The Weatherhill Charivari

11 August 1881

An odd folk custom that was still practised in Canada during the nineteenth century was the charivari (sometimes spelled shivaree). Brought to North America from Europe, a charivari was an impromptu parade or demonstration in which participants banged on pots and pans, and made all sorts raucous noise in response to some local event. While sometimes of a jocular nature, a charivari could also be malign, voicing community disapproval of something that violated perceived norms of behaviour. For example, a “May-December” wedding might prompt a charivari where a crowd, usually consisting of drunken young men, would extort money from the couple. The payment of a few dollars was usually enough to pacify the mob and get them to move on, usually to the nearest drinking establishment.

Such was the case in early August 1881 when about forty young men held a charivari on the Richmond road on the occasion of the marriage of a Mrs. Grundy. Mrs. Grundy, who had already been married at least twice, aimed to marry again. According to press accounts, she had had two suitors for her hand, and there had been much speculation regarding whom she might choose. Her marriage to the elder suitor, who was also a widower, prompted a crowd of noisy revellers to demand late-night “entertainment” from the couple. The groom handled the situation by giving a $4 bill to the crowd which promptly repaired to the nearest public house, leaving the couple in peace.

Charivari ODC12-8-81

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 12 August 1881.

A few days later, another charivari took place in Mount Sherwood. This time, the outcome was far less benign. Mount Sherwood was a small community of about 1,000 inhabitants on the then outskirts of Ottawa. It was bordered by Concession Street (today’s Bronson Avenue) on the east, Emily Street (Gladstone Avenue) on the north, Division Street (Preston Street) on the west, and Dow’s Lake on the south.

At about 7 am on 11 August 1881, a distraught, middle-aged woman arrived at the Ottawa Police Station claiming that her husband had been killed after what we would today term as a home invasion. Unfortunately, as these events occurred in Mount Sherwood just beyond the Ottawa boundary, the police did not have jurisdiction. They didn’t even take her down her name.

Hearing the news, and receiving corroboration from another source, a Citizen reporter hurried to the scene to find fifty or so people standing around the body of an old man lying facedown in the roadway at the corner of Emily and Lisgar Streets (today’s Gladstone Avenue and Bell Street). The remains had been covered with cedar boughs to protect them from the sun but had otherwise been left untouched. The body was identified as that of James Weatherill, aged about 65, a retired dealer in country produce and cattle. Although something of a recluse, he was known as hard-working and honest, without any known enemies.

Weatherill, a two-time widower, who resided in neighbouring Rochesterville, had remarried the night before, taking Mrs. Dougherty, a widow, aged 45, as his bride in the nearby home of Mrs. Thomas Cooper on Emily Street, where Mrs Dougherty resided. The couple had been married shortly after 7pm in Mrs. Cooper’s sitting room by Rev. Mr. White of Mount Sherwood.

At about 8pm, a crowd of boys and young men came to the home, banging on pots and pans, and demanding money from the newly-wed couple who were in the home along with Mrs. Cooper and her four young children. Mr. Weatherill complied, giving the boys a dollar. Apparently satisfied, the crowd dispersed.

A couple of hours later, a second, far larger, alcohol-infused group of boys and men demonstrated in front of the home and demanded two dollars. At some point, stones were thrown at the house, breaking windows, causing minor interior damage and considerable distress among its residents.  But Weatherill refused to give in to the crowd’s demands, believing that to accede to this extortion would only encourage the rowdies. Instead, the Weatherills hid in the loft above a summer kitchen at the rear of the home, while Mrs. Cooper told the demonstrators that the couple had fled via a back door.

But the revellers insisted on searching the residence. Two entered the house, one being a neighbour named Hugh McMillan, finding the couple. McMillan advised Mrs. Weatherill to pay the $2. While she was willing to do so, her new husband called her an old fool and slapped McMillan in the face. McMillan left, and the charivari continued. At some point, although accounts are confused, a neighbour, Peter Potvin, threatened to beat or kill Weatherill, saying that the old man had insulted him.

In the wee hours of the morning, when the crowd had dwindled, both Mr. and Mrs. Weatherill went outside. Weatherall, in good spirits, began to chase four youths down Emily Street towards Concession Street. This was the last time his wife saw him alive. She had stopped to watch Mr. Potvin, who she later described to police as walking up and down the street like a mad man.

Subsequently, Mrs. Weatherill returned to her lodgings at Mrs. Cooper’s home. The fact that her husband did not follow, was not a cause of concern. She simply figured that he had gone to his own home on Rochester Street in Rochesterville, just a short distance away. It wasn’t until the next morning when Mrs. Weatherill decided to walk to her new husband’s residence to look for him that she discovered a crowd of people surrounding the lifeless body of her husband.

Newspapers far and wide were rightly appalled by the event. The Ottawa Daily Citizen thundered that “it was high time that the charivari business was put down by a strong hand.” It was a “disgrace to our modern civilization.” It added “It is terrible to contemplate that because a man refuses to meet the demands of his persecutors he may be cruelly beaten and left by the road side to die.” The London Free Press opined that “It is only necessary for a marriage to take place under some circumstances which some rude youths may deem to be irregular, for them to assemble together, and amidst hooting, horn-blowing, pan-beating and other discordant noises, insult the newly-married couple.” It added that in this particular case, the charivari had led to repeated demands for money, assault and death. The paper demanded special legislation against charivaris. The Hamilton Spectator, sniffed that the “advance of more refined feelings” had led to the charivari dying out in western Ontario. However, it was still the custom in eastern Ontario and “ought to be punished with the greatest severity.” The Quebec Chronicle recommended the lash.

A coroner’s inquest into Weatherill’s death was immediately called. As Mount Sherwood lacked a constable, the murder investigation was headed by Superintendent E. J. O’Neill of the Dominion Police. He and several of his men arrived later that morning to view the body.  The dead man was clad in a new suit of clothes, undoubtedly his wedding attire. In his pockets were $19 in bank notes and $1.70 in change. Robbery was clearly not a motive for his murder. While there were contusions on his head, the cause of death was not evident. The body was removed to Rogers’ undertaking establishment on Nicholas Street where three doctors conducted a post mortem. They concluded that James Weatherill had died owing to an “extravasation of blood between the membranes of the brain.”

After the post mortem was conducted, Weatherill’s remains were turned over to his widow. A wake was held in his Rochesterville residence on the Saturday, two days after his death. Rev. Mr White, the minister who married the couple, conducted the funeral. Weatherill was buried in the Beechwood Cemetery.

Suspicion immediately fell on the neighbour Peter Potvin who was quickly arrested by the Dominion Police and put in jail. But the evidence against him was purely circumstantial. Hugh McMillian, as well as the other man who had invaded Mrs Cooper’s home, later identified as Ruggles Brunel Jr., were also arrested but were released on $500 bail each—a very large sum of money at the time.

But the focus of the investigation quickly shifted to four charivari participants—James Kelly (age 20), Christopher “Pum” Berry (age 16), Robert McLaren Jr. (age 20) and James O’Brien (aged about 20). They were picked up that weekend. Berry and McLaren were arrested at their homes.  O’Brian and Kelly were found in Stewart’s Bush, a nearby heavily-wooded area.

Despite being cautioned by the police about incriminating themselves, the foursome quickly began blaming each other. The four admitted that they had been throwing stones at Mrs. Cooper’s house, and that Weatherill had chased them down Emily Street in the wee hours of 11 August. Reportedly, Berry told Superintendent O’Neill that Kelly and O’Brien had been throwing stones at Weatherill, and that Kelly had said “By God, we have killed him.” He also claimed that O’Brien had remarked that “the old man was as dead as a nail.” Kelly, however, said “I didn’t strike the old man.” He claimed that Weatherill struck McLaren with a stick, and that it was McLaren and Berry who had been throwing stones at the old man. Kelly added that he had wanted to throw stones but couldn’t find any. When O’Brien was arrested, he reportedly laughed at the police and told them to do their best. He said to Superintendent O’Neill, “You can lecture me if you like, but it is not a neck-snapping affair at any rate.” All four were charged with feloniously murdering and slaying one James Weatherill on 11 August 1881.

Shortly afterwards, Superintendent O’Neill accompanied by a company of Dominion policemen swept through Mount Sherwood arresting alleged charivari participants. More than a dozen boys and young men were taken to police headquarters in the East Block departmental building on Parliament Hill and charged with riotous conduct. All were released on bail. Among the arrested was one William McGrath, a stone cutter by trade, aged about 20, who spoke “openly and fearlessly of his conduct, free from any criminal intent, according to the Ottawa Citizen. William McGrath later became a City of Ottawa alderman.

Unlike today, justice moved swiftly in nineteenth century Ottawa. Three weeks after the fateful charivari, those charged with riotous conduct were found guilty and fined anywhere from $3 to $15, or one to two weeks in jail with hard labour.

The four charged with Weatherill’s murder were brought in front of the Carleton Assizes in October 1881. All pleaded not guilty. Representing the foursome were Mr. Gibb for James O’Brien, Mr. Ward for Christopher Berry, and Mr. William Mosgrove for James Kelly and Robert McLaren. The Crown was represented by Mr. Robert Lee, Q.C. and the prominent Ottawa lawyer and former mayor Richard W. Scott.

The defence lawyers were adroit. Dominion Police Superintendent O’Neill testified that he had known the four young men charged from infancy, and attested to their good character. Mr. Mosgrove argued that the evidence could not fix the cause of death on any of the prisoners. Moreover, he claimed that when Weatherill left the home of Mrs. Cooper and began to pursue the boys, he became the aggressor.

Most telling, however, was testimony from one of the three doctors who conducted the post mortem, who admitted under cross-examination that Weatherill’s death might have resulted from a number of causes. Besides being hit on the head with a stone or a blunt instrument, an “extravasation of blood” into the brain could have incurred through a fall or excitement. The fact that Weatherill’s body had been found lying close to a high, wooden sidewalk that crossed a small gully, gave credence to the possibility that his death might have been caused by a fall. There was also little doubt that Weatherill had been seriously vexed by the charivari.

The Crown contended that there was no doubt that Weatherill had been murdered. He had been in good health immediately prior to the charivari, and that it was plain that he met his death in a most violent and sudden fashion. Scott argued that it was ridiculous to say Weatherill brought his death upon himself by his attempt to drive off the rowdies. His actions to protect the lives of helpless women and children were natural and right. While the charge against O’Brien, Berry, Kelly and McLaren was murder, he did concede that the jury could bring in a verdict of manslaughter.

In his charge to the jury, the presiding judge said that a charivari was no excuse for rowdy conduct and condemned the practice. He also said Weatherill had not overstepped his rights when he left the house and gave chase to his tormentors.

After only two hours of deliberation, the twelve-man jury acquitted the four youths. Few in the courtroom were surprised.

Forty-five years later, now retired alderman William McGrath, who had been fined for his participation in the charivari, recounted the events surrounding Weatherill’s death in a lengthy interview to the Ottawa Citizen. While there were a number of discrepancies between his version of events and contemporaneous accounts, he credited the acquittals to the ability of defence lawyer, later judge, William Mosgrove.

 

Sources:

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1881. “Charivari,” 5 August.

————————–, 1881. “A Brutal Murder,” 11 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Latest Outrage,” 11 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Charivari Murder,” 13 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Fatal Charivari,” 15 August.

————————-, 1881. “Charivari Captives,” 16 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Mount Sherwood Affair,” 17 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Weatherill Murder,” 19 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Weatherill Murder,” 20 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Weatherill Murder,” 23 August.

————————-, 1881. “Weatherill Tragedy,” 24 August.

————————-, 1881. “Carleton Assizes,” 11 October.

————————-, 1881. “Carleton Assizes,” 15 October.

————————-, 1881. “Chaivari Charges,” 1 September.

————————-, 1926. “Tragic Weatherall (sic) Charivari, 6 March.

————————-, 1928. “Mt. Sherwood Had Origins In Subdivision 60 Years Ago,” 29 December.

 

 

The Last Timber Raft

8 July 1908

These days, Ottawa has become a synonym for “the government” much to the chagrin of the city’s residents. Newspapers constantly complain about things that “Ottawa” has done. This is understandable since government is the principal industry of the city. One in five jobs in the Ottawa-Gatineau area is with the federal government, a fraction that rises to one in four if you include other levels of administration. This wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the twentieth century, trees, not politics, were central to the economic prosperity of Ottawa, and of Hull, its sister community on the other side of the Ottawa River. Saw mills and pulp and paper factories which crowded the shores of the Ottawa River, especially in the Chaudière district, employed thousands. Communities the length of the Ottawa Valley also depended on the forestry business, felling and shipping logs to Ottawa and Hull for processing.

The lumber business in the Ottawa Valley began with Philemon Wright, the man from Woburn, Massachusetts who led the first Europeans to the region, settling on the north shore of the Ottawa River in 1800 in what would later be called Hull, Quebec. The settlers, initially intent on farming, discovered a pristine forest that stretched for as far as the eye could see. By one estimate, the untouched Ottawa Valley, in which the land’s indigenous people had liven in harmony for countless generations, comprised 28 million acres of dense woodland. The settlers quickly turned to exploiting this vast and seemingly inexhaustible resource, containing more than 500 billion board feet of valuable timber (A board foot is a measure of lumber volume, being one foot by one foot by one inch.)

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Hauling Logs in the Ottawa Valley, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada

This ancient woodland was very different from what little remains of the Valley’s forest today. It was estimated that roughly one half of the original forest was made up of white and red pine. A further 45 per cent consisted of other soft woods, such as spruce, balsam and hemlock. The remaining 5 per cent of the woodland was maple, oak, basswood and other species of hard woods. The old-growth trees were also enormous by today’s standards, with stands of white pine rising more than 100 feet.

In June 1806, Philemon Wright navigated the first log raft, christened the Columbo, from the confluence of the Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers down the Ottawa to the St. Lawrence and on to market in Quebec City for sale to the Royal Navy. At that time, Britain was fighting Napoleon’s France. With Britain’s usual Baltic supply of Norwegian pine cut off due to a French blockade, it looked to Canada’s white (sometimes referred to as yellow) pine as a replacement. The tall, straight, first growth trees made ideal masts and spars for its naval vessels.

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The assembling of a timber raft on the Ottawa River below Parliament Hill, Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-00843.

To get the timber to Quebec City, Irish and French lumbermen squared the pine logs. The “sticks,” as they were called, were pulled by teams of horses over greased slides to be launched into the water. There, they were bound together to form cribs using withes, strong, flexible branches of birch and alder. Four cribs made a band. The bands were joined together to assemble a raft. On the raft were cabins to house a crew of thirty or more men. The captain had his own quarters, sufficiently commodious to accommodate the occasional passenger. There was also a cook-house to prepare food and to brew tea.

Travelling down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers on a log raft was difficult and perilous, especially during the early days before timber slides were built so that rafts could circumvent fast water. The first such slide was built in 1829 by Ruggles Wright, the son of Philemon Wright, on the north side of the Ottawa River to pass logs around the Chaudière Falls, known in English as the Giant Cauldron. Other rapids that had to be bypassed on the way to Quebec City were found at Long Sault near Cornwall, and Lachine, both on the St. Lawrence.

Even with the construction of timber slides to ease their passage, the big rafts had to be broken down into component cribs before entering a slide, and reassembled afterwards. The journey from Ottawa to Quebec City could take a month or more. However, it wasn’t all hard work, at least for the owners. It is reported that lumber barons hosted large parties of MPs and senators to lunches of pork and beans before departing Ottawa. Also, along the way, raft captains entertained lavishly at various stops during the voyage.

Once in Quebec City, the big timber rafts were disassembled in nearby coves, and sold to waiting British merchants for shipment to Liverpool and other British ports.

In 1836, the Ottawa Valley Lumber Association was formed in Bytown, with meetings held in Doran’s Hotel, the town’s chief waterhole of the age. Early lumbermen included James Skead, David Maclaren, J.S. Currier, and the Buchanan brothers, Andrew and Charles. While the square timber trade was generally very profitable, it was also precarious. John Egan, for whom Eganville, Ontario is named, was a power in the timber trade during the mid-nineteenth century, but went bankrupt in 1854 when prices unexpectedly fell.

The era of the square timber raft peaked during the 1840s, and steadily waned thereafter. Mid-century, Britain adopted a free-trade economic policy thereby eliminating a trade preference enjoyed by Canadian timber producers since the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Navy’s demand for Canadian pine also declined as the age of sail gave way to steam.

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Cook house on a timber raft, Andrew Auborn Merrilees Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, ID No. 3277723.

But Ottawa’s lumber industry adapted. Demand for Canadian sawn timber rose in the rapidly growing eastern cities of New York and Boston. U.S. entrepreneurs, such as Captain Levi Young, Franklin Bronson, Ezra Eddy, and J.R. Booth, established sawmills on the shores of the Ottawa River, harnessing its fast-flowing water to power their large timber saws. In 1874, 424 million board feet of timber were cut in Ottawa-area sawmills, along with a further 25 million board feet of square timber. The biggest lumber producer at that time was the E.B. Eddy Company whose output amounted to 55 million board feet. Close behind was Gilmour and Company which produced another 50 million board feet. J.R. Booth’s company cut a further 22 million board feet of timber.

By 1902, 613 million board feet of timber were being produced by nineteen sawmills in the Ottawa Valley. J.R. Booth had vaulted into the number one spot, producing an amazing 125 million board feet of timber. His sawmill was reportedly the largest in the world, able to produce more than 1 million board feet of sawn timber in one eleven-hour day.

As the supply of white and red pine in the Ottawa Valley rapidly diminished, Ottawa’s lumber business turned increasingly to pulp and paper production, making use of the spruce and balsam firs which hitherto had been considered of little value. In 1878, E.B. Eddy constructed the first mechanical pulp mill for the manufacture of fibre products. By 1908, E.B. Eddy was producing 160 tons of pulp every day. In 1926, Eddy built a massive sulphite chemical pulp mill in Hull immediately across the Ottawa River from the Parliament buildings.

Timber slide, Royal Party, 1901, Charles Barkley Powell fonds, LAC ID3194381

The Duke of Cornwall and York and the Royal Party taking a ride on a crib through the Chaudière log slide, 1901, Charles Berkley fonds, Library and Archives Canada, ID No. 3294381.

Owing to waning demand for square timber, and a declining supply of big pine trees, fewer and fewer timber rafts made their way from Ottawa to Quebec City by the end of the nineteenth century. The few that did attracted much attention as the big timber rafts were broken up to make the trip through the government timber slide at the Chaudière Falls before being reassembled below the Parliament buildings for the next leg in their journey to the old capital. Timber rafting became a tourist and spectator sport. An exhilarating trip through the timber slide on a crib became a de rigueur experience for visiting dignitaries. In 1901, the Duke of Cornwall and York, later King George V, took the plunge, just as his father had in 1860.

The last square timber raft to leave for Quebec City from Ottawa began its journey in mid-June 1908 from the upper reaches of the Ottawa River. The Ottawa Citizen reported that the largest raft in years, totally 135 cribs, owned by J.R. Booth, had descended the Black River in Quebec. The newspaper advised people who wished to see the sight of it shooting the Grand Calumet slide upstream on the Ottawa River to take the CPR train to Campbell’s Bay and the stage to Bryson, Quebec.

On or about 8 July 1908, this last timber raft was ready for its transit through the government slide at the Chaudière Falls. We know this date from newspaper accounts of an inquiry into a hit and run accident that occurred in Ottawa. The suspect, a hackman, F.J.X. Lascelles, had been hired on 8 July to work on Booth’s timber raft going to Quebec City. Another newspaper account two days later advised people to go watch the running of the cribs through the Chaudière timber slide then underway as it was “probably the last [timber raft] that will ever pass down the Ottawa to Quebec City.” Hundreds of spectators took the newspaper’s advice to watch the event. After passing through the slide, the cribs were reassembled below the Parliament buildings into the log raft for its voyage to Quebec City under the direction of pilot Ephrem Lalonde, a raftsman of more than forty years’ experience.

The Ottawa Citizen remarked that this was the end of the adventurous method of transporting timber which had been the most picturesque feature of the timber industry. Subsequent loads of timber were transported by rail.

After peaking during the beginning the twentieth century, the Ottawa Valley timber industry entered a long decline as its supply of wood dwindled. By the mid-1920s, it was estimated that less than four percent of the Ottawa Valley’s original, old-growth forest remained, consisting of not more than 10 billion feet of pine of saw-sized timber, with a further 5 billion feet of other soft woods and 4 billion feet of hard woods. Secondary growth of soft and hard woods was deemed suitable only for pulp and firewood.

Lumbermen looked back in dismay at the wasteful practices of the past. Squaring logs led to the wastage of more than one-third of the wood. Giant hemlocks were cut down solely for their bark used for tanning leather, the wood left to rot where the trees were felled. Land clearances for farms destroyed countless acres of valuable timber. The dead branches and brush from cut trees also provided the fuel for massive forest fires that destroyed valuable stands of timber.

timber-raft-of-booth-topley-lac-id-no.138219

J.R. Booth’s timber raft, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, 138219. With the completed Alexandra bridge in the background, this picture dates from no earlier than 1901. Quite possibly, it is a photograph of the last timber raft to go from Ottawa to Quebec City in 1908.

Today, the lumber and paper mills of Ottawa-Hull are mostly gone. The J.R. Booth Company was bought out by E.B. Eddy in 1943, the first of many mergers and closures. Domtar acquired the E.B. Eddy mills in Ottawa and Gatineau in 1998, and permanently closed them in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The site of the big Eddy pulp mill on the north shore of the Ottawa River across from Parliament Hill is now the location of the Canadian Museum of History. All that is left is the former Eddy paper mill on Laurier Street in the Hull sector of Gatineau. The mill has been owned by Kruger, a Quebec-based forest product company since 1997.

Although the lumber industry was the backbone of the Ottawa economy for close to two hundred years, providing jobs for thousands, the prosperity that it generated came at a high environmental cost. The industry irrevocably altered the landscape of the Ottawa Valley with the destruction of virtually all of its original woodland. It also had serious negative consequences for the Ottawa River. Dams built to control water levels to facilitate the transport of logs and to power the sawmills disturbed fish habitats. Sunken logs, and saw dust, routinely dumped into the river, along with chemicals from the pulp and paper mills, and untreated city effluents, polluted the water, killed fish, and brought disease.

Fortunately, with the closure of most of the mills and more effective treatment of city sewage and runoff, water quality in the Ottawa River is improving. However, the extent of the improvement is not known. According to the Ottawa Riverkeeper, water quality monitoring is piecemeal throughout the Ottawa River watershed, and there is no program in place to monitor the quality of water in the Ottawa River over time.

A lasting legacy of Ottawa’s lumbering past is the ring dam at the Chaudière Falls. Once used to make electricity to drive the sawmills, it now produces clean energy to help power downtown Ottawa. While the once dirty industrial area has been greened and opened to the public, the dam’s continued presence remains controversial.

Forestry continues in the Ottawa Valley, though on a much-reduced scale from its glory days. Its focus today is on sustainable forestry practices that respect not only the economic value of the forest but also its cultural and ecological significance.

Sources:

Canadian Museum of History, 2020. The Timber Trade, https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/canp1/ca14eng.html.

Hirsch, R. Forbes, 1985. The Upper Canada Timber Trade: a sketch, Bytown Pamphlet No. 14, Historical Society of Ottawa.

Ottawa Citizen, 1908. “Big Raft Coming,” 15 June.

——————, 1908. “Comment,” 10 July.

——————, 1908. “Police Doing Clever Work,” 17 July.

——————, 1926. “For Over One Hundred Years District Has Been Greatest Lumber Producer In Canada,” 16 August.

——————, 1936. “Had Exciting Adventure On A Journey To Quebec On A Raft,” 15 February.

——————, 2006. “Kruger to change Scott names as Kimberly-Clark deal ends,” 11 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1976. “Great timber trade began on Hull side,” 27 September.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2020. Water Quality and Quantity, https://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/ottawa-river-water-quality/.

OttawaRiver.org, 2005. A Background Study for Nomination of the Ottawa River Under the Canadian Heritage Rivers System – 2005, https://ottawariver.org/pdf/01-intro.pdf.

Outaouais’ Forest History, 2020. http://www.histoireforestiereoutaouais.ca/en/.

Whitton, Charlotte, 1967. “The Ottawa: My land of the white pine tree,” Ottawa Citizen, 27 June.

Caplan’s

31 July 1984

On Tuesday, 31 July 1984, Caplan’s department store, a Rideau Street landmark for almost seventy years, closed its doors for the last time. Many were confused regarding its date of closure. The Ottawa Citizen had erroneously reported that the store had shut the previous Saturday. It subsequently issued a correction apologizing for its error.

The department store had been the life work of Caspar and Dora Caplan. Caspar had arrived in Ottawa from Lithuania in 1892 with only 63 cents in his pocket. On his first day in business as a door-to-door salesman, he reportedly sold some pens to a lady. It was a propitious sale. The lady in question remained a customer for the rest of her long life.

Caplan travelled around the city and outlying communities selling “small wares” from the back of his horse and buggy. With money scarce, he did a lot of his business through barter, exchanging his goods for dairy and farm produce.

From that small acorn did the mighty oak that was to become Caplan’s Department Store grow.

In 1897, Caspar Caplan married Dora Roston of Montreal. As a newly-married man, the life of an itinerant salesman no longer suited. In 1899, the couple opened a bricks-and-mortar shop in LeBreton Flats on Queen Street West. Sadly, their building burnt down in the Great Fire of 1900, forcing Caplan back onto the road.

In 1904, he and his wife opened another store, grandly called the Ottawa and Hull House Furnishing Company, at 491 Sussex Street in the building which later became the Jeanne d’Arc Institute. (The institute, which was operated by an order of nuns established by Mère Marie Thomas d’Aquin, became a boarding house for young, working women from 1917 to 1980. Today, the edifice is a registered Canadian heritage building.) The Caplans’ small store, with floor space amounting to only 750 square feet, sold men’s and ladies’ fashions on the main floor, and linoleum in the basement. The couple had an apartment above their shop. Rent, amounting to $35 per month, included a stable for their horse.

Business boomed for the young, enterprising couple. Sussex Street was a thriving commercial area during the early 1900s, close to the Bytown market, hotels and boarding houses. On payday, people converged on the Caplans’ store to spend their hard-earned money. They were always warmly greeted, often by name. The store also appealed to those short of ready cash as the firm was an early adopter of the “weekly payment” business, a form of installment credit. This was a risky venture as there were no credit agencies back in those days. Credit was extended on the basis of personal knowledge of their customers and trust.

Caplan's old store on Rideau OJ 24-4-65

The original Caplan’s store at 135 Rideau Street before it expanded, circa 1916, Ottawa Journal, 24 April 1965.

The prospering company moved to larger quarters down the road at 557 Sussex Street in 1908. The new premises had 2,250 square feet of floor space. An arc electric light lit the street outside of the store. At that time, the expanding firm added a furniture department to its list of retail offerings.

Eight years later, the Caplans moved again. This time to their 135 Rideau Street location which was to be their address for the next sixty-eight years. The store was incorporated at the beginning of 1916 with a capitalization of $50,000.

The department store was dealt a serious setback in 1917 when a fire of unknown origin, swept through its furniture department. While the blaze was quickly extinguished, more than $15,000 damage was caused which was only partially covered by insurance. Undeterred, the Caplans persevered.

Caplan’s department store flourished through the Roaring Twenties, and even through the Great Depression. In 1928, two new departments were added—shoes and children’s clothing. An elevator was also installed. Two years later, more land was purchased, with a big modernization program launched, both internally and externally. In 1937, a mezzanine floor was added for office space. The store also began to sell furs and electrical appliances. A toy department was added in 1938.

Plans to incorporate the adjoining building into the department store were put on hold owing to the beginning of World War II, and the illness of Caspar Caplan who retired from the business, leaving the operation of the department store in the hands of his wife Dora and their two sons, Samuel and Gordon. When Caspar died in 1943, Dora Caplan took over as president of the company.

After the war and through the 1950s, Caplan’s continued to expand. In 1948, the company acquired the next-door premises. The first phase of a massive expansion plan was completed in 1951. New departments were added—cosmetics, costume jewellery, draperies, kitchenware, woollens, linen and chinaware in 1953, unpainted furniture, outdoor garden supplies, televisions and “wheeled” goods in 1954. The external look of the building was also modernized with the addition of a marble veneer. By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1955, the store had about 45,000 square feet of floor space.

caplan-building-in-1911-lac-pa-005899

The first Caplan store was located in the white building with awnings on the right. The department store later purchased the central brick building with the arched windows. When this photo was taken in 1911, the building housed a dentist and a branch of the Bank of Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada, PA-005899.

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Undated photograph of the modernized Caplan’s façade decorated for Christmas, Ottawa Jewish Archives.

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Caplan’s department store ready for demolition, 2003, Ottawa Citizen, photo by Brigitte Bouvier

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Replica Rideau Street façade of the old Caplan’s Department Store at 135 Rideau Street, Google Streetview.

The store built its reputation of three things: reliable merchandise; a money-back guarantee for unsatisfactory goods; and excellent customer service. Caplan’s was one of the first Ottawa stores to provide parking facilities for its customers—a major plus in an era of growing automobile ownership.

Caplan’s was also known for its good management-employee relations. The firm was reportedly one of the first in Ottawa to move to a five-day work week. Staff had their own recreation association as well as a bowling league. The company also sponsored social events. In the years before provincial health care, Caplan’s provided employees with a low-cost hospital plan as well as life insurance.

The Caplans were also active in the community. Caspar Caplan was a founder of both the Jewish Community Council and of the Adath Jeshuran Synagogue, of which he was president from 1930 to 1935. Samuel Caplan followed in his father’s footsteps, and was the synagogue’s president during the 1950s. Gordon Caplan was active in the Kiwanis Club, the Ottawa Better Business Bureau, and was a founding member of the Rideau Street Merchants’ Association.

Despite ongoing efforts to keep pace with changing times, Caplan’s, like all of Ottawa’s big downtown department stores, began to lose ground during the 1960s and 1970s due to growing competition from suburban shopping centres. But the biggest blow to Caplan’s fortunes was the building of the Rideau Centre. Not only did foot traffic to the store plummet during the course of construction which closed Rideau Street for a time, but Caplan’s had a glossy, new competitor right across the street when the shopping complex opened for business in March 1983.

After trying to boost business by converting Caplan’s into a discount store, offering reductions of as much as 60 per cent on name-brand goods, George Caplan, the last head of the family-run business, called it quits in January 1984. He announced that most of the department store’s forty departments would be closed, and its staff of one hundred reduced. Only the fashion and accessories departments would be retained. Instead, the first two floors of the Caplan building would be converted into a “mini-mall” of independent retailers, while the upper two floors would be leased as commercial office space. George Caplan also asked the company’s creditors to wait until the end of April 1984 to be paid in order to allow the firm time to re-organize itself. The business owed roughly $1.6 million to secured creditors and $1.4 million to 470 unsecured creditors. Staff were also owed $30,000 in vacation pay.  He stressed, however, that the firm was neither bankrupt nor in receivership.

Caplan’s creditors gave the firm more time. Indeed, the end-April deadline was extended by another 60 days. But sales continued to decline and losses rose. In mid-June, George Caplan confirmed what everybody knew was coming, that the family-owned firm would sell of its remaining stock and close for good. The family would retire from the retail business and would henceforth concentrate on its real estate interests which included ownership of the Caplan building.

The Caplan family’s real estate firm, which was called the Ottawa House Furnishing Company, renovated the old department store building in 1984, and rented parts out to a variety of enterprises, including a Biway discount outlet and a Moores menswear clothing store. A Canada Employment Centre also opened in the building. CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) had offices there as well. Gordon Caplan, the son of founders Caspar and Dora Caplan, kept an office in the building until his death in 1990 at the age of 89.

In 1997, the building was purchased by the Canril Corporation, whose aim was to redevelop the site. Various proposals for the property came and went, including the construction of a casino, a cinema, and a sports museum. With the old building becoming increasingly dilapidated, Canril sought permission to demolish it. This set in motion a battle between heritage supporters, City Council and the developers. To make the situation more complex, any changes to the George Street side of the building was subject to city approval owing to its location in the Byward Market Heritage Conservation District. The same was not true, however, for the Rideau Street side, despite parts of it dating back to the 1870s and the façade being more architecturally and historically significant.

After several minor fires, and a “repair or demolish” order from the Ottawa Fire Marshal, agreement was finally reached with the City to demolish the old building in 2003 as long as any future development of the site included the construction of a replica façade of the old Caplan building.

In 2005, Canril reached an agreement with the City of Ottawa to build a nineteen-storey condominium building on the site of the Caplan building which would extend from 90 George Street to Rideau Street. As per the previous agreement with the city, the developer duly constructed a replica of the Rideau Street façade based on a precise imaging of the building that was made in 2000.

The new condominium tower opened for residents in 2009.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, 2005. Application for new construction in the Byward Market Heritage Conservation District at 90 George/135 Rideau Street—Amendment to previous proposal, 27 January.

Heritage Ottawa, 2017. Caplan’s Department Store, https://heritageottawa.org/50years/caplans-department-store.

Ottawa Citizen, 1917. “$15,000 Damage To Furniture Stock,” 25 June.

——————, 1984. “Faced with bid debts, Caplan’s becomes mall,” 17 January.

——————, 1984. “Caplan’s $3 million in the red,” 17 January.

——————, 1984. “Caplan creditors give it more time,” 2 May.

——————, 1984. “Caplan’s closing its doors,” 14 June.

——————, 1984. “Ottawa bids adieu to Caplan’s after 80 years,” 28 July.

——————, 1984. “Corrections,” 30 July.

——————, 1990. “‘Earthy, friendly’ department store owner Gordon Caplan dies at 89,” 26 November.

——————, 1997. “Vibrancy slowly returns to Rideau Street,” 21 October.

——————, 2002. “Preserving Caplan’s history,” 6 July.

——————, 2003. “Another Ottawa Landmark Is Lost,” 5 July.

Ottawa Jewish Archives, 2020. https://jewishottawa.com/ottawa-jewish-archives.

Ottawa Journal, 1955. “Caplan’s Celebrating 50th Anniversary, 20 April.

——————-, 1965. “Ottawa Firm Observes Its 60th Anniversary,” 24 April.

 

The Drive-In

15 July 1948

The drive-in theatre was the trifecta of modern American inventions, combining America’s passion for the automobile, its love of movies, and raging teenage hormones. How could it miss? Investors quickly knew they were onto a winner. In the years immediately following World War II, the number of drive-in theatres exploded. By the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 in the United States. Canada, too, embraced the new invention, with more than 240 erected in fields on the outskirts of cities across the country.

Drive in patent

Illustration of a Drive-In Theatre, submitted to U.S. Patent office by Richard Hollingshead, Jr., 1933.

The idea of showing movies outdoors was not new. In Ottawa, Andrew and George Holland in 1896 used an early film projector called the vitascope to show short, silent films on an outdoor, canvas screen at the West End amusement park owned by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company. The site of the showing is now roughly the location of the Fisher Park Public School and the Elmdale Tennis Club.

Bringing cars into the mix was just twenty years younger. Reportedly, space was set aside for automobiles at the Theatre of Guadalupe in Las Cruces, New Mexico as early as 1915 for drivers to see first stage performances and, subsequently, films.

But the drive-in theatre that the post-war generation came to know and love during the 1950s and 1960s was the creation of one Richard Hollingshead Jr. of Camden, New Jersey, who in 1933 received U.S. patent 1,909,537 for the idea. In his patent application, Hollingsworth wrote:

It is contemplated from my invention to provide means whereby an audience, particularly in rural sections, may view a motion picture without the necessity of alighting from the automobile, and as a matter of fact, the automobile serves as an element of the seating arrangements.

The patent envisaged most of the features that became standard with drive-in theatres, including small ramps on which cars would park to allow for better screen viewing. The patent even thought of a device for deterring insects from passing through the projected beam of light.

If anything, the invention was a bit ahead of its time. Economic conditions were harsh during the 1930s, and disposable income was low—not the most auspicious time to launch a new consumer product. Early drive-ins also had problems with sound quality, a shortcoming that was rectified by in-car speakers introduced by RCA in 1941. Many years later, sound was provided through car radios.

It was after World War II that things really took off. Young couples with money in their pockets were buying cars and moving to the suburbs. They were also having children, later to be known as Baby Boomers. This was exactly the demographic that owners of drive-in theatres hoped to attract. Customers could drive to the movies in their shiny, new sedans, with the kiddies, often dressed in their pyjamas, tucked away in the back seat, thereby foregoing the cost of a babysitter. To encourage this, the little ones often got in free.

The first drive-in theatre in Canada opened in July 1946 in Stoney Creek, Ontario, now part of Hamilton. Called the Skyway Drive-In, it had an immense screen that measured 100 feet by 50 feet. Sound was provided by loudspeakers rather by individual, in-car speakers.

drive in OC 15-7-48

Full-page advertisement for the gala opening of the Drive-In Theatre, Ottawa Citizen 14 July 1948.

Ottawa had to wait two more years before the first drive-in theatre opened on its outskirts. At dusk on Thursday, 15 July, 1948, the simply named Drive-In Theatre metaphorically raised its curtain for the first time. The new movie facility, which had a screen that was 48 feet by 36 feet, was located in a fenced-in, fifteen-acre site on Highway 17 (Carling Avenue), close to the Britannia crossroads. The managing director of the company that owned the theatre was H. J. Ochs who also ran five of the only ten drive-in theatres then in operation in Canada. The local Ottawa manager was G.F. White.

That first night was a great success. It was estimated that 1,000 cars filled the parking spaces set in semi-circles in front of the large screen. Courteous attendants showed drivers to their parking spots as they entered the field. Seven policemen were needed to control traffic that backed up down Highway 17. Many would-be patrons were turned away, disappointed.  The fortunate parked their cars on slight rises that tipped them upwards to provide a better view of the movie. Each vehicle had its own loud speaker with volume control. There were also several hundred “walk-in” customers who occupied seats in front of the cars. Naturally, a complete snack bar offered food and drinks to patrons, along with a free bottle-warmer for new parents.

Three films were shown that night, including a lead-off cartoon for the children, followed by a news reel that would put the children to sleep, and then the principal attraction, A Night in Casablanca starring the Marx Brothers. The black and white, 1946 comedy was a parody of the famous Warner Brothers’ war-time film Casablanca featuring Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In the Marx Brothers version, Groucho is hired to run a hotel in post-war Casablanca where a bunch of ex-Nazis are trying to recover stolen treasure.

Two weeks later, Ottawa’s second drive-in theatre, the Auto-Sky, held its own gala opening. This theatre was located at an eighteen-acre site at the corner of Fisher Avenue and Baseline Road. Six hundred cars packed with 1,000 people attended the inaugural performance to watch Gypsy Wildcat, starring Maria Montez. Upping the ante on the Drive-In Theatre, the adventure movie was filmed in Technicolor. Consistent with the vision expressed by inventor Richard Hollingshead, the owner of the Auto-Sky said to the Ottawa Journal that the drive-in was “intended primarily for the farmers of the Ottawa district, who could drive in after finishing their chores and watch a show with the family. For this reason, we let the kids in free of charge.”

What is particularly interesting about this statement from today’s perspective is that the corner of Fisher and Baseline was considered rural. With the exception of the Experimental Farm on the northern side of Baseline, urban sprawl extends today many kilometres from this intersection. The site of the drive-in is now the location of the Fisher Heights neighbourhood.

The drive-in culture reached its peak during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along with drive-in theatres there were, of course, drive-in restaurants, where you could eat in your car with a tray suspended from the car’s window. Both became closely associated with teenagers. Moralists began calling drive-in theatres “passion pits,” owing to their popularity with teenagers and young adults eager for some date-night privacy.

drive in Jacqueline Tremblay Pinterest

The Old Britannia Drive-In Theatre, Carling Avenue, source, Pinterest, Jacqueline Tremblay.

By the 1970s and 1980s, both types of drive-ins were in steep decline, losing ground to fast food chain restaurants, such as McDonalds in the case of drive-in restaurants, and the proliferation of televisions and video cassette players in the case of drive-in theatres. Some drive-in theatres became tawdry, showing kung fu movies, slasher films, and soft pornography. The appeal for families dwindled. With land prices rising as cities grew up around them, it became more profitable to tear down drive-ins and “develop” the sites, rather than to keep them in operation, especially as many operated only during the summer months.

Here in Ottawa, the drive-in at Britannia lasted for 49 years, outliving virtually all of its competitors, though it changed hands several times through the years.[1]  In the 1970s, it was modified to become a two-screen, drive-in theatre. Indoor cinemas, called Britannia Six, were also built on the site.

Drive in oc 16-8-1997

The last advertisement for the Britannia Drive-In, Ottawa Citizen, 16 August 1997.

In mid-August 1997, the old Britannia Drive-In showed it last film. On that final night, the parking lot was half full to watch Men in Black and Spawn. Management handed out balloons and cake to thank the audience for their patronage over the years. It was the end of an era, and the loss of a neighbourhood landmark. In its place, Famous Players built the Ottawa Coliseum which opened in July the following year, with the old Britannia Six torn down for additional parking. Today, the Coliseum has twelve cinemas, and is operated by the Cineplex chain of cinemas.

The closure of the Britannia Drive-in left Gloucester’s three-screen Airport Drive-In located on Uplands Drive as the last remaining drive-in theatre in Ottawa. Also owned by Famous Players, the Airport Drive-in quickly followed the Britannia into history. It was converted into an offsite, airport parking lot.

After that, if you wanted to go to a drive-in theatre in the Ottawa area, you had to drive to Gatineau to the Cine-Parc Templeton Drive-In on Boulevard Maloney Est. However, the Cine-Parc too finally succumbed in 2019 with the retirement of its owners. Its equipment was sold off to a ski resort.

According to DriveInMovie.com, drive-in theatres have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, as “a romantic and nostalgic alternative” to the traditional inside cinema experience. At last count, there were thirty-seven drive-in theatres left in Canada, of which sixteen are in Ontario. At time of writing, the closest one to Ottawa is the Port Elmsley Drive-In located between Perth and Smiths Falls, Ontario.

Sources:

Barnett, Stephen, 2017. “The Passion Pit,” The Weekly View, 23 March, http://weeklyview.net/2017/03/23/the-passion-pit/.

Britannia: A History, The Britannia Drive-In Theatre, https://britanniaottawa.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/britannia-drive-in-theatre/.

DriveInMovie.com, The Internet’s Oldest Drive-In Movie Resource, https://www.driveinmovie.com/.

Hamilton Spectator, 2016. “July 10, 1946: First drive-in theatre in Canada opens in Stoney Creek,” 23 September.

New York Film Academy, 2017. The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (and Where They Are Now), https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-history-of-drive-in-movie-theaters-and-where-they-are-now/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1948. “New Drive-In Theater Opens,” 16 July.

———————-, 1948. “Hundreds Attend Premier Showing At New Theater,” 29 July.

———————-, 1980. “Saturday night at the drive-in,” 16 August.

———————-, 1998. “Movie Madness,” 9 January.

———————-, 1998. “Come early and stay longer,” 3 July.

———————-, 1997. “A Drive-in to history,” 18 August.

———————, 1998, “New Park’n Fly lot offers lower rates than airport,” 14 May.

Ottawa Journal, 1948. “Drive-In Theatre Packs in 1,000 Cars On Opening Night,” 16 July.

Port Emsley Drive-in, 2020, http://www.portelmsleydrivein.com/.

United States Patent Office, 1933. Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. of Riverton, New Jersey, Drive-In Theater, No. 1,909,537, 16 May

[1] For an excellent account of the history of the Britannia Drive-In Theatre, see The Britannia Drive-In Theatre on the blog, Britannia: A History at https://britanniaottawa.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/britannia-drive-in-theatre/.

 

The Rise and Fall of the Daly Building

14 June 1905

One of the greatest heritage battles in Ottawa’s history was fought over the future of the Daly Building, a multi-storey, former department store cum government office building located in the block bounded by Mackenzie Avenue, Rideau Street and Sussex Avenue. The architectural and historic merits of the building, constructed in what is known as the “Chicago style,” were debated ad nauseam for years if not decades in Ottawa’s newspapers, at City Hall, and at the National Capital Commission. While all could agree that something had to be done with the aging building, what that something was sharply divided Ottawa residents. As it turned out, the building, which was vacated by its last tenants in 1978, was left empty for thirteen years as the federal government, the owner of the property, dithered. It was hastily demolished in 1991, amidst a huge outcry, after a renovation attempt fell through. Paralleling what happened with LeBreton Flatts, the land was then left fallow for more than a decade. After many different development concepts were advanced and discarded, the government finally leased the property to Claridge Homes for an up-scale condominium building that opened in 2005.

The edifice which was to become known as the Daly Building, was built in 1904-05 by the Clemow Estate, under the supervision of Mr. William F. Powell who managed the Estate’s business affairs. Powell had originally hoped to build a hotel on the site. (This was before the Château Laurier was constructed across the street.) But when his hotel plans fell through, Powell negotiated a deal with Thomas Lindsay, a prominent Ottawa merchant who owned T. Lindsay Company, a department store on Wellington Street, and Larose & Company on Rideau Street. Under the agreement, the Clemow Estate would build a modern, five-storey, department store building that Thomas Lindsay would lease.

In preparation for the project, Powell travelled to New York on a fact-finding mission about the large department stores of that city. He then engaged Moses C. Edey as architect. Edey was no stranger to Ottawa. Born in Wyman, Quebec, the Edey family had come to the Hull area in 1805 with Philemon Wright. Edey was the architect of the Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park completed in 1898. For the new department store, Edey chose what was for the time a daring new form of architecture that relied on a steel and stone external framework that permitted the installation of large, plate-glass windows. There was so much external glass that the Evening Journal commented that the building should be called a “crystal palace.” There were no interior walls, allowing maximum flexibility to organize the space. Instead, the floors were supported by 32 steel columns clad in Portland cement. This “Chicago School” form of construction is considered to be the forerunner of the modern glass and steel office tower.

Daly T. Lindsay 15-6-1905 OJ (2)

Thomas Lindsay, builder of what later would be known as the Daly Building, Ottawa Evening Journal, 15 June 1905.

Ground was broken for the five-storey building (four storeys on the Mackenzie Avenue since the edifice was constructed on a slope) in the summer of 1904, and was completed a year later. The new Thomas Lindsay Company department store opened its doors for business on 14 June 1905.

Thomas Lindsay, who had started the eponymous firm roughly fourteen years earlier at his Wellington Street location, was known for selling goods at low prices. His company was advertised as “The House of Bargains” and “the store where money has the greatest purchasing power.” But there was no stinting on the interior furnishings and fittings of his new department store. As well as having wide staircases, the store was serviced by three elevators, two for customers and one for freight. In addition to the natural lighting provided by the large plate glass windows, which were fitted with pivoting devices that permitted them to swivel open for easy cleaning and fresh air, the building was equipped with electric lighting. Around every other pillar on each floor was a large display table for goods. Every floor was serviced by a pneumatic tube, cash-carrying system, and had ladies’ and gentlemen’s toilets, all furnished with hot and cold running water. On the second floor overlooking Major Hill’s Park there was a large drawing room for visitors where they could go to sit, relax, read the latest magazines, or write letters. A ladies’ “retiring room” was off of this.

Daly building 3411920

The “Daly Building,” circa 1913, when owned by the Rea Brothers, Library and Archives Canada, Topley Studios, I.D. # 3411920. The Château Laurier Hotel is on the left.

On opening day, only three floors were finished; the upper two floors were completed by the fall. On the ground floor, off of Sussex Street, there was the men’s and boy’s clothing departments, a grocery equipped with a three-compartment refrigerator, and a drug store. On the first floor (accessed through the Mackenzie Street entrance), were the ladies’ department, and a “small wares” department. There were offices the third floor. Home furnishings, carpets, and hardware were located on the upper two floors once they were completed.

In 1906, Thomas Lindsay Company bought the building, as well as an adjacent empty lot to the north of the original structure, and other nearby properties from the Clemow Estate for reportedly $350,000. Lindsay’s intention was to increase the floor space of the department store by adding two floors, as originally designed by the building’s architect, and by extending the building onto the empty lot. However, these plans were delayed, possibly due to Thomas Lindsay’s declining health. In 1909, Thomas Lindsay sold his controlling interest in the Thomas Lindsay Company to the Rea brothers of Toronto for $300,000; the business had become too much for him. He died shortly after the sale.

The Rea brothers had retail experience in Toronto, having sold a similar store there to Robert Simpson, the owner of Simpson’s Department Store. After a short delay, they changed the name of their new department store to the A.E. Rea Company. In 1913, they undertook the store’s expansion as originally envisage by Lindsay. Other changes included a shortened work week. No longer would employees start work at 7:30am. Instead there would be a nine-hour day beginning at 8.30am, running until 5:30pm. As well, a new money-back guarantee was introduced. Also changed was the advertising policy of the store. Thomas Lindsay had withdrawn all advertising from the Ottawa Citizen in early 1908 owing to the newspaper’s opposition to the City taking over the Metropolitan Company’s water power operations at Britannia. Lindsay, who was a major shareholder in the power company, favoured the sale. Lindsay’s ban on advertising in the Citizen was revoked when the Rea brothers purchased the store.

Daly building extension 1913 LAC3410293 Topley

Construction of the Daly Building extension northward along Sussex Street. The Château Laurier Hotel is in the background, 1913, Library and Archives Canada, Topley Studios, ID #3410293.

In late 1917, the Rea brothers, who had overextended themselves, ran into financial difficulty.  Liquidators were called in to settle their affairs with the stock and assets of the department store sold off at 40 cents on the dollar. The big department store passed into the hands of H. J. Daly who took over the business and ownership of the building in February 1918.

Daly OJ 28-2-1918

Advertisement that appeared in the Ottawa Journal 28 February, 1918.

Oddly, for a building that bore his name for the rest of the century, Daly didn’t own it for very long—less than four years. In 1919, Daly moved his department store operations to a new store built on Sparks Street on a site previously occupied by the Arcade building (roughly where the CBC building is today) which had burnt down in a huge conflagration in December 1917. By mid-August 1919, the Daly Building was vacated and rented to the Federal Government which subsequently bought it for $1 million in late 1921. The H. J. Daly department store did not last long in its new Sparks Street location. It failed in early 1923.

As for the Daly Building itself, it was the home of a variety of federal government departments over the next fifty plus years, starting with the Department of Health in 1919 and ending as the Customs and Excise training centre in 1978. Its last private-sector tenant was Ad Lib, a women’s clothing store.

Discussion about pulling down the building began in 1954 when Jacques Gréber, the noted French urban planner who advised the federal government on how to beautify the Capital, recommended replacing the Daly building with a three-floor parking garage with a park on top. His suggestion did not go over well with Mayor Charlotte Whitton. The Minister of Public Works announced that other departments needed the space and the idea quickly faded.

But by the late 1970s, the building was in poor condition. As well, past renovations, which included replacing the windows during the 1920s and the removal of the decorative cornice in 1964 over concerns that pieces might fall and hurt passing pedestrians, were not sympathetic to the original design. With lots of new federal office space just built in Hull, the Daly Building was surplus to requirements. The Department of Public Works announced that since it was not economic to renovate it, the building would be demolished in 1979.

This set off a huge fight between conservationists and demolishers within the federal government, architect associations, and the heritage community over the merits of the conserving the only example of “Chicago-style architecture” in the city. As the war of words raged, the building slowly deteriorated. On the side of saving the former department store were Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar, and Jean Pigott, for a time the Chair of the National Capital Commission in the mid-1980s. Heritage Ottawa and a dedicated lobby group called Friends of the Daly Building also called for its restoration. Others, however, applauded its demolition. Charles Lynch, the noted Canadian journalist, author, and one-time former governor of Heritage Ottawa called the Daly Building “an ugly duckling: a former failed department store, failed office building, and successful eyesore.” He opined that the structure offered nothing of note or of beauty, either outside or inside, and he would be “honoured to strike the first blow when the wreckers come.” Another commentator wrote that the “heritage movement risked “making a fool of itself by unwise support of an unworthy cause.” He argued that to spend millions to “create a museum for architects when the general population hated the building was a form of “elitism.”

The hammer finally came down in September 1991 when the National Capital Commission announced that it didn’t believe that a group of developers (Coopdev and its partner Duroc Enterprises) would be able to finish a planned $45 million renovation by September the following year owing to the developers’ inability to find a major tenant for the renovated structure. When Coopdev failed to pay its first $60,000 payment in monthly rent on its 66-year lease, the NCC fired the company. The Daly Building was hastily demolished just a few days later.

Daly 700 Sussex Google

700 Sussex Street, site of the “Daly Building,” Google Maps, May 2019.

Over the following fourteen years, suggestions came and went on what to do with the property. Should it be a park, a parking garage, or some new prestige project? One idea that gained some traction for a while was to build a performing arts centre to celebrate Canada’s indigenous peoples. Noted Canadian architect, Douglas Cardinal, reportedly agreed to design the centre. The idea flopped. In the late 1990s, Gateway Development Corp. proposed building an upscale hotel on the site, with retail stores on the ground level, loft apartments, and, believe it or not, an underground aquarium. The proposal failed to receive the necessary financial backing and the project collapsed.

The NCC finally reached a deal with Claridge Homes and its president Bill Malhotra, under which the developer would lease the site for 66 years and build an eleven-storey condominium building with an open-air roof deck and garden on the eighth floor. The 70 luxury apartments ranged in size from roughly 1,000 to 2,300 square feet in size. The price for the one of the penthouse suites reportedly topped $1.75 million… and this was in 2002! Despite the eyewatering prices, 700 Sussex Drive proved to be a great success and quickly sold out.

While the old Daly department store is now long gone, its spirit is still with us. Dan Hanganu, the architect for the new condominium development, apparently drew his design inspiration from the old department store.

Sources:

Heritage Ottawa, Daly Building, https://heritageottawa.org/50years/daly-building.

Ottawa Citizen, 1905. “Clemow Estate,” 12 June.

——————, 1905. “Opening Of Ottawa’s New Palatial Store,” 10 June.

——————, 1905. “Congratulations,” 15 June.

——————, 1909. “Control May Change Hands,” 3 August.

——————, 1909. “The Lindsay Sale,” 7 August 1909.

——————, 1909. “Style Center Of Canada,” 18 August.

——————, 1909. “A Bit Of Local History,” 20 August.

——————, 1909. “Shorter Hours For Employes (sic),” 25 August.

——————, 1954. “Mayor Calls Greber Parking Plan Speculative Newspaper Story,’” 14 September.

——————, 1985. “An Argument for preservation of the Chicago Style Daly Building,” 16 November.

——————, 1991. “A Thing of the past,” 5 September.

——————, 1991. “Why doom the Daly building now?,” 7 September.

——————, 1991. “Start the Demolition!,” 8 September 1991.

——————, 1991. “Heritage falls off the Day tightrope,” 20 October.

——————, 1999. “Remembering the Daly Building,” 15 August.

——————, 2002, “Long lineup for Luxury Daly Units,” 9 January.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1904. “Palace Store on Clemow Site,” 13 June.

—————————–, 1905 “Many Expressions of Good Will From Many Friends,” 15 June.

—————————–, 1918. “The Rea Store, Announcement Extraordinary,” 5 January.

—————————–, 1921. “Property Transfers For Large Amounts,” 2 November.

 

The Iceman No Longer Cometh

18 May 1963

In today’s modern world, frequent visitors to the typical Canadian household are FedEx or UPS deliverers dropping off the latest purchases from Amazon or other virtual retailers. Back in our grandparents’ day, the typical household also received lots of commercial visitors—the postman, the milkman, the Fuller brush man, and the occasional telegram delivery boy. But no visitor was more welcome during the hot summer months than the burly iceman with his frosty block of ice, grasped between large metal tongs, destined for the family icebox. In the years before air-conditioning, the only way to mitigate those sweltering, sticky days of July and August was to indulge in your favourite chilled drink or ice cream. And for that, ice was essential. Through the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the most common form of ice in Canada and the United States was natural ice “harvested” from lakes and rivers during the depth of winter and stored in “ice houses” for the summer sales season. A huge industry developed around cutting, storing and delivering ice. It even went international, with ice cut in the Boston and New York areas sent by speedy clipper ships to the islands in the West Indies.

Ice cream the Packet 22-5-1847

Advertisement for ice cream that appeared in The Packet, 22 May 1847.

When ice “harvesting” began in Ottawa is uncertain. Certainly, ice was available in the summer of 1847. In late May 1847, Thompson & Smillie’s, confectioners in Lower Bytown, advertised ice cream for sale in The Packet newspaper.  Where there’s ice cream, there has to be ice.

By the 1880s, ice harvesting on the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers was big business, employing hundreds of people. The ice industry provided welcome jobs during the winter when the lumber mills were closed and employment hard to find. The largest Ottawa ice dealers at the time were Jos. Christin & Company, Charlebois & Eros, and Moise Lapointe. Tens of thousands of tons of ice was harvested annually above the Chaudière Falls close to the Prince of Wales Bridge and below the Falls near Nepean Point. Ice was also cut on the Rideau River in Mooney’s Bay.

The ice-harvesting process was straightforward, with the season lasting for five to ten weeks. When the ice was thick enough, roughly 18 inches, a depth typically reached by late January or early February, teams of men would clear the snow using horse-drawn scrapers. A straight line was then drawn across the newly cleared ice field. Two sharp blades, 44 inches apart, scored parallel furrows into the ice. These grooves were used as guides for the ice sawyers who cut out a column of ice. They then cut the ice perpendicular to these grooves to make large blocks called “cakes.” Using ice clamps, strong men hoisted these mega ice cubes out of the water which were then loaded onto horse-drawn sleighs for delivery to Ottawa’s ice houses for storage. There, the blocks were placed in tiers, one upon the other, separated by a few inches to stop them freezing into one huge block. Bark or sawdust was often used to provide insulation. While more than half of the ice might be lost through melting, there was usually sufficient remaining to meet the demand for ice during the hot summer months.

Ice ad odc 1866-5-24

Advertisement for ice, Ottawa Daily Citizen,  24 May, 1866

Prices were affordable. In 1866, T. Starmer, located at 126 Rideau Street opposite Matthew’s Hotel, advertised that he would deliver 10 pounds of ice daily, with a double amount on Saturdays for Sunday use, through the season (May 1st to October 1st) for a fee of $5. The same price was being charged thirty years later by the Ottawa Ice Company. Discounts were provided if one paid in advance and bought larger quantities of ice.

If a household had its own ice house, the cost of a season’s worth of ice was even cheaper. The Citizen reported that a man satisfied his home’s need for summer ice for only $4. The man purchased his ice from a dealer in the winter, and stored it in his personal ice house which was tucked away under the shade of a big tree in his backyard.

Owing to pollution concerns, the Ottawa Board of Health passed regulations in the early 1890s to restrict the harvest of ice on the Ottawa River to above the Chaudière Falls. Despite this, dealers persisted in cutting ice lower down the river. Apparently, they could save $1,000 to $1,300 per year by cutting below the Falls. After one ice dealer received a summons for cutting ice on the Ottawa River to the east of Earnscliffe, then the home of Sir John A. Macdonald, and now the residence of the British High Commissioner, dealers appealed to City Council for a relaxation of the regulations. These appeals were resisted by Dr Robillard, the head of the Ottawa Board of Health, even though an analysis of ice samples taken from the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers proved to be satisfactory. He thought that a one-off sampling was insufficient to ensure safety, pointing out that Ottawa’s sewers discharged on the Ontario side while the “washings of Hull and of the pulp industry” poured into the river from the Quebec side. With fears of cholera returning with the warm weather, City Council resisted the ice dealers’ appeals.

ice fishing LAC topley (2)

Ice harvesting, Ottawa River, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, R639-0-5-E.

In 1912, the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company began operations on Nicholas Street. Its president was Thomas Cameron Bate. Its vice-president was Thomas Ahearn, who, along with his partner of many years, Warren Soper, was involved in everything electrical in the city. The company used liquid ammonia as the cooling agent for making its ice, a process that had become economically feasible during the late nineteenth century. Instead of using potentially unsanitary river water, it drew its water supply from artisan wells almost 500 feet deep. The water was also tested daily. The company claimed that its ice was seldom touched by hands. While it advertised that it could make 50 tons of artificial ice per day, the company could only satisfy a small portion of Ottawa’s ice needs. Natural ice remained in strong demand.

Ice cutters Hogs back 3371780 LAC

Ice Harvesting at Hog’s Back, Rideau River, in the 1930s, Library and Archives Canada, 3371780.

In 1927, thirteen of the largest ice dealers in Ottawa and Hull, including the Artificial Ice Company, banded together to form the Icemen’s Association, and incidentally to raise prices. From then on, no allowance would be made for summer vacations. Previously, customers could suspend their ice service when they were away on holiday, and receive a credit for that time from ice companies. More significantly, apartment dwellers were henceforth charged a steep delivery premium of 50 cents per month per flight of stairs that the iceman had to climb carrying his load of ice. For some, this charge effectively doubled the price of ice.

For the next thirty years, ice harvesting continued to be an annual winter event on the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. The process remained little changed from that of the previous century. Horses continued to be used to remove snow and slush from the ice field and to scrape the surface. However, power saws with 24-inch diameter blades were used to cut the ice, though men still used long, cross-cut saws to finish the cuts. After breaking off each 300-pound block of ice with crowbars, men guided the blocks using sharp pikes down a water channel to the landing machine—essentially a gas-powered, toothed conveyor belt that hoisted the blocks onto the back of a truck for delivery to the ice houses. On arrival, ice packers stacked the blocks which were insulated with sawdust. The Department of Health and Welfare kept a close check on ice quality to ensure that the ice was safe for human consumption.

After the war, demand for ice remained strong for a time, notwithstanding the gradual introduction of electric refrigerators into Ottawa kitchens. Old-fashioned ice boxes remained in service. In early 1950, Ottawa ice dealers said the demand was as strong as it had been ten or fifteen years earlier, and planned to store 300,000 tons of natural ice during the 1950 ice season. However, within just a few years, the Ottawa ice industry had gone the way of the buggy whip, a casualty of technological change. In 1959, it was reported that no company was cutting natural ice from either the Ottawa or Rideau Rivers. The last advertisement for natural ice appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on 18 May 1963 in the classified ad section. Two thousand large blocks of natural ice were available if one called 684-5237. The name and the address of the seller, and where the ice was sourced, were not revealed.

Even the artificial ice producers had difficulty in competing with the modern refrigerator. The building of the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company on Nicholas Street was purchased in 1962 by the University of Ottawa which wanted the land for new university buildings. The company was officially closed in 1967.

After that, only the old, now vacant, ice houses were left to remind Ottawa residents of the once-great ice industry. And they too succumbed one by one. Typically made of wood and filled with old sawdust, many ice houses were destroyed by fire. Others were torn down. A few smaller ones found new life as cottages or offices.

Today, several companies supply ice to Ottawa. One of the largest is the Arctic Glacier Company of Winnipeg which has a production facility on the Hawthorne Rd in Ottawa. Its bags of packaged ice can be purchased at service stations and grocery stores throughout the city. Big 300-pound blocks are also still available, as is ice for commercial purposes.

Sources:

Ottawa Citizen, 1893. “The Ice-Men’s Cool Request,” 18 January.

——————, 1894. “Ice Harvest,” 11 February.

——————, 1912. “Pure Ice At Last,” 27 December.

——————, 1948. “It’s Harvesting Time For Rideau River Ice ‘Crop,’” 5 February.

——————, 1949. “Ottawa’s Ice Harvest Is Cold Business,” 12 February.

——————, 1950. “Winter Sets Back The Ice Harvest,” 12 January.

——————, 1959. “Ice Company To Oppose U of O Bill,” 20 December.

——————, 1962. “New U of O Building,” 4 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “Cold Water,” 5 February.

——————-, 1920. “Ottawa Business Romances,” 21 April.

——————, 1927. “New Regulations Govern Ice Selling,” 3 May.

Packet, 1847. “Ice Creams,” 22 May.

 

24 Sussex

28 April 1951

One of the best-known addresses in Canada is 24 Sussex Drive, the official home of the Prime Minister. It is situated across the street from Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, in the tony New Edinburgh neighbourhood of Ottawa. The home, located on a four-acre estate, is perched on a cliff beside the French Embassy with splendid views of the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills. Unfortunately, the house has been unoccupied since 2015, its last residents being Stephen Harper and his family. With it becoming increasingly dilapidated, Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, chose to live with their three children at Rideau Cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, rather than punish themselves by living at 24 Sussex Drive.

Actually, the house is worse than dilapidated. That adjective was used more than a decade ago to describe it; unlike fine wine the building has not improved with age. 24 Sussex is stuffed with asbestos, its wiring is a fire hazard, its roof leaks as does the plumbing, there’s mould in the basement, and it is home to little forest critters. As well, the rooms are freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer. There is no central air-conditioning. And then there’s its inadequate security. Just ask Aline Chrétien, who held off an intruder in 1995.

24 Sussex 2010 Wikipedia

24 Sussex Drive, 2010, by Alasdair McLellan, Wikipedia

Simply put, 24 Sussex Drive is scarcely fit to live in let alone be the official residence of the head of government of a G-7 country. Besides the odd coat of paint and roll of wall paper, there has been little significant investment in the fabric of the home since the1970s, the victim of political optics. What prime minister wants to take responsibility for spending millions of tax payers dollars on their home? It’s political dynamite. The last person to have any money spent on the building was Pierre Trudeau back in the mid-1970s when anonymous donors coughed up $150,000 for an indoor swimming pool and sauna connected by an underground tunnel to the main dwelling. Much of the building dates from the early 1950s.

So, how did we arrive at this sorry situation?

Part of the problem may lie in a confusion in the public mind between what is spent for official purposes and what is spent for personal purposes. The two overlap. All prime ministers want 24 Sussex to reflect their personal taste, after all its their home, possibly for a decade or more if they are electorally successful. But frequent leadership changes can lead to wasteful decorating changes. As well, cosmetic alterations can become co-mingled with necessary structural and maintenance expenditures.

Until 1951, Canada’s prime ministers had no official residence. Prime Minister Mackenzie King lived at his home called Laurier House in Sandy Hill from 1923 until his death in 1950.  King had inherited the house from Zoé Laurier, the wife of another former prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier for whom the house was named. R.B. Bennett, King’s predecessor, lived in palatial splendour in a multi-room suite at the Château Laurier Hotel during his term in office. King’s successor, Louis St. Laurent, lived with his wife in a modest, rented flat in The Roxborough Apartments while in Ottawa.

24 Sussex Before Renos

Front of 24 Sussex Drive before the 1950 renovations, Macleans.

In 1943, the federal government expropriated 24 Sussex Street from the then-owner, Gordon Cameron Edwards. (It was Sussex Street not Sussex Drive. The change in name was to come in 1953.) The government was concerned about the possible “commercialisation” of a property so close to Rideau Hall. There was also a concern that other governments might buy the highly desirable property with such commanding views and choice location. The British government had purchased the nearby Earnscliffe, the former home of Sir John A. Macdonald, in 1930 while the French Government had purchased and built its Embassy on the neighbouring property a few years later. With the Mexican government reportedly taking an interest in the old house, the Canadian government decided to expropriate the property. It took three years to negotiate the price after Edwards balked at what the government offered in compensation. The court settled on $140,000 plus costs of $7,319 which was more than the $125,000 the government initially offered but far less than the $251,000 demanded by Edwards.

24 Sussex after renos

Front of 24 Sussex Drive after renovations, author unknown

Almost from the very beginning, Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought that the mansion would make an excellent “permanent and non-political residence for Canada’s prime ministers,” though the idea wasn’t made official until 1949. While the location was superb, many had doubts about the building, then almost eighty years old. At an expropriation hearing, a real estate agent said that the house, which had been previously remodelled in in 1907-10, didn’t fit the needs of 1943. Six years later, the Ottawa Citizen wondered whether remodelling the Edwards home was the right course of action as the building was “already old and out of date” and had no particular distinction. The newspaper also claimed it was draughty, ill-heated, and inconvenient.

The house was originally built over a two-year period from 1866-1868 by Joseph Merrill Currier. Currier was one of Ottawa’s lumber barons, and from 1863 to 1882 the Conservative member of Parliament for Ottawa, barring a few months in 1877 when he had to resign and seek re-election over conflicts of interest. He left politics in 1882 and was appointed Ottawa’s postmaster.

Currier built the home for his third wife, Hannah Wright, a descendent of Philemon Wright, the founder of Hull, Quebec. He called it by the Welsh name Gorffwysfa meaning “Place of Peace”. Reportedly, Currier’s brother James, who was an architect, helped in the neo-gothic design which was undoubtedly inspired by those other neo-gothic buildings under construction at the time—the Parliament buildings. In 1870, the Curriers hosted Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria, at a ball held in his honour at 24 Sussex. Prince Arthur, also known as the Duke of Connaught, was later to become Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916. For the royal event, Currier built a ballroom at the rear of the home which was later turned into a picture gallery.

After Currier’s passed away in 1884, his widow lived in the home until her death in 1901, whereupon the house went to their son, James E. W. Currier, who sold it in 1902 to William Cameron Edwards for $30,000. Edwards was at the time the Liberal member of Parliament for the district of Russell. In 1903, he was appointed to the Senate. Edwards made significant modifications to the building, including adding a turret, a curved window on the second floor, and a covered entrance. On his death in 1921, 24 Sussex was bequeathed to his nephew Gordon Cameron Edwards who was the last private owner of the property. After the Canadian government expropriated it, the home was leased on a short-term basis to the Australian government.

In 1948, the government hired the modernist Toronto architectural firm Allward & Gouinlock to renovate the building. The firm’s treatment of the building was not sympathetic to the original design. It totally changed both its exterior and interior. In addition to adding a new wing, the architects stripped the house of its neo-gothic features. Gone were its turret and gingerbread. The ballroom cum picture gallery where Prince Arthur had danced was demolished to make way for an outdoor terrace. The garage and chauffeur’s quarters were also demolished. Inside, the principal rooms were reversed so that they overlooked the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills rather than facing the street.

The renovations cost more than $300,000. With an additional $105,000 spent on furnishings, the total cost of the new official residence for Canada’s prime minister came in at roughly $550,000 (equivalent to $6.3 million in today’s dollars). The Conservative Opposition was not impressed. Rodney Adamson, the Progressive Conservative member for York West, commented that it would have been cheaper to build a completely new residence rather than change 24 Sussex St. around so that the Prime Minister could have a view of the Ottawa River.

Subsequently, a Vancouver newspaper whined that the “final piece of extravagance” was an iron fence that was to be built around the property. It opined that maybe next to come were “a platinum portcullis and a squad of gold-embossed halberdiers.” This was clearly a more innocent time when security was not deemed a high priority by some. However, the comment underscored why future governments became squeamish about spending money on the prime minister’s residence. Any money spent would be considered either a waste or self-serving.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his wife, moved into their new home on 28 April 1951, though their official move date was 1 May when their lease was up on their apartment at the Roxborough. The prime minister was not keen about having an official residence. “Uncle Louis” was a modest man. Before he would move in, he insisted on paying $5,000 per year for room and board, roughly what he had been spending before. This amounted to one-third of his prime ministerial salary. Politicians and bureaucrats reluctantly acquiesced to this demand, and it was written into the legislation passed for the maintenance of the home. Some years later, the law was changed so that the prime minister lived rent free. C.D. Howe, the Minister for Trade and Commerce, called the new prime ministerial residence “not a palace” but “dignified” and “well-equipped,” an official residence of which Canadians could be proud.

There are fourteen principal rooms in the house, with a formal drawing room and dining room for 24 persons overlooking the Ottawa River. There is a pine-panelled library to the left of the main entrance with an open fireplace. The ground floor was designed so that 150-200 guests could easily circulate between drawing room, dining room and library. A kitchen and pantry are also on the ground floor. On the second floor are the family living room and the main bedrooms with bathrooms. On the top floor are guest and staff bedrooms. A small elevator was installed that ran from the basement to the top floor.

There was some speculation in the press about the home’s name. Its original Welsh name was not in the running; few could spell it or pronounce it. The Ottawa Journal argued that to follow the British example and call the home 24 Sussex Street would be too prosaic. However, Canada House, Beaver House and Maple Leaf Gardens were already taken, and it couldn’t come up with a better idea. Regardless, newspapers thought that given time the address would become as well-known as London’s 10 Downing Street or Washington’s White House.

That prediction has come true. However, today the home is more infamous than famous. Instead of being dignified prime ministerial residence, it has become a money pit. More than ten years ago, a real estate agency thought that the property, then appraised at $7.5 million, was worth more without the house.

Many want the building pulled down, including Maureen McTeer, the wife of former prime minister Joe Clark. McTeer thinks it’s a dump without any redeeming architectural merit. Others, including some historians, disagree. Now that roughly a dozen prime ministers have lived in it, perhaps the residence has acquired some prime ministerial patina that’s worth preserving. As well, the residence has hosted distinguished visitors, such as the Queen, Sir Winston Churchill and John and Jackie Kennedy, who have provided their own gloss.

Renovating the old house will not come cheap. In 2018, the National Capital Commission, announced that to fix up the six official residences owned by the Government in the Ottawa region would cost $83 million over ten years. Only Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s home, and Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition, are in good condition. Ominously, Harrington Lake in the Gatineau hills, the country home of the prime minister, is considered to be in poor condition. If governments shy away from spending money on the official residence of the prime minister, the odds of a summer retreat getting sufficient funding look even more grim. Meanwhile, entropy prevails. The official residences continue to deteriorate and the cost to restore them continues to climb.

Sources:

CBC, 1980. A Tour of 24 Sussex with Maureen McTeer. https://ca.video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hsimp=yhs-rogers_001&hspart=rogers&p=Maureen+McTeer#id=2&vid=c131ed57812f112dec7e53683dbe3e4e&action=click.

Calgary Herald, “Face-Lifting Starts on P.M.’s New Home,” 13 December.

NCC, 2019. 24 Sussex Drive, http://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/24-sussex-drive.

Ottawa Citizen, 1949. “What Kind Of House At 24 Sussex?” 4 October.

——————, 1950. “Approve Act Charging PM $5,000 For Home,” 21 June.

——————, 1951. “St. Laurents Move Into New Home,” 1 May.

——————, 2004. “Martin family finds it chilly in drafty old mansion,” 17 November.

——————, 2008. “It’s a tear-down,” 3 December 2008.

——————, 2013. “Inside 24 Sussex,” 30 November.

——————, 2013. “A Timeline of Troubles At 24 Sussex Dive,” 30 November.

——————, 2017. “This Old House,” 13 February.

——————, 2018. “NCC Seeks $83m to Address ‘Critical’ Maintenance Issues,” 17 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1949. “A Name for the Prime Minister’s Residence,” 4 October.

——————-, 1949. “24 Sussex St.”, 8 October.

——————-, 1950. “Cost of Renovating Residence at 24 Sussex for Prime Minister Startles Opposition,” 23 March.

——————–, 1951. “Apartment Living Over The St. Laurents Now Living in 24 Sussex,” 1 May.

Vancouver Province, 1951. “24 Sussex Street Nearly Ready,” 13 April.

—————————–, 1951. “Iron Fences And High Taxes,” 9 July.

Windsor Star, 1950. “24 Sussex Tradition In The Making,” 19 June.

 

Ottawa’s Checkered Past

9 April 1877

The game of checkers, also known as draughts, inhabits most family games’ closets. Often, its familiar two colour, eight squares by eight squares board has a backgammon board printed on its flip side. For many, checkers is perceived as a simple game, designed principally for young children before they are ready to move up to the rigours of chess. In a way, this is correct. The rules of checkers are simple. Unlike chess, all of a player’s pieces move in the same fashion. However, this simplicity is deceptive. It’s a game that requires considerable strategy to play well.

Draughts Table, William Payne, 1756

Illustration from William Payne’s 1756 book on the game of Draughts (Checkers)

Checkers is also a game that has a very long and distinguished pedigree. It’s far older than chess, which is a mere pup in comparison.  A version of checkers was played as long ago as 3,000 B.C. in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. The ancient Egyptians also played a type of checkers. However, the “modern” game dates from the Middle Ages in France.

William Payne, an English mathematician, wrote in 1756, An Introduction to the Game of Draughts that contained fifty select games for instructional purposes. In the preface, he writes: Whatever may be determined concerning its Uſe, its Difficulty is inconteſible; for among the Multitudes that practiſe it, very few underſtand it. There are indeed not many who by any frequency of Playing can attain a Moderate Degree of Skill without  Examples and Inſtructions.

The game of draughts, popular in the taverns and coffee houses of England, was brought to North America where it was more usually called checkers owing to the chequered board on which it was played. On both sides of the Atlantic, checker clubs were formed during the nineteenth century—a reflection of its rising popularity among all classes of people. The first checkers/draughts World Champion was Scotsman Andrew Anderson who took the title in 1840. (Scots had a virtual lock on the championship for almost the next one hundred years.)

One of the earliest references to the game in Ottawa was an 1861 advertisement for the opening of Sheffield House, a new up-scale store located in the Porter Block of Sparks Street owned by its proprietors Messrs. Sinauer and Levey. Among other things, the advertisement announced that the shop had “chess and draught men for sale in bone, ivory and wood.  Boards for ditto.” In 1873, the game featured in a criminal trial when Andrew Kendrick was invited to the home of a Mr. Glasford on Clarence Street to watch “an excellent game of checkers.” At Glasford’s home, Kendrick took the opportunity to try to steal his host’s purse. Glasford objected “to any such intimacy with his trouser pockets.” In an ensuing scuffle, Glasford was stabbed in the hand and slightly injured. What happened subsequently to Kendrick was not reported.

During the late 1870s, the game experienced a surge in popularity in Ottawa. Amateur checker clubs began popping up in the City’s wards. In mid-March 1877, a checkers club was organized in the St. George’s Ward, with Mr. F. Graham as President. St. George’s Ward encompassed part of Lower Town including the Sandy Hill neighbourhood. The following month, a club was established in Upper Town’s Wellington Ward. Later, Victoria Ward “determined not to be outdone,” organized its own checkers club centred in LeBreton Flats. It had two presidents, Messrs. Carruthers and McClay of the Perley and Pattee lumber company.

The first known Ottawa checker tournament occurred on 9 April 1877 between Wellington Ward and St. George’s Ward, with each team fielding thirteen members. The contest was held in front of a large audience in a hall over John Roos’s tobacco shop at 50 Sparks Street. After two hours of play, the Wellington Ward team beat their Lower Town rivals by eleven games—66-55 with 11 draws. Among the big individual winners was W. Hutchison with 13 wins for the Wellington Ward team. The prize of the tournament was a bag of meal which was presented to the Protestant Orphans’ Home. A return match was held the following week at Francis Germain’s cigar shop at 512 Wellington Street. This time there were 18 men aside. The Daily Citizen’s account of the match was a bit muddled, though the Wellington Ward again emerged victorious.

In November of that same year, a championship match was held between an Upper Town side and a Lower Town team in the hall above John Roos’s tobacco shop. With 18 men per team, Lower Town took the crown 82 games to 76 with 38 draws. On the Lower Town side, N. Germain was the big winner of the two-hour event, taking 14 wins, with no losses and two draws. On the Upper Town side, John Roos, the tobacconist, won a team-leading eight games. Further Upper Town/Lower Town matches were later held.

Also that November, Mr. Edmund Lemieux, who was employed in the Department of Public Works, completed a combined “chequer, chess, backgammon and polonaise board” that was later exhibited at the Éxposition Universelle in Paris. It was an artistic marvel. Taking nine months to craft, the Board was 32 inches long and 21 inches wide and consisted of 21,360 pieces using 32 different kinds of wood. Inlaid and veneered and ornamented with mosaic work, the board had a drawer on each side for the game’s pieces. Each of the carefully turned checkers were made from nine pieces of wood. The Citizen enthused that Lemieux’s creation would show “to the people of La Belle France that the skill of their compatriots in this land has not been deteriorated by the Canadian atmosphere.”  The newspaper added that the board will “bring great credit upon the artisan skills of this Dominion.”

In September 1883, Ottawa was visited by the greatest checker player possibly of all time—James Wyllie, also known as “Herd Laddie.” Wyllie was another Scotsman who had wrestled the title of world champion from Andrew Anderson in 1844, and would hold it for most of the next fifty years with a couple of short breaks. He received his odd nickname early in life when he worked for a livestock drover. The drover, an avid checkers’ player, recognized Wyllie’s ability in the game, and soon the young man was playing for money, and winning big time. When Wyllie came to Ottawa, he was well into his second North American tour which was to last four years. Apparently, at that point of his tour he had reportedly played 12,386 games of which he had won 10,921, drew 1,283 and lost only 82. Herd Laddie had a “standing challenge to the world” in the American sporting magazine Turf, Field and Farm, of $500 to $1000. Few, if any, took him up on the bet.

James Wyllie Herd Laddie

James Wyllie, “Herd Laddie”, author unknown

Needless to say, Herd Laddie’s visit to the nation’s Capital was a cause for considerable excitement amount the checkers’ fraternity. (Fraternity seems to be the correct word as there is no reference in the press about women playing the game although they undoubtedly did.) Staying at the Albion Hotel, the Citizen described the checkers champion as a “hale old gentleman” of about 61 years of age, stoutly built, standing only about 5½ feet tall, and wearing spectacles with a keen eye and slightly deaf. The journalist, who apparently was a devotee of phrenology, also commented that Wyllie had “an unusually large brain, well developed in the frontal region.”  While in Ottawa, the champion competed in a number of friendly games with local checkers players, playing as many as ten opponents simultaneously. There is no record that he lost any of his games.  Mr. W. Stewart, the Wellington Ward’s ace player, fared the best against the world champion, earning two draws.

The game of checkers remained popular through the remainder of the nineteenth century with weekly tournaments. Checker puzzles appeared regularly in local papers alongside their chess counterparts. The Ottawa Chess and Checker Club (OCCC) was established in December 1891, meeting in the Union Chambers. They subsequently secured quarters for their clubhouse on the first floor of the Perley building at 51 Sparks Street. However, it appears that the game was increasingly eclipsed by chess. The old OCCC also seems to have disbanded by 1904 when there was a failed attempt to re-establish a checker club in the Capital.

Checkers remains a globally popular pastime. The 2018 world men’s (Go-As-You-Please or GAYP) title organized by the World’s Checkers/Draughts Federation was won by South African Lubabalo Kondlo while the women’s (GAYP) championship was won by Nadiya Chyzhevska of Ukraine.

Sources:

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1861. “The Sheffield House,” 24 April.

————————-, 1873. “Another Stabbing Affray,” 20 September.

————————-, 1877. “Checker Match,” 18 April.

————————-, 1877. “Checkers,” 19 April.

————————-, 1877. “Checkers,” 21 April.

————————-, 1877. “Checker Club,” 25 April.

————————-, 1877. “Checkers,” 19 September.

————————-, 1877. “Splendid Workmanship,” 10 November.

————————-, 1877. “Champion Checker Match,” 14 November.

————————-, 1883. “The Herd Laddie,” 23 July.

————————-, 1883. “Sporting Record,” 25 July.

————————-, 1883. “World of Sports,” 19 September.

————————-, 1891. “Chess and Checkers Club,” 15 December.

————————-, 1894. “Upper Town versus Lower Town,” 30 January.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1899. “Have Secured Rooms,” 5 October.

Payne, William, 1756. An Introduction to the Game of Draughts: Containing Fifty Select Games, Golden Ball, Bedford Street, Covent Garden, London.

Reekie, Chris 2007. The Herd Laddie, http://www.wylliedraughts.com/HerdLad.htm.

Wikipedia, 2019. World Checkers/Draughts Championship, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Checkers/Draughts_Championship.

 

Work or Bread!

5 April 1877

When we think of an economic depression, we usually think of the Great Depression that started in late October 1929 with the New York stock market crash and lasted through the “Dirty Thirties.” But there was another global economic downturn, sometimes called the Long Depression, that started with the Panic of 1873 and lasted until 1896 according to some historians. Like the Great Depression, it resulted from a combination of real, financial and monetary factors. It began in central Europe with a stock market crash in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The bursting of a speculative bubble revealed overextended financial institutions and stock market manipulation, leading to bank failures and corporate insolvencies. The financial impact rippled across international borders and even the Atlantic. (Sound familiar?) In North America, there had been a huge overinvestment in railways—the “dotcom-like” speculative investment of the nineteenth century. Many of the railway companies had raised large sums of money based on unrealistic expectations of future profitability. In September 1873, Jay Cooke & Company, a large U.S. bank and a major investor in railway bonds, failed. This sparked a financial panic in New York. Share prices collapsed. The stock exchange closed for ten days. In the months that followed, dozens of railway companies failed, bringing down financial institutions in their wake.

Panic of 1873

Closing the doors of the New York Stock Exchange, 20 September 1873, Picryl

These developments happened against the backdrop of a global economy undergoing major structural changes. The industrial revolution was in full swing. Germany and the United States were challenging Britain’s economic supremacy. New industries and new production processes were rapidly overturning the old economic order. Productivity was rising and prices for industrial and agricultural goods were falling. While many took advantage of the opportunities being created and prospered, those who were unable to adapt to the rapid changes suffered.

Added to these shocks in North America was the impact of the epizootic of 1872-3—an equine flu that started outside of Toronto and spread across Canada and the United States. While the mortality rate was typically low, few horses outside of certain isolated regions were spared. It took weeks for stricken equines to recover, with crippling consequences for an essentially horse-drawn economy. Even the railways were affected as coal was shipped to rail terminals using horse-drawn wagons.

Governments did little to ease the pain of the downturn in economic activity. The idea of government assistance for the poor was still in the future. With all major countries, including Canada, wed to the gold standard, there was also little scope for monetary action to support economic activity, even if central banks (if countries had them) wanted to do something. Meanwhile, the United States joined gold standard countries in 1873, after having had an unbacked fiat currency since the start of their civil war. It ended the unlimited coinage of silver (the Crime of ’73 according to silver supporters) which might otherwise have led to lower interest rates. Protectionist sentiments rose everywhere. The major countries, with the exception of Britain, adopted high tariffs in an effort to protect domestic industries and jobs. International trade suffered.

Canada was in the thick of all these trends. As is the case today, it was a small economy closely linked to its southern, much larger, neighbour. When the United States entered the Long Depression, so did Canada. To make matters worse, the United States had abrogated its trade reciprocity deal with Canada a few years earlier. Although the reciprocity agreement only covered natural resources, this mattered importantly for Canada.

Panic Hon. Sir Richard Cartwright, 1881 Topley Studio Fonds LAC PA-025546

Hon. Sir Richard Cartwright, 1881 Topley Studio Fonds Library and Archives Canada, PA-025546

In February 1876, Richard Cartwright, the Liberal Minister of Finance, attributed the ongoing depression in Canada to: poor U.S. economic conditions, which were “visibly affecting Canadian interests;” overlarge imports; excessive inventories which were depreciating in value; greedy banks who extended loans “to men of straw, possessing neither brains nor money;” and a depression in the lumber trade owing to “inexperienced operators unable to compete when U.S. prices fall.”

To help ameliorate matters, he said that the government was taking advantage of cheap labour and materials to bring forward public works projects. Cartwright, a proponent of free trade, resisted calls for tariffs on manufactured goods beyond those necessary for revenue purposes on the grounds that manufacturing employment accounted for only 40,000 jobs. The government needed to look after the interests of the other 95 per cent of the working population.

In Ottawa, matters came to a head in early 1877. Unemployment, which was always high in winter owing to the seasonality of many jobs, was worse than usual. Each morning, hundreds of unemployed, able-bodied men congregated in the Byward Market looking for an hour or two of work. Times were tough even for those who had jobs. Pay had been reduced from $1.25 per day to a meagre 90 cents per day.

On 5 April 1877, 200-300 unemployed men assembled as usual early in the morning in the Byward Market looking for work. When little was forthcoming, they decided they would do something about their situation. Perhaps the Mayor of Ottawa, William Waller, would be able to able to provide work or bread. The men marched on City Hall on Elgin Street. Unfortunately, the mayor was absent. A messenger was dispatched to find him. Meanwhile a Citizen reporter interviewed some of the men while they waited. Their stories were dire. Many had large families to feed but had been out of work for months. Starvation stared many in the face. Peter Boulez had a family of twelve, but had had no employment since the previous November. With his limited savings exhausted, he needed to find work to put bread on the table. Hans Shourdis had been living off of soup for the past four months, “his stomach a stranger to meat.” Christmas had been his last satisfying meal. A kindly lady had given him charity but that all went to his five children.

When Mayor Waller appeared, he said that he deeply sympathized with the workmen. However, he reminded them that the depression was being felt across the country, and opined that the Dominion government was not responsible for the hard times. He announced that City Council would be meeting on the following Monday to discuss a drainage scheme worth $300,000, one third of which could be expended annually. This project would hire a lot of citizens in need. He expected work to proceed as soon as the frost was out of the ground. The Mayor also said that he had instructed the City Collector not to go after the unemployed for unpaid taxes until they had work.

The men next marched on the Parliament Buildings to seek an immediate interview with Premier Alexander Mackenzie, whose Liberal Party had come to power in November 1873, virtually at the onset of the depression—a timing that had not gone unnoticed by the unemployed workers. At the main entrance of the Centre Block, the men sent a messenger to the Premier who was in the Railway Committee Room attending a meeting of the House Banking and Commerce Committee. When Mackenzie refused to see them, the unemployed workers entered the building and approached the Committee Room’s entrance. They sent another messenger to Mackenzie. When nothing happened, two of the workers’ leaders opened the door, insisting to see the Premier. When a committee member shouted “Shut the door,” the door was closed in their faces. Indignant, some of the workers suggested starving them out “like they did at Sebastopol” during the Crimea War. Others forced the door to great cheers, including cheers for Sir John A. Macdonald, Mackenzie’s arch rival.

Needless to say, committee members were shaken by this invasion. Some apparently thought the men were there “to wipe them out.” However, others regained their composure and said that the men were harmless. They simply wanted to speak to Mr. Mackenzie. One of the unemployed men stood on a table and addressed the crowd. He was angry that the Premier had eluded them, calling it “a hardship and an insult.” Peter Mitchell, the MP for Northumberland County, New Brunswick, and a Father of Confederation, calmed them by saying that the Premier would no doubt give an interview at some other time and place. After giving three more cheers for Sir John A. Macdonald, the unemployed men left though not before issuing a statement:

“That we the unemployed workingmen of Ottawa, strongly censure the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie for refusing to meet a delegation sent from among us to ask his opinion as to the chances of work during the coming season. And we condemn him for allowing a door to be slammed in our faces, and call upon the workingmen of the Dominion to join us in rebuking the treatment received by us.”

The men made an orderly departure from Parliament, committing themselves to meet again in the Market later that day to plot strategy. That evening, the men, along with political representatives from all levels of government, met outside in the Market Square despite a light rain. Plans to meet in the Market Hall had been foiled by locked doors and a missing key. There was a number of rousing speeches. Mr. Bullman, the self-appointed chairman of the men, spoke on “how the wealth of the world was unequally distributed” and how the poor were oppressed. He said that he had been splitting hardwood for 25 cents a cord and had to feed a family of small children. (His credibility was later damaged when it was revealed that he was not unemployed, and had left a job at the gas works to attend the meeting.) A Mr. Hans added that “it was natural for money to flow into the rich man’s pocket as it was for the water of the St Lawrence to flow into the ocean.” At the end, it was agreed to send a deputation to approach Mackenzie on behalf of the workers.

At 9 am the next morning, a crowd of more than 600 gathered in front of the City Hall and marched to the West Block on Parliament Hill, the location of Premier Mackenzie’s office. The deputation, which comprised the City of Ottawa’s two MPs, one Liberal the other Liberal-Conservative, the Liberal MPP for the City, Mayor Waller, and Mr. Bullman, met with the Premier. This time, Mackenzie agreed to address the men.

The Premier offered the unemployed little in the way of government relief. He claimed that government was “powerless” beyond commissioning public works, pointing to the Welland and Lachine Canals. He also argued that aid should come from the provincial legislature and local charities. Just because Parliament resided in Ottawa was not a reason for the Dominion government to support Ottawa employment. If a man needed a job, he should go to the North-West Territories (Alberta and Saskatchewan) where he could get 100 acres of good farmland for nothing. However, Mackenzie promised that members of Parliament would personally donate as much as they could afford to relief efforts. He was also sure that the Ottawa men’s suffering was only temporary.

The Premier’s response did not go over well. There were more meetings, marches and speeches during the days that followed. The unemployed men sent a “memorial” (an archaic term for a public letter) to the Senate demanding government action in Ottawa and the surrounding area for public works to provide jobs and alleviate distress. Mayor Waller distributed “bread tickets” to the most urgent cases, while City Council expedited expenditures on the drainage project. A large number of men were put to work clearing out the Rideau Canal’s Basin. A relief fund was organized into which the Ottawa area’s more wealthy citizens contributed, including Alonzo Wright and Erskin Bronson. The Ladies Benevolent Society of St John’s Church held a fund raiser in the Temperance Hall selling “fancy work,” refreshments, and flowers and fruits. The take of the last show of the Grand Shaughraun Company at the Opera House also went to poor relief. These relief funds were managed by a committee of aldermen and clergymen which assessed each request for aid “to ascertain who is deserving and who is not.” These funds helped. But it was the arrival of warmer weather that had the most impact, with hundreds of men returning to jobs in the Chaudière lumber mills.

The following year, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative Party thumped Premier Mackenzie’s Liberal Party in the 1878 federal election. This election ushered in the Conservative “National Policy” which sharply raised tariffs on American manufactured goods in order to boost the Canadian manufacturing sector, create jobs, and, just coincidently of course, to protect the interests of businessmen that supported the Conservative Party. Despite some tinkering around the edges, this high-tariff policy remained in effect until the Auto Pact of 1965.

Sources:

History Central, 2019. The Panic of 1873, https://www.historycentral.com/rec/EconomicPanic.html.

Poloz, Stephen, 2017. Canada at 150: It Takes a World to Raise a Nation, speech given at the 50th Anniversary of Durham College, Oshawa, Bank of Canada, 28 March, https://www.bankofcanada.ca/2017/03/canada-150-takes-world-raise-nation/.

Ottawa Daily Citizen (The), 1876. “The Commons,” 26 February.

—————————-, 1877 “Work or Bread,” 5 April.

—————————-, 1877. “Editorial,” 6 April.

—————————-, 1877. “The Unemployed,” 6 April.

—————————-, 1877. “Memorial To The Senate,” 9 April.

United States History, 2019. The Panic of 1873, https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h213.html.

 

 

 

Devlin’s-Morgan’s

23 March 1973

Ottawa residents of a certain age may recall a department store called Henry Morgan & Company located on the south side of Sparks Street close to Elgin Street, a spot now occupied by the Royal Bank of Canada. Morgan’s, as it was known to all, was a branch of an upscale Montreal-based department store chain that had come to the nation’s capital in 1951 with the purchase of the venerable retail firm of R.J. Devlin & Company from the Devlin family.

Devlin

R.J. Devlin & Company, 76 Sparks Street, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3422789.

R.J. Devlin & Company had deep roots in Ottawa, dating back to 1869 when its founder, Robert James Devlin, came to the city from London, Ontario to start a furrier business. Devlin was born in 1842 in Londonderry, the son of an Anglican priest. His father died when Devlin was just twelve years old. A guardian subsequently took the young lad to Canada. Took is the operative word. Devlin was a wealthy young man, having inherited $30,000, a huge sum in those days. But when he was out one afternoon as a volunteer water-carrier for the London Fire Brigade, his so-called guardian absconded, leaving Devlin penniless. Forced to look quickly for work, Devlin found a job in a fur factory. He later worked as a journalist for the London Free Press writing a humorous column called Korn Kob Jr. At some point, he met the Hon. John Carling, later Sir John Carling, a prominent London businessman who represented the city in both the provincial and federal governments. Carling advised Devlin that he should start a furrier business in Ottawa which at the time was growing rapidly, the government having just moved there from Quebec City. He arrived in 1869 and set up a fur and hat store on Rideau Street close to the canal. He later moved to No.37 Sparks Street across from the Russell House Hotel. The store’s sign was a large tin hat on which was written the store’s motto — “Hats that R Hats.”

Devlin’s three-story shop at 37 Sparks Street sold hats on the ground floor, had a fur “salon” on the second floor, and the Devlin fur workshop on the third floor; Devlin’s manufactured all its fur products on-site. The store itself was famous for its mirrors. They were carefully angled in the stairwell to allow a person on the ground floor to see end-to-end through the second-floor fur salon as well as up the stairs to the workshop. This must have been a handy feature for salespeople to monitor the store for shoplifters.

Devlins ad ODC 25-9-1869 dated 14-9

An early Devlin’s advertisement, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 25 September 1869.

Each Saturday, when Devlin received the week’s sales tally from the store’s accountant, staff could judge how successful the week had been by Devlin’s choice of cigars. If sales and profits were strong, he would send a clerk over to Nye’s Cigar Store in the Russell Block to purchase 25 cent cigars—the very best. If sales were lacklustre, the clerk would buy cheap ones. Staff wanting a raise would know to approach Devlin only when he purchased the expensive cigars.

In 1891, Devlin built a four-storey building on a 66 x 98-foot lot, formerly known as the Kenley property, at 76 Sparks Street between Elgin and Metcalfe Streets. Before the growing company occupied the entire building, also known as the Carleton Chambers, Devlin’s rented space to a number of tenants, including Ahearn & Soper, Robert Masson’s Shoe Company, and the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. Reportedly, Devlin had difficulty renting the fourth floor since potential tenants didn’t trust the elevator to go so high, and were reluctant to walk up four floors. During the early twentieth century, the store expanded beyond hats and furs to become a women’s and men’s clothes store.

What particularly distinguished R.J. Devlin & Co. from its competitors was the store’s advertising. The advertising copy, which was always prepared by Devlin himself, often took jibes at politicians of all stripes, as well as Ottawa and its residents. A friend of Mark Twain, Devlin had a devilish wit. He called the beaver “Canada’s original lumber king whose tail is as devoid of fur as the head of the average senator.”

Devlins asphalt 30-6-1893 OJ

R.J. Devlin’s satirical advertisement regarding the state of Sparks Street. Ottawa Journal, 30 June 1893.

He frequently complained about the state of Ottawa’s roads, especially Sparks Street. In one of his ads, he quipped that “fishing was recorded as good on a ravine called Sparks St – but if any of my patrons will come to the opposite bank and shout, I well send over a boat and ferry them across.” Another read “my business is located behind a rut on what is known as Sparks Street – not the small rut over on Elgin Street but the large one near the middle of the block [i.e. in front of Devlin’s store].” In 1893, he wrote a satirical piece arguing that Ottawa citizens didn’t need a clean, solid, enduring pavement on Sparks Street. Leave well enough alone. If it was good enough for our forebears it’s good enough for us – as long as “you wear long boots or are handy on stilts.” Sparks Street was finally paved in 1895.

Devlin didn’t spare himself either. For one sale he advertised: “There is a surplus of furs which I should not have – and a chronic deficit in my bank account which the manager says he won’t have – so – betwixt the Devil and the Deep Sea, etc.” Another read: For sale – Grey goat coats $6 – they are grey and the are goat – and they are six dollars – which is all I can truthfully say about them.” Another went: “Waterproof coats $5 – they are not even good coats – unless they possess some hidden virtue of which the undersigned is unaware.”

Robert Devlin’s greatest advertising coup occurred in 1889. On 11 November of that year, his advertisement predicted that winter would start in Ottawa on 27 November with a major blizzard accompanied by howling winds. To prepared for the coming storm, men and women should purchase fur coats and warm sleigh robes from his store before it was too late. Recall that these were the days long before Environment Canada, when people relied on the Farmers’ Almanac and weather “seers” for their forecasts.

Devlin's snow prediction OJ 12-11-1889

Devlin’s advertisement warning Ottawa residents that winter would begin with a major snow storm two weeks hence on 27 November, Ottawa Journal, 12 November, 1889

The city waited with bated breath to see if his prediction would come true. The 27th began grey and dull with a stiff wind. The temperature was in the upper thirties, Fahrenheit. Through the morning, the temperature dropped. The occasional snow flurry changed into a heavy and persistent snowfall. By evening, the snow was so deep that the street railway stopped working. The first sleighs of the season appeared on city streets. The snow continued for close to twenty-four hours, with more than a foot on the ground, just like Devlin had predicted.

Devlin was lionized by the success of his prediction. More than 250 people sent him their congratulations. When asked by a Journal journalist the secret of his success, Devlin demurred, reportedly saying “Do you think I am going to impart my priceless system…mine is the only infallible and true method and I mean keeping it too (sic) myself.” Devlin was crowned by the public as Ottawa’s “prize weather prophet.”

Many years later, Devlin’s advertisements were collected by his sons and given to the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa, the forerunner of The Historical Society of Ottawa, and were housed in the Bytown Museum, then operated by the Society. The three leather-bound volumes are currently stored for safe keeping in the City of Ottawa Archives.

With his unorthodox advertising methods, and a strong reputation for quality furs, Devlin’s prospered. Governors general and prime ministers patronized his store. In 1901, an association of Canadian women presented the future Queen Mary with a mink and ermine wrap made in the Devlin workshop. Famous Hollywood stars including Lilian Russell, Maureen O’Sullivan, Jimmy Cagney, and Gene Tierney were Devlin customers. The fabled Pavlova and Field Marshals Ferdinand Foch of France and Douglas Haig of Britain patronized the store. When Winston Churchill visited Ottawa in December 1941, Devlin’s made a sealskin hat for the British prime minister over night. It was presented to the great man by the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

In 1949, R. J. Devlin & Company celebrated its 80th anniversary. By this time, the store had passed to Robert Devlin’s sons, W.F.C. (“Ted”) Devlin and Brian Devlin; R.J. Devlin himself having died in 1918 at the age of 78. Three years later, in April 1951, the brothers sold the landmark store to Montreal’s Henry Morgan & Company. Ted Devlin stayed on as a director of Devlin’s which was now operated as a subsidiary of Henry Morgan & Company. All of Devlin’s staff were retained by Morgan’s as were Devlin’s policies, including the staff pension fund which was instituted by Ted Devlin in one of his last acts as the company’s president.

While Morgan’s initially ran the store under the Devlin name, six months after the purchase, Morgan’s send 10,000 Ottawa residents a questionnaire asking them whether it should retain the historic name or change it to the Henry Morgan Company. Five thousand people responded with a two to one margin in favour of changing the name.

In 1960, Morgan’s of Montreal was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company. While billed as a “merger,” it was in fact an acquisition under which Morgan shareholders received one Hudson’s Bay share and $14 for every Morgan’s share. The deal was worth $15.4 million. While the takeover was reported in the press, few realized the takeover had occurred as the Bay ran Morgan’s outlets, including the one on Sparks Street in Ottawa, under the Henry Morgan & Company name.

In November 1971, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought Ottawa’s A. J. Freiman’s department stores. With Freiman’s main store on Rideau Street, just a short walk away from the relatively small and elderly Morgan’s outlet on Sparks Street, Morgan’s future looked grim. On 23 March 1973, the hammer came down. The Hudson’s Bay Company announced that Morgan’s on Sparks Street would close for good. But, the Hudson’s Bay, still operating under the Freiman’s name in Ottawa, promised that no jobs would be lost with a new giant Freiman’s store to open later that year in a new west end shopping centre. That fall, with Freiman’s now operating under the Hudson’s Bay brand, a huge Bay store opened in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre.

Sources:

Hudson’s Bay Company, 2019. Morgan’s of Montreal, http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/acquisitions/morgans-of-montreal.

Ottawa Citizen, 1931. “Great Devlin Storm Prediction Caused A Sensation In The Eighties,” 5 December.

——————, 1949. “Firm of R. J. Devlin Now Celebrating It’s 80th Anniversary Year,” 5 March.

——————, 1951. “Morgan’s Buys Devlin Company,” 17 April.

——————, 1954. “Bound Volumes of Old Devlin Ads Given To Women’s Historical Society,” 15 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1889. “Winter Is Here,” 28 November.

——————-, 1889. “Prophet Devlin Comes Out On Top,” 28 November.

——————-, 1918. “R. J. Devlin Dead And City Loses Leading Citizen, 22 August.

——————-, 1951. “Devlin’s Becomes Morgan’s After Vote By 5,000 Residents,” 29 October.

——————, 1973. “Morgan store closing ends retailing legend,” 23 March.