The Russell Theatre

15 October 1897

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

Russell Theatre cross sectio 2-10-97

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

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

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

Russell Theatre, Kismet 16-Oct-97

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Theatre interior, 1928 Mikan 7821743 government

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

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

Russell Theatre ceiling 1928, Mikan 4821747 Government

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Central Canada Exhibition

24 September 1888

For more than one hundred and twenty years, a feature of Ottawa life during the late summer or early fall was the Central Canada Exhibition. Now sadly defunct, the fair started as an agricultural and industrial exhibition, providing a venue for the farmers of eastern Ontario and western Quebec to display their products, share knowledge, and compete for prizes. It was also an opportunity for manufacturers to exhibit not only the latest agricultural equipment to potential buyers, but also other types of wares.  Arts and crafts were additionally featured. It wasn’t all work, however. There was also entertainment, including circus acts, rides, games, and, of course, copious amounts of food and drink.

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Advertisement for the first annual Central Canada Exhibition, The Evening Journal, 15 August 1888

The Central Canada Exhibition began out of civic dissatisfaction with the annual Provincial Exhibition that was organized by the Agricultural and Arts Association of Ontario. The Provincial Exhibition, which was founded in 1845, moved from city to city in Ontario. However, local or civic fairs, including the Toronto Industrial Fair established in 1879 (to become the Canadian National Exhibition in 1912), began to compete with the more staid Provincial Exhibition. Although Ottawa hosted the Provincial Exhibition in 1887, it was not a great success. Many charged that the fair had been mismanaged, and that it had not been adequately promoted. As well, it appears that the Exhibition’s management irritated the wrong people. Ottawa’s Mayor Stewart was not amused when he was forced to pay a small fee for his horse when he arrived at Lansdowne Park, the venue that the city had provided rent-free to the Provincial Exhibition’s organizers.

Almost immediately after the Provincial Exhibition closed that year, a meeting was organized at Ottawa City’s Hall to discuss the merits of establishing Ottawa’s own annual agricultural fair. Chaired by Mayor Stewart, a long list of Ottawa’s great and worthy attended to voice their support, including Erskine Henry Bronson, a prominent Ottawa businessman and the member of the provincial assembly for Ottawa. (Bronson Avenue is named in his honour.) The Mayor also obtained the backing of the Premier, Sir John A. Macdonald.

In March 1888, the Province of Ontario incorporated the Central Canada Exhibition Association for the promotion of “industries, arts and sciences generally,” and gave it “full power and authority to hold permanent or periodical exhibitions.” Ottawa’s mayor and three members of city council were appointed to the Association, along with representatives from eastern Ontario as far west as Kingston, and from western Quebec as far east as the Island of Montreal. In addition to agricultural groups, a long list of scientific and artistic groups were also to be represented, including the Ontario College of Pharmacy, the Ottawa School of Arts and Sciences, the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, the Geological Survey of Canada, and the Art Association of Ottawa.

In support of the new agricultural exhibition, the City provided $10,000 to upgrade the Exhibition Grounds at Lansdowne Park. These included the relocation of a number of buildings, the erection of a grandstand for two thousand people, and the construction of new floral and machinery halls. Opposite the grandstand, a temporary stage was also built for performances. The cattle sheds, horse boxes and the poultry sheds were freshly white-washed. The fairgrounds were also wired for electricity to permit the fun to continue after dusk; electric streetlights had come to Ottawa three years earlier. The City also made improvements to Elgin and Bank Streets that led to the Exhibition Grounds. The admission fee to the Exhibition was 25 cents. A single carriage with a driver got in for 50 cents, with 25 cents charged for each additional passenger.

All was ready when Exhibition’s doors opened on 24 September 1888; the official inaugural ceremonies took place the following day in the presence of the Governor General, Lord Stanley of Preston. Ottawa was dressed to the nines for the event, with its store windows decorated and flags and bunting everywhere. There were close to 5,000 entries to the Exhibition, twice the number of the previous year’s Provincial Exhibition. Over three hundred horses were on show, including standard horses, blood horses, carriage horses, roadsters, and saddle horses, hunters and heavy draught horses. In the cattle shed could be found Durhams, Ayrshires, Galloways, Herefords, Holsteins, and Polled Angus. In the poultry shed, there were 110 entries in twenty varieties of chicken, including Plymouth Rooks, Cochin Chinas, White and Black Polands, and White Leghorns, as well as turkeys, geese, and pigeons.

The main building housed miscellaneous manufactures, ranging from hardware and harrows, to home furnishings, including the latest in labour-saving devices such as mangles, washing machines, and sewing machines. There were displays of “fancy work,” embroidery, paintings in watercolours and oils, and an “endless display of tidy and kindergarten work.” Two hundred entries were devoted to textile goods alone made from Canadian wool. In the carriage department, one hundred vehicles were on display—coaches, landaus, coupes, phaetons, tea carts, sulkies, 2-horse teams, market wagons, and sleighs. In an annex to the main building, R.J. Devlin, a large Ottawa department store, put on a massive display of furs with everything from musk ox to Persian lamb. Visitors were wowed by two stuffed polar bears and a Bengal tiger skin that stretched twenty feet from nose to tip of its tail.

The newly constructed machinery hall housed steam and horse-powered threshers and separators, ploughs, reaping and mowing machines, combines, windmills and stump extractors—everything a farmer could wish for. A “waterous engine” driving “hundreds of busy wheels,” transfixed visitors. A massive collection of minerals was also on display. All categories of machines, animals, plants, and crafts were judged with monetary prizes ranging from $25 to $5 in addition to gold, silver and bronze medals for first, second and third places, respectively. Diplomas were also awarded.

After the opening ceremonies, described as a “very recherché affair,” by the Ottawa Evening Journal,” there was a luncheon for the dignitaries, hosted by President Charles Magee of the Exhibition Association. The guests of honour were Lord Stanley and Acting Mayor Joseph Erratt; Mayor Stewart was in England and missed the Exhibition. He did, however, supply a number of cases of champagne to toast his health. Unsurprisingly, the mayor’s tent was very popular that afternoon, something that couldn’t have gone over well with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who had been grudgingly allowed to have a booth at the Exhibition. Music for the day was provided by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards.

That evening, with the electric lights illuminating the Exhibition grounds, the games began over the objections of clergymen who objected “most strongly” about turning an agricultural fair, aimed at improving and instructing people, into anything that resembled fun. Roman chariot races were held on the race track with teams of eight horses. This was followed by a series of circus acts. The Zanfretta family of New York performed a high-wire act with Mr Zanfretta carrying Miss Zanfretta across a rope suspended fifty feet in the air. Levanian and McCormick performed on the trapeze, while Professor Chiton juggled, and the Rice Brothers performed acrobatics. Other performers included Val Vina, a comic juggler, and Philion, the French Necromancer. Mr Topley, Ottawa’s premier photographer, also provided stereopticon views of old and new Ottawa. To cap the evening’s festivities was a brilliant fireworks display.

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Advertisement for the parachute jump, 1st Annual Central Canada Exhibition, The Evening Journal, 19 September 1888.

The next day, the highlight of the Exhibition, was the ascension of a hot-air balloon to 6,000 feet, from which a Professor Williams would make a parachute jump. The event was described as “the greatest out-door wonder the world has ever witnessed.” Ballooning and parachuting in the 1880s was not for the faint at heart. Balloonists were frequently injured or killed. One contemporary observer commented that “we are no more masters of the balloon than they [the Montgolfier brothers] were a century ago.” To jump from a balloon was an order of magnitude even more dangerous given the primitive parachutes of the time.

Late in the day, Professor Williams was ready to make his ascent. In front of an excited crowd of 20,000 people, he began to inflate his balloon over a fire. A dozen or so men volunteered to shake out the canvas as the bag inflated and hold onto the balloon to steady it. When the balloon was inflated, Williams got into the basket, and the rope securing the balloon over the top was released, leaving the men alone restraining it. Williams gave the command to release. Eleven men did so, but one held on, and was quickly carried into the air. Williams shouted up to the man “For God’s Sake, Drop!”  But, the man ignored the plea, and within seconds, the balloon had carried him hundreds of feet into the air. Silently, he held on for dear life. At one point, the man tried to catch his foot onto one of the ropes that suspended the basket. But he failed and became motionless again.  When his strength gave out, he plunged to his death, striking the ground in the backyard of a house near Bank Street close to the Mutchmor race track (now the site of Mutchmor Public School). Throughout his ordeal, the man never said a word. Powerless to do anything, Professor Williams jumped shortly afterwards, his parachute carrying him safely to the ground near the St Louis dam at Dow’s Lake as his balloon slowly sank as the air inside it cooled.

Below, the spectators first thought that the drama being played out high in the sky was part of the show. But cheers turned to moans as the man’s desperate plight became apparent. When the man’s grasp finally failed, hundreds of people rushed to the place where he hit the ground. A doctor, who happened to have his medical satchel with him, attempted to revive the young man, but it was hopeless. His body was carried inside a nearby home and laid out on the floor of the front room. As he carried no identification, it took police some time to identify him. He was 24-year old Tom Wensley of 107 Chapel Street. His father was an engineer for the Public Works Department. Having occurred in front of thousands of witnesses, Wensley’s death was ruled an accident by the police. There was no inquest. The Central Canada Exhibition paid the funeral expenses for the unfortunate man. Despite this horrific event, Professor Williams took to the air once again later in the week. This time, everybody let go on his command. He landed by parachute without incident.

aberdeen-pavilion-1903-william-james-topley-lac-pa-008938

The Aberdeen Pavilion, 1903. William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008938. Also known as the “Cattle Castle,” the Pavilion was expressly built for the Central Canada Exhibition in 1898. It was named after Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General at that time. Derelict by the late 1980s, Ottawa’s City Council voted to demolish the building but later changed its mind.It was restored and reopened in 1994.

The first Central Canada Exhibition was judged a great success. More than 50,000 people attended the six-day event. (Ottawa’s population was only about 40,000 at the time.) Most came by horse-drawn cab or bus, or by boat along the Rideau Canal. Schools closed for a day to allow students to attend. Civil servants and Chaudière mill workers were given a half-day holiday to permit them to see the sights. Thousands also came from outlying towns and villages. Ottawa hotels were all reported to be full during Exhibition week, except for the upscale Russell House. Merchants did a roaring trade both at the fair and outside. Financially, the Exhibition ended in the black, with revenues of roughly $12,000, slightly in excess of expenditures. The Ottawa Evening Journal commended all who participated in making the Exhibition a success, saying that the fair was a “splendid promise for the future.”

And indeed it was. It was the start of an event that was held annually, except during World War II, until well into the twenty-first century. Over time, however, with farming playing an ever diminishing role in Canadian life, the balance of activities at the Exhibition shifted. Agriculture, the raison d’être of the fair, was increasingly relegated to the sidelines in favour of midway entertainments and musical performances. But amidst the dazzling array of twenty-first century amusements and the temporary loss of its home at Lansdowne Park to redevelopment, the Exhibition could not compete. It died of ennui, with the last Ottawa SuperEx, as it became known, held in 2010. Its last Board of Directors disbanded in 2015.

 

Sources:

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1887. “The Value of the Provincial Exhibition,” 22 September.

——————————–, 1887. “Ottawa Is Willin’,” 6 October.

——————————–, 1888, “Central Canada Exhibition Association, 31 March.

——————————–, 1888. “The $210,000 By-Law,” 4 April.

——————————–, 1888. “Exhibition Notes,” 4 August.

——————————–, 1888. “Exhibition Matters,” 25 August.

——————————–, 1888. “The Light Side-Dishes To The Solid Central Fair,” 15 September.

——————————–, 1888, “Ministers Object,” 17 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Ottawa’s Great Fair,” 24 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Ottawa’s Great Fair,” 26 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Ottawa’s Great Fair,” 27 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Wensley’s Death,” 27 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Notes,” 28 September.

——————————–, 1888. “The Parachute Drop,” 29 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Good-By Central,” 29 September.

——————————–, 1888. “The Exhibition,” 29 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Adventures In The Air,” 4 October.

The Russell House Hotel

8 June 1863

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the centre of Ottawa’s social life was the Russell House Hotel that stood on the southeast corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. It was a grand and stately hostelry that dated back to about 1845. Originally, the hotel was a three-storey structure with an attic and tin roof known as Campbell’s House after its first owner. Located in Upper Town close to the Rideau Canal, it was the main stopping point for people vising Bytown, later known as Ottawa. Its food and other supplies came from Montreal by river in the summer and overland by sled in the winter.

russell-hotel-1864-library-and-archives-canada-c-002567b

The original Russell House Hotel, formerly Campbell’s Hotel, c. 1864, Library and Archives Canada, C-002567B

When Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, the future of the small community was secured. Its population soared after the Parliamentary and Governmental buildings were completed in the early 1860s, and civil servants and Members of Parliament decamped from Quebec City to Ottawa. Thinking ahead to the business opportunities that this influx of people would bring, Mr James A. Gouin from Quebec City bought Campbell’s Hotel. He renamed it the Russell House after the Russell Hotel in Quebec City where he had worked.

russell-hotel-1-12-1863-oc

Advertisement, The Ottawa Citizen, 17 July 1863

Advertisements dated 8 June 1863 appeared regularly in the Ottawa Citizen through the latter part of that year announcing that Gouin, the new proprietor of the Russell House, had completely repainted and refurnished “this commodious Establishment,” and that “on the 10th instant” would be ready to receive visitors. The hotel could accept twenty five to thirty boarders “at reasonable rates.”  The advertisement added that Gouin had been “connected for many years with Russell’s Hotel, Palace Street [Côte du Palais], Quebec.” This hotel, located just a few blocks from the provincial parliament buildings (now the site of Parc Montmorency), had been owned by the Russell family, Americans who had apparently settled in Quebec when it had been the centre of the lumber industry. Gouin later built the Caledonia Springs Hotel, a famous spa in eastern Ontario, and was appointed Ottawa Postmaster by Sir John A. Macdonald.

russell-hotel-james-grouin-1895-the-canadian-album

Mr James A. Gouin, First Proprietor and Manager of the Russell House Hotel, The Canadian Album, 1895.

Like its namesake at Quebec, the new Russell House Hotel was conveniently located at short stroll from Parliament Hill. It immediately attracted the great and powerful, becoming the home for many Members of Parliament, including Sir John A. Macdonald, in need of a place to live while the House of Commons and Senate were in session.  On Confederation Day, 1 July 1867, the Russell House was full, hosting prominent Canadians from across the country who had come to Ottawa to bear witness to that first Dominion Day, now known as Canada Day. Other prominent early guests included George Brown, the fiery Liberal MP. He was apparently staying at the Russell when he penned a complaint to Macdonald regarding the cost of building the Parliament buildings saying: Never mind expenses. Go ahead. Ruin the Country. Stop at nothing. Why not fountains and parks and gardens? It is also believed D’Arcy McGee, the Canadian nationalist and Father of Confederation who was assassinated in 1868 penned some of his poems at the Russell House Hotel.

russell-hotel-topley-studio-fonds-lac-pa008436

The Russell House Hotel, July 1893, Topley Studio Fonds/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008436.

The hotel was enlarged during the 1870s, with the “New Wing” erected on the Elgin Street side across from the Central Chambers (which still stand today). The hotel’s dining room was located in this wing. In 1880, the original Campbell’s Hotel building was torn down and was replaced by a new, larger, five-storey building on Sparks Street, built in the French Second Empire style, with shops located at ground level. Shortly afterwards, a final extension was made on the east side of the building towards what was then known as Canal Street. (Canal Street disappeared with the building of Confederation Plaza and the extension of the Driveway in 1928.) In the end, the hotel boasted more than 250 rooms.

The hotel reached its peak of popularity during the 1880s and 1890s, and was famous across the country as the place to stay while visiting the nation’s capital. The hotel’s manager, François Xavier St Jacques, who succeeded Gouin, was a living legend. Known as “the Count,” St Jacques was a great eccentric who greeted guests wearing high heel shoes that gave him an odd gait. Visiting Victorian luminaries, such as Oscar Wilde, Lilly Langtry, Lillian Russell, and the boxer “Gentleman” Jim Corbett were Russell House guests. Sir Mackenzie Bowell lived there for seventeen years, including when he was prime minister from 1894 to 1896. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was another long-term tenant, staying at the Russell for ten years before moving to Laurier House in 1897. The hostelry with its long bar and leather chairs was also the site of many political intrigues and debates over the decades, second only to the Parliament buildings themselves.

russell-hotel-dining-may-1884-topley-studio-lacpa-027059

Russell House Hotel Dining Room, May 1884, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027059.

The Russell House Hotel, synonymous with Ottawa and renowned across the country for elegance and fine dining, was eclipsed by the Château Laurier Hotel when that hotel opened for business a short distance away in 1912. By then, the grand old lady had become worn and shabby. In 1923, several thousand dollars was spent upgrading the main entrance and the rotunda, but it was too little too late. By that point, the hotel was rat and cockroach infested.

At noon on 1 October 1925, the hotel closed for good, a victim of rising costs and declining occupancy rates. Paradoxically, bookings during the hotel’s last summer had been strong, with the hotel attracting both tourist and convention business; the Russell was the headquarters of the Dominion Trades & Labour Congress that year. But that was not enough to keep the venerable hotel from closing. On its last night, more than 150 guests were booked into the hotel. They had to take “pot luck” for supper in the cafeteria as food supplies were limited. In the rotunda, a number of old timers sat on battered chairs reminiscing about happier times. One hotel veteran was moved by the occasion to pen a poem entitled “Old Russell Farewell.” Its first verse went:

Adieu, adieu old rendezvous

With saddened hearts we’re leaving you;

‘Twas here friends were wont to meet;

Here argued we affairs of state,

How oft’ we talked long and late,

To make the other fellow know.

Ah! Life is but a passing show.

The next morning, with guests forced to seek their breakfast outside of the hotel, the place was virtually deserted. By shortly after noon, the only employee left out of a staff of 150 was a desk clerk tallying up the last day’s receipts. Gone also were the hotel’s “permanent” residents who had called the hotel home. One had been living at the Russell for thirty-three years.

Initially, its then owner, Russell L. Blackburn, planned to tear down the old hotel and replace it with a modern $1 million hostelry. However, Ottawa City Council balked at his demand to fix his property tax at $7,400 for twenty years. The empty building went into limbo, though the many ground-floor stores continued to operate until the Federal Capital District (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell block of buildings and torn them down as part of its efforts to beautify the capital. In its place, the FDC built Confederation Plaza in commemoration of the diamond anniversary of Confederation in 1927.

The FDC bought the hotel property and the adjacent Russell Theatre property for $1,270,379.15 (equivalent to roughly $17.7 million in today’s money). The deal was still incomplete when just before midnight on 14 April 1928, the hotel went up in flames in a massive fire. Virtually all of Ottawa’s available fire equipment, which at the time was still being pulled by horses, were called in to tackle the blaze. Five firemen were injured by falling debris and flying glass. The cause of the fire was never ascertained. There was a suspicion of arson as first responders found fires in various places on different floors. However, the fire marshal speculated that had the fire been due to an electrical fault, the fire could have easily spread through the walls and floors before the alarm was called in. Alternatively, the evening’s high winds could have carried embers from floor to floor through the hotel’s many broken and open windows.

russell-hotel-fire-samuel-j-jarvis-lac-pa-025085

Russell House Hotel after the fire, 1928, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025085.

Thousands of Ottawa citizens watched the firemen fight the blaze. Many were in evening clothes having just left parties and dances. Guests at the Château Laurier Hotel located across Connaught Plaza from the Russell watched the fire from the windows of their rooms. Other spectators arrived by car, with the best parking spots on Parliament Hill near the East Block. There, people watched in the comfort of their heated automobiles. Knowing that the building was slated for demolition, people cheered as the fire progressed. It reached its height at about 2.30am when the flag pole over the central entrance succumbed to the flames. At 4am, more than a thousand hardy spectators were still on hand despite the cold. The firemen were able to contain the blaze, and stop the conflagration from spreading to other structures. At one point Ottawa’s City Hall further down on Elgin Street was threatened. Ironically, the City Hall was to be destroyed by fire three years later.

russell-premieer-hat-co-1928-lac-mikan-4821789

The Premier Hat Company before the fire, 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4821789.

Losses from the Russell Hotel fire were relatively modest given the scale of the blaze. The Hotel was insured for only $30,000, the low amount reflecting the fact that it was almost derelict and had been emptied of its contents. Some of the small, street-levels shops were not so lucky. “The Treasure House” owned by Herbert Grierson, which sold jewellery, pottery, paintings, china and leather goods, suffered losses of $15,000-$20,000, of which only $8,000 was covered by insurance. The Premier Hat Company lost $10,000 in stock but carried only $2,500 in insurance. Looters also walked off with dozens of hats; one was seen carrying seventeen. Although the owner, Mr Samuel Gluck, was on hand, he was unable to rescue his stock in time owning to difficulty in obtaining a moving truck. Eighteen crates of Persian and Chinese carpets worth $90,000 were also stored in the former cafeteria of the Russell on Elgin Street awaiting auction. Fortunately, the carpets escaped with only minor water damage. They were disposed of in a “fire sale” held a few days later.

With the hotel ruined, the authorities moved to clear the rubble. It took longer than expected with the city threatening legal action against the wrecking company if it didn’t hurry up. But at precisely 1.06 pm on Saturday 10 November 1928 the grand old Russell House Hotel, which had been the focal point of Ottawa social and political life for over sixty years, entered history. The last remnant to go was its 80-foot chimney. Recognizing the historic nature of the event, A. Brahinsky, a representative of City Iron & Bottle Company, announced the time of the pending demolition to allow citizens to come and watch the spectacle. Hundreds cheered as the chimney crash to the ground, brought down by heavy cables and a horse truck. There must have been a few tears, however. The Ottawa Journal commented that “there must be many among us who, as one by one the old landmarks go, feel little but loss of happy reminders of a brave and gracious past.”

Today, no trace of the old Russell House Hotel remains. The site of the hotel is now occupied by the War Memorial.

 

Sources:

Cockrane, William, Rev., 1895. The Canadian Album. Men of Canada; or Success by Example in Religion, Patriotism, Business, Law, Medicine, Education and Agriculture, Bradley Garretson & Co: Brantford,

Evening Journal (The), 1924. “Fixed Hotel Assessments,” 2 October.-

—————————, 1925. “Reached No Decision Over Hotel Request,    23 January.

—————————, 1925. “New Russell House Is Going Out Of Business After Being In Operation Over 50 Years,” 1 September.

—————————, 1925.  “Russell Hotel Comes To An End Of Long Career,” 1 October.

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

—————————, 1928. “Russell Hotel For 60 Years Past An Intimate Part Of City Life,” 16 April.

—————————, 1928. “Demolish Russell,” 9 November.

—————————, 1928. “Hundreds Watch Demolition of Big Chimney At Russell,” 12 November.

—————————, 1928. “The Old Russell House: Some Memories,” 13 November.

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

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1863. “Russell House,” 17 July.

————————-, 1925. “Russell Hotel Closes Doors: Passing of Historic Hotel Is Devoid Of Any Ceremony,” 1 October.

————————-, 1928. “Fire Will Help Park Scheme To Pass Commons,” 16 April.

 

The Greatest Show on Earth

24 July 1895

The late nineteenth century marked the golden age of the American circus. Travelling the railroads that had just been laid down during the great railway boom, as many as fifty circuses crisscrossed the continent, bringing excitement, diversion, and sometimes education, to towns and cities throughout North America. With popular entertainment in short supply in those days before television, radio, and motion pictures, the arrival of the circus each summer was a much anticipated event. Of all the circuses of that era, the greatest of them was probably the Barnum & Bailey circus, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth. For once, the hyperbole so loved by circus promoters was accurate. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Barnum’s came six times to Ottawa, with each show arguably more fantastic than the previous one.

The Barnum & Bailey circus was brought to the world by two of the greatest showmen and circus impresarios of all times—Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum and James Anthony Bailey. Barnum, who was born in 1810, got his start his start in New York where he acquired Scudder’s American Museum in 1841. Modestly renaming it after himself, the museum, which was a mixture of menagerie, aquarium, museum, lecture hall and freak show, became famous for its display of the FeeJee (Fiji) mermaid. The mermaid, which was much hyped by Barnum as the mummified remains of a mermaid supposedly discovered in the Pacific, captured people’s imagination and drew tens of thousands to Barnum’s American Museum. In actuality, it had been created by stitching together the head and upper body of an ape with the lower body and tail of a fish. Human “curiosities” were also showcased, including “General” Tom Thumb, a 25-inch tall dwarf (who appeared in Ottawa at Her Majesty’s Theatre in October 1861), a “man-monkey”, who was in reality a microcephalic black man, and the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker. Originally from Siam (Thailand), they were the source of the term “Siamese twins.” After his New York museum burnt down, Barnum went into the circus business, establishing P.T. Barnum’s Grand Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome in 1871. He is credited for being the first to use the railway for transporting his circus from city to city. He also began to call his circus “the Greatest Show on Earth.”

James A. Bailey was born James A. McGinniss in 1847. Orphaned as a child, he adopted the last name Bailey to honour the man who got him started in the circus business. In the early 1870s, he was a partner in a travelling circus known as the Cooper & Bailey Circus, and was in competition with Barnum.  Bailey linked up with Barnum in 1881. The merged company retained the advertising slogan of “the Greatest Show on Earth,” though it wasn’t to use the joint Barnum & Bailey name until 1888, sticking until then with the better-known Barnum name.

The newly merged company quickly gained international notoriety for buying Jumbo, an African elephant, from the London zoo for £2,000, then equivalent to almost $10,000.  Jumbo was a sensation wherever it went. The huge elephant, billed as the largest outside of Africa, came to Ottawa in 1883 and 1885 as the prime exhibit of the grandly named “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and Howes Great London Circus and Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie.” The 1885 Ottawa performance occurred just days before Jumbo died in an accident in a rail yard in St Thomas, Ontario.  While accounts vary, it appears that Jumbo and another elephant called Dwarf were struck by a freight train. Jumbo was killed instantly, while Dwarf sustained a fractured leg. While viewed as an “irreplaceable loss” by the circus, Barnum, the perennial showman, had Jumbo’s skeleton and skin preserved and put on display in the circus. Jumbo’s remains came back to Ottawa when Barnum’s returned to the capital in 1887. The circus’s advertised that JUMBO was “as Large as Life and Quite as Natural,” and was the “Only Elephant Skeleton on Exhibition Anywhere.” He was accompanied by Alice his “Affectionate and Distressed Companion.”

circus-23-11-1895

Barnum and Bailey Circus Advertisement, The Evening Journal, 23 July 1895

Of the six Barnum circuses that came to Ottawa during the late nineteenth century, the greatest was probably the 1895 edition that arrived in town in the early morning of Wednesday, 24 July. With Barnum’s death in 1891, the circus was now run solely by James Bailey who had bought out his partner’s share from Barnum’s widow. The show remained, however, Barnum & Bailey’s Great Show on Earth, giving the famous dead showman top billing. It advertised that its capital was $3.5 million, with daily expenses of $7,000.

So huge was the Barnum & Bailey circus that it took four specially-equipped trains of 68 cars to transport performers and other personnel, animals, including a “monster” herd of twenty-four elephants, sideshows, and tents and other equipment from Montreal to Ottawa on the Canada Atlantic Railway (CAR), pulling in at the Elgin Street station (Catherine Street at Metcalfe Street). But so organized were the roadies responsible for setting up the circus that the tents were raised and made ready for the day’s performances in under ninety minutes at the old race track opposite the Exhibition Grounds at Lansdowne Park on Bank Street. The Ottawa Evening Journal commented that the “easy way” that the workers put up the big tents “demonstrated that they have the thing down to a science.” In preparation for the thousands of spectators that would be heading to the temporary circus grounds, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company “watered” Bank Street (still a dirt road at that time) from the CAR tracks to the circus venue at its own expense to ensure that the street was in good condition. It also put on extra trams on the Bank Street route from downtown.

At 9.30am, the circus paraded through Ottawa as was customary at that time, in front of thousands of excited onlookers, including many drawn into the city from surrounding villages by advertising posters that said “It is worth coming miles to see and once seen never forgotten.” One newspaper story only half-jokingly commented that there was a high demand for children that morning by usually “sedate” citizens who wouldn’t otherwise appear alone at a circus.

The parade’s Order of March gives a sense of the awesome scale of the circus.

Military Band

Gentlemen Fox Hunters and Cavaliers

Lady Performers and Side-Saddle Experts

Band Chariot drawn by ten horses

Menagerie

Open Den of five tigers and trainer

Open Den of four lions and trainer

Open Den of six leopards and trainer

Open Den of six panthers and trainer

Open Den of six hyenas and trainer

Open Den of four bears and trainer

Open Den of six wolves and trainer

Band Chariot drawn by ten horses carrying Euterpe (muse of music)

Mounted Ladies of the Hippodrome

Mounted Gentlemen of the Hippodrome

Three teams of Standing Roman racers

Three four-horse Roman chariots

Twelve performing elephants

Twelve dromedaries with Asiatic riders

Dragon chariot with harnessed camels

Chariot of India drawn by ten horses

Floats

Cinderella’s Fairy Coach

Bluebeard

Old Woman who lived in a Shoe

Santa Claus

Little Red Riding Hood

Sinbad the Sailor

Mother Goose

A Steam Calliope [a very loud musical instrument that uses steam to power large whistles]

The Crowned Heads of the World accompanied by correctly uniformed military retinues

Emperor of China

King Thibaw of Siam

Khedive of Egypt

Mikado of Japan

Sultan of Turkey

Infant Queen of Holland

King Leopold of Belgium

King Oscar of Sweden

Infant Queen of Spain

King Humbert of Italy

Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany

Queen Victoria

American Allegorical Chariot with representatives of the Army, Navy, Washington, Lincoln, Uncle Sam and the Goddess of Liberty.

The parade route took the band wagon, floats, animals and performers from its grounds down Bank Street to Albert Street, turning onto Lyon Street, and then along Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings before crossing Sappers’ Bridge into Lower Town, passing down Cumberland, Clarence, Sussex and Rideau Streets, before retracing their steps along Wellington and Bank Streets back to the circus grounds. The procession through the streets received a rapturous applause from onlookers, though the Journal noted some casting problems, wryly commenting that it’s impossible to make an Irishman into a Chinese dragoon.

forepaughsellsc-1905deptofminestechnicalsurveyslacpa034081

Parade along Wellington Street of the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus, c. 1905 with the East Block of Parliament Hill in the background. This circus company, originally a competitor of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, was purchased by James Bailey in the late 19th century and was later acquired by Ringling Brothers following Bailey’s death. Forepaugh & Sells made three visits to Ottawa during the early 20th century. It folded in 1911. Dept. of Mins & Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada, PA-034081.

Later that day, the circus put on two performances. Tickets were 50 cents, 25 cents for children under nine years of age. Reserved seats could be purchased at Rosenthal & Company’s Jewellery Store at 89 Sparks Street. There were 110 acts performed in three rings and two stages used simultaneously. Barnum’s advertised that their circus was the only one to have a lady ringmaster and a lady clown. The Journal reported that the performance was a “kaleidoscopic display of leapers, tumblers, gymnasts, equestrian, hurdle riders, aerialist, trapezists and clowns.”  If there was any complaint it was that here was too much to see. Among the aerialist performers were The Three Dunbars and The 3 Flying Dillons. The Meer sisters, Marie and Ouika, billed as Europe’s greatest lady equestrians, also performed. They were reputedly hired at an enormous salary of $100 per day. Swimming exhibits were held in a large tank in the middle of the main tent. Louis Golden dove into a five foot deep tank of water from the top of the tent, fifty-one feet in the air. The wild beasts performed in a special steel-barred arena. Other acts included Johanna, the only giantess gorilla in captivity, chariot races, and champion log rolling.

The featured sideshow was a great Ethnological Congress displaying representatives of “strange and savage tribes arranged in their barbaric clothes.” The people gave exhibitions of war dances, and religious ceremonies using “their own peculiar musical instruments.” Among the peoples exhibited were “Hindoos, Pagans, Cannibals, Idolaters, Vishnus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Fire and Sun Worshippers.” The Journal highly commended the show as “educational and instructive.” Typically degrading and racist, such “human zoos” were very popular in North America and Europe during the late nineteenth century.

While the circus was only in Ottawa for one day. The food bill for the performers and animals was gargantuan. It was reported that Barnum’s ordered twelve tons of hay, four loads of straw for bedding, fifty bushels, large quantities of vegetables, and 1,400 pounds of meat for the lions and other carnivores. Meanwhile, Ottawa butchers Slattery and Terrance supplied 800 pounds of beef, pork, lamb and other meats for circus members. Twelve cooks made the troupe’s dinner, with sixty waiters serving more than 300 people.

The Barnum & Bailey circus, which went on a five-year tour of Europe, did not return to Ottawa until 1906. Following Bailey’s death in 1906, the Ringling Brothers, who operated the Ringling Brothers Circus, bought Barnum’s. The two circuses were merged in 1919. In mid-January 2017, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that owing to declining attendance and rising costs it would close in May, bringing an end to the Greatest Show on Earth after 146 years.

Sources:

Jando, Dominique, 2016. “Short History of the Circus,” Circopedia, http://www.circopedia.org/SHORT_HISTORY_OF_THE_CIRCUS.

Circus Historical Society, 2002. http://www.circushistory.org/.

Conover, Richard E., 1957. The Affairs of James A. Bailey,” http://www.circushistory.org/Pdf/ConoverJAB.pdf.

Global News, 2017. “Ringling Bros. circus to close after 146 years,” 15 January, http://globalnews.ca/news/3182186/ringling-bros-circus-to-close-after-146-years/.

Springhall, John, 2008. The Genius of Mass Culture, Show Business Live in America, 1840-1940, Palgrave MacMillan: New York

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1887. “Barnum Coming,” 16 July.

———————————–, 1895. “A Costly Pageant,” 23 July.

———————————–, 1895. “The Circus In Town,” 24 July.

———————————–, 1895. “Barnum and Baily Show Arrives,” 24 July.

———————————–, 1895. “Things Strange and New,” 25 July.

 

 

Crowfoot: Chief, Diplomat, Peacemaker

8 October 1886

During the late nineteenth century, the most influential indigenous leader in Canada was Crowfoot (Isapo-muxika), Chief of the Blackfoot First Nation (Siksika) whose ancestral territory encompassed much of southern Alberta and northern Montana in the United States.  A fierce warrior in his youth, he was highly respected by both the Plains First Nations and white settlers. He recognized that the arrival of the white man heralded the end of his people’s traditional way of life. But when many sought war, he counselled peace. When the Riel Rebellion broke, he refused to join the rebels, believing that conflict would be disastrous for his people. In 1886, Crowfoot and other Plains chiefs came east on the invitation of Sir John A. Macdonald to attend the dedication of a statue in Brantford of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), the Mohawk leader who fought alongside the British during the American Revolution. Before going to Brantford, the chiefs passed through Ottawa where they were greeted by Sir John and Lady Macdonald, and Ottawa’s Mayor McDougal.

crowfoot-at-earnscliffe

Plains First Nations Chiefs at Earnscliffe, home of Sir John A. Macdonald, 9 October 1886. Front Row (L to R): North Axe (Piegan), One Spot (Blood); Middle Row (L to R): Three Bulls (Blackfoot), Crowfoot (Blackfoot), Red Cloud (Blood); Rear Row (L to R): Father Lacombe, John L’Heureux, Library and Archives Canada, PA-045666.

Crowfoot was born into the Blood First Nation (Kainai) in about 1830. The Bloods, while distinct from the Blackfoot, were part of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Niitsitapi), meaning the “Real People.”  They, along with the Piegans (Piikani), shared a common Algonquian language, and were close allies. Initially known as Short Close (Astexomi), Crowfoot, at age five, joined the Blackfoot Nation when his widowed mother married a Blackfoot warrior. At this time, the Blackfoot civilization was at its peak. On horseback, the Real People followed the massive herds of buffalo (bison) that roamed freely over the North American Plains. The buffalo, essential to their way of life, provided them with most of their needs. The Blackfoot protected their hunting grounds from incursions from the Cree Nation to the north and east and the Crow Nation to the south.

As was common practice, Short Close received a new Blackfoot name Bear Ghost (Kyiah-sta-ah), when he became a Blackfoot. Following his first raid, he took a man’s name, Packs A Knife (Istowun-eh’pata), the name of his dead father. Following many acts of valour, he later took the name Crow Indian’s Big Foot, which was later shortened to Crowfoot by interpreters. By his early twenties, Crowfoot had been in nineteen battles, and had been wounded many times.

Even before Crowfoot had become a man, the Blackfoot way of life was under threat. Although few white men, other than a handful of traders, had reached their territory by mid-century, the diseases that they carried spread before them. Smallpox devastated the Real People. Without any immunity, an outbreak in the late 1830s killed two thirds of the Blackfoot people.

By the mid-1860s, Crowfoot had become recognized as one of the important up and coming leaders of the Blackfoot. About this time, he met the Oblate priest Albert Lacombe who had been sent to bring Christianity to the Cree and Blackfoot Nations. Saved by Crowfoot during a Cree raid on a Blackfoot camp, the two became close friends. Lacombe’s accounts of Crowfoot are the reason why we know so much of his life. In 1869, another serious smallpox outbreak stuck killing thousands, including Three Suns, the chief of the Blackfoot Nation. Crowfoot took his place as chief.

In 1870, the new Dominion of Canada took over control (at least in white men’s eyes) of Prince Rupert’s Land, which extended from northern Quebec to southern Alberta, from the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). When the HBC administered the territory, it also policed it, enforcing laws against the selling of alcohol. However, when the Dominion ostensibly assumed control of the territory, now called the North-West Territories, it had no boots on the ground. Into this vacuum moved unscrupulous American traders who set up illegal settlements from which they sold whisky to the Plains First Nations in exchange for buffalo pelts. The most notorious of such “whisky forts” was “Fort Whoop-Up,” built near present-day Lethbridge. Concerned about maintaining Canadian sovereignty over the territory and re-establishing law and order in the west, the government created the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873.

The arrival of the NWMP was welcomed by Crowfoot who had witnessed the impoverishment and degradation of the Blackfoot Nation as a result of whisky brought in by the American traders. He also was encouraged that the police applied the law equally to white settlers and indigenous peoples. This was in stark contrast with law enforcement practices south of the international border. A strong bond of trust consequently developed between the Blackfoot chief and Colonel Macleod, the commander of the NWMP. Crowfoot willingly co-operated with the police, and discouraged younger warriors from raiding camps of rival tribes. For a time, harmony on the plains was restored, and the Blackfoot Nation began to recover.

The trust that developed between the police and Crowfoot made Treaty 7 possible in 1877. This treaty was the seventh of its kind between the Plains First Nations and the government following its takeover of Prince Rupert’s Land. Recognizing that the buffalo had all but disappeared, and that white settlers in the south and Métis and Cree in the east were encroaching on Blackfoot territory, Crowfoot sought protection for his people and a sustainable livelihood. For its part, the government wanted land for settlers and for the construction of a trans-Canadian railway.

The Real People who lived in the south and had witnessed the U.S. government break newly-signed treaties were reluctant to sign a treaty with the Canadian government. But Crowfoot was persuasive. Putting his faith in his friend Colonel Macleod, he signed. The other chiefs followed suit. Along with Colonel Macleod, David Laird, the Lieutenant Governor of the North-West Territories, signed for the government. While retaining their hunting rights, the Blackfoot surrendered much of their territory for “as long as the sun shines and the rivers run” in exchange for a reserve of one square mile of land for each family of five. The government also promised certain cash payments, cattle for live-stock rearing, farming implements, money to buy ammunition each year, and funds to pay for education.

Things did not work out as Crowfoot had wanted. The Blackfoot chiefs, who had a very different sense of land ownership than white settlers, most likely didn’t fully appreciate what they had signed. The buffalo disappeared quicker than expected, and the few that remained were only to be found deep inside U.S. territory. The Blackfoot Nation headed south into Montana in search of the herds, only to find starvation. They also encountered worried white settlers who feared the reputation of the Blackfoot and the possibility that they might join up with Sioux who had just defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Sick and starving, the Blackfoot returned to Canada to find new, uncaring administrators in charge of the Indian Department who cheated and humiliated them. Discontentment grew. But Crowfoot’s diplomatic skills combined with the appointment of new territorial leaders who had a better understanding of the Blackfoot’s plight prevented outright conflict.

In 1885, Crowfoot’s diplomatic skills were tested again when representatives of the Métis and Cree peoples of Manitoba sought Blackfoot aid in the Riel Rebellion. Crowfoot, who knew Riel, was sympathetic, but was wary about joining the rebellion as he could perceive no benefit for his people—his first priority—from going to war. After seeking the counsel of other Blackfoot chiefs, and speaking with white leaders whom Crowfoot considered friends, he stayed out of the conflict. From Blackfoot Crossing near Gleichen, Alberta, he sent a message to Sir John A. Macdonald. It read:

On behalf of myself and people, I wish to send through you to the Great Mother the words I have given to the Governor [of the North West Territories]at a council held at which all my minor chiefs and young men were present. We are agreed and determined to remain loyal to the Queen… Should any Indian come to our reserve and ask us to join them in war we shall turn them away.

With the Riel Rebellion quickly supressed, Crowfoot’s decision undoubtedly saved many lives.

In July 1886, the Blackfoot leader met Sir John and Lady Macdonald at the Gleichen rail stop in present-day southern Alberta, when the couple crossed the country on the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway. During the short meeting, Crowfoot expressed an interest in visiting the Premier in Ottawa. Just two months later, Crowfoot along with his foster brother, Three Bulls, were invited east by the government, accompanied by Father Lacombe. Red Crow of the Bloods, and North Axe of the Piegans followed later with the interpreter Jean L’Heureux.  A group of Cree chiefs also travelled east. The ostensible reason for the visits was the dedication of the memorial to Joseph Brant in Brantford. Another unspoken reason was to impress upon the First Nations’ chiefs the power of the Canadian government.

After stops in Montreal and Quebec City, Crowfoot, Three Bulls and Father Lacombe arrived at noon in Ottawa on 8 October 1886 where they met up with the other Blackfoot chiefs. They were lodged in comfortable rooms on the second floor of the Grand Union Hotel. That afternoon, they met a reporter from the Ottawa Evening Journal. Father Lacombe acted as interpreter. The reporter described Crowfoot as being of medium height, with a “stolid dignity of his race.” He wore “gaudy” flannel pants covered with a fringe, a blue shirt with a vest, and colourful blanket around his waist. Covering his iron-grey, shoulder-length hair was a stiff white hat with gold lace and “gorgeous white plumes.” Around his neck was a silver Treaty medal. Through Father Lacombe, Crowfoot commented that he was delighted to visit the home of kristamonion, his brother-in-law, Sir John A. Macdonald. He also expressed pleasure on how he was being treated.

Unfortunately, the journalist couldn’t resist reporting that Crowfoot and Three Bulls received him with a “series of ughs,” a stereotypical expression that he repeated in subsequent stories. Indeed, the general tone of the news coverage of the Blackfoot leaders was often condescending; their trip appears to have been seen by many as an exotic, carnival sideshow.

The next morning, after reportedly sleeping on the floor instead of a comfortable spring bed, Crowfoot and Three Bulls had a “hearty breakfast,” after which the chiefs returned to Crowfoot’s room pulled out tobacco pipes and settled down for a smoke surrounded by curious on-lookers. At 10am, they were driven in barouches through Lower Town, with a stop in the market. The chiefs were suitably impressed by the commerce underway; a market was something that that Crowfoot wanted established back home.

Afterwards, Crowfoot and the other chiefs headed for Earnscliffe, the home of Sir John and Lady Macdonald. (Earnscliffe is now the home of the British High Commissioner.) Lady Macdonald, who Crowfoot called Asaskit-sipappi, the “good-hearted woman,” came outside to greet the chiefs as they pulled up to the front of the house. They were then taken to the parlour where they met Sir John. With Father Lacombe acting as interpreter, Crowfoot asked for the Premier’s help in starting farms and establishing a market since the buffalo had all gone with the coming of the white man.

Sir John gave each chief $25 and promised to send more presents and clothing to the Blackfoot people. He urged the chiefs to remain peaceful and to be patient if “time elapsed before all their demands were granted.” He added that Edgar Dewdney, the then Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Territories, would take care of them, and promised to find a market for their surplus production. Sir John also granted Crowfoot’s request to return home right away instead of going to Brantford for the unveiling of the Joseph Brant memorial. The Blackfoot leader was unwell and was pining for his people. After the interview, the chiefs were conducted outside for a photograph in the garden.

crowfoot-at-city-hall

Plains First Nations Chiefs at City Hall, Ottawa, 11 October 1886. Front Row (L to R): City Clerk W.P. Lett, Mayor McDougal, One Spot, Three Bulls, Crowfoot, Red Cloud, North Axe, Father Lacombe, Ald. F.R.E. Campeau. Library and Archives Canada, PA-066624.

The following day, the chiefs attended high mass in the Basilica, occupying seats where they would be seen by the entire congregation while Father Lacombe conducted the service. Later, Father Lacombe gave a lecture at the Ottawa College on “The North-West Indians.” Mr F.R.E. Campeau of the Institut Canadien chaired the meeting. During Father Lacombe’s address, the Blackfoot chiefs smoked tobacco, passing a long pipe from one the other. Afterwards, Campeau presented a purse to Crowfoot, who in turn gave the money to his compatriots.

On their final day in Ottawa, the Blackfoot chiefs met with officials of the Indian Department. At the Department, they met up with the Cree chiefs who were also to attend the unveiling of the Joseph Brant memorial. Later in the afternoon, Crowfoot and the other Blackfoot chiefs visited City Hall. Escorted into the Council Chamber by Mayor McDougal, Crowfoot sat in the Mayor’s chair, while City Clerk W.P. Lett read out a letter of welcome. The City presented the chiefs “with the wampum belt of friendship,” offered “the pipe of peace” and gave them money that Crowfoot distributed to the other chiefs.

Exhausted, Crowfoot returned immediately by train to Blackfoot Crossing. He died four years later on 25 April 1890, surrounded by his friends, including Father Lacombe. His grave, marked by a cross, is located near Blackfoot Crossing National Park.

Treaty Seven never lived up to Crowfoot’s expectations. Promised payments and support were not provided. The First Nations that signed the treaty are now represented by the Treaty 7 Management Corporation and are involved in negotiations with the federal government over various aspects of the Treaty.

Sources:

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, 2016, http://www.blackfootcrossing.ca/index.html.

Canada (Government of), Indigenous and Northern Affairs, 2016. Treaty Research Report – Treaty 7, https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100028789/1100100028791.

Canadian History Workshop, 2016. Treaty 7, https://canadianhistoryworkshop.wordpress.com/treaties/treaty-seven/.

Commons, House of, 1885. “The Disturbance in the North-West,” Commons Debates, p. 1088, 13 April.

Dempsey, Hugh, 1972. Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfeet, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 2016. Isapo-muxica (Crowfoot), http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/isapo_muxika_11E.html.

Glenbow Museum, 2016. Niitsitapiisini, http://www.glenbow.org/blackfoot/#.

Hacker, Carlotta, 1999. Crowfoot, The Canadians Continuing Series, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd, Markham.

Lacombe, Albert, 1890. “Crowfoot, Great Chief of the Blackfeet,” Our Future, Our Past, The Alberta Heritage Digitization Project, http://www.ourfutureourpast.ca/loc_hist/page.aspx?id=245933.

Lethbridge, Daily Herald (The), 1925. “Crowfoot – Chief of Chiefs,” 4 July.

New Federation House, 2016. Native Leaders of Canada, http://www.newfederation.org/Native_Leaders/Bios/Crowfoot.htm.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1886. “The Indian Chiefs,” 8 October.

————————————-, 1886. “The Chiefs,” 9 October.

————————————-, 1886. “Jottings About Town,” 9 October.

————————————-, 1886. “The North-West Indians,” 11 October.

————————————-, 1886. “Father Lacombe’s Views,” 11 October.

————————————-, 1886. “The City and the Chiefs,” 11 October.

————————————-, 1886. “At the Department,” 11 October.

Tesar, Alex, 2016. “Treaty 7,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-7/.

 

Santa Claus Comes To Town

24 December 1896

It’s hard sometimes not to get a little cynical about Christmas.  Even before the last Halloween candy or pumpkin pie is consumed, it seems that stores have already put up the lights and tinsel of Christmas. Television advertisements urge us to buy things that neither we nor our family need. Christmas catalogues and store flyers clog our mailboxes, both real and virtual. Every shopping centre has its mall Santa, complete with faux ice palace, throne, green-clad helpers, and a posted list of times of when that jolly old elf dressed in red polyester and a fake white beard will be there to hear children’s wish lists. Christmas craft fairs and Santa Claus parades abound. For 2016, a local tourism site listed no less than seventeen Santa parades in the Ottawa area, most taking place in November to help rev up the Christmas spirit and encourage us to shop.

santa-21-12-1895

Santa Claus in the 1890s, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 21 December 1895

This is not to say the “good old days” were necessarily any less commercial. In the lead-up to Christmas 1896, Bryson, Graham Company, a large department store on Sparks Street, billed itself as the “Headquarters of Santa” and advertised “Special Xmas Offerings to the Little Folks.” For boys, these included small iron trains for 25 cents, fire ladder wagons with horse for $1.45, and tops, “some musical, some goers,” for 50 cents, as well as “spring guns, harmless pistols, and cannons.” (One hopes that the spring guns and cannons were also harmless.) For little girls, there were doll perambulators for 25 cents, and “very pretty” doll parlour suites for 15 cents or 25 cents. Games of all kinds, including Bagatelle [a forerunner of pinball], Parlour Croquet, and Go Bang [similar to Go], were also “expressly priced for Christmas.” The store also told shoppers not to forget while they were at the store to buy three dozen oranges or five pounds of candies for 25 cents.

John Murphy & Company, another big Ottawa retailer, urged “everyone to take a stroll round our store and see the sights of Xmas displays. Everything is looking marvellous.”  It advertised “Christmas Dresses at Santa Claus’ prices.” For one day, full length dress robes were only $2.15. Best quality dresses were $3.00. Camel hair cloth was marked down to 50 cents a yard, from 75 cents, while brown and grey all wool homespun was reduced to 75 cents a yard from $1.25. On Christmas Eve, the store advertised a free bottle of perfume with every pair of kid gloves purchased. In the toy department, one thousand games were on sale at half price. While 40 extra staff had been hired for the day, it warned that “Christmas Buyers should do their shopping early” to avoid the rush and to get “better service and better suited.” Store hours were extended to 10pm for the convenience of shoppers, as well as, of course, to provide more opportunity for the store to pry hard-earned cash from the wallets and purses of Ottawa citizens.

Despite the commercialism of Christmas, then and now, once in a while something happens that restore one’s faith in the generosity of mankind, and the almighty dollar is pushed aside for a time. One such occasion occurred in 1896. Three days before Christmas, the Ottawa Evening Journal received a mysterious, little letter from Santa Claus. Dated the previous week from the North Pole, the letter read:

I have arranged to visit Ottawa on Thursday, the day before Christmas, and wish you would let all the little children know that I shall appear on the principal streets during Thursday afternoon on top of an electric [street]car.

Santa added that he would visit Sparks and other streets but would have to disappear by 4.30pm so that he could prepare for the visits he intended to make “that night to the homes of all Ottawa children who are good.” He closed by promising that he would telegraph ahead to tell people his progress on his trip south. The Daily Citizen remarked that Santa’s visit was not connected to any advertising scheme but was “simply the outcome of a desire upon the part of an Ottawa gentleman that the children of the city may see Santa in person.”

The following day, a second letter appeared. Writing from 31 Mile Lake, north east of Gracefield, Quebec, Santa announced his arrival in the region, saying that he would be in Ottawa the next afternoon.

I am bringing my best reindeer and will have him with me on top of a special electric car. I am also bringing with me a couple of thousand oranges and will distribute them from the car to the little boys and girls.

santa-24-12-1896

Santa Claus’s Streetcar, 24 December 1896, Courtesy of the City of Ottawa Archives, RG045/CA001513.

He also announced his stops in the city, starting at 2.45pm at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets, followed by the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie at 3pm, corner of Queen Street West and Bridge Street, Chaudière, at 3.15 pm, corner of Richmond Road and Albert Street at 3.20 pm, corner of Bank and Maria [now Laurier Avenue] Streets at 3.35 pm and, finally, at the corner of Bank and Ann [now Gloucester Avenue] Streets at 3.45 pm. He would then return to the Post Office and immediately disappear. He apologized to the children of New Edinburgh that he was unable to make it to the town since his reindeer’s horns were so high he couldn’t take his car through the bridges. However, he promised to make his usual visits that night to the homes of all good boys and girls who have gone to bed early and were fast asleep. He asked grown-ups to tell their youngsters to look out for him on Thursday afternoon as it would be his only appearance in Ottawa.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Thursday, 24 December 1896, the excitement in the city was palpable.  Thousands of people of all ages converged on the street corners where Santa Claus was scheduled to appear. They were not disappointed. The Ottawa Evening Journal noted that “the rules of etiquette, or whatever else is supposed to govern the movements of that most mysterious personage Santa Claus, and which from the oldest tradition led most individuals to believe that his visits are of a midnight nature, were rudely broken today.” Right on the scheduled time, Father Christmas arrived. “For convenience sake in transportation about the city streets,” his sleigh and reindeer were mounted on a streetcar of the Ottawa Electric Railway, which was decorated as a snow-covered cabin complete with chimney, and festooned with garlands. On its sides were signs reading “Merry Xmas To All.”

Santa himself was dressed in a fur cap and a long fur coat—very different from the red and white coated Saint Nick described in the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and popularized by Coca Cola in its commercials. He did, however, have white whiskers, though press reports don’t mention if he also had “a little round belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly.”

santa-sparks-24-12-1896

Santa Claus on Sparks Street, 24 December 1896, Courtesy of the City of Ottawa Archives, RG045/CA001514.

Who was that Ottawa gentleman who brought Santa Claus to Ottawa for his first ever official visit to the nation’s capital (outside of his usual Christmas Eve tour of Ottawa rooftops, of course)? The answer was Warren Soper, the wealthy industrialist who, with his partner Thomas Ahearn, owned the city’s streetcar company, as well as other area businesses. Mobbed by adoring children, their parents and grandparents, Santa Claus handed out more than three thousand oranges to the city’s little boys and girls during his short stay. The Ottawa Evening Journal said that the visit was “quite the treat even for the grown people to see a real Santa Claus and such a good and generous one at that.”

The Daily Citizen opined that “No wretched doubter will ever again be able to hold his head in Ottawa and say that good, kindly Santy did not exist.”

Sadly, among the crowds of people that came out to meet the visitor from the North Pole, there was a grinch who stole $4 from the purse of poor Miss Scheik of 20 Keefer Street, New Edinburgh while she waited to see Santa at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets.

Sources:

Daily Citizen (The), 1896. “Santa Claus in Ottawa,” 22 December.

———————–, 1896. “Santa Clause [sic] Coming,” 24 December.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1896. “Santa Claus Coming,” 22 December.

————————————, 1896. “Special Xmas Offerings for the Little Folks,” 22 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Santa’s Trip To Ottawa,” 23 December.

————————————-, 1896. “John Murphy & Co, Seasons Greetings,” 23 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Santa Comes To Town,” 24 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Entre Nous,” 26 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Santa’s Appearance,” 26 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Jottings About Town,” 28 December.

 

 

The Tragic Death of Lieutenant-Colonel William Barker, V.C.

12 March 1930

Lieutenant-Colonel William Barker is the most-highly decorated war hero in Canadian and British Commonwealth history. An ace pilot during World War I, he received the Victoria Cross, the highest award in the Commonwealth for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order (twice), the Military Cross (three times), the Croix de Guerre from France, and the Silver Medal for Military Valour from Italy (twice). He was additionally mentioned in dispatches three times. Active on the Western Front in France and on the Italian Front, he is credited with shooting down at least 50 enemy aircraft. Despite being a household name one hundred years ago, ranking beside his friend Billy Bishop another Canadian war ace and Victory Cross recipient, he is largely forgotten today. In part, this is likely due to his untimely death at 35 years of age in a tragic accident that occurred on 12 March 1930 in Ottawa.

barkermajorswaine-lac-pa-122516

William George Barker, V.C. by Swaine, Library and Archives Canada, PA-122516.

Barker was born in a log cabin on a farm near the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba in 1894. As a teenager, he was known for his keen eyesight and marksmanship. In December 1914, he enlisted in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles with whom he served as a machine gunner at Ypres. In the spring of 1916, he volunteered to serve in the Royal Flying Corps first as a gunner and, following receipt of a commission as a second lieutenant, as an observer in the B.E.2 two-seater reconnaissance airplane.  He received his first MC doing aerial photography. In July of that year, he recorded his first victory, driving down a German scout airplane using his observer’s gun. At the beginning of 1917, he was sent to flying school for four weeks’ instruction to become a pilot. Promoted to flying officer in February 1917, Barker returned to the Western Front again in two-seater reconnaissance airplanes (the B.E.2 and the R.E.8), but this time seated in the front pilot’s seat. Three months later, he was promoted to captain and given command of a flight of airplanes (four to six aircraft).

After being wounded in August 1917, he was transferred back to England to become a flight instructor. Hating his new job, he quickly got himself reassigned to active duty in France, though not before getting into trouble doing acrobatics over London. Barker began flying the Sopwith Camel, a single seater fighter, armed with twin synchronized machine guns. It proved to be a lethal combination of man and machine. Flying the highly manoeuvrable though temperamental Camel, Barker could fully exploit his skills as a marksman. Shortly after his return to France in late October he officially became an ace, downing his fifth German airplane, a German Albatros D.III fighter. Other “kills” quickly followed. Barker’s Sopwith Camel, serial number B6313, was to become the most successful fighter airplane in British history.

When his squadron was transferred to the Italian Front in late 1917, Barker took aim at Austrian air force. By April 1918, he had twenty-two victories. He also earned a reputation for taking down observation balloons, a deadly enterprise since the balloons were heavily protected by anti-aircraft guns. In July, he was promoted to major and given command of the No. 139 Squadron. Although the squadron flew the two-seater Bristol F.2b fighter and reconnaissance aircraft (also known as the “Brisfit”), Barker continued to prefer flying his cherished Sopwith Camel. When the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited the squadron in the summer of 1918, Barker took him aloft in a Brisfit, with the prince occupying the rear observer’s seat. Barker flew the prince deep into enemy territory before returning to the Allied lines. Fortunately, although they encountered anti-aircraft fire from the ground, no Austrian airplane went up to challenge them.

By September 1918, he was a highly-decorated ace with at least forty-six victories to his credit. Even more to his credit was the incredible achievement of not losing a single pilot or airplane under his escort during the previous year of active duty. Ordered back to England to take command the flight school at Hounslow, Barker’s greatest exploit, for which he was to earn the Victory Cross, was yet to come. Arguing that he needed to reacquaint himself with the Western Front to do his job properly, he obtained a ten-day roving commission in France. On 27 October 1918, on the last day of his commission and only two weeks prior to the end of the war, he encountered a German reconnaissance airplane over the Forêt de Mormal while flying the new Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe. Although Barker managed to down the two-seater craft, he made a rookie mistake and was caught unaware by a German fighter that had sneaked up behind him. He only found out that he was being pursued when his right leg was shattered by a bullet. Despite the pain, Barker managed to circle around the Fokker DVII, and bring it down too.

barkersopwithcamellac-pa172313

William Barker with his Sopwith Camel, France 1917, Library and Archives Canada, PA-172313

From there, things only got worse. Somehow during the dog fight with the Fokker, Barker had managed to stumble into an entire “circus” of German fighters. While accounts regarding the number of enemy aircraft vary from 15 to an incredible 60, Barker was vastly outnumbered. In front of thousands of Allied soldiers Barker managed to bring down two more German fighters but not before receiving crippling wounds to his left thigh and left elbow. His Snipe, hit repeatedly, with its fuel tank shot away, crashed behind British lines. Barker, amazingly still alive, was pulled from the wreckage by Scottish troops. On 20 November 1918, he was awarded the Victory Cross for this epic, single-handed battle, and the congratulations of his grateful Sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and Sir Robert Borden, the Canadian Premier.

In early 1919, still recovering from his wounds, Barker flew again with the Prince of Wales, taking him on a tour of London by air. Barker needed canes to walk to the aircraft, and flew with his left arm strapped to his breast.  Speaking of his flight, the Prince commented: “I have enjoyed it immensely but what a sensation it is when you go over backwards.” The RAF promoted Barker to Lieutenant Colonel. On his return to Canada later that year, Barker entered civilian aviation in partnership with Billy Bishop. Together they operated an air-charter and aircraft maintenance firm located at Armour Heights Air Field in Toronto. In 1921, Barker married Jean Smith, the cousin of Billy Bishop. Their daughter Antoinette was born in 1923.

As was the case with many early civil aviation operations, Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes failed in 1922. Barker then joined the Canadian Airforce (CAF) and was made commanding officer of Camp Borden. Subsequently, he was made acting director of the CAF, and for a time lived in Ottawa. In 1924, with the establishment of the Royal Canadian Air Force, he was sent to England to act as the RCAF’s liaison officer with the British Air Ministry. He later studied at the RAF Staff College at Andover and saw service with the RAF in the Middle East.

In 1926, Barker resigned his commission from the RCAF, reportedly because he didn’t get along with his commanding officer. For a time, he operated a tobacco farm owned by his father-in-law, Horace B. Smith.  This did not go well. In 1927, Conn Smythe, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (himself a former RAF pilot), made Barker the team’s first president. But civilian life did not come easy to the war hero. Like many veterans, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. For a time, he turned to alcohol to quell his demons. His family life suffered.

In early 1930, things finally looked like they were turning around for him. He had just landed the job of vice president and general manager of the Fairchild Aviation Company of Canada in Montreal. The day of his death, he was in Ottawa to help sell the company’s new trainer airplane, the two-person, Fairchild KR-21B biplane, to the Department of National Defence.

Wednesday, 12 March 1930, was a typical, late winter day in Ottawa. Weather conditions were good, with the wind out of the west, and a high temperature of 7 degrees Celsius. The Fairchild trainer was flown from Montreal to the Rockcliffe aerodrome in the morning by Captain Donald Shaw, the Fairchild Company’s test pilot. The trip was uneventful, with the airplane performing as it should. Shortly before 1pm, William Barker, who had travelled to Ottawa by train, decided to take the airplane up for a spin. He had never flown that model aircraft before but liked to take every opportunity to fly to maintain his competency. Apparently, until he joined the Fairchild Aviation Company two months earlier, he had done little flying since leaving the RCAF in 1926.

Barker seated himself in the real cockpit of the small trainer with registration marking CF-AKR. He warmed up his engine, taxied into the wind, and made a perfect take-off. After circling the airfield, he flew to the north-east across the Ottawa River to the Quebec side. Turning back towards the Rockcliffe aerodrome, something went wrong. One observer, struck by the odd manner in which the airplane was performing, claimed that he had a premonition that something was about to happen. Flying at an altitude of only a couple of hundred feet, the aircraft swerved and then plummeted straight down into the slushy ice of the Ottawa River roughly one hundred yards from the Rockcliffe slip close to the aerodrome. Striking the ice nose first, Barker’s aircraft crashed onto its left side. The plane was a tangled wreck. One of the blades of the propeller was sheared off on impact, while the other was broken in two. The engine was jammed back into the fuselage by the force of the crash. Only the rear of the plane and its right wing were left relatively intact. Col. Barker was found still seated in the real cockpit, but he was beyond human help. His body had been crushed on impact, his head smashed against the dashboard of his control panel.

News of the accident flashed through a stunned Capital. Immediately the Department of National Defence established a board of inquiry to examine the cause of the fatal crash. The Board determined that the Fairchild trainer was airworthy before the crash, that weather conditions were good, and that Col. Barker was a “commercial pilot in good standing.” Other than these basic facts, Board members had to depend on unreliable eye-witness testimony to draw their conclusions. Their verdict was pilot error. Later, there was speculation that Barker, suffering from depression, may have killed himself. But there is no evidence to support this contention. In many respects, the reasons for the crash remain a mystery.

Col. Barker’s body was conveyed by train to the home of his father-in-law at 355 St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto where distinguished guests and friends paid their last respects. On the Saturday afternoon after the accident, his body was brought to Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery and was laid to rest in the Smith family mausoleum. Two thousand servicemen, representing all of the Toronto-area regiments, paraded in his honour. Immediately behind the casket walked family and friends, Ontario Premier Ferguson, Major General McNaughton, and a group of Victory Cross recipients. A warrant officer bore Col. Barker’s medals on a cushion. More than 50,000 people lined the route of the funeral cortege down St. Clair Avenue to the cemetery. Overhead a flight of planes flew, each in turn swooping down to shower the procession with rose petals. At the mausoleum, Rev. Canon Broughall, rector of Grace-Church-on-the-Hill, officiated at a short service.

For decades, there was little way of a public memorial to Lieutenant- Colonel William Barker, V.C., buried as he was in the Smith family’s mausoleum. In 2011, his grandchildren righted this wrong. They erected a monument outside of the mausoleum, consisting of a bronze propeller blade rising from a granite base with a bronze picture of Barker and a plaque noting his distinction as “The most decorated war hero in the history of Canada and the British Empire.” There for the official unveiling of the memorial was Barker’s descendants and the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, David Onley. Overhead, two vintage planes, one of them a Sopwith Snipe, and a CF-18 fighter flew a salute while a bugler sounded The Last Post.

Sources:

AcePilots.com, 1999-2016. Major G. “Billy” Barker, http://acepilots.com/wwi/can_barker.html.

CBC, 2011. World War I flying ace honoured 81 years after death, 22 September, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/wwi-flying-ace-honoured-81-years-after-death-1.1062894.

CBC, 2011. Honours for Flying Ace, 22 September, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyKOyoN9ArQ.

Globe (The), 1930. “Gol. Barker, V.C., Great Canadian Ace Dies Airman’s Death,” 13 March.

———————–, “Massed Crowd Mourn Great Airman,” 17 March.

Globe and Mail, (The), 1999. “The Greatest Ace You Never Heard Of,” 8 November.

—————————, 2011. Lieutenant- Col. William Barker,” 22 September.

National Defence and the Canadian Forces, 2009. Victoria Cross – First World War, 1914-1918, William George Barker, http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/gal/vcg-gcv/bio/barker-wg-eng.asp.

Evening Citizen, (The), 1930. “Finds Error of Judgement Cause of Plan Crash,” 15 March.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1930. “Col. Barker, Great Canadian Air Ace, Killed Here,” 12 March.

————————————, 1930. “Fatal Crash Which Caused Death of Colonel Barker, V.C., at Rockcliffe Still Remains Shrouded in Mystery,” 13 March.

————————————-, 1930. “Epic Air Battle Won V.C. Award For Dead Flyer,” 13 March.

————————————-, 1930. “Toronto V.C.’s To All Attend Funeral In Body,” 13 March.

Ralph, Wayne, 2005-2016. “Barker, William George,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/barker_william_george_15E.html.

Roadstories.ca, 2011, William George Barker: Canada’s most decorated hero, 7 November, http://roadstories.ca/william-barker/.