Banish the Bar: The Arrival of Prohibition

16 September 1916

It was foreshadowed by a flickering of the overhead lights. And then, at precisely 7pm on Saturday, 16 September 1916, bars across Ottawa, indeed throughout Ontario, went dark. Prohibition had arrived. That last day, Ottawa’s hotels were chock-a-block full. Retail liquor stores also did a roaring trade. Their deliverymen worked flat out stocking cellars in private homes—the only place where liquor could henceforth be stored in Ontario. Although they faced a bleak future, purveyors of alcohol could take some small solace from the fact that the day’s takings were the best ever as patrons drained their remaining stocks of liquor and beer.

The coming of Prohibition was largely taken in good humour in Ottawa. While the crowds in some places were described as a bit boisterous, nothing got out of hand. Men sang choruses of The Stein Song and How Dry Am I? The latter, which was adapted by Irving Berlin in 1919 and called The Near Future, was later to become a Prohibition favourite in America. As the clock struck the hour, men filed quietly out of the bars. Ottawa’s licence inspector was satisfied that all hotel bars had closed promptly. Some, including the Windsor Hotel, had in fact closed a bit early to ensure that they stayed on the right side of the law. Starting the following Monday, licensed hotels were limited to selling non-intoxicating “temperance beer,” a watery facsimile of real beer containing no more than 1.43% alcohol by volume, or “2 ½ per cent. of proof spirits [British measure]” as described in The Ontario Temperance Act of 1916.

Prohibition King George Hotel 74 Metcalfe Street, Ottawa c1912-1913, Topley Studio LA C PA-04276

King George Hotel, 74 Metcalfe Street, Ottawa, decorated for Christmas, c. 1912, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-04276.

For Ottawa drinkers, a “dry” Ontario was more of an inconvenience than a serious problem. With Quebec still “wet,” the bars and taverns of Hull were amply stocked with their favourite tipple. However, for Ontario residents who lived farther from the border, prohibition was more onerous.  The Ottawa Evening Journal joked that the “joyful refrain of the bibulistic tourist on reaching Ottawa” was “Just one more river to cross.”

The coming into force of the Act was welcomed by local churches, especially evangelical Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists who had been central to the fight to make Ontario “dry.” The Journal reported Rev. P.W. Anderson of Mackay Presbyterian Church saying that prohibition “gave wives and children, as well as drinking husbands,… a fair chance to start things anew.” Rev. Robert Eadie of the Bethany Presbyterian Church thundered that “every Ottawa liquor store dealer who had gone outside [i.e. Hull] to continue his trade should be blacklisted.” It was notable that in the Journal’s coverage of the clerical reaction to the arrival of Prohibition, no Anglican or Roman Catholic priest was quoted. Both traditional denominations had a more nuanced view on alcohol, generally favouring moderation over prohibition.

Ottawa’s hotel owners were the big losers with the coming of Prohibition. While the majority of them applied for licences to become “standard hotels,” which empowered them to sell “temperance beer,” soft drinks and cigars, their bar revenues dropped sharply. Lost sales were estimated at more than $1,500 per day. The City of Ottawa was a loser too. In 1915, the City’s take of the already reduced number of hotel and liquor store licences amounted to $36,525. It also stood to lose a similar amount through reduced business taxes and other imposts.

The closure of Ontario’s bars and liquor stores was the culmination of the efforts of thousands of earnest and pious individuals who sought to eradicate what they believed was a great evil in society. The temperance movement was rooted in a worldwide Protestant Christian revival that started during the early nineteenth century. The movement was particularly strong in North America, but was also important in the Nordic countries, New Zealand, and to a less extent Australia. Britain too had its temperance movement centred in the non-conformist churches though it was never strong enough to push through a legal prohibition against alcohol.

In the United States and Canada, the temperance movement’s most fervent supporter was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).  Founded in 1874 in Ohio, it quickly went international. Canada got its first branch (or “union”) that same year. In 1883, the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) was established. Members, mostly drawn from the middle class, pledged to abstain from all distilled liquors, wines and beer, and to discourage the use and traffic of alcohol. This early feminist organization based its values on the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon who advocated moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful. In keeping with this motto, the organization did not limit its opposition to just alcohol, but also lobbied against the use of tobacco, white slavery (a.k.a. prostitution), child abuse, as well as other evils that particularly affected women and children. The WCTU’s world-wide membership peaked during the 1920s and 1930s at roughly 750,000, with roughly half that number in the United States. In 1914, Canadian membership stood at about 17,000. (The WCTU’s worldwide membership stands at about 5,000 today.)

In Canada, a broad anti-alcohol coalition called the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic was formed in 1877. Active across the country, its membership included the WCTU and other organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The strong evangelical protestant nature of such organizations sometimes turned anti-Catholic, reducing its effectiveness in Quebec though there were parallel Catholic temperance groups.

The anti-alcohol fervour of these organizations was not without merit. The excess consumption of liquor and beer was a major social problem during the nineteenth century in Canada, though Canadians on average consumed far less booze than their British or American cousins. In 1851, little Bytown with a population of only 7,000 boasted seventy licensed taverns in addition to an unknown number of illicit “grog” houses. Drunken brawling was commonplace. With husbands running up large tabs at bars, wives and children suffered. This is not to say women didn’t also imbibe or own taverns. Mother McGuinty’s tavern on Rideau Street was famous. Taverns were also key centres of political activity and sometimes hosted magistrates’ courts.

The prominent role played by alcohol in society during the nineteenth century may in part have reflected a dearth of alternate recreational activities. Other than Church on Sundays, there really wasn’t much for people to do on their very limited free time. Recognizing this fact, wealthy philanthropists, Church organizations, and women’s groups headed the public library movement in the second half of the nineteenth century in an effort to provide the working man an edifying alternative to the bar or brothel.  It also mattered that industrialists wanted a sober work force.

Christopher Dunkin 1870 Topley Studio - Library and Archives Canada - PA-026325

Christopher Dunkin, 1870, the man who sponsored the first temperance legislation in Canada in 1864. Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-026325.

The first legislative victory for the prohibitionists was the 1864 Canada Temperance Act, also known as the Dunkin Act after its sponsor Christopher Dunkin. Under this legislation any municipality or county in the Province of Canada could prohibit alcohol following a majority vote in a referendum. This act was extended to all of the Dominion of Canada in the 1878 Canada Temperance Act (the Scott Act). This latter Act was sponsored by Ottawa’s own, tea-totalling Sir Richard William Scott, who had been mayor of Bytown, member of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly for Ottawa from 1867 to 1873, and a Senator, and sometime federal Cabinet Minister, from 1874-1913. The first province to go “dry” was Prince Edward Island in 1901.

In Ontario, plebiscites on province-wide prohibition were held in 1894 and in 1902. Although the anti-alcohol forces won both, prohibition in Ontario had to wait as the government chose to ignore the results of the first, non-binding referendum, while the second failed to attract a required fifty per cent of the votes cast in the 1898 election owing to a low voter turnout. In the meantime, however, the federal Scott Act (known as the “local option”) remained in force. Many communities, especially in rural areas, banned alcohol.

Prohibition, Sir Richard Scott 1873, LAC Mikan 3220974, unkown

Sir Richard William Scott, 1873, the man who sponsored the 1878 Canada Temperance Act, photographer unknown, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 3220974.

Like most major cities, Ottawa remained “wet.” But the noose was tightening around the throats of local drinkers. Stand-alone taverns lost their licences as provincial restrictions limited drinking to establishments that provided accommodations. Successive Ottawa plebiscites sharply reduced the number of hotel and liquor store licences from 80 and 33, respectively, in 1898 to 20 and 10, respectively, by early 1916. Bar operating hours were also curtailed, with closing time moving from 11pm to 8pm during World War I.

The bigger, more up-market hotels in Ottawa supported the reduction in the number of liquor stores as it reduced competition. The manager of the Grand Union Hotel called liquor stores “the curse of the trade.” Even the reduction in hotel licences didn’t faze the big hotels. They expected to keep their licences, and increase their business. Those losing out would be the smaller hotels that catered to “a cheaper class of consumer,” as one big hotel manager sniffed. One thing did fuss them, however. They worried about the impartiality of the licence commissioners who were viewed as “the five little gods,” with “too much power” and without “a liberal-minded man in the whole bunch.”

The start of the Great War was the tipping point in the fight against alcohol. Grain supplies were now needed for the war effort. To give up drinking became patriotic. Even King George V had reportedly renounced alcohol for the duration. By the time Ontario went dry in September 1916 all provinces, except Quebec, had banned or announced bans on the retail sale of liquor.

Ontario had, however, a strange kind of prohibition. Booze continued to be made for the export market. The courts had also ruled that the shipment of liquor and beer across provincial boundaries was a federal matter. Consequently, provinces could not restrict the importation of alcoholic products. Ontario residents could order alcohol from Quebec-based middle men and have it delivered to their homes, or have it readied for pick-up at the brewery or distillery. What was key was to have an out-of-province invoice. Ontario-made wines using Ontario grapes were also exempt from the Ontario Temperance Act though wine drinkers had to buy directly from the wineries in wholesale amounts of five gallons or more—the idea being to make it too expensive for somebody to purchase a single bottle at a time. In addition to exemptions for sacramental purposes, doctors could prescribe alcohol to patients in six-ounce amounts. Hundreds of thousands of prescriptions were written by doctors at $2 per prescription, and filled at neighbourhood drug stores. Ontario residents could also buy so-called “nerve tonics” that had a high-alcohol content from pharmacies.

Prohibition beer ad ii 16-9-1916

Beer advertisement that appeared in The Ottawa Evening Journal on 16 September 1916, the day that Prohibition came into force in Ontario. Drinkers could continue to buy full-strength, Ontario-made beer as long as they ordered it through a middle-man located in another province.

Nation-wide, the prohibition hammer came down on Christmas Eve 1917 when the federal government by Order-In-Council under the War Measure Act banned the importation of intoxicating beverages as well as the transportation of such beverages into “dry” areas. The government argued that it was “essential and indeed vital for the efficient conduct of the war that wasteful or unnecessary expenditure be prohibited and that all articles capable of being utilised as food should be conserved.” This order was to be in effect until one year after the end of the war.

For Ottawa hotels, the new regulations were greeted with a yawn. The manager of the Château Laurier Hotel remarked that they had been out of the liquor business for a year and that they weren’t even using alcohol in the kitchen. The big losers were Hull liquor stores who had been filling cross-border liquor orders.

The Prohibition tide began to ebb with the end of the war and the lifting of federal restrictions against the importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages. With the war over, the appeals of prohibitionists to patriotism were no longer effective. In contrast, the appeals of anti-prohibition activists to “liberty” were finding traction. Returning soldiers swelled the “wet” constituency. It was also becoming increasingly apparent that Prohibition was not working. People drank more rather than less in illegal speakeasies called “bling pigs.” Bootlegging and criminality was on the rise, and there was a growing disregard for the law. Imbibers were also dying or being severely injured through drinking bad whisky or rubbing alcohol. As well, labour unions that had once been major temperance supporters turned against prohibition, upset by laws that denied the working man his glass of beer but allowed the wealthy industrialist to stock his cellar with whisky.

Despite another referendum on alcohol in 1924 that was narrowly won by the “dry” forces, the first crack in Ontario’s prohibition laws occurred in 1925 when the Conservative Government of Howard Ferguson permitted 4.4 proof (British measure) beer, i.e. beer with an alcohol content of 2.51% by volume. This beer became known as “Fergie Foam.” In 1927, Ferguson’s government replaced the Ontario Temperance Act with the Liquor Control Act that permitted people to buy alcohol in government-owned stores for consumption in homes. Prohibition in Ontario was officially over. However, it wasn’t until 1934 that drinking in public bars was allowed.

Sources:

Blocker, J., Fahey, D. & Tyrrell, I., eds. 2003. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History, An International Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford.

Coutts, Ian, 2010. Brew North, How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada, Greystone Books, D & M Publishers, Inc.: Vancouver, Toronto, Berkeley.

Heron, Craig, 2003. Booze, A Distilled History, Between The Lines: Toronto.

Lee, David, 2006. Lumber Kings and Shantymen, Logging, Lumber and Timber in the Ottawa Valley, Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Mallack, Dan, 2012. Try To Control Yourself, The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44, UBC Press: Vancouver.

McRuer, J. C., 1922. 1923 Ontario Liquor Traffic Acts being The Ontario Temperance Act with amendments-1922, https://ia902700.us.archive.org/5/items/ontarioliquorlaw00mcruuoft/ontarioliquorlaw00mcruuoft.pdf.

National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 2017, https://www.wctu.org/.

Ottawa, City of, 1916. “By-Laws 4120 and 4121,” Limiting the Number of Tavern and Shop Licenses”

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1916, “Local Hotelmen Not Dissatisfied By People’s Vote Lopping Licenses,” 4 January.

————————————-, 1916. “A Great Majority In Vote To Reduce Liquor Licenses; Opposition Fail,” 4 January.

————————————-, 1916. “Notable Scenes In Last Closing Hour, Crowds Merry But Well Behaved,” 18 September.

————————————-, 1916. “New Act Welcomed In Local Churches, Pastors Promised A Better Ontario, 18 September.

————————————-, 1916. “Local Bars Trade In A Third Less,” 19 September.

————————————-, 1916. “Canada Under Prohibition,” 20 September.

————————————-, 1916, “Ottawa’s Fine Strategic Position,” 22 September.

————————————, 1917. “Another Big Step To Prohibition In Canada Is Taken,” 24 December.

————————————-, 1919. “Senate Takes Steps To Nullify Government Bill In Respect To Intoxicating Liquor,” 19 June.

————————————, 1927. “Control Bill To Be Effective First Week In May,” 10 March.

Wamsley, Kevin and Kossuth, Robert, 2000, Fighting It Out in Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada/Canada West: Masculinities and Physical Challenges in the Tavern, University of Western Ontario, http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH2000/JSH2703/JSH2703d.pdf.

 

The Canal Basin: Going, Going, Gone

14 November  1927

Readers may be surprised to learn that the Rideau Canal of the twenty-first century is considerably different from the Rideau Canal of the nineteenth century. In the old days, the Canal was very much a gritty, working canal. While it had its share of pleasure boats that plied its length, commerce was its main function. At its Ottawa end, barges, pulled by horses and men along canal-side tow paths, were drawn to warehouses that stretched from the Plaza at Wellington Street to the Maria Street Bridge (the predecessor of the Laurier Avenue Bridge). Lumber, coal and other materials were piled high along its banks awaiting delivery. Consequently, the Rideau Canal was anything but a scenic port of entry into the nation’s capital. Later, railroads and train sheds replaced the warehouses on the eastern side when the Central Depot, the forerunner of Union Station (currently the Ottawa Conference Centre and soon to be the temporary home of the Senate), opened in 1896. While practical, this was not an aesthetic improvement.

The quality of the Canal’s water during the late nineteenth century was also considerably different than that of today. While we sometimes complain about the turbid nature of the water and the summertime weeds that choke stretches of the waterway and parts of Dow’s Lake, this is nothing compared to the complaints of residents of the 1880s. Then the Canal literally stank. The sewer that drained the southern portion of Wellington Ward, the neighbourhood located between Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) and Bank Street flowed into the Canal at Lewis Street. The smell was particularly bad in spring when the effluent that had entered the Canal through the winter thawed. Reportedly, the stench of festering sewage was overpowering. So bad were the conditions, the federal government forced the municipal authorities to fix things. After considerable delay, a proper sewer was constructed.

The other not so delightful feature of the waterway was its flotsam and jetsam. Stray logs—a hazard to navigation—was the least of the problem. Prior to the first annual Central Canada Exhibition held in Ottawa in 1888, one concerned citizen pointed out the many nuisances to be found by boaters on the Canal. These included several carcasses of dead dogs floating in the Deep Cut (that portion of the Canal between Waverely Street and today’s city hall) and a bloated body of a horse bobbing in the water opposite the Exhibition grounds. The citizen also groused about the “vulgar habit” of people swimming in the Canal without “bathing tights.” He didn’t comment on the advisability of canal swimming given the horrific water quality.

The physical geography of the Rideau Canal was also different back then. Patterson’s Creek was much longer in the nineteenth century than it is today; its western end became Central Park in the early twentieth century. There was also Neville’s Creek that flowed through today’s Golden Triangle neighbourhood and entered the Canal close to Lewis Street. The Creek, which was described as a cesspool in the 1880s, was filled in during the early twentieth century.

But the biggest difference was the existence of a large canal basin located roughly where the Shaw Centre and National Defence are today on the eastern side of the Canal and the National Arts Centre and Confederation Park are on the western side.  This basin, which was lined with wooden docks, was used for mooring boats, turning barges, and picking up and delivering cargo and passengers.

Canal Basin 1842 (2)

Map of Bytown, 1842, Bytown or Bust. Note the Lay-By (Canal Basin) in the lower centre of the map on the Rideau Canal. The By-Wash can be seen running north east from the Lay-By to the Rideau River. Barracks Hill will become Parliament Hill in the 1860s.

Before the Canal was constructed, the canal basin was originally a beaver meadow from which a swamp extended as far west as today’s Bank Street. Following the Canal’s completion in 1832, which included digging out the basin, a small outlet or creek called the By-Wash extended from the north east side of the basin. It was used to drain excess water from the Canal. Controlled by a sluice gate, the By-Wash flowed down Mosgrove Street (now the location of the Rideau Centre), went through a culvert under Rideau Street, re-emerged above ground on the northern portion of Mosgrove Street, before heading down George Street, crossing Dalhousie Street on an angle to York Street, and then running along what is now King Edward Street to the Rideau River. In addition to controlling the Canal’s water level, the By-Wash was used by Lower Town residents for washing and fishing. In 1872, the City successfully petitioned the federal authorities who controlled the Rideau Canal to cover the By-Wash. It was converted into a sewer with only a small rump remaining close to the canal basin that was used as a dry dock.

Canal Basin 1888

Detail of 1888 Map of Ottawa, City of Ottawa Archives. Note the Canal Basin. By now, only a rump of the By-Wash remained.

Big changes to the canal basin started during the last decade of the nineteenth century. John Rudolphus Booth, Ottawa’s lumber baron and owner of three railways, the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway (the O.A. & P.S.), the Montreal & City of Ottawa Junction Railway, and the Coteau & Province Line Railway & Bridge Company (subsequently merged to form the Canadian Atlantic Railway–CAR), received permission from the Dominion government to bring trains into the heart of Ottawa. Hitherto, his railways provided service to the Bridge Street Station in LeBreton Flats and to the Elgin Street Station, both a fair distance from the city’s centre. In early March 1896, Booth, through his O.A. & P.S. Railway, acquired from the government a twenty-one year lease for the

Canal Basin Evening Journal 30-10-1897

Diagram of the Rideau Canal and the covered eastern Canal Basin, 1897, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 30 October 1897.

east bank of the Rideau Canal from Sapper’s Bridge (roughly the location of today’s Plaza Bridge) to the beginning of the Deep Cut for $1,100 per year “for the purpose of a canal station and approaches thereto.” Lease-holders of properties between Theodore Street (today’s Laurier Avenue East) and the canal basin were told to vacate. After building a temporary Central Depot at the Maria Street Bridge on the Theodore Street side, Booth subsequently extended the line across the canal basin to a new temporary Central Depot at the Military Stores building at Sappers’ Bridge.

Canal Basin c. 1900

Detail of Map of Ottawa, circa 1900, City of Ottawa Archives. Note that the eastern Canal Basin has disappeared.

Initially, the railway crossed the basin on trestles, leaving the basin underneath intact while Booth dredged the western side of the canal basin and built replacement docks—the quid pro quo with the government for removing the eastern basin’s docks. It seems that the government was reluctant to allow Booth to fill in the eastern portion of the basin until the western portion had been deepened, fearing that any unexpected rush of water might be larger than the locks could handle leading to flooding. By mid-March 1896, 75 men and 25-35 horses were hard at work excavating the site. The Central Depot at Sappers’ Bridge was completed in 1896, and was promptly the subject of dispute between Booth and his railway competitors who also wished to use a downtown station. There was rumours that if the Canadian Pacific Railway could not come to terms with Booth, it would build a railroad on the western side of the Canal with a terminus on the other side of Sappers’ Bridge across from the Central Depot. Fortunately, with government prodding an accommodation was made. Initially covered over with planks, the western portion of the Canal Basin was subsequently filled in. The Central Depot was replaced by Union Station in 1912.

Canal Basin Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys LACanadaPA-023229

Rideau Canal, circa 1911. The western Canal Basin is on the left. Union Station and the Château Laurier are under construction. Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, Library and Archives Canada, PA-023229.

If the eastern Canal Basin was sacrificed to the railway, the western Canal Basin was the victim of the automobile. This time, the Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, was responsible. Consistent with its plan to beautify the nation’s capital, the FDC in cooperation with the municipal authorities decided to extend the Driveway from the Drill Hall to Connaught Plaza (now Confederation Plaza) at a cost of $150,000. These funds also covered the construction of two connections with Slater Street, a subway at Laurier Avenue, new light standards, landscaping, and a new retaining wall for the Rideau Canal. Again, firms with warehouses at the Canal Basin, including the wholesale grocers L.N. Bate & Sons and the wholesale hardware merchant Thomas Birkett & Son, were forced to relocate. By the end of April 1927, workmen using steam shovels and teams of horses were hard at work filling in the western Canal Basin. Huge piles of earth were piled up near the Laurier Street Bridge ready to be shifted into the basin. On 14 November 1927, the last renovations to the Rideau Canal commenced with the construction of the new retaining wall from Connaught Plaza to the Laurier Street Bridge. With that, the old Canal Basin, which had served Ottawa for almost 100 years, vanished into history.

Sources:

Colin Churcher’s Railway Pages, 2017. The Railways of Ottawa, http://churcher.crcml.org/circle/Central_Depot_stations.htm#CARCentralDepot.

Daily Citizen (The), 1895. “Central Station Site,” 1 August.

Evening Citizen (The), 1898. “The New Line.” 11 June.

Evening Journal (The), 1888.” The City Sewerage,” 19 April.

—————————, 1888, “The By-Law,” 27 April.

—————————, 1888. “Canal Nuisances,” 28 May.

—————————, 1895. “Notice to Quit,” 3 October.

—————————, 1895. “Now For The New Basin,” 9 November.

—————————, 1896. “Now For The Depot,” 4 February.

—————————, 1896. “Basin Widening Begun,” 4 March.

—————————, 1896. “Pushing It Ahead,” 11 November.

—————————, 1896. “For The New Station,” 23 May.

—————————, 1897, “Picked From Reporter’s Notes,” 20 October.

————————–, 1897, “Special C.P.R. Depot All Talk,’ 30 October.

————————–, 1898, “The Central Station,” 7 November.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1925. “History of Early Ottawa,” 10 October.

————————–, 1927, “Start Filling Basin Of Rideau Canal,” 26 April.

————————–, 1927. “Artist’s Conception of Park Scheme Proposed by The Prime Minister,” 11 June.

————————–, 1927, “The Railways And he Central Station,” 1 November.

————————–, 1934. “Understanding Shown In Letters Between King Ministry and Ottawa Concerning Beautification of City,” 6 January.

————————–, 1935. “Ottawa’s Beauty Developed On Broad Lines,” 10 December.

————————-, 1949. “Ottawa’s Vanished Water Traffic,” 15 September.

Ottawa, Past & Present, 2014. “Aerial View of the Rideau Canal 1927 and 2014,” http://www.pastottawa.com/comparison/aerial-view-of-the-rideau-canal/474/.

 

The Bank of Ottawa

20 January 1919

Toronto has its Toronto-Dominion Bank. Montreal has its Bank of Montreal. One hundred years ago, Ottawa had its own Bank of Ottawa too. Of the nineteen Canadian chartered banks at the end of 1918, the Bank of Ottawa ranked in the middle of the pack. Its assets stood at $72.7 million, with paid-in capital and reserves of $8.75 million. In comparison, the Bank of Montreal, Canada’s financial goliath at the time, had assets of $558 million and paid-in capital and reserves of $32 million. Still, the Bank of Ottawa was a well-respected regional bank whose main area of operations were located in the City of Ottawa and in the Ottawa Valley on both sides of the river. One of its directors, Sir George Burn, who had previously been its general manager for most of the bank’s existence, was also president of the prestigious Canadian Bankers’ Association.

Bank of Ottawa, Victoria Chambers, 1902, William James Topley-LACPA-008946

Victoria Chambers, 1902. First home of the Bank of Ottawa’s head office, corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets, across from Parliament Hill, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008946.

The Bank of Ottawa commenced operations at the beginning of December in 1874 with its head office in the Victoria Chambers at the corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets across from Parliament Hill. (The location is now the site of the Victoria Building, constructed in 1928.) The new bank had one branch located in Arnprior. Oddly, the Arnprior branch began operations roughly two weeks before the main branch as the bank’s headquarters were not ready on opening day.

The Bank of Ottawa was started by a number of the area’s lumber barons with the express purpose of having a sympathetic financial institution in the region to fund the lumber industry. Widely known as the “lumberman’s bank,” its first president was James Maclaren, a lumberman from Buckingham, Quebec. Other directors included George Bryson, a lumberman who operated out of Fort Coulonge, Quebec, Robert Blackburn, owner of the Hawkesbury Lumber Company, and Allan Gilmour, a pioneering Bytown lumberman who owned one of the largest timber companies in Canada. Other directors, all prominent Ottawa businessmen and suppliers to the timber trade, included Charles Magee, an important wholesale dry goods merchant, C. T. Bate, a wholesale grocer, and George Hay who owned a hardware business. The Bank of Ottawa’s initial paid-in capital was $343,000, and had thirteen employees. After its first year in business, the bank paid a dividend of 7 per cent.

Bank of Ottawa, 1901 William James Topley-LAC-PA-0118221,

Bank of Ottawa, Head Office, Wellington Street, 1901. Decorated for the Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, the future King George V and Queen Mary, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-0118221.

Given the costs of starting a new enterprise, and the weak state of the Canadian economy during the mid-1870s, the profits of the new enterprise might not have justified such a dividend. Indeed, the bank temporarily cut its dividend in half. However, the new financial institution gradually expanded, building itself a profitable niche in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. By 1885, ten years after it started, the bank had a paid-in capital of $1 million, with a steadily expanding branch network in the Ottawa Valley. It opened its second and third branches in Carleton Place and Pembroke. Over time, it increased its annual dividend to 12 per cent (of paid-in capital).

Its first branch outside of the region was in Winnipeg in 1881. As this was before the opening of the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway, the bank had difficulties in transporting a large safe to the branch. After being told by the Grand Trunk Railway that it would take up to six weeks to deliver it to Winnipeg, the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway agreed to do it in fifteen days via trains to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and then to Emerson, Manitoba, with the last leg to Winnipeg via boat on the Red River. The Bank of Ottawa subsequently opened offices in Toronto and Montreal, Canada’s two financial centres at the time, as well as Vancouver. In 1884, it moved into its new head office building on Wellington Street a short distance from its original offices. (The site is approximately the vacant lot between the former U.S. Embassy building and the former Union Bank building at 128 Wellington Street.)

The salad years for the institution occurred between 1908 and 1913, when the bank experienced rapid growth, with its paid-in capital rising to $4 million. By the end of World War I, the bank had 96 branches, with more than 60 in Ontario and another thirteen in the province of Quebec, mostly in the Outaouais.

Given its years of service and key position in Ottawa economic and financial life, imagine the shock in Ottawa and the Valley when the bank’s directors, many of whom were the sons of the Bank’s founders, announced on 20 January 1919 that they had agreed to merge with the Bank of Nova Scotia. The Bank of Nova Scotia, with its head office in Toronto, was roughly twice the size of the Bank of Ottawa with assets of $149 million in 1918 with capital, reserves of about $18.5 million. It had 194 branches coast to coast. It was a friendly take-over. Apparently, the Bank of Nova Scotia approached the Bank of Ottawa. Under the terms of the deal, shareholders of the Bank of Ottawa received four Bank of Nova Scotia shares for every five shares of the Bank of Ottawa. This was the ratio of their share prices prior to the deal; Bank of Nova Scotia shares were trading at $257 per share on the Montreal Stock Exchange while Bank of Ottawa shares traded at $206.

Bank of Ottawa, Kempville, Dept. of Public Works-LAC- PA-046461

Bank of Ottawa, Kemptville Branch, Department of Public Works/Library and Archives Canada, PA-046461.

The deal had advantages for both banks. For the Bank of Nova Scotia, the merger brought it a thriving business with a solid reputation in areas where it had few branches, both in the Ottawa region as well as in western Canada where the institution was eager to expand. The two banks had competing offices in only eleven locations, most of which were in major cities where there was more than enough business to go around. The merger would also raise the Bank of Nova Scotia to fourth place in the Canadian bank rankings, behind only the Bank of Montreal, the Royal Bank of Canada, and the Bank of Commerce.

For the directors of the Bank of Ottawa, who had brushed off earlier overtures by other banks, an alliance with the Bank of Nova Scotia offered “exceptional advantages.” The merger was a way of entering new more profitable areas at less expense. Alone, the bank had a choice of trying to expand organically in the Ottawa region, or through the expensive route of establishing new branches in unfamiliar areas. But by joining the Bank of Nova Scotia, it could take advantage of the growth potential of a bank that had branches across Canada, Newfoundland, the West Indies as well as operations in the United States. The Bank of Nova Scotia was also better diversified, reducing the consequences of an economic slowdown in the Ottawa region. This was an astute move as Canada experienced a sharp recession in the immediate post-war years.

Despite the many attractions of an alliance, there was one thorny issue to resolve—the name of the new institution. The directors of the Bank of Ottawa were loath to see the venerable name of their institution disappear. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that for forty-four years, the Bank of Ottawa’s name was “identified with practically all of the best businesses and biggest industrial enterprises in central Canada.”  At the same time, the directors of the Bank of Nova Scotia were equally unwilling to see the end of their bank’s storied name that extended back to 1832. For a time, consideration was given to calling the merged bank “The First National Bank of Canada.” However, in light of the Bank of Nova Scotia’s considerable foreign connections, the Bank of Ottawa’s directors reluctantly concluded that it would be a mistake to change names; a view shared by Sir William White, the Minister of Finance, who gave his blessing to the merger.

Without any forewarning of the pending financial nuptials, the announcement of the merger created a sensation in Canadian financial circles. In Ottawa, there was consternation, especially when it became known that the Bank of Ottawa name was to disappear. One businessman, Mr. N. Poulin, said it was a “murder” not a merger. Another called it a “submerger.” Some worried about their access to credit; the Bank of Ottawa had an uncommonly good reputation for being considerate and liberal in its business decisions. One businessman was concerned that after years of dealing with the Bank of Ottawa he would have to start afresh with the Bank of Nova Scotia. Many regarded the bank as an important city asset. Its loss would be a major blow to the prestige to the nation’s capital.

Bank of Ottawa note

Bank of Ottawa, $5, 2 November 1880, hand-signed by James Maclaren, President, and George Burn, Cashier. Note the lumberjacks in the central vignette. Bank of Canada Museum.

The disappearance of the Bank of Ottawa name would also mean the withdrawal of almost $7 million in Bank of Ottawa banknotes from circulation and their replacement by Bank of Nova Scotia notes. Prior to the formation of the Bank of Canada in 1935, every chartered bank had the right to issue their own distinctive banknotes in the amount of its paid-in capital and reserves. While the circulation of bank notes did not represent a large portion of a bank’s business, it was quite profitable. (A bank earned the difference between the cost of printing and circulating its banknotes, and the interest earned on the assets backing the notes.) It also provided useful advertising for the bank, and in the case of the Bank of Ottawa, for the city as well.  Mr Poulin commented that “with a roll of Bank of Ottawa ten dollar bills in his pocket a man could go to any part of the world and fell comfortable and safe.”

At a hastily-called meeting of Ottawa retail merchants, a resolution was passed citing the merchants’ belief that the departure of the head offices of Ottawa’s only financial institution would have “a decidedly bad effect” on the city. More broadly, they were concerned that the concentration of more financial power and decision-making in Toronto and Montreal would be bad for the country. (There had been a rash of financial takeovers, including the acquisition of the Traders Bank of Canada, the Quebec Bank and the Northern Crown Bank by the Royal Bank of Canada, as well as the acquisition of the Bank of British North America by the Bank of Montreal.) Some thought that a committee should be struck to approach the directors of the Bank of Ottawa to get a better understanding of their decision. Some even pledged money to buy shares in the bank in an effort to stop the merger. Still others wanted to approach the Finance Minister to get him to reverse his decision to permit the merger. They noted that an attempt by the Royal Bank of Canada to acquire the Bank of Hamilton a few years earlier had been stopped by the Minister on the grounds that the merger was against the national interest. Mr A. E. Corrigan, the managing director of the Capital Life Assurance Company likened a bank to a “public utility” that had been given a franchise to serve the people. Consequently, the people had a right to protest if a merger was not in their interest. One person alleged that the reason why the Finance Minister approved the merger was because the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was a shareholder in the Bank of Nova Scotia.

The general manager of the Bank of Ottawa, Mr. D. M. Finnie, tried to allay people’s concerns. He noted that while he would be retiring following the merger, all Bank of Ottawa staff would be retained with the same seniority and opportunities. Critically for Bank of Ottawa customers, its directors would retain their positions within the amalgamated bank and would pay special attention to former Bank of Ottawa clients. Bank of Ottawa customers would also have complete access to the Bank of Nova Scotia’s branches across the country.

At special shareholder meetings held in early March, the shareholders of the Bank of Ottawa and the Bank of Nova Scotia overwhelmingly approved the merger. Following the declaration of a last dividend (no. 111) of 2 per cent for the two-month period ending 30 April 1919, the Bank of Ottawa disappeared into history with all of its assets and liabilities transferred to the Bank of Nova Scotia as of that day. The next morning, all branches of the Bank of Ottawa re-opened as branches of the Bank of Nova Scotia.

Sources:

Globe (The), 1919. “Bank of Ottawa Absorbed by Bank of Nova Scotia,” 20 January.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1918. “Bank of Ottawa’s Gratifying Year,” 19 December.

————————————-, 1919, “Bank of Ottawa To Be Merger With Bank Of Nova Scotia, Making Fourth Largest Bank,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Says The Merger Will Result In Advantage To All Canada,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Evolution Of A Great Bank,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “The Merging Of The Bank Of Ottawa,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Bank of Ottawa Swallowed Up, Strong Protest,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Bank of Nova Scotia Stronger Than Ever,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Strong Opposition To Banks’ Merger From Businessmen,” 21 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Mr. Finnie Tells About The Merger,” 21 January.

————————————, 1919. “Great War Veterans Debate Merger Of Banks Of Ottawa And Nova Scotia At Forum, 25 January.

————————————, 1919. “Bank Of Ottawa Now Disappears,” 30 April.

————————————, 1951. “Bank of Ottawa Developed Lumber Trade,” 31 October.

Outaouais’s Forest History, 2017, “The Bank of Ottawa and the financing of the forest industry,” http://www.histoireforestiereoutaouais.ca/en/c10/#10.

 

Exercise Tocsin B-1961

13 November 1961

Tensions had been mounting between the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact partners and the United States and its NATO allies. In April 1961, some twelve hundred Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA and supplied with American arms and landing craft, had made a failed attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and topple Fidel Castro. The Cuban Communist leader had come to power two years earlier after having deposed Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt and repressive, American-supported dictator.

The following month, Canada tested its civil defence plans in the event of a nuclear war. In cities across the country, the wailing of more than two hundred sirens warned Canadians to take cover. The Canadian Emergency Measures Organization issued a booklet to households indicating what they could do in the event of a nuclear attack. Called The Eleven Steps To Survival, Canadians were told:

Step 1: Know the effects of nuclear explosions

Step 2: Know the facts about radioactive fallout

Step 3: Know the warning signal and have a battery-powered radio

Step 4: Know how to take shelter

Step 5: Have fourteen days emergency supplies

Step 6: Know how to prevent and fight fires

Step 7: Know first aid and home nursing

Step 8: Know emergency cleanliness

Step 9: Know how to get rid of radioactive dust

Step 10: Know your municipal plans

Step 11: Have a plan for your family and yourself

In the introduction to the booklet, Prime Minister Diefenbaker stated: Your personal survival can depend on you following the advice that is given and the survival of many others may depend on how well you have heeded the advice contained therein. The government also provided plans on how to build a backyard bomb shelter.

Mid-August, East Germany began the construction of the Berlin Wall cutting off West Berlin by land, and denying an escape route to the West by East Germans seeking freedom. In early September, the U.S. military detected four, above-ground Soviet nuclear explosions. Subsequently, radioactive fallout, 320 times higher than background radiation levels, was detected in Ottawa. Federal Health Minister Jay Monteith warned that should such high levels of radiation be maintained, they “could well be a hazard to health.” At a state banquet in Moscow, Indian Prime Minister Nehru told Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that it would be stupid to start a war. Khrushchev replied that the Soviet people did not want war but “could not look on calmly while Western powers make military preparations on a hitherto unparalleled scale.” With war rhetoric rising, Prime Minister Diefenbaker warned Canadians in early November that “war is not as improbable as we hope,” and that if comes, Canada will be a battleground. Earlier he had told the House of Commons that should there be an attack on Canada, he and his wife would not leave Ottawa for safety but would rather take cover in the bomb shelter at 24 Sussex Drive.

bomb, Nagasaki, 9 sept 45, Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack

Atomic bomb explosion over Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945, taken by Charles Levy

During the morning of Monday, 13 November 1961, unidentified but presumed hostile submarines were detected in large numbers in the North Atlantic and in the Hudson Bay. Soviet tanker aircraft were also detected near the Aleutians. The Canadian armed forces increased it level of military alertness at 8.30am EST. This was stepped up to the next level at 10.30am and yet again at 12.30pm, sending staff to emergency centres across the country. Troops left possible target areas. At 2.30pm, key government officials and senior defence officers, including Defence Minister Douglas Harkness, Health Minister Monteith, Defence Production Minister Raymond O’Hurley, and Justice Minister Davie Fulton, were dispatched to Camp Petawawa, 150 kilometres north-west of Ottawa that was to become the government back-up centre in the event of war. (The underground, bomb-proof base in Carp now known as the Diefenbunker, which was designed to shelter the Governor General, the Prime Minister, and other senior government and military leaders in the event of nuclear war, was still under construction.)

At 6pm, the Canadian military was placed on maximum alert. Shortly afterwards, NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) radar spotted 36 hostile airplanes heading towards Canada between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Another 20 were detected off the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific. At 6.50pm, Prime Minister Diefenbaker and six Cabinet colleagues went underground at 24 Sussex Drive where they issued an Order-In-Council invoking the War Measures Act. Defence Minister Harkness was appointed Acting Prime Minister and given almost dictatorial powers to respond if necessary. Diefenbaker also approved the signal to alert unsuspecting Canadians to the deteriorating military situation and to take shelter. He also prepared to address the nation across all radio and television stations in a special broadcast of the Emergency Measures Organization.

At precisely 7pm, more than 500 sirens from coast to coast, 45 in Ottawa alone, began a steady three-minute wail, their strident call telling citizens that a nuclear attack was expected. By that point, more than 110 “penetrations” of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in Canada’s far north had been detected as Soviet bombers streaked across Canadian territory at 600 knots per hour. At 7.10pm, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) gave Diefenbaker a fifteen-minute warning that a missile attack was underway. Air raid sirens across the country gave the “take shelter” warning, a three-minute rising and falling sound that announced a nuclear strike was imminent.

It total, two waves of Soviet bombers, the first of 150 aircraft, the second of 110 as well as two waves of missiles, mostly heading for U.S. targets, were detected. Fourteen Canadian cities were destroyed by five-megaton nuclear bombs, including Vancouver and Courtney in British Columbia, Edmonton and Cold Lake in Alberta, Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Frobisher, NWT, North Bay, Sault Ste Marie, and Welland in Ontario, Chatham, New Brunswick, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Goose Bay in Labrador, and Stephenville on the Island of Newfoundland. Ottawa was destroyed at 10.10pm, with the epicentre of the blast situated just north of Uplands Airport. Toronto and Montreal were hit at 10.45pm and 10.51pm, respectively. The Soviet attack on North America lasted until 4am the next morning. Some 30 U.S. cities were destroyed, including Detroit, hit by a ten-megaton bomb that also killed tens of thousands in neighbouring Windsor.

 

Bomb, Canada emergency Measures Organization, Govt of Canada, Mikan 4717891

Bomb, Canada emergency Measures Organization, Govt of Canada, Mikan 4717352

The corner of Sparks Street and Elgin Street, Central Post Office, c. 1961, before and after a nuclear attack on Ottawa, Canada Emergency Measures Organization, Government of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4717891 and 4717352.

The death toll was staggering. The Army Operations Centre at Camp Petawawa estimated Canadian dead at roughly 2.6 million, including Prime Minister Diefenbaker, with an additional 1.6 million injured, many critically. Fire, radiation sickness, and exposure was expected to claims hundreds of thousands of additional lives in coming days and weeks. In the Ottawa region, the death toll was placed at 142,000 dead, 61,000 injured and 30,000 experiencing radiation sickness. On the upside, 90,000 people had been rescued though many thousands remained trapped in burning buildings and debris. Emergency teams of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of volunteers fanned out across the country to help the survivors. Jack Wallace, the Deputy Director of the Emergency Measures Organization noted that while the Saint Laurence Seaway system had been knocked out at Montreal, Welland, and Sault Ste Marie, the railway service could be quickly restored. While casualties were high, over 14 million Canadians had survived the multiple attacks. He also estimated that one half to two-thirds of industry could be quickly made operational and one-half of hydro power was still in commission. There was also sufficient food to feed all Canadians. Canada had come through the nuclear attack severely damaged but intact, with a nucleus of a national government still functioning at Camp Petawawa where fallout was considered light.

Thankfully, this horrific scenario was just that…a scenario called Exercise Tocsin B-1961 that played out on 13 November 1961 as part of Canada’s test of its emergency civil defences. However, all the events described leading up to the test are factual. While the test may seem fanciful to today’s Gen. “Xers” and Millennials, for those who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, it was very real. The Cold War was a time of great worry and stress. Exercise Tocsin B-1961 was held exactly one year before the Cuban missile crisis when the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union played a high-stakes game of “chicken,” where one false movement by either side could have led to a global nuclear holocaust.

Sources:

Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association, “Steps to Survival,” http://civildefencemuseum.ca/.

Emergency Measures Organization, 1961. Eleven Steps to Survival, Ottawa: Queen’s Printer.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1961. “Tocsin B Alarm Goes Off Accidentally In Ottawa,” 13 November.

————————-, 1961. “Nuclear War Test: PM Among ‘Casualties’ As Toll Tops 3-Million,” 14 November.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1961. “Stupid To Start War Nehru Tells Khrushchev,” 7 September.

————————–, 1961. “Don’t Want War,” 7 September.

————————–, 1961. “War Not Impossible, PM Warns,” 10 November.

————————–, 1961. “Attack Warning Study Alarms Inside Buildings,” 13 November.

————————–, 1961. “Exercise Tocsin, Ottawa ‘Destroyed,’ 175,000 Toll.

————————–, 1961. “Cabinet Met Underground,” 15 November.

————————–, 1961. “Government Counts Tocsin Toll,”

 

The Ottawa Sewer Explosions

29 May 1929 and 28 January 1931

Almost ninety years ago, the City of Ottawa was rocked by two series of sewer explosions that occurred twenty months apart. The first happened on 29 May 1929, and the second on 28 January 1931. Both hit the same areas of town—Sandy Hill, Vanier (then called Eastview) and New Edinburgh—and caused extensive damage. There was also one fatality in the first set of blasts; many were injured. Despite three inquiries, the exact cause of the explosions was never conclusively determined though leaking illuminating gas used for lighting was believed to have been the culprit. However, a lengthy law suit launched by the City against the Ottawa Gas Company to cover the costs of the second explosions failed.

Sewer 1929 29 May OEJournal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 May 1929

 

The 1929 explosions began shortly before noon on 29 May in the block bounded by Cartier, Frank, Waverely and Elgin Streets in the Golden Triangle neighbourhood of Centre Town, blowing out manhole covers in the area.  The resulting fire ignited gas inside the main sewer line running eastward under the Rideau Canal, causing shaking, rumbling and venting through manholes on Templeton Avenue, Henderson Avenue and Nelson Streets in Sandy Hill, before travelling down St Patrick Street and into New Edinburgh on the other side of the Rideau River along Crichton, MacKay and John Streets to the sewage outlet into the Ottawa River. There were also a number of smaller blasts in the Eastview and Clarkstown areas (Vanier) between Montreal Road and Beechwood Avenue.

At least twenty-eight manhole covers were blown in the air, some thirty to forty feet, before crashing to the ground. Clouds of smoke and vivid tongues of flame were reported emanating from the manholes. Mrs Hannah Henderson, age 73, of 37 Templeton Avenue was killed when flames shot out of her kitchen sinkhole and ignited her clothes. Although she managed to flee her home, she later succumbed to her injuries in hospital. Around the corner at 192 Henderson Avenue, Miss Lilian Pettapiece, age 20, escaped a similar house fire with serious burns. She had been in her cellar choosing potatoes for lunch when she was enveloped by flames that shot out of a sewer connection. Despite choking fumes, she managed to stumble up the stairs to the outside where she was rescued. Many others were injured by flying glass blown from windows. The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Avenue was rocked from its foundations by the force of a blast and was gutted by fire. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Mrs Blackler suffered a narrow escape, however. She had just walked out of the kitchen a minute before it was wrecked. An apartment building at the corner of Somerset Street East and Chapel Street, which housed a grocery on the ground floor, also suffered serious structural damage. In New Edinburgh, St Martin’s Anglican Chapel on John Street was destroyed. In total, the sewer explosion caused roughly $40,000 in property damage.

Sewer explosion 30-5-1929 TOJ

The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the  Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Street after the sewer explosion, 29 May 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 30 May 1929.

Ottawa’s mayor Arthur Ellis was convinced that the explosions were not due either “to defects in the city sewer,” or to sewer gas (a mixture of hydrogen sulphide and other gases). Municipal leaders commissioned John Campbell from the Edison Illuminating Company of Boston to conduct an inquiry into the disaster. Campbell concluded that the exact nature of the gases that exploded might never be known as no tests were performed on gas in the sewers prior to the explosion. However, he pointed to two possibilities: i) gasoline vapours due to the improper disposal of gasoline by homeowners, leakages from the growing number of service stations in the area, and waste from dry-cleaners, or ii) a leak from a gas main. He noted that the Ottawa Gas Company had been digging for leaks prior to and during the day of the explosion. He added that the sewer explosion need not have been the result of a single big leak but could have been due to a number of small ones. While not specifically pointing the finger at illuminating gas, he added that the lack of soot deposits and the nature of the fire suggested a gas lighter than air was responsible; gasoline vapours are three times heavier than air whereas illuminating gas is half as heavy as air. Campbell was of the view that the exact point of ignition was in the Frank-Cartier Streets area. However, what caused the ignition would never be known. He postulated it could have been a lighted match, the backfire of an automobile, or a spark from a trolley wheel.

Rather than lay blame, which he argued was outside of the remit of his report, Campbell made a number of recommendations. These included the prompt investigation of complaints about gas smells (complaints prior to the explosion were apparently not investigate with any degree of diligence), the regulation of the sale of gasoline to homeowners, a prohibition on disposing of volatile fluids in the sewers, and the inspection of gasoline service stations. He also recommended the construction of ventilation stacks with fans to help dissipate volatile vapours in the sewers, and the hiring of additional staff by the City to keep up to date in the matter of inspecting, testing and the keeping of records.

The second series of sewer explosions began at roughly 4.30 pm on 29 January 1931 just two days after the City had made its last payment for damages from the previous explosion to St Martin’s Chapel. As was the case in 1929, it started in the Golden Triangle area of Centre Town, this time at the corner of Lewis and Robert Streets. The explosion was accidently ignited by a plumber’s assistant who was investigating the source of a foul odour in the basement of a home.  Apparently, a spark from a trowel he was using ignited gas emanating from the sewer.

Sewer, 29 May 1931 Journal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 January 1931

Replicating in many ways the 1929 disaster, the blast rumbled down the main sewer line blowing up manhole covers in Sandy Hill along Templeton Street, Nelson Street and Somerset Street East, through Strathcona Park, before travelling along the east bank of the Rideau River to John Street in New Edinburgh. As in 1929, twenty-eight manholes covers were sent flying, sixteen of which featured in the earlier disaster. The damage sustained to the sewer system was severe. There were at least four breaks. The 78-inch main sewer on the Eastview (Vanier) side of the Cummings Bridge, which carried much of the sewage from the eastern portions of the city to the outfall at John Street into the Ottawa River, was fractured. Another 54-inch sewer running from Ottawa South along the west bank of the Rideau River was also ruptured near the Strathcona Hospital. With these breaks, sewage backed up into Sandy Hill. To prevent the flooding of homes, the City excavated at two points, one on Somerset Street and the other near the Isolation Hospital, and pumped the sewer water into the Rideau River. In total, more than a mile of sewer was wrecked with damage placed at almost $400,000, roughly ten times that of the earlier 1929 sewer explosion.

Fortuitously, this time no lives were lost. There were, however, a number of close calls. Twelve-year old Munroe Dingwall of 138 Goulburn Avenue was skiing on Somerset Street East with friends when a manhole cover blew up beside him. The lad was lifted into the air, skis and all, and deposited stunned but unhurt into a snowbank. Poor Miss Pettapiece, who suffered grievous injuries in the 1929 explosions, was on a bus near home when a manhole exploded. She collapsed and had to be treated for shock. A number of children were skating on the Sandy Hill rink on Nelson Street between Somerset East and Templeton Street when gaping holes appeared in the streets around the rink. The children were unharmed and taken to safety.

The City launched two inquiries. The first by consulting engineers Gore, Naismith and Storrie of Toronto concluded that gasoline and illuminating gas were “reasonably probable” causes. Of the two possibilities, the engineers favoured illuminating gas on the grounds that there was little evidence of flames or black smoke emanating from the explosions that would have been characteristic of a gasoline fire. Also, they viewed it as improbable for a perfect mix of gasoline vapour and air to have occurred. But, in the absence of all data and an analysis of sewer air before the explosions, they refrained from given an opinion regarding the source of the responsible gas.

They did, however, make a number of recommendations. First, they recommended that there be a judicial inquiry under oath so that all relevant records and other information pertinent to an inquiry could be obtained. Second, they argued that Ottawa’s method of ventilating sewers was dangerous and obsolete. They recommended the construction of more ventilating shafts, the opening of manhole covers, and the checking of home drains attached to the sewers. Apparently, many were not properly trapped. Other recommendations included the regulation and supervision of establishments using flammable gases or liquids, a regular inspection of sewers every six months, and the construction of sewage treatment plants.

A second committee chaired by Dr Alfred E. MacIntyre, a retired former chief of the Explosives Branch of the Dominion Government, focused on the causes of the blasts. MacIntyre had also consulted on the Campbell Report into the earlier 1929 explosion. He was of the opinion that illuminating gas had been the cause of both explosions. His report concluded that “gas had adventitiously entered the soil, drainpipes, sewer, etc. from defects within the gas distributing system of the Ottawa Gas Company.” Needless to say, the Gas Company came up with the opposite conclusion averring “that gas is the last thing that could be considered in connection with the recent sewer explosions.”

MacIntyre was pretty damming of the City as well. His report said the City had made no attempt to investigate the 1929 explosion, and that the investigations of complaints about fouls smells from residents were “neither informative nor satisfactory.” He contended that members of the inspectorial staff “had neither developed their powers of observation nor acquired sufficient qualifications and knowledge to discriminate or determine the actual condition of hazards, nor a conception of fitting methods of relief, conditions largely attributable to lack of instruction and direction.” MacIntyre also criticized the City for improper ventilation of the sewers, a charge to which the City responded by saying that it was not responsible for keeping sewers free of volatile gases that enter the sewers through the negligence of another company.

On release of MacIntyre’s report, the Board of Control suspended Mr W. F. M. Bryce, the engineer responsible for Ottawa’s sewers for negligence in not taking adequate measures to ensure that the sewers were kept free from dangerous gases. Bryce subsequently resigned. Earlier in the year, Mr A.F. Macallum, the Commissioner of Works, had also resigned, having been held responsible for not taking sufficient precautionary measures to avoid a repetition of the 1929 blasts.

At City Hall, the two investigations into the 1931 explosions set the proverbial cat among the municipal pigeons. Amidst a rancorous debate, City Council defeated on a split 11-11 decision a motion supported by Mayor Allen for a judicial inquiry into the explosion as recommended by the consulting engineers from Toronto. A motion for an independent inquiry into the conduct of Mr Bryce, the sewer engineer, was also defeated on a close 11-10 decision. Subsequently, however, the City launched a law suit against the Ottawa Gas Company in the amount of $376,000 for damages resulting from the 1931 blasts. Despite the testimony of roughly 100 witnesses, the evidence provided by the two inquiries into the sewer explosions, and an admission of the Ottawa Gas Company that its pipes and gas mains had not been inspected since they were installed, the Court ruled in favour of the gas company owing to lack of evidence. After losing an appeal, the City paid the court cost of both parties.

Following the inquiries, the City took steps to improve ventilation in the sewers, including the establishment of another ventilation shaft in Strathcona Park. Measures were also taken to improve the investigation of complaints of sewer smells by residents through the establishment of a complaints bureau. In the end, only Mr Macallum, the former Commissioner of Works, took the fall for the sewer disaster. Roughly eighteen months after the explosion, the Board of Control unanimously re-appointed Mr W. F. M. Bryce to his old job as sewer engineer on the curious and vague grounds that the Board had earlier requested his resignation not because members felt that he “was not fully competent, but because of the nature of the report dealing with the investigation.”

Sources:

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1931, “May Call Further Expert Advice On Sewer Blasts,” 29 January.

————————————-, 1931. “Experts Differ Upon Cause Of Sewer Blasts,” 10 June.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1929. “City Denies Blame For Explosions, Continues Inquiry,” 30 May 1929.

————————————–, 1929. “Advises Ventilation Of Sewers, Restrictions Of Gasoline Sales And More Vigorous Inspections,” 4 October.

————————————–, 1931. “Discover Sewer Explosion Damage Much Greater,” 29 January.

————————————–, 1931, “Fourth Stack Will Be Built To Air Sewers,” 17 April.

————————————–, 1931. “Judicial Probe Under Oath Is Only Way To Learn cause Of Explosions, Says Report,” 20 April.

————————————–, 1931. “MacIntyre Report Sets It Theory Of Big Explosion,” 4 June.

————————————–, 1931. “Says Lighting Gas The Cause Of Explosions,” 10 June.

————————————–, 1931. “After Long Stormy Debate City Council Rejects More For Probe Of Sewer Blasts,” 18 August.

————————————–, 1931, “Board of Control Endorses Damage Suit For Big Sum Against Ottawa Gas Co.” 30 September.

—————————————, 1931. “Declares Pipes Only Inspected During Repairs,” 1 December.

—————————————, 1932. “Mayor States All Favorable To W.F. M. Bryce,” 17 September.

————————————–, 1932. “Open Type Tops Would Have Cleared Gases,” 25 November.

Asphalt Paving Comes to Ottawa

30 July 1895

North American roads in the nineteenth century were bad…very bad. Inter-urban “highways” typically consisted of little more than dirt paths carved through the wilderness. In boggy areas, so-called corduroy roads made of logs placed across the direction of travel were sometimes constructed. (They were called corduroy because their texture was reminiscent of corduroy fabric.) If you were very lucky, your highway might be planked, consisting of four-inch thick wooden planks attached to longitudinal stringers.  While relatively comfortable on which to drive, planked highways quickly deteriorated. Regardless of road surface, a journey by stagecoach must have been a slow, jolting and painful experience. Coach passengers were also expected to get out and push if their carriage got mired in mud. Needless to say, few travelled by road unless they had to. The true highways of the age were rivers, canals, and later the railway.

Things weren’t a whole lot better in towns. Urban streets, often made of dirt or gravel, were thick with mud when wet, rutted and dusty when dry, and virtually impassable except by sled in winter. In some well-to-do areas, roads were expensively laid with granite blocks known as sett paving. (This type of paving is sometimes called cobblestone paving, though true cobblestone roads were laid with naturally rounded stones set in mortar.) Another more common road surface in North American cities was cedar block paving, consisting of six-inch logs or squared wood set end down on a gravel base. This type of road was cheap but was subject to wear and rot, and lasted for only a few years before needing to be replaced. Cedar block roads were also extremely slippery when wet.

Roads, c. 1877 Sparks st between Elginand Metcalf, City of Ottawa Archives-CA-001504 unknown

Sparks Street between Metcalfe and Elgin Streets, c. 1877, photographer unknown.  Notice the wooden sidewalk set lower than the roadway. City of Ottawa Archives, CA-001504.

Relief came in the early nineteenth century with the introduction of roadways made by crushed stone developed by two Scottish engineers, Thomas Telford and John McAdam. Telford roads had a base of large rocks with an upper layer of smaller stones. They were also slightly convex to facilitate drainage. McAdam roads eschewed the expensive rock base recommended by Telford, relying instead on a native soil foundation. The roadway was then built up of stones of graduated sizes, the smallest size on top. Typically, no binding agent other than water was applied. Instead the weight of traffic packed down the stone into a durable roadway. McAdam roads became very popular in Europe and North America through the nineteenth century. (When tar was later added as a binding agent, tarmacadam was invented—“tarmac” for short.)

York Street, from Sussex Street to Dalhousie Street, was the first Ottawa roadway to be “macadamized” in June 1851. Forty years later, the Evening Journal described the capital’s streets as consisting of mostly mud or macadam, with a small amount of stone block paving on Bridge Street in LeBreton Flats and cedar block paving on Wellington Street.

Although macadam roadways were effective, they were also costly to maintain. By one estimate, the annual maintenance cost of a macadam road ran to as much as twenty percent of its original cost. This included daily repairs and patches, frequent sprinkling of water as often as three or four times a day to keep down dust, and the regular use of a heavy roller to pack the road down if traffic was insufficient to do so. Not surprisingly, this was not always done, leading to the deterioration of roadways, and complaints from citizens, especially pedestrians, for better roads.

In the late 1800s, the invention of the modern “safety” bicycle (a safe alternative to the preceding high wheeling, penny-farthing bicycle), led to a biking craze. In cities throughout North America and Europe, men and women adopted this new, invigorating and liberating mode of transportation. Not surprisingly, municipal authorities found themselves under heightened pressure to provide smooth road surfaces.

What cities turned to was asphalt. First used in road construction by the ancient Babylonians in around 600 BC, modern asphalt roads date to about the early 1850s in France. Asphalt roads made their way to the United States roughly twenty years later, and to Canada in the mid-1880s. In 1886, a stretch of St James Street (rue Saint Jacques) in Montreal was laid with asphalt paving using asphalt imported from Trinidad. It was a great success. So much so that traffic on parallel streets diverted to use it. The Journal reported that people preferred the “smoothness of asphalt to the vicious wrenchings of the granite or cedar block pavements.”  While far more expensive than other forms of paving, asphalt held the promise of durability with an expected life expectancy of fifteen to twenty years, with much less annual maintenance. Asphalt was also viewed as more hygienic, modern, and aesthetically pleasing. As well, horses and carriages were much quieter on asphalt surfaces, reducing the din of urban life.

In 1889, Mr George Perley and Mr William F. Powell submitted a petition to Ottawa’s city council to have Metcalfe Street from Gloucester Street to Gilmour Street paved in asphalt. Apparently, nine of ten landowners on that stretch of road supported the initiative. However, it never came about as city council baulked at their request that an American contractor be brought in to do the paving without putting the job out to tender.

Asphalt ad 9-2-95 TEJ

Call for Tender of Bids for the Asphalting of Sparks and Bank Streets by the City’s Engineer’s Office, Ottawa, 7 January 1895, The Evening Journal, 9 February 1895.

The accolade of being the first asphalted road in Ottawa goes to Sparks Street. This time, a petition of landowners was successful though a vocal minority complained about the cost. In support of conversion, R.J. Devlin, a large retailer on Sparks Street, published a satirical article in the Journal entitled Aye Or No For The Pavement. It read:

No most decidedly! What do we want with a clean, solid and enduring pavement on Sparks street. Haven’t we got on without it in the past? Haven’t we a pretty good street as it is? With the exception of two months in the spring—And six weeks in the fall—And a week now and then every time it rains, Sparks Street is all that could be desired. That is if you wear long boots, Or are handy on stilts. No, gentlemen, we do not want Sparks street paved. What was good enough for our fathers is good enough for us…No, gentlemen, good, plain, everyday mud is good enough for us. It has stuck to us in the past and we will stick to it in the future.

In the end, just over 80% of the landowners by assessed value were in favour, including the Russell House Company, the largest property owner on the block, and W.J. Topley, the noted photographer. The asphalting petition received the City’s Board of Works support and was subsequently approved by City Council in October 1894.

In early 1895, eight bids were received on the contract to pave Sparks and Bank Streets with asphalt. Henry & Smith of Ottawa won with the lowest bid. However, the contract was later cancelled when the company objected to certain terms that the City required. In May 1895, the contract was re-tendered. This time, the Canada Granite Company of Ottawa won with its bid to pave the two streets with rock asphalt from France at a cost of $30,395 and $24,668, respectively. Although another company had provided a slightly lower bid using Trinidad asphalt, the city’s Chief Engineer Robert Surtees rejected it on the grounds that rock asphalt was superior to Trinidad asphalt. (While the original contract called for either grade of asphalt, the second contract specified rock asphalt.) Canada Granite was required to provide a 15-year guarantee, backed up with a blocked deposit worth 30% of the value of the contract. Until the guarantee expired, the company would receive 5 per cent interest from the city on its deposit.

asphalt 37-7-95 in OJ 31-3-51

This grainy photograph by Samuel Jarvis, reproduced from The Evening Journal, 31 March 1951, is the only known image of the laying of the first asphalt on Sparks Street by Mayor Borthwick on 30 July 1895.

Work on pulling up the old macadam surface of Sparks Street from the corner of Canal Street (now gone but was located roughly where the National Arts Centre is today) to Bank Street began the first week of July 1895 by a team of 60 men and a half a dozen carts. The old stones were re-used to repair the macadam on Somerset Street. The Ottawa Electric Train Company took this opportunity to upgrade its rails on Sparks Street, re-routing its trams onto a temporary track on Wellington Street. Following the laying of a foot-deep foundation, the roadway was ready for paving. On 30 July 1895, Mayor William Borthwick threw onto the road the first shovelful of asphalt at the Sparks and Canal Street corner using a shovel made of polished oak and nickel plate. On one side of the shovel was an engraving of the Parliament Buildings and Ottawa’s City Hall, with a picture of the Granite Company works on the other. There was also a silver inscription that read: “On laying the first asphalt pavement on the streets of Ottawa, junction of Sparks and Canal streets by his Worship William Borthwick, Mayor, July 30, 1895.”

The ceremony was followed by the customary congratulatory speeches with the Mayor saying that Ottawa citizens “would enjoy first class city streets.” Mr C. Strubbe, the Montreal agent for La Compagnie Generale des Asphaltes de France, the supplier of the imported asphalt used in the paving, congratulated City Council and said that the paving shows “the progressive spirit of the people of the capital,” and that it marked an “improvement towards the cleanliness and health of the city.” Afterwards, civic and industry officials repaired to the Russell House Hotel for a light luncheon supplied by the contractor.

It took more than three weeks to complete the Sparks Street paving job, far longer than anticipated leading to grumbles from area merchants who were losing money while the street was under construction. In part, the delays were due to an inexperienced work force. While a number of experienced labourers were brought in from Montreal, many of the workers were inexperienced local men. There was also some labour strife.  Local workers were paid only $1.40 per day compared to $2.00 per day being paid to the Montrealers.  Ottawa workers briefly went on strike for pay equity, but returned to work when they were promised the Montreal wage rate once they were experienced. To help speed up the work, men laboured at night. However, this proved to be counterproductive as the night work was poorly done. One portion of the street had to be redone three times.

It didn’t help that the work was performed under a microscope, with city councillors and regular citizens alike kibitzing all aspects of the paving job, including whether the asphalt being applied was hot enough, whether the scoria stones used to line the tram rails were being installed correctly, and whether there were sufficient drains. The Journal commented that “every free and independent elector and a large number of embryo members of that class of humanity who passed along Sparks street…appointed himself a special committee of one to inspect and test the small patch of asphalt laid,” by poking it with umbrellas, and walking on it to see how it felt and whether they left heel prints in the dark surface.

Sparks street was finally opened for traffic during the third week of August, though the new paving had already been “initiated” by Moses Inkerman who had driven his rag cart over the unfinished roadway just three days after the Mayor had thrown the first shovelful of asphalt. To celebrate the arrival of asphalt paving, the City sponsored bicycle races on Spark Street from Bank Street to the Russell House Hotel during the evening of Monday, 27 August. Thousands of people watched. The festivities didn’t impress everyone, however. The Journal sniffed that “closing such an important public thoroughfare that four young men might disport themselves on bicycles was in some cases much questioned.”

P1060248 (2)

Detail of February 1903 Plan of the Permanent Roadways of Ottawa, City Engineer’s Office, City of Ottawa Archives. Yellow indicates asphalt, blue indicates tar macadam, and grey indicates scoria block, City of Ottawa Archives. Most roads, even Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings, had not yet received a permanent road surface by this date.

Criticism of the newly asphalted roadway continued. There was a rash of accidents with horses slipping on the new road surface, which was slippery when wet. One horse died after falling in front of the Russell House Hotel. The Journal opined that drivers were being careless and needed to slow down, but also suggested that horses be taught “the asphalt step.” There were also complaints about cleanliness. Unlike porous macadam surfaces, asphalt roads are impermeable. Consequently, horse waste, of which there was a lot, had no place to go. The Journal thought this factor alone would do much to hasten the arrival of motor vehicles. It stated “To have the streets occupied only by silent, rubber-tired carriages and carts, with little mud and no manure will be an extremely pleasant improvement in city life.” The first automobiles arrived on Ottawa streets four years later.

Despite the many complaints, once Sparks Street was completed, work immediately began on asphalting Bank Street. This was quickly followed by Rideau Street. The asphalt era had arrived. Cyclists, and subsequently cars, had the smooth road surfaces that we now take for granted.

Sources:

Bradford, Robert, 2015. Keeping Ontario Moving: The History of Roads and Road building in Ontario, Dundurn: Toronto.

Evening Journal (The), 1887, “Our Future Streets,” 19 March.

—————————, 1887. “Street Paving,” 1 August.

—————————, 1889. “Board of Works,” 29 July.

—————————, 1891. “The Paving Of The Streets,” 21 October.

—————————, 1894. “Asphalt In Sight,” 27 September.

—————————, 1894. “The Battle of the Asphalt,” 2 October.

—————————, 1894. “A Foreman For Each Ward,” 29 November.

—————————, 1895. “Is The Asphalting OK?” 26 July.

—————————, 1895. “They All Tested It.” 31 July.

—————————, 1895. “The Mayor Pleased,” 31 July.

—————————, 1895. “Jottings About Town,” 5 August.

—————————, 1895. “Must go Faster.” 5 August.

—————————, 1895. “Points Of Complaint,” 6 August.

—————————, 1895. “Asphalt Pounders Strike,” 6 August.

—————————, 1898. “The Sparks St. Paving,” 9 August.

—————————, 1895. “Passing Of The Horse,” 22 August.

—————————, 1895. “Bike Races On The Asphalt,” 24 August.

—————————, 1895. “The Town Was Out,” 27 August.

—————————, 1895. “The Asphalt Dust,” 27 August.

—————————, 1895. “On Sparks Street,” 31 August.

—————————, 1895. “Died From A Fall,” 7 November.

—————————, 1951. “First Asphalt On Ottawa Streets,” 31 March.

Haig, Robert, 1975, Ottawa: City of the Big Ears, Haig& Haig Publishing Company: Ottawa.

Longfellow, Rickie, 2015. “Back in Time, Building Roads,” Federal Highway Administration.

Mackintosh, Philip G., 2005. “Asphalt Modernism on the Streets of Toronto, 1890-1900,” Material Cultural Review, Volume 62, Fall, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/18058/21931.

National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), 2017. “The History of Asphalt,” http://www.asphaltpavement.org/.

Ottawa, City of, 1894. By-laws 1557, “To Provide for a Local Improvement, Asphalt Roadway on Sparks Street”

Rebel Metropolis.org, 2005. “Cedar Blocks and Devil Strips: Cycling the Streets of 1898,” http://rebelmetropolis.org/cedar-blocks-and-devil-strips-cycling-streets-of-1898/.

The Russell Theatre

15 October 1897

On the site of the National Arts Centre (NAC) there once stood an earlier playhouse called The Russell Theatre with its front entrance on Queen Street. On hundred years ago, it was the centre of arts and culture in Ottawa just as the NAC is today. The three-storey structure, which cost $100,000 to build, was owned by The Russell Company, the proprietor of the adjacent Russell House Hotel, which was itself the city’s leading hotel prior to the building of the Château Laurier. Work on the site began at the end of March 1897 when labourers tore down the old “Leader Hotel,” also known as the “Walsh building,” on Queen Street. The Russell Company, seeking the finest that money could buy, hired the New York theatrical architectural firm of J. B. McElfatrick and Son that had built theatres across the United States. Michigan native Fuller Claflin was the on-site architect. The general contractor for the project was Mr “Ed” C. Horne of New York, with whom Claflin had worked on many similar assignments. Imported talent, mostly from the United States, also made the stage decorations, the tile mosaics, the papier maché work, as well as the ornamental paintings and frescos. Even the masons and bricklayers employed on the job came principally from New York. Dr W. A. Drowne, who had been the manager of the Plattsburgh theatre in Plattsburgh, New York, was hired to manage the new Russell Theatre.

Russell Theatre cross sectio 2-10-97

Cross section of The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 2 October 1897.

The theatre, which was built in the Italian renaissance style, was a marvel of late nineteenth century technology, and was judged second to none among North American theatres. It seated roughly 1,500 patrons on three floors and in ten boxes. On the balcony, there was a large room where light refreshments were served during intermissions and after performances. A ladies’ parlour (a.k.a. bathroom) was to be found on the first floor, with the gentlemen’s toilets on the balcony level. In the gallery, there was a smoking lounge for gentlemen. The steam-heated building was equipped with the latest stage apparatus and a modern electrical lighting system, with the wires carefully run through brass tubing to deter fires. In the case of fire, it had a fire pump with ten water outlets each equipped with fire hoses distributed throughout the building. The ground floor was laid in concrete, and the stairwells were separated from the auditorium by brick walls. The proscenium opening was protected by an asbestos curtain. Asbestos was also used in the plaster to retard burning. In an act of hubris suitable for a Greek tragedy, The Evening Journal said the theatre was “practically fireproof.”

On 15 October 1897, the Russell Theatre officially opened its door to the general public. Seats for the premiere had been auctioned off a few days earlier, with the proceeds in excess of the established ticket prices donated to the Prescott and Russell Fire Relief Fund. Roughly $200 were raised to help victims of a massive bush fire that had earlier destroyed three villages in eastern Ontario—Casselman, South Indian and Cheney’s—killing at least six people and leaving hundreds homeless.

Russell Theatre, Kismet 16-Oct-97

Advertisement for Kismet, the Premiere Production at The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 15 October, 1897.

The gala opening featured Kismet or Two Tangled Turks, a comic opera in two acts by the German-born Broadway composer Gustave Kirker, with the libretto by Richard F. Carroll. Unfortunately, the play “was not altogether a success” opined The Evening Journal. The performance lacked “snap and vim” and was judged “dull” for long periods. The problem seemed to lie more with the play than with the theatrical company. The newspaper said that Miss Minerva Dorr, who played the role of the Sultan (sic) of Turkey, had a commanding presence and an exquisite voice while Mr John Saunders was very humorous as the Grand Vizier.  The dancers “of the Odalisques” were also judged to be quite pleasing. In general, the theatrical company was considered to have been good, but would have done better with a better play.

If the play was lacklustre, the theatre wowed Ottawa’s elite. Prior to the beginning of the performance, coloured lights played over the stage curtain that was painted with a scene of the loops of the Selkirk River of Manitoba. Being the première, people turned out in their finest with the newspaper giving a detailed account of the outfits of prominent Ottawa women. A Miss Davis wore “a dainty dress of dresden muslin-de-soie over cream silk, the trimming of cream lace and nile green satin ribbons forming a bolero and full front bodice. Diamond and pearl ornaments.”

It seems the Journal’s judgement of the Russell’s first theatrical production was an accurate assessment of the theatre’s first seasons—second-rate. In a letter to the editor, a theatre-goer in 1899 moaned that the Russell Theatre had claimed that it had been unable to book first-rate theatrical companies since they had already been contracted to play in Toronto and Montreal. He thought that while the excuse might have been a fiction, the result was “painful.” Another angry theatre patron complained that if Ottawa had to put up with second-rate attractions, at least the prices charged shouldn’t be higher than those charged in Montreal.

Fire put an end to the complaints. On 9 April 1901, roughly two hours after the last patrons had left a production of The Belle of New York, a musical comedy written by Hugh Morton with music again by Gustave Kirker, a fire broke out behind the Russell’s stage. Despite the asbestos curtain and other fire retarding measures, the theatre was quickly gutted, its wooden interior fixtures burning like tinder. The alarm was raised by the theatre’s caretaker who had an apartment close to the stage. He had just fallen asleep when he was woken by a loud rushing sound, with his room filling with smoke. Almost naked, he rushed out of the theatre to the nearby police station to bring help. Dr Drowne, the Russell’s manager, and Mrs Drowne who also lived in the theatre, barely escaped with their lives. They fled with only the clothes on their backs. All their possessions, valued at $2,000, were lost.

By the time Fire Chief Provost and his men got to the Russell Theatre, flames were already shooting through the roof. But firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control by plying water streams onto the structure from the Free Press Building at the corner of Queen and Elgin Streets. While the theatre was a write-off, the firemen were able to save surrounding buildings, including the Russell House Hotel. Aiding them was the weather—wet with the wind blowing away from the hotel.

The cause of the blaze was never ascertained. The caretaker thought it started in the furnace room. Others believed it had been caused by a wayward cigarette dropped by one of the players. However, Dr Drowne disagreed, saying he was very strict with smoking around the stage. Also, he had passed through the theatre after The Belle of New York troupe had left, and had checked on every room before retiring for the night.

The next day, Ottawa residents woke up to the realization that only by chance had a great tragedy been avoided. Had the fire broken out just two hours earlier, many men, women and children might have been trampled in a rush for the doors. Despite the considerable fire precautions taken in its construction, the consensus was that the theatre had not been safe due to insufficient exits, especially from the dress circle and balcony levels. Many considered the theatre to have been a “death trap.”

Speculation also began on whether the theatre would be rebuilt. The initial assessment was not favourable. Fire losses were estimated at $100,000, with insurance covering only $63,000. Also, the theatre had not been profitable; no dividends had been paid since the day it was opened. But at a meeting of directors four days after the fire, management announced that an arrangement had been reached to rebuild the Russell Theatre between the owners of the theatre and the Ambrose J. Small Company of Toronto, a theatre management company that had leased the Russell. Apparently, the Ambrose J. Small Company had already booked engagements for two-thirds of the coming season.

As an aside, many years later in 1919, Ambrose J. Small, who was a major Canadian theatre mogul who owned or operated theatres in several Ontario cities, was to disappear under circumstances worthy of a paperback thriller. After receiving $1.7 million from the sale of his theatre operations, it was alleged that he was murdered by his wife and her lover, with his body incinerated in the furnace of the Grand Opera Theatre in London, Ontario. The allegations were never proven. At one point, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was approached for assistance in solving the case. While interested, Sir Arthur declined to help. Never solved, the police closed the case in 1960.

Russell Theatre interior, 1928 Mikan 7821743 government

Interior of the new Russell Theatre before its demolition in 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 7821743.

The new Russell Theatre reopened on 7 October 1901, almost four years to the day after its first debut. Although rebuilt along similar lines to the original theatre and finished as before in old gold, ivory and red, with shades of blue under the galleries, there were significant differences. Capacity has increased to 1,900 seats from 1,500, with 590 on the ground floor, 500 in the balcony, 700 in the gallery, with the remainder accommodated in twelve boxes. There were other differences too. Most importantly, there were a lot more exits, including four on the gallery and three on the balcony. Frederick Challener, a distinguished Canadian artist, had also been commissioned to paint three murals on the ceiling, depicting the “Triumph of Drama,” “Love” and “Hate.”

Russell Theatre ceiling 1928, Mikan 4821747 Government

Ceiling of the new Russell Theatre showing “The Triumph of Drama” by Frederick Challener, RCA, 1928, Library and Archives Caanda, Mikan 4821747.

The re-opening play was a production of Dolly Varden, a comic opera by the Broadway composer Julian Edwards based on the character Dolly Varden from the Charles Dickens’ book Barnaby Rudge. Miss Lulu Glaser played the lead role. This debut fared better than the first. The Journal’s review described the production as “bright and clever entertainment, while Miss Glaser was “vivacious and dainty.” Unlike Kismet in 1897, Dolly Varden had the necessary “vim.” The newspaper was particularly impressed by a chorus by the entire company performed a cappella. The costumes were also deemed to have been gorgeous.

During that first week, Dolly Varden played for two nights. This was followed by two nights of vaudeville by Shea’s Vaudeville from the Garden Theatre in Buffalo. The week was rounded out by a performance by Louis Morrison in The New Faust on the Friday, followed by Madame Modjeska and Louis James in productions of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII on the Saturday.

The curtain fell for the last time at the Russell Theatre on 14 April 1928. The theatre, along with the now empty Russell House Hotel and other properties on the Russell Block bordered by Sparks, Queen and Elgin Streets and the Canal had been acquired by the Federal District Commission (FDC). All were slated for demolition as part of the Commission’s plan to beautify Ottawa. On that last night, The Dumbells performed in “Bubbling Over,” a series of eleven comedic and musical acts, to a capacity crowd. Led by Captain Merton Plunkett, the troupe was a prominent and extremely popular Canadian vaudeville group that had been formed during World War I by members of Canada’s Third Division. The company took their name from the dumbbell emblem of the Third Division.  At the end of their performance, Captain Plunkett told the audience that it was fitting that a strictly Canadian company should be the last to appear at the Russell.

As The Dumbells were loading their props and other equipment onto a horse-drawn cart after their show, the derelict Russell House Hotel caught fire. Although firemen were able to save the adjacent Russell Theatre from the flames, nothing could save it from the FDC. Three months later, it was demolished. Fortunately, on hearing of the existence of the beautiful ceiling murals by Frederick Challener, Canada’s National Gallery asked that they be saved. The murals now reside at the Gallery. In 1985, the Gallery also obtained Challener’s preliminary scale model of the main mural, Triumph of Drama. See Maquette of Triumph of Drama. 

Sources:

Alberti, Louis-Gèrard, 2015. “The Russell Theatre,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/russell-theatre-emc/.

Bordman, Gerald with Norton, Richard, 2010. American Musical Theatre, A Chronicle, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York.

Evening Journal (The), 1897. “Ottawa’s New Theatre,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “Down Comes The Wall,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “The Russell House Company,” 7 June.

————————–, 1897. “Opera House Decorations,” 14 July.

————————–, 1897. “At Work On The Scenery,” 18 August.

————————–, 1897. “With The Labor Men,” 21 August.

————————-, 1897. “An Up To Date Theatre,” 2 October.

————————-, 1897. “The Russell Offer,” 9 October.

————————-, 1897. “$200 For Fire Sufferers.”

————————-, 1897. “Up Goes The Curtain,” 16 October.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 18 September.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 23 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Fire,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Theatre A Ruin Today,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Opposed To Rebuilding,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Did Not Pay,” 10 April.

————————-, 1901. “Music And Her Devotees,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Will Open Oct. 7,” 25 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Is Completed,” 4 October.

————————-, 1901. “At The Theatre, Opening Of The Russell,” 8 October.

————————-, 1928. “Dumbells’ Review ‘Bubbling Over,’ A Delight In Music And Comedy,” 10 April.

————————-, 1928. “Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey To Flames,” 16 April.

————————-, 1928, “To Salvage Murals, Russell Theatre,” 22 June.

————————-, 1928. “Strip The Russell, Movable Objects,” 6 July.

Moogk, Edward and Kellman, Helmut, 2014, “The Dumbells,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-dumbells-emc/.

NGC Magazine, 2013. “Artists, Architects and Artisans Photo Gallery, 5 November, http://www.ngcmagazine.ca/exhibitions/artists-architects-and-artisans-photo-gallery/Maquette-for-the-Triumph-of-the-Drama-Russell-Theatre-Ottawa.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt, “13 April.

————————-, 1901. “The Russell Theatre, A Suggestion,” 12 April.