The Rideau Club Fire

23 October 1979

Ottawa’s history has been marked by major fires that have reshaped its contours. Most devastating were the massive conflagrations of 1870 and 1900 that twice destroyed much of the western suburbs of the capital, as well as large chunks of Hull on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. The mysterious and deadly fire of 1916 that gutted the Centre Block on Parliament Hill is also worthy of a “dishonourable” mention. Other historic buildings lost to flames include the Russell Hotel, destroyed in 1928 and the old City Hall, gone in 1931. The former stood at the corner of Elgin and Sparks Street, roughly where the War Memorial is located today, while the site of the latter is now Confederation Park on Elgin Street. A more recent calamity was the fire that consumed the Rideau Club building during the evening of Tuesday, 23 October 1979. The landmark building had one of the most prestigious addresses in the Capital, being located at 84 Wellington Street on the corner of Metcalfe Street, immediately across from the front gates of Parliament and right beside the then American embassy.

Rideau Club mikkan 3325804

Early photograph of the Rideau Club, corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, Ottawa, Date unknown, likely circa 1910, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009225.

For those unfamiliar with the Rideau Club, it is unquestionably the senior, and most exclusive, private club in Ottawa. It was founded in 1865, the year prior to Confederation, by an act of the Province of Canada. The Bill, titled an Act to Incorporate the Rideau Club of the City of Ottawa, sailed quickly through both the Provincial legislature and the Legislative Council (the upper house of Parliament), spurred no doubt by the fact that more than two-thirds of the Bill’s sixty-three petitioners were parliamentarians. The Club was modelled after the British gentlemen’s club that had become very popular in Victorian London. Such clubs provided a haven for gentlemen, or aspiring gentlemen, seeking a quiet respite from home life and a place to entertain guests. The clubs were also useful for business meetings and networking. Although Ottawa in 1865 had lots of taverns and bars catering to its many loggers, there was little in the way of refined amenities. The capital was still a small, rough-hewed, shanty town that had been cut out of the wilderness only thirty years earlier. At a stretch, its population may have been about 18,000. But having been named the capital of Canada in 1857, and with the construction of the parliamentary and government buildings nearing completion, the town was welcoming an influx of parliamentarians and senior civil servants used to the creature comforts of Toronto, Quebec or Montreal. The Rideau Club was their way of bringing some of the finer things of life to the nation’s capital.

The Club’s constitution and rules drew heavily from those of Montreal’s St-James Club established in 1858, with its membership transcending language, religion and political barriers. Its initial membership list reads like a roll call of Canada’s notables of the time. First on the list of petitioners was none other than the Conservative John A. Macdonald, who at that time was the Premier of Canada West, and, along with Sir Naricisse-Fortunat Belleau, who was the Premier of Canada East, headed the last government of the Province of Canada before Confederation. Macdonald subsequently became the first Premier of the new Dominion of Canada following Confederation in 1867, receiving a knighthood for his work in uniting the British colonies of North America. Macdonald was to become the Rideau Club’s first president. Second on the list was George-Étienne Cartier, who had shared the premiership with Macdonald in an earlier Provincial government. Like Macdonald, Cartier was a “father of Confederation,” and was made a baronet by Queen Victoria for his role in founding the Dominion of Canada. Eight other “fathers of Confederation” were on that first membership list, including D’Arcy McGee, who was assassinated in 1868, George Brown, the fiery Reform leader who founded The Globe newspaper, the above-mentioned Sir Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau, and Hector-Louis Langevin who was later embroiled in the Pacific Scandal of 1873 involving bribes in the bidding for a national railway. Another founding member of the Rideau Club was John Sandfield Macdonald who also had been a former Premier of the Province of Canada. After Confederation, he became the first Premier of Ontario. Ottawa’s entrepreneurial elite were also represented on the initial Club subscription list. Robert Bell, the editor and owner of The Ottawa Citizen newspaper and Alonzo Wright, a lumber baron, were founding members.

The club’s first home was at 200 Wellington Street, the location of Doran’s Hotel, Ottawa’s leading inn at the time. In 1869, the Club moved to the Queen’s Restaurant, located at the eastern corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, the site of the Langevin Building today named in honour of Hector-Louis Langevin. In 1876, the Club moved to the other side of Metcalfe Street when the Rideau Club Building Association acquired land for $4,000 from the famed Ottawa photographer, James Topley, and built a modest clubhouse. With the subsequent purchase of an adjoining lot, the building was enlarged on three occasions, the last in 1911, to meet the needs of the Club’s expanding membership. This building, with its front doors facing Parliament Hill, would be the Club’s home for 103 years.

Although the Club welcomed members from all political stripes, francophones, anglophones, Catholics and Protestants, it was strictly men only. Also like most private gentlemen’s clubs of the time, Jews were not welcome; anti-Semitism, though often subtly expressed, was widespread in Canada. Although the Club’s membership rules did not explicitly reject Jewish membership, the selection process for members effectively did so. Should a member propose a Jew for membership, it only required a small, anti-Semitic minority to anonymously block the application. Two rejections meant that an applicant was “blackballed” (i.e. barred) for life. It took almost one hundred years before the Club admitted its first Jewish members in 1964, a reform made possible be changing in the selection mechanism so that members were required to give reasons for vetoing an application.  Among the first Jewish members were Louis Rasminsky, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, and Lawrence Frieman, the owner of a major Ottawa department store and a prominent philanthropist. It took another fifteen years before women broke down similar discriminatory barriers. Jean Pigott, a former Member of Parliament and an adviser to Prime Minister Joe Clark became the first female member in the summer of 1979, just months before the Rideau Club was gutted by fire.

The fire, which destroyed the four-story edifice, began at about 5pm on the evening of 23 October 1979, a timing to which I can personally attest as I was outside the Rideau Club shortly after the fire was detected. I had been walking along Sparks Street after work on the way to W.H. Smith bookstore when I smelt an acrid odour as I approached the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe Streets. Seeing a curl of smoke coming off of the Rideau Club roof, I rushed to a gift shop on Metcalfe Street to use its telephone to raise the alarm. I was in the process of dialling when I heard the arrival of fire engines. Over the next several hours, I stayed to watch the unfolding drama from the safety of the Parliament Hill lawn, along with several thousand passersby, civil servants, and parliamentarians, including Prime Minister Joe Clark.

With the Club’s telephone lines dead, the fire was called in by a Club staff member who had gone to a Sparks Street clothing store to use their telephone. He had initially tried the neighbouring U.S. embassy, but got no response at the front door. At the time, there was only one member inside the Club, former Governor General Roland Michener who was eating toast and drinking tea while reading a newspaper in an upstairs sitting room. With considerable understatement, the Club’s bartender, Philip Sylvain, informed Michener that “there may be a slight fire,” and advised him to leave the building. After the hall porter help him to don his overcoat, the 80-year old former governor general made his way to the National Press Club for dinner where he created pandemonium when he informed journalists that the Rideau Club was on fire.

Apparently starting in the basement, near the elevator shaft, the blaze quickly spread through the building, its path facilitated by the building’s dry wooden interior coated by many layers of paint. Although the Club had recently been renovated, there were no sprinkler system. The cause of the fire was never clearly ascertained. Initial suspicions focused on the furnace boiler or faulty wiring, but Ontario’s Fire Marshall’s Office later rejected both possibilities. In the event, sixty fire fighters responded to the alarm with seven pumper trucks, three aerial trucks and two ladder trucks, as well as a squad truck and other emergency vehicles. Fifty policemen secured the scene and directed traffic, while an estimated 6,000 people looked on from Parliament Hill.

As night fell, the flames lit up the sky. At 6.20pm, the flag on the roof the Club caught fire. Shortly afterwards, the heavily-painted balcony burst into flame, spectacularly illuminating the structure. At the fire consumed the historic building, Rideau Club members, and indeed all of Ottawa, grieved. One member described the event as “going to the funeral of an old friend.” The building was completely gutted. Along with its meeting place, the Club lost priceless records, and many works of art, including two paintings by the famed Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson. Surviving were some cutlery, plates, and seven 19th century Ottawa prints salvaged from the Ladies’ dining room. An Inuit soapstone carving used as a Billiard Trophy was also recovered from the wreckage. Amazingly, more than $10,000 worth of wine and liquor was additionally retrieved, having been stored in a cellar protected by thick, stone walls.

Also gone in the blaze were priceless artifacts housed in the National Capital Commission’s tourist centre located in a corner of the Rideau Club building. Lost treasures included 150-year old model of an 18th century fighting ship, tools used in the construction of the Rideau Canal during the 1820s, and a hand-woven tapestry. As well, tourist brochures worth $100,000 were destroyed.

With the wind blowing from the east, the Rideau Club’s immediate neighbour, the Beaux-Arts U. S. Embassy building constructed in 1931, avoided damage. A firewall and timely action by fire fighters also spared the adjoining Blackburn building at the rear. However, sparks and burning embers from the Rideau Club fire threatened the Langevin Building, home of the Prime Minister’s Office, on the western side of Metcalfe Street. Although the fire jumped the road, firemen were able to contain the blaze to the eastern roof of the Langevin Building, using a turret gun and two hand lines that pumped 750 gallons of water per minute onto the roof. As a precautionary measure, staff were evacuated and furniture and files were moved into the interior hallways. Even though the building was saved, the damage, estimated at $500,000, was extensive.

The next morning, Ottawa citizens awoke to the sight of a smoldering, burnt-out shell in the heart of their city. The cost of the fire was placed in the millions. Although Club members hoped that the exterior walls might be saved and the structure rebuilt, the government, which had expropriated the building in 1973, quickly concluded that the edifice was unsafe and beyond repair. With a pending visit by U.S. President Carter, the remains of the Rideau Club were demolished with almost unseemly haste three weeks after the fire.

Neither the Langevin Building nor the Rideau Club building were insured. When the government decided to expropriate the Rideau Club building to make way for a possible future Parliamentary building—an idea that was subsequently quashed owing to high costs—it had originally offered Club members a meagre $1.3 million in compensation. Taking the matter to Federal Court, Club members in 1980 were finally awarded $10.5 million, including interest, in compensation by Mr Justice James Jerome, one of the few Federal judges who was not a member of the Club.

Rideau Club site 2016

Site of the Rideau Club taken from the same angle as the earlier c.1910 Topley photograph, May 2016, Google Streetview.

After using the Chateau Laurier as an interim home after the fire, Club members applied their compensation money to purchase the fifteenth floor of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building at 99 Bank Street, paying more than $5 million for the floor. An additional $3 million was spent on furnishings. From this penthouse floor, members have a fine view of the Parliament buildings and the surrounding Ottawa skyline.

Today, the site of the old Rideau Club building is an open square, featuring a stature honouring Terry Fox, the one-legged marathon runner who died from cancer in 1981 while attempting to run across Canada.

 

Sources:

Lynch, Charles, 1990. Up from the Ashes: The Rideau Club Story, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

McCreery, Christopher, 2015. Savoir-Faire, Savoir Vivre: Rideau Club 1865-2015, Dundurn: Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1979. “Historic Rideau Club In Ruins,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Priceless exhibits lost from NCC’s Collection,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Flames Posed Security Worry,” 24 October.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1979. “Members could only watch and grieve,” 24 October.

————————–, 1979. “Fire cause puzzles investigators,” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Entire city block lay at wind’s mercy.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club death marks changing face of Ottawa.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club blaze began near elevator.” 1 November.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club will crumble,” 7 November.

Province of Canada, 1865. Statutes, 4th Session of the 8th Parliament of Canada, “An Act to incorporate the Rideau Club in the City of Ottawa,” 29 Victoria, Cap XCVIII.

The Maxwell Challenge

22 February 1912

By the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, the automobile was no longer the delicate, temperamental curiosity that it was just a decade earlier. In ten years, the internal combustion engine used in most automobiles had been largely perfected. The one-cylinder vehicle, common at the turn of the century, which was noisy, slow and rough to drive, had evolved into a multi-cylinder machine that was, according to the Ottawa Evening Journal, not only a “thing of beauty” but “whisks by you on the street to the tune of a quiet purr, suggesting the passing of a contented cat.” Luxuriously appointed, such cars could go 50 miles per hour compared to less than 20 miles per hour achieved by vehicles a decade earlier, assuming of course drivers could find roads that were not potholed and heavily trafficked by pedestrians and horses.

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Cartoon, The Evening Journal, 10 February 1912, artist unknown

For the majority of people, however, owing an automobile was a dream rather than a reality. Prices were high relative to incomes, especially during the years prior to the introduction of the assembly line that lowered production costs. In 1912, there were only 500 automobiles cruising the streets of the capital, up from a dozen ten years earlier. Demand was growing rapidly, spurred by the motor car’s many advantages over a horse-drawn vehicle. While the initial outlay for a car or truck was substantial, motor vehicles were more convenient, faster, and could carry heavier loads over longer distances, though winter motoring was problematic. Macdonald & Co., the concessionaire for Albion vans, advertised that the van “could do the work of six horses.” But the automobile’s appeal went far beyond the practical or the economic.  In 1912, the Journal summed up the automobile’s almost irresistible appeal. “To own a motor car and enjoy the numerous pleasures that such affords is to own a kingdom. The driver’s seat is a throne, the steering wheel a sceptre, miles are your minions and distance your slave.”

Hundreds of small automobile companies sprang up across North America and Europe to meet the burgeoning demand for cars and trucks. Even Ottawa sported its own automobile manufacturer—the Diamond Arrow Motor Car Company. At its peak, the firm employed as many as twenty mechanics at its plant located at the corner of Lyon and Wellington Streets, just a short walk from Parliament Hill, with a showroom at 26 Sparks Street. Sadly, the firm only produced cars from 1910 to 1912, and disappeared without a trace like so many of the small, craft-style producers, a victim of strong competition, high costs, and the inability to take advantage of economies of scale.

In mid-February 1912, Ottawa held its first automobile show, hosted by the Ottawa Valley Motor Car Association founded five years earlier. The show, which attracted thousands, was held in Howlick Pavilion at the Exhibition Grounds. (The Howlick Pavilion, also known as Howlick Hall or the Coliseum was knocked down in 2012 to make way for the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park.) Some 37 different automobile marques from Canada, the United States, and Europe were on display, ranging in price from an economical $495 to a princely $10,000. Some brands, such as Rolls-Royce, Ford, Oldsmobile and Cadillac, remain household names today. But most, like Jackson, Russell, Tudhope, and Hupp, are long forgotten except by auto historians and antique-car enthusiasts. Show goers were wowed by the latest advance in automobile technology, the self-starter. No longer did a car owner have to get out and manually crank the vehicle to get it started. The 1912 Cadillac also boasted electric headlights—a first in the motoring world. Up until then, car headlamps were filled with oil and acetylene, and had to be manually lit.

With a crowded field, dealers sought ways of standing out among their competitors. Messrs Wylie Ltd of Albert Street advertised that by buying a Tudhope, a Canadian-built vehicle, purchasers avoided the 35 per cent duty levied on the imported cars. Their advertisement argued that the $1,625 Tudhope should be compared “point to point” to imported cars selling for $2,300. The American-made Cutting, selling for $1,725, boasted of its “big, husky power plant;” the Cutting had participated in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

CityHallOttawa

Old Ottawa City Hall, Elgin Street, date unknown, site of the first leg of the Maxwell Challenge, William James Topley/Library & Archives Canada, Mikan No. 3325359.

Mr F.D. Stockwell, the eastern Canadian distributor of Maxwell motor cars, manufactured by the United States Motor Company, believed action spoke louder than words. To prove the superiority of his automobile, he loaded his Maxwell touring car with twenty boys and drove it up the steps of Ottawa’s City Hall—a considerable feat given the number of steps and the sharp incline. He then drove the car through the deep snow surrounding the building, and pulled a standard car, allegedly twice the weight of his Maxwell, out of a hole. Leaving City Hall, he repeated his stunt on Parliament Hill, driving up the main walkway and up the steps leading to the front of the Centre Block. He again demonstrated the Maxwell’s ability to plough through deep snowdrifts—an important selling feature for cars at the time since few streets and highways were cleared of snow.

After a copycat repeated the stair trick within a half hour of Stockwell’s stunt, and another competitor called the Stockwell’s actions “cheap advertising,” Stockwell retorted that both had ignored “the snow tests.” He then issued the following challenge.

If there is a man in Ottawa selling a touring car from $1,000 to $10,000 (any standard stock touring car, 5 to 7 passengers, not a stripped chassis or runabout), who will drive his machine up the terrace at the City Hall through the snow bank (not doing the path cut through by the Maxwell) we will immediately deposit $100 against one or more cars depositing a like amount for a contest to take place immediately at the Parliament grounds, or anywhere there is a field of good, deep snow.

The proceeds of the bet would got to the charity of the winner’s choice.

Stockwell invited all of Ottawa to come and see who would “meet the Maxwell at the snow plow game.” While he conceded that there were other good cars, he noted that the Maxwell was the only car that for two consecutive years had completed the Glidden tour with a perfect score. The Glidden tour was an American long-distance, automobile, endurance event that began in 1905. The 1911 tour, held in October of that year, was 1,476 miles long from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. It was the most gruelling event up to that time, with the course running along treacherous roads and across streams. Recall this was long before the United States had constructed its inter-state highway system.

Maxwellad

Maxwell Car Advertisement, 1912 (U.S. market), History of Early American Automobile Industry, 1891-1929.

The gauntlet was thrown down at 12.30pm on Thursday, 22 February in front of the Ottawa City Hall. Only the Peerless Garage Company, located at 344-348 Queen Street, the distributor of Cadillac, arrived to pick it up. The judges of the challenge were: Mr R. King Farrow, Mr E. H. Code and Alderman Dr Chevrier. What transpired was not exactly what Stockwell, the Maxwell distributor, had in mind.

At City Hall, the Cadillac went first, easily going up and over the building’s terrace without stopping. Stockwell, the driver of the Maxwell, refused to do likewise, but instead shouted out to the other participant “Come up where we will find some real snow at the Parliament Buildings.” The challenge was immediately accepted. On Parliament Hill, the Maxwell went first, having the choice of where to drive. Unfortunately, the automobile had gone only a few yards before it got stuck in a snowbank. Then, it was the Cadillac’s turn. Starting approximately fifteen feet from where the Maxwell had began, the Caddy drove five to seven times further across the snow-covered lawn in from the Centre Block, thereby winning the $100 wager. The Peerless Garage Company donated its winnings in equal amounts of $25 to four Ottawa charities—the “Protestant Home for the Aged” on Bank Street, the “Protestant Orphans’ Home” on Elgin Street, the “St Patrick’s Orphans’ Home” on Laurier Avenue West, and the “Perely Home for Incurables” located on Wellington Street.

1912 cadillac

Advertisement, 1912 Cadillac, winner of the first Maxwell challenge, 22 February 1912, The Evening Journal, 23 February 1912.

Maxwell’s Stockwell immediately issued a second “Maxwell Challenge.” In a letter to the Evening Journal, he admitted that the Cadillac was a good car, and that “it proved a good snow plow, and was cleverly driven.” After adding that the Cadillac cost $600 more than the Maxwell, and that its wheels were two inches higher, Stockwell attributed the Maxwell’s loss to the “misfortune” of having run into a snowbank deposited by a plough before the car got to the open field. After being pulled off the snowbank, he said that the Maxwell had been able to pass the Cadillac that had foundered in deep snow, “its wheels suspended and running freely in the air.” Consequently, Stockwell claimed that the Maxwell was still the champion. He then sent a letter to the Peerless Garage asking for a rematch “on a course which will permit both cars to enter freely the open field, then let the best car win.” He then handed a $100 wager to the sporting editor of the Citizen newspaper, asking him as well as representatives of the Evening Journal and the Ottawa Free Press to act as judges. When the Cadillac representative refused the challenge, Stockwell upped the wager to $150 from him, against $125 from Cadillac, and set the date of the second challenge to the following Saturday afternoon, 25 February, to take place on the snow-covered lawns of Parliament Hill.

There was no sign of Cadillac that Saturday afternoon. With the field to himself, Stockwell demonstrated the proficiency of the Maxwell motor car in front of a large crowd of spectators. The Journal reported that the automobile entered the field near the foot of the main steps and slowly circled the field, ploughing gracefully through every ice and snow obstacle. “The Maxwell cut through the biggest drifts on Parliament Hill with consummate ease and was only forced to stop through a broken chain grip.” Stockwell then drove the car down the main walkway “amidst enthusiastic applause” from an appreciative audience.

So, who won the Maxwell Challenge? Clearly, the Cadillac won the first challenge. But, Maxwell achieved at least a moral victory through its subsequent, uncontested challenge match. However, in the highly competitive world of the automobile, Cadillac was the ultimate victor, becoming a North American synonym for luxury and success. The Maxwell, on the other hand, disappeared shortly after the First World War, a victim of the post war depression and large debts. The Maxwell Motor Car Company was purchased by Chrysler in 1921. The last Maxwell was produced in 1925 and was replaced by the Chrysler Four.

Sources:

71st Revival AAA Glidden Tour, 2016. History, 1904-1913, http://www.gliddentour.org/.

Bowman, Richard, 2016. Maxwell: First Builders of Chrysler Cars, http://www.allpar.com/history/maxwell.html.

Evening Journal (The), 1910. “First Made In This City,” 29 August.

—————————, 1912. “Ottawa, A Popular Motor Car Centre,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. Cutting Cars, 1912. “Gather ’round—Come Close—Listen!,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Motor Car Driving A Recreation In Ottawa,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. “A Maxwell Challenge, $100,” 21 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Stockwell Motor Company of Montreal Issued Challenge,” 23 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Cadillac Easily Defeats Maxwell,” 23 February.

—————————–, 1912. “Re that Automobile Competition, Maxwell Challenge No. 2, 23 February.

—————————–, 1912. “The Maxwell Challenge Was Not Accepted,” 26 February.

Macdonald & Company, 1912. “The Albion,” The Evening Journal, 10 February.

Messrs Wylie Ltd, 1912. “What does 35% duty add to the value of a Car?” The Evening Journal, 10 February.

 

 

 

The End of Winter Driving Woes

16 April 1928

Ottawa is known for its long, snowy winters. Notwithstanding this, driving conditions are typically good throughout the season. Even through the worst blizzards, the snow ploughs, salters and sanders are out promptly, keeping Ottawa’s thoroughfares open, and the traffic moving. While minor, neighbourhood streets may not get the same attention, they too are cleared within hours of a major snowfall; sidewalks are also quickly ploughed. And when snowbanks begin to obstruct sightlines and impede traffic, city crews are out to reduce or eliminate them. Specialized equipment, which can eat through the iciest snowbank like a hot knife through butter, throws the snow into the open boxes of awaiting trucks that cart it away to dump sites throughout the city.

So accustomed have we become to good winter driving conditions, there was widespread criticism of a recent City staff recommendation to Council that snow-plough operators wait until ten centimetres of snow had fallen before they start clearing roads instead of seven centimetres. Apparently, the City could save $1 million by so doing—a considerable sum, but only a drop out of its snow-clearing budget.

SparksStSnow1885April6LACMikan3623959

Sparks Street, 6 April 1885, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, C-002186

Our forebears would be amazed by the state of Ottawa’s winter roads. Until the late nineteenth century, no roads were ploughed. While sidewalks were cleared, typically by store-owners, the snow was simply thrown into the middle of the street. Over time, the road bed could rise four feet or more above the sidewalk level. Wheeled traffic became impossible, and many businesses were forced to suspend operations until the return of warm weather. People got around on foot or by horse-drawn sleigh. The latter might sound romantic, but city roads quickly became rutted and icy. “Cow holes”—potholes, only larger—became a significant nuisance. Public transit, provided by Ottawa’s street passenger railway, was to be avoided. In summer, its horse-drawn carriages were pulled smoothly along railway tracks from New Edinburgh to LeBreton Flats. Its winter sleigh service was not so comfortable. The Ottawa Journal described progress down Ottawa’s streets as being “painfully slow.” This was not just a figure of speech. Customers were bumped, jostled and jolted as sleighs were dragged in and out of the cow holes. The coming of spring only made things worse. Roads became virtually impassable. Pedestrians were knee-deep in slush. Flooding was a serious risk if clogged drains and ditches were not opened in time.

Things began to improve in 1892 with the arrival of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER) that operated a railed, electric tram service on the main streets of the city. Initially, City Council permitted the company to run sleighs through the winter months; nobody thought trams could operate once the snow arrived. However, Thomas Ahearn, the owner of the OER, invented an electric, rotary snow plough that was fixed to the front of the tram, thereby assuring year-round service.

Sleigh Dept. of Interior - Library and Archives Canada - PA-043776.PNG

Sleigh on Wellington Street in front of the East Block, Parliament Hill, date unknown, Interior Ministry/Library and Archives Canada, PA-043776.

By the 1920s, a variety of agencies were responsible for snow ploughing in Ottawa. Under the terms of its service contract with the City, the OER ploughed the snow off the 60 miles of streets on which its trams ran, roughly one-third of Ottawa’s 168 miles of roadways. This did not mean, however, that these streets were cleared to the pavement. The OER was required to leave sufficient snow on the roads for sleighs. The Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, also ploughed the Driveways for which it was responsible, while the Federal Department of Public Works cleared snow from the roadways on Parliament Hill and on parts of Wellington Street. However, all other Ottawa arteries and side streets, roughly 100 miles, remained unploughed, and quickly became impassable to wheeled traffic.

Fortunately for pedestrians, Ottawa’s Public Works Department took responsibility for clearing 250 miles of city sidewalks using horse-drawn, walkway ploughs at a cost of roughly $30,000 per season. City workers were paid 50 cents an hour, time and a half at night. Ottawa was divided into nine districts, each with a foreman in charge of snow-ploughing operations. Ploughing teams were sent out as soon as 4-5 inches of snow had fallen. After a heavy snow fall, or two or more light falls, amounting to 12-15 inches, the walkway ploughs were used to push the snow into the centre of the streets where it was flattened by heavy rollers. Heated sand was sometimes used on slippery walks.

As the Roaring Twenties progressed, and the number of automobile owners rose dramatically, Ottawa City Council came under growing pressure to improve winter driving conditions throughout the city. Snow-covered roads increasingly became an economic issue. Retailers worried that customers couldn’t reach them. Grocers complained that their profit margins were too slim for them to own a truck for summer deliveries as well as a horse and sleigh for winter deliveries. City staff also discovered the main arteries along which the OER ran were deteriorating faster than expected, owing to automobile traffic being funnelled along those few ploughed roads. Tire chains installed by car owners to improve traction in snow were chewing up the pavement. City Council considered a ban on chains but rejected it as chains were widely used throughout the province. An alternative was to plough the side streets, thereby spreading the automobile traffic, and hence road wear, over more roadways.

In late 1926, City Council ordered the Public Works Department to try “various measures” to keep Ottawa’s principal streets open. Poor Works Commissioner Macallum was reported to have been “quite at a loss” to know what he should do. He had only eighteen, old, horse-drawn walkway ploughs at his disposal. In early 1927, the Council acquired mechanized help in the form three tractors and ploughs: two Fordson crawler-type tractors, furnished with V-type Sargent ploughs from Campbell Motor Sales for $2,295, and one 1.5 ton Holt Caterpillar tractor with a Walsh V-type plough from E. N. & W. E. Soper for $5,970. Unfortunately, the vehicles didn’t arrive in time to avoid “violent attacks” at City Council over the quality of Ottawa’s streets when warmer weather arrived in March. Councilmen complained that Carling Avenue was in a “disgraceful condition” owing to ruts. Meanwhile, downtown pedestrians were said to be wallowing around in slush up to their knees.

The following winter (1927-28), the City’s newly equipped Public Works Department started to plough twenty-four miles of Ottawa streets adjacent to those cleared by the OER. This still wasn’t adequate. In February 1928, Frank Askwith, the City’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Works submitted a report to the City’s Board of Control, recommending the ploughing of all streets, some 100 miles of roadway, that were not cleared by the OER or the FDC. (As a point of comparison, Ontario ploughed 800 miles of provincial highways during the 1928-29 winter season.) Askwith also recommended the purchase of two high-powered tractor ploughs capable of clearing streets at a speed of 12 miles per hour at a cost of $15,000. He additionally suggested that more “scarifiers” be used to break down ice ridges and reduce uneven road surfaces. The estimated additional annual cost to the City of his proposal was $25,000. Askwith recommended against removing snowbanks from the streets owing to cost considerations. The Board of Control welcomed the recommendations, and on 16 April 1928, City Council adopted Askwith’s plan to commence that following winter season. The cost of the endeavour was to be borne by property owners at a charge of 30 cents per foot of frontage.

Unfortunately, you can’t please all the people all the time. Sleigh owners complained about insufficient snow being left on the roads. Some property owners also objected to the cost of snow ploughing, preferring their streets to remain unploughed. But most citizens wanted the City to do even more. Retail merchants argued persuasively about the dangers, especially to the elderly, of people trying to alight from parked cars that were perched dangerously on roadside snowbanks. The City consequently began to remove the snowbanks from in front of stores. Permission to dump the snow into the Rideau Canal at a site south of the Laurier Street Bridge was granted by the Superintendent of Canals. The City later began to clear snow in front of all churches as well as in front of residences from which funerals were to take place; district foremen were required to monitor funeral notices.

Ruts too were a perennial source of complaint, as they made winter motoring hazardous. Once a driver got stuck in one, it was almost impossible to get out until the car came to an intersecting channel. For several years, the City and the OER fought over whether the tram company was doing an adequate job of maintaining the roads its carriages used. The tramline company claimed that while it was responsible for the ploughing of snow from the streets on which it operated, it was not responsible for the removal of ruts that might subsequently develop. After a battle of words, the City threatened in 1929 to send a $1,025 bill to the tramline company for rut removal. It desisted when the City’s solicitor said that the contract was sufficiently vague that it was uncertain that the City would win a legal case. Fortunately, harmony was restored when the OER took steps to cut down the ruts to a depth the City considered acceptable.

Ottawa’s first year of cleared streets was deemed a great success. At the end of February 1930, in an editorial titled “The Ruts of Yesteryear,” The Ottawa Journal opined that the nuisance of spring ruts had been finally overcome. “For the first time, motoring has been practicable in all parts of the city for the whole winter.”

In 2015, the City of Ottawa cleared 5,938 kilometres of highways, road and bike paths, and a further 2,233 kilometres of sidewalks at a cost of $67.5 million.

Sources:

CBC News, 2016. “Ottawa $7.6 million over budget for snow clearing in 2015,” 1 March.

City Of Ottawa, 1927. “Borrowing of $15,000 for the purchase of snow-ploughing apparatus,” By-Law # 6269, 16 May.

——————, 1927. Minutes of Board of Control, 3 March.

——————, 1928. Minutes of Board of Control, 16 April.

——————, 1928. Minutes of Council, 20 February.

——————, 1928. “Snow plowing,” By-law 6554, 10 December.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1929. “City Gets Permission To Dump Snow Into The Canal, Ruts On Road A Major Problem, 6 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1922. “With Six Horse Cars Running And “Toonerville” Equipment Ottawa Hops Into City Class,” 21 October.

——————–, 1924. “Criticize System Of Plowing Snow,” 11 January.

——————–, 1926. “City Is Buying Three Tractors To Move Snow,” 26 November.

——————–, 1928. “More Roadways May Be Plowed With Tractors, 1 February.

——————–, 1928. “Violent Attacks In Council on ‘Disgraceful Conditions” Existing On Roads,” 8 March.

——————–, 1928. “Keeping Up Roads,” 27 March.

——————–, 1928. “Suggest Plowing 100 Miles Of Streets At Cost Of $25,000,” 4 April.

——————–, 1928. “Preparing for Next Winter,” 5 April.

——————–, 1928. “Council Approves Of Plan To Plow 100 Miles Streets, 17 April.

——————–, 1928. “Planning To Keep 1,200 Miles Open.” 22 September.

——————–, 1928. “Dr. McElhinney Endorses Plan of Controller, 7 December.

——————–, 1929. “City Gives Up Hope Of Collecting Cost Cutting Down Ruts,” 24 April.

——————–, 1929. “City Accepts OER Efforts To Clear Snow,” 21 December.

——————–, 1930. “The Ruts Of Yesteryear,” 25 February.

——————–, 1932. “Snow Removal Policy Passed, Cost is $20,000,” 8 January.

Quebec Telegraph (The), 1921. “Question Of Snow Removal From The Streets Of Quebec Important One For Citizens,” 26 November.

 

 

Monetary Matters

11 March 1935

At 10am on Monday, 11 March 1935, Canada entered a new monetary age. That day, the Bank of Canada, located at its temporary offices in the Victoria Building at 140 Wellington Street across the street from Parliament Hill, opened for business. It was supposed to have begun operations at the beginning of the month, but its opening was delayed owing to the late arrival of new Bank of Canada dollar bills from the British American Bank Note Company. The first governor of the new central bank was 37-year-old Graham Towers who previously had been a senior officer of the Royal Bank of Canada.

Note1923

Note1935

Dominion of Canada note, 1923 (upper), Bank of Canada note 1935 (lower). Initially, the Bank of Canada issued unilingual English and French notes. From 1937, notes became bilingual. Bank of Canada notes were smaller than Dominion notes.

As stated in the preamble of the Bank of Canada Act, which received royal assent the previous July, the job of the new financial institution was “to regulate credit and currency in the best interest of the economic life of the nation, to control and protect the external value of the national monetary unit and to mitigate by its influence fluctuations in the general level of production, trade, prices and employment, so far as may be possible within the scope of monetary action, and generally to promote the economic and financial welfare of the Dominion.”

More specifically, the Bank became the issuer of Canadian bank notes. It also assumed responsibility for the government’s foreign exchange and debt management operations, and the conduct of monetary policy. It additionally began to act as adviser to the government on economic matters. Consistent with these new responsibilities, the same day the Bank opened for business, the Dominion Notes Act, under which Dominion notes had previously been issued, and the Finance Act, hitherto used by the Department of Finance to conduct monetary actions, were repealed. Offices of the Receiver General of Canada across the country were also converted to agencies of the new Bank of Canada.

Under the Bank of Canada Act, the new central bank was given a monopoly on issuing Canadian paper currency. Previously, the Dominion government issued small-value notes ($1 and $2 bills) as well as very large notes used as reserves by the chartered banks. As well, each chartered bank issued its own bank notes in distinctive colours and designs. These private bank notes were widely accepted by the general public though they were not “legal tender,” an attribute reserved for Dominion notes. Chartered bank notes were convertible on demand into Dominion notes or gold. If a bank could not deliver on this promise, it failed. But Canadian chartered bank notes were very secure. In the event of a bank failure, the notes represented the first charge against the failing bank’s assets, ranking ahead of other liabilities, including deposits. Further protection was provided by a note protection fund akin to today’s deposit insurance fund. Notes of failed banks also earned interest from the day of the failure to the day the bank’s liquidator called in the notes for redemption. Following the establishment of the Bank of Canada, chartered bank notes were phased out over a ten-year period, ending a banking privilege that dated back to 1817 when the Bank of Montreal issued the first Canadian bank notes. The last private bank notes were issued in 1944, and were removed from circulation by 1950.

Prior to the establishment of the Bank of Canada, Canada had little in the way of an active monetary policy. The government didn’t adjust interest rates up or down in response to economic activity and price pressures. Indeed, for most of the previous century, excluding during World War I and the immediate post-war years, most countries, including Canada, were on the gold standard. Consequently, monetary policy was essentially on autopilot with the domestic money supply moving in tandem with flows of gold in and out of the country and the mining of gold. However, this strict monetary system proved unable to cope with the Great Depression. Starting with Great Britain in 1931, country after country abandoned the gold standard and floated their currencies. Canada, which had reintroduced the gold standard in 1926, followed suit by banning the export of gold in late 1931. Two years later, it officially left the gold standard; Canadian paper money was no longer convertible into gold at a fixed rate.

In theory, the move to a freely floating currency gave scope to the government to use monetary policy to fight the Great Depression. However, it lacked the knowledge and the tools to adequately do so. While the Finance Act introduced in 1914 at the outset of World War I allowed the Dominion government to lend to the chartered banks, in essence to act as a lender of last resort, advances under the Act were made solely at the request of the banks. The government had no means of forcing banks to borrow reserves, which would have expanded the money supply, other than through “arm-twisting.” The government could increase the so-called “fiduciary” issue of Dominion notes, that is to say the small issue of notes that was not backed by gold, but this would take an act of Parliament, a process that would take a long time to implement.

Although the Canadian banking system, unlike that of the United States, weathered the Depression without failures, slumping domestic economic activity and a great distrust of private banks fuelled importantly by farm foreclosures led to strong political pressures on the government to do something—its answer, the creation of a central bank. Additional impetus came from the British government that favoured the establishment of central banks in its overseas dominions and colonies.

In July 1933, the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett formed the Macmillan Commission to study the issue. Chaired by Lord Macmillan, a pro-central banking British jurist, the Commission comprised another five members: Sir Charles Addis, a former Bank of England director, John Brownlee, the premier of Alberta, and two Canadian bankers, Sir William White and Beaudry Leman. Its conclusion was never in much doubt. After only seven weeks of testimony in hearings across the country, the Commission came out 3-2 in favour of establishing a central bank, with the two Canadian bankers, concerned about losing their bank-note issuing privileges, dissenting.

Debate then moved to the House of Commons. Although the creation of a central bank was supported by most MPs, excluding certain members of the ruling Conservative Party with links to the banking industry, the focus of debate was on whether the Bank of Canada would be privately or publicly owned. During the 1930s, most central banks, including the Bank of England, were privately owned. The government favoured a privately-owned, widely-held central bank with limits placed on profits.  It contended that private ownership would distance the central bank from political interference, enabling the bank to “avoid pressure from particular interests.” Opposition parties rejected this view and called for a government-owned institution. In the event, the government got its way. When the Bank of Canada started operations in March 1935 it was a widely-held, private institution. Its directors were appointed by shareholders from diverse occupations. The only link to government was through the Deputy Minister of Finance who was appointed as an ex officio member of the Board. However, when Mackenzie King’s Liberals were voted back into office in 1936, the Dominion government took control of the Bank of Canada in two stages, fully nationalizing it in 1938.

Despite its creation to help address the effects of the Great Depression, the Bank of Canada did relatively little to counter the high level of unemployment and low prices in Canada during the pre-war years. The Bank Rate, (i.e. the interest rate that the Bank of Canada charged on loans to chartered banks) remained unchanged from the similar Advance Rate that the Government charged under the Finance Act. Initially, the Bank focused its energy in acquiring the staff necessary to operate a modern central bank. Its research abilities were also called upon by the government to provide advice on provincial finances and later on Dominion-provincial relations (the Rowell-Sirois Commission). Subsequently, with political events taking an ominous turn in Europe, the Bank began to prepare for war, laying the groundwork for the imposition of exchange controls that were introduced in September 1939.

$bankofCanadafinished

Bank of Canada, circa 1938. Note the stoppers in the urns on either side of the entrance patio. Associated Screen News Ltd. Bank of Canada Archives, PC300.5.78

Work also got underway in designing and building a new head office that met the specialized requirements of the new central bank, including secure vaults for storing securities and Canada’s gold reserves. In 1936, the Bank acquired property on Wellington Street across the street from the newly constructed Justice and Confederation Buildings. The design of the new Bank of Canada building, drawn by architect Sumner Davenport in co-operation with the Toronto architectural firm Marani, Lawson & Morris, was inspired by classical architecture then favoured by banks that provided a sense of stability and strength. Called “stripped classical” owing to its austere façade, the plain, grey cube of granite complemented the château-style government buildings across the street. Costing roughly $1 million ($17.5 million in today’s money), it was also comparatively cheap to build.

Between the plain pilasters that decorate the Wellington Street front of the building are panels of Vermont Verde antique marble decorated with bronze allegorical figures by Canadian sculptor Jacobine Jones. The figures symbolize the seven major industries of Canada in the 1930s: agriculture, construction, electricity, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, and mining. The front door, made of cast bronze, was designed by Ulysses Ricci, and features images of Greek coins. Amphorae stand on either side of the entrance terrace. These urns were very controversial. Deputy Governor J.A.C. Osborne, who had been seconded from the Bank of England, likened them to “very large bombs” that “suggest the next war.” Originally, the urns came with stoppers. But shortly after the building was completed, the stoppers were removed, apparently owning to complaints that they were too phallic for public viewing.

Bank staff moved into their new quarters in late April 1938. By the time World War II began the following year, the new head office was already inadequate to accommodate the growing number of Bank employees, owing to the Bank of Canada’s being given additional responsibilities for managing and enforcing Canada’s foreign exchange controls through the Foreign Exchange Control Board. To accomodate the central bank’s burgeoning staff needs,  wooden, temporary office buildings were constructed on the Sparks Street and Kent Street sides of the granite Bank headquarters.

BofCbyWladyslaw2009

Bank of Canada headquaters, 234 Wellington Street, circa 2009. The orignal granite building nestles within the glass towers and atrium designed by Arthur Erickson, by Wladyslaw, Wikipedia.

During the 1970s, these “temporary” buildings were finally demolished to make way for the Bank of Canada building that we know today. Vancouver architect, Arthur Erickson, in collaboration with the firm Marani, Rounthwaite & Dick, the successor firm to the original Bank architects, designed two twelve-story, glass towers on either side of the original granite building. The towers were linked to the centre block by four pedestrian bridges, and a glass atrium. The original building was also extensively renovated at that time though care was taken to preserve the original Art Deco front lobby, executive offices and board room.

In 2014, work began on extensive renovations to the Bank’s head office complex. At an estimated cost of $460 million, the renovations will upgrade the building’s heating, plumbing, ventilation and electrical systems, strengthen the structure to meet today’s seismic standards, enable the building to meet current health and safety requirements, update its security systems, and improve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. The most prominent new feature of the renewed Bank complex will be a glass pyramid located at the corner of Bank and Wellington Streets that will house the public entrance to the Bank of Canada Museum. The construction and renovations are expected to be finished by 2017.

 

Sources:

Bank of Canada, 2005. The Bank of Canada: An Illustrated History, Ottawa.

——————-, 2007. More Than Money: Architecture and Art At The Bank Of Canada, Ottawa.

——————-, 2010. Light and Space: The Architecture of the Bank of Canada, http://www.bankofcanada.ca/multimedia/light-space-architecture-bank-canada/.

——————-, 2016. The Bank’s Head Office, http://www.bankofcanada.ca/about/bank-head-office/.

Bordo, M. and Redish, A., 1986. “Why Did the Bank of Canada Emerge in 1935?” NBER Working Paper No. 2079.

Fullerton, Douglas, 1986. Graham Towers And His Times, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Powell, James, 2005. A History of the Canadian Dollar, Ottawa: Bank of Canada.

—————–, 2009. The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges Confrontation and Change, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Powell, James and Moxley, Jill, 2013. Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, Renfrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing House.

 

 

 

 

The Lord Elgin Hotel

19 July 1941

Across from Confederation Park on Elgin Street stands The Lord Elgin Hotel. Built in the French Chatêau style with a copper roof, and clad in the famous Queenston limestone from Niagara, the hotel has been an Ottawa landmark for 75 years. While conceived prior to the outbreak of World War II, the hotel was erected during the first half of 1941, helping to alleviate the shortage of affordable accommodation in the nation’s capital, made worse by an influx of thousands of service men and women. So urgent was the housing crisis, 1,000 tons of steel and 30,000 tons of other construction materials were appropriated for the hotel’s construction despite pressing war-related needs. The municipal government also provided considerable financial inducements to the owner of the building.

Lord Elgin Hotel, Phixed

The Lord Elgin Hotel by Phixed

According to John Udd, the President of the Ford Hotels Company that built and managed The Lord Elgin, the construction of a hotel in Ottawa had been his dream since 1930. However, it was the City of Ottawa that made the first overture in February 1939 when a delegation of city officials canvassed hotel chains in the United States and Canada with a view to finding a hotel company willing to build a modern, fireproof hotel in Ottawa. The delegation eventually chose the Ford Hotels group based in Rochester, N.Y. that operated major hotels in Toronto and Montreal as well as Buffalo, Rochester, and Erie in the United States. Serious negotiations were subsequently held between Udd and the federal and municipal governments in the spring of 1940 with a final agreement reached in July of that year. Udd is reported to have said that the “entire undertaking was conceived and determined at Laurier House [Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s residence] in the relatively short course of an informal interview.” King indicated Dominion support for the venture as long as the building was consistent with government plans aimed at beautifying the capital.

The City of Ottawa and Udd agreed that Ford Hotels would erect a hotel of at least 350 rooms, each equipped with a private bath or shower, at a cost of at least $900,000 in downtown Ottawa. Design upgrades to win the Prime Minister’s support plus other improvements brought the bill to $1.5 million (equivalent to roughly $23.5 million today). The hotel’s Elgin Street site was made possible when the Dominion government agreed to let a portion of the land to the Ford group for $5,000 per year with a 99-year lease. The contract also called for the edifice to have a “pleasing stone exterior,” and would be constructed using local labour and materials as far as possible. The room rates would start at a modest $2.50 per day for single occupancy and $3.50 for double occupancy.

The City furthermore agreed to provide a sizeable property tax break. The hotel’s assessment for tax purposes was fixed at one third of its normal assessed value for fifteen years. There was considerable opposition to this concession at City Council. Opponents noted that such concessions were not granted to the hotel chain for the construction of similar hotels in Toronto and Montreal. They also argued that a tax break would be unfair to competitors. However, the hotel’s supporters won the Council debate. They pointed to the amount of new construction spending that would be brought to the city as well as the hotel’s expected annual payroll. Although the property taxes paid to the city would be temporarily reduced, they would still amount to $15,000 per year. It was also hoped that the hotel would attract U.S. tourists to the capital, bringing with them much needed U.S. dollars—an important consideration during the war years when Canada was desperate for American currency to buy war materiel.

Once the contract was signed, attention turned to the name for the new hotel. Hundreds of names were proposed by the general public. Among the favourites were the “Kingsford,” a catchy combination of the Prime Minister’s name and the name of the hotel chain, the “Empire,” the “Tweedsmuir” after Canada’s much-loved Governor General who died in office in early 1940, the “Churchill,” after Britain’s Prime Minister, and “The Lord Elgin,” after James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, who was the governor general of the Province of Canada from 1847-54. The street on which the hotel was to be constructed was already named in his honour. The original idea for “The Lord Elgin” came from Ottawa resident C. Sheppard in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen’s editor. It was later championed at City Hall by Alderman H. P. Hill Jr. After two ballots, City Council’s Industry and Publicity Committee unanimously chose it for the new hotel. The name was subsequently approved by John Udd on behalf of the Ford Hotels Company.

The ink was scarcely dry on the contract when construction work began on the new hotel. Mayor Stanley Lewis turned the first sod in late September 1940. Its architects were Messrs Ross & Macdonald of Montreal, the successor firm that designed the Chatêau Laurier Hotel and Union Station a generation earlier. The main contractor was John Wilson of Ottawa. Following the erection of the hotel’s steel girders, which began at the beginning of January 1941, the building was constructed by skilled masons in six months. Each stone of the hotel was cut at the quarry to a pattern, numbered, and shipped to Ottawa for assembly like a big jig-saw puzzle. While most workers came from Ottawa, there was a shortage of masons, scores of whom were needed for the project. The contractor said that they “had to raise a cry to gather the old Scottish masons to a sufficient number for the job.”

By the end of February, work was sufficiently advanced to allow Prime Minister Mackenzie King to lay the cornerstone of the new hotel. At the ceremony, he praised the co-operation of all parties that had made the hotel possible. He also underscored the appropriateness of naming the hotel after Lord Elgin saying “few names in Canadian history were more associated with freedom that Lord Elgin.” It was during Elgin’s tenure as Governor General during the mid-nineteenth century that responsible government came to Canada. Elgin’s successful trip to Bytown, later called Ottawa, in 1853 also marked the first step towards the city being named Canada’s capital by Queen Victoria in 1857. King also thought it appropriate that the new hotel was located on the corner of Elgin Street and Laurier Avenue as it was Sir Wilfred Laurier that initiated plans to beautify the capital. The prime minister likened Elgin Street and its approach to the Parliament Buildings to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Whitehall Street in London, and the Avenue Champs-Élysées in Paris.

At lunchtime on Thursday the 17 July 1941, the brand-new hotel was officially opened. Mayor Lewis had the honour of cutting a white silk ribbon that was bound around the four pillars of the hotel’s porte cochère that protected arriving guests from the elements. The mayor was handed the shears by the ten year-old daughter of the City’s controller, Chester Pickering, who did much to make the hotel a reality. The Prime Minister’s car then drove up to the hotel’s entrance to be met by civic officials and senior hotel officials, including John Udd, president of the Ford Hotels Company and Richard Ford, the company’s chairman of the board.

Inside, the prime minister unveiled two marble busts of the 8th Earl and Countess of Elgin and Kincardine that were donated to the Dominion by the 10th Earl with the intention that they be put on display in the new hotel that bore the name of his illustrious grandfather. The bust of Lord Elgin was made by William Behnes, while that of the Countess was by Amelia Hill. The busts were brought to Canada from the Bruce family home in Scotland on a Royal Navy warship. Afterwards, the prime minister and Mr Udd sent telegrams of thanks to the 10th Earl.  Mackenzie King then signed the hotel’s register as its first guest, followed by Mayor Lewis. Then came a celebratory lunch for one hundred guests in the dining room and a hotel tour.

Lord-Elgin-web-optimized

Bust of Lord Elgin, Replica in lobby of The Lord Elgin Hotel

 

The Lord Elgin was designed with relatively few of the facilities commonly expected in a hotel of this calibre. Hotel management stressed that there was no ballroom or grill, and that the “beverage rooms” were of modest scale aimed to serve the needs of its transient residents rather than compete with existing bars and restaurants in the city. Room service was provided, however, by Murray’s Lunch, a new, independent restaurant that could be accessed through the hotel’s premises as well as from the street.

Entering the lobby on the ground floor of the twelve-storey hotel, one could find directly ahead, the registration desk, an information desk and a cashier’s wicket. To the right of the entrance was a newsstand and a passageway to Murray’s Lunch and the bank of elevators. To the left was a travel and transportation desk, along with a corridor to a convention room, beverage rooms, and the barber and hair salon. The “men’s” beverage room had a club-like atmosphere, and could accommodate 150 persons. It was furnished with settees and light-coloured furniture. The table tops were blue with a mark-proof veneer. The “ladies’” beverage room was larger, holding 250 persons. Its colours were grey, mauve and orchid. Both beverage rooms were air-conditioned.

Lady-Elgin-web-optimized

Bust of Lady Elgin, Replica in lobby of The Lord Elgin Hotel

The hotel boasted 371 private guest rooms, each with private washrooms, located on the second to twelfth stories. The lower stories each had forty-six guestrooms, while upper level floors had either thirty-one or sixteen larger guestrooms or suites. Rooms were decorated in three colour schemes, with matching drapes and appointments. The lower three guest floors were decorated in blue-grey and dusty rose, the next four floors were in mauve and dusty rose, while the upper floors were in suntan buff and ivory. Drapes had a matching floral design. Instead of antiseptic white, the bathrooms were painted a suntan buff with ivory baked enamel walls. For the comfort of the guests, the bathroom floors were made of rubber rather than tile. Guestrooms were furnished in natural oak, with four armchairs. The hotel noted with pride that beds were five inches longer than usual with a reading lamp mounted onto the headboards. Each room was also equipped with a radio built into the telephone stand. Residents had their choice of two channels. Each room door was equipped with an indicator to alert the maid to whether the room was occupied. Although guestrooms were not air-conditioned, they had casement windows with extension hinges that the hotel claimed induced air currents to enter the room regardless of wind direction. Doors were also equipped with “peek-proof” ventilators.

On opening day, The Lord Elgin had a staff of 225, most of whom were women, with a payroll of roughly $200,000 per annum. Indicative of the close relationship the hotel had with the municipal government, both the hotel’s manager, Redverse F. Pratt, and the night manager, Gerald Cherry, were both previously employed by the Ottawa Tourist Bureau. Chester Pickering, member of the Ottawa’s Board of Control, later joined the hotel’s board of directors.

In 1949, the Ford Hotels Company was acquired by the Sheraton Group of hotels. Shortly thereafter it was reported that Sheraton Hotels had sold The Lord Elgin to a group of Ottawa and Montreal businessmen. President of the new company was Mr P. H. Bruneau of Montreal. Chester Pickering was named vice-president. The hotel subsequently changed hands several times. The Lord Elgin has been owned by Ottawa’s Gillin family since 1987.

In 2003, the busts of Lord and Lady Elgin were moved to Rideau Hall for an exhibit on the contribution the Earl made to Canadian culture and democracy. They were never returned despite entreaties from the hotel.  Government officials argued that the busts were only “on loan” to the hotel, and could be moved at any time. The hotel replaced the busts with replicas. Possibly to make partial amends, the National Capital Commission loaned a portrait of Lord Elgin to the hotel in 2015 to help celebrate the hotel’s 75th anniversary. Previously, the painting had hung in Rideau Hall. The portrait, which was purchased by Lord Grey, a later governor general, in 1907 is believed to have been painted at the beginning of the 20th century by an unknown artist in the style of Sir Francis Grant. The portrait is currently on display in the hotel’s lobby.

 

Sources:

Boswell, Randy, 2016, The Lord Elgin Hotel, Mackenzie King’s capital vision and birth of a landmark, Lord Elgin Hotel, February, http://lordelginhotel.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/109930_LEH_BookFeb18.pdf.

Gazette (Montreal) The, 1949, “Lord Elgin Hotel Sale Is Announced,” 19 December.

—————————-, 1950. “Lord Elgin Hotel Purchasers Named,” 12 January.

Lord Elgin Hotel, 2016. A historic landmark in downtown Ottawa, http://lordelginhotel.ca/hotel/history/.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1941, “The Lord Elgin Hotel,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Former Director of Ottawa’s Civic Publicity Appointed Hotel Manager,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Co-operation of Municipality Is Eulogized by Premier King,” 19 July.

————————, 1941. “All Available Space Above First Floor Guest Rooms,” 19 July.

————————, 1941. “400 Guest Rooms In The New Lord Elgin Designed For Rest and Comfort,” 19 July.

————————, 1941. “All The Most Modern Features Are To Be Found In The Lord Elgin,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Stones Of New Hotel Fitted Together As If A Huge Jig-saw Puzzle,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Ottawa Aldermen And Civic Officials Opened Negotiations For New Hotel,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Construction Work Completed In Little More Than Six Months,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Murray’s Lunch In The Lord Elgin,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Many Suggestions Put Forward Before Name Selected by Civic Committee,” 19 July.

————————-, 2011. Sculptures of Lord and Lady Elgin Have moved from Hotel to Rideau Hall, 20 February.

————————-, 2016, “Expectations of Grandeur: The Lord Elgin Turns 75,” 3 March.

Petchloff, Tom, 2015. “Lord Elgin to undergo major renovations as it celebrates its 75th anniversary, Ottawa Business Journal, 29 February.

Images:

The Lord Elgin Hotel, by Phixed, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Elgin_Hotel.

Lord Elgin, 2016, by James Powell

Lady Elgin, 2016 by James Powell

 

 

The Stopwatch Gang

17 April 1974

If Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were the quintessential bank robbers of the late nineteenth century, the Stopwatch Gang was their late twentieth-century alter egos.  Both gangs became infamous for their audacious heists throughout the American west. While armed robbery was their profession, the two gangs avoided bloodshed. For a time, they both ran rings around the police.  They were finally brought to book but not before they entered popular folklore. The story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was romanticized and immortalized in the 1969 classic movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Similarly, the fascinating tale of the Stopwatch Gang has been recounted in numerous newspaper articles, books and documentaries; a major motion picture is currently in production.

The story of the Stopwatch Gang begins in, of all places, Ottawa. It was in Canada’s capital that three young men, Stephen Reid, Patrick “Paddy” Mitchell and Lionel Wright, met. Combining their skills, they pulled a daring gold heist at the Ottawa airport in 1974. Although arrested and subsequently sentenced to long jail terms, they escaped from prison, fleeing to the United States. There, the trio became known as the “Stopwatch Gang,” knocking off banks with clockwork precision. Police estimate that they stole as much as $15 million from as many as 100 banks during their crime spree. Fuelled by their illicit earnings, the gang experienced the high life. But the money quickly drained away. Life on the run was expensive and lost its allure. In a perennial search of the big score that would allow them to retire, the men began to make mistakes. With the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as well as state and local police on their trail, the trio was finally apprehended. They had run afoul not only of the people’s law but also the law of averages.

Stopwatch

The trio became known as the “Stopwatch Gang” since one member wore a stopwatch around his neck in a heist. They were in and out in under two minutes.

Their story starts in 1973. Stephen Reid, a young, troubled, bank robber from Massey, Ontario who had escaped policy custody by jumping out of a restaurant window while on a day-pass from the Kingston Penitentiary, arrived in Ottawa and hooked-up with Paddy Mitchell, a handsome, articulate crook from Stittsville, a small town outside of Ottawa. Mitchell had previously taken under his wing Lionel Wright, a socially-awkward introvert with a passion for details. The duo had been stealing goods from delivery trucks, making use of information Wright received in his job as a night clerk in a shipping yard. In late 1973, Mitchell got wind of a far larger score. A crooked Air Canada baggage handler who had been thieving from Air Canada shipments, told Mitchell that Air Canada regularly shipped gold destined for the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa. The gold bars were temporarily stored in the freight building at the Ottawa International Airport. The baggage handler agreed to tip off Mitchell when a shipment arrived in return for a cut of the proceeds.  Mitchell, Reid and Wright immediately set about planning a gold heist that would allow them to live and retire in style.

On 17 April 1974, Mitchell received word that a shipment of gold from the Campbell Red Lake Mines in northern Ontario had arrived in Ottawa on Air Canada flight 444.  Five wooden boxes containing six gold bars totalling 5,167 ounces, worth $750,000 (roughly $8 million at 2016 Canadian prices) were stored in a wire security cage in the airport warehouse, awaiting pickup by armoured car.

Shortly before midnight, Reid, dressed in an Air Canada parka and wearing a counterfeit security pass, knocked on the warehouse door. When the Universal Security guard answered, Reid pulled a gun. After disarming the guard, Reid marched him over to the security cage and demanded the key. Discovering to his dismay that the key was kept overnight in the main air terminal, Reid used tools from the warehouse repair shop to snap the padlock securing the 16-by-10 foot wire cage. With the guard handcuffed to a metal pipe, and a cardboard box placed over his head, the gang loaded the gold onto a small, metal handcart for transport across the warehouse to their get-away car, a green station wagon.  Although the heist took longer than expected—twenty-five minutes instead of the planned five minutes—the gang successfully eluded the roadblocks set up by Gloucester Police after janitorial staff found the handcuffed guard and raised the alarm.

From early on, police had a strong conviction that an insider was involved. How else could the thieves have known of the gold shipment? Paddy Mitchell also quickly became a person of interest. But there was insufficient evidence for an arrest warrant. The gold had vanished and nobody was talking.

Behind the scenes, Mitchell sold the gold to California mobsters for only a fraction of its market value; fencing hot bullion is not easy. After Reid left temporarily for the United States, Mitchell and Wright, running short of cash, organized an airport drug smuggling racket with the aid of their baggage-handler contact. Things started to go wrong. The cocaine were intercepted by a sniffer dog. The baggage handler also ignored Mitchell’s advice and started to spend lavishly, buying a diamond ring, a motor-cycle and a boat. Picked up by police and questioned, he squealed on the others. Meanwhile, police who had wire-tapped Mitchell’s telephone overheard him talking about the sale of the airport gold.

In 1976, Mitchell and Wright each got 17 years for cocaine smuggling. Mitchell received an additional three years for possession of the stolen bullion. Reid, although not involved in the drugs deal, was picked up for escaping custody after he had returned to Canada. Identified in the airport heist, he received an additional ten years for armed robbery. As for the gold, only a small portion was ever recovered.

With the three behind bars, one would have thought this was the end of Reid, Mitchell and Wright. But their story had only just begun. Wright almost immediately escaped from the Ottawa Detention Centre and disappeared. Reid and Mitchell were both sent to the notorious, maximum-security Millhaven Penitentiary. There, the two worked hard to become model prisoners in an effort to get transferred to a more salubrious jail. Reid even took a hair-dressing course. It was a con. Out on a day-pass to visit a hair salon, the well-spoken, polite Reid reprised his earlier jail brake by convincing the accompanying policeman to stop for fish and chips. Saying he had to go to the bathroom, Reid vanished out the restaurant’s washroom window.

Mitchell too managed to escape from prison. He feigned a heart attack by poisoning himself with nicotine obtained by soaking cigarettes in water. Rushed to the hospital with chest pains, confusion and nausea, his ambulance was met by gowned hospital attendants. They were Reid and Wright. The armed duo locked Mitchell’s guards in the back of the ambulance, and transferred the near-comatose Mitchell to a Chevy van, and vanished into the night.

The trio made their way to the United States, hiding for a time in a cheap, Florida motel where Wright worked as a clerk under an assumed alias. In Florida, the gang began their crime wave, robbing a department store before shifting to banks. When things got too hot, they headed west. It was in California that the trio became known as the “Stopwatch Gang” hitting bank after bank with the same modus operandi. One man with a gun held up the place, another jumped over the counter and grabbed the cash, and a third drove the get-away car. All wore masks or disguises. One member of the gang typically carried a stopwatch around his neck. They were in and out in under two minutes.

After taking a short break, during which time Reid and Wright rented a luxurious cabin on a creek in Sedona, Arizona, the trio hit a Bank of America branch in San Diego, California in late September 1980. Mitchell was again the driver while Reid and Wright disguised with make-up, wigs, and fake beards held up the branch with an Uzi machine gun and a magnum revolver.  The gang made off with US$283,000 in cash.

In their haste to get away, Wright threw their wigs, empty money bags, stolen licence plates used to disguise the get-away car, and other incriminating evidence in a nearby dumpster. The material was later found by dumpster divers looking for cans who alerted the police. Investigators were able to find a partial fingerprint on one of the Bank of America money bags. Also found was a copy of the fake car licence Wright used to rent a car. The noose began to tighten around the gang.

The trio decamped to their Sedona hide-out to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. They seemingly fitted in well into the small community, and were even befriended by the local sheriff’s deputy. Reid took flight lessons and bought a plane. But FBI agent Steve Chenoweth and his colleagues were watching and waiting. Tipped off regarding their true identities, the partial fingerprint was sent to the RCMP in Canada for positive identification. With the identity of one of the gang members confirmed, a judge provided a warrant for their arrest on bank robbery and conspiracy charges. At the end of October 1980, Lionel Wright was arrested naked in bed in the Sedona hide-out. Stephen Reid was later stopped without a struggle as he drove to the airport to go flying. By chance, Mitchell was on holiday and escaped the police dragnet.

In April 1981, Wright and Reid pled guilty to the armed robbery of the San Diego Bank of America branch. The duo each received twenty-year sentences in federal prisons; their sentences were later reduced to ten years. Both were eventually transferred to Millhaven Penitentiary in Ontario to finish their time in Canada. Here, the story takes a novel twist. Reid began to write about his experiences, producing a semi-autobiographical book called Jackrabbit Parole. In a neighbouring cell, Wright typed the manuscript. The book caught the attention of Susan Musgrave, a noted Canadian poet and editor. Reid and she started to correspond. Later, they married in the prison chapel at Millhaven. By this time, the couple had become famous; the CBC television programme The Fifth Estate was invited to the ceremony. Reid was later moved to a British Columbian prison to be close to Musgrave. He was paroled in 1987 and for a time led a model life, raising a family with Musgrave on Vancouver Island. Writing appeared to have been his salvation.

As for the other two, Wright didn’t get out of jail until the mid-1990s. He then disappeared, this time permanently. Mitchell, who remained at large after Reid and Wright’s arrest in Sedona, went solo in the robbery business. Robbing department stores and banks from Florida to Arizona, Reid became number seven on the FBI’s most wanted list. He was described as “armed and dangerous and an escape risk.” Mitchell missed his two colleagues who had previously taken care of all those important heist details. He got sloppy and was finally tracked down in early 1983 to the small town of Astatula, Florida, and was apprehended by the FBI. He was transferred to San Diego to stand trial for the Bank of America heist as well as for the robbery of an Arizona Bank. He ended up in the Arizona State Penitentiary looking at decades behind bars. But after four years, he and two other inmates successfully broke out via a ventilation shaft. He fled to the Philippines, got married, and had a son. He supported his family through an occasional trip back state-side to rob more banks. His career finally came to an end in 1994 in the little town of Southaven, Mississippi when be bungled his last bank robbery. He got 30 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. In 2006, Mitchell died of cancer in a prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina, his request to be transferred to Canada denied.

The story of the Stopwatch Gang wasn’t quite over. Stephen Reid couldn’t adapt to his new life on the outside. Back on drugs, he held up a bank in 1999 with an accomplice in Victoria, British Columbia, making off with $93,000. In the ensuing chase, he fired shots at the police. He was apprehended and sentenced to eighteen years for armed robbery and attempted murder. Returned in prison, he resumed writing. In 2013, he published a collection of essays titled A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison. He is now out of jail living in British Columbia with Susan Musgrave who stood by her man despite everything.

 

Sources:

Story idea courtesy of André LaFlamme, Ottawa Free Tours, http://www.ottawafreetour.com/.

CBC, 2011. “My Friend The Bank Robber,” The Fifth Estate, 25 March, http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2010-2011/my-friend-the-bank-robber.

Citizen, (The), 1974. “Airport bandits escape with $165,000 in gold,” 18 April.

—————–, 1974. “Great gold caper baffles detectives,” 19 April.

—————–, 2006. “Paddy Mitchell’s dying wish,” 30 July.

—————–, 2014. “Ottawa Stopwatch Gang’s Stephen Reid is out of prison,” 19 February.

Dean, Josh. 2015. “The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang,” The Atavist Magazine, https://read.atavist.com/the-life-and-times-of-the-stopwatch-gang.

Meissner, Dirk, 2014. “Stopwatch Gang bank robber and author Stephen Reid denied full parole,” The Globe and Mail, 3 March.

Star Phoenix (The), 2007. “Time runs out on Stopwatch Gang leader,” 16 January.

Tuscaloosa News (The), 1995. “Bank robber proud of precision work,” 29 August.

Weston, Greg. 1992. The Stopwatch Gang, Macmillan: Toronto.

 

 

Ahoy-hoy Ottawa

9 November 1877

Even though one hundred and forty years have passed since Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a patent for the telephone, there is still bitter disagreement over whether he was truly the inventor of the device. Many others were working simultaneously in the field, including Antonio Meucci, Elisha Gray and Johann Reis. All have claims on being the telephone’s “father.” Even if priority of claim is accorded to Bell, the telephone is hardly an all-Canadian invention as many Canadians believe. According to Bell himself, the telephone was conceived in Brantford but developed at his workshop in Boston. Moreover, three countries can consider Bell to be one of their own as he was born in Scotland, moved to Canada in 1870, but subsequently became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Later, he divided his time between Canada and the United States, dying at his country retreat near Baddeck, Nova Scotia in 1922.

In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution (No. 269) drafted by Congressman Vito Fossella that in essence gave priority of claim to Antonio Meucci, an Italian inventor who had immigrated to New York in the nineteenth century, based on a patent caveat (a notice of an intention to file a patent) for a “sound telegraph” filed with the U.S. Patent Office in 1871. Worse still, the Congressional resolution insinuated that Bell had stolen Meucci’s invention.

Alexander Graham Bell Moffett Studio LAC C-017335

Alexander Graham Bell, late in life, Moffett Studio, Library and Archives Canada, C-017335.

Appalled by this slight on Canadian history and Bell’s integrity, the Canadian House of Commons responded ten days later by passing a parliamentary motion affirming Bell as the inventor of the telephone. While there is no evidence that Bell stole Meucci’s ideas, it’s true that Meucci had been working on developing a similar instrument for some years. However, his patent caveat application did not describe an ability to transmit voices. Unable to afford the small fee to maintain his position, Meucci let his patent caveat lapse.

On the same day that Bell’s lawyer filed a patent application at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. in February 1876, Elisha Gray submitted a patent caveat for his telephone. The two submissions were remarkably similar. While many accounts say Bell’s submission beat Gray’s by two hours, it’s not clear which got to the Patent Office first. A contrary view has Gray getting his application in ahead of Bell only for it to end up at the bottom of an “In” basket. Regardless, under the law at the time who got to the Patent Office first mattered less than who could demonstrate that he came up with the idea first. Bell successfully made his case to the patent examiner, and was awarded U.S. patent #174,465 in March 1876 for “The method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically…by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.” His case was strengthened by the fact that Gray withdrew his patent caveat and did not immediately challenge Bell’s claim.

Three days after receiving his patent, Bell produced a functioning telephone. While tinkering with a device at his Boston workshop, Bell’s famous words “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.” were heard by his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was working in a separate room down the hall. For that particular experiment, Bell had used a water-based transmitter similar to the one proposed by Gray in his patent caveat—providing Bell naysayers “proof” that he had lifted Gray’s idea. However, Bell never used this type of transmitter in public demonstrations, working instead on the electromagnetic telephone that he demonstrated at the Centennial Exposition in June 1876 in Philadelphia. As an aside, Bell recommended that people answering the phone should say “Ahoy-hoy” rather than “Hello.” This suggestion never caught on, though it did gain a following after its use by “Mr Burns” on the popular television cartoon series The Simpsons.

Needless to say, with the similarities between the Bell and Gray submissions, legal suits began to fly, especially after Gray re-submitted his patent application in 1877. But after two years of litigation, Bell was credited with the invention. This did not stop the legal challenges. Over the next decade, as it became increasingly apparent that there were huge profits to be had in the telephone industry and as new advances in telephone technology were made, the Bell Telephone Company, which was established in 1876 by Bell, his father-in-law, and a Boston financier, was embroiled in hundreds of patent challenges. Some of these law suits went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A U.S. Congressional study into the telephone was also undertaken in 1886. Despite all the hearings and all the law suits, the Bell Telephone Company emerged triumphant, its patent rights confirmed.

North of the U.S. border, Alexander Graham Bell received Canadian patent #7,789 for his telephone in August 1877. Canadians did not appear to be greatly impressed by the new technology. In early 1878, The Globe newspaper ran an article posing the question Is the telephone a failure? While saying that the invention was “awe-striking” and that it “had faced little popular or scientific hostility,” the newspaper opined that the telephone had serious operational problems, in, particular interference from other lines and “leakage” that led to “the force of the voice to be lost.” Just as we have concerns today about internet security, the newspaper also fretted about telephone security; telephone lines could be easily tapped.

Alexander Melville Bell, the inventor’s father, wrote a blistering riposte, saying that he regretted “that it should be necessary to defend the merits of so original an invention against the pretensions of pottering envy and wise-after-the-event detraction.” Bell senior called the telephone “a triumphant success,” and that they were “learning and improving,” noting that the problem with interference with other wires had already been remedied.

Notwithstanding this stout defence of his son’s invention, there were no Canadian buyers for Bell’s Canadian patent rights when they came on the market. In 1879, Bell senior, to whom his inventor son had earlier given his Canadian patent rights, could not find a Canadian buyer willing to pay his $100,000 asking price. (This is equivalent to about $2.5 million today.) Instead, he sold them to the National Bell Telephone Company of Boston that was later to be become the American Bell Telephone Company. The American company in turn established the Bell Telephone Company of Canada, based in Montreal, under a federal charter at the end of April 1880.

Ottawa’s introduction to the new communications technology occurred in the fall of 1877. After a demonstration of the telephone at the Ottawa Agricultural Exposition in September of that year by William Pettigrew, a friend of Bell senior, the first telephone line was installed on 9 November 1877, linking the office of Alexander Mackenzie, the Premier of the Dominion of Canada, in his capacity as the Minister of Public Works to the office of Lord Dufferin, Canada’s Governor General, at Rideau Hall. It was a private line. Telephone exchanges that would allow multiple people to be connected to each other through an operator were still in the future.

The contract between Bell senior and the Premier called for the installation of two wooden hand telephones #18 and #19 and two wooden box telephones, #25 and #26, at a fee of $42.50 per annum, payable in advance, due annually on 21 September each year. While the lease was executed on 9 November, the lease was backdated to 21 September so that the honour of Canada’s first telephone lease could go to the government. In actuality, the first Canadian commercial telephone lease was signed by Hugh Cosset Baker, an entrepreneur in Hamilton, Ontario, with the District Telegraph Company in October 1877. The telephone line linked Baker’s office to that of a colleague.

Dave Allston, in his Ottawa blog titled The Kichissippi Museum, recounts a delightful story of the first telephone test call between Rideau Hall and Mackenzie’s office. It seems that Mackenzie’s private secretary, William Buckingham, who was stationed at Rideau Hall for the test, was so rattled by hearing the Premier’s voice coming out of a wooden box, that he flubbed reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Admonished by the Premier, he was forced to repeat himself. Following that embarrassing introduction, the Premier and the Governor General spoke to each other for the first official telephone call.

Makenzie was not terribly impressed with the new-fangled communications instrument owing to its unreliability. It must also have been awkward to use; the same hole was employed for both listening and talking. But when the Premier asked for the telephone to be removed, he was overruled by the Governor General. Apparently, Lady Dufferin, the Governor General’s formidable consort, was much taken with the telephone. According to a 1961 Citizen article she would sing and play the piano into the phone to people at the Premier’s office. Captain Gourdeau of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards would sing back to her.

With the invention of the telephone exchange—the first exchange in Canada (and, indeed, the first in the British Empire) was installed in 1878 in Hamilton, Ontario—a telephone service similar to what we know today was made possible. In the major Canadian cities, service was initially provided by two competing companies—the Dominion Telegraph Company that marketed Bell equipment and the Montreal Telegraph Company that marketed Edison equipment. This competitive struggle between the two companies paralleled the patent war underway at that time in the United States between the Bell Telephone Company that naturally used Bell equipment and the Western Union Telegraph Company that used Edison equipment. Inconveniently to telephone users, subscribers of one service could not make or receive telephone calls from the other service. The Dominion Telegraph Company opened its Ottawa telephone exchange managed by Warren Soper in January 1880. Its first telephone directory consisted of two pages with less than 80 subscribers. The Montreal Telegraph Company followed suit a month later with its Ottawa office managed by Thomas Ahearn.

Almost immediately after it was established in April 1880, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada purchased the Dominion Telegraph Company. Later that same year, it also acquired the Montreal Telegraph Company, thereby uniting the two large Canadian providers of phone services under one company, and in the process stopping the ruinous war between the two companies that brought them to the point of bankruptcy. In Ottawa, the new Bell Telephone Company was managed by Thomas Ahearn who later went on to fame and fortune as Ottawa’s electricity baron when he joined forces with Warren Soper to create the electrical firm called Ahearn and Soper.

Through the 1880s, the Bell Telephone Company successfully saw off other challengers in the Ottawa market through acquisitions and legal threats. Mid-decade, the company issued a public notice that it would prosecute anyone using the “Wallace” Telephone, or any other telephone provider that infringed on patents originally granted to Bell, Edison, Berliner, and others,” that were still in force and were owned by the Bell Telephone Company of Canada. Instead, the company advertised “instruments under the protection of company patents and are entirely free of risks of litigation.” Would-be buyers of competing equipment were also reminded that such telephones “will not be allowed to connect…into the Company’s lines or exchanges.” The announcement was signed by Thomas Ahearn, Bell’s agent in Ottawa.

By early 1886, Bell Telephone had roughly 400 telephone subscribers in Ottawa, and was growing rapidly. (There were 1,400 subscribers in Montreal.) In October the following year, direct long distance service between Ottawa and Montreal was inaugurated. Previously, callers were routed through Brockville and Prescott. Within weeks, a rapid increase in traffic led to plans for additional long distance lines. In 1888, new telephone poles were erected on Rideau Street and Sussex Avenue to replace old ones that were too short to carry the increasing number of wires. The Ottawa Journal complained that “a telephone company has been stringing wires all over the streets at its own sweet will, without the slightest reference to any civic authority.”  In April 1900, Ottawa was the first Canadian city to do away with the old hand-cranked telephones. With batteries installed in a central office instead of in a customer’s telephone, a person could now reach an operator by simply picking up the receiver. The familiar, table-top telephone that would dominate the telephone scene for the next century had arrived.

Sources:

Allston Dave, 2015. “When the telephone arrived in Kitchissippi,” The Kitchissippi Museum, http://kitchissippimuseum.blogspot.ca/2015/10/when-telephone-arrived-in-kitchissippi.html.

Bell Homestead: National Historic Site, City of Brantford, 2016. Telephone History, http://www.bellhomestead.ca/history/Pages/TelephoneHistory.aspx.

BCE, 2016. History: From Alexander Graham Bell Until Today, http://www.bce.ca/aboutbce/history.

CBC Digital Archives, 2016. Canada Says Hello: The First Century of the Telephone, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/canada-says-hello-the-first-century-of-the-telephone.

Canadian Parliamentary Motion on Alexander Graham Bell, 2016. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Parliamentary_Motion_on_Alexander_Graham_Bell.

Casson, Herbert N. 1910. The History of the Telephone, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/819/819-h/819-h.htm.

Globe (The), 1878. “Is The Telephone A Failure,” 4 January.

———, 1878. “The Telephone,” 12 January.

———, 1883. “Discovery of the Telephone: Interview with Pref. Bell,” 1 September.

Globeandmail.com. 2016, Bell Canada: The History of One of Canada’s Oldest Companies, http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/v5/content/features/BellIncomeTrust/bell_incometrust.html.

Mccord Museum, Operator. May I help you?: Bell Canada’s 125 years, http://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca.

Motherboard, 2012, No-one remembers who invented the telephone,” 17 July, http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/alexander-graham-bell-did-not-invent-the-telephone.

Ogle. E. B. 1979. Long Distance Please: The Story of the Trans-Canada Telephone System, Toronto: Collings Publishers.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1961. “Line Veterans Revive Old Days,” 28 October.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1886. “Public Notice,” 1 February.

—————-, 1886. “Ottawa to Montreal,” 21 April.

—————-, 1886. “Montreal and Ottawa,” 22 July.

—————-, 1887. “Another Telephone Line,” 22 November.

—————-, 1888. “The Overhead Network Growing,” 5 June.

—————-, 1888. “Civic Notes,” 25 June.

Stritof, Bob and Sheri, 2006. “Who Really Invented The Telephone,” Telephone Tribute, http://www.telephonetribute.com/telephone_inventors.html.

Uren, Janet, 2006. “The man who lit up Ottawa,” Ottawa, http://wordimage.ca/files/Ahearn.pdf.

U.S.Patent Office, 1876. Improvements in telegraphy, Patent #174465, 7 March.