11 September 1899
At the end of the nineteenth century, the world stood at the cusp of the automobile age. For decades, inventors, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs in Europe and North America had been working hard on developing a vehicle that could be driven on streets and highways without the aid of horses or other draught animals. In 1875, l’Obéissante, a steam-driven vehicle invented by Amédée-Ernest Bollée of France, which could carry twelve passengers, travelled from Le Mans to Paris in eighteen hours. Ten years later, Karl Benz invented the Motorwagen, the first automobile with a gasoline-powered engine. The first International Motor Show was held in Berlin in 1897. Also that year, battery-powered, electric automobiles, nicknamed “hummingbirds,” were introduced as taxis in London. According to the Annuaire Generale de l’Automobile, there were about 10,000 vehicles in Europe in 1899, of which roughly two-thirds were in France.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Duryea Brothers built their first internal combustion car in 1893. Three years later, Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds started production of gasoline-driven automobiles. In June 1899, there were only 72 automobiles in New York City, most of which were electric hansom cabs. In 1900, total U.S. vehicle production topped 4,000, with some 8,000 automobiles on American roads. By 1910, U.S. car production, led by the Ford and Buick companies, had ramped up to almost 130,000 units.
Canadians too were busy. Henry Seth Taylor, born in Stanstead, Quebec in 1833, is credited with building the first car in Canada, a four-wheeled steam buggy that he demonstrated at the Stanstead Fair in 1867. Sadly, it was not successful, and Taylor turned his attention to other inventions. In 1893, William Still and Frederick Featherstonehaugh built an electric automobile in Toronto that had a top speed of 15 miles per hour, and was showcased at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition of that year. Three years later, George Foot Foss of Sherbrooke, Quebec built a four-horsepower, one-cylinder, gasoline-powered vehicle, later dubbed the “Fossmobile.”
Warren Y. Soper, the partner of Thomas Ahearn in Ottawa’s electricity business that owned the Ottawa Electric Company and Ottawa’s tram system among other things, was an early automobile investor. He was one of a group that bought out Canada’s leading bicycle companies in 1899 to create the Canadian Cycle and Motor Company (CCM) that operated out of Toronto. While primarily a bicycle company, the new firm under President Walter Massey also began to produce automobiles, including the electric Ivanhoe from 1901-1904 and the Russell, an electric, two-passenger runabout produced from 1903 to 1916 by a CCM subsidiary, the Russell Motor Car Company. The Russell is considered Canada’s first, successful, production automobile.
At the turn of the century, the automobile was still a rich man’s toy. Cars were custom-made in very small workshops, and could easily cost $2,000-2,500, many times the average worker’s annual income. Assembly-line production, which was to lower the price of an automobile to within the grasp of the middle class, was still a decade or more in the future. But for the wealthy seeking a mode of transportation, an automobile was competitive with a traditional two-horse carriage. It also had the allure of a status symbol. In 1899, the Ottawa Journal noted that to own and operate a two-horse carriage in New York would cost $120 per month or more, excluding the cost of purchasing a “flash carriage.” This monthly bill, included $30 for the upkeep of each horse plus an additional $5-15 for shoeing and veterinarian bills, and a further $40 to pay the wages of a full-time coachman. By comparison, one could lease an automobile, complete with driver, for $180 per month, including the cost of repairs. In fine aristocratic style, the chauffeur could wear private livery while the lessee’s crest or monogram could be painted on the doors of the vehicle. Automobiles were also more spacious that horse-drawn carriages, and could go for longer distances.
When Ottawa got its first glimpse of the horseless carriage is a bit murky. A 1912 Ottawa Evening Journal article stated that first first automobile to grace Ottawa’s streets was a De Dion in 1898, driven by Harry Ketchum, the owner of an Ottawa bicycle company, who had imported it from France. The one-cylinder vehicle, which had four spoke wheels, was described as a cross between a bicycle and an automobile, with something like a bicycle seat for the driver and a passenger seat “located dangerously near the front wheels.” However, there was no mention of the vehicle in the 1898 press. Moreover, the following year, when Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street on 11 September 1899 in an electric automobile, the Journal described the car as Ottawa’s first.
Ahearn had imported the electric vehicle from Chicago. Earlier that year, he and W.W. Wylie, the manager and chief mechanic of the Ottawa Car Company, another firm owned by Ahearn and Soper that manufactured electric streetcars on Slater Street, had gone to an automobile show at Madison Square Gardens in New York. The two men were captivated by what they saw. The automobile they ordered was a two-seater, electric buggy with pneumatic tires that could run at five speeds, ranging from 2 to 15 miles per hour. It had a range of 50 miles on a single charge. The make of the vehicle was not reported.
The Journal said that the vehicle looked like an ordinary carriage except for the fact that there was a steering lever in front of the seat, and a brake rising through the floor in front of the dashboard. The storage battery was hidden within the body of the vehicle, with a meter in front of the driver showing the amount of charge available. Two buttons under the seat allowed the driver to turn on and off the current “at will.” The vehicle was also key-controlled to prevent it from being operated if left unattended. The keyhole was located under the seat. The automobile’s gearing, covered and dust-proof, was attached to the bottom of the carriage at the real axle. The vehicle weighed 1,000 pounds, and cost $1,600.
On that Monday morning, Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street in front of hundreds of people who admired the passage of the swift and silent automobile. Seated beside Ahearn was Alexander Burritt, Ottawa’s City Registrar, who Ahearn chauffeured to his office—Ottawa’s first commute by car. Later that day, Ahearn and his son Franklin took a spin out to Britannia to witness work on the streetcar line that was under construction. Afterwards, the vehicle was put on display at the 1899 Central Canada Exhibition.
While it may be uncertain whether it was Harry Ketchum or Thomas Ahearn who drove the first car on Ottawa’s streets, it appears that Ketchum sold the first car in Ottawa in 1902 to Dr Mark McElhinney, later secretary of the Ottawa Valley Motor Car Association, for $900. The make of the automobile is unknown. Ketchum also opened one of the first car dealerships in Ottawa. In early 1903, Ketchum & Company, which sold are repaired bicycles out of their premises in the Grant Building on the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Streets, offered for sale the “pick of the American market,” including the “celebrated Winton Touring Car, the Stanhope, and a full line of Ramblers.” At roughly the same time, Wilson & Company marketed the Pierce Motorette, a single cylinder, gas powered vehicle made by the Pierce Arrow Automobile Company of Buffalo, New York, out of its offices at 142-146 Bank Street. It later added to its range the Pierce Stanhope and the top of the line Pierce Grand Arrow, as well as a Ford touring car, an Olds runabout, an Oriental Buckboard and the “made in Canada” electric Ivanhoe.
Despite eye-popping prices that started at roughly $600, orders for automobiles came pouring in. By August 1903, there were fourteen cars on Ottawa streets, eighty by mid-1905. Colonel Hurdman was the talk of the town when he purchase a $3,000 Pierce Arrow from Wilson & Company in May 1904. The two-cylinder, 18-horsepower vehicle was the first of its kind in Ottawa. It could carry five passengers comfortably, two in front and three in the “tonneau.” The automobile was furnished with two burnished headlamps, and was painted blue and gold. It could travel 150 miles on one tank of gas.
Complaints about reckless drivers scaring horses and pedestrians alike also started to pour in. Recall that during these early years of motoring, people didn’t need to pass a government driving test in get behind a steering wheel. In August 1903, the Ontario government passed legislation restricting the speed of automobiles on any public highway within a town or city to 10 miles per hour. Racing was also forbidden, and when approaching a horse, the driver of an automobile had to exercise every reasonable precaution to prevent frightening the animal. The fine for the first offence was $25; subsequent offences could lead to one month in prison.
Motoring bodies also provided guidance to new drivers who were instructed to obey the rules of the road, keep to the right and pass only on the left, and to respect the 10 miles per hour speed limit. Motorists were also cautioned that vehicles did not have right-of-way at street crossings (this was before street lights), and not to drink and drive. Apparently, nine-tenths of automobile accidents at that time involved intoxicated drivers.
Of course accidents happened. The first automobile accident on Ottawa streets occurred at 10.30pm on 9 November 1903 when Joseph O’Grady of Britannia was run down by a car driven by Harry Ketchum at the corner of Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue) and Bank Street. After receiving immediate care from Allen’s Drugstore located at that corner, O’Grady was taken to the Water (Bruyère) Street Hospital to be treated for a broken leg. Ketchum said he was going “fairly slowly” when O’Grady, who had been waiting for a tram, walked onto the street in front of his automobile after failing to hear his horn. O’Grady did not blame Ketchum for the accident.
Needless to say, Harry Ketchum also received the first speeding ticket issued in Ottawa. In early June 1905, Constable Ethier charged him and Mr E.G. Shepherd with speeding and racing on Wellington Street. At their trial, the officer estimated that the two men were driving their vehicles in excess of 25 miles per hour, taking only seconds to traverse the distance between Kent and Bay Streets. Ketchum argued that the two cars could not have possibly been going faster than 10 miles per hour since Shepherd’s car was in poor condition. He brought in a professional chauffeur, Joseph Gentile, who had driven Shepherd’s car that same day to testify that the vehicle could not have exceeded the speed limit. Ketchum also testified that the two men had only pretended to have been racing. The judge, unable to arrive at any idea of the speed of the automobiles, dismissed the case.
While the introduction of the automobile and the demise of the horse and buggy had their drawbacks, including accidents, smells, and loud noises that disturbed the serenity of town and countryside, there were many positives, in addition, of course, to greater ease of travel and communication. Prior to the automobile, vast tracks of arable land were devoted solely to the production of fodder and grain to feed horses and other draught animals. It’s also often forgotten that animal waste posed serious pollution and disposal problems for cities. The spread of disease was another issue. As early as 1900, the Ottawa Journal reported the hope of the medical profession that “when automobiles glide through Ottawa streets and the horse is only used for pleasure,” that tetanus will almost completely disappear. The same article also hope that the arrival of the automobile would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It noted that in Paris where the automobile was already widely used, the proportion of accidents causing death involving automobiles was significantly lower than those involving horse-drawn vehicles.
Regardless of the pros and cons of the automobile, its allure proved irresistible. Within a few short years, the face of Ottawa was irrevocably changed. In 2011, there were 515,784 registered vehicles in Ottawa and 653,324 licensed drivers. Sadly that same year 3,690 people were injured in collisions with 25 fatalities.
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