16 August 1926
In 2026, Ottawa will celebrate its bicentenary, marking two hundred years from when General George Ramsey, 9th Earl of Dalhousie and Governor General of British North America, wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel John By advising By of his purchase of land for the Crown that contained the site of the head locks for the proposed Rideau Canal on the Ottawa river, and the suitability of the locality for the establishment of a village or town to house canal workers. Lord Dalhousie asked Colonel By to survey the land, divide it into 2-4 acre lots and rent them to settlers, with preference to be given to half-pay officers and respectable people. The rough-hewn community, which was subsequently hacked out of a hemlock and cedar forest, was quickly dubbed Bytown. Its name was changed to Ottawa in 1855, and two years later the town was selected as the capital of the Province of Canada by Queen Victoria.
To celebrate the centenary of its founding by Col. By, the City of Ottawa had a week-long, blow-out extravaganza in the summer of 1926. Although the official opening of the celebrations was on Monday, 16 August 1926, the fun actually began two days earlier on the Saturday with a range of sporting events wide enough to please the most die-hard sports fanatic. The Capital Swimming Club staged a centennial regatta in the Rideau Canal opposite the Exhibition Grounds—a daring event given the poor quality of Canal water. Swimmers from across Canada participated with five Dominion championships at stake. At Cartier Square on Elgin Street, four soccer teams competed for the McGiverin Cup with the Ottawa Scottish emerging the victor, beating the Sons of England with a 5-2 score in the finals. Also featured that day were track and field events, cycling, golf, baseball, tennis and a cricket match at the Rideau Hall cricket pitch.
The following day, there was a huge Garrison Church parade involving 3,000 soldiers including local regiments as well as the Queen’s Own Rifles from Toronto and the Royal 22nd Regiment from Quebec City who had been quartered in tents on the grounds of the Normal School on Elgin Street (now the Heritage Building of the Ottawa City Hall). The troops marched from downtown to Lansdowne Park where 15,000 people crowded into the stands for divine services. More than 50,000 people watched the soldiers march through the streets of Ottawa. That evening the band of the “Van Doos” gave a concert that was broadcast from the Château Laurier hotel.
The official opening ceremonies took place on the Monday morning on Parliament Hill in front of cheering thousands and “in the shadow of the nearly completed “‘Victory Tower.’” (The name for the Centre Block didn’t officially become the “Peace Tower” until the following year—the 60th anniversary of Confederation.) After much military pomp and pageantry, Sir Henry Drayton, delivered the opening speech in the absence of the Prime Minister, Arthur Meighan. He welcomed visitors to the Capital in the name of the Dominion of Canada. Mayor John Balharrie also greeted visitors and former Ottawa residents who had come home for the celebrations. To symbolized the granting to them of the “freedom” of the city, he released a coloured balloon that carried aloft a four-foot golden key. Messages of congratulations flooded into Ottawa from near and far. Three Governors General—Aberdeen, Connaught and Byng—sent telegrams, as did the Lord Mayor of London, and Jimmy Walker, the controversial and flamboyant Mayor of New York. Civic, provincial and federal politicians from across Canada did likewise.
After the official opening, sporting events occupied the rest of the day. That night, there was a military display and tattoo involving troops from all services in from of 12,000 spectators at Lansdowne Park. The chief feature of the night was the staging of a mock battle scene. As searchlights played over the field, the soldiers re-enacted the crossing of the “Hindenburg” line by Canadian troops in 1918. The mock machine gun action and field bombardment was apparently very realistic. So much so that many veterans experienced flash-backs of their time in the trenches. Also featured that night was a performance of the 1,000 voice Centenary Choir, platoon drills by the Royal 22nd Regiment, and gymnastics displays by cadets.
A highlight of Tuesday, the second day of the Centenary celebrations, was the unveiling of a stone memorial dedicated to Colonel By in a small a park located on the western side of the Rideau Canal just south of Connaught Square opposite Union Station. To the strains of Handel’s Largo, played by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guard, the memorial, which was covered by a Union Jack, was unveiled at noon. Mayor Balharrie presided. More than 2,000 people witnessed the solemn event. The bronze plaque on the side of the stone, which was intended to be the cornerstone of a much larger memorial, bore the inscription 1826-1926 In Honour of John By, Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Engineers. In 1826 he founded Bytown, Destined to Become the City of Ottawa, Capital of the Dominion of Canada. This memorial was unveiled in Centenary Year. (A larger memorial was never built. A statue of Colonel By sculpted by Joseph-Émile Brunet was eventually commissioned by the Historical Society of Ottawa and was erected in Mayor’s Hill Park in 1971.)
At Lansdowne Park, a multi-day western rodeo and stampede commenced with over 200 horses, 100 cattle, and dozens of cowboys from western Canada and the United States. Log rolling competitions took place on the Canal. That evening, an historical pageant was held involving 2,000 actors from service groups, theatre groups, and drama schools. The pageant began with a prologue depicting Confederation with Miss Canada seated on a throne exchanging greetings with Misses Provinces. After pledges of mutual support and loyalty, the provinces curtsied to Canada. This was followed by tableaux representing scenes from Ottawa’s history, including “The Spirit of the Chaudière,” depicting the region before the arrival of Europeans, “The Coming of the White Man,” “Pioneer Settlers,” “The Lumber Industry,” “Bytown and its Early Inhabitants,” “The First Election,” “Naming of the Capital,” “The Fathers of Confederation,” and, a finale where all joined together with the Centenary Choir to sing a closing anthem. The massed 1,000-member Choir accompanied by the G.G.F.G. band also performed a number of popular songs including, O Canada, Land of Hope and Glory, Alouette, Indian Love Song, and, of course, God Save the King.
The pageant got a mixed review. The Ottawa Citizen opined that it provided a “felicitous treatment of the historical episodes chosen for presentation,” but there was “room for improvement.” However, on balance, the pageant was “stimulating and educative.” The dancing was described as “effective.”
After the performance, street dancing was held from 11pm to 2am on O’Connor Street between Albert Street and Laurier to the tunes of two jazz orchestras. With the crush of people, there was little actual dancing though things got a bit better on subsequent nights. With massive crowds downtown, there was some minor trouble. The police arrested a number of young men for setting off firecrackers in the streets. Some had placed “torpedoes” on the street-car tracks that caused “terrific successive explosions” as the trams went over them. Police also acted to curb dangerous driving on the crowded city thoroughfares. Reportedly, louts also molested young women. Generally speaking, however, the street partying was carried out in good humour. A dozen youths organized an impromptu game of leap frog on Sparks Street between Bank and Elgin Streets.
Wednesday, 18 August, was declared a civic holiday by Mayor Balharrie, and more commemorative plaques were unveiled. In addition to non-stop sporting events, rodeo competitions and other fun activities at the Exhibition Grounds, one thousand guests attended a garden party at Rideau Hall. Although Lord Byng had left Ottawa to return to Britain, his term of office as governor general having just ended, he had given permission for the residence to be used as the venue for the civic birthday party celebration. Mayor Balharrie provided a massive four-tier cake decorated with silver foliage and tiny silver cupids. Guests received little boxes of cake bearing the inscription “A souvenir of Ottawa’s Centenary with the compliments of Mayor J. P. Balharrie.”
That evening, Ottawa’s merchants and businesses held the second of the week’s three parades. Starting in the Byward Market and ending at Lansdowne Park, the parade highlighted milestones of Ottawa’s commercial progress over the previous one hundred years. Among the many entries, the Producers’ Dairy’s float featured a huge milk bottle and milk maids. Camping equipment in 1826 and 1926 was the theme of the Grant Holden and Graham entry. Also in the parade was the largest shoe ever manufactured in Canada with six little girls seated inside it, courtesy of Ottawa’s boot and shoe stores. Representing the Ottawa Department Stores Association, four white horses with attendants dressed in white and yellow uniforms pulled a float bearing eight young women in long gowns. Not to be outdone, the A. J. Freiman entry, which was decorated in silver and flowers, was drawn by six white horses with six attendants dressed in white and blue livery. On board were five young ladies wearing period costumes. The Ottawa Electric Company float consisted of an (inaccurate) replica of Colonel By’s house. Instead of a pioneer’s log home as depicted, the Colonel’s actual home was made of stone.
With amusements and events continuing at the Exhibition Grounds, Thursday’s highlight was an “old timers’ parade. In front of immense crowds, historical floats, three bugle bands, three brass bands and one band of bagpipers wended their way slowly from the Byward Market, along Rideau and Sparks Streets before heading down Bank Street to Lansdowne Park. Old-time vehicles on display included an 1897 Oldsmobile and penny-farthing bicycles. Firefighters dressed in the red outfits of yore pulled hand reels or drove antique horse-pulled engines including the “Conqueror,” Ottawa first fire engine. There were also historical tableaux depicting the early days of the Ottawa Valley and Bytown, including Champlain and his men, the arrival of the Jesuits, the establishment of the first white settlement in the region by Philemon Wright, and the beginning of the lumber industry. Guests of honour in the parade included veterans from the Fenian Raids, the South African War and the Great War.
Centenary celebration wound down on the weekend but not before the finals of the stampede, more street dancing, this time in Hintonburg, more sporting activities, and a “Venetian Nights” boating event held on the Rideau Canal.
For those who hadn’t had their fill of fun and games, the Central Canada Exhibition opened immediately after the official ending of the centenary fun, prolonging the excitement for another week.
Both of Ottawa’s major newspapers covered in detail highlights of Ottawa’s first hundred years and centenary events, with each publishing extended supplements. The Evening Citizen boasted that its edition of 16 August weighed in at more than two pounds. It’s rival, The Ottawa Evening Journal ran a close second. In one regard, however, the Journal went one step further by publishing a fascinating prospective view of what Ottawa might look like on its bicentenary in 2026. Some of its guesses look pretty accurate. It predicted that Ottawa would have a population of 975,000 (actual number 934,240 in 2016) and that it would annex neighbouring communities. It also correctly forecast the elimination of the above-ground, cross-city train tracks and the replacement of the tram lines with buses. It even predicted a tunnel between LeBreton Flats and downtown used by electric trains!
Not surprisingly, however, the crystal-ball gazers got a lot of things wrong. The newspaper predicted that Canada would have a population of 100 million by 2026, and that the airplane would effectively eliminate the automobile as a mode of transportation. The paper also postulated that after decades of delay the great Georgian Bay Ship Canal would finally be completed in 1982, almost eighty years after the idea was first proposed, thereby making Ottawa a deep-water port with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. As well, given the region’s cheap hydro-electric power, the Journal envisaged a massive expansion of manufacturing in the Ottawa area, forecasting that the Capital would become the home of the largest Canadian plant for the manufacture of pleasure, commercial and air taxicabs. It also predicted the emergence of a large furniture manufacturing industry in Chelsea in West Quebec, and the construction of immense iron ore smelters in Ironside, just north of the old city of Hull, to process iron ore mined in the Laurentians.
For the Journal, the demise of manufacturing and the conversion of Ottawa into the primarily white-collar city that it is today were unimaginable.
The Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1926. Various issues, 14-24 August.
The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1926. Various issues, 14-24 August.