Moving Day

25 September 1865

The day had finally arrived. After decades of dithering, political wrangling and construction snafus, the seat of Canada’s capital was finally moving. On 25 September 1865, the first boxes of government effects were loaded onto trains and barges for their one-way journey from Quebec, dubbed “the ancient capital,” to Ottawa. For almost a quarter century since the merger of Upper and Lower Canada to form the Province of Canada in 1841, the colony’s peripatetic capital had moved from Kingston to Montreal, before alternating between Toronto and Quebec. Imagine the cost of picking up sticks every few years as well as the physical and emotional toll on public servants and their families.

In 1857, Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the permanent seat of Canada’s capital after partisan provincial legislators were unable to select a city. Even then, it took two more years for Canadian politicians to ratify her choice and for construction on the new legislature and department buildings to commence. Cost overruns due in part to contracts being awarded on the basis of patronage rather than price, led to further delays. When the money ran out, construction came to a temporary halt before building was resumed under new leadership. But by the beginning of 1865, work had progressed to the point that the government, then resident in Quebec, was encouraged enough to issue an Order-in-Council to set in motion the removal of the government to Ottawa for the following May.

West Block Government Building nearing completion, c. 1865, Library and Archives Canada, ID 3246837.

This date was also missed. However, with 500 workmen on site, the departmental buildings were nearing completion, though the legislature building was not quite as advanced, and the Parliamentary Library to the rear of the legislature building scarcely begun. Press reports suggested that the government was determined to move government employees to Ottawa by the fall. The Bytown Consumer Gas Company, which had won the contract for suppling the government buildings with illuminating gas, was told that it had to lay it pipes and make all arrangements necessary to supply lighting by mid October.

In late July 1865, Thomas D’Arcy McGee visited Ottawa to assess the progress and report back to Cabinet on the possibility of the civil service staff moving to their new quarters by the fall. The Ottawa Citizen reported that he spent virtually all of his time in the city examining and exploring the governmental buildings. He was favourably impressed.

A month later, Jean-Charles Chapais, the Commissioner of Public Works, told the Clerk of the House to have everybody ready for removal to Ottawa immediately after the close of the session expected in a month’s time. Based on Chapais’ announcement, many government employees instructed their agents in Ottawa to immediately secure housing. There were reports, however, that some public servants, fearful of not finding adequate accommodations, had in fact rented houses for a year or more in anticipation of the move.

At the end of August, three senior civil servants, Mr. T. Trudeau, Deputy Commissioner of Public Works, Mr. Himsworth from the Executive Council Office, and Mr. William White, Secretary of the Post Office Department, came down from Quebec to make their own assessment of the state of the buildings.

Ottawa was abuzz with excitement. The big day when the city was to finally become the seat of government was at hand.

On 7 September, Robert Bell, the owner of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, and MP for Russell County in the Provincial legislature, sent a private dispatch to the newspaper informing it that Public Works Department had began to advertise for tenders for moving government effects from Quebec to Ottawa with the move to be completed no later than mid November. Ottawa MP J. M. Currier also reported to Ottawa’s Mayor Dickenson that there was “not the slightest doubt…that the Government will be removed to Ottawa this fall.”

The small announcement that the government’s move to Ottawa was finally underway, Ottawa Citizen, 25 September 1865.

Fourteen bids were received by the government for the removals contract, ranging from $12,000 to $39,000. The winner was the firm of Craig & Vallière, Quebec cabinetmakers.

The first departments to be packed were Crown Lands and the Post Office, with the first load of government effects leaving Quebec bound for Ottawa on 25 September, 1865.  Papers were loaded securely in bound wooden boxes, closely watched by Mr. Trudeau of Public Works who kept a wary eye out for careless packing.

Written papers and departmental books were transported by the Grand Trunk Railway. Office furniture and the Parliamentary Library, part of which had been in storage in Laval University, went by barges towed by steamers to Ottawa. Most of the books were to be held in storage until the new Parliamentary Library was completed a decade later. The government allowed the barges to pass through the Lachine Canal free of tolls on their way down the St. Lawrence River before being pulled down the Ottawa River to the new capital. On 15 October 1865, the Post Office and the Crown Lands Department opened for business in Ottawa. The Globe newspaper reported that “Quebec may be said to be decapitalized.” The last government effects left Quebec for Ottawa on 24 October.

As departments were given orders to pack their belongings in Quebec, the government buildings in Ottawa were being buffed and polished. Disused workshops were dismantled while rubbish was carted away from around the government building in preparation for their new occupants.

Journalists were given a three-hour tour of the buildings, escorted by Mr. Page, the public servant in charge of the Parliament buildings, and Mr. Thomas Fuller, one of the architects of the central legislative building. The reporters were very impressed. They enthused about the large, airy departmental offices, each supplied with water and gas. The reporters’ room, located on the northwest corner of the centre building had a fine view of the Chaudière Falls. The governor general’s office was described as an elegant apartment with windows of stained glass. The universal opinion of the Press Association was that despite some bungling and some chiselling, the buildings were spectacular and that generations of Canadians as yet unborn will be proud of them.

Journalists also remarked that downtown face of Ottawa had been transformed beyond the Parliament buildings. On the principal streets, first class stone buildings had recently been erected. Most of these buildings had been built of blue limestone and were deemed to be both substantial and elegant, with high French windows and projecting sills that gave them an air of “grace and strength.” Ottawa was clearly destined for a great future.

What about the poor civil servants who had to move from the delights of old Quebec to rough hewn, little Ottawa? The Ottawa Citizen opined that “removal to Ottawa [was] not quite synonymous with banishment to a penal colony.”

The government softened the blow by providing allowances to its civil servants. Each employee was given two months salary plus $40 for each adult in the family, with children of twelve years of age considered adults, and $20 for each child and servant. This scale of payment was the same as that given to civil servants when they moved to Toronto in 1855 and to Quebec in 1859. However, the allowances were reduced by 10 per cent to account for the shorter travel distance.

The biggest fear of government employees was finding adequate housing in Ottawa. Not only was it much smaller than Quebec, having a population of only 16,000 compared with more than 60,000 for the ancient capital, but it seems that relatively little new housing had been constructed in anticipation of a flood of new arrivals. Reportedly, this was due to the uncertain timing of when the government would actually move the seat of government to Ottawa.

According to John A. Macdonald, who stopped in Ottawa to see how things were going in late September 1865 while his way to Quebec, upwards of 2,000 people would be moving to Ottawa. He told Ottawa officials that in addition to heads of departments, there were “numerous labourers, workers and employees with small income, who have to look at a shilling twice before they spend it.”

It is not clear, however, who Macdonald was counting in this total. Twenty years later, total federal head office staff (inside service) accounted for fewer than 750 positions. It’s possible Macdonald was counting family members as well. Alternatively, he was counting non-government ancillary jobs that were also moving to Ottawa. For example, George Desbarats, the Queen’s printer, moved his printing business from Quebec to Ottawa. Regardless, for tiny Ottawa, this was a large number of people.

Macdonald expressed his conviction that the people of Ottawa would do all in their power to smooth the path for the new arrivals. He also claimed that according to his inquiries, Ottawa landlords were not taking advantage of the tight housing conditions, and rents remained reasonable. He attributed this to Ottawa landlords taking the long view.

Others were not so sure, especially Quebec-based papers, though perhaps they were biased, keen to point out the worst in the move to Ottawa. The Quebec Chronicle reported (and reproduced in the Ottawa Citizen) that not only were houses few and far between in Ottawa but private boarding was “scarcely to be had” and what rooms that were available costed from eight to ten dollars per week. “What are the single men with small salaries to do at these rates? Or, for that matter, the married ones?” the newspaper worried.

Another report said that a departmental officer paid £45 ($220), inclusive of tax, per year in Quebec but was forced to pay £90 ($440), exclusive of tax, in Ottawa. Ottawa’s taxes were also higher than Quebec’s. Another report in October 1865 claimed that most of the employees who had gone to Ottawa could not obtain “anything approaching a moderately comfortable dwelling without paying exorbitant rates. The shabbiest hovels costed £25 to £85 (roughly $120-$400). (The salary of a male, third-class clerk, which was a middle-rank position, ranged from $600-$1,000 per annum in 1886. Guards made only $500 per annum.)

The Ottawa Citizen rubbished these reports, claiming that rents of eight to ten dollars per week were ridiculous. The newspaper said that a single man could find “good quarters” for $6 per week. Moreover, it contended that private boarding houses were not scarce and that accommodations could be easily found. However, it added the qualifier, as long as people were “not overly fastidious.”

In early 1866, a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen from somebody with the nom de plume “Government Clerk,” said that there had been too much whining by civil servants. He asserted that the inconvenience of moving was less than what it had been after the moves to Toronto in 1855 and to Quebec in 1859. While one could hardly expect that comfortable accommodations at reasonable rates could be immediately found given the large number of persons arriving at once in Ottawa, its landowners demanded less than Toronto and Quebec landowners had in similar circumstances. Ottawa was not a “den of thieves.”

Public servants also had to hope that their personal effects made the journey from Quebec to Ottawa intact. The Globe reported that there had been a series of mysterious robberies leading to a very large quantity of belongings of government employees apparently stolen.

While government employees moved in late in 1885, members of Parliament and the Legislative Council moved later. Like the civil servants, they too had difficulties finding accommodation. Some, like George Brown, the fiery Liberal leader, stayed at the Russell House Hotel when the Legislature was in session. Others found lodgings in rooming houses. Thomas D’Arcy McGee took rooms in the Toronto Hotel, otherwise known as Mrs. Trotter’s Boarding House. He was to die on its front steps, felled by an assassin’s bullet, less than a year after Confederation.

The first session of the Provincial Legislature opened in its new home in Ottawa on Friday, 8 June 1866, when Governor General, the Viscount Monck delivered the speech from the Throne in the Legislative Council. The first two bills introduced by John A. Macdonald and Georges-Étienne Cartier dealt with the apprehension and punishment of Fenian raiders.

Sources:

Department of the Secretary of State, 1886. Civil Service List of Canada, Ottawa, March.

Evening Telegraph & Commercial Advertiser, 1865. “Removal To Ottawa,” 27 January.

Globe, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 26 September.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 29 September.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 16 October.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 21 October.

Ottawa Citizen, 1865. “No title,” 23 May.

——————-, 1865. “Editorial,” 22 July.

——————, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 18 August.

——————, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 29 August.

——————, 1865. “Editorial,” 30 August

——————, 1865. “From Toronto,” 6 September

——————, 1865. “From Quebec,” 8 September.

——————, 1865, “The Late Press Excursion,” 18 September.

——————, 1865. “The Late Press Excursion,” 20 September.

——————, 1865. “Editorial,” 21 September.

——————, 1865. “The Removal to Ottawa,” 23 September.

——————, 1865. “The Removal,” 25 September.

——————, 1865. “No title,” 26 September.

——————, 1865. “No title,” 28 September.

——————, 1865. “The Hon. J.A. Macdonald In Ottawa,” 29 September.

——————, 1865. “Removal,” 18 October.

——————, 1866. “Correspondence,” 22 January.

——————, 1866. “Editorial,” 5 October.

Ottawa Foot Ball Club a.k.a. Rough Riders

19 September 1876

A small advertisement appeared in the Ottawa Daily Citizen in mid-September 1876 inviting those interested in forming a “Foot Ball” club to meet on Monday afternoon, 18 September next, at 4:30pm sharp at the pavilion of the Ottawa Cricket Club located at Rideau Hall, the home of Canada’s Governor General.

Announcing a meeting to form the Ottawa Football Club, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 16 September 1876.

The meeting went on a long time as it was adjourned until the following evening when “a goodly number of gentlemen” assembled in a private room at the Russell House hotel. There, on 19 September 1876, a club to be called the Ottawa Football Club was formed with thirty-four members. The president of the new sports club was Mr. Allan Gilmour, a pioneering Ottawa lumberman for whom Gilmour Street is named.  

There seems to have been little doubt that a team would be established as the uniforms for the Ottawa Club’s footballers had already been ordered from England and were expected to arrive in Ottawa in ten days or less. The jerseys and stockings were in cerise and French grey—the colours of the new team. Their trousers were navy blue knickerbockers.

The new football club wasted no time in getting on the field. The following Saturday, the Ottawa Football Club took on the Aylmer Football Club. The game lasted one and a half hours with Ottawa emerging victorious. The score of the closely contested game was not reported. But Ottawa secured its first victory when Mr. Sherwood kicked the ball through the Aylmer goal.

During much of their early years, the team played in either the Quebec or Ontario Rugby Unions under the name the Ottawa Football Club, or more colloquially known as the “Ottawas” or even the “Senators.” It didn’t get the moniker, the “Rough Riders,” until 1898, the year the team won its first Canadian championship title.

1898 was the year of the Spanish-American War in which the United States intervened on the side of Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish colonial rule. In this conflict, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, later President Roosevelt, came to popular attention as the commander of the “Rough Riders” who distinguished themselves at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Up until then, a rough rider was synonymous with a horse breaker. Roosevelt’s regiment apparently received its nickname owing to many of its members being “bronco busters” from the western plains.

Ottawa Football Club, November 1890, Topley, Library and Archives Canada 3386008.

In mid-October 1898, the sobriquet “Rough Riders” was given to the Ottawa Football Club by disgruntled Hamilton sports journalists following a hard-fought game in Ottawa where the home town team defeated the visiting Hamilton Tigers 9 to 1. According to Hamilton players, the game was one of the roughest they had ever played in. The Hamilton captain said that “Ottawa has three of the dirtiest football players that ever played on a Canadian gridiron.” A news report from Hamilton declared that the “Westerners” (a.k.a. Hamilton) were “foully used in the capital.”

Ottawa had something of a reputation. The previous year, the Ottawa Football Club had been expelled from the Quebec Rugby Football Union in which it had played due to rough play. Ottawa journalists, however, attributed the team’s expulsion to personal spite and a desire to eliminate a contender for the Quebec Union championship. One article in the Journal called the team’s expulsion “the most disgraceful exhibition of unfairness recorded in Canada sports.”

The Toronto Star demanded an investigation into Hamilton’s allegations of Ottawa dirty playing saying that “either Ottawa does play a foul game, or that its disappointed rivals are not above the trick of exciting popular opinion against the team to such an extent that it may be expelled from the Ontario Union.” According to the Ottawa Journal, one aspect of the game in which the Ottawa Club was very weak was its lack of squealers. It also called the Hamilton claims “a very bad libel on truth.”

The rematch was held in Hamilton at the end of October. Again, Ottawa vanquished the Tigers. This time, there were few complaints. The Toronto Star reported that while fairly rough, “it was not a dirty game.” Even the Hamilton Herald thought that the Rough Riders’ [italics added] victory was well-deserved and that the team was forgiven for their treatment of the Tigers in the earlier game in Ottawa. This is possibly the first time that the Ottawa team was referred to as the Rough Riders.

As an interesting aside, the Montreal Herald said that the Ottawa team was “composed of heavy men.” But the average weight of an Ottawa footballer was only 169 pounds—very light by today’s standards. Frank McGee, the nephew of D’Arcy McGee, the famed “father of Confederation,” who played for both the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Ottawa Senators hockey team, weighed in at only 143 pounds. Today, the average weight of a CFL football player is roughly 230 pounds, while the average NFLer weighs close to 250 pounds.

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, soprano, whose Troubadours entertained Ottawa and Hamilton footballers at the Russell Theatre, October, 1898, Wikipedia.

Despite the supposed roughness of the game, there was no apparent animosity between the two teams. They went out partying together after the game and had a “good time” at the Russell Theatre where the footballers occupied two boxes to watch the Troubadours, courtesy of the manager of the Troubadours and Mr. Drowne, the theatre’s manager. Between acts, the footballers sang songs.

The Troubadours were an African-American musical and acrobatic group led by Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones. A New England Conservatory-trained soprano, she was the highest paid African-American singer of her age, performing for US presidents and the Royal Family.

The moniker Rough Riders given to the team by Hamilton journalists as a poke at Ottawa’s alleged rough play, was adopted by the Ottawa Club. Just days later, Ottawa footballer Fred Chittick showed off his Rough Rider cufflinks that were 1 1/8 inches in diameter, bearing the figure of a rough rider with a football enclosed in a border of red, white and black.

Along with the new name came new colours. While the original team colours had been cerise and French grey, at some point Ottawa footballers began to play in black and white. This posed a problem for the 1898 season when Ottawa shifted to the Ontario Rugby Football Union after its expulsion from the Quebec Union, as the Osgoode team from Toronto also played in black and white uniforms. Ottawa opted to dress in new colours, wearing heavy white jerseys with scarlet sleeves and scarlet stockings. The new outfits went on display in Young Brothers’ windows—a local store. There is no mention of black in the initial newspaper descriptions, but presumably the pants were in that colour.

Ottawa won the 1898 Ontario Rugby Football Union title as well as the Inter-Collegiate Championship when it vanquished the Toronto University’s Varsity squad 7 to 3—according to the Journal the team’s “greatest and most glorious victory.” The game was vicious. The Varsity men “liberally used knee or anything else to stop Ottawa runners.”  But notwithstanding the provocation, the Journal reported that the Rough Riders played a “clean, square game without a sign of temper.”  This win, in front of 2,000 fans, set the stage for the Dominion Championships between the Ottawa Rough Riders and Ottawa College, the champion of the Quebec Rugby Football Union for two years in succession. Ottawa College’s garnet and grey colours are today the colours of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Rough Riders’ Harvey Pulford who suffered a broken collar bone in the Dominion Championship with Ottawa College, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 25 November 1898.

The inter-city, Dominion championship was held at the Metropolitan Grounds. The grandstand and bleachers were packed with more than 3,000 rabid football fans. In a bruising contest in which the tackling was described as “vicious and in some cases brutal,” the perhaps aptly named Rough Riders won with a score of 11 to 1. But the College team gave as good as they got.  Rough Riders Harvey Pulford and Weldy Young received a broken collar bone and a concussion, respectively. (Weldy Young later left Ottawa to try his luck in the Klondike gold rush. Young, who like Frank McGee and Harvey Pulford also played for the Ottawa Senators hockey club, was to captain the Dawson City Nuggets, the team that challenged the Ottawa club for the Stanley Cup in 1905.)

Over the seven-game, 1898 football season, the Rough Riders went undefeated, scoring 188 points to only 24 points against.

In early December, a celebratory banquet for the team was held at the Russell House Hotel, hosted by its eccentric manager, François Xavier St. Jacques. More than 200 persons were invited to the feast, including Major Bigham. The dining room was decorated with streamers in the team’s red, white and black colours. In show of friendship, the Hamilton Tigers’ colours of yellow and black were also on display. Each table was decorated with bouquets of carnations, roses, mums and ferns. The menu featured such dishes as oysters à la scrimmage, boiled Saguenay salmon (Hold on the line) with referee sauce and Spec-“taters.” Also served were Stuffed young Vermont turkey (Tackled on the Run) with offside green beans and “scragged” potatoes. The meal ended with the “Sweets of Victory” consisting of a choice between umpire pudding with grandstand sauce and an apple turnover with a sauce “ruled off.”

In the following speeches, Fred Colson, President of the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Association noted that “Ottawa had defied the Tigers in their jungle, by Hamilton’s mole hill which was called a mountain.” President Seybold of the Ottawa Club said that the team was “called the Rough Riders like Roosevelt’s men.”

The 1898 Dominion Championship was the first of three Dominion championships and nine Grey Cup titles that the Ottawa Rough Riders were to win during their long, storied career. The club folded for good in 1996. Today, The Ottawa RedBlacks wear the historic red, black and white colours.

Sources:

McAuley, Jim, 2016. Inside The Huddle: Rough Riders To Redblacks, John Ruddy, publisher.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1876. “Ottawa Football Club,” 20 September.

————————–, 1876. “Football,” 25 September.

————————-, 1898. “No title,” 28 September.

————————–, 1898. “Tigers Trounced By The Ottawas,” 17 October.

————————–, 1898. “The Rough Riders In Championship,” 25 November.

————————–, 1898. “Rough Riders At the Festive Board,” 10 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1897. “The Football Trouble,” 12 November.

——————-, 1898. “Ottawas’ New Uniforms,” 28 September.

——————-, 1898. “The Ottawa Suits,” 6 October.

——————-, 1898. “The Tigers Were Downed,” 17 October.

——————-, 1898. “Should Be Investigated,” 19 October.

——————-, 1898. “Where Ottawas Are Very Weak,” 19 October.

——————-, 1898. “The Toronto Star Man Can Always See Two Sides Of A Game,” 18 October.

——————-, 1898. “Ottawas Need To Be Careful,” 20 October.

——————-, 1898. “It Was Great Football,” 31 October.

——————-, 1898. “Seen Through Other Eyes,” 1 November.

——————-, 1898. “Rough Rider Buttons,” 12 November.

——————-, 1898. “Ottawas Down ‘Varsity,” 21 November.

——————-, 1898. “Rough Riders Win A Great Struggle,” 21 November.

Organized Labour Praises Conservative Prime Minister

3 September 1872

The notion that organized labour might celebrate a Conservative prime minister seems far-fetched. Think of Stephen Harper being feted by the Canadian Labour Congress. Doesn’t sound particularly likely. But something like that occurred in 1872 when Ottawa trades unions held a torchlit procession in honour of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, the leader of the Conservative Party.

Behind this incredible event was the growing trades’ union movement in Canada and their push for a nine-hour work-week. Typically, people laboured at least ten hours each day, including Saturdays. But, starting in Hamilton, and later spreading to Toronto, Montreal and other major cities, trade unionists in early 1872 took up the call for a shorter work-week. A major supporter of the movement was the Toronto Trades Assembly (TTA) which had been formed the previous year, consisting of fourteen unions, including the important Toronto Typographical Society.

At this time, union activity in Canada was essentially illegal, even though trade unions had been active in the country for at least forty years. Prior to 1872, Canadian law viewed any group of workers banding together to seek higher wages as a conspiracy to restrain trade. This was illegal under the Canadian criminal code.

March in support of the Nine-Hour Movement, Hamilton, Canadian Illustrated News, 8 June 1872.

In March 1872, the Toronto Typographical Society submitted a range of demands, including the introduction of a nine-hour work-day to the master printers, a.k.a. the Toronto newspapers, including The Globe, owned and edited by George Brown, the fiery journalist and Liberal politician. At the same time, the TTA organized a massive demonstration of more that 10,000 workers in support of the nine-hour work-day. This was to be a major test of the Nine-Hour Work-Day movement.

All but one newspaper rejected the demands, and the master printers retaliated. In The Globe, Brown wrote: “[I]t is impossible that an organized system from without can be allowed to be brought to bear on an establishment to coerce higher wages, or internal arrangements, contrary to the wishes of the proprietors.” Striking union members were fired, and fourteen leaders of the Toronto demonstration were charged for restraint of trade under the existing anti-union legislation. The judge’s preliminary ruling went against the strikers. He said that the facts disclosed by both parties were sufficient to establish guilt: workers had combined; the accused were members of the combination; and a strike had occurred. A second hearing was organized for early May 1872.

The very day set for the second hearing, Macdonald’s Conservative government introduced The Trades Unions’ Act, 1872. The bill, which was modelled after similar British legislation passed the previous year, provided that “the purpose of a trade union shall not, by reason merely they are in restraint of trade, be deemed to be unlawful so as to render any member of a union liable to criminal prosecution for conspiracy.” While giving with one hand, the Conservative government seemingly took with the other. It also introduced a second bill, An Act to Amend the Criminal Law relating to Violence, Threats and Molestation, that made picketing an offence.

In the House of Commons, Macdonald introduced the draft legislation, saying that “the English mechanic who came to this country, as well as the Canadian mechanic, was subject to penalties imposed by statutes that had been repealed in England, as opposed to the spirit of the liberty of the individual.” He added that the bill was the same in principle as the law in England and provided the same freedom of action and the same right to combine. He intimated that the issue of trade unions was under discussion in Britain and should the law be revised in that country, Canada would take similar steps. He also expressed concern that without parallel Canadian legislation, British workers would be deterred from emigrating to Canada.

At the second reading of the proposed legislation a month later, only one member of Parliament spoke against the bill, regretting the “late hour of submitting the bill,” just weeks before the end of that session of Parliament. Macdonald responded that there was nothing in the bill that “could do injustice to either employers or employees” and that a similar bill had passed without dissent in England as “the old law was too oppressive to be endorsed by free men.” He added that recent events in Toronto “had shown the necessity of adopting some amendment here.” Alexander Mackenzie, a senior Liberal Party member who later became prime minister, said he saw no reason for the objection.

The Trades Unions’ Act, 1872 as well as the amendment to the Criminal Code received Royal Assent on 14 June 1872, hours before the Governor General closed the fifth session of the first Parliament of the Dominion.

Organized labour was jubilant and showered Macdonald with praise, notwithstanding the amendment to the Criminal Code that made striking illegal. The fact that trades unions had been legitimized was sufficient. Ottawa trade unions organized a massive parade in honour of Sir John on his return from the western part of Ontario where workingmen in London, Hamilton and Toronto had already expressed their appreciation. Reportedly, it was the first political demonstration ever made by Ottawa labour.

After dusk on 3 September 1872, members of various trades unions in the capital along with the Fire Department marched to Macdonald’s home on Rideau Street where the Premier was escorted to a horse-drawn carriage. Also in the carriage were the Hon. Mr. Samuel Tilley, Minister of Customs, Joseph Currier, the Conservative member for Ottawa, Ottawa Mayor Martineau, as well as the Chairman of the unions’ welcoming committee, Mr. D. O’Donaghue.

The dignitaries were driven between two processional columns of uniformed Ottawa firemen bearing lit torches. A man holding the Union Jack led the parade, followed by the Band Brigade of the Garrison Artillery, the Stone Cutters’ Union and friends, the Typographical Union and friends, the Marshal (mounted), the Bricklayers’ and Masons’ Union and friends, the Plasterers’ Union and friends, the Carpenters’ Union and friends, Gowlan’s Band, and finally the carriages. Following the parade were an immense crowd of well wishers.

At roughly 9:00pm, Macdonald arrived at City Hall on Elgin Street. The crowd was called to order with the firemen standing in front of the building to provide light. O’Donaghue explained to the crowd why they had assembled in case anybody might still be unaware. He said that there previously had been a law that provided that no more than three men could combine together to form a trade union. This law prevented workingmen from telling employers the price they would be willing to sell their labour. “To say it was a great infamy to the workingmen was putting it very mildly,” he said. He noted the recent events in Toronto and praised Macdonald for giving workers equal rights and privileges to those enjoyed by workingmen in Britain. Looking at the assembled crowd, he added that he never knew that there were so many workingmen in Ottawa, and he looked forward to the day when workingmen could put a man of their own class in Parliament to represent them.

Another union man then read out a letter addressed to Macdonald expressing their gratitude and welcoming Sir John back to Ottawa.

Macdonald then stepped to the front to thank the members of the trade unions. He said “The unwise and oppressive action, pursued towards some of the workingmen of Toronto in causing them to be arrested as criminals, forced my attention on the necessity of immediately repealing laws altogether unsuited to and unworthy of this age, and opposed to the first principles of freedom.”

After Macdonald’s speech, many others stepped forward to say a few words. Samuel Tilly said that his first political speech made in 1848 was on behalf of a mechanic who was seeking to represent the men of St. John against a doctor and a lawyer. Joseph Currier, who was a prominent and wealthy lumberman as well as MP for Ottawa, claimed to have always been a workingman. Mr. Williams, the Secretary of the Trades Association of Toronto, said the demonstration indicated the gratitude felt by the workingmen of the Dominion for the services Macdonald had rendered them. Mayor Martineau followed with similar words in French.

The procession then reformed and escorted Sir John back to his residence.

Looking back at these events, many historians have cast doubt on how committed Macdonald was to the trade union movement. It was likely that he had ulterior motives. In a 1984 journal article that studied the 1872 trade union legislation, Mark Chartrand agreed that the growth of trade unionism in Canada had made a number of the statutes on the legal books “anachronistic and oppressive.” However, if it were Macdonald’s intention to remove shackles on the trade union movement, he argued that the 1872 changes “did little,” calling them “a virtually sterile concession to the trade union movement.” Other restrictive laws, including the amendment to the Criminal Code to ban picketing, remained in force. Consequently, while unions were legal, the means by which unions could achieve their purposes remained illegal. There were also provincial statutes. In Ontario, under the Master and Servant Act an employee could not refuse to go to work and had to obey the employer during the period of an employment contract on penalty of a fine or imprisonment. The act was often used to stop workers from organizing to obtain better working conditions. This act was not repealed until 1877.

Instead of bettering the lot of the working man, Macdonald was likely strongly influenced by the approaching election held after the parliamentary session ended in June 1872. The political winds were shifting against the Conservatives, so attracting the workingman’s vote was an astute political manoeuvre.

An even more compelling motivation for the legislation was to metaphorically stick his finger in the eye of his long-time political opponent, George Brown, the editor and owner of The Globe newspaper who was in the thick of the fight with the Toronto Typographical Society and its demand for a nine-hour work-day. Macdonald and Brown had been rivals for decades. The two had even fought over the location of the capital of Canada during the 1850s, with Macdonald calling Brown disloyal for not accepting Queen Victoria’s choice of Ottawa.

Regardless of his motivations and the minimal practical changes to Canadian trade union legislation, Macdonald gained the goodwill of workingmen. It might have been enough to tip the balance of the 1872 election in favour of the Conservative Party which retained power, albeit just—the first minority government.

Workingmen were less successful in achieving their aims. The printers’ strike in Toronto failed. The quest for nine-hour work-day was over—for now. According to the Hamilton Standard, The Globe had triumphed over its workers. The newspaper was now a non-union shop. In the opinion of the Hamilton newspaper, the printers’ strike had been ill-advised and had only led to considerable pecuniary losses.

While the Hamilton Standard may have been correct in a narrow sense, the printer’s strike marked an important step in the fight by organized labour in Canada for recognition, and their struggle for better wages and working conditions.

Sources:

Canadian Labour Congress, 2021. 1872: The fight for a shorter work-week.

Chartrand, Mark, 1984. “The First Canadian Trade Union Legislation: An Historical Perspective,” Public Law, 1 January.

The Globe, 1872. “Printers’ Strike,” 22 March.

————-, 1872. “The Printers’ Strike,” 26 March.

Hamilton Standard, 1872. As reported in The Globe under “Canada,” 15 June.

House of Commons Debates, 1872. Fifth Session, First Parliament, 7 May.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “No title,” 15 May.

————————–, 1872. “The Premier, Grand Ovation by the Workmen,” 4 September.

Ottawa’s First Labour Day

1 September 1890

In Canada, Labour Day, held on the first Monday of September, is the fourth and last statutory holiday of the summer season—for Ontarians, after Victoria Day in late May, Canada Day on July 1st and the Civic holiday in early August.  As such, it also informally marks the end of summer with most kids, those in French school boards being the big exception, heading back to class on the following Tuesday. It is typically a day for family leisure activities—a last dip in the lake before heading home, a barbecue in the backyard or in a park, or a trip to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  In bygone years, however, the holiday had a deeper significance. Its purpose was to celebrate the achievements of workers, especially those of organized labour.

Some historians contend that Labour Day celebrations had their origins in the parades and demonstrations held in support of a nine-hour work-week during the early 1870s, like the ones organized in Hamilton and Toronto in 1872. Two American men are believed to have first conceived the idea of a statutory holiday in honour of the “labouring classes”—Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labour Union of New York. Both men appeared in the first US Labor Day parade held in New York on 5 September 1882.

Here is Canada, organized labour with links to US unions, such as the Knights of Labor, began to lobby for similar workers’ celebrations and the creation of a workers’ holiday. They received official support in 1889 with the report of the Royal Commission on the Relations between Labour and Capital that recommended the establishment of a statutory holiday throughout Canada to be known as Labour Day.

Ottawa celebrated its first official Labour Day on Monday, 1 September 1890, a day that Mayor Erratt declared a municipal holiday. The Ottawa Journal indicated that this was not only a first for Ottawa, but “the first holiday of this kind in this country.” The capital’s trade unions were enthusiastic participants. All participated in the morning parade, some sporting their union badges and most likely dressed in their Sunday best. However, members of the Typographical Union voted down a resolution in favour of its members wearing “plug” hats in the parade. Plug hats were formal wear, such as bowler and top hats. It is likely that such heard gear was rejected on class grounds; they were not suitable for a parade in honour of the working classes. The afternoon was devoted to a picnic, dancing, and athletic events.

Not all people were keen participants in the Labour Day events. In the lead-up to the holiday, one alderman at city hall grumbled about firemen participating in the parade, arguing that they were there to put out fires, not parade in streets. Chief McVeity, the head of the Ottawa Police Department, objected to his department participating in a tug-of-war contest with their Dominion Police Force counterparts. At the last moment, a substitute tug-of-war contest between the Ottawa and Hull Fire Departments was arranged.

Advertisement, Ottawa Journal, 26 August 1890.

The organized events were a very masculine affair. There is no reference to women participating in the parade. The Ottawa Journal did note that there would be “plentiful provisions” for the care of the wives of union members and their families. Women also didn’t participate in the afternoon sporting contests either. Instead, they were invited to a needle-threading contest—how many needles could they thread in five minutes.

Monday, 1 September 1890 dawned a perfect day. Many homes and businesses were decorated for the event. Canadian, British, French and US flags flew along the parade route. While the Mayor had declared the day to be a holiday, not all firms were closed for the full day. Bryson, Graham & Company, the big, retail store on Sparks Street, held a mammoth “Trades and Labour Sale” from 7:00am to 1:00pm on that first Labour Day. It did close for the afternoon to allow its employees to participate in the scheduled athletic events.

Union members participating in the big parade were encourage to get to the union offices early in preparation for the walk to Cartier Square where the parade marshals would assign them their position in the procession, scheduled to depart at 8:15 am sharp. The order of the route took parade participants from Cartier Square at Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue) to Nicholas Street, into the Byward Market area, to St. Patrick Street, along Sussex Street, back to Rideau, then to Sparks Street, to Bank, Wellington and Lyon Streets, before returning to Cartier Square, via Sparks, Bank, and Maria Streets.

The Labour Day Procession was as follows:

First Division

Grand Marshal

Governor General’s Foot Guard’s Band

Deputy Grand Marshal

Standard Bearer

Capital Assembly—Knights of Labor

Carpenters’ Union

Ottawa Typographical Union

Pressmen’s Union No. 5

Bookbinders’ Union

Brick Layers’ and Masons Union

Second Division

Deputy Grand Marshal

Barrett’s Band

General Labourers’ Union

Plasterers’ Union

Frontenac Assembly—Knights of Labor

Painters’ Union

Ottawa Assembly (Plumbers’ Union)—Knights of Labor

Rideau Assembly (Cabinet Makers)—Knights of Labor

General Trades

Contractors’ Association of Ottawa

Trade and Labour Council

Third Division

Deputy Grand Marshal

La Lyre Canadienne

Ottawa Fire Brigade, including steamer “Conqueror,” extension ladder truck, hook & ladder truck, and different reels

Butchers’ Union (mounted)

Hackmen’s Union with visiting dignitaries, including Mayor Erratt

Roughly two thousand men marched in the parade which took almost a half hour to pass a given spot on the route. Of all the marchers, the Pressmen were stood out as they carried Japanese parasols. The also sported buttonhole bouquets and silver badges. As well, the men printed handbills, which they distributed to the crowds of well-wishers watching the parade, using a small Gordon job press.

In the afternoon there were an athletic competition and a dance at Lansdowne Park. More than five thousand people attended with the grand stand overflowing. Music was provided by the McGillicuddy’s Orchestra. Those who didn’t want to dance could visit an art show also held at Lansdowne Park.

Route of the 1890 Labour Day Procession

The sporting events were very popular. There were foot faces, hackman races, bicycle races, a butchers’ cart race, a lacrosse ball throwing contest and, as noted earlier, a tug of war contest between the Ottawa and Hull fire brigades. For those who were wondering about the needle-threading contest, sixty-three women entered the event with Miss O’Neill emerging victorious, having threaded 35 needles in five minutes. Miss Raney and Miss O’Meara were tied for second place with 31 needles. In the tie breaker, Miss Raney won with 39 needles threaded in five minutes.

The finale of the sporting events was the greasy pig contest. In the midst of a mob of several hundred men, a greased pig was released. Whoever caught it, kept it. After a long struggle, the terrified porker was finally captured by a French-speaking man. However, the battle was not yet over. More than thirty policemen had to intervene to stop a fight and to permit the winner to make off with his prize.

The first Labour Day was considered to be a great success. According to the Ottawa Journal, men of every nationality, creed, political party and social class participated harmoniously in the parade “on the basis of fraternity, mutual assistance and dependence.” The Ottawa Citizen said that “Ottawa had ever reason to be proud.” Its labour organizations showed that they were “second to none in their enthusiasm, pride in their various callings, and their numerical strength.” The newspaper heartily thanked the organizers of the day’s events.

In 1894, the government of Conservative Prime Minister John Thompson officially made the first Monday in the month of September a statutory holiday called “Labour Day.” The Act of Parliament received Royal Assent just days after a similar bill in the United States was signed by President Grover Cleveland.

Sources:

Ottawa Citizen, 1890. “A Grand Demonstration.” 2 September.

——————, 1890. “Labour Has A Holiday,” 2 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1890. “Laborers Organized,” 30 July.

——————-, 1890. “Labor Day,” 18 August.

——————-, 1890. “The Labor Day Procession,” 25 August.

——————-, 1890. “The Labor Day Parade,” 26 August.

——————-, 1890. “Labor Day Arrangements,” 26 August.

——————, 1890. “Labor Day, » 30 August.

——————, 1890. “Ottawa’s First Labor Day,” 2 September.

——————, 1890. “Labor’s Great Day,” 2 September.

——————, 1890. “The Sports and Races,” 2 September.

Royal Commission, 1889. Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations Between Labor and Capital in Canada.

US Department of Labor, 2022. History of Labor Day.

Larocque’s

11 September 1971

The early 1970s was a cruel time for Ottawa’s locally-owned department stores. Familiar companies, which had serviced Ottawa residents for generations, seemed to fall like nine pins, replaced by national chain stores. Freiman’s on Rideau Street was bought out by The Hudson Bay Company. Murphy-Gamble’s, the grand old lady of Sparks Street, became a Simpsons. Meanwhile Eaton’s moved into the Ottawa market, launching an anchor store in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre in Nepean. But perhaps no loss was felt as badly as the closure of Larocque’s, the Lowertown emporium that catered primarily to Ottawa’s francophone community. On 11 September 1971, the Ottawa Journal revealed that the venerable store, a fixture at the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie Streets for more than fifty years, would be closing its doors for good at the end of the year. Staff had already been given their notices. It was the end of an era.

Larocque Department Story, Fall 1971, Going out of business, Ottawa Jewish Archives

The store began its career in 1909 when Joseph Alphonse Larocque launched his eponymous dry-goods business at 270 Dalhousie Street. It was a small store, just 400 square feet, but it was a great success. In 1911, Larocque expanded, buying out the stock of the Parisian Milliners, a neighbouring store on Dalhousie Street, at just over 50 cents on the dollar. He advertised hats and feathers for sale at bargain prices. In March 1913, the J. A. Larocque Company supported the inaugural issue of Le Droit, Ottawa’s French-language newspaper. The store advertised that it had Japanese silks for sale in all colours at only 21 cents a yard, and was the only distributor in Lowertown of Butterick Fashions’ dress patterns. The store also noted that it was the sole distributor of the “famous” D & A corsets made by the Dominion Corset Manufacturing Company of Montreal; all sizes were available. A few months later, the Ottawa Citizen reported that J.A. Larocque was “an energetic businessman who gives personal direction to his business.” The newspaper added that his department store had made “rapid strides in the business world of late,” and that his window displays indicated the high quality of his merchandise.

J. A. Larocque Company, advertisement, Le Droit, 27 March 1913.

Less than ten years later, J.A. Larocque was ready to enter the major leagues of Ottawa department stores. In 1922, he began to assemble parcels of land on east side of Dalhousie Street between Rideau and George Streets. The final piece of the puzzle was his purchase of an irregular piece of property owned by the City of Ottawa. The city had acquired the lot when it widened Dalhousie Street. Larocque’s initial offer of $6,000 didn’t meet the city’s reserve price and was rejected. However, his second bid of $8,000 was accepted. In total, Larocque paid slightly more than $60,000 for the land on which he could build a modern, three-story department store.

Building the new department store may have been a financial stretch for Alphonse Larocque. At the same time as he was purchasing the lot from the City of Ottawa, he downsized his operations at 270 Dalhousie citing excessive rent on half of his premises. He announced a big sale and moved what was left of his stock into the store’s annex which was located around the corner at 119 Murray Street.

Regardless, however, work proceeded on his new department store a few blocks south on Dalhousie Street. The building was designed by architects Millson, Burgess and Hazelgrove, with Alex Garvock acting as the general contractor. Construction began in early August 1922, a little later than planned, but was completed and ready for business by mid-May 1923. The three-story building with a basement was built at a cost of roughly $200,000. Including land and stock, the enterprise had a value of $500,000—a huge sum of money in those days. Given its corner location, it had the most display windows of any Ottawa department store, with sixteen on Dalhousie Street, and two on each of Rideau and George Streets. There were three entrances, with the main entrance on Dalhousie Street. Conveniently, all Bank Street and St Patrick Street streetcars stopped outside its door, while Somerset Street cars brough customers to within a block’s walk. Advertising copy of the time boasted of the store’s home-like atmosphere and its courteous and experienced staff of fifty bilingual clerks.

Announcing the opening of J. A. Larocque’s new store at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets, Ottawa Citizen, 11 May 1923.

The business did not thrive. Unlike its competitors, it did little advertising. This was probably a sign of weakness rather than strength. Making a virtue out of a likely necessity, the store posted a small advertisement in the Ottawa Citizen in November 1924 describing itself as “the store that does not advertise.” The stored clamed that it devoted the savings from not advertising to lowering prices. It was not enough. J.A. Larocque Company Ltd went bankrupt in September 1926. Its goods were sold off at 46 ½ cents on the dollar.

The department store went into liquidation and was purchased by Vineberg Goodman & Company, a Nova Scotian department store chain that had begun operations in 1904. By 1927, it had outlets in New Glasgow and Truro. It subsequently added an Antigonish branch. Vineberg, Goodman & Co. thought highly of itself. In a 1930 advertisement placed in the Ottawa Citizen, the company claimed to be a business of “transcendent importance in the Maritime Provinces.”

The firm was owned by Harry and Sol Goodman of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and the Vineberg family of Montreal. The Vinebergs were related by marriage to Harry Goodman. In January 1927, the new owners, changed the name of their new Ottawa business from J.A. Larocque & Company to Larocque Registered, thereby conserving the well-known local brand of the business.

Bankruptcy Sale, Le Droit, 23 September, 1926.

Despite the change in ownership, Larocque’s remained true to its French-Canadian heritage, continuing to offer bilingual service to its customers. In October 1930, on its 27th anniversary (the anniversary of the 1904 start of the Vineberg, Goodman & Company in Nova Scotia), it sponsored a Larocque radio show of French-Canadian folk songs and dance music. The program featured the Larocque Orchestra over CNRO, Ottawa’s radio station owned by the Canadian National Railway, the forerunner of CBO radio.

In 1931, the Goodmans and the Vinebergs went their separate ways, with the Vineberg family taking sole control of Larocque Registered in Ottawa. That year, Joseph Hirsch Vineberg moved to Ottawa with his family from Montreal to become the manager of Larocque Registered. Two years later, he took full control of the company.

Coincidently, that same year Alphonse Larocque staged a comeback, launching another J.A. Larocque department store. The new store opened at 269 Dalhousie Street at the corner of Murray Street, just across the street from where he started his original business in 1909. Confusingly, there were now two Larocque department stores on the same street within just a few blocks of each other. However, in 1934, the second J. A. Larocque Company failed. Ignominiously, its stock again bought out by the Vineberg family and sold off at bargain prices at Larocque Registered at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets.

Larocque Registered prospered for more than four decades with its principal clientele being Lowertown’s francophone community. When Joseph Vineberg retired in 1947, control of the firm passed to his sons, Nordau S. Vineberg and Lloyd V. Vineberg who became president and vice-president of the company, respectively. Joseph Vineberg passed away in December 1967.

Four years later, Larocque’s also passed away from Ottawa’s retail scene, its loss a shock to its largely francophone staff and clientele. Even as late as mid-September 1971, the department store was still promoting its charge accounts. The Vineberg brothers explained that Larocque’s was caught in a retail no-man’s land, too small to compete with the national chain stores that were entering the Ottawa market, but too big to compete with specialized boutiques.

Vacant for a few months, the old Larocque store became for a while the temporary home of Caplan’s Department store, which was in mid-1972 in the process of a “million-dollar expansion” behind its main store on Rideau Street.

The former Larocque Department Store, now Mercury Court, May 2019, Google Streetview.

Between 1989 and 1993, the former Larocque Department Store, was remodelled and modernized by Barry Padolsky Associates Inc., and is now the home of this architectural firm. Called Mercury Court, the north end of the roof of the building is adorned with the “flying Mercury” weathervane that used to be located on the top of the Sun Life Assurance building at the corner of Sparks and Bank Streets. Mercury Court is also the home of businesses and the Embassy of Sweden.

Sources:

Doors Open Ontario, 2020.Barry Padolsky & Associates, Mercury Court,  https://www.doorsopenontario.on.ca/en/ottawa/barry-padolsky-associates-inc.

Le Droit, various issues.

Jewish Federation of Ottawa, 2020. Vineberg Family Fonds, https://www.cjhn.ca/en/permalink/cjhn86800.

Ottawa Jewish Archives, 2014. Larocque Department Store, 1923-1971, Facebook, 20 August.

Ottawa Citizen, “no title,” 25 September 1911.

——————, “Assignees Wind Up Several Small Business Firms,” 30 September.

——————, 1913. “J.A. Larocque,” 5 December.

——————, 1922. “Sale of City Property,” 19 April.

——————, 1922. “Announcement,” 19 April.

——————, 1924. “The Store That Does Not Advertise,” 19 November.

——————, 1930. “27th Anniversary Sale,” 7 October.

——————, 1971. “Enter the giants,” 25 November.

——————, 1972. “Caplan’s moves temporarily into old Larocque store,” 29 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1923. “Ottawa’s New Department Store,” 19 May.

——————-, 1971. “Ottawa department store to close,” 11 September.

Saltwire.com, 2017. Goodman Family added to Wall of Fame, https://www.saltwire.com/news/local/goodman-family-added-to-wall-of-fame-156351/.

Urbsite, 2020. J.A. Larocque’s Dalhousie Duel, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2020/01/12-days-of-department-stores-8-ja.html.

Vineberg, Robert, 2021. The Store, A Personal History of Laroque’s, Historical Society of Ottawa, forthcoming Bytown Pamphlet.

Ottawa: Canada’s Oil and Gas Capital?

17 September 1889

The report spread like wild fire through Ottawa. Oil! Black gold was gushing in a powerful stream at a well dug just a couple miles south of Parliament Hill.

Dollar signs must have danced in the heads of Ottawa residents at the rumour. Even in those days before the automobile, the demand for petroleum products, such as kerosene, was strong. Fortunes had been made at Black Creek, subsequently known as Oil Springs, in Lambton county in southwestern Ontario when oil had been discovered in commercial quantities in 1858, and in nearby Petrolia a few years later.  Vast amounts of money were also being made in Pennsylvania where oil had been first struck in 1859, followed by copious amounts of natural gas in the 1880s. There was so much gas that it was being piped unmetered to factories and homes in Pittsburgh. In the process, clean-burning gas displaced dirty coal transforming the once grimy and sooty city—at least until the gas wells started to lose pressure. There was no mechanical means of pumping the gas through pipelines; everything relied on natural pressure.

Ottawa’s “oil strike” occurred on 17 September 1889 at a bog on Tom Hickey’s property on the border of Stewarton and the Glebe (roughly today just south of the Queensway, east of Bank Street). Here, a company had been digging an exploratory well for natural gas. A Citizen journalist rushed out to cover the event. He found that “there was more gush about the report than about the well.” Instead of seeing black gold spewing from the 72-foot high drilling derrick which had been installed at the site, he was shown a small bottle of oily liquid by Alderman Askwith, one of the shareholders in the drilling company, who had also excitedly rushed out to the site on hearing the news. It wasn’t much. One skeptical observer remarked that “ten cents worth of kerosene would produce the present appearance.” Excitement quickly turned to disappointment.

Advertisement, Ottawa Citizen, 3 May 1888.

The story behind Ottawa’s supposed oil and natural gas boom began to the east of the city some months earlier at La Mer Bleue, a bog situated roughly thirty kilometres east of the Capital, today owned by the National Capital Commission. Reportedly, somebody had discovered natural gas emanating from the Mer Bleue bog. When a match was applied, the gas burnt. Most likely, the person had found methane leaching from rotting plant material.

Investors convinced themselves that the gas was available for tapping in profitable amounts. They purchased 300 acres of land in Gloucester Township out on the Montreal Road, including the Mer Bleue property, for $22,000. If sufficient gas at a satisfactory pressure was found, they envisaged two pipelines being laid to Ottawa to carry gas for heating and lighting at an estimated cost of about $300,000. An expert from the Pittsburgh Natural Gas Company was called in to investigate the prospects of the venture.

In late 1887, the investors formed the Capital Gas Company, and was granted a by-law, No. 805, from Ottawa City Council to allow them to dig up the roads to lay pipes to bring natural gas into the city. They expected the project would be finished within two years.

The principals of the company included Mr. G.B. Pattee of Perley & Patee, the lumber company, Mr. Maclean of Maclean, Roger & Company, Mr. Thomas Wallace and two American entrepreneurs, Charles Cammann, a New York banker, and H.W. Mali, a New York merchant. After travelling through the gas-producing regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, Mr. Wallace was so confident of the natural gas prospects at the Mer Bleue property that he bought the necessary equipment for drilling and made arrangements for skilled drillers to come to Ottawa. He and his fellow investors hoped that the availability of natural gas would make Ottawa the commercial capital of Canada as well as its political capital. It would also make them very rich men if it panned out.

With natural gas still to be discovered in appreciable quantities, another group of investors, led by Henry Bate, George McCullough and William Scott, entered the fray, seeking and receiving similar privileges (By-law No. 809) from City Council for their company, the Ottawa Heating & Lighting Company, to lay down pipes on Ottawa’s streets. It was later called the People’s Gas Company or the Citizens’ Gas Company. This set off a battaille royale. Wallace, the spokesperson for the Capital Gas Company, was outraged, saying that Council had broken faith with his company. He thought that he had received a two-year monopoly with his by-law, and that on this basis he had already invested considerable money into the venture. He contended that Ottawa was too small to support two natural gas companies. He also thought that the second company was just trying to block his Capital Gas Company. This charge was not far-fetched as the Bate family was connected to the Ottawa Gas Company, the city’s manufacturer of coal gas which stood to be the big loser should cheap natural gas be piped in from nearby wells.

The By-Law Committee of City Council threw up its collective hands over the issue, and rescinded both companies’ by-laws on the grounds that neither company had been incorporated. Instead, it offered to grant permission to lay underground pipes to transport natural gas through city streets to the first company to be properly incorporated.

The Capital Gas Company received a Dominion charter mid-March 1888. It thought it had won the incorporation race and deserved its exclusive two-year by-law to bring natural gas into Ottawa. Not so fast said the Bate company, now called the People’s Gas Company. Using legal sleight of hand, Bate and his associates had purchased and resuscitated an existing company established in 1881 called the Rideau Gas Company which they argued already had a city By-law, No. 506, which gave it permission to dig up Ottawa’s streets to lay gas pipes. This forgotten company had actually been established to erect tower lights in Ottawa. But under the Ontario law of the time, it had the right to engage in both the electric and gas businesses, though it had no intention in 1881 of engaging in the latter activity. When the tower lighting concept failed, the company went dormant.

City Council laughed at this corporate manoeuvre. The Ottawa Journal called the proceeding a “gas farce.”

All this corporate and legal scheming occurred against the backdrop of one big hurdle—little gas had actually been discovered in the Ottawa area. But the dream, or the delusion, was enough, encouraged by vague statements by experts who cautiously thought that natural gas might be found in Ottawa. For example, in early February 1888, Dr. Bell of the Geological Survey opined that Ottawa conditions were favourable for the discovery of gas, at least to justify some expenditures to prove it. News of a gas strike in Collingwood also wetted investors’ appetite. Maybe it was Ottawa’s turn next.

By June 1888, the Capital Gas Company appeared to have beaten its rival. But as the Journal commented, “all the energy of the Capital Gas company seems to have been used up by its campaign to get its by-law.” There was no actual boring.

The corporate saga didn’t end there. The principal shareholders of Capital Gas had a falling out. When in late December 1888, the People’s Company again sought permission to bring natural gas into Ottawa, Ottawa City Council looked favourably on the request as it has received news from President Alexander McLean and Secretary Benjamin Batson of Capital Gas that their company would not object. Wrong. Wallace and the two New York shareholders of Capital Gas objected vigorously, and sent a letter under the company’s seal to that effect to Ottawa City council. President McLean retorted that Wallace had left for the United States and had improperly taken the company’s seal and records.

Boring for natural gas did finally begin by December 1888. But who did the drilling was not clearly reported though it was most likely the Capital Gas Company.  However, instead of drilling at La Mer Bleue, test drilling commenced in Stewarton at the Hickey farm just a short distance from Parliament Hill. Later reports said that drillers were drawn to the spot by an oily scum found on the surface of a bog on the Hickey property. Given its proximity to downtown Ottawa relative to the Mer Bleue site, a successful well would have been very attractive commercially as there would be no need for laying expensive pipes across miles of countryside.

The first boring attempt at Stewarton failed when the drill, which was operated by a steam engine run by four men, hit quicksand. The derrick was moved to another site. But by April 1889, drilling at the new location had reached the 70-feet mark. Investors hoped to strike gas at a depth of about 800 feet. Drilling continued. After boring through shale at a rate of 40 feet per day, the drillers hit salt-water impregnated coal and stalled for a time. The team struck “oil” at about 1,200 feet mid-September. But the bore hole filled with water as the bottom portion of the well had not been encased, allowing ground water to leak into the well.

Alderman Askwith thought that there was definitely oil mixed with the water in the sample taken from the bore hole. “But to say that we have ‘struck oil’ in any quantity would be a venturesome statement.” He thought the company would continue to drill down to about 2,000 feet, the limit of the equipment, in its search for natural gas. If nothing was forthcoming, they would investigate further the oil find.

The last report on the Stewarton drilling was in mid-November 1889 when a Citizen article reported that drilling would resume “in a few days” after $6,000 had been spent on the exploratory well. Nothing apparently happened. Ottawa’s oil and gas boom was over before it had really begun.

Roughly forty years later, an account of the drilling activity by an elderly man who had worked on the well was published in the Ottawa Citizen. That article stated that the drilling had ceased after nine months at about the 1,800-foot mark when the well hit sulphur water. The well wasn’t a total failure, however. So strong was the water pressure that the sulphur water apparently came to the surface and continued to flow. A pipe was installed, with people coming far and wide to drink the water. Not only was sulphur water prized for its supposed medicinal value, it must have been of far better quality that the water the city piped in to residents from the grossly polluted Ottawa River.

Sources:

NCC, 2019. Mer Bleue, http://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/mer-bleue.

American Public Gas Association, 2019. A Brief History of Natural Gas, https://www.apga.org/apgamainsite/aboutus/facts/history-of-natural-gas.

Browness, Ian and Cynthia Coristine, 2014. “The Bate Brothers of Ottawa, Booklet 2: Charles “C.T.” Bate Merchant, Mayor & More, Bytown Pamphlet, No. 92, The Historical Society of Ottawa.

The Daily Citizen, 1888. “Mr. Wallace’s Return,” 17 January.

———————, 1888. “The Natural Gas Company,” 2 February.

———————, 1888. “Natural Gas Found in Ottawa,” 6 February.

———————, 1888. “Rival Companies,” 4 February.

———————, 1888. “Boring For The Gas,” 21 December.

———————, 1888. “Cheap Fuel And Light,” 22 December.

———————, 1888. “A Hitch In The Gas Business,” 29 December.

———————, 1889. “The Finishing Touches,” 15 January.

———————, 1889. “The Gas Borers,” 8 April.

———————, 1889. “The Hole Won’t Go Down,” 17 April.

———————, 1889. “The City And Suburbs,” 17 August.

———————, 1889. “An Oily Find,” 18 September.

———————, 1889. “Jottings About Town,” 16 November.

———————, 1889. “The City And Suburbs,” 16 November.

———————, 1926. “Glebe Pioneer Has Fine Recollection Glebe-Hickey Lands,” 9 October.

——————— 1926. “More About The Hickey Well By Man Who Worked It 9 Months,” 30 October.

The Evening Journal, 1887. “Gas Coming To Town,” 6 December.

————————-, 1888. “A Question of Gas,” 3 February.

————————-, 1888. “What Dr. Bell Says?,” 4 February.

————————-, 1888. “The Gas Question,” 16 February.

————————-, 1888. “Hopes To Be Like Findlay, Ohio,” 28 February.

————————-, 1888. “The Gas Question,” 29 February.

————————-, 1888. “Odds And Ends,” 6 March.

————————-, 1888. “Another Deal,” 10 April.

————————-, 1888. “Natural Gas Found in Collingwood,” 21 June.

————————-, 1888. “Civic Notes,” 25 June.

————————-, 1889. “No title,” 21 August 1889.

————————-, 1889. “Natural Gas,” 19 October.

Wylie, Robin, 2019. “A Brief History of Natural Gas,” Eniday, https://www.eniday.com/en/education_en/history-natural-gas/.

Ottawa at War

3 September 1939

It was the Labour Day weekend, the last long weekend of the summer. But, instead of sleeping late or basking in the sun, Canadians were huddled around their radios, anxiously listening to news coming out of London. Shortly after 6am in Ottawa (11am London time) on Sunday, 3 September, 1939, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, announced over the wireless that Great Britain was at war with Germany. The ultimatum that the British ambassador had delivered to the Reich’s Foreign Ministry in response to the German invasion of Poland had gone unanswered.

The news was not unexpected. For weeks the martial drumbeat had grown louder. With Germany and the Soviet Union signing a non-aggression pact in mid-August, there was nothing stopping the Nazis from attacking Poland. With a swift victory almost assured over the antiquated Polish army, Germany no longer risked a two-front war should Britain and France honour their pledge to support Poland. At the beginning of September, German forces entered Poland.

Unlike twenty-five years earlier, there were no shouts of joy and applause at the British declaration of war. Ottawa took the news somberly. Later that Sabbath morning, families went to church to pray for divine guidance for their leaders and protection for their families and friends in the perilous times ahead. In the early afternoon, families again gathered around the radios, this time to hear the King say: “I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial.”  The Citizen reported that people wept hearing him speak. “It was the message of a beloved sovereign to a people with whom he and his Queen had mingled freely but a few short months ago [the 1939 Royal Visit] …It was as if His Majesty in truth had crossed the threshold of every Canadian home to bid them his good cheer in the extremity of the hour.”

Prime Minister Mackenzie King was awoken early with the news of Britain’s declaration of war. He hurried from Kingsmere, his country estate in the Gatineau Hills, to Ottawa for a 10 o’clock emergency Cabinet meeting in the Privy Council Chamber in the East Block on Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, instead of the usual Sunday quiet, Sparks Street buzzed with excitement as hundreds of anxious people milled about in front of the Citizen’s office waiting for the latest news bulletins to be posted. Extra police were laid on to control the crowd. Over that long weekend, Ottawa troops were mobilized with gunners moving into Lansdowne Park. Guards appeared on all public utilities and local dairy plants to prevent possible sabotage. Placards went up across the city saying men of military age were needed. The Cameron Highlanders announced that men should report to the Cartier Drill Hall at 9am on the Monday morning. The drum and bugle band of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps marched through Ottawa streets, with placards saying “Recruits wanted for the RCASC, mechanics, tinsmiths, coppersmiths, clerks, turners.”

When Mackenzie King left the Cabinet meeting around 2pm Sunday afternoon, the large crowd waiting for him outside the East Block cheered.  The Prime Minister doffed his hat in acknowledgement and then paused for an official photograph to be taken by the Government Motion Picture Bureau for posterity. At 5.30pm, Mackenzie King spoke to the nation from the CBC broadcasting studio in the Château Laurier Hotel. Justice Minister Lapointe subsequently spoke in French. Mackenzie King promised that Canada would co-operate fully with the Motherland and urged Canadians to “unite in a national effort.” He added that “There is no home in Canada, no family and no individual whose fortunes and freedom are not bound up in the present struggle.” Parliament would debate the situation in Europe the following Thursday (7 September).

While both major Ottawa newspapers considered Canada to be at war, the country was actually in a strange limbo, neither officially at war nor really at peace. Since the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, Canada was an autonomous Dominion within the British Empire. Consequently, unlike in 1914, a declaration of war by Britain did not automatically mean Canada was at war. Although both Australia and New Zealand had followed with their own declarations of war immediately after that of Britain, Mackenzie King held back awaiting the Parliamentary debate. The government was making a constitutional statement, underscoring Canadian autonomy. It also mattered practically. While the United States had immediately stopped all deliveries of arms to Britain (and Germany) due to its “Neutrality Act,” which forbade military sales to warring countries, it considered Canada to be neutral, thus allowing arms sales and deliveries to continue.

WWIIEllard Cummings
Pilot Officer Ellard Cummings of Ottawa, First Canadian to die in World War II, 3 September 1939. His brother, W.O.2 Kenneth Cummings, was to die piloting a bomber over enemy territory in 1944. Ottawa Citizen, 6 September 1939.

At the German Consulate located in the Victoria Building on Wellington Street, it was “business as usual” though most likely the German diplomats were busy destroying confidential documents in preparation for an imminent departure. Dr. Erich Windels, the German Consul General who had been in Ottawa since 1937, had received no instructions from the Department of External Affairs to leave the country. Guards were, however, posted at the Victoria Building and at 407 Wilbrod Street in Sandy Hill, the home of Dr. and Mrs Windels, a short walk away from Laurier House, the downtown home of their friend, the Prime Minister.

Even before Mackenzie King had spoken that evening to Canadians, Canada, and Ottawa specifically, had already sustained their first wartime casualties. Four hours after Britain’s declaration of war, RAF Pilot Officer Ellard Cummings, the son of Mr and Mrs James Cummings of 46 Spadina Avenue in Ottawa, died, along with his Scottish gunner, in an airplane accident. Based at the RAF base in Evanton, Scotland, Cummings’ Westland Wallace biplane crashed into a hillside in thick fog. Cummings was the first Canadian to die in the War. His family received the grim news the following day. Cummings, age 24, had enlisted in the RAF in 1938. He had attended Glebe Collegiate and had been a member of Parkdale United Church. His father was the superintendent of the transformer and meter department of the Ottawa Electric Company.

Just a few hours later, a German U-boat deliberately sank the SS Athenia, a 526-foot, 13,500-ton passenger liner—the first British ship lost in the war. The liner, owned by the Donaldson Atlantic Line, had left Glasgow for Montreal, with a stop in Liverpool, on 1 September, two days before the outbreak of war. On board were 1,103 passengers and 315 crew members, of whom 469 were Canadians and another 311 Americans who were trying to get back home before hostilities began. Approximately twenty-one of the Canadians either came from Ottawa or had close relatives in Ottawa. Also on board were 500 Jewish refugees as well as 72 UK residents, plus a medley of citizens from other countries. Twenty-eight German and six Austrian citizens were on the liner.

Athenia, Montreal 1933 Clifford M. Johnston LAC PA-056818
The SS Athenia in Montreal in 1933. Clifford M. Johnston, Library and Archives Canada, PA-056818.

At roughly 7.30pm in the evening of 3 September, local time (2.30pm Ottawa time), the ship, located off the western coast of Scotland, two hundred miles north of Ireland, was torpedoed by U-30 under the command of Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp. As the ship began to settle into the water, the submarine came to the surface and fired two shells at the stricken ocean liner. While there was ample time for the ship’s lifeboats to get away, there were many casualties, in part due to accidents during the rescue by two British destroyers, a Swedish yacht, the Southern Cross, a Norwegian tanker, the Knute Nelson, and an American freighter, the City of Flint. In total, 98 passengers and nineteen crew members died, including 54 Canadians and 28 Americans. Most survivors were brought into Glasgow in Scotland and Galway in Ireland. The City of Flint disembarked the people it had rescued in Halifax.

Lemp, Fritz-Julius
Fritz-Julius Lemp, commander of U-30 which sank the SS Athenia. Lemp drowned in May 1941 when his later ship U-100 was capture intact off of Iceland, its scuttling charges having failed to detonate. On board was an Enigma machine and code book which were used at Bletchley Park to decode top secret Nazi signals. U-boat.net.

The sinking of the unarmed Athenia was considered a war crime as the U-boat commander had not given the passengers and crew an opportunity to leave the ship. As well, when he realized that he had fired upon a passenger liner in error, he didn’t stay to help the survivors, but instead swore his crew to secrecy. Later, fearful that the loss of American lives might bring the United States into the war, the Nazi high command ordered Lemp to falsify his log. The Nazi newspaper Volkischer Beobacher blamed the sinking on Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. While nobody believed that tale, the real story of the sinking of the Athenia wasn’t revealed until the Nuremburg trials after the war.

Over the next several days, anxious Ottawa residents repeatedly called the Citizen for any news of loved ones who had been on the Athenia. For the most part the news was positive as one by one, the rescued Ottawa people were reported safe, mostly from Glasgow and Greenock in Scotland or Galway in Ireland. These included D. George Woollcombe, the former head master of Ashbury College, Miss Jean Craik, a young business college student who resided at 471 MacLeod Street, and Miss Mary Carol of 34 Noel Street, an employee at Ogilvie’s Department Store.  Mr. James Ward of the Public Works Department also received word that his wife and 12-year old son, James Jr. were safe in Galway, Ireland. Thomas Graham of 224 Primrose Street who had joined the crew of the Athenia two weeks earlier as a cook was also safe on dry land.

Jean Craik was among the first Ottawa survivors to return home. Arriving shortly before midnight on the CNR train from Halifax with two other survivors eleven days after the Athenia was torpedoed, Craik recounted a harrowing tale. She had been on deck when the ship had been torpedoed and sailors started shouting for everybody to abandon ship. On her lifeboat were 56 mostly women and children and two sailors. She sat in the stern of the lifeboat where she was given the job of holding flares. A sailor named Kammin gave her his lifebelt, an act of heroism that saved her life and lost his. In heavy seas, her lifeboat capsized. Kammin perished. Many drowned in front of her, including a mother and a baby. Craik floated in the water for six hours before the Southern Cross rescued her. Of the 56 people who made it onto the lifeboat, roughly half lost their lives through drowning. The Southern Cross transferred Craik and other survivors to the City of Flint, who took them to Halifax. There, the Red Cross gave Craik a tooth brush, tooth paste, cold cream and a pair of silk stockings. One of the first things she did in Halifax was have a hot bath. Although she had lost all her possessions, Craik somehow managed to keep her purse which she had tied to herself.  In it was one traveller’s cheque which she used to buy new clothes.

All the news was not good, however. Mr. F.H. Blair of Montreal, the uncle of Miss A.E. Brown of 415 Elgin Street, lost his life. He had given his life jacket to a woman, and subsequently drowned.

Canada’s declaration of war signed by HM George VI of Canada, Source: Quora, original source unknown

Canada joined Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and other members of the Empire in the war against Nazi Germany on 10 September. After the Parliamentary debate, Canadian High Commissioner to London, Vincent Massey, received a letter from Ottawa recommending to King George that as King of Canada he approve Canada’s declaration of war on Germany. Massey took the letter to Buckingham Palace. The King appended his signature “Approved George R.I.” Canada was officially at war.

Sources:

Boswell, Randy, 2012. “Memorial unveiled to first Canadian pilot to die in WWII,” Edmonton Journal, 6 September.

Bregha, François, 2019. “Australia House,” History of Sandy Hill, https://www.ash-acs.ca/history/australia-house/.

British Home Child Group International, 2019. “The Athenia,” http://britishhomechild.com/the-athenia/.2012.

Kemble Mike, 2013. “SS Athenia,” Merchant Navy in World War II, http://www.39-45war.com/athenia.html.

Ottawa Citizen, 1939. “Most Ottawa Folk Philosophical, But Ready To Do Duty,” 1 September.

——————, 1939. “Crowds Throng Citizen Bulletins,” 1 September.

——————, 1939. “Gunners Will Move To Lansdowne Pk For Training Duty,” 2 September.

——————, 1939. “Liner Athenia, Bound For Canada, Torpedoed, Britain And France Now At War With Germany,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “Proclamation Declaring Great Britain At War Isued By Chamberlain,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “His Majesty’s Address To People Of British Empire,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “German Consulate Staff Here Ready For Word To Leave,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “Crowd Cheers And Applauds Mr. King.” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “Every Home In Canada Affected By Struggle Declares Prime Minister,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “Effective Co-operation,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “Fateful News Accepted With Determined Resignation,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “The Call To United Action,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “Young Men Besiege Ottawa Recruiting Offices To Enlist,” 4 September.

—————–, 1939. “Ellard Cummings, Ottawa Airman, Is Killed In Scotland, 5 September.

—————– 1939. “Report 3 More Ottawa People Rescued At Sea,” 6 September.

—————–, 1939. “Announce 125 Still Missing From Athenia,” 6 September.

—————–, 1939. “Report Many Ottawans Among Athenia Rescued,” 6 September.

—————–, 1939. “Says Indivisibility Of Crown Theory Disproved By War,” 11 September.

—————–, 1944. “Kenneth Cummings Of Air Force Is Reported Missing,” 22 March.

Ottawa Journal, 1939. “Ottawa Girl Vividly Describes Sinking of Athenia,” 15 September.

Uboat.net 2019. “The Men – U-boat Commanders,” https://uboat.net/men/lemp.htm.

The Chaudière Bridges

28 September 1826

Bridges are amazing structures. Spanning rivers, gorges, bays and even open ocean, they are testaments to the ingenuity of the engineers who designed them and the courage and ability of the workers who constructed them. Who hasn’t crossed a bridge and wondered what’s holding it up and experienced a frisson of excitement or even terror? The longest bridge in the world over water connects Hong Kong to Macau and the city of Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland, a distance of 55 kilometres, of which a 6.7-kilometre stretch midway is an under-water tunnel between two artificial islands to allow ocean-going ships to travel up the Pearl River estuary. It opened in 2018. Canada’s Confederation Bridge, which links Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick, is 12.9 kilometres long. At the other extreme is Bermuda’s Somerset Bridge that connects Somerset Island with the “mainland.” Dating back to 1620, it is reputedly the smallest drawbridge in the world. Operated by hand, it is just wide enough to allow a mast of a sailboat travelling between the Great Sound and Ely’s Harbour to pass through the gap.

In Canada’s capital, six bridges span the mighty Ottawa River: the Alexandra (or Interprovincial) Bridge; the Champlain Bridge; the Chaudière Bridge; the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge; the Portage Bridge; and the Prince of Wales Bridge (now closed). While the current Chaudière Bridge dates from 1919, it is the site of the first and for a long time the only bridge across the Ottawa River.

The need for a bridge crossing the Ottawa River became apparent after work commenced on the Rideau Canal in the summer of 1826 under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. With only wilderness on the Upper Canada side, workers and supplies had to be ferried across the river from Wright’s Town (later known as Hull) in Lower Canada, the only settlement of any consequence in the region, where labourers were billeted and shops and stores could be had. (American Philemon Wright had founded Wright’s Town in 1804.) As this was unsatisfactory to all, Colonel By and his engineering colleagues decided to build a bridge as quickly as possible, their haste probably encouraged by the approach of winter.

Plan and elevation of Union Bridge by Burrows in Joseph Buchette, 1831, p.82 (2)
Plan and Elevation of the Union Bridge in Joseph Bouchette, The British Dominions in North America, London, 1832

Their plan was to build a series of bridges to link Lower Canada on the northern shore of the Ottawa River to Upper Canada on the southern shore at the Chaudière Falls where the river temporarily narrows, using the islands mid-river as stepping stones. All were to be made of stone and masonry except for the widest section which was to be made of wood given the width of the gap, the depth of the water and the speed of the current. Col. By later modified this plan. Five of the seven bridges were made of wood—(from south to north over the river,) a 117-foot truss bridge, a small bridge over a deep chasm, a 160-foot bridge, a 212-foot truss bridge, a 180-foot bridge, and two limestone bridges.

After a quick survey—these were the days long before environmental assessments—construction began. On 28 September 1826, General George Ramsay, 9th Earl Dalhousie and Governor General of British North America, placed several George IV silver coins under a foundation stone on the Lower Canadian shore. Colonel Durnford of the Royal Engineers, Colonel John By, and a number of prominent area landowners, including Nicholas Sparks, Thomas McKay and Philemon Wright, attended the ceremony.

Three weeks into the construction, the first masonry arch on the Lower Canada side collapsed when the temporary supporting falsework was removed. Colonel By ordered work to recommence immediately with new plans drawn up by Thomas Burrowes, the assistant overseer of works. The new, hammered stone arch was completed by early January 1827 despite atrocious working conditions. Spray from the nearby falls froze thickly onto the workers’ clothes despite rough wooden screens being installed to shelter them. The second arch was finished by the summer of 1827.

The biggest challenge was bridging the Chaudière itself, also known in English as the Giant Kettle. To link its two sides, Captain Asterbrooks of the Royal Artillery fired a brass cannon loaded with a ½-inch rope to workmen on Chaudière Island. Twice he failed, the rope breaking. But he succeeded with a 1-inch rope. Once workers had a hold of it, they were able to haul over larger cables. Two ten-foot wooden trestles were constructed on either side with ropes stretched over their top and fastened to the rocks. The workers fashioned a precarious footbridge with a rope handrail. It swayed in the wind and sagged to within seven feet of the raging torrent beneath it. It must have been terrifying to cross. In his 1832 book The British Dominions in North America, Joseph Bouchette wrote: “We cannot forebear associating with our recollections of this picturesque bridge the heroism of a distinguished peeress [Countess Dalhousie], who we believe, was the first woman to venture across it.”  The bridge’s ropes were then replaced with stronger chains.  But as workmen were planking the floor of the bridge, the last step in its construction, disaster struck. First one then the other chain broke, throwing men and their equipment into the raging torrent. While accounts vary, as many as three men drowned.

Truss Bridge LAC Acc. No. 1936-60-1 by John Burows 1828 C.
Truss Bridge over the Chaudière Falls, Ottawa River, watercolour by John Burrows, 1828, Library and Archives Canada, No. 1936-60-1.

Undeterred by the tragedy, Colonel By immediately got back to work. This time, workmen constructed stronger trestles and bridged the gap with two 8-inch link chain cables. Two large scows, a type of flat-bottomed boat, were built and moored securely in the location of the bridge. Jack screws placed on the scows supported the bridge during its construction. Unbelievably, just prior to the bridge’s completion, a strong gale flipped it over. Workmen were obliged to cut the bridge free which sent it sailing down the Ottawa river, coming to land close to the entrance of the Rideau Canal. Reportedly, the Chief workman, Mr. Drummond, shed tears in frustration.

Again, Colonel By persevered; his next bridge held. Supported by chains made of 1 3/4-inch thick iron and 10-inch links, the wooden bridge was 212 feet long, 30 feet wide and roughly 40 feet above the water, high enough to escape damage during the spring freshet.  It was completed in the summer of 1828, two years after construction had commenced. Upper and Lower Canada were finally united. Fittingly, Col. By called it the Union Bridge.

Lieutenant Pooley, who worked for Col. By, supervised the construction of a final bridge needed to connect Bytown with the new Union Bridge.  This bridge spanned a “gully” in what became LeBreton Flats. So impressed was Col. By with Pooley’s round-log bridge that he dubbed it “Pooley’s Bridge.” This name stuck. Lieutenant Pooley’s wooden bridge was replaced by a stone bridge in 1873. It was designated a heritage structure in 1982.

As the Union Bridge was funded by the Imperial Government, Colonel By instituted a toll to help pay for it. The cost was one penny per person, one penny for every horse, ox, cow, sheep and pig, and two pennies for every wagon and sleigh. This was a pretty steep tariff for the times.

Sadly, the Union Bridge did not last. In May 1836, it collapsed into the river and was swept away. Fortunately, there was nobody on it at the time. Again, the only way across the Ottawa River was by ferry.

This all changed in 1843 when the Union Suspension Bridge, constructed by Mr. Wilkinson, an American, opened for traffic. The bridge had a span of 242 feet. Its iron wire suspension cables, which were imported from Britain to Montreal and ferried to Bytown in barges, supported an oaken plank deck. It was the first of its kind in Canada, and was considered an engineering marvel of the age. The Packet opined that the bridge was “a beautiful piece of work” and that it “reflects great credit to the builder, Mr. Wilkinson.” A big celebration was held at Doran’s Hotel on Wellington Street to mark its opening. Engraved invitations were sent out to guests to attend the “Union Suspension Bridge Ball,” complete with a picture of the completed bridge.

Union Supsenson bridge, watercolour by F.P. Rubidge, LAC ARch. Ref. R182-2
Union Suspension Bridge, Watercolour by F. P. Rubidge, Library and Archives Canada, Arch. Ref. R182-2.

Like its predecessor, the Union Suspension Bridge charged tolls. It was a profitable business. In the June to September period of 1851, Duncan Graham, appointed the (tax) Collector for Bytown in the Finance Department by Earl Cathcart, collected £303. 6s. 7d. (equivalent to more than $1,650) in tolls. This was almost enough to cover his annual salary of $1,500 and the monthly stipend £6. 5s. of Mr Mossop, the bridge keeper, who lived in the toll house rent free. Later, the government put the toll business out to tender. At the 1869 tender, the government set a reserve price of $2,000. This compares with annual tolls collected in the 1865-1868 period ranging from $2,500 to $3,350. The winner of the auction was required to maintain the toll house, and keep the bridge clean of rubbish. In winter, they were also responsible for snow clearance, but were required to leave six inches to facilitate sleigh traffic.

Bridge maintenance was not up to everybody’s standards. People complained that the bridge was dangerous especially at night as its railings were low and weak. “Persons run a very great risk on a dark night of driving into the ‘Devil’s Punch-bowl’” said the Ottawa Citizen. As well, the approaches to the bridge on either side of the river were nearly impassable during rainy weather owing to “the enormous quantity of mud and water collected.” In an agreement with the City, the Dominion government abolished tolls on the Union Suspension Bridge in 1885.

Union Suspension Bridge, Topley Studio LAC, PA-012705 c.1867-70
The muddy and rutted entrance to the Union Suspension Bridge, looking towards Ottawa, Topley Studio, c. 1867-70, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012705.

In 1889, the Dominion government appropriated $35,000 for a new iron truss bridge to replace the deteriorating Union Suspension Bridge. Messrs. Rousseau & Mather were the contractors. Work commenced at the beginning of August and was completed by the beginning of December of that year. Many were concerned that the 30-foot width of the new roadway was too narrow given the growing amount of traffic between Ottawa and Hull. Appeals to the government to widen the bridge or at least put the two 5-foot sidewalks on the outside of the trestles in order to increase the width of the roadway by 10 feet fell on deaf ears.

Twelve years later in 1900, the Great Fire, which destroyed much of Hull and LeBreton Flats, severely damaged the bridge. A vital thoroughfare, the government moved quickly to repair it.

In 1919, the Government condemned the Chaudière bridge as being unsafe. According to the Citizen, just walking over the old bridge was enough to give one “thrills” owing to its “see-saw motion when cars pass over it.” Dominion policemen ensured that too many vehicles didn’t try to cross the bridge at the same time. The replacement bridge was built by the Dominion Bridge Company at a cost of $110,000. It was assembled on the Quebec side and was moved into place using scows. This time, government listened to its critics, and placed the sidewalks on the outside of the piers. Before the new Chaudière bridge was put into position, the old bridge was lifted by four 50-ton hydraulic jacks, placed on rollers, and moved 50 feet downriver to a temporary location so that traffic across the river would not be unduly impeded by the construction.

In 2008, the Chaudière bridge was temporarily closed when an inspection revealed that its stone arches, some of which date back to that first 1820’s bridge, were no longer safe. Following repairs, the government reopened the bridge the following year. It continues to serve thousands of commuters every day.   

Sources:

Bouchette, Joseph, 1832. The British Dominions in North America, Vol. 1, London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman.

Bytown Gazette, 1846. “No title,” 14 September.

Canada, Province of, 1867. Report of the Minister of Agriculture for 1866, Ottawa: Hunter, Rose & Company.

Mika, Nick & Helma, 1982. Bytown, The early day of Ottawa, Belleville: Mika Publishing Company.

Ottawa Citizen, 1868. “Editorial,” 19 June.

——————, 1869. “Tolls on Union Suspension Bridge,” 26 July.

——————, 1908. “Civil Servants’ Income Tax,” 17 February.

——————, 1919. “Chaudiere Bridge Gives One Thrills,” 18 August.

——————, 1919. “Are Moving The Old Chaudiere Bridge,” 21 August.

——————, 1929. “Ottawa’s First Bridge And Other Narrations,” 12 October.

——————, 1933. “Chaudiere Toll Bridge 1851, Document Tells of Revenue,” 5 August.

——————, 1981. “By-Gone Days,” 28 February.

Ottawa Journal, 1889,” Supplementary Estimates,” 24 April.

——————, 1889. “The Chaudiere Bridge,” 19 September.

Packet (The), 1847. “The Ottawa-Slides-Steamers-Railroads-Necessary Improvements, etc.” 12 June.

The Great Farini Crosses the Chaudière Falls

9 September 1864

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the world was wowed by Jean François Gravelet, better known as the Great Blondin. In June 1859, in front of a crowd of 25,000 fascinated and horrified onlookers, Blondin crossed the Niagara Gorge from the United States to Canada on a tightrope. On his return trip, he brought a daguerreotype camera with him to take a photo of the spectators.

One of Blondin’s greatest fans was a young man from Port Hope, Ontario named William Leonard Hunt. Hunt was born in June 1838 in Lockport, New York but grew up close to Port Hope where his parents settled after living for a time in the United States. As a child, he was a daredevil and was fascinated with all things related to the circus—much to his parents’ chagrin who view such activities as dishonourable. Hunt gave his first professional performance as a funambulist (tightrope walker) at age twenty-one by crossing the Ganaraska River in Port Hope on a rope stretched eighty feet high between two buildings, just months after Blondin’s conquest of Niagara Falls. Hunt chose the stage name Signor Guillermo (Italian for William) Farini, or the “Great Farini.”

Farini, Earl W. Brydges Public library 15 Sept 1860

The Great Farini crossing the Niagara Gorge with an Empire Washing Machine strapped to his back, 15 August 1860, Earl W. Brydges Public Library, New York.

The Great Farini challenged Blondin to a battle of who would be considered the greatest tightrope walker in the world. Signor Farini matched his idol’s feat by crossing the Niagara Gorge in June 1860. He topped off his performance by hanging from the rope mid-river by one hand, then suspending himself by just his feet. On a subsequent trip, after securing his pole, he climbed down a rope to the tourist boat Maid of the Mist circling below in the Niagara River, drank a glass of wine, and then climbed back up to finish his journey across the Gorge.

The rivalry of the two men took off. Blondin walked across the Falls with his feet in bushel baskets, pushed his manager in a wheel barrow, and even cooked omelettes on a portable stove high above the whirlpools, which he lowered to sightseers on the Maid of the Mist below. Farini responded by carrying his much larger manager across the Falls. Mid-river, Farini somehow unloaded his manager onto the rope, crawled on the underside of the rope beneath his friend to emerge on the other side, and then reloaded him onto his back before finishing the crossing. (Where do you find friends like this?!) Subsequently, Farini washed hankies mid-river using an Empire Washing Machine that he had brought with him across the high wire.

Needless to say, Farini was a sensation. It helped that he was darkly handsome, muscular, with brilliant blue eyes and slicked back black hair. He also worn a goatee with a waxed moustache that extended horizontally several inches on either side of his nose in a style popularized by France’s Napoleon III. He was also extremely articulate and spoke several languages.

After a brief stint in the Union Army in the United States during the American Civil War where he rose to the rank of Captain in the Engineers, he returned to the circus. While performing with his first wife, Mary, in a high wire act above the Plaza de Toros in Havana, Cuba in December 1862, tragedy struck. On their fifth crossing with his wife on his back, Mary unexpectedly waved to cheering spectators. Losing her balance, she fell. Somehow, Farini managed to grab her costume as she tumbled past him, but it was not enough. The fabric ripped and she fell sixty feet in front of a horrified crowd of 15,000 people. She died a few days later.

This catastrophe did not stop his high-wire career. In 1864, he came to Ottawa, which was then in the news owing to negotiations underway in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island among the British colonies in North America on Confederation. If those negotiations were successful, Ottawa would become the capital of a large new nation.

Farini Chaudiere Falls from Suspension bridgeTopley StudioLACPA-012695c.1867

The Chaudière Falls with the Union Suspension Bridge on the right, circa 1869, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-102695

According to Shane Peacock, the author of the definitive biography of the famed tightrope walker, Farini arrived in Ottawa in mid-August, 1864, booking into the Russell House, Ottawa’s premier hotel at the time. His first job was to suss out a likely spot for a high-wire act. He initially thought of crossing the Rideau Canal on a rope strung from Barrick Hill, where the new Parliament buildings were still under construction, to a tower located in what is now Major’s Hill Park. Deciding that such a route was insufficiently death-defying, he chose instead to cross the Ottawa River above the Chaudière Falls. Back in those days, the Chaudière Falls were not the tamed affair they are now but a raging torrent. The Ring Dam that regulates the flow of water over the Falls for the purpose of generating hydro-electricity would not be built for another fifty years. The only way over them at that time, and the only way between Ottawa and Hull, was the Union Suspension Bridge built in 1843. This bridge was later replaced by today’s Chaudière Bridge.

In the days prior to his much advertised crossing, set for Friday, 9 September 1864, work began on suspending a two-inch diameter rope from two heavily-braced wooden towers, one on Table Rock on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, a short distance upstream from the Union Suspension Bridge, and the other on the Booth lumber mill on Chaudière Island on the Ontario side. The rope was advertised as being 1,000 feet long and 100 feet high. Messrs Perley and Booth along with other mill owners constructed a private viewing stand complete with comfortable seats for the pleasure of Ottawa’s elite. Cost was 25 cents per seat with access to the site provided through the Perley & Company Mill and Brewery or through Mr Booth’s new mill. The general public could watch for free from other vantage points.

The Chaudière Falls stunt wasn’t the only performance planned for Ottawa by the Great Farini. On the Wednesday before his aerial show, Farini gave a charity performance in aid of the new General Hospital, “putting his acrobatic skills at the disposal of the Sisters of Charity.” On the day of his crossing, he also performed at the Theatre Royal where he again demonstrated his gymnastic virtuosity as well as his circus tricks, including the flying trapeze and placing a 400-pound stone on his chest and having somebody smash it with an 18-pound sledge hammer. He also held a man up at arm’s length, a feat that had previously earned him a silver medal from New York gymnasts.

Farini Chaudiere

The J.R. Booth Lumber Mill, Chaudière Island, where Farini started his crossing of the Ottawa River. The Prince of Wales Bridge, built in 1880, is in the background. Late 19th century, William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012377.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of press hype for Senior Farini’s death-defying tight rope act across the Ottawa River. Half-price trains and excursion boats ran on the Friday of his performance. A special train brought up U.S. spectators from Ogdensburg, New York with extra ferries laid on to take them across the St Lawrence River to meet a special train leaving Prescott for Ottawa at 8am and to return late that night. The Ogdensburg Advance wrote that Farini was “said to excel the great Blondin, not only in hazardous undertakings, by in ease and grace of their accomplishment.” The newspaper also put a plug in for the Russell Hotel saying that its proprietor, “our friend Gouin,” was “always alive to the comfort and convenience of the public,” and dispensed services that “epicures most delight in.” It added that the Russell House ranked among the finest hotels in Canada, and urged excursionists going to Ottawa to “drop in at the Russell House and ‘smile.’”

Monsieur Gouin, of course, hoped they would do more than smile. He advertised first class rooms at only “$4 US currency per day” for visitors to Ottawa to watch Farini cross the Chaudière Falls. This was a real bargain. With the United States in the midst of its Civil War, US$4 was worth much less in Canadian dollar terms. (In mid-July 1864, the U.S. dollar, which was off the gold standard, touched an all-time low against its Canadian counterpart of US$2.78 to one Canadian dollar.) Of course, visitors could also find the best food and drink at the Russell House.

Friday, 9 September 1864 was a perfect day for Farini’s crossings of the Ottawa River. Two performances were organized, with the first beginning at 3pm and the second at 9 pm after his show at the Theatre Royal. Some 15,000 people turned out to watch. Given that the population of Ottawa was less than 15,000 in the 1861 census this is a remarkable number of people, even allowing for population growth and visitors. One of the best vantage points was on the Union Suspension Bridge. However, fearing an accident given the number of people crowding on to it, the bridge keeper closed the gates leading from the Ottawa side.

Farini TOC 6-9-1864

Advertisement for the Great Farini. The Ottawa Citizen, 6 September 1864

Spectators were not disappointed. Farini put on a masterful show. Dressed like a circus acrobat, Farini crossed the Chaudière Falls three times during the one hour-long afternoon show. He crossed with and without a pole, did acrobatics, and hanged upside down from his feet over the raging water. On his second trip, he wore wooden bushel baskets typically used for measuring oats on his feet. For a finale, he crossed in a sack.

As Farini was performing, he was almost upstaged by a young boy, no more than eleven years of age, who managed to climb around a fence that jutted out over the fast-flowing river and cordoned off the eastern side of the reserved area at the Perely and Booth mills. When spectators finally saw what the lad was doing, many rushed over to pull him to safety. But before they could do so, he swung himself around the end of the fence, dangling temporarily over the rapids, before pulling himself to safety and disappearing into the milling crowd.

After talking to the press and well-wishers at the Russell Hotel following his afternoon performance, and giving his evening show at the Theatre Royal—tickets were 25 cents each—Farini repeated his Chaudière Falls crossings at 9pm. As it was well past sunset, he performed to the light of fire-works. According to Shane Peacock, he cut short the evening performance at the request of Ottawa authorities who feared an accident owing to the press of the crowds.

Farini left Ottawa shortly afterwards to perform in Montreal; he never returned. By 1866, he had begun regular performances in England with a young boy, Samuel Wasgatt, whom he later adopted. Called El Niño (the child), young Sam and Farini performed as The Flying Farinis. When El Niño got a bit older, he began performing aerial acrobatics as a woman with long blond hair under the stage name “The Beautiful Lulu, the Circassian Catapultist.” He wasn’t “outed” as a man until 1878.

By this time, the elder Farini, had married an English girl, Alice Carpenter, and had retired his leotards in favour of managing celebrity performers and developing new circus tricks, including the first human cannonball act. For a time, he partnered with the famed P.T. Barnum assembling human oddities, included Krao, a hairy Laotian girl who Farini advertised as The Missing Link. He later adopted the girl. During the mid-1880s, the now divorced Hunt, accompanied by his son Sam, the former Lulu, trekked through southern Africa where they claimed to have discovered the Lost Kingdom of the Kalahari. Photographs taken by Sam and a paper written by Farini, which he presented at the Royal Geographic Society in London, caused a sensation…and sparked a decades’ long quest by explorers. Reportedly, some twenty-five expeditions were launched to find the fabled kingdom which stubbornly remained lost.

In 1886, he married his third wife, German-born Anna Mueller. A man of many parts, he took up horticulture, writing books on New Zealand ferns, and begonias. He later began to paint. In the early 1900s, he and his wife moved back to Canada from England. In Toronto, he apparently dabbled in the stock market, and was involved in a gold mining company. He was also an inventor of some renown, including, among other things, folding theatre seats. Moving to Germany in 1909, Farini spent World War I in that country where he wrote a multi-volume account of the war from a German perspective. In 1920, Farini and his wife returned to North America. After moving around a bit, the couple settled down in Farini’s home town of Port Hope, where he died of the flu in 1929 at the ripe old age of 90.

Sources:

Itchy Feet, Itchy Mind, 2014. The Great Farini, Lulu Farini, And The Lost City Of The Kalahari, 2014, https://itchyfeetandmore.com/2014/12/16/the-farinis-and-the-kalahari-lost-city/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1864. “Signor Farini performing at Theatre Royal,” 9 September.

——————, 1864. “Signor Farini,” 6 September.

——————, 1864, “No title,” 7 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1931. “Signor Farini was a Great Rope Man,” 31 October.

——————, 1950. “340 Years of History Flowed by Chaudiere,” 17 June.

Peacock, Shane, 1995. The Great Farini: The Hire-Wire Life OF William Hunt,” Viking: Toronto.

The Old Supreme Court Building

11 September 1956

Few Canadians are likely to be aware that there used to be another major building on Parliament Hill besides the Centre Block, home of the House of Commons and the Senate, and the East and West Blocks. (Starting in the Fall of 2018, the West Block will become the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block is restored and renovated, a process that is expected to take ten years.) That other structure was the old Supreme Court building located just inside the western gates of the Parliamentary Precinct, with its entrance on Bank Street. Bizarre and horrific as it might sound to history and architecture buffs, the building was torn down in the mid-1950s and replaced by a parking lot.

The story begins back before Confederation. During the early 1860s, the three iconic Parliamentary Buildings were constructed on what was then called Barrack Hill in the neo-Gothic style popular at that time. By 1865, the construction of the East and West Blocks were sufficiently advanced to permit civil servants to finally decamp from Quebec City to Ottawa, the new capital of the then Province of Canada. The following year, the Centre Block was ready for the opening of Parliament in June, though work on the Victoria Tower and the Library continued until 1873 and 1877, respectively.

Supreme Court-Topley StudioLAC-PA-008389

Old Supreme Court Building, with the West Block in the background,  late 19th century, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008389.

The same year the Tower was finished, work began on a two-story structure constructed of the same stone as that used to build the Parliament buildings at the base of the western side of Parliament Hill. Designed by the Chief Dominion Architect, Thomas Seaton Scott, the building was erected to house government workshops whose purpose was to construct and repair government furnishings, such as bookcases and cabinets. Previously, such work had been conducted in the basement of the West Block but the rooms used were too cramped and too dark. The new workshops were completed in 1874. It’s likely that the interior fittings for the Parliamentary Library were made there. Contrary to later folklore, there is little evidence to suggest that the workshops building was ever used as a stable.

An 1875 article entitled “The Workshops of the Board of Works” in the Ottawa Citizen gives a fascinating account of the building shortly after its opening.  Although the Citizen’s reporter didn’t care for the building’s architecture, claiming that it didn’t present “any great claims to beauty of style” and looked “unfinished,” he highly recommended tourists visiting the two-storey, mansard-roofed structure. Apparently, its director, Mr. Pruneau, proud of his domain, was ever ready to provide tours to visitors. The journalist opined that the workshops’ interior was “admirably arranged” with a 25-horse power engine in the basement that powered the machinery located above, and a boiler. He was also impressed that the building was heated by steam, and was consequently very comfortable to work in.

On the workshops’ ground floor were offices, including that of Mr. Pruneau, and storerooms filled with cupboards and drawers. There were also a machine shop and a turning shop used for making furniture. A variety of specialist wood-working tools were on hand, including a morticing machine, and lathes used to make table and chair legs. All were driven by steam. Upstairs was the carpenters’ shop containing twelve double benches, circular saws, and other tools. Next door was the cabinet makers’ shop. At the time of the visit from the Citizen’s journalist, a handsome black walnut bookcase was being readied to go to the finishing room for its final varnishing and polishing. The journalist’s opinion was the workshops were among the finest in the Dominion, and were a credit to all who worked in them.

But the government workshops were not to last. In July 1881, their fittings, tools and stock were sold off at auction. Either there was insufficient work to keep them fully employed following the completion of the Parliamentary Library, or in-house production of furnishing was not cost-effective. Instead, the building was renovated to house the new Supreme and Exchequer Courts of Canada. (The Exchequer Court became the Federal Court of Canada in 1971.)

The Supreme and Exchequer Courts came into existence in early January 1876. There were initially six Supreme Court Justices who at that time also sat on the Exchequer Court bench. The Justices were temporarily allocated four rooms in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill close to the House of Commons chamber. A reading room was used as a court room, while three nearby offices were used for the judges’ consulting room, office space for staff, and a room for counsel. No space was allocated for offices for the six Justices.

Plans were drawn up to build an extension onto the West Block to permanently house the two courts but with an economic recession underway in 1876, the $120,000 price tag was too much for the Liberal Government of Alexander Mackenzie. It didn’t help that the Supreme Court did not have the prestige that it has today. It wasn’t even the highest court of the land. That honour went to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. So, the Justices had to make do with their temporary offices in the Centre Block until the government workshops building was fitted out for them. They moved in during the spring of 1882.

$12,500 was allocated to convert the workshops into a court room and suitable offices. The outside of the building was improved and made more elaborate. Gabled windows were added to provide better lighting into the upstairs courtroom. On the ground floor were offices of the registrar and his clerks, and the précis writer. Upstairs, in addition to the courtroom, were six private rooms for the Justices, a conference room, a barristers’ room, a consulting room and a waiting room. The only thing the building lacked was a law library. The Justices and staff had to go to the Parliamentary Library at the top of Parliament Hill if they wanted to consult a legal tome. The National Gallery was also given space in the renovated building, occupying part of the ground floor to the rear with a staircase to another room on the second floor. This led to a lot of grumbling from the Justices who wanted that space for their Library.

Supreme Court 1890 interior James Topley-LAC-PA-027195

Interior of the old Supreme Court, 1890, James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027195.

In 1887, a report was compiled listing the complaints of the building’s occupants. In addition to the lack of a library, there was a bad smell, the roof leaked, and there was insufficient storage space. The Justices also complained about a lack of privacy owing to the public going to and fro in front of their offices to look at the paintings in the National Gallery. To ease the congestion and address some of the concerns, the Gallery moved out later that year. But the freed-up space was needed for the Exchequer Court that had been split off from the Supreme Court and consequently needed its own staff and accommodations. The building was finally extended to the north in 1890, nearly doubling its size, at a cost of $30,457. The Justices moved into the new wing with their old offices converted into a law library. A private entrance was also built. No longer did the Justices have to mix with the general public when going to and leaving work. Most complaints ended.

By the late 1930s, the Supreme Court building was showing its age. In May 1939, during the Royal Visit just before the outbreak of World War II, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI, laid the cornerstone of a new Supreme Court building on Wellington Street. It would be seven years, however, before the Supreme Court Justices managed to move into their new quarters. Their building, once finished, was temporarily used to house civil servants required to operate the bureaucratic war machine. It wasn’t until the end of 1945 did the Income Tax and National War Services Departments moved out to allow the Justices to move in.

For the next few years, the increasingly dilapidated old Supreme Court building continued to be used for government offices, first for Government Economy Control, then for the Government Travel Bureau. In 1954, it was briefly the stage for a television movie being made by CBC starring Lloyd Bridges, directed by the Hollywood director Victor Stoloff. (The film, to be one of a series of thirteen shows based on real life RCMP cases, subsequently disappeared off of the radar screen though a similar series was made for CBC television in 1959 by Ottawa’s Crawley Films.)

In the spring of 1956, the word came that the old building was to be demolished in phase one of a plan by the Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, to build a grand mall from the West Block on Parliament Hill to the new National Library. The plan called for the western slope of Parliament Hill to be terraced with the mall running from that point, behind the Confederation and Justice buildings where Vittoria Street is located, and in front of the new Supreme Court building. (Earlier plans had also called for the demolition of the West Block and its replacement with a modern concrete building. Thankfully, this idea was dropped.) The site of the old Supreme Court would be used temporarily as a parking lot to relieve parking congestion on the Hill until work started on later phases of the plan.

In the House of Commons, Conservative opposition leader John G. Diefenbaker and George Nowlan, another senior Conservative, were appalled. They pleaded with the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent to save the old building, the home of more than fifty years of Canadian judicial history. Ottawa’s mayor Charlotte Whitton launched a “Save-the-Old-Supreme-Court” campaign. She also tried to put forward a motion at a meeting of the FDC to find other possibilities for the area that didn’t involve tearing down the old building. All was for naught. On 11 September 1956, workmen started stripping off the slate roof as the first step in demolishing the old building.

Supreme Court site Googe streetview august 2017

Site of old Supreme Court, Google Streetview, August 2017

Within a few short weeks the building was gone—“an act of engineering barbarism by the utilitarians” according to R. A. “Dick” Bell, later the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carleton. On the other hand, the Ottawa Journal opined that the old building was “not an embellishment to Parliament Hill from a landscaping or architectural standpoint.” It thought that the “national capital must grow even though among the growing pains are regrets that some of the old must necessarily be replaced.” In 1958, a commemorative plaque was affixed to a low wall made of salvaged stone that separates the parking lot from the sidewalk. Some of the stones from the building were also used to make a pond on the 14th hole of the Rivermead Golf Club in Gatineau, Quebec.

The public outcry from the demolition of the building apparently rattled the government. Future plans for the area were put on the backburner, and were shelved for good with the election of Diefenbaker’s Conservatives in 1957.

The site of the old Supreme Court remains a parking lot.

 

Sources:

Globe (The), 1881. “Dominion Estimates: The Proposed Expenditures for the Year 1881-82,” 16 February.

—————, 1881. “Notes From the Capital,” 28 July.

Nowlan, George, 1956. House of Commons Debates, 22nd Parliament, 3rd Session, Vol. 4, p. 3377.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1875. “The Workshops of The Board of Works,” 23 March.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1946. “Eminent Judges Move Into Wellington Street Building,” 3 January.

———————–, 1949. “Diefenbaker Both Right and Wrong About Old Supreme Court history,” 24 December.

————————, 1954. “Ottawa Actors Face Camera, Start Shooting Mountie Film,” 25 January.

————————, 1955. “Build Sweeping Mall From Hill To New National Library Site,” 30 December.

————————, 1956. “Fails to Get Fate of Old Supreme Court Building Before House,” 4 May.

————————, 1956. ‘Mayor Unable to Save Old Supreme Court.” 7 July.

————————, 1956. “Old Supreme Court Being Demolished,” 11 September.

————————, 1956. “West Block Reconstruction Shelved,” 15 October.

————————, 1956. “Built Pond on 14th Hole at Rivermead,” 8 November.

————————, 1958. “A Plaque for the Old Court,” 29 March.

————————, 1958. “Bell Expects Early Action on Capital,” 23 May.

————————, 1979. “Gov’t studying future of ‘parliamentary precinct,’ 17 September.

Snell, James G. and Vaughan, Frederick, The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution, Toronto: The Osgoode Society, 1985.

Urbsite, 2013. Workshops, The Old Supreme Court, 24 June, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2013/06/workshops-old-supreme-court.html.