The Last Train to Union Station

31 July 1966

In November 1949, Jacques Gréber, the French urban planner and architect, released his report on the beautification of Ottawa which was then a grimy, industrial city filled with war-time temporary buildings. One of his key recommendations was the removal of the railway lines than ran through the city’s downtown core, and the abandonment of Union Station which stood beside the Rideau Canal across the street from the Château Laurier Hotel.

This was a gutsy call. It was hard to think of a major city that did not have a centrally-located train station. Toronto’s Union Station was, and remains today, but a short walk away from the financial district. Similarly, Montreal’s Central Station is conveniently located in the heart of the city, and today is linked to the city’s metro as well as to hotels, retail and commercial enterprises.

Union Station, the railway tracks, and the chimney to the Power Plant from Laurier Bridge, 1920s, Library and Archives Canada, 3358822. The Château Laurier Hotel can be seen behind Union Station.

Underpinning Gréber’s recommendation was a belief that the automobile was becoming increasingly important, and that Ottawa’s railroads, having been built in the nineteenth century with the needs of the lumber industry in mind, were no longer appropriately sited. As well, the tracks cut up neighbourhoods and were unsightly.

It took more than a decade before the National Capital Commission acted on this controversial recommendation. In May 1961, it announced that a new railway terminal would be built on a 440-acre site near the Hurdman Bridge. The new site was easily accessible from the Queensway, the new cross-city highway which was then under construction and was itself sited on an old railway right of way. The NCC also noted that the new terminal was only two miles from Confederation Square. Other factors behind the decision included a view that the old Union Station, built in 1912, was obsolete, that it had inadequate parking, and that Ottawa’s population was shifting southward. Consequently, it was more convenient for a growing fraction of the city’s residents to have the terminal situated outside of the downtown core. Another consideration was that the land was already largely owned by the railways and the federal government. The NCC claimed that the new station would permit “a harmonious integration of bus, taxi, passenger car and truck movements in the area” with ample parking. It also envisaged the terminal becoming the hub of a new commercial and industrial area. It took another five years before Gréber’s vision became reality. The last train to Ottawa’s downtown Union Station, was the CNR’s “Panorama,” arriving at 1:30 am, Sunday, 31 July 1966 from Montreal. It departed fifteen minutes later on its way to Vancouver. Three hundred people were on hand to wave goodbye to the train and bid adieu to the old station.

Union Station, interior, date unknown, Library and Archives Canada

It was the end of an era. For fifty-four years, Union Station had witnessed the arrival and departure of untold thousands. Its cavernous rotunda had seen tears of sadness and joy as soldiers departed and returned from two world wars. It had greeted world leaders, royalty, sports heroes, and pop stars. Now, all was quiet. Immediately after that last train had pulled out of the station, the building was handed over to the National Capital Commission. The Corps of Commissionaires moved in to re-direct bewildered, would-be passengers who showed up looking for their trains.

The first train to the spanking new Ottawa Station located off of Tremblay Road arrived a few hours later. It was the CPR’s “Rideau” from Montreal. It left shortly afterwards at 9:04 am. The hand-off from the old to the new station, while postponed by a couple of weeks owing to delays in the installation of the centralized control system, was carried out smoothly and without a hitch.

In addition to passengers and friends, hundreds of curious Ottawa residents were on hand to check out the new train facilities. What they saw was a utilitarian, glass, steel and concrete building. Its interior colour scheme was black and cream with touches of crimson. The Ottawa Journal described its architectural design as “airport hangar modern.” It had an exceptional loudspeaker system, far superior to the one at the old Union Station. Finally, announcements could be easily heard throughout the station. The newspapers were impressed. The Ottawa Citizen opined that the new Ottawa Station was far superior to the old Union Station.

Ottawa Station, main entrance, 2013 by JustSomePics

However, the new Ottawa Station was unfinished. Train schedule signs had to be brought in from the old station. The restaurant wasn’t ready. In its place was a temporary lunch counter. The station’s furniture had not been installed so people had to wait on uncomfortable, backless seats. Additionally, the parking lots were unfinished.

So poor were the conditions, the railways felt obliged to apologize to customers for any inconvenience. Cards were left on train seats saying that it was due to the urgency to complete the Colonel By extension and the Queensway that they railways had been asked by the NCC to vacate Union Station even though the new station and the approaches to the new station were not finished.

But worst of all for travellers was that there was no municipal bus service between the new station and downtown, despite years of foreknowledge that the Ottawa Station was to open in 1966. The only way to get downtown directly from the station was either by private car or taxi, with a fare of roughly $2.00 (roughly $17.00 in today’s money) including gratuity to the Château Laurier Hotel. If somebody wanted to catch a bus, they had to walk a quarter of a mile to the closest #61 bus stop on Alta Vista Drive. So much for the NCC’s talk of a “harmonious integration” of taxi, bus and passenger car service to the station.

The problem was the cost of supplying the buses and drivers to service the new station. The Ottawa Transportation Commission estimated that it would lose $100,000 per year on a bus link to downtown, and that it couldn’t afford to deliver service to “out-of-way places.” The Commission sought a subsidy from the railways. The railways were not amused. They didn’t subsidize buses in other cities, and they weren’t about to start now in Ottawa.

In mid-October 1966, the OTC finally caved in and started a dedicated bus service, 6:00 am to midnight, between the Ottawa Station and Confederation Square downtown, but only at an extra 25 cent per passenger fee. The regular cash fare was 20 cents. No free transfers to the main bus system were allowed. The cost of the service would be paid for out of general revenues but the OTC still hoped for a subsidy.

The special bus route lost money, lots of it, just as the OTC had predicted. On the first day of service, the buses took in only $83.25 in fares on the 35 round trips that costed OTC $300 to operate. In mid-January 1967, the dedicated bus route to downtown service was discontinued with service to the station provided by extending the Cyrville and Trembley leg of route #21. But problems continued. In late November 1968, a New Brunswick senator complained that he and fifty passengers had been left stranded at the station without taxi or buses. He called the transit service “obsolete, inefficient, unbearable and shameful for the capital city of Canada.” He added that when coming in by train, he didn’t want to be dropped off on the outskirts of Ottawa.

Despite complaints about the location of Ottawa’s new train station, it was a fait accompli. Some $35 million had been spent on the new train station, tracks and equipment. It was not about to be changed. As for the old Union Station, its future looked grim. The NCC planned to immediately demolish it along with neighbouring buildings and train sheds to allow for the construction of a national auditorium to complement the National Arts Centre (NAC) then under construction on the other side of the Rideau Canal. In the short term, a park was planned. As well, with the construction of the NAC, the Queen Elizabeth Driveway, hitherto the prime way of entering Ottawa’s downtown via automobile, was blocked. An extension of Colonel By Driveway on the other side of the Rideau Canal to Rideau Street was a necessary replacement.

Within three weeks of the closure of Union Station, some 42,000 feet of railway track and 2,000 railway ties had been torn up to make way for the Colonel By Extension. Controversially, the old department of transport warehouse complex, which was built at the “Deep Cut” shortly after the Rideau Canal was completed in 1832, was also demolished despite pleas to preserve it by Ottawa architects and heritage conservationists. One of the last things to go was the Union Station heating plant with its 160-foot smokestack. Used to heat Union Station, the Château Laurier Hotel and the Besserer Street Post Office, the stack crashed to the ground in May 1967 causing a huge cloud of black soot and dust. In its heyday, the power plant had consumed more than a train car’s load of coal every day.

Almost immediately, people began to have reservations about demolishing the grimy Union Station, at least right away. Heritage advocates, who were the founders of Heritage Ottawa, argued strenuously for saving the historic building. Topmost among the concerns of politicians was the possibility that its demolition would leave another unsightly mess in downtown Ottawa just in time for Canada’s centennial. In the end, the NCC decided to postpone its destruction until after the 1967 centennial celebrations. In the meantime, it was renamed the Centennial Centre and used to host special events, exhibits, a tourist bureau, a St. John’s Ambulance station as well as a day nursery. In early, February 1967, the renamed Union Station was swamped by teenagers for the Winter Carnival’s “Hopsville” to hear the rock bands, “Deuces,” “Beau Gestes,” and “Eyes of Dawn.”

In late 1967, the old station received another stay of execution until 1970. In a time of government austerity, the estimated $500,000 in demolition costs were seen as too high. It was more economical to spend a small amount of money and repurpose the building. Consequently, the federal government spent $43,000 on minor renovations to provide meeting rooms for federal government offices as well as offices for the Privy Council. Eight private offices and two conference rooms, one for 80 people and the other for 120 people plus a lounge were created on the fourth floor. Other offices were used by staff of the Eastern Ontario Children’s Hospital. The lower levels of the old station continued to be used for social events and public meetings. The City of Ottawa’s tourist bureau also moved into space on the ground floor.

A short time later, the reprieve became permanent when the federal government announced that it would spend a further $600,000 to make the old Union Station suitable for meetings between Pierre Trudeau and provincial premiers as the West Block’s Confederation Room was deemed unsuitable as it lacked adjoining office space.

The remodelled station, now called the Government Conference Centre, was ready for the December 1969 federal-provincial meetings, with the main conference room in the old rotunda able to accommodate 500 delegates and 150 observers. There were also facilities for simultaneous translation into five languages. It was estimated that the plush new facility would last at least another ten to fifteen years. Demolition was off the table—permanently.

In 1989, the old Union Station was classified as a federal heritage building. In 2006, the building was added to the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

In 2014, work began on a $269 million project to remodel both the exterior and interior of the old station to transform it into the temporary home of the Senate of Canada while the Centre Block on Parliament Hill is renovated. The work was completed by heritage architects ERA, along with Diamond Schmitt Architects and KWC Architects. In 2020, the building received the international Civic Trust Award that recognizes “outstanding architecture, planning and design in the built environment.”

The Senate moved into its new quarters in 2019 and is expected to stay there until the Centre Block renovations are completed in 2030.

Despite the passage of more than 55 years since the last train left Union Station, the lack of a downtown Ottawa inter-urban train station remains a bone of contention.

Sources:

ERA, 2020. Senate of Canada Building receives international recognition with 2020 Civic Trust Award.

Heritage Ottawa, 2022. Union Station, Government Conference Centre.

Ottawa Citizen, 1961. “New Station “Gateway To Capital” – NCC Chief,” 17 May.

——————, 1966. Ottawa Station, 15 July.

——————, 1966. “Union Station Closing,” 30 July.

——————, 1966. “Smooth Station Switch, 2 August.

——————, 1966. “How To Get To The New Station,” 2 August.

——————, 1966. “Ottawa’s new railway station,” 3 August.

——————, 1966. “Avenue to heart of Ottawa to follow lifting of rail line,” 19 September.

——————, 1966. “Bus to Ottawa Station to run twice an hour,” 14 October.

——————, 1967. “Government economies hit Ottawa area,” 31 November.

——————, 1968. “Govt. spending $43,000 on doomed Union Station,” 10 July.

——————, 1968. “Govt. to spend $600,000 on old station,” 3 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1966. “Saving the Union Station for Centennial Year?”, 9 March.

——————-, 1966. “Union Station to Stay?”, 4 July.

——————-, 1966. “Curious Crowds Jam New Rail Station,” 2 August.

——————-, 1966. “It’s Called Planning,” 3 October.

——————-, 1967. “Teeny-Boppers Swamp Union Station,” 4 February.

——————-, 1967. “One Last Angry Belch of Black Soot,” 23 May.

——————-, 1968, “Stranded Senator Blasts Ottawa Station Transit,” 22 November.

——————, 1969. “An Old Station Gets a New Life,” 5 December.

The Passing of William Lyon Mackenzie King

22 July 1950

Friends and family knew the end was coming; the enigmatic, political warrior had been fading for some time. But his death still came as a shock. It was a warm summer day. Picnickers had left the heat of the capital for the Gatineau hills oblivious to the human drama that was playing out at Kingsmere, close to Chelsea, Quebec. There, at his summer residence, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest serving prime minister and leader through the dark days of World War II, was breathing his last. He had slipped into a coma two days earlier. At times, he appeared to rally, but the end came on Saturday, 22 July 1950. At his side throughout his final hours was the Rev. Ian Burnett, the minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Wellington Street, the church where King had faithfully attended for decades. Three nephews were also at his bedside—Arthur King, the son of King’s late brother, Dougall Macdougall “Max” King, as well as John and Harry Lay Jr., the sons of his sister, Janet “Jenny” Lay.

King addressing the Nation on VE Day, 8 May 1945, Library and Archives, Canada, 3623420.

Mackenzie King was born in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario in 1874, the son of John King and Isabel Grace King (née McKenzie). He was named after his grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto and the prominent Reformer leader of the failed 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada. The future prime minster was immensely proud of his grandfather, and in many respects inherited his reforming zeal.

King was highly educated, with a BA and MA from the University of Toronto, an LLB from Osgoode Law School and a PhD in political economy from Harvard—the only Canadian prime minister to have earned a doctorate. In 1900, he was appointed the first deputy minister of labour. Eight years later, he ran for Parliament, winning the riding of Waterloo North for the Liberals. He entered the cabinet of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1909 as Minister of Labour. After being defeated in the 1911 General Election he was in the political wilderness for eight years until he was elected leader of the Liberal Party in 1919 after the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the first leadership convention held in Canada. A surprising choice in many ways as he was an indifferent orator, awkward with most people, and could not speak French. Shortly afterwards, he re-entered Parliament through a by-election. Healing internal rifts within the party caused by the conscription crisis during the Great War that had divided English and French Canadians, he led the Liberal Party to victory in the 1922 General Election—the first of many victories over the coming decades.

In 1926, leading a minority government, King was defeated in the House of Commons where the opposition Conservative Party had a plurality of votes. The Governor General of the day, Lord Byng, refused a request by Mackenzie King to dissolve Parliament and hold a General Election, but instead offered Conservative Leader, Arthur Meighan, the opportunity to form a government. But when Meighen also failed to command the confidence of the House, an election was called. King triumphantly returned to power. This constitutional crisis, called the King-Byng Affair, pitted the prime minster against the Crown. While Byng’s actions were constitutionally correct, King took political advantage of the situation campaigning on a platform that the British government, which still appointed Canada’s governors general, was interfering in the domestic politics of Canadians.

Losing in 1930 to R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives, King and the Liberal Party were re-elected in 1936. King remained in power through successive elections through the war years until his retirement in 1948. He was succeeded by Louis St. Laurent, his former Minister of Justice.

After King’s death, his body was placed in an open, mahogany casket by the fireplace in the sitting room at Laurier House, his Ottawa residence, the same room where he had received so many people during his lifetime. Close friends, senior officials, including Governor General the Viscount Alexander, who had flown back to Ottawa from holiday out west, came to pay their last respects. Prime Minister St. Laurent who had been at his summer residence in St. Patrice, Quebec also quickly returned to the capital to pay his respects. On top of the casket was the golden, enamelled Order of Merit and its green and red ribbon given to him by King George in 1947. The order, of which there were only twenty-four members, had been created by Edward VII. In accordance with King’s wishes, there was no sign of mourning at Laurier House, its windows open, and the blinds undrawn. Callers at Laurier House were received by King’s relatives, Edouard Hardy, who had been King’s private secretary, and Fred McGregor, his former secretary and friend who had been helping King prepare his memoirs.

Telegrams of condolences poured in from around the world. His Majesty King George said that the prime minister’s “lifelong service to Canada will ensure him a place in the history of his country and in the hearts of its people…his wisdom and wide experience were of constant value in the counsels of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” US President Truman called King “an unwavering champion” of freedom-loving peoples and democratic institutions. Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that he was “a great statesman and a friend.”

Mackenzie King’s body was subsequently moved from Laurier House to the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings to lie is state in the Hall of Fame. At each corner of his casket was a constant guard of honour of men representing the armed services and the RCMP. Over the next two days, more than 30,000 ordinary citizens filed past his bier to pay their last respects to the man to had led the country through both war and peace. Flags flew at half mast over the capital.

Remains of Mackenzie King laying in state, Centre Block, July 1950, Library and Archives Canada, 4084263.

At 2:00pm on 26 July 1950, the doors to the Centre Block were closed. When the last mourners had left, Fred McGregor, accompanied by Defence Minister Brooke Claxton, removed the Order of Merit from the top of the casket. Charles A. Hulse, the undertaker, then closed the lid.

Mackenzie King’s remains were taken in procession with muffled drums and funeral music from the Peace Tower to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at the corner of Wellington and Kent Streets for the funeral service. The short route was lined with members of the armed services and veterans, standing shoulder to shoulder. An estimated 50,000 people watched the funeral cortege. Accompanying the casket were thirty-nine honorary pallbearers, headed by prime minister St. Laurent. Also in the procession were detachments of four regiments—the Royal 22nd, the Régiment de Hull, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and the Royal Canadian Regiment. The RCAF Central Band and naval detachments were also in the cortege.

In the church, King’s customary pew was draped with purple crepe. Viscount Alexander and Lady Alexander, who has arrived early, sat directly in front of the pulpit close to the coffin. Also in front of the pulpit was a massive display of red roses, a tribute from King’s family. Other floral arrangements on display were from the Government of Canada, Lord Alexander, HM the King, and US President Truman.

Officiating at the service was Rev. Ian Burnett and the Rev, A. F. Scott Mackenzie, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. King’s favourite hymns were sung, including John Oxenham’s “My Own Dear Land” sent to the tune of Londonderry Air, which had been specifically chosen by Mackenzie King. Rev. Burnett gave the eulogy. He said that Mackenzie King was a man wedded to a few great, basic principles of righteousness and truth. First, he was a man of peace who proved to be one of the best leaders through the storms of war. Second, he believed in liberty and detested dictators. Third, he felt deeply for the poor and opposed the unscrupulous use of wealth and power.

Following the service, King’s remains were conveyed in a black hearse to Union Station, preceded by the RCMP and RCAF bands. The route was lined with RCMP constables. At the station, to the beat of a single drum, the coffin was carried to the purple and black draped funeral train. The mahogany casket was then placed in a car by six RCMP constables where it was placed on blocks. In front of it was a bank of flowers.

At 6:00pm, the 15-car funeral train, which included coaches for King’s family, prime minster St. Laurent and others, pulled slowly out of Union station destined for Toronto. On the platform the RCMP band played “Nearer My God To Thee.”

At 10:00am the next morning, William Lyon Mackenzie King’s body was committed to the ground in the family plot at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. He was laid to rest beside the remains of father and beloved mother.

Mackenzie King left a vast legacy. In total, he was prime minister of Canada for more than 21 years, a record that stands to this day. He did much to fashion the modern country that we know today. The King-Byng Affair, held against the backdrop of the 1926 Imperial Conference, set the stage for the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which recognized that the dominions, of which Canada was one, were in no way subordinate to the United Kingdom. This statute was given clear meaning at the outbreak of World War II. Unlike during the previous world conflict, Canada did not automatically enter the war when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Instead, Mackenzie King called for a debate in the Canadian Parliament before a formal declaration of war was signed by George VI as King of Canada a week later.

King also oversaw the revival of the Canadian economy in the late 1930s, negotiating trade deals with both the United States and the United Kingdom. During the war, King became recognized as a major Allied war leader, and Canada as an important ally on the international scene. King also undertook social reforms, introducing unemployment insurance and family allowances, that set the ground for the social safety net that Canadians take for granted today. Adroit political management based on a respect for different traditions and views successfully managed the English-French divide. King also successfully negotiated the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation. Keen to foster a distinct Canadian identity, he crafted a new Canadian citizenship law that came into effect in early 1947; King himself received Canadian citizen certificate number 1.

There were, however, blots on Mackenzie King’s political escutcheon. Like many Western leaders during the 1930s, he was duped by Adolf Hitler, and for a time looked favourably upon the dictator. He also supported Neville Chamberlin’s policy of appeasement. Reflective of prevailing attitudes, Canada’s immigration policies were anti-Semitic during the pre-war years.  The Chinese Exclusion Act, was also enacted during King’s first administration and was only repealed in 1947. Even then non-white immigration continued to be discouraged. First Nations peoples also continued to be denied Canadian citizenship through the King era. His reputation has also suffered from his quirkiness, especially his belief in spiritualism and his communing with his dead mother, something that he kept concealed during his lifetime.

Despite these faults, William Lyon Mackenzie King ranked as Canada’s best prime minister in a 2016 Maclean’s Magazine poll. He is commemorated on Canada’s $50 banknote.

Sources:

Hilman, Norman and Azzi, Stephen, 2016. “Ranking Canada’s Best and Worst Prime Ministers,” Maclean’s, 7 October.

National Film Board of Canada, Date unknown, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

 Ottawa Citizen, 1950. “Scene At Kingsmere, Home During Mr. King’s Final Hours, 24 July.

——————-, 1950. “William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1874-1950,” 24 July.

——————-, 1950. “The Career of Mackenzie King,” 24 July.

——————-, 1950. “U.S. Envoy Pays Tribute, » 25 July.

——————-, 1950. “Cabinet Meeting Draws Up Plans For Funeral of Mr. King,” 25 July.

——————-, 1950. “Nearly 50,000 Line Streets For Mackenzie King’s Funeral,” 27 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1950. “World Leaders Speak of Their Deep Regret of Canada’s Great Loss,” 24 July.

——————-, 1950. “The End of An Era,” 24 July.

The Last Timber Raft

8 July 1908

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

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

timber-hauling-ottawa-valley-1900-topley-lac-pa-a012606-v6

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

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

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

timber-raft-lac-topley-1882-pa-008364

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

timber-cook-house-andrew-auborn-merrilees-fonds-lac-3277723

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

But Ottawa’s lumber industry adapted. Demand for Canadian sawn timber rose in the rapidly growing eastern cities of New York and Boston, following the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty between Canada and the United States.  U.S. entrepreneurs, such as Allan Gilmour, Captain Levi Young, Franklin Bronson, and Ezra Eddy established sawmills on the shores of the Ottawa River, harnessing its fast-flowing water to power their large timber saws. In 1874, 424 million board feet of timber were cut in Ottawa-area sawmills, along with a further 25 million board feet of square timber. The biggest lumber producer at that time was the E.B. Eddy Company whose output amounted to 55 million board feet. Close behind was Gilmour and Company which produced another 50 million board feet. Canadian-born J.R. Booth’s company cut a further 22 million board feet of timber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although the lumber industry was the backbone of the Ottawa economy for close to two hundred years, providing jobs for thousands, the prosperity that it generated came at a high environmental cost. The industry irrevocably altered the landscape of the Ottawa Valley with the destruction of virtually all of its original woodland. Along with it went the traditional way of life of the Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley, who never ceded ownership of its territory to European setters. The industry also had serious negative consequences for the Ottawa River. Dams built to control water levels to facilitate the transport of logs and to power the sawmills disturbed fish habitats. Sunken logs, and saw dust, routinely dumped into the river, along with chemicals from the pulp and paper mills, and untreated city effluents, polluted the water, killed fish, and brought disease.

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

——————, 1908. “Comment,” 10 July.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caplan’s

31 July 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

caplans-undated-ottawa-jewish-archives

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

caplans-oc-27-02-2003-by-brigitte-bouvier

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

caplans-google-streetview-current

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

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

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

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

Despite ongoing efforts to keep pace with changing times, Caplan’s, like all of Ottawa’s big downtown department stores, began to lose ground during the 1960s and 1970s due to growing competition from suburban shopping centres. In 1972, Caplan’s tried to fight back, launching a “million-dollar expansion.” It held back the tide for a time but it was not enough. The final blow to Caplan’s fortunes was the building of the Rideau Centre in the early 1980s. Not only did foot traffic to the store plummet during the course of construction which closed Rideau Street for a time, but Caplan’s had a glossy, new competitor right across the street when the shopping complex opened for business in March 1983.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new condominium tower opened for residents in 2009.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————, 1984. “Corrections,” 30 July.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Corporation of Bytown

28 July 1847

Municipal elections don’t get the respect they deserve in Canada. Invariably, far fewer people vote in them than they do in their provincial or federal counterparts. And Ottawa’s municipal elections are no exception. In the 2018 election, the percentage of registered voters who actually voted was less than 43 per cent. In comparison, two-thirds of registered Canadian voters exercised their franchise in the 2015 federal election. Reasons for municipal voters’ apathy include a lack of awareness about what local candidates stand for, and a feeling that municipal governments don’t matter very much. Two hundred years ago, the sentiment was very different. The quest for independent, municipal governments responsible to local ratepayers was a potent political issue that divided communities.

When British sympathizers fled northward following the American Revolution, they brought with them the democratic processes that they had grown up with in New York, Pennsylvania, and New England. These included elected municipal officials and town hall meetings where local issues were publicly thrashed out. For British military leaders in what was to become Canada, such democratic ideas were anathema. After all, hadn’t democracy led to the loss of the southern American colonies? In their view, free elections, even at the local level, threatened peace and order. What was needed was the firm guiding hand of Crown-appointed magistrates and officials.

In 1791, Quebec was divided into two parts under the Constitutional Act—Lower Canada where the French civil code and customs prevailed and Upper Canada where British common law and practices were introduced to accommodate the many English-speaking, United Empire Loyalists. However, General Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, was loth to permit democratic notions from taking root in Canada. He was appalled when one of the first acts of the Assembly of Upper Canada was to approve town meetings for the purpose of appointing local officials. He stalled and prevaricated, favouring instead a system of municipal government guided by justices of the peace appointed by the Crown. It took decades for real democracy to be introduced. In the interim, power at both the provincial and municipal level was tightly controlled by a small group of powerful merchants, lawyers and Church of England clergymen who became known as the Family Compact.

Cracks in this authoritarian structure began to show in 1832 when Brockville won the right to have an elected Board of Police. Other towns quickly followed suit. In 1834, the town of York became the city of Toronto under its radical first mayor William Lyon Mackenzie, and held direct elections for its mayor and its aldermen. In 1835, a new Act of the Provincial Assembly transferred municipal powers from the justices of the peace to elected Boards of Commissioners. However, this democratic reform was repealed amidst the Rebellions of 1838 by resurgent conservative forces who managed to frame the debate as between order and loyalty to the Crown on one side and disorder and republican disloyalty on the other.

This set the stage for Lord Durham’s famous investigation into the causes of the Rebellions and possible solutions. In his Report made public in 1839, Durham recommended the introduction of responsible government in Canada with ministers responsible to an elected assembly rather than appointed by the Crown. He also said that “the establishment of a good system of municipal institutions throughout the Province [Upper Canada] is a matter of vital importance. In 1841, the District Council Act was passed by Parliament. It was a compromise between conservative (Tory) forces that wanted to maintain central control over local affairs in order to ward off republicanism and radical (Reform) forces that wanted total local self-government. Districts would be governed by a warden appointed by the Crown and a body of elected councillors. While some municipal officials were appointed by the councillors, certain positions, including that of treasurer, would continue to be appointed by the Crown. It wasn’t until the “Baldwin Act” of 1849 (named for Robert Baldwin) that municipalities in Upper Canada were granted wide powers of self-administration.

The broad forces that were in play in Upper Canada were also in play in little Bytown which was established in 1826 by Lieutenant-Colonel By, the architect of the Rideau Canal. Initially, it was a military town where the British Ordnance Department was the dominant player in the local administration and a major landowner. In the 1830s, Bytown became part of Nepean Township and subsequently the “capital” of the Dalhousie District with an appointed warden. In addition to Bytown, other communities represented in Dalhousie District included Nepean, Gloucester, North Gower, Osgoode, Huntley, Goulbourn, Marlborough, March, Torbolton, and Fitzroy. It was a cumbersome arrangement owing to the size of the district and poor roads.

On 28 July 1847, Bytown gained new status when the Governor General gave his assent to “An Act to define the limits of the Town of Bytown, to establish a Town Council therein, and for other purposes.” Bytown was divided into three wards, with elections held in mid-September for seven town councillors—two from each of North and South Wards and three from West Ward. North and South Wards encompassed Lower Bytown, the home of mainly working class, Roman Catholic, Irish and French settlers. West Ward contained Upper Bytown, the smaller of the two Bytowns, and the home of the upper-class, Protestant, English elite. Given these demographics, Lower Town was broadly Reform territory, while Upper Town was a Tory bastion.

Bytown logo 1850

Emblem of the Mayor and Town Council of Bytown, 1848, The Packet and Weekly Commercial Gazette.

With eligible voters limited to male ratepayers, there weren’t many voters—only 878 men voted in that first Bytown election. Voting was also public. A secret ballot wasn’t introduced until the Baldwin Act was passed two years later. At the time, a secret ballot was widely perceived as being cowardly and a voting method that promoted political hypocrisy. Elected were Messrs. Bedard and Friel from North Ward, Messrs. Scott and Corcoran in South Ward and Messrs. Lewis, Sparks and Blasdell in West Ward. With the four elected from the North and South Wards all reformers, they held a narrow one-vote majority on Council over the three Tory victors elected in West Ward. At the first session of Council, John Scott was elected Bytown’s first mayor by the seven elected councillors who split down political lines: four Reformers versus three Tories.

Scott portrait finished

Portrait of John Scott, First Mayor of Bytown, 1848 by William Sawyer, City of Ottawa

In January 1848, John Scott was also elected to the Provincial Parliament as the member for Bytown—this was an era when politicians could hold multiple elected posts simultaneously. In the second municipal election held the following April, Scott chose not to run leading to the election of Tory John Bower Lewis as the second Mayor of Bytown. In 1849, fellow Tory, Robert Hervey, was chosen as Mayor.

Hervey’s term in office was marred by two major political events—the Stony Monday riots in September 1849 in which Tories and Reformers came to blows, inflamed by Hervey’s own partisan actions and rhetoric[i], and the disallowance of the very Act of Parliament that had incorporated Bytown two years earlier.

The disallowance of the Act has its roots in a dispute between the Town Council and the Ordnance Department. Under its Act of Incorporation, Bytown had the right to expropriate land. Using this power, the Town Council expropriated a strip of Ordnance property along Wellington Street for the purpose of continuing the street “over the hill between the two towns to meet Rideau Street, in a direct line” at Sappers’ Bridge. At that time, Wellington Street made a bulge around the base of Barrick Hill (later known as Parliament Hill). But with the construction of Sparks Street immediately south of Wellington Street to Sappers’ Bridge following the settlement of another dispute over the ownership of the Government Reserve between Ordnance and Nicholas Sparks in Sparks’ favour, Town Council wanted to straighten Wellington Street. According to the Packet newspaper, the piece of land was “of no value” to the Ordnance Department but was “essential to preserve the uniformity of Wellington Street.”

The Town went ahead and straightened the street over the strenuous objections of the Ordnance Department. Ostensibly, Ordnance claimed that the property was necessary for possible future defensive works. The Packet thought the dispute was caused by the “avarice of one or two self-interested individuals” in Ordnance. In late September 1849, rumours started to circulate that the Home Government in London was about to overturn Bytown’s Act of Incorporation passed by the Canadian Parliament and assented to by the Governor General two years earlier. Fearing this possibility, Councillor Turgeon (a future Mayor of Bytown) proposed repealing the offending By-law that had expropriated the land.

It was to no avail. In late October, the hammer came down. Bytown’s Act of Incorporation was officially disallowed by the British Government in the name of Queen Victoria at the request of the Ordnance Department. Bytown’s politicians were thunderstruck. The news “occasioned no little hub-bub,” said the Packet. “The shock was a dreadful one.” Nobody knew what it meant practically. While “magisterial business” would devolve to the Dalhousie District magistrates, what about other business? Could Bytown pay its bills? What about staffing?  The town was described as being in “a bad state” with everything “topsy-turvy.” The Packet fumed at the intrusion of the Home Government in London into a “parish,” i.e. local, matter, and darkly threatened it would be a new argument for the Annexationists (those who wanted the United States to annex Canada).

Map of Ottawa c. 1840, Taylor, 1986

Map of Ottawa, c. 1840 showing Ordnance land and Wellington Street. Nicholas Sparks, another major landowner, successfully fought the Ordnance Department for the return to him of the Government Reserve Land. This allowed for the development of Sparks street to Sappers’ Bridge by 1849. Taylor, John 1986. “Ottawa, An Illustrated History,” James Lorimer & Company, Toronto.

To make matters worse, the Ordnance Department erected a fence across Wellington Street close to Barrick Hill blocking passage of residents to Sappers’ Bridge. Fortunately, there was an alternate route down Sparks Street. The Packet raised its rhetoric called the street closure “a petty act of tyranny inflicted on the habitants of our Town.” It added, “If anything was every calculated to create in the breasts of the inhabitants of this Town an indignant opposition to the British Crown, it is the blocking of one our principal streets.”

Fortunately, municipal business was quickly regularized with the passage of the Baldwin Act, which allowed towns and cities to incorporate, and the holding of new Bytown Town Council elections in January 1850. With John Scott re-entering municipal politics and his election along with a majority of Reform councillors, Scott was re-elected Mayor of Bytown. Consequently, Scott has the honour of twice being the first Mayor of Bytown. The new Council presented “a humble Petition to the Master General and Board of Ordnance, praying that the Hon. Board may be pleased to grant the use of a space of land opposite Wellington Street to be used for street purposes.” Despite the begging, Ordnance refused to budge.

Residents began to wonder if there was something shady going on. One writer to the Packet in 1851 thought that the Corporation was conspiring in favour of Sparks Street merchants to keep traffic routed down this street rather than negotiating for the re-opening of Wellington Street. Finally, in June 1853, almost four years after the road was closed, Ordnance relented. But its terms were steep: the removal of the fence would be at Bytown’s expense; ownership of the strip of land would remain vested in Her Majesty; the road would be closed on May 1st every year to assert the Queen’s right; Bytown would pay a nominal rent of 5/- per year; no buildings could be erected on this strip of land; and Ordnance reserved the right to resume possession should it feel necessary to do so.

In time, the whole issue became moot when the Ordnance Department dropped its plans to fortify Barrick Hill.  On January 1st, 1855, the City of Ottawa, formerly Bytown, was incorporated. One year later, under the Ordnance Lands Transfer Act, ownership of ordnance land in Bytown, and elsewhere, was transfer to the Province of Canada.

 

Sources:

Canada, Department of the Secretary of State, 1873. Report for the Year Ending 30 June 1873, Appendix A., Department of the Interior, Ordnance Lands Branch, Ottawa.

Durham, Lord, 1839. Report on British North America, Institute of Responsible Government, https://iorg.ca/ressource/lord-durhams-report-on-british-north-america/#.

Elections Canada, 2018. Estimation of Voter Turnout by Age Group and Gender at the 2015 General Election, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/estim/42ge&document=p1&lang=e#e1.

Mika, Nick & Helma, 1982. Bytown: The Early Days of Ottawa, Belleville: Mika Publishing Company.

Owens, Tyler, 2016. “A Mayor’s Life: John Scott, First Mayor of Bytown (1824-1857),” Bytown Pamphlet Series, No. 99, Historical Society of Ottawa.

Packet (The) & Weekly Commercial Gazette, 1847. “Prorogation of Parliament,” 31 July.

—————————————————–, 1847. “The Corporation Election.” 18 September.

—————————————————–, 1849. “Bytown Corporation,” 20 September.

—————————————————–, 1849. “The Town of Bytown,” 20 October.

—————————————————–, 1849. “The Ordnance Department And The People Of Bytown,” 13 November.

—————————————————–, 1849. “No Title,” 22 December.

—————————————————–, 1850. “The Elections,” 2 February.

—————————————————–, 1850. “Vote By Ballot, Etc.” 23 February.

—————————————————–, 1850. “Town Council Proceedings,” 23 February.

—————————————————–, 1851. “Queries Addressed To No One In Particular,” 21 June.

—————————————————–, 1853. “No Title,” 11 June.

Shortt, Adam & Doughty, A.G. Sir, 1914. Canada and its Provinces : a history of the Canadian people and their institutions, Volume 18, Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Company.

Taylor, John H. 1986. Ottawa: An Illustrated History, Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Whan, Christopher, 2018, “Voter turnout for Ottawa’s municipal elections up from 2014,” Global News, 23 October.

 

 

 

[i] See Story for 17 September.

Lord Elgin Visits Bytown

27 July 1853

What a difference a few years can make! In 1849, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, 12th Earl of Kincardine, and Governor General of the Province of Canada, had been vilified in the Tory press in Bytown. News of a planned visit by him was greeted with jeers and worse. Shots were fired and rocks thrown in what later became known as the Stony Monday riots between Tories (Conservatives) and Reformers. One man died and many were injured. Serious fighting was only averted by the quick thinking of soldiers stationed on Barrick Hill who interposed themselves on Sappers’ Bridge between the furious armed factions. Needless to say, Elgin’s trip to Bytown was cancelled.

Lord Elgin James Bruce, Earl of Elgin LAC C-000291, 1848
James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, 12th Earl of Kincardine and Governor General of the Province of Canada, 1848, Library and Archives Canada, PA-000291.

The affray was caused by Tory disgruntlement over compensation granted by the Provincial government to citizens of Lower Canada who had incurred losses in the 1837-38 Rebellion. While convicted traitors were denied compensation, the law applied even to those who opposed the government and Royal authority. To Conservatives, this smacked of rewarding disloyalty. Despite Tory pressure and his own personal qualms, Lord Elgin gave Royal Asset to the compensation bill. This action underscored the arrival of responsible government to Canada. On hearing that the bill had passed into law, an enraged Tory mob burnt down the Parliament buildings in Montreal in 1848, thereby launching the quest for a new, safer site for Canada’s capital.

By 1853, tempers had cooled and the vice-regal tour of the Ottawa Valley could finally proceed. This was now an opportunity for the Governor General to take the measure of the small community of Bytown as a possible site for Canada’s new capital city. This time, Bytown citizens and neighbouring communities were going to put their best foot forward in a charm offensive to elicit vice-regal support for the Ottawa Valley. It was a pivotal moment in Bytown’s history.

We are fortunate that Lord Elgin’s visit to Bytown and nearby towns along the Ottawa River was extensively covered in the Ottawa Citizen. As well, we have a remarkable first-hand account written by Mary Anne Friel, the widow of the last Mayor of Bytown and three times mayor of Ottawa. Penned in 1901, when she was quite elderly, Mary Anne Friel’s recollection of the visit corroborates the Citizen’s account of events while adding a delightful personal touches, including a vignette of her dancing with the Governor General at a ball held at the Aylmer home of John Egan, MPP, a prominent area lumberman and politician.

Travelling from Quebec City, the then seat of government, to remote Bytown in 1853 was not easy. Lord Elgin and his entourage left Quebec on Tuesday the 26th of July on the steam John Munn, arriving in Montreal shortly before 6am the following morning. Despite the early hour, the steamer was met at the wharf by hundreds of well-wishers and a full honour guard. From Montreal, the party took the train to Lachine on the St. Lawrence River where it met the steamer Lady Simpson for the journey to Carillon, arriving shortly after noon. At Carillon, Lord Elgin was met by a carriage and four horses sent the previous day from Bytown to convey him over the rough and uncomfortable road to Grenville. From there, Lord Elgin and his company embarked at 3.30pm on the Ottawa Mail Steamer Phoenix for the last stage of his journey to Bytown. The Phoenix, which was met partway by the steamboat Otter filled with well-wishers, finally arrived at Bytown at about 8.30 pm on 27 July 1853—the journey from Quebec having taken more than 24 hours.

At each stop along the way, Lord Elgin was feted, with local dignitaries welcoming him and expressing their support and loyalty. All stressed the importance of the Ottawa River and its tributaries as “repositories of great wealth” that only needed the “fostering hand of Government to make them a source of great individual and provincial prosperity.”

At Bytown, huge crowds started to gather as early as 6pm along the high banks of the Ottawa River and at the wharves to await the arrival of the Governor General and his staff. When the Phoenix came into view, a cannon mounted high above the river, most likely on Barrick Hill or Nepean Point, fired a 21-gun salute. On board the steamship, a band played God Save the Queen which was followed by the skirl of bagpipes. Disembarking from the Phoenix, a tired Lord Elgin was taken by carriage to Rideau Hall, the residence of Thomas McKay, where he was to stay during his short visit to Bytown. (A few years later, the home was rented and then purchased by the Canadian government as the official residence of the Governor General.)

At 10am the next morning, a large procession formed on Sussex Street and greeted Lord Elgin at the Rideau Bridge on the road that led to Rideau Hall. Proceeded by two constables with “wands” (most likely, decorated truncheons indicating their office), the Union Jack and a further two constables with wands, came Lord Elgin’s carriage. Thomas McKay was seated beside him. Following behind the Governor General’s carriage were carriages carrying Mayor Joseph-Balsora Turgeon and members of the Corporation of Bytown, the Warden and County Council, Members of Parliament, the County Judge, the County Sheriff, various members of organizing committees, the clergy and members of professions in their robes of office, including lawyers, doctors, and magistrates. Pulling up the rear were local residents on horseback and members of the public on foot.

The procession wended its way through the streets of Lower Town, crossed Sappers’ Bridge before heading to Barrick Hill where a bower, or arch, was erected at a spot described as commanding “one of the finest views on this continent.” (This was the very spot where the future Houses of Parliament would later be built.) There, Mayor Turgeon addressed Lord Elgin in both English and French. He assured the Governor General of Bytown’s “inalienable attachment to Her Majesty’s person and Government.” In light of what had transpired four years earlier, these words were not just a diplomatic nicety.  Without explicitly lobbying for Bytown to become the new capital of Canada,  the Mayor stressed the geographical position of the community “in the very Centre of Canada, situate on the banks of the majestic Ottawa, one of the largest rivers in British America, at the junction of the Rideau Canal with that river, —having extensive fertile salubrious country above and around us, inexhaustible in timber and minerals, and unequalled in water powers, —therefore we hope we may be excused in anticipating for our intended City a high rank in the future destiny of this great and fast growing country.”

In response, Lord Elgin thanked the Mayor for the hearty welcome accorded to him and said that the purpose of his visit was to become personally acquainted with “the capabilities and requirements of the Valley of the Ottawa.” He concluded by saying that “Bytown and the region of the Ottawa may henceforward reckon me among their most evident admirers.” These words were greeted by “loud and continued cheering,” said the Citizen.

Following more speeches by the Sons and Cadets of Temperance, who lobbied for total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors, the Governor General, his entourage and other notables continued their progress, through the principal streets of Upper Town, before arriving at the Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum where an Exhibition had been hastily organized in only ten days by a committee headed by Dr. Van Courtlandt. There were four categories of exhibits—fine arts, manufactured goods, mechanical objects, specimens of natural history, and geological finds. The Exhibition Hall had been tastefully decorated with flowering plants and flags, with a birch bark canoe suspended from the ceiling. High up near the roof was a banner with the words “Only the presage of a coming time.”

The purpose of the displays was to show Lord Elgin that in spite of the rough-hewn outward nature of Bytown, the community was both cultured and prosperous with a sterling future. The highlight of the fine arts collection on display was the Flight into Egypt by Murillo lent by the Bishop of Bytown from the Roman Catholic Cathedral. In the manufactured goods section, fine tweeds produced by the textile factory owned by Thomas McKay were on display as well as other fabrics made in Bytown and New Edinburgh mills. There were also displays of hats, furs and leather products. In the mechanical section were carriages and sleds made by Humphreys and McDougall, agricultural implements, and a biscuit-making machine from Mr. A. Scott, and a lathe and portable bellows supplied by J.R. Booth. Thirty-three specimens of wood were on show as well as window blinds furnished by Messrs. Cherrier, Dickenson & Co. of New Edinburgh. Specimens of natural history included fossils, provided by Mr Billings, and other curiosities were displayed on a wide table that ran up the middle of the hall. To underscore the mineral wealth of the Ottawa Valley, six different kinds of iron ore were on show, along with samples of Nepean cement stone.

Naturally, there were speeches, lots of them. Elgin commented about how pleased he was to hear the addresses read “in the Scottish tongue.” He also indicated that he was fully aware of the importance of the lumber industry to the region saying “the Lumberman is followed by the Farmer who finds in the wants of the lumberman a ready market for the produce of his industry, and the Farmer, in his turn is immediately succeeded by the Mechanic and the Artisan.”

After his stop at the Mechanics’ Institute, Lord Elgin held a levee at Doran’s Hotel that ended at 1.45pm. This was followed by visits to the Anglican and Roman Catholic Cathedrals before returning to Rideau Hall for a sumptuous collation for fifty guests held in a tent erected on the lawn of the residence.

After luncheon, the Governor General and his entourage took carriages to Alymer in Canada East (Quebec) to dine at the residence of John Egan, M.P.P. He party passed again through Bytown, then over the Ottawa River via the Union Suspension Bridge. The streets of the town were decorated with flags and evergreen branches. Several arches ornamented with flags and banners spanned the roads. In front of Messrs. G. Herou & Co., eight trees had been planted, with a large evergreen wreath hung from the front of the building with a twenty-foot banner. In the centre was a large crown.

At the Union Bridge, Lord Elgin witnessed an exciting descent of three cribs of timber decorated with flags through the timber slide around the Chaudière Falls. The signal to launch was given by a musket discharge. In the middle of the Bridge, the Governor General was met by a mounted deputation from Aylmer, escorted by a “cavalcade of the Yeomanry of the Country” to accompany him to Egan’s residence. He then witnessed another timber crib slide on the Canada East side of the bridge before passing under an archway of pines into the village of Hull and onto the road to Aylmer.

The small town of Aylmer was decorated for the great man’s arrival, with a reception held outside as the Town Hall was too small to accommodate the crowds. After the customary speeches, the vice-regal party repaired to the Egan residence where dinner was served, followed by a ball that started at 10pm and Mary Anne Friel’s dance with the Governor General. This was followed by fireworks.

The next day, Lord Elgin’s party voyaged up the Ottawa River on the steamship Emerald, passing Horaceville, the seat of the Honourable Hamnett Pinhey, where the Governor General was greeted by a 21-gun salute, before docking at Quillon (Quyon) for more speeches. From Quyon, the Emerald steamed to Union Village where the vice-regal party took the Chats Falls Horse Railway to portage around the Falls. At the other end of the portage railway, the group boarded the steamer Oregon at Chats Lake to run first to Arnprior, then to the home of Alexander McDonnell at Sand Point, Bonnechere Point, and finally Portage Du Fort, with speeches given at each stop. At Portage Du Fort, Lord Elgin was greeted by 220 Orangemen in full regalia with four white and green banners. After the welcoming speeches, Lord Elgin said that he had been greeted with great kindness by residents of the Ottawa Valley. Alluding to the disturbances of 1848-49, he added that “His day in Canada, as they were aware, had not been entirely cloudless, —but what care we now for the storm that has passed away… We had our dark and cloudy morning here in Canada—we now enjoy our noon-day sunshine.”

The Oregon then retraced its journey, stopping at Fitzroy Harbour where the vice-regal party disembarked for a walk through the village to the mills amidst cheering crowds and gunfire. The citizens of Fitzroy Harbour weren’t shy about recommending Bytown as the new capital of Canada. In an address presented at that stop, the community said that they were glad that Lord Elgin had visited Bytown, “which from its central position in the Province [of Canada], its salubrious climate and its position in the valley of the Ottawa possesses the first claim to be the permanent seat of government.” Lord Elgin replied that it gave him great pleasure to see “a large number of people of all creeds and races – English, Irish, Scotch and Canadians [French] – living together in the upmost harmony and exerting themselves for the advancement of Canada, the common country of the all.”

Afterwards, Lord Elgin and his party took the portage railway again and re-embarked on the Emerald for the return journey to Aylmer. On the way, some of the ladies and gentlemen, “tripped the light fantastic on the upper deck.”  It was dark by the time the group arrived in Aylmer which was brilliantly illuminated. After a short halt, the Governor General and his entourage took carriages back to Bytown, the route lit up by large bonfires set at strategic points.

After spending the night at Rideau Hall, Lord Elgin left Bytown for good at 5.30 the next morning bound for Montreal on the Phoenix—his trip through the Ottawa Valley an unqualified success.

Four years later, Queen Victoria chose Bytown, now renamed Ottawa, as the capital of the Province of Canada.

Sources:

Friel, Mary A. By. 1901. A Reminiscence, 4 November, Historical Society of Ottawa, A 2009-0147, Box #12, City of Ottawa Archives.

Leggett, R.F. 1968. The Chats Falls Horse Railway,” Science Museum, London, 7 February, https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/Research%20Notes/Chats%20Falls.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1853. “Lord Elgin’s Visit to Ottawa,” 30 July.

————————, 1853. “Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute,” 30 July.

Sappers’ Bridge

23 July 1912

It ended with a crash that sounded like a great gun going off, the noise reverberating off the buildings of downtown Ottawa. After faithfully serving the Capital for more than eighty years, Sappers’ Bridge finally succumbed to the wreckers in the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, 23 July 1912. However, the old girl didn’t go gently into that good night. It took seven hours for the structure to finally collapse in pieces into the Rideau Canal below. After trying dynamite with little success, the demolition crew rigged a derrick and for hours repeatedly dropped a 2 ½ ton block onto the platform of the bridge before the arch spanning the Canal gave way. Mr. O’Toole the man in charge of the demolition, said that the bridge was “one of the best pieces of masonry that he [had] ever taken apart.”

Sappers' Bridge Burrowes
View of the Rideau Canal and Sappers’ Bridge – Painting by Thomas Burrowes, c. 1845, Archives of Ontario, Wikipedia.

The bridge, the first and for many decades the only bridge across the Rideau Canal, dated back to the dawn of Bytown. In the summer of 1827, Thomas Burrowes, a member of Lieutenant Colonel John By’s staff, gave his boss a sketch of a proposed wooden bridge to span the Rideau Canal, which was then under construction, from the end of Rideau Street in Lower Bytown on the Canal’s eastern side to the opposing high ground on the western side. Colonel By accepted the proposal but opted in favour of building the bridge out of stone rather than wood. Work got underway almost immediately, with the foundation of the eastern pier begun by Mr. Charles Barrett, a civilian stone mason, though the vast majority of the workers were Royal Sappers and Miners. On 23 August 1827, Colonel By laid the bridge’s cornerstone with the name Sappers’ Bridge cut into it. The arch over the Canal was completed in only two months. On the keystone on the northern face of the bridge, Private Thomas Smith carved the Arms of the Board of Ordnance who owned the Canal and surrounding land. The original bridge was only eighteen feet wide and had no sidewalks.

Reportedly, one of the first civilians to cross Sappers’ Bridge was little Eliza Litle (later Milligan), the six-year old daughter of John Litle, a blacksmith who had set up a tent and workshop where the Château Laurier Hotel stands today. Apparently, Eliza was playing close to the Canal bank on the western side when she was frightened by some passing First Nations’ women. She ran screaming towards Sappers’ Bridge which was then under construction. A big sapper picked Eliza up and carried her over a temporary wooden walkway and dropped her off at her father’s smithy.

Back in those early days, there were two Bytowns. Most people lived in Lower Bytown. It had a population of about 1,500 souls, mostly French and Irish Catholics. The much smaller Upper Bytown, which was centred around Wellington Street roughly where the Supreme Court is situated today, had a population of no more than 500. This was where the community’s elite lived, mainly English and Scottish Protestants. The two distinct worlds, one rowdy and working class, the other stuffy and upper class, were linked by Sappers’ Bridge. While the bridge joined up Rideau Street on its eastern side, there was only a small footpath on its western side. The path wound its way around the base of Barrack Hill (later called Parliament Hill), which was then heavily wooded, past a cemetery on its south side that extended from roughly today’s Elgin Street to Metcalfe Street, until it reached the Wellington and Bank Streets intersection where Upper Bytown started. It wasn’t until 1849 that Sparks Street, which had previously run only from Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) to Bank Street, was linked directly to Sappers’ Bridge. During the 1840s, that stretch of path to Sappers’ Bridge was a lonely and desolate area. It was also dangerous, especially at night. It was the favourite haunt of the lawless who often attacked unwary travellers. Many a score was settled by somebody being turfed over the side of the bridge into the Canal. People travelled across Sappers’ Bridge in groups: there was safety in numbers.

Bytown, which became Ottawa in 1855, quickly outgrew the original narrow Sappers’ Bridge. In 1860, immediately prior the visit of the Prince of Wales who laid the cornerstone of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, six-foot wide wooden pedestrian sidewalks supported by scaffolding were added to each side of the existing stone bridge. This permitted the entire 18-foot width of the bridge to be used for vehicular traffic.

But only ten years later, the bridge was again having difficulty in coping with traffic across the Rideau Canal. There was discussion on demolishing Sappers’ Bridge and replacing it with something much wider. The Ottawa Citizen opined that such talk verged on the sacrilegious as Sappers’ Bridge was “an old landmark in the history of Bytown.” The newspaper also thought that it was far too expensive to demolish especially as the bridge had “at least another century of wear in it.” It supported an alternative proposal to build a second bridge over the Canal.

In late 1871, work began on the construction of that second bridge across the Canal linking Wellington Street to Rideau Street, immediately to the north of Sappers’ Bridge. It was completed at a cost of $55,000 in 1874. It was called the Dufferin Bridge after Lord Dufferin, Canada’s Governor General at that time. Another $22,000 was spent on widening the old Sappers’ Bridge on which were laid the tracks of the horse-drawn Ottawa Street Passenger Railway.

Despite the upgrade, Ottawa residents were still not happy with the old bridge. Sappers’ Bridge was a quagmire after a rainstorm. On wag stated that “It is estimated that the present condition of the bridge has produced more new adjectives that all the bad whiskey in Lower Town.” One Mr. Whicher of the Marine and Fisheries Department was moved to write a 24-verse parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Bridge about Sappers’ Bridge. In it, he referred to “many thousands of mud-encumbered men, each bearing his splatter of nuisance.” He hoped that a gallant colonel “with a mine of powder, a pick and a sure fusee (sic)” would blow it up. His poem was well received when he recited it at Gowan’s Hall in Ottawa.

Sappers' Bridge 1878 Wiliam Topley -Library and Archives Canada
Sappers’ Bridge (left) and Dufferin Bridge (right), c. 1878, Topley Studio and Library and Archives Canada. The old Post Office is in the centre of the photograph. Notice the horse-drawn passenger railway in operation on Sappers’ Bridge.

But it took another thirty-five years before the government contemplated doing just that.  As part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to beautify the city and make Ottawa “the Washington of the North,” the Grand Trunk Railway began in 1909 the construction of Château Laurier Hotel on the edge of Major’s Hill Park, and a new train station across the street. Getting wind of government plans to build a piazza in the triangular area above the canal between the Dufferin Bridge and Sappers’ Bridge in front of the new hotel, Mayor Hopewell suggested that Sappers’ Bridge might be widened as part of these plans in order to permit the planting of a boulevard of flowers and rockeries to hid the railway yards from pedestrians walking over the bridge. He also added that public lavatories might be installed beneath the piazza.

Sappers' Bridge Demolition Ottawahh
Demolition of Sappers’ Bridge, 1912. The arch of Sapper’s bridge is gone leaving only the broken abutments and rubble in the Canal. The newly built Château Laurier hotel in in the background on the right. Dufferin Bridge is in the centre of the photograph. Bytown Museum, P799, Ottawahh.

In the event, the federal government decided to demolish Sappers’ Bridge. Both the Dufferin and Sappers’ Bridges were replaced by one large bridge—Plaza bridge. This new bridge was completed in December 1912. The piazza over the Canal was also built. It was bordered by the Château Laurier Hotel, Union Station, the Russell House Hotel and the General Post Office. A straw poll conducted by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper of its readership, favoured naming the new piazza “The Plaza.” However, the government, the owner of the site, had other ideas. It decided on calling it Connaught Place, after Lord Connaught, the third son (and seventh child) of Queen Victoria who had taken up his vice-regal duties as Canada’s Governor General in 1911.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the beautification of downtown Ottawa continued. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell Block of buildings and the Old Post Office to provide space for a national monument to honour Canada’s war dead. The war memorial was officially opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In the process, Connaught Place was transformed into Confederation Square.

Little now remains of the old Sappers’ Bridge. Hidden underneath the Plaza Bridge is a small pile of stones preserved from the old bridge with a plaque installed by the NCC in 2004 in honour of Canadian military engineers. The bridge’s keystone with the chiselled emblem of the Ordnance Board was also saved from destruction. For a time it was housed in the government archives building but its current location is unknown.

Sources:

Ross, A. H. D. 1927. Ottawa Past and Present, Toronto: The Musson Book Company.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1871. “editorial,” 3 May.

————————, 1972. “A Dirty Bridge,” 10 April.

————————, 1874. “Sappers’ Bridge,” 9 October.

————————, 1913. “‘Connaught Place’, Cabinet’s Choice of Name for Area Formed By Union of Sappers’ and Dufferin Bridges,” 24 March.

————————, 1925. “Muddy Sappers’ Bridge In the Seventies,” 18 July.

———————–, 1928. “Girl of Six Was the First Female To Cross Sappers’ Bridge Over Canal,” 23 June.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1910. “Widening of the Bridges,” 3 June.

———————————–, 1912. “Early Days In Bytown Some Reminiscences,” 27 April.

———————————–, 1912. “When Ottawa Was Chosen The Capital of Canada,” 4 May.

———————————–, 1912. “Bridge Is Blown Down,” 23 July.

———————————–, 1914. “Notable Stones In the History Of The Capital,” 16 March.

The Colonial Conference

9 July 1894

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the British Empire was reaching its peak. Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, marking fifty years on the throne. That year, the Imperial Federation League, whose aim was to promote closer ties within the Empire, organized the first Colonial Conference in London. It was hosted by Queen Victoria and Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.  The United Kingdom, Canada, Newfoundland, the six Australian colonies, New Zealand and the Natal and Cape Colonies in southern Africa sent representatives. Sir Alexander Campbell, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, and Sandford Fleming (later Sir) represented the Dominion of Canada. Fleming was the Scottish-Canadian engineer who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway and conceived worldwide standard time. He was also an ardent imperialist who lobbied hard for a trans-Pacific telegraph cable linking the British colonies in Australia with Canada. As a trans-Atlantic cable between Newfoundland and Ireland had been laid many years earlier, a trans-Pacific line would fill in a missing piece in a globe-girding communications network that would help unite the Empire. Although the Conference agreed on a number of resolutions, including the approval of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable, agreements reached were non-binding.

Colonial Conference LAC PA-066744 Samuel J. Jarvis
The Participants in the Colonial Conference held in Ottawa, June-July 1894, Library and Archives Canada, Samuel J. Jarvis, Library and Archives Canada, PA-066744.

Seven years later, in 1894, a second colonial conference was organized, this time by the Canadian government of Conservative Sir John Thompson. According to a contemporary report, Mackenzie Bowell (later Sir), who as Minister of Trade and Commerce had the previous year travelled to Australia to promote Australian-Canadian trade relations, found it difficult to negotiate with six different Australian colonies during his short stay in the Antipodes. (The Australian Federation wasn’t formed until 1901.) Consequently, Canada proposed a conference in Ottawa. Five of the six Australian colonies (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, the only exception being Western Australia) sent representatives.[1] New Zealand and the Cape Colony of South Africa also sent delegates. Britain was represented by the Earl of Jersey, a former governor of New South Wales.  Lord Jersey was given strict instructions that he was only to listen, provide information, and report back to the British government. He did not have the authority to bind the British government to any agreement or even express any views on behalf of the British government. The Canadian delegation consisted of Mackenzie Bowell, Minister of Trade and Commerce, Sir Adolphe Caron, Postmaster-General, George E. Foster, Minister of Finance, and Sandford Fleming.

The Colonial Conference ran over a twelve-day period ending 9 July 1894. Most of the conference was held in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill. The debates were not open to the general public or the press. Commenting on its lack of access, The Globe newspaper tartly remarked that “The conference has taken an excellent course to ensure that it will make the least possible impression on the public mind.” While it was generally known that Imperial trading relations was a major focus of the conference, little news filtered out of the deliberations. Consequently, reporters focused on the many peripheral social events. The night before the opening session, the government held a banquet for 300 guests at the Russell Hotel in honour of the delegates. The Ottawa Evening Journal remarked that the banquet was “the talk of the corridors of Parliament” the next day and that “unrestrained enthusiasm and loud cheers” had greeted the “incidental mention of Cecil Rhodes,” the great South African imperialist. More substantively, the newspaper also reported that the Liberal opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier (later Sir) had advised delegates to follow the trading policy of the mother country [Britain], i.e. free trade. At that time, the Liberal Party was a free-trading party, and supported unrestricted trade with the United States. It would attempt to negotiate a reciprocity treaty with the Americans during the early 1900s.

Colonial Conference G.R. Lancefield LAC PA-028845
The Colonial Conference inside the Senate Chamber, Parliament Hill, 28 June 1894, G.R. Lancefield, Library and Archives Canada, PA-028845.

A few days later, the Government held a garden party on Parliament Hill. Over 1,000 incandescent electric lights illuminated the trees and hedges close to the Cartier statue to the west of the central block. Lights and Chinese lanterns lit up “Lovers’ Walk – a secluded, treed pathway around the bluff of Parliament Hill that was long a popular spot for strolling. (Only traces of the trail now remain.) A large arch was erected with an “immense carpet underfoot.” The Journal waxed eloquently about the event. “Guests felt that some invisible genii had transported them for from the heights of Ottawa to some garden in the Orient.” The newspaper focused considerable attention on the ladies’ dresses. Lady Thompson, the Prime Minister’s wife, wore a black silk lace gown with jet trimmings. A band of black velvet with a diamond star in the centre encircled her throat.

After the conference, which concluded with a ball in the Drill Hall, delegates remained tight-lipped, saying little beyond anodyne comments. Lord Jersey remarked he wasn’t able to go into details, but he was “safe in saying that the results will surely prove beneficial, not only to the mother country, but to the various colonies.” William Foster from South Australia thought it “would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the conference in bringing nearer together the people of the distant parts of the empire.” In the absence of hard news, the Journal asked delegates about their opinions of Canada. Simon Fraser, a delegate from Victoria Colony in Australia who was actually a Canadian born in Picton, Nova Scotia, noted great differences between the Canada of his youth some forty years earlier and the Canada of 1894. Then, “it was still the good old days of stage coaches.” Canada was “a kingdom now; it has a place among the nations of the earth,” with a great future. Jan Hafmeyr from the Cape Colony in South Africa honestly replied that he had been ill for much of his brief stay. Consequently, he did “not feel qualified to express an opinion of the Dominion, its peoples and institutions as requested.”

Details of the conference finally came out in August 1894 with the publishing of the conference proceedings. With Mackenzie Bowell, the Canadian Minister of Trade in Commerce in the chair for most of the time, delegates focused their energy on two main issues — the enhancement of intra-Empire trade, and the laying of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada. Procedurally, it was one colony, one vote, with resolutions decided on a majority basis.

The first issue became known as the “imperial preference.” It was a policy keenly supported by Canada’s protectionist-minded and imperialist Conservative Party. In 1879, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government had introduced its “National Policy,” directed at sheltering Canadian manufacturers from foreign, especially American, competition. The Conservatives had won the 1891 General Election under the imperialist banner “The Old Flag [Union Jack], the Old Policy [Protectionism], the Old Leader [Macdonald].” With the opening of western Canada, the Canadian government was eager to increase its share of the large British market for agricultural products and other commodities. With imperial sentiment on the ascendant in Canada, the Conservative Party now under Sir John Thompson supported differential tariffs that favoured British (and British colonial goods) over foreign goods. British goods would still face a tariff, just a smaller one than that imposed on foreign goods. This was seen as a way of broadening and deepening intra-Empire trade while at the same time keeping American producers at a significant disadvantage in Canadian markets. Greater access to Empire markets also became more imperative after the 1890 introduction of the McKinley Tariff in the United States that substantially raised existing barriers to Canadian goods.

However, Britain had pursued a free-trading policy with the world since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Cheap foreign food fed the growing British urban proletariat. The factories and mills in which they worked depended on the importation of cheap commodities for conversion into textiles and other manufactured goods. Consequently, it sought the lowest world price for imported inputs, and didn’t distinguish between foreign and colonial sources. British trade with non-Empire countries dwarfed its Imperial trade. While some of the Australian colonies supported the Canadian position, they were hampered by constitutional barriers that, while allowing them to favour other Australian colonies, forbade them from discriminating in favour of any country, whether foreign or British. The South African colonies laboured under similar restrictions.  On a 5-3 vote, the delegates passed a resolution, moved by Canada, stating the Conference’s “belief in the advisability of a Customs’ arrangement between Great Britain and her Colonies by which trade within the Empire may be placed on a more favourable footing than that which is carried on with foreign countries.” Recognizing that Great Britain might not be inclined to do this at this point in time, a subsidiary resolution noted the desirability of the Colonies to be given the power to discriminate in favour of each other’s products. Canada, Tasmania, Cape of Good Hope, South Australia and Victoria voted in favour of the resolution. New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand voted against it. Britain did not vote.

The second important issue – the construction of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada – was less contentious. A resolution moved by New South Wales passed unanimously. (Again, Britain did not vote.) The South African delegation urged that eventually the cable should be extended to South Africa. Sandford Fleming presented a lengthy paper examining the delays in laying the cable since the first colonial conference in 1887. Delegates thought it appropriate that Canada, Britain and the Australian colonies each assume a one-third share in a government-owned venture, estimated to cost about £1.8 million. Australians denounced the “grasping monopoly” of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company that owned the only existing telegraph line to Australia through Asia, and indicated their willingness to assume the entire cost of building the trans-Pacific line if the underwater cable could be protected for at least a week “after a declaration of war by or against England.” Sandford Fleming though that once the line was built, it would cost 2 shillings per word to send a telegram from Australia to Canada, and would lower the per word cost of sending a telegram from Australia to Britain from 4 shillings and 9 pence to 3 shillings and 3 pence. At today’s prices that would be a reduction from about £28 (C$48) per word to a mere £19 (C$26). (With email, Skype, and other forms of electronic communications virtually costless today, one forgets how expensive telecommunications used to be.)

Despite the strong imperial sentiments expressed by all at the Conference and the self-congratulations that followed the resolutions, reality quickly set in. The Globe newspaper wrote a scathing report on the Conference’s trade resolution once news about its deliberations became known. It wrote that “Next, perhaps, to levying taxes on the colonies for old world wars…, there could surely be no swifter way of wrecking the Empire than to compel the forty millions in the United Kingdom to stint their bellies and immensely reduce their opportunities… [G]reater [Imperial] unity cannot be brought about by differential tariffs whose effect would be the speedy impoverishment of the mother country… No sane man can believe that we can find such a policy as a customs union with far distant continents whose population is even smaller than our own and a war of tariffs with our American kinsmen, with whom Providence has decreed that we must live as next-door neighbour to the end of time.”

Although Canada unilaterally introduced imperial preferences during the late 1890s, Britain retained its traditional free trade policies. It wasn’t until another Ottawa conference, this one held in 1932 in the depth of the Great Depression, did Britain break with its long-standing beliefs and introduced an imperial preference system as recommended by Canada.

The trans-Pacific, “all-Red,” British cable was finally laid in 1902, with the first message sent in December of that year. Operated by the British Cable Board, it was owned by Britain (5/18), Canada (5/18), New South Wales (1/9), Victoria (1/9), Queensland (1/9) and New Zealand (1/9). The cable ran from Vancouver to Brisbane, with intermediate connections at various tiny Pacific islands that Britain controlled, with a branch to New Zealand from Norfolk Island. The line was later extended across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.

Sources:

Devlin, Charles, 1892. Liberal Member for Ottawa County, Quebec, Speech, House of Commons Debates, 7th Parliament, 2nd Session, Vol.1, page 501.

Globe (Toronto), 1894. “Cabled From London, The Intercolonial Conference,” 15 June.

——————-, 1894. “At The Capital, Mr Bowell Elected President of the Conference,” 30 June.

——————-, 1894. “Notes and Comments,” 5 July.

——————-, 1894. “Trade Projects,” 4 August.

——————-, 1894. “Schemes of Empire,” 4 August.

Hopkins, J. Castell, 1894. “Imperialism at the Intercolonial Conference, Toronto, https://archive.org/stream/cihm_08049#page/1/mode/2up.

Huurdeman, Anton. 2003. The Worldwide History of Telecommunications, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, New Jersey.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1894. “Sons of the Empire,” 28 June.

—————————–, 1894. “An Imperial Feast,” 29 June.

——————————, 1894. “The Second Day’s Conference,” 30 June.

——————————, 1894. “The Government and the Delegates,” 4 July.

——————————, 1894. “The ‘At Home’ On The Hill,” 6 July.

——————————, 1894. “Ball,” July 9.

——————————, 1894. “Mr. Bowell and the Conference,” 9 July.

——————————, 1894. “Utterances By Colonial Delegates,” 11 July.

——————————, 1894. “The Intercontinental Visitors,” 11 July.

——————————, 1894. “Fruits of the Conference,” 31 July.

Times (London), 1894. “What Colonial Unification May Mean,” 8 July.

 Footnotes

[1] New South Wales – F.B. Suttor, Minister of Public Institutions; Queensland – A.J. Thynne, Member of the Executive Council, William Forrest; South Australia – Thomas Playford, Agent General in London, Victoria – Sir Henry Wrixon, Nicholas Fitzgerald, Member of Legislative Council (also represented Tasmania) and Simon Fraser, Member of Legislative Council; New Zealand – Alfred Lee-Smith, Cape of Good Hope – Sir Henry De Villiers, Chief Justice; Sir Charles Mills, Agent General in London, and Jan Hendrick Hafmeyer, Member of Legislative Council.

Asphalt Paving Comes to Ottawa

30 July 1895

North American roads in the nineteenth century were bad…very bad. Inter-urban “highways” typically consisted of little more than dirt paths carved through the wilderness. In boggy areas, so-called corduroy roads made of logs placed across the direction of travel were sometimes constructed. (They were called corduroy because their texture was reminiscent of corduroy fabric.) If you were very lucky, your highway might be planked, consisting of four-inch thick wooden planks attached to longitudinal stringers.  While relatively comfortable on which to drive, planked highways quickly deteriorated. Regardless of road surface, a journey by stagecoach must have been a slow, jolting and painful experience. Coach passengers were also expected to get out and push if their carriage got mired in mud. Needless to say, few travelled by road unless they had to. The true highways of the age were rivers, canals, and later the railway.

Sparks Street between Metcalfe and Elgin Streets, c. 1877, photographer unknown. Note the wooden sidewalk lower than the roadway, City of Ottawa Archives, CA-001504.

Things weren’t a whole lot better in towns. Urban streets, often made of dirt or gravel, were thick with mud when wet, rutted and dusty when dry, and virtually impassable except by sled in winter. In some well-to-do areas, roads were expensively laid with granite blocks known as sett paving. (This type of paving is sometimes called cobblestone paving, though true cobblestone roads were laid with naturally rounded stones set in mortar.) Another more common road surface in North American cities was cedar block paving, consisting of six-inch logs or squared wood set end down on a gravel base. This type of road was cheap but was subject to wear and rot, and lasted for only a few years before needing to be replaced. Cedar block roads were also extremely slippery when wet.

Relief came in the early nineteenth century with the introduction of roadways made by crushed stone developed by two Scottish engineers, Thomas Telford and John McAdam. Telford roads had a base of large rocks with an upper layer of smaller stones. They were also slightly convex to facilitate drainage. McAdam roads eschewed the expensive rock base recommended by Telford, relying instead on a native soil foundation. The roadway was then built up of stones of graduated sizes, the smallest size on top. Typically, no binding agent other than water was applied. Instead the weight of traffic packed down the stone into a durable roadway. McAdam roads became very popular in Europe and North America through the nineteenth century. (When tar was later added as a binding agent, tarmacadam was invented—“tarmac” for short.)

York Street, from Sussex Street to Dalhousie Street, was the first Ottawa roadway to be “macadamized” in June 1851. Forty years later, the Evening Journal described the capital’s streets as consisting of mostly mud or macadam, with a small amount of stone block paving on Bridge Street in LeBreton Flats and cedar block paving on Wellington Street.

Although macadam roadways were effective, they were also costly to maintain. By one estimate, the annual maintenance cost of a macadam road ran to as much as twenty percent of its original cost. This included daily repairs and patches, frequent sprinkling of water as often as three or four times a day to keep down dust, and the regular use of a heavy roller to pack the road down if traffic was insufficient to do so. Not surprisingly, this was not always done, leading to the deterioration of roadways, and complaints from citizens, especially pedestrians, for better roads.

In the late 1800s, the invention of the modern “safety” bicycle (a safe alternative to the preceding high wheeling, penny-farthing bicycle), led to a biking craze. In cities throughout North America and Europe, men and women adopted this new, invigorating and liberating mode of transportation. Not surprisingly, municipal authorities found themselves under heightened pressure to provide smooth road surfaces.

What cities turned to was asphalt. First used in road construction by the ancient Babylonians in around 600 BC, modern asphalt roads date to about the early 1850s in France. Asphalt roads made their way to the United States roughly twenty years later, and to Canada in the mid-1880s. In 1886, a stretch of St James Street (rue Saint Jacques) in Montreal was laid with asphalt paving using asphalt imported from Trinidad. It was a great success. So much so that traffic on parallel streets diverted to use it. The Journal reported that people preferred the “smoothness of asphalt to the vicious wrenchings of the granite or cedar block pavements.”  While far more expensive than other forms of paving, asphalt held the promise of durability with an expected life expectancy of fifteen to twenty years, with much less annual maintenance. Asphalt was also viewed as more hygienic, modern, and aesthetically pleasing. As well, horses and carriages were much quieter on asphalt surfaces, reducing the din of urban life.

In 1889, Mr George Perley and Mr William F. Powell submitted a petition to Ottawa’s city council to have Metcalfe Street from Gloucester Street to Gilmour Street paved in asphalt. Apparently, nine of ten landowners on that stretch of road supported the initiative. However, it never came about as city council baulked at their request that an American contractor be brought in to do the paving without putting the job out to tender.

Asphalt ad 9-2-95 TEJ
Call for Tender of Bids for the Asphalting of Sparks and Bank Streets by the City’s Engineer’s Office, Ottawa, 7 January 1895, The Evening Journal, 9 February 1895.

The accolade of being the first asphalted road in Ottawa goes to Sparks Street. This time, a petition of landowners was successful though a vocal minority complained about the cost. In support of conversion, R.J. Devlin, a large retailer on Sparks Street, published a satirical article in the Journal entitled Aye Or No For The Pavement. It read:

No most decidedly! What do we want with a clean, solid and enduring pavement on Sparks street. Haven’t we got on without it in the past? Haven’t we a pretty good street as it is? With the exception of two months in the spring—And six weeks in the fall—And a week now and then every time it rains, Sparks Street is all that could be desired. That is if you wear long boots, Or are handy on stilts. No, gentlemen, we do not want Sparks street paved. What was good enough for our fathers is good enough for us…No, gentlemen, good, plain, everyday mud is good enough for us. It has stuck to us in the past and we will stick to it in the future.

In the end, just over 80% of the landowners by assessed value were in favour, including the Russell House Company, the largest property owner on the block, and W.J. Topley, the noted photographer. The asphalting petition received the City’s Board of Works support and was subsequently approved by City Council in October 1894.

In early 1895, eight bids were received on the contract to pave Sparks and Bank Streets with asphalt. Henry & Smith of Ottawa won with the lowest bid. However, the contract was later cancelled when the company objected to certain terms that the City required. In May 1895, the contract was re-tendered. This time, the Canada Granite Company of Ottawa won with its bid to pave the two streets with rock asphalt from France at a cost of $30,395 and $24,668, respectively. Although another company had provided a slightly lower bid using Trinidad asphalt, the city’s Chief Engineer Robert Surtees rejected it on the grounds that rock asphalt was superior to Trinidad asphalt. (While the original contract called for either grade of asphalt, the second contract specified rock asphalt.) Canada Granite was required to provide a 15-year guarantee, backed up with a blocked deposit worth 30% of the value of the contract. Until the guarantee expired, the company would receive 5 per cent interest from the city on its deposit.

asphalt 37-7-95 in OJ 31-3-51
This grainy photograph by Samuel Jarvis, reproduced from The Evening Journal, 31 March 1951, is the only known image of the laying of the first asphalt on Sparks Street by Mayor Borthwick on 30 July 1895.

Work on pulling up the old macadam surface of Sparks Street from the corner of Canal Street (now gone but was located roughly where the National Arts Centre is today) to Bank Street began the first week of July 1895 by a team of 60 men and a half a dozen carts. The old stones were re-used to repair the macadam on Somerset Street. The Ottawa Electric Train Company took this opportunity to upgrade its rails on Sparks Street, re-routing its trams onto a temporary track on Wellington Street. Following the laying of a foot-deep foundation, the roadway was ready for paving. On 30 July 1895, Mayor William Borthwick threw onto the road the first shovelful of asphalt at the Sparks and Canal Street corner using a shovel made of polished oak and nickel plate. On one side of the shovel was an engraving of the Parliament Buildings and Ottawa’s City Hall, with a picture of the Granite Company works on the other. There was also a silver inscription that read: “On laying the first asphalt pavement on the streets of Ottawa, junction of Sparks and Canal streets by his Worship William Borthwick, Mayor, July 30, 1895.”

The ceremony was followed by the customary congratulatory speeches with the Mayor saying that Ottawa citizens “would enjoy first class city streets.” Mr C. Strubbe, the Montreal agent for La Compagnie Generale des Asphaltes de France, the supplier of the imported asphalt used in the paving, congratulated City Council and said that the paving shows “the progressive spirit of the people of the capital,” and that it marked an “improvement towards the cleanliness and health of the city.” Afterwards, civic and industry officials repaired to the Russell House Hotel for a light luncheon supplied by the contractor.

It took more than three weeks to complete the Sparks Street paving job, far longer than anticipated leading to grumbles from area merchants who were losing money while the street was under construction. In part, the delays were due to an inexperienced work force. While a number of experienced labourers were brought in from Montreal, many of the workers were inexperienced local men. There was also some labour strife.  Local workers were paid only $1.40 per day compared to $2.00 per day being paid to the Montrealers.  Ottawa workers briefly went on strike for pay equity, but returned to work when they were promised the Montreal wage rate once they were experienced. To help speed up the work, men laboured at night. However, this proved to be counterproductive as the night work was poorly done. One portion of the street had to be redone three times.

It didn’t help that the work was performed under a microscope, with city councillors and regular citizens alike kibitzing all aspects of the paving job, including whether the asphalt being applied was hot enough, whether the scoria stones used to line the tram rails were being installed correctly, and whether there were sufficient drains. The Journal commented that “every free and independent elector and a large number of embryo members of that class of humanity who passed along Sparks street…appointed himself a special committee of one to inspect and test the small patch of asphalt laid,” by poking it with umbrellas, and walking on it to see how it felt and whether they left heel prints in the dark surface.

Sparks street was finally opened for traffic during the third week of August, though the new paving had already been “initiated” by Moses Inkerman who had driven his rag cart over the unfinished roadway just three days after the Mayor had thrown the first shovelful of asphalt. To celebrate the arrival of asphalt paving, the City sponsored bicycle races on Spark Street from Bank Street to the Russell House Hotel during the evening of Monday, 27 August. Thousands of people watched. The festivities didn’t impress everyone, however. The Journal sniffed that “closing such an important public thoroughfare that four young men might disport themselves on bicycles was in some cases much questioned.”

P1060248 (2)
Detail of February 1903 Plan of the Permanent Roadways of Ottawa, City Engineer’s Office, City of Ottawa Archives. Yellow indicates asphalt, blue indicates tar macadam, and grey indicates scoria block, City of Ottawa Archives. Most roads, even Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings, had not yet received a permanent road surface by this date.

Criticism of the newly asphalted roadway continued. There was a rash of accidents with horses slipping on the new road surface, which was slippery when wet. One horse died after falling in front of the Russell House Hotel. The Journal opined that drivers were being careless and needed to slow down, but also suggested that horses be taught “the asphalt step.” There were also complaints about cleanliness. Unlike porous macadam surfaces, asphalt roads are impermeable. Consequently, horse waste, of which there was a lot, had no place to go. The Journal thought this factor alone would do much to hasten the arrival of motor vehicles. It stated “To have the streets occupied only by silent, rubber-tired carriages and carts, with little mud and no manure will be an extremely pleasant improvement in city life.” The first automobiles arrived on Ottawa streets four years later.

Despite the many complaints, once Sparks Street was completed, work immediately began on asphalting Bank Street. This was quickly followed by Rideau Street. The asphalt era had arrived. Cyclists, and subsequently cars, had the smooth road surfaces that we now take for granted.

Sources:

Bradford, Robert, 2015. Keeping Ontario Moving: The History of Roads and Road building in Ontario, Dundurn: Toronto.

Evening Journal (The), 1887, “Our Future Streets,” 19 March.

—————————, 1887. “Street Paving,” 1 August.

—————————, 1889. “Board of Works,” 29 July.

—————————, 1891. “The Paving Of The Streets,” 21 October.

—————————, 1894. “Asphalt In Sight,” 27 September.

—————————, 1894. “The Battle of the Asphalt,” 2 October.

—————————, 1894. “A Foreman For Each Ward,” 29 November.

—————————, 1895. “Is The Asphalting OK?” 26 July.

—————————, 1895. “They All Tested It.” 31 July.

—————————, 1895. “The Mayor Pleased,” 31 July.

—————————, 1895. “Jottings About Town,” 5 August.

—————————, 1895. “Must go Faster.” 5 August.

—————————, 1895. “Points Of Complaint,” 6 August.

—————————, 1895. “Asphalt Pounders Strike,” 6 August.

—————————, 1898. “The Sparks St. Paving,” 9 August.

—————————, 1895. “Passing Of The Horse,” 22 August.

—————————, 1895. “Bike Races On The Asphalt,” 24 August.

—————————, 1895. “The Town Was Out,” 27 August.

—————————, 1895. “The Asphalt Dust,” 27 August.

—————————, 1895. “On Sparks Street,” 31 August.

—————————, 1895. “Died From A Fall,” 7 November.

—————————, 1951. “First Asphalt On Ottawa Streets,” 31 March.

Haig, Robert, 1975, Ottawa: City of the Big Ears, Haig& Haig Publishing Company: Ottawa.

Longfellow, Rickie, 2015. “Back in Time, Building Roads,” Federal Highway Administration.

Mackintosh, Philip G., 2005. “Asphalt Modernism on the Streets of Toronto, 1890-1900,” Material Cultural Review, Volume 62, Fall, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/18058/21931.

National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), 2017. “The History of Asphalt,” http://www.asphaltpavement.org/.

Ottawa, City of, 1894. By-laws 1557, “To Provide for a Local Improvement, Asphalt Roadway on Sparks Street”

Rebel Metropolis.org, 2005. “Cedar Blocks and Devil Strips: Cycling the Streets of 1898,” http://rebelmetropolis.org/cedar-blocks-and-devil-strips-cycling-streets-of-1898/.

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 small elephant called Tom Thumb were struck by a freight train. Jumbo was killed instantly, while Tom Thumb 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 there 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.