The Russell Theatre

15 October 1897

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

Russell Theatre cross sectio 2-10-97

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

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

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

Russell Theatre, Kismet 16-Oct-97

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Theatre interior, 1928 Mikan 7821743 government

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

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

Russell Theatre ceiling 1928, Mikan 4821747 Government

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crowfoot: Chief, Diplomat, Peacemaker

8 October 1886

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

crowfoot-at-earnscliffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

crowfoot-at-city-hall

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The NABU Network

26 October 1983

By the early 1980s, Ottawa was a hot-bed of high tech activity. Surrounding established companies, such as Bell Northern Research and Mitel, a cluster of small, ambitious telecommunications and computer-related firms with exotic names had emerged. These included Gandalf Data, Norpak, Xicom, and Orcatech, to name but a few. Many fizzed for a while, only to quickly disappear due to competition, rapidly changing technology, weak consumer demand, and inadequate funding. One that for a time stood out from the pack was NABU. Named for the Babylonian god of wisdom and writing, NABU was an acronym for “Natural Access to Bidirectional Utilities.” In its initial incarnation, the start-up was formally known as NABU Manufacturing Corporation. It was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in December 1982, raising $26 million in its initial public offering. The Ottawa-area company was itself the product of a number of mergers and acquisitions, including Bruce Instruments of Almonte, a manufacturer of remote television converters, Computer Innovations, a seller of computer hardware and software, Mobius Software, Andicon Technical Products of Toronto, a producer of small business computers, Volker-Craig of Kitchener, a manufacturer of video-display terminals, and Consolidated Computer Inc.(CCI), a relatively large, but troubled, government-owned, Canadian computer manufacturer and distributor. NABU bought CCI for one dollar from the federal government after the company had burned through $118 million of taxpayers’ money.

With close to 900 employees, half of whom were based in the Ottawa area, NABU had a multi-faceted business strategy. First, it planned to take on the business market, selling desk-top computers for word processing and data management. Initially producing the NABU 1100 in its Almonte plant, it released the 16-bit NABU 1600 in 1983. The 1600 version had 256 kilobytes of random-access memory (RAM), expandable to 512K, and a 10-megabyte hard drive, and used Intel’s 8086 processor. (Today’s laptop computers have eight to sixteen gigabytes of RAM, with up to 4 terabytes of hard drive, though with cloud computing, the sky is the limit for data storage.) It also came with a high density mini-floppy disk drive with storage for 800K of formatted data. Three people could use the NABU computer simultaneously doing different tasks. The price for the NABU 1600 was a breathtaking $9,800, equivalent to more than $21,000 in today’s money.

Second, NABU aimed to produce the first Canadian microcomputer for home use, taking on the likes of Commodore, IBM, Xerox, and a fledgling company that had gone public in December 1980 called Apple Computer. Third, the company envisaged selling on-line services to households. After buying or renting a NABU home microcomputer, and using its television as a monitor, a familiy could access programmes and data stored in NABU’s central server (a DEC mainframe) through a cable company’s broadband network. As the transmission of television signals only used a portion of the information-carrying capacity of cable networks, there was ample space for the transmission of other data-carrying services without degrading the television signals. The speed that the data could be transmitted on the coaxial cables employed by the cable companies (6.5 megabits per second) was also hundreds of times faster than what could be achieved over telephone lines.

NABU Ad

Canadian magician Doug Henning was enlisted to help publicize the NABU Network, 1984.

By joining what was advertised as the NABU Network, cable company subscribers who bought the NABU package of services would have access to a wide range of educational and financial programmes, video games, news, weather, sports, and financial data including stock market quotations. In addition to consulting the Ottawa Citizen’s “Dining Out” guide, subscribers could read their daily horoscope, learn to type, balance household budgets, and improve their maths skills. A number of video games were also developed specifically for NABU with the help of another talented Ottawa firm, Atkinson Film Arts, featuring the comic strip characters, the Wizard of Id and B.C. In one game, called The Spook, billed to be superior to the popular arcade game Pac-Man, a player could guide a character through the dungeons of the kingdom of Id to freedom. Subscribers also had access to the space games Demotrons and Astrolander, a tennis game, and a downhill skiing game.

An even more outstanding feature of the NABU Network was two-way communication made possible by Telidon, a videotext/teletext service developed by the Canadian Communications Research Centre. NABU envisaged subscribers doing their banking and shopping from the comfort of their home. Also possible were electronic mail and remote data storage—an early form of cloud computing. In essence, NABU had foreshadowed today’s wired world, a decade before the launch of the Internet.

After rolling out their home computers at the end of May 1983, NABU launched its Network services in Ottawa on 26 October 1983. Initially, the service was only available to Ottawa Cablevision subscribers, i.e. people who resided west of Bank Street. One could purchase the NABU home computer for $950, or rent the unit for $19.95 per month, plus an addition $9.95 for NABU’s “lifestyle software.” For this price, one received the NABU 80K personal computer, a cable adaptor, a keyboard, a games controller, and thirty lifestyle games and programmes; the inventory of games and programmes later rose to roughly one hundred. For an extra $4.95 per month, subscribers had access to LOGO, an educational-based programming language, and LOGO-based programmes. NABU executives hoped to receive orders from at least five per cent of Ottawa Cablevision’s 90,000 customers within six months. In early 1984, the service was made available to subscribers of Skyline Cablevision, i.e. people who resided east of Bank Street. The plan was to introduce the NABU Network to forty cities across North American by the end of 1985. NABU’s first foray into the U.S. market took place in Alexandria, Virginia, close to Washington D.C., in the spring of 1984. To lead the U.S. charge, NABU hired Thomas Wheeler, former president of the US National Cable Television Association.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. When NABU’s line of business computers failed to meet expectations, the company hunkered down to focus on its more promising NABU Network. A corporate restructuring at the end of October 1983 led to the NABU Manufacturing Corporation being split into two companies, the NABU Network Corporation and Computer Innovations. The latter company quickly disappeared into oblivion. NABU Network struggled on for a time. By late 1984, it had about 1,500 customers in the Ottawa region, and a further 700 in Alexandria. This was not enough to make the enterprise viable. With the home computer market seen as being too competitive, the company de-emphasized its proprietary hardware to focus on the delivery of its software. In in a last ditch effort to attract subscribers, adaptors were offered so that owners of Commodore and other home computers could access the NABU Network.

It was not enough. In November 1984, the Campeau Corporation, NABU’s principal shareholder and largest creditor, pulled the plug on the failing enterprise. Having already invested more than $25 million, and, with little indication that NABU could attract sufficient subscribers to break even, let alone turn a profit, Campeau was unwilling to pour more money into the venture. NABU’s remaining 200 employees were laid off. John Kelly resigned as CEO and chairman of the NABU Network Corporation. Trading in NABU Network shares were suspended, with the company delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange in January 1985. When it finally provided financial statements as of September 1984, the company had assets of only $4 million, with liabilities of $30 million. NABU shares, which were sold for $12.75 each at the company’s IPO two years earlier, were worthless.

Still confident about the concept of linking home computers to a central server using cable networks, Kelly formed a new, private company called the NABU Network (1984) to continue providing programmes and video games under licence to NABU subscribers in Ottawa; the U.S. service in Alexandria was discontinued. The new successor company hired back roughly 30 of the staff previously laid off. Subscriptions were sold door-to-door by Amway. Forever the optimist, Kelly hoped to have 6,000-8,000 subscribers by the summer of 1986. It was not to be. Limping along for eighteen months, the company ceased operations at the end of August 1986. The NABU Network dream was no more.

Why did NABU Network fail? In 1986, Kelly attributed its failure to the network concept being “ahead of its time,” and a slump in the home computer industry that killed the NABU personal computer. Part of the problem was that home computers themselves were not widely accepted; relatively few homes had them in the mid-80s. Many saw them as expensive toys rather than an indispensable part of everyday life. Content on the NABU Network was also an issue. Thomas Wheeler, who headed the company’s U.S. operations, and who is currently the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, attributed the company’s failure to its dependence on cable company operators for its subscribers. In contrast, America Online (AOL) in the United States, which launched a similar, but far inferior, dial-up service in 1989, was wildly successful, at least for a time. Wheeler credits AOL’s success to it being available to anyone with a telephone and a modem. Ironically, cable companies later became important internet service providers.

In 2005, the York University Computer Museum began a programme to reconstruct the NABU Network, and develop an on-line collection documenting the NABU technology. It called the NABU Network “a technologically and culturally significant achievement.” Four years later, the Museum’s version of the NABU network was officially demonstrated. There for the event was John Kelly, NABU’s president and chief executive officer.

Sources:

IEEE Canada, 200? (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), The Internet Before Its Time: NABU Network in the Nation’s Capital, http://www.ieee.ca/millennium/telidon/telidon_nabu.html.

McCracken, Harry, 2010. “A History of AOL, as Told in its Own Old Press Releases,” Technologizer, 24 May, http://www.technologizer.com/2010/05/24/aol-anniversary/.

Montreal Gazette (The), 1983. “Nabu banking on its ‘network.’” 18 November.

———————–, 1985. “Amway to sell Nabu software,” 29 January.

———————–, 1985. “Nabu files statement,” 1 March.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1982. “Nabu goal: To make first Canadian microcomputers,” 23 March.

——————-, 1982. “Nabu adds videogames to service, 31 May.

——————-, 1982. “Nabu teaches computer ‘albatross” how to fly again,” 8 December.

——————-, 1983. “Nabu 1600 hits market across U.S., 27 May.

——————-, 1983. “Nabu 16-Bit Micro Features Intel 8086, 8087 Co-Processors,” 26 October.

——————-, 1983. “World’s first cable-TV computer on line,” 26 October.

——————-, 1983. “The Magic of The Nabu Network, 28 October.

——————-, 1984. “Skyline cable custmoers to get Nabu Network,” 25 April.

——————-, 1984. “Nabu Network reports $2.5 million loss,” 29 May.

——————-, 1984. “Role of Nabu’s own computer played down,” 19 June.

——————-, 1984. “Nabu proving technology before any expansion,” 19 June.

——————-, 1984. “Nabu chief forms new company,” 23 November.

——————-, 1985. “Trading stopped on Nabu shares by Ontario Securities Commission,” 24 January.

——————-, 1986. “Plug finally pulled on failing Nabu Network,” 19 July.

Reyes, Julian, 2014. “How Tom Wheeler Almost Invested The Internet,” Fusion, 27 May, http://fusion.net/story/5748/how-tom-wheeler-almost-invented-the-internet/.

Wheeler, Tom, 2015, “This is how we will ensure net neutrality,” Wired, 4 February, http://www.wired.com/2015/02/fcc-chairman-wheeler-net-neutrality/.

York University, 2009. NABU Network Reconstruction Project at YUCoM, (York University Computer Museum), http://www.cse.yorku.ca/museum/research/NABU.htm.

The Champagne Bank Robber

27 October, 1958

When Mr W.W. Pegg, manager of the Imperial Bank of Canada’s main Ottawa branch at 62 Sparks Street, arrived at work on Monday, 27 October 1958, he had no idea that he was about to experience the worst day of his long and successful career. Entering the classic, Temple-style, granite and sandstone building, his thoughts must have undoubtedly been on the Slater Street gas main explosion that had rocked Ottawa’s downtown core just two days earlier, injuring scores, demolishing buildings, and shattering store fronts and glass windows in a several block area from Sparks Street to Somerset Street. But on opening the bank’s vault for the start of the day’s business, all thoughts about the explosion would have been forgotten by the sight that confronted him, or, more correctly by what he didn’t see. The cash reserves of the bank were gone. Also missing, were funds transferred to his branch from smaller Imperial bank branches across the city the previous week. How the audacious theft was committed was not immediately apparent. There was no signs of forced entry. It took head office auditors days to determine the precise amount of the shortfall—an astonishing $260,958 (equivalent to $2.2 million today), the largest theft ever from an Ottawa bank.

Imperial Bank of Canada, 62 Sparks St

Imperial Bank of Canada, 62 Sparks Street, circa 1945. The building was most recently occupied by Ian Kimmerly Stamps. Currently vacant, press reports suggest that the building will soon be the site of a restaurant.

Suspicion immediately fell on Boyne Lester Johnson, Pegg’s 27-year old, trusted, chief teller. Johnson, a Renfrew native, was a seven-year veteran of the Imperial Bank, having joined the financial institution out of high school. Among his duties were handling the cash deposits brought in from other Imperial branches. Consequently, a large volume of money routinely passed through his hands. Although everything had appeared normal when he had left work with other bank employees the previous Friday, he had failed to show up Monday morning.

When police arrived at Johnson’s home, apartment #20 at 350 Chapel Street in Sandy Hill, there was no sign of him, or his wife Bernice. A search revealed a large sum of cash though there was no way of knowing whether the money was part of the missing bank funds; the bank had no record of the serial numbers of the stolen notes. The Johnsons’ family car was in the basement parking lot, a .22 calibre hunting rifle, hunting clothes, and maps were found in its trunk. The building’s caretaker told the police that he had last seen Boyne Johnson on Sunday morning when the young man had awoken him at 8.30am to ask to be let into his apartment. Johnson had told him that he had forgotten his key after going to church with his wife. The superintendent thought this was odd as Boyne was dressed in old clothes rather than his Sunday best. Police immediately issued a warrant for his arrest, alerting law enforcement agencies across the country, as well as the FBI in the United States. Rail stations, airports, car rental agencies, and customs posts were also advised to be on the watch for Boyne Lester Johnson.

While Ottawa police were trying to track down Boyne, Bernice Johnson was becoming frantic with worry. On the Saturday, the couple had driven to Renfrew to visit their mothers, Mrs Mary Johnson and Mrs Julia Narlock who lived in the town. They had supper that evening with the two parents in a Cobden restaurant. Everything seemed normal. The couple spent the night at the home of Bernice’s mother. The next day, Boyne had risen early, telling his wife that he was going hunting close to the Renfrew golf course. She last saw him at 6.30 Sunday morning. He never returned. On Monday morning, she and a friend began searching the Renfrew area for her missing husband. Having no luck, and fearing that some serious had happened to him, she turned to the Renfrew police department for assistance. She was shocked to find out that her husband had become the subject of a nation-wide alert.

Johnson wanted poster

“Wanted” Poster released by Ottawa police and circulated throughout North America.

Johnson’s trail went cold. There were few clues to his whereabouts. Police speculated that he was still in the vicinity, but admitted they really didn’t know. To help their inquiries, the Ottawa police and RCMP issued a detailed “wanted” poster with a $10,000 reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction. He was described as age 27, height 5’ 8,” weight 135 pounds, with a fair complexion. Also noted was that he was a neat dresser, frequented night clubs, and had a penchant for champagne and the ladies. The poster went out to police stations and post offices across North America. Tips started to come in. A Trans-Canada Airways (TCA) stewardess thought she had spotted Johnson on a flight from Ottawa to Montreal. On 5 November, Montreal police were sent “scurrying” on receiving a phone call from a man who identified himself as Inspector Osborne, a vacationing Ontario Provincial policeman. He called Montreal police headquarters telling them that he had captured Johnson, and sought aid to bring him in. He also claimed to have the money in an airline carry-on bag. It was a hoax. No Inspector Osborne worked for the OPP.

The big break came on Monday, 10 November when Geneva Flowers, a waitress at Chez Paree, a Denver, Colorado night club, recognized Johnson from his wanted poster shown to her by a friend in the Denver police department. Another server, Ormonde Wynn, had spotted Johnson sipping champagne sitting at the bar. The Denver police were called, arresting Johnson without a fuss. He took the policemen to his YMCA room where they found a suitcase crammed with more than $233,000 in mostly Canadian cash. He also told them that on arrving in Denver he had bought a $4,150 sports car, and had planned to go skiing in the mountains. He said that he always wanted to know what it was like to have lots of money. He admitted that he knew he would eventually be caught, and was glad it was all over. He had wanted to experience the “have fun while you can principle.” Denver policemen said that the highly detailed wanted poster circulated by Canadian police that had highlighted Johnson’s love of champagne was responsible for his capture.

Under police questioning, Johnson freely explained how he robbed the bank, and his movements over the previous two weeks. Through the day on Friday, 24 October, he had removed cash from the vault, secreting the money in accessible spots around the bank. At some point, exactly when is not clear, he converted $7,000 into U.S. currency at another Ottawa bank. That night, he returned to the Imperial Bank’s Sparks Street branch, letting himself in using the key with which he had been entrusted as chief teller. He then retrieved the money from their caches, filled a suitcase, and left via a rear laneway exit to his car. There were no witnesses. Returning home with the suitcase in the trunk, he calmly drove with his wife to Renfrew the following day, the suitcase still in the back of the car. On Sunday morning, instead of hunting, he returned to Ottawa, stopping off at his apartment, where he left some money for his wife. He then flew to Windsor, Ontario. At the Windsor airport, he stored the cash-stuffed suitcase in a locker, and took a taxi to the Detroit airport. Pretending to have accidently forgotten his suitcase, he persuaded a Detroit taxi driver to go to the Windsor airport and fetch it for him. Incredibly, the driver agreed to do so, passing through US customs without incident. Johnson gave him a $20 tip for his trouble. From Detroit, he flew to Los Angeles, before going to Salt Lake City, Twin Falls, Idaho, Cheyenne Wisconsin, and finally Denver, where the law finally caught up with him. While in Cheyenne, Johnson, feeling blue, had telephoned a friend, Gerald Cotie, the third assistant accountant at the Imperial Bank branch. Cotie had urged Johnson to give himself up, but without success.

With Johnson waiving an extradition hearing, two Ottawa police officers, Inspector Ab Cavan and Detective Gordon Lowry, went to Denver on November 11 to officially identify him, and to return him to Ottawa. With a stop at Malton Airport in Toronto, Johnson arrived at Uplands Airport, Ottawa, accompanied by the two officers, on a regular TCA flight, at shortly before 10pm on 14 November, three weeks after the heist. On arriving in the city, he politely thanked the two detectives. Wearing a suede windbreaker, dark grey trousers, and running shoes, Johnson walked briskly down the steps to be greeted by flashing light bulbs and television cameras. More than 300 spectators were on hand to meet his plane. When asked why he did it by a Citizen reporter, Johnson replied “It’s hard to explain. I guess it was the climax to a lot of personal trouble.” He also told journalists that “It’s nice to have met you. But when you write this, don’t say ‘Go west, young man!’ It just doesn’t work out.”

On the following Monday, he was officially charged, and was remanded into custody by Magistrate Glenn E. Strike. No plea was entered, and no bail was set. In the crowded court room was his wife, Bernice. Johnson, who did not speak at the hearing, was represented by John Dunlop; James Maloney, QC, Member of Parliament for Renfrew, was retained as Johnson’s defence counsel. A month later, Johnson plead guilty, and was convicted. In court, it was revealed that all $260,958 that he had stolen from the Imperial Bank had been returned. The bulk of the money was discovered by Denver police in Johnson’s YMCA room. A further $5,000 was recovered from his Chapel Street apartment. He had spent only $12,050. Johnson’s father, Hartzell Johnson, made up the shortfall. His father also told the judge that he was planning to start a business in another city, and would offer Boyne a job on his release from jail. Wife Bernice also said she would stand by her man, and wait for him.

During his short hearing, police officers testified that Boyne had been “a model prisoner,” and it seemed that “he was glad to have been caught.” One testified that Johnson seemed to have been trying to run away from himself. Defence counsel argued that Johnson was “not really a criminal.” The prosecuting Crown attorney, Raoul Mercier, countered that it was important for society to be protected from thefts by trusted employees.

On Thursday 18 December, in front of several Johnson family members, Judge Strike pronounced sentence. The magistrate said that he had little sympathy for Boyne. His was a very serious crime involving a very large sum of money, and that Boyne had been disloyal to both his employer and his family. A pale but composed Boyne Johnson received his sentence—four years in the Kingston Penitentiary.

Sources:

McGuire, C.R., A History of 62 Sparks Street, Ian Kimmerly Stamps, http://www.iankimmerly.com/about/our-building/.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1958. “Ottawa Bank Teller Hunted After $250,000 Cash Taken, Sparks Street Branch Looted,” 27 October.

————————, 1958. “‘Tip’ on Man Hunt ‘Phony,’” 6 November.

————————, 1958. “Boyne Johnson Nabbed In Denver,” 11 November.

————————, 1958. “Led To Arrest,” 11 November.

————————, 1958. “Give The Mechanics Of Returning Banker,” 12 November.

————————, 1958. “‘Why?’ Hard To Explain,” 15 November.

————————, 1958. “Remanded, Boyne Silent After Charge,” 17 November.

————————, 1958. “All Fund Returned, Teller Admits $260,000 Robbery,” 10 December.

————————, 1958. “‘You Were Disloyal’—Magistrate, Four Years In Prison For Johnson,” 18 December.

————————, 2015. “Mover and shakers in capital’s foodie scene,” 26 April.

Images:

Imperial Bank of Canada, 62 Sparks Street, Ottawa, http://www.iankimmerly.com/about/our-building/.

Wanted Poster, The Ottawa Citizen, 7 November, 1958.

The Slater Street Explosion

25 October 1958

Saturday, 25 October 1958 started as a typical, mid-autumn, weekend morning in the nation’s capital. It was overcast, and there was a cool crispness to the early-morning air. Downtown streets, which on a week day would have been thronging with civil servants on their way to work, were largely deserted. The stores that lined Sparks Street had yet to open. Ottawa’s cinemas, whose Saturday morning cartoons attracted hundreds of children, were still shuttered. Shortly after 8am, when most Ottawa citizens were still at home having breakfast, or reading the morning newspapers, the city’s usual calm was shattered. A tremendous explosion rocked the downtown core, obliterating buildings on Slater Street, blowing out store fronts, and shattering windows from Sparks Street to Somerset Street. Downtown residents who were indulging in a Saturday morning lie-in were rudely thrown from their beds. Some thought that a plane had crashed, while other believed it was an earthquake. Reflecting Cold War jitters, some feared that Ottawa had been the target of a nuclear attack.

Slater Street explosion

View of Slater Street, October 1958. The Addressograph-Multigraph building has been completely destroyed. In the mid-ground is the ruin of the Odeon Theatre, author unknown

It was quickly determined that the centre of the blast was the Addressograph-Multigraph building located at 248 Slater Street. At 8.17am, William J. Anderson, the building’s janitor, entered the basement of the building to retrieve some cleaning materials. Smelling a bad odour, he switched on a light to get a better look. The light ignited natural gas that had seeped into the basement through a disused, uncapped, gas main.  The gas explosion in turn blew up the building’s oil tank and boiler. Later in hospital, he reported to police that there had been a “rumble and a terrific explosion.” Anderson, who received third-degree burns over most of his body, later died of his injuries.

The massive explosion, estimated to have been the equivalent of a 1,000-2,000 ton bomb, totally destroyed the Addressograph building. Neighbouring Meyers Motors offices and showroom at 260 Slater were also demolished, as was the Odeon Theatre at 142 Bank Street which abutted the Addressograph building at the rear. The back of the cinema was reduced to a mess of twisted girders and fallen masonry. The Jackson Building, where thousands of civil servants worked, situated at the corner of Slater and Bank Streets across from the Addressograph building, was also severely damaged. Virtually all its windows were blown out; debris, sent high in the sky by the force of the blast, littered its roof. Major-General H.A. Young, the deputy minister of public works, said that the building had been reduced to “a shell.” So twisted were its elevator shafts that all twelve elevators were out of commission; filing cabinets and furniture were later retrieved using external hoists. Remarkably, however, the sturdy, nine-story office building, the tallest in Ottawa, remained structural sound, and was later repaired. Touring the site of the explosion by helicopter, a Citizen reporter described the scene as just like “bombed-out, wartime London.”

The first alarm was sounded by Guy Lebel, an off-duty fireman attached to the No. 4 Fire Station. He had been standing on Slater Street when the explosion occurred. Hearing a loud noise and breaking glass, he turned to see a car flung high into the sky. Two hundred firemen and sixty Ottawa policemen and RCMP officers responded to the alarm. The injured were located and quickly cared for, the area promptly secured. Fortunately, as the explosion occurred early on a Saturday morning, there were relatively few casualties. Major-General G.S. Hatton, the deputy coordinator of civil defence, estimated that had the explosion occurred on a week day, 600 casualties might have been expected, with many lives lost. Even so, it was bad enough. In addition to poor William Anderson, the janitor at the Addressograph building who lost his life, forty people were injured, some seriously. Most were struck by flying glass. Bill Smith of Gloucester Street was struck by glass as he was walking down Laurier Street, several blocks away from the site of the explosion. He needed thirty-two stiches to his arms and legs to close his wounds. Glen Dinsmore and Joe Moreau, who worked at Meyers Motors, were also seriously injured by glass and falling masonry. Miraculously, Herb Rawson, the car dealership’s parts manager, escaped unscathed. He had just stepped out of his office to go to the stock room when the blast occurred. The roof of his just-vacated office caved in, burying his desk under two tons of rubble.

In addition to the casualties, twenty-five businesses were closed indefinitely due to the explosion. The Odeon Theatre never reopened; its last show was the sexy, restricted movie …And God Created Woman, starring the up-and-coming French starlet, Brigitte Bardot. Other stores forced to close included the Levey Sign Company, Hobbyland, the Stage Door Restaurant, and the Sherwin-Williams paint shop. More than one hundred residents in the Sula, Imperial, and Cairo apartment buildings located on Slater Street had to be evacuated. Two schools, the Kent Street Public School and the Eastern Ontario School of Technology, were temporarily closed, while the 2,000 government employees working at the Jackson Building were forced to relocate while the building was repaired; many went to the #1 “Temporary” building on Wellington Street.

Officials from the gas company, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, and the Fire Marshal’s Office immediately descended onto the blast site seeking answers. Prime Minister Diefenbaker, who came to view the scene of the explosion, called it “the most appalling thing” that he had ever seen. Prince Philip, who happened to arrive in Ottawa a few days after the explosion, also inspected the damage. He asked Ottawa’s Mayor Nelms for a personal report on the causes of the blast.

Prince Philip and the Slater Street Explosion

H.R.H. Prince Philip at the site of an explosion at the Addressograph-Multigraph of Canada Company Ltd, 248 Slater Street, 30 October 1958.Andrews-Newton Photographers Fonds/ City of Ottawa Archives/MG393-AN-060432

Mayor Nelms established a five-man commission headed by Major-General H.H. Worthington to establish the causes of the disaster, and to make recommendation on ways to avoid similar incidences in the future. But the commission had barely begun its investigation when it ran into legal problems, and was disbanded. Apparently, under provincial law, it did not have the authority to call witnesses. To replace the commission, the provincial attorney-general ordered a inquest into the death of William Anderson, instructing the coroner, Dr Roger Rouleau, to make a “broad inquiry” into all facets of the fatal disaster.

More than seventy witnesses testified in front of the five-member coroner’s jury, whose foreman was Dr E.R. Birchard, former vice-president of the National Research Council, and a member of the disbanded civic inquiry commission. Expert testimony concluded that the explosion had been caused by a highly explosive mixture of gas and air that had been touched off when Anderson turned on the basement electric lights in the Addressograph building. The source of the natural gas was a 1 ¼ inch supposedly decommissioned gas service pipe that had years earlier been used to supply manufactured (coal) gas to the building. The explosion started in the south-west corner of the basement adjacent to Myers Motors, with the “flame front” moving easterly through the service room, the oil tank room, and finally, the boiler room, which became the epicentre of the blast.

Witnesses reported that when natural gas was introduced to Ottawa in January 1958, the Ottawa Gas Company, a subsidiary of Consumers Gas, had re-used the gas mains that had previously delivered manufactured gas to Ottawa residents. The disused and uncapped pipe in the basement of the Addressograph building had been forgotten; employees in the building believed it to be a rusty, unused, water pipe. Although the pipe had been blocked over time by sludge and debris, the natural gas introduced into the mains gradually eroded the “stoppage,” which finally gave way during the night before the explosion, allowing gas to flow unimpeded into the Addressograph building’s basement. Ironically, just two days before the explosion, Ottawa Gas has assured Ottawa’s Board of Control that “no explosion hazards” existed “in relation to the Ottawa Gas Company’s mains in the city streets.”

The coroner’s jury came up with a number of recommendations that were later implemented to help ensure against a future disaster. These included the establishment of a board with the authority to inspect gas distribution systems, the maintenance of plans and records of underground gas pipelines and mains in municipal offices, and the requirement of a permit from a competent authority before the installation of gas distribution systems. Ottawa Gas was also required to cap all disused gas service lines, with disconnections done on the outside of buildings. Over the following year, Ottawa Gas complied, disconnecting more than 2,000 disused gas lines, and installing 1,000 shut-off valves.

Site of Slater Street Explosion

Site of Slater Street Explosion, 2015

Not surprisingly, the explosion initiated a flood of law suits. Most importantly, the owners of the Odeon Theatre sued Consumers Gas, the Addressograph-Multigraph Company, the owners of the A-M building, and the City of Ottawa for $1 million. The suit was later reduced to $500,000. The Government of Canada also sued the gas company to cover the cost of repairing the heavily damaged Jackson Building. By the end of 1960, Consumers Gas had reached out-of-court settlements with roughly 400 plaintiffs, mostly area residents and shop owners. The company paid out $1.3 million, of which $375,000 went to the owners of the Odeon, and $500,000 to the federal government. Thankfully for city managers and taxpayers, the company covered all costs.

Today, 248 Slater Street, the site of the destroyed Addressograph-Multigraph building, is a parking lot.

 

Sources:

City of Ottawa, The Slater Street Explosion, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/witness-change-visions-andrews-newton-41.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1958. “No Explosion Hazards In Ottawa Gas Mains,” 23 October.

———————–, 1958. “Janitor May Hold Key To Explosion,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “The Bank Street Explosion,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958, “On Week Day: 600 Casualties,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “Affects Thousands,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “From Air, ‘Just Like Bombed-Out War-Time London,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “Man Tells Of Terrifying Brush With Death,” 27 October.

————————, 1958. “First Alarm Sounded By Off-Duty Fireman,” 27 October.

————————, 1958. “Blast Inquiry Set Up,” 28 October.

————————, 1958. “Prince Philip Inspects Scene of Explosion,” 31 October.

————————, 1958. “Tale Of Rusty Pipe In Blasted Building,” 12 November.

———————-, 1958. “Inquiry Into The Explosion,” 15 November.

———————–, 1958. “Slater Pipe Under Scrutiny,” 15 November.

———————–, 1958. “Move To Avert New Explosions; Mayor Issues Orders,” 18 November.

———————–, 1958. “Mains Spill Death,” 18 November.

———————–, 1958. “Board Directs Gas Mains; $1 million Suit by Odeon,” 18 November.

———————–, 1959. “Slater Street Blast Rocked Us Year Ago,” 24 October.

———————–, 1960. “Actions,” 22 December.

Urbsite, 2012. Bank and Slater Streets, 3 September, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/09/bank-and-slater-streets.html.

Images:

View of Slater Street, October 1958. The Addressograph-Multigraph building has been completely destroyed. In the mid-ground is the ruin of the Odeon Theatre, author unknown, Urbsite, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/09/bank-and-slater-streets.html.

H.R.H. Prince Philip at the site of an explosion at the Addressograph-Multigraph of Canada Company Ltd, 248 Slater Street, 30 October 1958. Andrews-Newton Photographers Fonds/ City of Ottawa Archives / MG393-AN-060432-001, City of Ottawa Archives.

248 Slater Street, site of the Addressograph-Multigraph building, today. Google Street View.

Charlotte Whitton Becomes Mayor

1 October 1951

On 1 October 1951, there was a seismic shift in Ottawa’s political landscape. That evening, Charlotte Whitton was unanimously chosen mayor by Ottawa’s city council to complete Mayor Grenville W. Goodwin’s term of office. Five weeks earlier, Goodwin had died of a heart attack only seven months after he was elected. Whitton’s appointment was remarkable and unexpected. At that time, there were virtually no female politicians at any level of government. Whitton subsequently went on to win four mayoral elections, dominating Ottawa municipal politics for almost fifteen years. In the process, she shook up what had been a comfortable bastion of male privilege, cleaned up City Hall that had become mired in patronage and nepotism, fought the cozy links between developers and city counsellors, built a new city hall, and presided over a rapidly growing city, all while keeping a firm grip of the municipal purse strings.

However, her years on city council were marred by an inability to work with others, and violent outbursts of temper which went far beyond verbal jousting. On one occasion, the diminutive mayor took several swings at a fellow council member, Paul Tardif.  Fortunately, she didn’t connect. On another, she pulled a toy gun from her desk drawer after a heated debate, prompting Tardif to half-jokingly say “Don’t shoot!” Whitton’s council antics, acerbic wit, strong views on virtually everything, and a penchant for the theatrical, which included a fondness for dressing up in medieval robes of office complete with a tricorne hat, kept her in the press spotlight for years. Already well known as an expert on social and welfare programmes, and a newspaper columnist, Charlotte Whitton, the mayor, became a celebrity, even appearing on the U.S. television show What’s My Line in 1955.

Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, 1954

Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, 1954

Whitton was born in Renfrew, Ontario on 8 March 1896. Her father, an English Methodist, did odd jobs in the area, while her mother, an Irish Catholic, ran a boarding house. As “mixed” marriages were frowned on in the late nineteenth century, her parents eloped, and were married in the Anglican Church. Whitton remained a life-long Anglican though her siblings became Catholic. Rare for women of that era, she received a university education, obtaining an undergraduate arts degree in 1917 from Queen’s University. By virtue of her high academic standing, the university granted her a master’s degree. Later, when she received the first of several honorary doctorates, she became known as Dr Charlotte Whitton.

After university, Whitton joined the Social Service Council of Canada, and became assistant editor of the journal Social Welfare. In 1920, she moved to the Canadian National Council on Child Welfare following its establishment by the federal government, becoming its director in 1925. With its mandate expanding over time to encompass family welfare, the agency later became known as the Canadian Council on Social Development. During her twenty-year career with the Council, Whitton became nationally prominent for her social welfare work, especially her advocacy for improved and standardized child welfare legislation across the country. She also worked on behalf of children and families at the international level, representing Canada on the League of Nations’ child welfare committee in Geneva. In 1934, she was named Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her pioneering child welfare activities.

Whitton was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She disapproved of the prevailing moral double standard where mothers were blamed for illegitimate pregnancies but not the fathers. She also believed that women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job. She encouraged women to stand for election at all level of government, though she though they were best suited for municipal government on the grounds that cities dealt with issues closer to the family. In her view, women were better than men in caring for the sick, the elderly, and the young. In reality, she figured that women could outperform men at anything. She famously said “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Fortunately, this is not difficult.”

While “progressive” in some areas, she was anything but a left-wing radical. She supported capital punishment, opposed official bilingualism, abortion, and divorce. While a strong proponent of the traditional family, she never married, but instead devoted her life to her career, modelling herself on Elizabeth I, the powerful “virgin” queen. Whitton lived with her best friend Margaret Grier for more than a quarter century until Grier’s death in 1947. While the two women shared their lives, and had a strong emotional bond, there is no evidence of a physical relationship. When the Great Depression struck, Whitton became well-known for her “tough love” recommendations to deal with high unemployment, including the establishment of remote, quasi-military, work camps for unemployed men. She also opposed income support programmes except for the deserving poor, viewing government aid as dehumanizing, something that would diminish people’s responsibility for their family and neighbours. She unsuccessfully lobbied against the introduction of the “baby bonus,” arguing that it put an economic value on people’s “powers of reproduction rather than production.” Echoing the sentiments of supporters of the eugenics movement widely popular during the first half of the twentieth century, she also feared that the baby bonus would weaken Canadian blood lines by encouraging mental and moral “defectives” to have more children.

Whitton adamantly opposed immigration that might alter the complexion of Canada, both literally and figuratively. While she could do little to affect the French fact in Canada, she didn’t want to dilute Canada’s Englishness. Although she generally tolerated “Anglo-Saxon” immigrants, anybody else, including Jews, Asians and Blacks, were not welcome. Even when it came to British immigrants, Whitton was selective, wanting solid, yeoman stock who could support themselves; the poor, the sick, the huddled masses were not for her. She lobbied strenuously against child immigration from Britain partly due to the conditions that many children experienced on their arrival in Canada, but also due to her concern that they were not the right sort of people, often being the illegitimate offspring of the poorer classes. Again, she seemed to be influenced by the eugenics movement that viewed poverty as a pathological condition.

Most controversially of all, in 1940, Whitton opposed the evacuation to Canada of nine thousand, mostly Jewish, children from war-torn Europe. According to Irving Abella and Harold Troper, in their book None Is Too Many, the Canadian Jewish Congress saw her as “an enemy of Jewish immigration.” But Whitton views on race were mainstream stuff seventy years ago. Reflecting the mood of the population, the Canadian government refused to accept the child refugees, though it subsequently authorized ten thousand British children to take shelter in Canada.

In 1950, prompted by the Ottawa Council of Women, Whitton run for public office, winning one of the city’s four Board of Control positions in that year’s municipal elections. The Board, which formed a sort of municipal “cabinet,” was elected by citizens at large in the same fashion as the mayor; in contrast, aldermen were elected by residents of specific city wards. Whitton topped the slate of prospective controllers on the back of widespread support from Ottawa’s female voters. She was the first woman ever elected to Ottawa’s City Council.

In the same election, Grenville W. Goodwin, the soft-spoken owner of an optical company, was elected mayor, toppling Edouard Bourque, the previous incumbent. Despite opposition because of her sex, Whitton was selected by Council as Deputy Mayor reflecting her top place finish in the Board of Control race. When Goodwin passed away in August 1951, Whitton stepped in as Acting Mayor. However, her appointment as Mayor to fill the unexpired portion of Goodwin’s term was far from assured. The city’s solicitor argued that the “Acting” position was only temporary, and had to be ratified by a vote of Council. Many thought the position should go to a man. A poll of council members gave Whitton only one vote, with most favouring Leonard Coulter who had been Deputy Mayor under Bourque. However, following several weeks of back-room politicking, Coulter pulled out of the race, bidding his time until the next election. With the track now clear, Whitton became mayor. She immediately set out a five-point civic programme which included measures to reduce a shortage of low-cost housing (an issue dear to her heart), and steps to streamline City Hall. It was the start of a tumultuous period in Ottawa’s civic administration as Whitton shook up a complacent municipal bureaucracy.

Whitton subsequently went on to win the 1952 and 1954 municipal elections. Bowing out of the 1956 elections, she entered federal politics running as a Progressive Conservative candidate in the Liberal stronghold of Ottawa West in the 1958 General Election. While John G. Diefenbaker’s Conservatives swept to power, his coattails were insufficient to elect Whitton who lost by roughly 1,000 votes to the popular Liberal incumbent, George McIlraith. A disappointed Whitton returned to writing and lecturing before re-entering Ottawa municipal politics, winning the 1960 mayoral election. She won again in 1962. But by 1964, Ottawa residents were tired of Whitton’s theatrics and the constant battles at City Hall. That year they elected the gentle giant Donald Reid as mayor. Whitton experienced the indignity of placing third behind Frank Ryan, her own brother-in-law who had the audacity to run against her.  But her council days were not over. She returned to City Hall in 1966 as an alderman for Capital Ward, championing the cause of the elderly. She was successfully re-elected two more times, before retiring in 1972 after suffering a broken hip. She died in Ottawa at the age of seventy-eight in 1975.

During her lifetime, Charlotte Whitton received many honours. In addition to the CBE awarded her in 1934, she became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968, and received six honorary doctorates from Canadian and American universities. In 1973, the City Council chamber in the old City Hall was named the Whitton Hall in her honour. At the ceremony, Mayor Pierre Benoit called her “one of the greatest municipal politicians Ottawa has ever had.” She also received laudatory messages from the Queen, Governor General Michener, Prime Minister Trudeau and Ontario Premier Davis.

However, as controversial she was in life, Whitton remained controversial in death. In 2010, when Major Jim Watson proposed naming the city’s new archives building after her, the Canadian Jewish Labour Congress objected on the grounds that Whitton had been anti-Semitic, citing her role in barring Jewish child refugees from Canada in 1940. Dave Mullington, a Whitton biographer, came to her defence, noting that despite what happened in 1940, her relationship with the Jewish community was far more positive than this one incident suggested. Among other things, she had been a staunch supporter of Israel through the Suez Crisis in 1957, had been named “woman of the year” in 1964 by Toronto’s B’nai Brith organization, and was among the first persons to sign Lorry Greenberg’s nomination papers in his election for mayor in 1974. Greenberg subsequently became Ottawa’s first Jewish mayor. However, the controversy caused Mayor Watson to withdraw his suggestion. Instead, the archives building was named after James Bartleman, a former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

Sources:

Abella, Irving & Troper, Harold, 1982. None Is too Many, Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, Lester & Orpen Dennys, Publishers: Toronto.

Brown, Dave, 2010. “Charlotte Whitton’s ‘disappearing’ a disgrace; Former Ottawa mayor’s reputation on line,” The Ottawa Citizen, 22 October.

McCarthy, Stuart, 2010. “Recognize Charlotte Whitton’s Dark Side, The Ottawa Citizen, 16 August.

Mullington, Dave, 2010. Charlotte, The Last Suffragette, Refrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing Company.

———————. 2010. “Whitton Deserves a Fair Shake,” The Ottawa Citizen, 25 August.

Rooke, P.T. & Schnell, R.L., 1987. No Bleeding Heart: Charlotte Whitton, A Feminist on the Right, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

The Evening Citizen, 1951. Dr. Whitton Takes Over As Mayor; Gren Goodwin’s Funeral Thursday,” 28 August.

————————-, 1951. “Coulter Favored In Poll,” 29 August.

————————, 1951. “Charlotte Whitton Urges Public Life Partnership at Inter-Club Council for Women,” 15 September.

————————, 1951. “New Mayor’s Program, Dr. Whitton Outlines 5-Point Civic Schedule,” 2 October.

The Ottawa Citizen, 2010. “Jewish Congress opposes Whitton recognition, Group cites role in barring child refugees fleeing Holocaust in Second World War,”14 August 2010.

Image: Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, by Douglas Bartlett, 1954, Library and Archives Canada, CA19128.

The Great Epizootic

12 October 1872

Imagine waking up one morning to discover that all motor vehicles had stopped working—no buses, no cars, no trucks, and no airplanes. People wouldn’t be able to get to work or school unless they lived close by. There would be no deliveries of food and merchandise to stores. Farmers would be left with mounds of rotting produce in the field, while factories would grind to a halt owing to a dearth of spare parts and absent workers. Meanwhile, police, firefighters and other emergency response workers would be unable to respond to urgent calls for help. Government would cease to function (okay, there might be an upside). In short, it would be a nightmare.

Rather than being a script worthy of a Hollywood post-apocalyptic movie, this effectively happened during the autumn of 1872, with disastrous consequences right across North America. It all started about fifteen miles north of Toronto during late September of that year. Horses in the townships of York, Scarborough and Markham began to sicken, coming down with a sore throat, a slight swelling of the glands, a severe hacking cough, a brownish-yellow discharge from the nose, a loss of appetite and general feebleness. Veterinaries hadn’t seen anything like it before. On 30 September, Andrew Smith, veterinary surgeon of the Ontario Veterinary College in Toronto, found fourteen stricken horses in one stable. Three days later, three-quarters of the horses in the district were infected.

The disease quickly spread to Toronto and beyond. It was reported in Ottawa on 12 October, and within a month had reached the east coast. Only Prince Edward Island, cut off from the mainland, escaped the disease. Horses in the United States also began to sicken, the disease striking Buffalo and Detroit by 13 October, and spreading within days to all the major cities on the eastern seaboard. The illness was identified in Chicago on 29 October after a number of horses imported from Toronto a few days earlier fell ill. By mid-March 1873, the disease had reached all the way to California, in the process disrupting a war between the U.S. cavalry and Apache warriors underway in Arizona Territory. With their horses incapacitated, cavalrymen and warriors fought on foot. A year after the Toronto-area outbreak, the illness had spread south to Nicaragua in Central America. The epidemic became known as the “Great Epizootic,” since it was an epidemic than infected animals, or “Canadian horse distemper.”

The horses were ill with equine influenza which we now know is caused by two types of related viruses, equine 1 (H7N7) and equine 2 (H3N8). But at the time, it was widely believed that the disease was due to something in the air. The Ottawa Daily Citizen reported that it was the opinion of a well-known veterinary surgeon that the disease was caused by atmospheric influences, “probably having some connection with [] recent thunderstorms.” The disease was typically not fatal, having a mortality rate of 1-3 per cent though it reached 10 per cent in some areas. However, the morbidity rate approached 100 per cent.  Horses were left incapacitated for up to a month, hobbling transportation across the continent.

Epizootic

Advertisement appearing in The Ottawa Daily Citizen, 21 October 1872

Within ten days of its first appearance in Ottawa, the situation had become serious in the capital, with the disease having “assumed a violent form as to cause considerable anxiety to horse owners.” All public livery stables were affected, as were an increasing number of stables owned by private citizens. By 21 October, veterinaries were dealing with hundreds of cases each day. It was estimated that fewer than 50 horses in the Ottawa region were unaffected. The horse-drawn street railway service that provided public transit from New Edinburgh through downtown to LeBreton Flats was temporarily suspended when all but six of its horses came down with influenza. One died.

The Ottawa Daily Citizen recommended that infected horses should be kept warm in well-ventilated stables and fed soft food, such as oatmeal, boiled oats, or gruel. To promote an appetite, the newspaper suggested that owners try to temp sick horses with a carrot or apple.  It also recommended cleaning out stables with bromo-chloralum, a deodorant and disinfectant. According for an advertisement for the product, it protected against “atmospheric influences which contribute to the spreading of disease.”

Small-town Ottawa got off lightly. Big U.S. cities like New York City and Boston, where horses were crammed together in dirty, multi-storied, urban stables, fared far worse. In New York City, more than 30,000 horses sickened within the course of a few days. At least 1,400 animals died of the disease. City transit failed, a major inconvenience for people living in the suburbs. Businesses and draymen, who transported goods on flat-bed wagons, were reported to be the worst affected. In Boston, oxen were brought in to replace sick horses on some transit lines. Tragically, on 9 November 1872, a fire started in a hoop-skirt factory in downtown Boston. In normal circumstances, it would have been easily contained. However, with all its horses down with the flu, the fire service was unable to respond in time, and the fire quickly got out of control. More than 775 buildings housing in excess of 1,000 businesses were destroyed. As many as twenty people perished.

The economic consequences of the disease as it spread across the continent were immense. In addition to cities coming to a virtual standstill for close to a month, traffic on the important Erie Canal from New York to Buffalo came to a halt as the horses that pulled the barges sickened. Even railways were affected as they ran out of coal that was shipped to rail terminals by horse-drawn wagons. Things got so bad that the United States was forced to import healthy horses from Mexico. Many economists believe that the Great Epizootic  set the stage for the “Panic” of 1873, an economic depression that lasted for six years. The disease underscored the fragility of an animal-dependent economy.

Epizootic Map

Map of North America showing the spread of the epizootic from Judson, A., 1873. “History and Course of the Epizootic Among Horses Upon The North American Continent, 1872-73.”

The epidemic was the first disease whose advance was closely tracked across a continent. In the process, it became abundantly clear that “atmospheric conditions” had nothing to do with the contagion. A study of the disease debunked the idea that “cold, heat, humidity, season, climate, or altitude” or any other “unrecognized atmospheric conditions” had any bearing on the disease. Rather, the disease was spread “by virtue of its communicability.”  Everywhere the disease struck was in contact with other places by means of horses or mules. Supporting this conclusion was the fact that isolated places, such as Prince Edward Island in the east or Vancouver Island in the west, were spared the disease; PEI was cut off due to bad winter weather, while a quarantine against the importation of horses was established on Vancouver Island. This analysis helped overturn the “miasma” theory of disease, which attributed illnesses to poisonous vapours, in favour of the “germ theory” of disease. It also set the stage for a better understanding of how disease is transmitted among humans, something that would become of vital importance less than fifty years later with the spread of the Spanish flu, a similar human disease that conservatively killed fifty million people at the end of World War I.

Sources:

Churcher, C. 2014, “Local Railway Items from Ottawa newspapers—1872,” The Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “Ottawa City Passenger,” 19 October, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1872.pdf.

——————–, 2014, “Local Railway Items from Ottawa newspapers—1872,” The Ottawa Free Press, 1872, “Ottawa City Passenger,” 23 October, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1872.pdf.

Facts on File, 2014. Great Epizootic, Entry 602, http://www.fofweb.com.

Judson, Adoniram, B. M.D., 1873. “History and Course of the Epizootic Among Horses Upon The North American Continent, 1872-73,” American Public Health Association, Public Health, Reports and Papers, 1873.

Heritage Restorations, H2012. “The Great Epizootic of 1872,” SustainLife Quarterly Journal, (Fall), Ploughshares Institute for Sustainable Culture, http://www.heritagebarns.com/the-great-epizootic-of-1872/#.U-NlzfldWSp.

Horsetalk, 2014. “How Equine Flu brought the US to a standstill,” 17 February, http://horsetalk.co.nz/2014/02/17/how-equine-flu-brought-us-standstill/#axzz36dPerMyd.

Murnane, Brigadier Dr. Thomas, 2014. James Law, America’s First Veterinary Epidemiologist and The Equine Influenza Epizootic of 1872, The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation, http://www.lrgaf.org/medical/jameslaw-murnane.htm.

Passing Strangeness, 2009. The Great Epizootic, 13 May, http://passingstrangeness.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/the-great-epizootic/.

The Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “Epizootic,” 21 October.

The Public Ledger, 1872. “The Epizootic in the United States,” 16 November.