The Queen’s Plate

31 May 1872

The most famous and prestigious thoroughbred horse race in Canada is the Queen’s Plate, open to Canadian-bred, three-year-old horses. It’s also the oldest continuously-run horse race in North America, dating back to 1860, seven years before first running of the Belmont Stakes, the oldest of the “Triple Crown” races in the United States. Over its illustrious history, many members of the Royal family have attended this storied event from Princess Louise in 1881, to the Queen Mother in 1965, and to Queen Elizabeth in 1959, 1973, 1997 and, most recently, 2010. Horse racing is indeed the “sport of kings!”

Queen's Plate 6-5-1872

Advertisement for the 1872 running of the Queen’s Plate, Ottawa Daily Citizen

The story of the Queen’s Plate begins in 1859 when Sir Casimir Gzowski, the president of the Toronto Turf Club, petitioned the Governor General for an annual horse racing prize to be awarded by Queen Victoria to horses bred and reared in Upper Canada (Ontario). He correctly believed that the cachet of winning a royal prize would encourage the development of horse breeding in Canada. Queen Victoria graciously agreed to the request providing an annual prize of 50 guineas for a race to be called the Queen’s Plate. (A guinea is defunct British gold coin no longer minted by the mid nineteenth century but widely used as a unit of account in horse racing, the art world, and certain professions well into the twentieth century. It had a value of 21 shillings sterling.)

The Royal Privy Purse continues to provide this annual prize though instead of 50 guineas, it reportedly sends a bank draft for the sterling equivalent except when a member of the Royal Family is present for the race. Then, the winner receives 50 gold sovereigns in a purple bag. The winner also receives 60 per cent of the race purse of $1 million. Confusingly, the “Plate” is a foot-high golden cup on a black base rather than a plate. (The traditional royal prize for a horse race had been a silver plate, hence the name. However, over time the nature of the prize changed but the name stuck.)

The first running of the Queen’s Plate took place at the end of June in 1860 at the Carleton Race Course in Toronto. It was open to all horses reared in Upper Canada which had never won public money. During the early years of the Queen’s Plate, horses competed in three heats rather than a single race as is the case today. The first winner was a five-year old horse by the name of Don Juan, owned by a Mr. White and ridden by Charles Littlefield. Don Juan came in second in the first heat, but won the second and third heats of the competition over a one-mile track with his best time of 1 minute 58 seconds.

Although the next several Queen’s Plates were held at the Carleton Race Course, it subsequently moved around the province depending on the lobbying powers of various racing clubs and politicians before it settled down for good at the Woodbine Race Course in Toronto in 1883. Until 1956, the race was held at the old Woodbine site at the end of Woodbine Street in Toronto close to Lake Ontario. It then moved to the current Woodbine location on Rexdale Boulevard, north of the Pearson Airport in Etobicoke.  During the Queen’s Plate’s journey around Ontario, the race came to Ottawa on two occasions, the first in 1872 and the second in 1880.

The organization that brought the Queen’s Plate to Ottawa in 1872 was the Ottawa Turf Club, founded in 1869 with the patronage of Sir John Young, later known as Lord Lisgar, the Governor General, who was an avid horseman. The President of the Club was Joseph Aumond, Vice-President was Nicholas Sparks, and  Edward Barber was the Secretary.  While the lobbying of Sir John A. Macdonald, the Premier, may have helped the new Ottawa Turf Club win the event, Lord Lisgar was likely the one most responsible for bringing the race to Ottawa. With His Excellency as its patron, the Ottawa Turf Club definitely had the inside track for hosting the event. News that the Queen’s Plate had been conferred on Ottawa was officially relayed to the Ottawa Turf Club in February 1872, with the race planned for late spring. The conditions of the race were: “For horses, geldings or mares, bred, raised, trained and owned, in the Province of Ontario, who have not previously won public money at any race meeting. The whole stake to go to the winner.”

The Club organized a two-day racing extravaganza for Friday and Saturday, the 31th of May and the 1st of June, 1872. The event was held at the new Mutchmor Driving Park which had opened the previous year. The race track and the adjoining Turf Hotel were owned by Ralph Muchmor and Edward Barber, the Turf Club’s Secretary. Total prize money for the two-day event amounted to $2,850—a fair sum in those days.

Long before race time, pedestrians and carriages packed Bank Street, all heading for the race track located now where the Mutchmor Public School is today. Race conditions were perfect with the track having just been rolled after a recent rain. The main attraction of the day was, of course, the Queen’s Plate, the third race of the afternoon. By the time Lord and Lady Lisgar arrived at 3 pm, every vantage point was taken up, the stands filled to capacity with ladies and gentlemen, while less fortunate punters made do with fence tops, and the seats of cabs and wagons. According to the Ottawa Daily Citizen, it was difficult to estimate the size of the crowd, but the stands scarcely accommodated a quarter of the numbers. Many of the visitors came from other parts of Canada and even from the United States to witness the Queen’s Plate which was already the highlight of the Canadian racing calendar.

The first race of the day was the $300 Hurdles Race, a two-mile run with eight hurdles 3’ 6” high, which was won by Duffy by three lengths. The second race was the $100 Steward’s Race won by Mohawk who took both heats. Up next was the Queen’s Plate. The prize was 50 guineas ($256), the gift of “Her Most Gracious Majesty.” The winning horse may have received an additional purse but the report relating to this was obscurely written. It read: “T.C.W. Entrance, $10 p.p. to go with the plate.”[1] The Ottawa Turf Club provided $100 to the second-place horse.

Six horses were entered in the 1½ mile race (no heats): Blacksmith, a 4-year old, black horse, with its jockey wearing a black jacket and blue cap; Fearnaught, a bay horse with its jockey in scarlet with a dove colour cap; Alzora, a chestnut mare, whose jockey wore brown and white; Jack Vandall, a bay gelding, its jockey in blue and white; Bay Boston, a 5-year old, bay horse, (colours not identified), and Halton, a 5-year old bay horse whose jockey wore scarlet. Halton was the favourite. Three of the horses in the running, Fearnaught, Alzora and Jack Vandall, had the same sire, Jack the Barber, a celebrated thoroughbred horse originally from Kentucky.

Queen's Plate Canadian Museum of History

The Trophy awarded for winning the Queen’s Plate, Canadian Museum of History.

At post time, there were four false starts. But after they were finally off, it was deemed a “splendid race.” After the first half mile, it became apparent that the race belonged to Fearnaught, with the favourite, Halton, fading. In a time of 2 minutes 54 ½ seconds, Fearnaugh, ridden by Richard Leary and owned by Alexander Simpson, won the 13th running of the Queen’s Plate. Jack Vandall came in second and Halton third. Richard Leary, the winning jockey who was also a resident of Ottawa and the horse’s trainer, was presented with a gold-mounted riding whip by Mr. William Young of the firm Young & Radford, a watchmaker and jewellery manufacturer located at 30 Sparks Street.

Two more races followed the Queen’s Plate to round out the racing for the afternoon. These were the $300 Tally Ho! Stakes and the $150 Memorial Plate.

Betting had been fierce in the lead-up to all the races. But all the favourites came up short that day causing “a monetary twinge among the sporting fraternity,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Pelting rain almost caused the postponement of the second day of racing from the Saturday to the following Monday. Racing on a Sunday, the Sabbath, was forbidden. However, as many of the horses were slatted to race in Montreal the following week, the decision was made to go ahead on the principle “run, rain or shine.” Fortunately, at race time the clouds cleared, though attendance suffered. Four more races were held: the $600 Carleton Plate; the $400 Lumbermen’s Purse; the $300 Merchants’ Plate; and, finally, the $150 Consolation Stakes. There was a bit of excitement surrounding the running of the Lumbermen’s Purse. Owing to “a misunderstanding or improper interference,” the race had to be run twice. People almost came to blows before the Club Secretary announced that all pools and bets were off for the race.

The Ottawa Turf Club, the host of the 1872 Queen’s Plate, disappeared from the Ottawa racing news in the decade following its big race weekend but not before becoming mired in controversy. At the end of a racing fixture held in October 1874, the Club held a “deer hunt” as a grande finale to the day’s events. A half-starved deer was released onto the field. It was barely able to run having been cooped up in a small cage, its joints stiffened from lack of use. Instead of taking off into the nearby bush to be hunted by a pack of dogs followed by riders, it stumbled into the crowd. It only took ten seconds for it to be taken down and torn to pieces by the hunting dogs amidst the spectators’ carriages. The Ottawa Daily Citizen thought that this was a case for the S.P.C.A. and “hoped that the people of Ottawa will never be asked to patronize such a “sport” again.”

The Ottawa Racing Association hosted the 21st running of the Queen’s Plate at the end of June 1880. It was the second race of the first day of racing entertainment again held at the Mutchmor track. Five horses were at the post come race time; a sixth, the mare Footstep, had been pulled on a challenge on the grounds of ineligibility since it had not been trained in Ontario. The winner was Bonnie Bird, owned by John Forbes and ridden by Richard Leary, the same jockey who rode to victory in the 1872 Queen’s Plate. Bonnie Bird also ran he following day in the first Dominion Day Derby carrying five pounds extra owing to having been the Queen’s Plate winner. Owing to a very bad send off, Bonnie Bird was virtually out of the race at the start but Richard Leary, the jockey, somehow manage to close the gap with the leaders on the turn but was unable to catch Lord Dufferin who won by a length.

Today, Ottawa horse-racing fans can enjoy standardbred harness racing at the Rideau Carleton Raceway on the Albion Road. But if you want to dress up, wear a fascinator, and otherwise enjoy the excitement of the annual running of the Queen’s Plate, you will need to head to the Woodbine Race Track in Toronto.

Sources:

Anderson-Labarge, 2015. “Canada History Week: Spotlight on Sports (Part 2),” Canadian Museum of History, https://www.historymuseum.ca/blog/canada-history-week-spotlight-on-sports-part-2/.

Buffalo Commercial, 1861, “Great Race at Detroit,” 10 July.

Daily Citizen, 1872. “The Queen’s Plate,” 16 February.

—————–, 1872. “Ottawa Turf Club Races,” 31 May.

—————–, 1872.  “Ottawa Turf Club,” 1 June.

—————–, 1872. “Ottawa Turf Club,” 3 June.

—————–, 1880. “Mutchmor Park,” 2 July 1880.

Dulay, Cindy Pierson, 2018. “2010 Queen’s Plate Royal Visit,” Horse-Races.Net, http://www.horse-races.net/library/qp10-royal.htm.

Rideau Carleton Raceway, 2019. https://rcr.net/.

Smith, Beverley, 2018. “Horse Racing: Queen’s Plate,” Globe and Mail, 17 April.

Wencer, David. 2019. “Toronto’s Horse Racing History,” Heritage Toronto, http://heritagetoronto.org/torontos-horse-racing-history/.

Woodbine, 2019. Queen’s Plate 2019, https://woodbine.com/queensplate/.

Wikipedia, 2019. Queen’s Plate, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Plate.

[1] If any reader can decipher this cryptic phrase, please let me know.

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Lovers’ Walk

14 May 1938

When visitors come to Ottawa, they naturally gravitate to Parliament Hill to view the magnificent neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings, to stroll in the surrounding gardens where statues and memorials to Canadian sovereigns and statesmen abound and, of course, to take in the stunning views across the Ottawa River towards Hull and the Gatineau Hills. One hundred years ago, the number two Ottawa tourist destination was Lovers’ Walk—a pathway that wended its way around the Parliament Hill bluff roughly half-way up the escarpment. Surrounded by a hardwood forest and flowering shrubs, including lilacs and honeysuckle, the pathway commanded splendid views of the Ottawa River, with benches for the weary or for the amorous. Visitors to this tranquil wilderness could easily forget that they were in the heart of Canada’s capital city. According to a 1920s’ guide book, anyone who has not taken a stroll there “has not seen all the charms of the capital. In fact, he has missed one of the greatest of them.” Fast forward to today, you would be hard pressed to find an Ottawa resident who has any knowledge about this once-famous pathway.

LoversLaneAlbertype Company LAC PA-032894

Lovers’ Walk, Parliament Hill, Albertype Company, Library and Archives Canada, PA023894.

The history of Lovers’ Walk apparently dates back long before the arrival of the first Europeans to the Ottawa Valley. Accounts say that the pathway was used by Canada’s native peoples travelling along the southern banks of the Ottawa River. During the first half of the nineteenth century, raftsmen took this same route as a short cut moving to and from their homes in Lower Bytown and the timber chutes at the Chaudière Falls. Sometime after Confederation in 1867, the rough path was widened, decorative iron railings were fitted to protect users from falling, and staircases were installed at several points to give the general public ready access.

One story says that William Macdougall, the Minister of Public Works from 1867-69 in Sir John A. Macdonald’s first Dominion government, was responsible for upgrading the trail from a rough, dangerous track to a gentle path that even women dressed in the long gowns of the period could stroll along without fear of tripping. Macdougall, who was apparently a “hands on” type of Minister, stumbled upon the footpath when he was inspecting the construction of a ventilation shaft for the Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

Another story gives the credit for Lovers’ Walk to Thomas Seaton Scott, the Dominion Chief Architect from 1872-1881. Seaton was responsible for laying out the structured gardens that surround the Parliament Buildings as well as designing the Drill Hall on Elgin Street. According to this account, Seaton constructed the steps down from the formal gardens on top of Parliament Hill to allow the general public access to the wilder charms of the pathway.

Who actually came up with the name Lovers’ Walk is unknown. The first newspaper reference to this name appears in the Ottawa Daily Citizen in 1873. A visitor at about this time said that “no more appropriate name could be devised.”

LoversWalkDept. of InteriorLACPA-034227c.1920s

Steps down to Lovers’ Lane, Parliament Hill, Dept  of the Interior, Library and Archives Canada, PA-034227, circa 1920s.

In addition to tourists and Ottawa residents, the denizens of Parliament on top of the bluff also took advantage of the pathway, seduced by Lovers’ Walk’s winsome charms. Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, Senators and ordinary Members of Parliament were all known to take breaks from the hard work of politicking to refresh themselves with a stroll through its sylvan beauty. Lovers’ Walk also attracted bird watchers. One avid amateur naturalist in the early 1930s spotted 59 different species from the pathway.

Lovers’ Walk could be accessed from either side of the Parliament Buildings. On the eastern side, there was a flight of stairs leading from roughly where the equestrian statue of Queen Elizabeth stands today. Another flight of stairs started from a location behind the Bytown Museum close to the locks on the Rideau Canal. On the western side of Parliament Hill at the end of Bank Street, behind the old Supreme Court of Canada, which was demolished in 1956, strollers entered the Walk through a stone gateway. Midway on the path there was a lookout with benches for those wanting to stop to rest or admire the views. There was also a lion-headed water fountain to refresh the thirsty. Unfortunately, strollers and lovers sometimes came across less-savoury elements who also frequented Lovers’ Walk. In 1875, there was a call for police to exclude “roughs” who amused themselves by throwing burrs onto ladies’ dresses. It was also advisable not to pick the flowers. In 1931, Mrs Pamela Cummings of 726 Cooper Street was fined $3 plus $2 court costs for stealing lilacs.

Lovers’ Walk was closed in the winter owing to snow and ice that made walking dangerous, but re-opened each spring, typically in May, once conditions were suitable. Given the steep nature of the hillside, there were frequent rockslides that were dealt with by the Department of Public Works. At the start of the First World War, the pathway was closed to the public and was patrolled by the Dominion Police. The authorities feared that German saboteurs could use Lovers’ Walk to access the ventilation shafts that aired the Centre Block. By cutting the iron protective grills, saboteurs could potentially plant explosives under the building and blow up Parliament. These precautions were discontinued after the Centre Block was destroyed by fire in February 1916.

LoversWalkTopley StudioLACPA-009322

Lovers’ Lane, Parliament Hill, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, PA039-220.

By the 1930s, Lovers’ Walk was becoming less popular. With the Depression at its peak, the pathway had become the haunt of panhandlers and the homeless, and was considered unsafe for casual strollers. The Ottawa Journal reported that “the dregs of humanity would pan handle the lovers, even seek to molest them.” A “jungle” of tin-patched shacks built by homeless men sprung near the path close to the western entrance. The eastern end, close to the Canal locks, was described as the haunt of drunks whose wild shouts could be heard from men drinking denatured alcohol. Regular police patrols and RCMP efforts to dismantle the shacks did little. There were also dark allegations of immorality.

In the winter of 1937-38, two landslides washed out more than sixty feet of Lovers’ Walk. It never officially re-opened. On 14 May 1938, the Ottawa Citizen reported that to repair the pathway would cost over $30,000. Although the Senate Standing Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, chaired by Cairine Wilson, recommended that the Department of Public Works take steps to stabilize the cliff face and reopen Lovers’ Walk, the repairs were not undertaken. During a time of depressed economic conditions, $30,000 was simply too much.

Besides landslides and the presence of “undesirables,” another possible factor behind the closure of Lovers’ Walk was concerns about Government liability. In 1933, a young boy had climbed over a gate when Lovers’ Walk was closed for the winter. He slipped on the ice, fell 50 feet, and was lucky to get away with only a broken femur. His father unsuccessfully tried to sue the government for his doctor’s bill. In 1937, a man, who had been sitting on a guard railing, broke his spine when he lost his balance and plunged down the cliff.

Some say that it was Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King who ordered the closure of Lovers’ Walk. However, another account says that King had wanted to keep it open and that it was only following extensive discussions with the RCMP, Public Works, and the Speakers of both the Senate and the House of Commons that the decision to close it was reluctantly taken. High barricades were installed at both ends to stop people from using the path now deemed unsafe.

By the 1950s, Lovers’ Walk was a “desolate ruin of crumbling masonry, rusted and broken iron guardrails and rotten wooden shoring.” What was left of the pathway was overgrown and narrowed by erosion. Empty bottles, and other refuse littered the place—evidence that the deteriorating ruins of Lovers’ Walk remained a refuge for the homeless sleeping rough during the summer months. After an intoxicated painter fell to his death in 1960, a coroner’s jury recommended that what was left of the pathway be destroyed to ensure public safety.

Nothing was done. The area got a fearsome reputation, especially at night. By the late 1960s, secretaries and clerical staff working late on Parliament Hill were fearful of using the stairs, which cross Lovers’ Walk, to get to the parking area known as “the Pit,” despite, according to the Ottawa Journal, “routine flushing out by the RCMP foot patrols of winos, ‘rub-a-dubs,’ vagrants and, more recently, hippies from their dormitory-pad along Lovers’ Walk.” In July 1968, ex-MP Herman Laverdière was stabbed and robbed by hooligans when he went to investigate a scream that had emanated from the wooded area after he left his office at 11 pm.

Notwithstanding the increasingly bad press, there were attempts during the 1960s to restore Lovers’ Walk to its former glory. Members of all major parties championed the pathway at various times. But with the price tag rising steadily, the government in power always demurred owing to the difficulty in controlling erosion on the escarpment. In the 1980s, when Jean Pigott was Chair of the National Capital Commission, there was another look at restoring the pathway. Again, it was deemed too expensive. In 2000, the Department of Public Works looked at rebuilding the pathway given the historic nature of Lovers’ Walk and the magnificent views of the Ottawa River. Again, the issue was put on the back burner.

Most recently, LANDinc was commissioned by Public Works to develop a strategy “to restore and reforest the slopes [of Parliament Hill] to ensure long-term sustainability.” Over time, invasive species, including the lilacs, would be removed and replaced by endemic shrubs and trees. In 2014, Graebeck Construction won a $4.78 million contract to rehabilitate the western slope of Parliament Hill and the perimeter wall. There was, however, no mention of re-opening Lovers’ Walk to the general public.

 

Sources:

Capital Gems, 2018, Lover’s Walk Ruins, http://www.capitalgems.ca/lovers-walk-ruins.html.

Canada, 1938. Senate Journals, 18th Parliament, 3nd Session, Vol. 76, p. 344, 24 June.

———-, 1960. House of Commons Debates, 24 Parliament, 3rd Session: Vol. 6, p. 6605-06, 20 July 1960.

LANDinc, 200? Parliament Hill Stabilization,” http://www.landinc.ca/escarpmentwalkway-1.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1873. “Town Talk,” 7 July

————————-, 1875. “The Parliament Hill,” 20 March.

————————-, 1875. “The Lovers Walk,” 23 August.

————————-, 1926. “Lovers Walk As Seen In Seventies,” 24 December.

————————–, 1933. “Boy Injured On Parliament Hill,” 27 March.

————————-, 1937. “Has Romance Departed From Lovers’ Walk.” 16 January.

————————-, 1937. “When Sturdy Raftsmen Used Lovers’ Walk as Short Cut,” 6 February.

————————-, 1938. “Repair Works on Lovers’ Walk May Cost Over $30,000,” 14 May.

————————-, 1960. “Destroy Lovers’ Walk Jury’s Recommendation,” 20 May.

————————-, 1966. “Lovers find road to romance rocky on Parliament Hill,” 14 May.

————————-, 2000. “Behind the Hill: A Walk into history,” 22 May.

Ottawa Construction News, 2014. Graebeck Construction wins bid for Parliament Hill slope stabilization work, 1 February, https://ottawaconstructionnews.com/local-news/graebeck-construction-wins-bid-for-parliament-hill-slope-stabilization-work/.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1931. “Magistrate Warns Flower-Bed Vandals,” 29 May.

————————–, 1937. “Fear Spine May Be Broken,” 15 June.

————————–, 1938. “Sweethearts Missing Famous Lovers’ Walk,” 18 July.

————————–, 1939. “May Not Re-open Lovers’ Walk,” 26 May.

————————–, 1939. “Remember When?” 8 July.

————————–, 1942. “Lovers’ Walk Ruled ‘Dangerous,’ It Won’t Be Reopened,” 31 July.

————————–, 1968. “Perils of ‘The Pit’ Worry Hill Security Staffs,” 12 July.

Urbsite, 2009. Lovers’ Walk,” http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2009/12/lovers-walk.html, 29 December.

Windsor Star (The), 1952. “Today in Ottawa,” 23 August.

 

The Cross-City Tunnel

5 May 1910

With the imminent opening of Ottawa’s light rail metro system with its 2.5-kilometre tunnel under the heart of the city, it’s timely to look back at an earlier plan to build a tunnel under the Capital that almost came to fruition more than a century ago.

On 5 May 1910, the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) announced its intention to build a new railway entrance into the Capital. Its arch rival, the Grand Truck Railway (G.T.R.), had already commenced construction of a new Central Station in downtown Ottawa located on the east side of the Rideau Canal.  Across the street from the station, the railway was also building a baronial-style hotel to be called the Château Laurier after the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Railway tunnel

Map of Ottawa that appeared in major Ottawa newspapers indicating the proposed route of the C.P.R. tracks in black running along the bed of the Rideau Canal (upper right) and under Wellington Street to LeBreton Flats, Ottawa Citizen 5 May 1910.

While the C.P.R. had been using the old Central Station for its transcontinental service since 1901, it was not happy with its access to downtown Ottawa. For starters, it had to use its competitor’s tracks and station for which the C.P.R. was forced to pay through the nose. Secondly, its trains coming to downtown Ottawa from points west had to take a long detour crossing the Prince of Wales Bridge located on the western outskirts of the city to the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, travel through Hull, and then retrace their journey across the river, this time over the Inter-Provincial Bridge (a.k.a. the Alexandra Bridge), to arrive at the Central Station. As well, trains travelling westward from Central Station had to reverse their way into the C.P.R.’s Union Station located on Broad Street in LeBreton Flats. This was considered dangerous.

To correct these deficiencies, the C.P.R. proposed a massive re-structuring of Ottawa’s transportation infrastructure. First, it announced its intention of acquiring from the Dominion government the bed of the Rideau Canal from the head of the “Deep Cut,” at roughly Waverely Street, to Sappers’ Bridge (approximately were the Plaza Bridge is today). The railway would dam and drain the Canal from that point and run a new track along its bed from a rail hook-up near Nicholas Street to a point roughly opposite the new G.T.R. Central Station. To keep the water in the blocked Canal from going stagnant, the C.P.R. proposed either a drain to the Rideau River or a drain to the locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel.

Second, the railway proposed running a double-track line from the downtown terminal through a tunnel fifty feet underground that would go from Sappers’ bridge under much of Wellington Street before coming out near the Aqueduct in LeBreton Flats. There, the new track would link up with the existing C.P.R. tracks and proceed into Union Station.

By using this new tunnel, trains could travel from Union Station in LeBreton Flats to downtown Ottawa in five minutes, lopping off as much as 25 minutes in time from their former circuitous route. The C.P.R.’s Montreal Express train could also start at Union Station and stop at the downtown station before heading east.

While the cost, estimated at roughly $1 million, was considerable, the railway would no longer have to pay the exorbitant charges for the use of its competitor’s tracks. As well, the shorter route would reduce costs, and by saving time offer a more attractive travel option for C.P.R. customers. Backing into Union Station would also be a thing of the past.

From the outset, the C.P.R. realized that the Achilles’ heel of its plan was its proposal to dam the Rideau Canal. It argued that the Canal would be little missed as only a comparatively modest amount of freight moved along its length, especially down the portion of the Canal from Dow’s Lake to Sappers’ Bridge. It contended that opposition to closing it was based on sentiment rather than economics.

To set against the loss of the Canal, railway executives argued that more efficient train access to the downtown core would benefit Ottawa residents and help to boost the tourist business. The new entrance into Ottawa would also improve the city’s position on transcontinental rail routes and would help make a reality the Capital’s ambition of becoming a major railway hub.

The idea met widespread opposition, especially from the mercantile and shipping companies that depended on the Rideau Canal. At a meeting of Ottawa’s Board of Trade sentiment was unanimous against any interference with the Canal. Communities located on the Canal south of Ottawa also objected strenuously. Kingston was particularly vocal in its opposition. Ottawa’s Evening Journal opined that the C.P.R. “ought to be ashamed of itself” for proposing the destruction of a national water route.

Some critics thought the C.P.R. was not really serious, and that the plan was  a stalking horse for another objective, presumably some sort of concession from the government. They noted that the C.P.R. would face the difficult task of obtaining approvals from the Ottawa City Council, the Railway Commission, and the Dominion government, possibly even from the Imperial government in London, since the Canal was built for military purposes by the Imperial government. An unnamed Militia official told the Evening Journal that the Rideau Canal formed a “most important portion of the military defence system of this country.” The same official opined that “any government trying to interfere with the defence works of Canada and the Empire to suit a railway…would drive them out of office.” He thought the proposal was “a bluff.” Of course, for many, the idea of the Rideau Canal still being considered as part of Canada’s defence system bordered on the ridiculous.

At a presentation to Ottawa City Council, Mr. D. McNicoll, the C.P.R.’s Vice-President and General Manager, was asked if the proposal was a “bluff.” He replied: “I’m willing to spend a million to show it isn’t.” He added that the C.P.R.’s president, Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, and the company’s Board of Directors had approved the plan and had appropriated the required funds. The only thing needed was the necessary approvals from the various levels of government.

Almost immediately, alternative plans were put forward that would avoid blocking the Rideau Canal. Mayor Hopewell came up with a daffy suggestion to build a 3,000-foot long curved bridge, with a pier on a small island in the middle of the Ottawa River, that would loop around Parliament Hill linking Victoria Island close to the Chaudière Falls in LeBreton Flats to a point near the locks of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa. The C.P.R. rubbished the idea arguing that the mayor’s proposal would cost triple the amount of the tunnel idea, the grade would be too great for its trains, and that it would not solve the problem of having to back into Union Station at LeBreton Flats. Another plan that was briefly considered was shifting the Rideau Canal twenty feet to the west from the Deep Cut to Central Station to allow for the construction of additional C.P.R. lines into Central Station.

An alternative that gained more traction was proposed by Mr N. Cauchon of the engineering firm Cauchon & Haycock who worked as a consultant to the C.P.R. To address the concerns of shippers while sticking with the C.P.R.’s proposal, Cauchon suggested digging a new canal from Dow’s Lake to the Ottawa River using the same route through Mechanicsville first proposed by British engineers in the 1820s. The new canal outlet would be situated above the Chaudière Falls and hence require a new set of locks to pass the rapids to be located where the timber slide was.

Cauchon envisaged linking the Rideau Canal system with the Georgian Bay Ship Canal then under consideration by the Dominion government.  The Georgian Bay Ship Canal was a massive construction project aimed at permitting ocean-going freighters to transport grain from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via a canal that linked Lake Huron with the St Lawrence River and from there the Atlantic Ocean via the French River, Lake Nipissing, the Mattawa River and the Ottawa River.

Ottawa City Council was receptive to the C.P.R.’s desire to have a new entrance to the Capital as long as the Rideau Canal was not blocked. Working with the Board of Trade, it commissioned two engineers to examine a variety of proposals from a citywide perspective. The engineers endorsed Cauchon’s plan of a cross-town tunnel combined with re-routing the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River at Dow’s Lake. However, they proposed that both the C.P.R. and the G.T.R. use the tunnel to Central Station. They also recommended that the City buy and pull up the cross-city G.T.R. tracks that ran along Isabella Street and hindered Ottawa’s growth to the south. In their place, they advised the City to build a scenic boulevard and resell the adjoining land for development or parks. As well, they recommended that the new portion of the Rideau Canal through Mechanicsville and Hintonburg should be deep enough to accommodate the ocean-going vessels using the Georgian Bay Ship Canal with appropriate harbour and port facilities constructed at the juncture of the diverted Canal and the Ottawa River. They also thought that a large factory site could be constructed for manufacturing industries alongside the Mechanicsville waterfront on the Ottawa River heading westward.  As for the old locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel, one suggestion was to re-purpose them as public swimming baths. Mayor Hopewell thought that a series of small cascades over each lock gate would look very pretty lit up at night.

The engineers’ proposal was predicated on the Georgian Bay Ship Canal being completed within five to six years. The engineers also hoped that the Dominion Government could be persuaded to contribute the funds needed to construct the diverted Rideau Canal since the estimated cost only represented an additional 1-2 per cent of the $125 million price tag for the Georgian Bay Ship Canal.

In April 1911, roughly eleven months after the C.P.R. had announced its plan for a tunnel, Ottawa City Council endorsed the engineers’ report with the recommendation that the City begin negotiations with the G.T.R. over acquiring its cross-city tracks. However, many remained sceptical. One member of Council thought that people were “insane” if they believed that C.P.R. would build a tunnel under Wellington Street within 25 years.

How right the councillor was! Problems immediately arose. First, the G.T.R. refused to sell its cross-city tracks to the City. Second, the Dominion government, at best lukewarm to the City’s grand design, was not willing to pay for diverting the Rideau Canal or to closing it at the Deep Cut. Third, plans to build the Georgian Bay Ship Canal fizzled after Laurier’s Liberal Party was defeated in the 1911 General Election. They were later abandoned, a victim of cost considerations and changing government priorities.

With the proposal to divert the Rideau Canal a non-starter, a modified plan involving narrowing it from the Deep Cut to Sappers’ Bridge to provide space for the C.P.R. tracks to come into downtown Ottawa briefly gave the tunnel proposal new life. As an adjunct to this modified proposal, the C.P.R. planned to locate its downtown station on Canal Street to the south of Sappers’ Bridge on the western side of the Canal across the Canal from the G.T.R. station; rumour had it on the site of the Russell Hotel.

Although the C.P.R. evinced its willingness to start construction as soon as the municipal and Dominion governments gave their approval, the railway seemed to lose interest despite Vice President McNicoll repeatedly saying that the plan was “not dead, but sleeping.” However, by 1913, the tunnel proposal was abandoned.

Ultimately, the C.P.R. negotiated a new deal with the G.T.R. to use the new downtown Central Station which in 1920 was renamed Union Station following the closure of the old Union Station in LeBreton Flats. The G.T.R.’s cross-city tracks (now owed by its successor company, the Canadian National Railway) were finally pulled up during the 1950s. Instead of becoming a scenic boulevard, the site of the old tracks became the location of a cross-city highway—the Queensway. While the Georgian Bay Ship Canal never got off of the drawing board, the St Lawrence Seaway, which allowed ocean-going ships to go from the Great Lakes to Montreal and beyond, was opened in 1959.

As a final sidebar to this story, on 4 May 2018, virtually 108 years to the day from when news of the C.P.R.’s intention to build a cross-town train tunnel became public, city officials, politicians, and company representatives converged on the eastern end of the LRT to drive in a ceremonial “last spike” in the Confederation Line’s tunnel under the city of Ottawa. Similar to its proposed early twentieth century counterpart, the tunnel is roughly 50 feet underground, and runs from a location near Ottawa University to LeBreton Flats. Instead of following the C.P.R.’s route below Wellington Street, it is located two blocks further south under Queen Street.

Sources:

CBC, 2018. “There was no last spike, but the Confederation Line track is finished,” 4 May, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/lrt-tunnel-track-finished-1.4649177.

Churcher, Colin, 2018, The Railways of Ottawa, https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/findings.htm#CCRUnion.

Evening Journal, 1910. “C.P.R. Want To Build A Tunnel Under The City,” 6 May.

——————–, 1910. “Will Consider Other Scheme,” 10 May.

——————–, 1910. “Mr. M’Nicoll Explains C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme,” 8 June.

——————–, 1910. “Board Of Trade Is Opposed To Tunnel,” 17 June.

——————-, 1910. “Mayor’s Plan Went Further,” 8 July.

——————-, 1910. “Proposed Diversion Of The Canal By Way Of Dow’s Lake And The Chaudiere,” 16 July.

——————, 1910. “New Scheme For A C.P.R. Entrance To The City,” 8 December.

——————, 1911. “Experts’ Report Railway Entrance,” 3 April.

——————, 1911. “Mr. Tye’s Solution Ottawa’s Problem,” 4 April.

——————, 1911. “How Engineer Tye Would Solve Ottawa’s Problem Of The Railways,” 4 April.

——————, 1911. “Government Should Pay,” 5 April.

——————, 1911. “Approved The Entrance Plan.” 8 April.

——————, 1911. “Abandon Moving Canal: New City Entrance Plan,” 19 August.

——————, 1911. “Approves Of Tunnel,” 22 August.

——————, 1912. “States C.P.R. Scheme Is Certainty Say V-P M’Nicoll, 25 July.

——————-, 1913, “Revivies Tunnel Scheme,” 21 March.

——————-, 1913. “Is C.P.R. To Abandon Its Tunnel Scheme Now?” 24 April.

——————-, 1913. “C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme Is Temporarily Abandoned,” 18 June.

——————-, 1913. “C.P.R. Finally Abandons Scheme For Local Tunnel,” 9 September.

Griffiths, John, 2007. “Broad Street Station in Ottawa,” Branchline, http://www.bytownrailwaysociety.ca/phocadownload/branchline/2007/2007-06.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen, 1910. “Gigantic Project of C.P.R. — New Railway Entrance And Underground Line Through The City,” 5 May.

—————–, 1910. “The C.P.R. Entrance,” 13 May.

—————–, 1910. “C.P.R. Entrance,” 31 May.

—————–, 1910. “Plan Not Suitable,” 2 June.

—————–, 1910. “C.P.R. Asks City To Approve Plans New Railway Entrance,” 8 June.

—————–, 1910. “See Ocean-Going Ships In Ottawa Adjunct Of C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme, 15 September.

—————-, 1910. “Ask Outside Engineer To Report On Feasibility Of C.P.R. Tunnel,” 22 October.

——————, 1911. Engineers’ Report On Railway Entrance Embraces C.P.R. Canal Closing Plan, 3 April.

—————–, 1911. “Minister Favors Joining Canals,” 7 April.

—————–, 1912. “Tunnel May Be Held Up,” 28 May.

OTrain, Confederation Line, 2018, https://www.ligneconfederationline.ca/the-build/pimisi/overview/.

 

The Victoria Memorial Museum

10 May 1901

At the end of Metcalfe Street between McLeod and Argyle Streets can be found the Canadian Museum of Nature, housed in a magnificent baronial building with beautiful stained glass windows. Constructed over a several-year period during the first decade of the twentieth century, the edifice’s official name is the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, in commemoration of Queen Victoria who died in January 1901. Within weeks of her death, the government chose to honour her reign by the construction of a museum.

Victoria Tower post card

Post Card of The Victoria Memorial Museum, before 1915, Valentine & Sons’ Publishing C. Ltd, London, Toronto Public Library.

On 10 May, 1901, a sum of $50,000 appeared in the supplementary estimates for the 1901-1902 fiscal year for the commencement of work on the Victoria Memorial Museum. After considerable debate, the appropriation was approved by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, though the Conservative opposition complained about the lack of a definitive plan for the building.  The government was also uncertain of its location. It favoured siting the building at Major’s Hill Park, with a bridge across the Rideau Canal connecting the Park to Parliament Hill, roughly where the Château Laurier Hotel is situated today. However, others thought Nepean Point might be a good location. Still others objected to both locations arguing that the land should be conserved for parklands. They preferred a location somewhere in the south of the city. Mr. Joseph Tarte, the Minister of Public Works, assured the House that no work would commence until he and his colleagues were convinced they had found the best design and the best site for the new building. To that end, he had sent David Ewart, the Chief Dominion Architect, to Europe to look into museum designs.

The site finally selected for the new museum was a property owned by the Stewart family a mile due south of Parliament Hill. Located there was a stone building called Appin Place surrounded by fields and gardens. Appin Place was a homestead that dated back to 1856, though actual construction of the house was delayed until 1862 owing to the death of the property’s owner, William Stewart, who had been the Member of Parliament for Bytown in the Province of Canada legislature. Appin Place, whose paddock was sometimes used as a cricket pitch, was a well-known landmark. It was surrounded by a massive cedar hedge that was noted for its beauty. The hedge had been transplanted from a nearby swamp during the 1840s. The house itself was built on the highest point of land in “Stewarton” in a direct line and level with the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Appin Place was reportedly where Lord Dufferin had presented the colours to the Governor General’s Foot Guards in 1874. The government acquired the land for $73,500 at a sheriff’s sale in 1903 or early 1904.

The museum was designed by David Ewart, and built by George Goodwin of Ottawa. Goodwin had won the contract for building the museum with his bid of $950,000, excluding the cost of the electrical work, heating and furnishings. His was the lowest of four bids on the government contract. He would later come to rue winning the contract. The total cost of the building came to roughly $1,250,000, equivalent to more than $27 million in today’s money. Goodwin had previously worked on other public works projects, including the construction of the Trent Valley and Soulonges Canals.  The new museum measured 430 feet by 169 feet with a tower 97 feet high. Its walls were built using Scottish work masonry in Nepean brown stone, with trimmings in Nova Scotia red stone. Credit Valley stone was also used. The four-story building was fire-proof with its floors made of porous terra cotta covered with concrete. Wooden sleepers were set into the concrete to which wooden floors were fastened. The walls of the basement were lined with enamelled brick.

Demolition of the old stone Appin Place took only three days in mid-April 1905. Work on the foundation of the new museum commenced almost immediately. The structure was scheduled to take four years to build. But problems, disputes, and tragedy dogged the construction which took longer than expected. Goodwin wanted to substitute stone quarried in Ohio for the Nova Scotia stone, but was overruled by government; the contract called for Canadian stone throughout. In 1908, a labourer fell to his death while working on the building. He apparently lost his footing when he was 70 feet up on the girders. While he survived the fall, he sustained grievous injuries and died at St. Luke’s Hospital. By 1911, six stone cutters who had worked on the building had died from “stone cutters’ lung disease”—an illness, now called silicosis, caused by the inhalation of dust—that causes shortness of breath, cough, bluish skin, and ultimately death.

The name and organization of the new museum also proved to be controversial. A delegation of Ottawa’s finest, including Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper (the partners who owned Ottawa’s electrical company and electric railway), J.R. Booth, the timber baron, and Erskine Henry Bronson, after whom Bronson Avenue was later named, appealed to the Prime Minister. They wanted the new museum to be called the National Museum of Canada that would report to a special government commission comparable to the British Museum in London and the National Museum in Washington D.C. Laurier promised to consult his Cabinet. The appeal failed.

Victoria Memorial Museum without tower LAC PA-48179

The Victoria Memorial Museum Without its Tower, Library and Archives Canada, PA-48179.

As the building was finally nearing completion in early 1911, cracks began to appear in the front tower owing to settling. A slight separation was also noted between the tower and the main building. The Ottawa Evening Journal ominously noted that the contractor, George Goodwin, was the builder of the Laurier Tower, an addition to the West Block on Parliament Hill erected a few years earlier that had subsequently collapsed. Government engineers initially thought that the cracks in the museum would soon be remedied. However, they proved to be wrong. By late 1911, cracks had appeared on both sides of the entrance rotunda. Some were as much as five inches across. The cracks were plastered over several times, only to reappear. In late 1913, the Department of Public Works denied that it was considering dismantling the tower. However, by the summer of 1915, it became obvious something had to be done to ensure public safety. There was even talk of tearing down the entire building. In the end, engineers decided that while the building could be saved, the tower had to come down. It was simply too heavy to be supported by the foundation which rested on unstable clay. Goodwin, the builder, who reportedly lost a fortune on the building, died later that same year. It is said that he had tried to warn the government about problems with the building’s specifications but his concerns had been brushed aside.

Victoria Memorial Museum inside, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada LAC-065507

Inside of the Victoria Memorial Museum, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada/Library and Archives Canada, C-065507.

Despite worries about its solidity, staff moved into the Victoria Memorial Museum in 1911 in order to get ready the many artifacts in the government collection. This included the Geological Survey’s collection of Canadian ores and minerals, fossils, stuffed mammals and birds, insects, as well as First Nations’ handicrafts, phonographic records of songs of indigenous peoples, as well as antiquities and other objects of scientific value. The National Gallery of Canada, with its over four hundred paintings, sketches, etchings and sculptures, also moved into the Museum. In 1913, the Museum acquired a complete skeleton of a “duck-billed” dinosaur, of the family Trachodonatae, discovered in the Red River Valley of Alberta. According to the Ottawa Evening Journal, the fossil was three million years old. Today, this animal is known as a hadrosaur, the old name of Trachodon no longer being used. The fossil, which can still be seen at the Museum of Nature, is actually about 65 million years old.

When the museum first opened its doors to the general public is a bit murky. The National Gallery of Canada located in the Museum building opened in mid-May 1912, from 9 am – 5 pm Monday to Saturday. It is probable that the Geological Survey’s collection opened at the same time. Admission was free. Owing to the great popularity of the museum, opening hours were subsequently extended to Sunday afternoons despite opposition from some clergy.

When the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was gutted by fire in early 1916, the Victoria Memorial Museum was quickly fitted out as the temporary home of the Senate and House of Commons. The House of Commons was located in the lecture hall while the Senate was housed in the hall previously devoted to fossils and extinct animals, a fact that caused great hilarity. Some wags noted that little had changed. Parliament met at the museum until 1920. The previous year, the body of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had laid in state in the temporary House of Commons chamber.

Victoria Memorial Museum today Google

Museum of Nature, Victoria Memorial Museum Building, 2017, Google Street View.

Over its life of more than 100 years, the Victoria Memorial Museum building has undergone two major renovations. During the early 1970s, it was closed to allow for workmen to stabilize the building which was still sinking into the Ottawa clay that lay beneath it. In 2010, a major building renewal and renovation took place. A 65-foot glass tower was installed in the same location as the old tower that was torn down in 1915. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth in 2010 and is called the “Queen’s Lantern.”

Sources:

Canadian Museum of Nature, 2018. Historical Timeline, https://nature.ca/en/about-us/history-buildings/historical-timeline.

Globe, 1912, “The National Art Gallery of Canada,” 4 May.

—————————–, 1915. “”Contractor Goodwin Dead,” 1 December.

—————————–, 1916. “Tempoarary House of Parliament,” 5 February.

Globe and Mail,” 2006. “New life for old bones,” 21 October.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1904. “Commons And Ottawa Items,” 25 March.

————————–, 1904. “To Build Royal Victoria Museum,” 27 September.

————————–, 1905. “Number One Hard Wheat Threated by the States,” 10 February.

————————–, 1905. “Appin Place, Historic House, Will Disappear,” 4 March.

————————–, 1905. “Stewart Homestead A thing Of The Past,” 17 April.

————————–, 1906. “He Must Use The Canadian,” 2 May.

————————–, 1908. “Fatal Fall From Victoria Museum,” 16 June.

————————–, 1910. “Deputation on Change of Name,” 8 December.

————————–, 1911. “One Million And A Quarter Dollars of Estimates Passed,” 24 March.

————————-, 1911. “Cracks In Museum Wall Is Not Growing Larger,”21 April.

————————-, 1911. “Five Stone Workers Dead,” 8 May.

————————-, 1912. “Art Gallery To Open On Saturday,” 14 May.

————————-, 1913. “Dinossaur (sic) Is Secured For Museum,” 4 January.

————————-, 1913. “Museum Tower,” 2 October.

————————-, 1915. “Sealed Tenders for Partial Removal Of Tower,” 11 August.

————————-, 1915. “Contractor For Museum Warned Minister Plans Would Not Suit,” 12 August.

————————-, 1914. “Fine Skeleton Of Dinosaur At Victoria Museum,” 12 September.

 

The Villa St-Louis Tragedy

15 May 1956

Tuesday, the 15th of May 1956 was an unremarkable spring day. The Grey Nuns of the Cross who were staying at Villa St-Louis on the bank of the Ottawa River in Orléans a few miles east of Ottawa went about the timeless routine of convent life.  After celebrating Compline, the final church service of the day, the thirty-five mostly elderly residents retired to their spartan cells for the night. There should have been more people staying at the 70-room rest and convalescent home built just two years earlier for $1 million. A group of sixteen student nurses who were about to start a two-week vacation at Villa St-Louis had delayed their arrival to see a play in downtown Ottawa.

Villa St-Louis, CF-100, Mk V, RCAF

The CF-100 “Canuck” Mark V, all-weather fighter/interceptor made by Avro Canada, RCAF photo.

As the nuns slumbered, two CF-100 “Canuck” Mark V interceptor jet fighters from the 445 Air Squadron based at RCAF Station Uplands were in the dark skies above Ottawa. The fighters had been scrambled to seek out and identify an intruder that had entered their operational airspace. The CF-100s were the most sophisticated flying machines in the RCAF arsenal. They were built by A.V. Roe Canada Ltd, also known as the Avro Canada Company, at the time one of the largest corporations in Canada. The company later became famous for the ill-fated Avro Arrow (CF-105), possibly the most advanced fighter aircraft of the age, cancelled by the Diefenbaker government in 1959.

The fighters were scarcely in the air when the intruder was identified as an RCAF North Star cargo airplane, a four-engine propeller aircraft, travelling from Resolute Bay high in the Arctic to St Hubert, near Montreal. Although the airplane had filed a flight plan, the information had not been received at Uplands. So when an unidentified “ping” appeared on the radar screen, the interceptors were sent up, consistent with military protocol at the height of the Cold War.

With the mystery quickly resolved, one CF-100 returned to base. While accounts vary, the other aircraft, number 18367, piloted by Flying Officer (FO) William Schmidt (age 25) with navigator FO Kenneth Thomas (age 20), apparently asked Uplands for permission to join up with two other Canuck fighters that were heading south at 35,000 feet. The request was denied. So, Schmidt continued west to burn off excess fuel before landing. It was the last flight control heard from the aircraft that vanished from the radar screen over Orléans, falling from 33,000 feet in less than a minute. There had been no hint of trouble.

Villa St-Louis Chapel PowellCA004409

Interior of the Villa St-Louis Chapel, Orléans, circa 1956, City of Ottawa Archives, MG393-NP-31447-001.

At 10:17pm, the CF-100 fighter, fully armed with rockets and machine guns, and with its two crew members aboard, plunged into the chapel of the Villa St-Louis rest home at a speed approaching 700 mph. In an instant, the three-storey, brick building was shattered by a thunderous explosion that sent debris and flames hundreds of feet into the air. Eyewitnesses said the jet had plummeted to ground in an almost vertical dive, the airplane spinning in tight circles, its wing lights flashing in the dark.

The blast could be heard fifteen miles away. A red glow in the sky was seen in distant Richmond and Manotick. A Trans-Canada Airway (TCA) pilot flying from Montreal to Toronto witnessed an orange ball of fire that lit up the whole sky for seconds. The Villa’s neighbours in the nearby residential area known as Hiawatha Park were thrown from their beds by the force of the blast that also shattered twenty-four windows in St Joseph’s School a mile and a half away. The explosion and ensuing fire, stoked by gallons of aviation fuel and tons of coal stored in the convent’s basement, totally destroyed Villa St-Louis. Within five minutes, the roof of the building collapsed. Two hours later, there was virtually nothing left save a forty-foot chimney and steel girders twisted in the white heat of the blaze.

Villa St-Louis

The glowing remains of Villa St-Louis, 15 May 1956, Andrews-Newton Photographers Fonds/ City of Ottawa Archives/ MG393-AN-043317-005.

The speed and intensity of the fire left little time for survivors from the crash to escape. Sister Marie des Martyrs recounted that she had gone to bed at about 9.30pm but had trouble falling asleep. Shortly afterwards, she heard the sound of a low flying airplane—not an unusual sound given that Rockcliffe air force base was but a short distance away. Suddenly, the building was shaken by a terrific explosion that sounded like a thunderclap, followed by splintering wood and breaking glass. There was fire everywhere. Putting on her slippers and robe, she joined other nuns making their way to the fire escape. There was no panic. She descended to the bottom of the fire escape but flames had already reached the lower floor, partially blocking her exit. However, she managed to jump clear and landed uninjured. She believed that she was the last to get out alive.

On being awakened by the explosion, neighbours of Villa St-Louis in Hiawatha Park courageously ran across farmers’ fields to the stricken rest home to help. Many were regular attendees at Mass in the convent’s chapel and knew the resident nuns by name. Rhéal (Ray) Rainville, whose home was less than a mile from the Villa, helped a number of sisters escape from the burning convent. He broke the fall of one elderly resident who leapt from the third floor. He also witnessed the death of Father Richard Ward, the chaplain of the Grey Nuns, who had been blown 150 feet from the Villa by the force of the blast. The priest died in the arms of Joseph Potvin, another neighbour. Lorne Barber, who managed to enter the building, tried to force his way into bedrooms but flames turned him back. He could hear the screams of nuns pounding on the walls for help. Meanwhile, others tried to enter the burning building through its ground floor doors.

Rescued nuns, many burnt or with broken bones, huddled together in the nightclothes on the lawn outside of the burning building. The distraught sisters were taken in neighbours’ cars or by ambulance to the hospital or to their motherhouse in downtown Ottawa. The first survivors arrived at about midnight. Many of the injured were sent to the Ottawa General Hospital where they were cared for by the student nurses who were to have begun their holiday that evening at the destroyed home.

Three fire departments, Orléans, Gloucester and the Rockcliffe Air Station, responded to the blaze. But there was little that they could do. RCAF personnel set up road blocks in a vain attempt to stop thousands of spectators from approaching the area. People simply climbed over fences and walked through ploughed fields to get a good look. Cars were parked alongside roads for miles before police began turning vehicles away. People stayed until the early hours of the morning before returning home when the blaze was finally extinguished, aided by a light rain. Many were back at first light.

The next day, the grim task of recovering and identifying the bodies began. Of the thirty-five residents of Villa St-Louis, there were thirteen deaths, eleven Grey Nuns, a lay-woman cook, and Father Ward. Also dying in the crash and explosion were the two young flying officers. Many others were injured by the fire or suffered broken bones. As well as looking for human remains, RCAF specialists combed through the debris to recover the unexploded rockets that the CF-100 carried. Within hours, all but one had been safely found. Souvenir hunters were warned that the missing rocket was dangerous in the wrong hands.

The improbability of the disaster shook Ottawa and neighbouring communities. How could an airplane on a routine interception mission fall out of the sky and strike an isolated convent?  Even a slight deviation in the airplane’s flight path would have spared the Villa. Why was such pain and suffering inflicted on a religious order devoted to the care of the sick and injured? What was God thinking? There were no answers to these questions.

Despite subsequent inquiries, the cause of the fatal crash was never ascertained. The two flying officers never sent a distress signal, nor did they use their ejector seats that were standard equipment on CF-100 airplanes. The most likely explanation for the crash was a malfunction in their oxygen system that caused the two men to lose consciousness. This would explain the radio silence in the seconds prior to the crash. The accident report also raised two other possibilities. It was conceivable that the pilot had tried to descend through a gap in the cloud cover and experienced a “tuck under” at supersonic speeds. A “tuck under” can occur when the nose of an airplane continues to rotate downward (i.e. tuck under) at an increasing speed during a high-speed dive. This phenomenon has been known to be fatal if the pilot cannot control the descent owing to high stick forces. Alternatively, Schmidt might have lost control of his aircraft in heavy turbulence caused by the wash of the two other CF-100 fighters that were in the area.

The funeral for Father Ward, who in addition to being the chaplain to the Grey Nuns was also assistant Roman Catholic chaplain to the Fleet, was held the Friday after the disaster at St Patrick’s Church. Archbishop Roy of Quebec, the Bishop Ordinary of the Canadian Armed Forces, officiated. Along with the Grey Nuns, representatives of every congregation of nuns in Ottawa attended. He was buried in Toronto. The following day, a joint funeral service was held for the eleven nuns at Notre Dame Basilica. Thousands of Ottawa citizens lined Sussex Street to witness the funeral cortege—eleven coffins covered by simple grey cloths followed by seven hundred mourning Grey Nuns. Archbishop J.M. Lemieux officiated at the funeral Mass. The deceased were buried in Notre Dame Cemetery.

Villa St-Louis cross

Memorial Cross at the site of the Villa St-Louis disaster, August 2017 by Nicolle Powell

The following week a memorial service was held for FO William Schmidt and FO Kenneth Thomas, the two flying officers who died in the crash, as well as for a third airman, Flight Lieutenant Al Marshall, who had been killed in the crash of another CF-100 Mark V at a U.S. Armed Forces airshow at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan on the weekend after the Villa St-Louis tragedy.

Today, not far from Residence St-Louis, a francophone seniors’ home that replaced the ill-fated Villa St-Louis, a twenty-foot cross embellished with a jet fighter pointing downwards, marks the spot of the tragedy. At its base are fifteen stones, one for each victim, taken from the convent’s rubble. Plaques list the names of the nuns, the priest, the lay cook, and the two flying officers who lost their lives.

In 2016, sixty years after the disaster, sixty veterans and RCAF members, along with friends and family of those who perished, gathered at the site to remember the lives that were lost that dreadful night in 1956. A bagpiper played the Piper’s Lament.

Sources:

Baillie-David, Alexandra, 2016. “RCAF marks 60th anniversary of Canuck 18367 crash,” Royal Canadian Air Force, 15 May, http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/news-template-standard.page?doc=rcaf-marks-60th-anniversary-of-canuck-18367-crash/iophk1cm.

CBC News, 2016. Archives of the 1956 plane crash at the Villa St-Louis, http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/ottawa/archives-of-the-1956-plane-crash-at-the-villa-st-louis-1.3581477.

Disasters of the Century, 20? CF 100 Convent Crash, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7O89MgA0HDY.

Egan, Kelly, 2015.  “Ceremony to mark deadly 1956 jet crash that killed 11 nuns in Orléans,” The Ottawa Citizen, 15 May.

King, Andrew, 2016. “When hell fell from the sky: Fighter jet slammed into convent 60 years ago,” Ottawa Rewind, https://ottawarewind.com/2016/05/14/when-hell-fell-from-the-sky/.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1956. “Crashing Jet Kills 15,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Will Conduct Mass Funeral For Eleven Nuns on Saturday,” 17 May.

————————-, 1956. “Thousands In Streets To Witness Funeral Of 11 Nuns Burned In Fire,” 22 May.

Ottawa, City of, 2017, Disasters, Jet Crash at Villa St. Louis, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-heritage-and-culture/city-ottawa-archives/exhibitions/witness-change-visions-5.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1956. “Jet Explodes Convent. Struck at 10.15 pm,” 16 May.

————————–, 1956. “Thousands Clog Roads Near Fire,” 16 May.

————————–, 1956. “Villa Suddenly Enveloped By Great Cloud of Flames,” 16 May.

————————–, 1956. “Orleans Scene Of Jet Inferno,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Helped Nuns To Safety And Saw Priest Die On Grass,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “I Was the Last Out of the Building,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Two Jet Chasing Unknown Aircraft,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “TCA Pilot 10 Miles Away Saw ‘Orange Ball of Fire,’” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Hunt Unexploded Rocket Warhead,” 18 May.

————————-, 1956. “Memorial Service Held For Air Victims,” 23 May.

Schmidt, Louis V. 1998. Introduction to Aircraft Flight Dynamics, AIAA Education Series, Reston, Virginia.

Sherwin, Fred, 2006. “Ceremony marks 50th anniversary of Villa St-Louis disaster, Orléans Online, http://www.orleansonline.ca/pages/N2006051501.htm.

Skaarup, Harold A. 2009. “1 Canadian Air Group, Canadian Forces Europe,” Military History Books, http://silverhawkauthor.com/1-canadian-air-group-canadian-forces-europe_367.html.

 

 

 

The Ottawa Sewer Explosions

29 May 1929 and 28 January 1931

Almost ninety years ago, the City of Ottawa was rocked by two series of sewer explosions that occurred twenty months apart. The first happened on 29 May 1929, and the second on 28 January 1931. Both hit the same areas of town—Sandy Hill, Vanier (then called Eastview) and New Edinburgh—and caused extensive damage. There was also one fatality in the first set of blasts; many were injured. Despite three inquiries, the exact cause of the explosions was never conclusively determined though leaking illuminating gas used for lighting was believed to have been the culprit. However, a lengthy law suit launched by the City against the Ottawa Gas Company to cover the costs of the second explosions failed.

Sewer 1929 29 May OEJournal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 May 1929

 

The 1929 explosions began shortly before noon on 29 May in the block bounded by Cartier, Frank, Waverely and Elgin Streets in the Golden Triangle neighbourhood of Centre Town, blowing out manhole covers in the area.  The resulting fire ignited gas inside the main sewer line running eastward under the Rideau Canal, causing shaking, rumbling and venting through manholes on Templeton Avenue, Henderson Avenue and Nelson Streets in Sandy Hill, before travelling down St Patrick Street and into New Edinburgh on the other side of the Rideau River along Crichton, MacKay and John Streets to the sewage outlet into the Ottawa River. There were also a number of smaller blasts in the Eastview and Clarkstown areas (Vanier) between Montreal Road and Beechwood Avenue.

At least twenty-eight manhole covers were blown in the air, some thirty to forty feet, before crashing to the ground. Clouds of smoke and vivid tongues of flame were reported emanating from the manholes. Mrs Hannah Henderson, age 73, of 37 Templeton Avenue was killed when flames shot out of her kitchen sinkhole and ignited her clothes. Although she managed to flee her home, she later succumbed to her injuries in hospital. Around the corner at 192 Henderson Avenue, Miss Lilian Pettapiece, age 20, escaped a similar house fire with serious burns. She had been in her cellar choosing potatoes for lunch when she was enveloped by flames that shot out of a sewer connection. Despite choking fumes, she managed to stumble up the stairs to the outside where she was rescued. Many others were injured by flying glass blown from windows. The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Avenue was rocked from its foundations by the force of a blast and was gutted by fire. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Mrs Blackler suffered a narrow escape, however. She had just walked out of the kitchen a minute before it was wrecked. An apartment building at the corner of Somerset Street East and Chapel Street, which housed a grocery on the ground floor, also suffered serious structural damage. In New Edinburgh, St Martin’s Anglican Chapel on John Street was destroyed. In total, the sewer explosion caused roughly $40,000 in property damage.

Sewer explosion 30-5-1929 TOJ

The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the  Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Street after the sewer explosion, 29 May 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 30 May 1929.

Ottawa’s mayor Arthur Ellis was convinced that the explosions were not due either “to defects in the city sewer,” or to sewer gas (a mixture of hydrogen sulphide and other gases). Municipal leaders commissioned John Campbell from the Edison Illuminating Company of Boston to conduct an inquiry into the disaster. Campbell concluded that the exact nature of the gases that exploded might never be known as no tests were performed on gas in the sewers prior to the explosion. However, he pointed to two possibilities: i) gasoline vapours due to the improper disposal of gasoline by homeowners, leakages from the growing number of service stations in the area, and waste from dry-cleaners, or ii) a leak from a gas main. He noted that the Ottawa Gas Company had been digging for leaks prior to and during the day of the explosion. He added that the sewer explosion need not have been the result of a single big leak but could have been due to a number of small ones. While not specifically pointing the finger at illuminating gas, he added that the lack of soot deposits and the nature of the fire suggested a gas lighter than air was responsible; gasoline vapours are three times heavier than air whereas illuminating gas is half as heavy as air. Campbell was of the view that the exact point of ignition was in the Frank-Cartier Streets area. However, what caused the ignition would never be known. He postulated it could have been a lighted match, the backfire of an automobile, or a spark from a trolley wheel.

Rather than lay blame, which he argued was outside of the remit of his report, Campbell made a number of recommendations. These included the prompt investigation of complaints about gas smells (complaints prior to the explosion were apparently not investigate with any degree of diligence), the regulation of the sale of gasoline to homeowners, a prohibition on disposing of volatile fluids in the sewers, and the inspection of gasoline service stations. He also recommended the construction of ventilation stacks with fans to help dissipate volatile vapours in the sewers, and the hiring of additional staff by the City to keep up to date in the matter of inspecting, testing and the keeping of records.

The second series of sewer explosions began at roughly 4.30 pm on 29 January 1931 just two days after the City had made its last payment for damages from the previous explosion to St Martin’s Chapel. As was the case in 1929, it started in the Golden Triangle area of Centre Town, this time at the corner of Lewis and Robert Streets. The explosion was accidently ignited by a plumber’s assistant who was investigating the source of a foul odour in the basement of a home.  Apparently, a spark from a trowel he was using ignited gas emanating from the sewer.

Sewer, 29 May 1931 Journal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 January 1931

Replicating in many ways the 1929 disaster, the blast rumbled down the main sewer line blowing up manhole covers in Sandy Hill along Templeton Street, Nelson Street and Somerset Street East, through Strathcona Park, before travelling along the east bank of the Rideau River to John Street in New Edinburgh. As in 1929, twenty-eight manholes covers were sent flying, sixteen of which featured in the earlier disaster. The damage sustained to the sewer system was severe. There were at least four breaks. The 78-inch main sewer on the Eastview (Vanier) side of the Cummings Bridge, which carried much of the sewage from the eastern portions of the city to the outfall at John Street into the Ottawa River, was fractured. Another 54-inch sewer running from Ottawa South along the west bank of the Rideau River was also ruptured near the Strathcona Hospital. With these breaks, sewage backed up into Sandy Hill. To prevent the flooding of homes, the City excavated at two points, one on Somerset Street and the other near the Isolation Hospital, and pumped the sewer water into the Rideau River. In total, more than a mile of sewer was wrecked with damage placed at almost $400,000, roughly ten times that of the earlier 1929 sewer explosion.

Fortuitously, this time no lives were lost. There were, however, a number of close calls. Twelve-year old Munroe Dingwall of 138 Goulburn Avenue was skiing on Somerset Street East with friends when a manhole cover blew up beside him. The lad was lifted into the air, skis and all, and deposited stunned but unhurt into a snowbank. Poor Miss Pettapiece, who suffered grievous injuries in the 1929 explosions, was on a bus near home when a manhole exploded. She collapsed and had to be treated for shock. A number of children were skating on the Sandy Hill rink on Nelson Street between Somerset East and Templeton Street when gaping holes appeared in the streets around the rink. The children were unharmed and taken to safety.

The City launched two inquiries. The first by consulting engineers Gore, Naismith and Storrie of Toronto concluded that gasoline and illuminating gas were “reasonably probable” causes. Of the two possibilities, the engineers favoured illuminating gas on the grounds that there was little evidence of flames or black smoke emanating from the explosions that would have been characteristic of a gasoline fire. Also, they viewed it as improbable for a perfect mix of gasoline vapour and air to have occurred. But, in the absence of all data and an analysis of sewer air before the explosions, they refrained from given an opinion regarding the source of the responsible gas.

They did, however, make a number of recommendations. First, they recommended that there be a judicial inquiry under oath so that all relevant records and other information pertinent to an inquiry could be obtained. Second, they argued that Ottawa’s method of ventilating sewers was dangerous and obsolete. They recommended the construction of more ventilating shafts, the opening of manhole covers, and the checking of home drains attached to the sewers. Apparently, many were not properly trapped. Other recommendations included the regulation and supervision of establishments using flammable gases or liquids, a regular inspection of sewers every six months, and the construction of sewage treatment plants.

A second committee chaired by Dr Alfred E. MacIntyre, a retired former chief of the Explosives Branch of the Dominion Government, focused on the causes of the blasts. MacIntyre had also consulted on the Campbell Report into the earlier 1929 explosion. He was of the opinion that illuminating gas had been the cause of both explosions. His report concluded that “gas had adventitiously entered the soil, drainpipes, sewer, etc. from defects within the gas distributing system of the Ottawa Gas Company.” Needless to say, the Gas Company came up with the opposite conclusion averring “that gas is the last thing that could be considered in connection with the recent sewer explosions.”

MacIntyre was pretty damming of the City as well. His report said the City had made no attempt to investigate the 1929 explosion, and that the investigations of complaints about fouls smells from residents were “neither informative nor satisfactory.” He contended that members of the inspectorial staff “had neither developed their powers of observation nor acquired sufficient qualifications and knowledge to discriminate or determine the actual condition of hazards, nor a conception of fitting methods of relief, conditions largely attributable to lack of instruction and direction.” MacIntyre also criticized the City for improper ventilation of the sewers, a charge to which the City responded by saying that it was not responsible for keeping sewers free of volatile gases that enter the sewers through the negligence of another company.

On release of MacIntyre’s report, the Board of Control suspended Mr W. F. M. Bryce, the engineer responsible for Ottawa’s sewers for negligence in not taking adequate measures to ensure that the sewers were kept free from dangerous gases. Bryce subsequently resigned. Earlier in the year, Mr A.F. Macallum, the Commissioner of Works, had also resigned, having been held responsible for not taking sufficient precautionary measures to avoid a repetition of the 1929 blasts.

At City Hall, the two investigations into the 1931 explosions set the proverbial cat among the municipal pigeons. Amidst a rancorous debate, City Council defeated on a split 11-11 decision a motion supported by Mayor Allen for a judicial inquiry into the explosion as recommended by the consulting engineers from Toronto. A motion for an independent inquiry into the conduct of Mr Bryce, the sewer engineer, was also defeated on a close 11-10 decision. Subsequently, however, the City launched a law suit against the Ottawa Gas Company in the amount of $376,000 for damages resulting from the 1931 blasts. Despite the testimony of roughly 100 witnesses, the evidence provided by the two inquiries into the sewer explosions, and an admission of the Ottawa Gas Company that its pipes and gas mains had not been inspected since they were installed, the Court ruled in favour of the gas company owing to lack of evidence. After losing an appeal, the City paid the court cost of both parties.

Following the inquiries, the City took steps to improve ventilation in the sewers, including the establishment of another ventilation shaft in Strathcona Park. Measures were also taken to improve the investigation of complaints of sewer smells by residents through the establishment of a complaints bureau. In the end, only Mr Macallum, the former Commissioner of Works, took the fall for the sewer disaster. Roughly eighteen months after the explosion, the Board of Control unanimously re-appointed Mr W. F. M. Bryce to his old job as sewer engineer on the curious and vague grounds that the Board had earlier requested his resignation not because members felt that he “was not fully competent, but because of the nature of the report dealing with the investigation.”

Sources:

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1931, “May Call Further Expert Advice On Sewer Blasts,” 29 January.

————————————-, 1931. “Experts Differ Upon Cause Of Sewer Blasts,” 10 June.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1929. “City Denies Blame For Explosions, Continues Inquiry,” 30 May 1929.

————————————–, 1929. “Advises Ventilation Of Sewers, Restrictions Of Gasoline Sales And More Vigorous Inspections,” 4 October.

————————————–, 1931. “Discover Sewer Explosion Damage Much Greater,” 29 January.

————————————–, 1931, “Fourth Stack Will Be Built To Air Sewers,” 17 April.

————————————–, 1931. “Judicial Probe Under Oath Is Only Way To Learn cause Of Explosions, Says Report,” 20 April.

————————————–, 1931. “MacIntyre Report Sets It Theory Of Big Explosion,” 4 June.

————————————–, 1931. “Says Lighting Gas The Cause Of Explosions,” 10 June.

————————————–, 1931. “After Long Stormy Debate City Council Rejects More For Probe Of Sewer Blasts,” 18 August.

————————————–, 1931, “Board of Control Endorses Damage Suit For Big Sum Against Ottawa Gas Co.” 30 September.

—————————————, 1931. “Declares Pipes Only Inspected During Repairs,” 1 December.

—————————————, 1932. “Mayor States All Favorable To W.F. M. Bryce,” 17 September.

————————————–, 1932. “Open Type Tops Would Have Cleared Gases,” 25 November.

Britannia-on-the-Bay

24 May 1900

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the big new invention that was transforming peoples’ lives. Within a short span of years, electric lights replaced gas lamps in homes, in businesses and on city streets in the major cities of North America. Horse-drawn public transportation was also retired in favour of electric streetcars, also known as trolleys. But while the fast and comfortable trolleys were very popular on weekdays and on Saturday mornings transporting commuters from the suburbs to downtown offices, streetcar companies found their vehicles underused on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. What to do? The answer was to increase weekend ridership by giving people someplace to go and something to do on their time off.  Spurred by the success of Coney Island in New York City, transit companies in many major North American cities built amusement parks, colloquially known as “electric parks.” Constructed at the end of a streetcar line, these parks attracted thousands of working class men, women and children seeking weekend fun and excitement. Of course, people had to buy a streetcar ticket to get there; the days of the automobile were still in the future.

Ottawa-Hull was no exception to these trends. Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper introduced the electric streetcar to the nation’s capital in 1891. Four years later, their Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OERC) opened the West End Park on Holland Avenue in Hintonberg, which was then on the outskirts of the city. Later known as Victoria Park, following the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, the park was the home to many rides and musical entertainments. The West End Park was the location of the showing of the first motion pictures in Ottawa in 1896. Across the Ottawa River two miles west of Alymer, the Hull-Alymer Electric Railway Company opened “Queen’s Park,” in May 1897, again named in honour of Queen Victoria, at the western terminus of its line. Among the attractions at this park, located on Lac Deschênes (a widening in the Ottawa River rather than an actual lake), were a merry-go-round, a water chute and a “mystic maze.”

britanniahenry-joseph-woodside-library-and-archives-canada-pa-016974

People boarding the OERC trolley, Britannia-on-the-Bay, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016974.

To compete with the Queen’s Park development in Quebec, the OERC acquired eighteen acres of land in the little summer cottage community of Britannia Village to the west of Ottawa. There, it established in 1900 an amusement park, with swimming and boating facilities on the Ontario side of Lac Deschênes, with a purpose-built tramline linking the new park to downtown Ottawa. Appropriately, it was called the Britannia line. Thomas Ahearn gave journalists a sneak preview of the new line in mid-January 1900. Although the rails had been laid all the way to Britannia Village, at that date the electric lines only went as far as Richmond Road. But the tramline was completed in time for its official opening at 6am on the Queen’s Birthday holiday on 24 May 1900. From the post office at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets to Britannia-on-the-Bay tram stop took just twenty-eight minutes, much of which was through the city. The trip from Holland Avenue, the previous end of the line, to Britannia-on-the Bay, with stops at Westboro, Barry’s Wharf and Baker’s Bush, took only eight minutes. The cost for the trip from downtown was initially set at 10 cents—the usual 5 cent fare plus another five cents to travel on the newly completed Britannia line. The five-cent supplement was later dropped.

In and of itself, the trip to Britannia-on-the-Bay was an exciting adventure for Ottawa citizens at the dawn of the twentieth century. Carried in specially-made carriages, trolley goers were taken along rails that ran close to the south side of Richmond Road except for the last mile or so where they crossed Richmond Road to head into Britannia. After leaving the city, which essentially ended at Preston Street, people journeyed through fields of grain and cow pastures, past fine homes and shoreline cottages before reaching their destination. A journalist on the initial January test run said there was a number of long grades with several sharp turns that give the route “a rolling appearance” which will “add zest,” since “pleasure-seeking humanity likes a spice of danger with its bit of fun.” He added that between Hintonburg and Britannia, there were a number of lovely spots.

britannia-henry-joseph-woodside-library-and-archives-canada-pa-016975

The footbridge over the CPR tracks at Britannia Park, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016975.

On reaching Britannia-on-the-Bay, riders crossed to the park, its beach and a long pier via a high footbridge, built at a cost of $1,500 by the OERC, which went over the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) tracks that ran north of the tramline. The footbridge allowed visitors to the park to avoid any danger of being hit by passing trains. On the other side were picnic gardens, concession stands as well as bathing and boating facilities on a thirty-foot wide pier that extended 1,050 feet into Lac Deschênes. The pier was built of wood with a stone base, using material excavated by the Metropolitan Power Company in an earlier failed attempt to build a canal and hydroelectric generating station at Britannia. Lit by electric lights at night, the pier was furnished with seating that ran along its length, perfect for visitors to sit and enjoy the sights, listen to band concerts, and to watch the promenading crowds. At the end of the pier was a perpendicular, two hundred foot long breakwater that protected moorings for boats. At the land end, two octagonal pavilions were erected at a cost of $2,500, housing a restaurant, changing rooms and bathrooms, a ladies’ parlour and sitting rooms.

The weather on opening day was bright and fine, attracting thousands of Ottawa picnickers to try out the OERC’s new park and pier at Britannia. Although the pavilions were not quite completed, they “were temporarily fitted up for use” for the estimated crowd of 12,000-15,000 visitors. The band of the 43rd Battalion gave a concert in the afternoon and evening to the multitudes. When darkness fell, the park was brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. Ten large arc lights lit up the pier.

britanniapier1900henry-joseph-woodsidelibrary-and-archives-canadapa-016976

Britannia Pier, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016976.

The new Britannia Park was a big success, and over the next several years was considerably improved and expanded. With the new waterside park eclipsing the old Victoria Park on Holland Avenue, the OERC cannibalized the latter’s attractions, moving its merry-go-round and auditorium to Britannia. In 1904, the OERC increased the size of the park by buying the 35-acre Mosgrove property close to Carling Avenue. It also extended the pier by four hundred feet, at the end of which a three-story boat house was erected that became the Britannia Boating Club’s clubhouse. In addition to rooms for members and a lower storage area for boats and canoes, which were available for rent by visitors, the clubhouse had a large ballroom and grandstand for spectators. At night, a searchlight on top of the building played over the darkened waters of Lac Deschênes. Other attractions at Britannia Park included excursions on the double-decker, side-wheeler, steamer G.B. Greene, the “Queen” of the Ottawa River which took tourists upstream to Chats Falls two or three times a week. Through the summer, holidaymakers were entertained by the festivities and music of “Venetian Nights.”

britanniaboathousewilliam-james-topley-library-and-archives-canada-pa-009208

Britannia Boating Clubhouse, c. 1907, William James Topley, Library & Archives Canada, PA-009028.

Britannia Park enjoyed its peak of popularity before World War I. Then things started to sour. In 1916, the G.B. Greene burnt. Though it was rebuilt, with Canada at war sightseeing wasn’t as popular as in the past. The steamer ended up towing logs and was dismantled in 1946. In August 1918, the Clubhouse at the end of the pier was consumed by flames. Some two hundred canoes and boats, along with the personal effects of members as well as trophies, furnishings and other valuables were lost. Although the cause of the $50,000 fire was never accurately determined, it was believed that a lighted cigarette carelessly thrown into the window of a bathroom was to blame.

Through the 1920s, amusement parks everywhere began to lose their allure. With more and more families owning their own automobile, people had the luxury of exploring other entertainment options. No longer were they limited to where the trolley could take them. Queen’s Park outside of Aylmer closed. Britannia limped on. The Park’s Lakeside Gardens Pavilion still managed to pull in the crowds for dances through the 1930s. Sunday band concerts also remained popular. In the early 1930s, the OERC began promoting the Park as a great place for parents to send their children. For youngsters under 51 inches tall, (i.e. roughly 8 years old or less) the trolley company advertised that they could travel to Britannia for only 6 4/7 cents, total fare, if they purchased a book of seven tickets for 25 cents plus an additional 3 cent fare for the Britannia line. Under its policy of “Safety First,” the trolley company said that special attention and care would be given to children by its car men. “It is therefore possible to send children to Britannia-on-the-Bay with the assurance that they will be safe while going, while at the beach and while returning.” Clearly this was a different time with a different level of care expected of parents. Few today would consider sending young children to swim at a public beach on city transit without formal supervision.

By the late 1940s, Britannia Park and Britannia beach were becoming shabby from years of use and limited maintenance. Transit consultants advised the financially weak OERC to close the park. In 1948, the Ottawa Transport Commission, which was owned by the City of Ottawa, took over the transit company, including its Britannia property. Concerned that the park was continuing to deteriorate, the City decided in 1951 to operate it directly. Some improvements were made, including the building of a children’s miniature railway at the park. However, more grandiose plans that include a zoo, stock-car racing and two artificial pools never left the drawing board. Park infrastructure continued to rot. Meanwhile, the beach was becoming fouled by weeds and pollution. By 1954, what had been one of Canada’s top tourist attractions was now considered “Canada’s worst.” That year, the footbridge over the CPR tracks was demolished. (The trains themselves continued to go through the Park until they were re-located out of downtown Ottawa in 1966.) In 1955, the aging Lakeside Gardens burnt to the ground.

britanniapark2015

Defunct Trolley Station, Britannia Park, 2015.

New investments were finally made into the park in 1958. The rotting wooden pier, now deemed unsafe, was demolished. The stone base of the original 1,050 foot pier built in 1900 was widened and the beach expanded. Lakeside Gardens was also rebuilt for dances. With these changes, the Park experienced a brief renaissance. However, it was not to last, doomed by changing tastes, and for Lakeside Gardens, the lack of a liquor licence. The beach was also increasingly shunned owing to a persistent weed problem. City efforts to control the weeds using bulldozers, chemicals and tons of rock salt proved fruitless. (This was a time before much consideration was given to the environment.) In any event, pollution closed the beach for extended periods. During the 1960s and 1970s, Britannia Park was threatened by a planned extension of the Ottawa River Parkway (today’s Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway) through the Park using the old CPR right-of-way, now turned into a bike path, as well as the construction of the Deschênes Bridge that would have link Alymer to Ottawa. Both ideas were finally scuppered by opposition from area residents and changing government priorities.

Today, Britannia Village, annexed by Ottawa in 1950, is no longer a remote summer cottage community. Businesses and housing have long filled the open space between the old City of Ottawa and Britannia and beyond. The streetcars that once linked it to downtown are gone; the last trolley to Britannia-on-the-Bay rode into history in 1959. But the magnificent park and beach endure. Owing to the marked improvement to the water quality of the Ottawa River due to the closure of the pulp and paper mills that had polluted it with their effluent, and the treatment of sewage by riverine communities, boaters and swimmers have returned. While Britannia Park and its beach may no longer attract the hordes of day trippers they did every weekend one hundred years ago, they remain a popular summer destination for people trying to escape the heat of the City. The Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, formerly the Lakeside Gardens, also continues to host big band dances as well as education courses ranging from the arts and crafts and dog obedience, to yoga and fitness.

Sources:

Evening Journal, (The), 1897. “Handled The Motor,” 27 May.

—————————-, 1900. “The New Electric Line To Britannia,” 15 January.

—————————-, 1900. “Searchlight on Lake Deschenes,” 2 April.

—————————, 1900. “Ottawans Loyally Observed the 24th,” 25 May.

—————————, 1906. “A Good Show At Britannia,” 22 May.

—————————, 1918. “Britannia Club House Is Destroyed By Fire Loss Nearly $50,000,” 30 August.

—————————, 1931. “The Children’s Beach At Britannia-on-the-Bay.” 13 July.

—————————, 1948, “Battle Of Seaweed Goes On At Britannia,” 1 May.

—————————, 1951. “Britannia Park Is Saved,” 21 June.

—————————, 1954. “Recommend Closing Britannia Park Amusement Centre,” 27 May.

—————————, 1954. “State of Britannia Park,” 28 May.

—————————, 1954, “At Last New Deal Coming For Battered Britannia Park,” 23 July.

Ottawa, (City of), 2016. Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, http://ottawa.ca/en/facility/ron-kolbus-lakeside-centre.

Taylor, Eva & Kennedy, James, 1983. Ottawa’s Britannia, Britannia Historical Association, Ottawa.