson and many others from the area and around Manitoba, it's a Selkirk icon.

"Like Premier (Brian) Pallister had said, it means Selkirk. When you Google Selkirk, (the water tower) comes up."

He even noted musician Goody Grace – who was born and raised in Selkirk – has a tattoo of the water tower.

"Here's a hometown guy that left town, made it big, but made sure that when he wants to think about his hometown or explain something about his hometown, he's got the water tower there."

The tower underwent a facelift in 2021 with a new colourful paint job. Lights were added, as well.

The water tower in the City of Selkirk. (Source: City of Selkirk. Dec 10, 2021)

The new look is one of Johannson's favourite parts of the tower.

"When you come across the bridge from East Selkirk…you can see the water tower lit up at night…it's something to see."

The city had a contest when it was painted, which allowed residents to submit their designs and what they thought it should look like.

"We made it something that the whole community would, even more than they already did, feel that the water tower was theirs and it was part of their identity."

As for its future, Johannson feels the current city council has done the best they can for the tower, and he hopes future leaders will continue the work to ensure the tower is an icon for generations to come.

When talking about standing the test of time, Selkirk doesn't have to look far for a water tower that has been around for almost 100 years.

Just 30 minutes north is the water tower in Winnipeg Beach. It was built in 1928 by the Vulcan Iron Works and has a 90,000-litre tank.

It would provide pressurized lake water for steam engines and the area's fire department.

It was decommissioned in the 1960s, but remains a symbol for the area to this day.

"When we asked people what their biggest association with Winnipeg Beach was, everybody said the water tower. So we've brought that into our logos, and it's probably the most photographed and painted scene in Winnipeg Beach," said Wendy Peter, the president of the Winnipeg Beach Historical Society.

The Winnipeg Beach water tower seen on June 12, 2024. (Alexandra Holyk/CTV News Winnipeg)

She notes its location at the edge of the beach allows it to be viewed by everyone who visits.

"Every kid wants to climb it…every kid lays on their back underneath it and looks up atop of it."

Given its age, Peter said it has been able to watch Winnipeg Beach evolve through the years.

"We kind of call it a silent sentinel. It doesn't have a personality, but it's viewed the entire history of Winnipeg Beach since it's been built, so I think there's just an identity for Winnipeg Beach that's tied to it.

"We are a historic playground. People have come here traditionally since 1901 to get away from the city, to find some freedom, to get away from stress. So when I look at the water tower, I think when we all look at it, that's what it's speaking to us, those same promises."

While those who live in or have visited Winnipeg Beach have seen the tower, Peter said even more people have likely seen it without even realizing it.

Between 2005 and 2008, Winnipeg Beach was the location of a TV movie and series called "Falcon Beach." As part of the set design, the water tower was repainted to say Falcon Beach.

"The show is actually very successful in Canada, the U.S. and even Europe, so a lot of people have seen the water tower without even knowing its true location."

The Winnipeg Beach water tower was repainted for three years to say Falcon Beach because a TV movie and series called "Falcon Beach" was shooting in the area. (Winnipeg Beach Historical Society)

When asked why she thinks there is such a connection to water towers, not just in Winnipeg Beach or Manitoba, but around the world, Peter said she thinks there is some nostalgia tied to them, and they bring people back to a simpler time.

"When I see a water tower still standing in a small town, it actually tells me something about the town. It tells me that there's a focus put on maintaining history and things are valued. Sometimes they're painted quite uniquely, so there's a sense of humour…you laugh at the way it's painted, but you also think, 'That's a nice little town,' and I think that's part of what it conveys."

While the towers in Selkirk and Winnipeg Beach have long been landmarks for their communities, that hasn't always been the case for the tower in Portage la Prairie.

Nowadays, the Coke can water tower is known as the largest Coke can in the world and is a roadside staple to stop at and take a picture.

However, at one point, the tower was rusty, not in use and on the other side of town.

Michael Mauws said his dad Larry got the idea in the mid-1980s that the area needed an attraction. Larry owned what is now the Canad Inns and next door was a nightclub. This meant Larry went through a lot of pop on a daily basis.

Mauws said his dad got the idea to move the water tower next to his business and paint it to look like a pop can.

His business partners weren't on board with the plan, as it would cost around $60,000 just to move it, but Larry had another idea.

"Dad was always a good salesman, and he decided he would pitch the project to the two soft drink companies, Pepsi and Coke, and would offer them an exclusive if they would cover the cost of moving it and painting it," said Mauws.

The Portage la Prairie Coke can use to be an old water tower that was moved across town in the mid-1980s. Photo taken in 2018. (Charles Lefebvre/CTV News Winnipeg)

Sure enough, Coke was on board, and the rest is history.

Mauws said he was a little embarrassed by the idea when his dad first brought it up, but that feeling has changed over time.

"I didn't think that Coke would pay for this and once again, I thought it was a dumb idea. But I've since come to appreciate the genius of it," said Mauws. "Many monuments around the world, like the Eiffel Tower, were the result of entrepreneurs just trying to make an attraction, and then eventually they become a cherished landmark."

In no way is Mauws comparing the Coke can to the Eiffel Tower, but he said it has helped create a conversation about Portage.

Even the Hunter Brothers stumbled across the Coke can in 2017 while touring the country and wrote a song about their pit stop there. 

What started as embarrassment has turned into pride for Mauws.

"What's made me proud is that it's, in some ways, put Portage on the map for people who wouldn't know about it, because there's lots of people who have an interest in these roadside attractions."

Mauws thinks the attachment to water towers speaks to people wanting to be proud of where they are from and having that unique piece that can be a talking point about their hometown.

"They know other people will be curious about (it). So, I think it's just really helpful that way." Top Stories

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