Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Language of James

As flood waters head closer to the city a new phrase will enter our communal language: "above James".

Forecasters don't speak in total metres or feet when it comes to Winnipeg water levels, they speak "above James". For those not around in '97 you better get used to it or you'll be in the dark (and perhaps under water !).

The best explanation can be found at the city's website. In a nutshell: "James", (aka James Avenue Datum or JAD), is the reference point that the city uses to measure elevation - including water elevation. It's called James because it's located where the old James Avenue Pumping Station meets the Red River.
Charting the flood by James Free Press May 14, 1950

James is set to average winter ice levels, (I'm not sure in what year - the station opened in 1907), at 727.57 feet above sea level, referred to as "0 feet James". In the summer, when the river is flowing, the average water height is around 734.5 feet, or "7 feet James".
Above is a table showing recent floods and the how many feet above James they were. You might notice that 1997 was lower than 1950 despite being called "the flood of the century". The data differs due to the introduction of the Floodway. Back flow from the Floodway adds to the water level. (Source of data and chart Review of Historic Flood Data, Section 2 pdf).

James Av. Pumping Station - an engineering marvel

The Station's Pump House from Heritage Winnipeg

Winnipeg's infrastructure was not keeping up with the phenomenal pace of growth. In the early 1900's the city still relied completely on well water. The turning point was an October 1904 fire that destroyed a number of buildings at Main and Bannatyne and could have wiped out much of the Exchange District. James Ashdown, whose store was destroyed, led the charge for a pressurized water system and is said to even have put most of the money to build it.

Above Pumping Station c 1930 MHS, below c 2008

When it fired up in 1907 the pressure was enough that any city fire hydrant could spit out a 600 foot tall stream of water. When the plant was retired in 1986 it was one of only two pressurized water systems in North America.

Great essays on the plant can be found here on the
MHS website (including photos of the machinery inside) and at Heritage Winnipeg.

So, who was 'James' ?
Quite fittingly, he was a journalist !

The Ross' were a Metis pioneer family that settled in Red River in 1825. James' brother was Wm. Ross, the settlement's first Postmaster (his home, Ross House, is a museum in Point Douglas).

James Ross
(also see) was co-editor of the Nor'Wester, the Red River Settlement's first newspaper. After getting a law degree he would go on to work for papers such as the Toronto Globe. He returned to the settlement prior to the Red River Rebellion and, while he supported Riel, was not in favour of Rebellion. He would be a magistrate during the provisional government.

I think as a journalist he would be pleased that 'his' water level sends media from around the nation - and beyond - into full gear !

So now you know all there is to know about the language of James !


Emma said...

Most interesting! This is exactly the sort of thing that long-time Winnipeggers know and newbs are totally confused by - thanks for sharing!

mrchristian said...

hey, no problem ! you're blog is great as well - reading about being a newb in Winnipeg !

Fat Arse said...

Mr Christian,

Excellent post - I thought I had a good grasp of "James" before I read this - but know I now do. Loved the details, now if somebody can only explain Salter St. Bridge to me?!