Crowfoot: Chief, Diplomat, Peacemaker

8 October 1886

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

crowfoot-at-earnscliffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

crowfoot-at-city-hall

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Santa Claus Comes To Town

24 December 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

santa-24-12-1896

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

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

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

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

santa-sparks-24-12-1896

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

12 March 1930

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

barkermajorswaine-lac-pa-122516

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

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

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

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

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

barkersopwithcamellac-pa172313

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arrival of Traffic Lights

5 March 1928

It’s hard to imagine city driving without the ubiquitous traffic lights that govern the ebb and flow of cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians on our streets and avenues. For the most part, we take them for granted. But when a power failure temporarily puts out the lights, the resulting gridlock reminds us how much we rely on them to keep our roads safe and traffic flowing. In contrast, back in the days before the arrival of the automobile when life moved at a more leisurely pace, there was little in the way of traffic controls. Even whether one should keep to the left or to the right was uncertain. As well, everybody had the same right to use the streets and highways as long as one took care not to injure others. Intermingled among horse-drawn delivery wagons, hansom cabs and omnibuses were cyclists and pedestrians. Not only was jaywalking an unheard-of offence, people thought nothing of strolling down the centre of the street.

The pace of life began to quicken in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of electric streetcars. But the arrival of the automobile in large numbers early in the twentieth century was the real game changer. With the rules of the road ill-defined, city streets had become increasingly dangerous. Traffic control became a priority in all major cities. To gain an appreciation of the chaotic traffic conditions in a major North American city during the early 1900s, here is a link (San Francisco Street Scene) to a fascinating short film of a drive down Market Street in San Francisco just days before the famous earthquake devastated the city in 1906.

Traffic lights actually predate the automobile. In late 1868, gas-lit signals were installed at the intersection of Bridge, Great George and Parliament Streets close to the Houses of Parliament in London to help control heavy horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic. Adapted from railway signals by engineer John Peake Knight, the three semaphore signal arms stood on a pillar twenty-two feet high. The horizontal signal arms indicated “stop” and “proceed with caution.” At night, gas lights were used with coloured lenses. Similar to today, a red light indicated that traffic should stop and a green light “proceed with caution.” The lights and signals were manually controlled by a police constable who would also blow a whistle to indicate he was about to change them. Although the new invention was effective at controlling traffic, a month after its installation a gas leak led to an explosion that severely injured the attending constable. This effectively scuppered gas-powered traffic signals in London.

Fast forward to the early years of the twentieth century, manually-powered semaphore traffic signals were used in many American cities to help control traffic. Like their British counterpart, the arms indicated whether traffic should stop or go. Instead of gas, kerosene was sometimes used to light lamps at night, with the standard red or green lenses indicating “stop” and “go,” respectively. In 1923, the inventor Garrett Morgan of Cleveland successfully took out a U.S. patent (# 1,475,024) for a hand-cranked semaphore traffic signal that featured three positions: stop, go, and all stop so that traffic could give way to pedestrians. Morgan reportedly sold his invention for $40,000 to the General Electric Company, a considerable sum in those days.

Traffic lights as we know them date from 1912 when one Lester Wire of Salt Lake City, Utah, who was head of the city’s traffic squad, invented a two-colour, red-green system. Wire never patented his device though it was apparently employed in Salt Lake City. In 1913, James Hoge of Cleveland submitted a patent in the United States for an electric “Municipal Traffic Control System” that consisted of “traffic control boxes or signals at street intersections and other suitable points.” Hoge’s objective was to permit policemen to better control traffic in order to give priority to emergency vehicles. Lamps of different colours would be used with one colour (red) to indicate “stop” and another colour (white) to indicate “move.” He received his patent (# 1,251,666) on 1 January 1918.

The modern, three-colour (red, amber, and green), electric traffic light, first appeared on street corners in Detroit in 1920. Its inventor was William L. Potts, a police officer who, like others at that time, was concerned about worsening road safety owing to the increasing popularity of the automobile. Like Lester Wire before him, Potts did not patent his device, apparently because being a government employee he was not eligible to do so. Within a few years, Potts’s three-colour, electric traffic lights were being widely used in American cities.

Electric traffic lights came to Canadian streets in 1925, first in Hamilton, Ontario and shortly afterwards in Toronto as a means of reducing the number of police constables directing traffic at major intersections. Taking note of Toronto’s favourable experience with traffic lights, police magistrate Charles Hopewell wrote in late 1927 to Ottawa’s Mayor John Balharrie and City Council recommending traffic lights of the three-colour variety be installed as an experiment at three major intersections on Sparks Street—at Bank, Metcalfe, and O’Connor Streets. He recommended against installing lights at the intersection of Sparks and Elgin Streets owing to uncertainty over government plans for the area. The Dominion government had recently expropriated land in this area, including the site of the old Russell Hotel, with a view towards beautifying Ottawa, which included widening Sparks and Elgin Streets. At each of the three chosen intersections, four traffic lights would be installed on the existing “Whiteway” lamp poles. Hopewell recommended the “Co-ordinated Progressive System” of traffic lights made by the Canadian General Electric Company over equipment manufactured by the Northern Electric Company, a forerunner of Northern Telecom. He estimated the purchase and installation costs at approximately $2,600 (about $37,000 in today’s money). After consulting the Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission, the annual electricity cost for running the twelve sets of traffic lights, each equipped with three 60 watt bulbs, was estimated at $640.

Although Council supported Hopewell recommendation to install traffic lights on Sparks Street, the Police Commission in December gave the contract to Northern Electric rather than Canadian General Electric. The cost of buying its automatic traffic control system with twelve sets of lights was under $1,800, much lower than Hopewell’s initial estimate. The funds to buy the equipment came out of unused resources in the police department’s 1927 budget. Of the twelve sets of traffic lights, eleven were mounted horizontally on existing light poles. The twelfth was mounted vertically to see which configuration of lights would be more visible.

Although newspapers optimistically reported that the traffic lights would be ready for Christmas, it took longer than expected for the hydro company to connect them. Finally, shortly before 8am on Monday, 5 March 1928, the new, automatic traffic lights on Sparks Street were switched on. The street lights were synchronized to facilitate travel down the street. They were on a 45-second cycle, with a twenty-second green light, followed by a five-second amber caution light, and a twenty-second red light. Twenty seconds were deemed sufficient time to allow streetcars to unload and load their passengers. Initially, the lights were in operation Monday through Saturday. Extra police were on hand that first day to assist the public in observing the rules. Magistrate Hopewell was also there to witness the lights in use for the first time. He returned at noon to check how things were running.

Overall, the introduction of traffic lights went smoothly, though the volume of traffic was unusually light that first day, possibly owing to cold weather. The street cars were running normally, however, allowing police officials to check the timing of the lights. Groups of people stood around the street corners to watch the lights change colour. A number of car drivers and streetcar operators drove through red lights, but police overlooked the infractions owing to people’s unfamiliarity with the new system. Police also stressed that pedestrians should obey the lights as well.

traffic-signal-28-11-28

The pedestal street lights installed on Wellington Street in 1928, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 28 November 1928.

Naturally, there were complaints. Some motorists didn’t like the location of the lights. Magistrate Hopewell said it would take at least a week for the traffic lights to prove their efficiency. In the meantime, the system would be studied and improved, if necessary.

The new lights were judged to be a complete success, and were quickly rolled out to other important road junctures, including the Sparks and Kent and the Bank and Laurier intersections a few months later. The operation of the street lights was also extended to Sundays.

Wellington Street received its traffic lights in late 1928 at intersections with Elgin, Metcalfe, O’Connor, and Bank Streets. Instead of installing the lights on existing poles, new pedestal-type traffic lights were erected—a first in Canada. The lights, with top red, middle amber, and bottom light green, were mounted on pedestals with a two-foot base, standing over nine-feet high. The city had hoped to have the new traffic lights in operation earlier in the year, but delayed their installation pending approval from Prime Minister Mackenzie King who took a personal interest in plans to improve the Capital. The traffic lights were synchronized so that automobiles travelling at twenty miles per hour from the Château Laurier Hotel to Bank Street would not have to stop. The Ottawa Evening Journal proudly noted that Ottawa was the only city in North America, other than Buffalo, New York, to have an entire thoroughfare equipped with these new type of lights.

From then on, there was no looking back. Traffic lights, proven effective at controlling the flow of traffic and improving road safety, were here to stay.

Sources:

About Money, 2016. “Garrett Morgan 1877-1963,” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/03/the-origin-of-the-green-yellow-and-red-color-scheme-for-traffic-lights/.

Bio, 2016. “Garrett Morgan Biography,” http://www.biography.com/people/garrett-morgan-9414691#cleveland-tunnel-explosion.

Brown, J. E., General Manager, Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission to Mr. C.E. Pearce, Board of Control, 1927. “Letter,” 24 October.

City of Ottawa, 1927. “Minutes,” Traffic Control System, 6 December.

Globe and Mail, 2015. “First electric traffic signal installed 101 years ago,” 5 August.

History, 2016. “First electric traffic signal installed,” This Day in History, August 5. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-electric-traffic-signal-installed.

Hopewell, Charles, Police Magistrate, to Mayor and Board of Control, 1927. “Letter.” 3 October.

——————————————————-, 1927. “Letter.” 5 December.

Idea Finder, 2007, “Traffic Lights,” http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/trafficlight.htm.

Mark Traffic, 2016. “Traffic Lights Invented by William L. Potts,” http://www.marktraffic.com/traffic-lights-invented-by-william-l-potts.php.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1927. “Traffic Lights Installed For Holiday Rush,” 12 December.

————————————, 1928. “New Automatic Signal System In Operation.” 5 March.

————————————, 1928. “Wellington St. Traffic Lights Now Are Likely,” 27 April.

————————————, 1928. “Traffic Lights To Operate Sundays,” 7 May.

————————————, 1928. “Ottawa To Get Latest Types Signal Lights,” 28 November.

Today I Found Out, 2016. “The Origin of the Green, Yellow and Red Color Scheme For Traffic Lights,” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/03/the-origin-of-the-green-yellow-and-red-color-scheme-for-traffic-lights/.

U.S. Patent Office, 1918. “Municipal Traffic Control Signal of J. B. Hoge, Patent Number 1251666,” 1 January, https://www.google.com/patents/US1251666.

The Ottawa International Dog Derby

5 February 1930

If you ask most Canadians today to name the principal winter sports, hockey would undoubtedly top any list. Other contenders would include skiing (alpine or cross-country), ice-skating, snow-boarding, bobsledding, and snowmobiling. Curling too would likely make the cut. If people thought about the question a bit longer, dog sled racing might also be mentioned. Today, the most famous dog sled race is the 1,000-mile Alaskan Iditarod from Anchorage in the south to Nome on the western Bering Sea. The race, held annually, covers some of the toughest winter terrain. The race was started in 1973 in part as a means of saving the dog-sled culture and the Alaskan husky, threatened by the growing popularity of the snowmobile. Another prominent sled race is the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile journey, held annually since 1984, from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, tracing the route prospectors took during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

Despite the high profile of these two races, dog-sledding is pursued by relatively few outdoor winter enthusiasts. But ninety years ago, it was mainstream stuff, with both national and locally-sponsored races known as “dog derbies.” Major sled races of the day included the American Dog Derby of Ashton, Idaho, the Hudson Bay Dog Derby of Le Pas, Manitoba, and the Eastern International Dog Derby held at Quebec City. Just as today’s fans idolize star hockey players, the top sled drivers, such as Emile St. Godard of Le Pas, Manitoba and Finnish-American Leonhard Seppala of Nome, Alaska were household names. Seppala became world famous in 1925 when he and his team of dogs led by Togo, along with other “mushers,” brought much needed anti-diphtheria serum to Nome from Nenana, Alaska, a distance of 600 miles, by sled. Seppala, who drove the most dangerous section across the treacherous ice of Norton Sound in order to save a day’s travel time, handed the serum off to Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his team of dogs led by Balto for the final leg of the journey into Nome. Being the first dog to enter Nome, Balto received the public’s adulation; a fact that didn’t sit well with Seppala who thought his dog Togo was more deserving of honour. A bronze statue of Balto stands in New York’s Central Park, while his stuffed body is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In 1995, an animated Hollywood movie titled Balto, which was loosely based on the 1925 serum run, was produced by Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal Pictures.

In 1930, as part of the Ottawa’s Winter Carnival activities, the Ottawa Business Men’s Association organized the first Ottawa International Dog Derby. Under the leadership of Major F. D. Burpee, the Association raised $3,895 from area businesses and citizens to help fund the event. The Sparks Street department stores Murphy-Gamble and Bryson-Graham donated $100 and $50, respectively. The Ottawa Electric Railway and the Ottawa Electric Company each gave $50, while Thomas Ahearn, the great Ottawa inventor and entrepreneur personally donated $25. Additional funding to cover transportation, as well as room and board for the drivers and their dogs, was provided by the Canadian National Railways and the Château Laurier Hotel. The Château also purchased the gold Challenge Trophy for the Derby winner valued at $1,000.

dog-derby-chateaulgoldchallengecup

The Challenge Trophy donated by the Château Laurier Hotel, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 7 February 1930

The 100-mile Derby was held over three days, with the third and last segment of the race taking place on 5 February 1930. The course for the Derby started at Connaught Place in front of the Château Laurier. It crossed the site of the old Russell Hotel, before heading down the Driveway, under the Bank Street Bridge, along Carling Avenue out to Britannia and Bell’s Corners, over to Fallowfield, down a side road to the Prescott Highway (Prince of Wales Drive), then homeward for the “final dash” along the Driveway to the finish line at Connaught Place. Weather conditions for the Derby were perfect—cold and snowy.

The event was open to any individual from Canada and the United States, with teams of no more than seven dogs. The dogs’ feet could be enclosed in protective boots or moccasins. Doping was prohibited. Teams were divided into three groups, with starting positions within each group determined by lot. The starting position of each group rotated so that the sled teams in the first group on Day One would start last on Day Two, and second on Day Three. There were five race judges, among whom were some eminent mushers, including Major Burwash who had gone out to the Yukon in the 1898 Gold Rush and had mushed 175,000 miles through the Arctic and sub-Arctic.

There was lots of pre-race hype. In late January, one of the Derby contestants, Jack “Yukon” Melville, an Algonquin Park camp owner, made a $500 bet with Mayor Plant and Joseph Van Wyck, the manager of the Château Laurier, that he could mush 400 miles from Rochester to Ottawa, and arrive in time for the start of the race. Melville attached long banners to the sides of his sled inviting everybody to Ottawa to advertise the Dog Derby and the Ottawa Winter Carnival. To facilitate Melville’s journey, Mayor Plant wired town mayors along his route. The Ottawa Automobile Club also wired ahead to ascertain snow conditions on the highways. While Melville completed the sled trip, he arrived back in Ottawa one day late, losing the bet and missing the start of the Ottawa Derby, owing to a lack of snow in upstate New York. The unfortunate Melville also broke two ribs setting out from Rochester. However, so delighted was the city, hotel and the Ottawa Business Men’s Association with the massive press coverage of Melville’s journey and the Ottawa Winter Carnival, his losses were covered. “Jack Melville is not going to lose out on his trip, wager or no wager,” the Château’s manager said according to The Ottawa Evening Journal.

With Melville out of the running, eight sled teams showed up on Day One of the Derby on Monday 3 February. However, judges scratched the entry of Mrs E. P. Ricker Jr of Poland Springs, Maine, the only female musher, owing to four of her dogs being injured in a fight. This left seven teams to contest the first Ottawa International Dog Derby. At noon, in front of a huge, frenzied crowd, estimated at up to 20,000 people, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King who attended with his dog Pat, the Governor General, the Viscount Willingdon, officially opened the Derby. First away was Harry Wheeler of Grey Rocks, Quebec and his team of five huskies. Next was the crowd favourite, Emile St. Godard of Le Pas, Manitoba and his team of seven greyhound/husky mixed breeds led by Toby. Third out was Leonhard Seppala and his seven huskies, followed by Georges Chevrette of Quebec City. Chevrette’s team of greyhound/husky mixed breeds dashed into the crowds on the word “Go,” forcing people to scatter. Undeterred, Chrevette continued the race after disentangling his team, aided by a helpful bystander. Next came Earl Brydges of Le Pas and his seven huskies, followed by Boston’s Walter Channing and his seven Russian wolfhound/husky mixed breeds. Last, was Frank Dupuis of Berthier, Quebec and his six-dog team, owned by the “Come-On Travellers’ Club” of Quebec. Dupuis, held up by Ottawa traffic, almost missed his start. A bellboy from the Château Laurier rushed out to the starting line with a telephone message to the officials saying that Dupuis was on his way. Arriving a few minutes later, Dupuis, unperturbed by a time penalty, gave a jaunty wave to the crowd, and set out puffing on a big cigar. St. Godard easily won the first leg of the Derby in a time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, many minutes ahead of his nearest opponent.

Day Two was also easily won by St. Godard who set the pace in front of another huge crowd that lined the route. But the second day of the competition was not without its excitement. Frank Dupuis’ dogs got spooked by a heaving throng of people who had pushed their way onto the Driveway track despite police barricades. With no place to go, he and his sled were forced over a snow bank into the railing of the Rideau Canal. As it wasn’t his fault, Derby judges allowed him to restart the race without penalty.

dog-derby-st-godard-canada-dept-of-interiorlibrary-and-archives-canadapa-043702

Emile St. Godard led by Toby, The Ottawa International Dog Derby, 1930, Department of the Interior, Library and Archives Canada, PA-043702.

The third and final day of the competition also had its share of thrills. Prior to the start of the last lap, judges disqualified Frank Dupuis “for cause,” reducing the field to just six teams. The rumour was that he had mistreated his dogs. Then St. Godard, who had run flawless legs the previous two days, got into early difficulties when his dogs ran into the crowd and tangled their leashes. Although he lost more than a minute of time re-organizing his sled team, St. Godard continued to have commanding cumulative time advantage over his nearest rivals, leaving Seppala and Brydges to fight it out for second place.

As the clock on the old Post Office read 3.04 pm, a loud roar went up from the huge crowd of spectators, many of whom were school children whose principals had given them time off to watch the race. “Here comes St. Godard under the bridge” was the cry as the “The Saint” mushed his way down the Driveway under the Laurier Street Bridge. Onlookers crowded the windows and even the roof tops of the Post Office, the Château Laurier and Union Station. When the leaders swept down the Driveway past the court house, the presiding magistrate allowed people to rush to the eastern windows for a view of the passing sledders. Emile St. Godard won the first Ottawa International Derby in a total time of 8 hours, 13 minute and 23 seconds. Second place went to fellow Manitoban Earl Brydges with a time of 8 hours 33 minutes and 45 seconds. In third place, close behind, was Leonhard Seppala with a time of 8 hours 34 minutes and 13 seconds.

The following evening at the Carnival Ball, hosted by the Ottawa Business Men’s Association, St. Godard strode into the Château Laurier’s ballroom wearing breeches and moccasins with Toby by his side to be presented the gold Challenge Trophy by the Governor General. To honour Toby, the Trophy was filled with milk. Lord Willingdon also gave St. Godard a cheque for $1,000, the purse for first place. (An anonymous sportsman gave St. Godard an additional $300.)  Earl Brydges, the runner-up, received $400, while third-place Leonhard Seppala received $100.

With the Derby judged a huge success, organizers of the Ottawa Carnival hoped that it would become an annual event. While the second Ottawa International Dog Derby, which was also won by St. Godard, was held in 1931, it was to be the last, a victim of the Depression. In its place a “Junior Dog Derby” for youngsters was organized at Lansdowne Park until it too succumbed. While local dog derbies continued to be held in Ottawa under the auspices of the Ottawa Valley Dog Sled Association, as well in communities in west Quebec through the late 1930s, World War II saw the end of organized dog sled racing in the Ottawa region.

Over a sledding career that spanned ten years from 1925 to 1934, Emile St. Godard and his dog team won more than twenty major races, including the 1932 Winter Olympics held at Lake Placid, New York. A demonstration sport at that year’s Olympics, St. Godard took the gold medal beating his arch-rival Leonhard Seppala who had to settle for silver. Fellow Canadian Shorty Russick took bronze.

Toby, St. Godard’s lead dog, died from peritonitis in 1934 at the age of nine. Indicative of his fame, many newspapers, including The Ottawa Evening Journal, ran obituaries for the half husky, half greyhound sled dog. Devastated by the death of his devoted friend, to whom he credited his victories, St. Godard retired. He died in 1948 at the age of 43. He was inducted posthumously into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1956, the only sled dog racer so honoured. In 2007, he was also inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

Dog sledding has seen a modest revival in recent years, helped by the success of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest races. In eastern Ontario and west Quebec, there are a number of dog sled operators, including Escapade Eskimo, Timberland Tours, and Mush Larose, who offer the chance to feel the thrill of racing across snow-covered fields behind a team of powerful, sled dogs.

Sources:

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Emile St. Godard, http://www.sportshall.ca/stories.html?proID=196&catID=all.

Escapade Ottawa, 2016. Activités Extérieure en Outaouais, http://www.escapade-eskimo.com/.

Iditarod, 2016. The Last Great Race, http://iditarod.com/.

Ottawa, Evening Journal (The), 1930. “State Dog Derby Will be Greatest of Any In Canada,” 18 January.

————————————, 1930. “Course Is Decided For Big Dog Derby,” 21 January.

————————————, 1930. “Dogs To Mush 400 Miles Before February 2 To Win $500 Wager,” 27 January.

————————————, 1930. “Woman’s Entry Leave Field To Seven Men,” 3 February.

————————————, 1930. “Rules For Dog Sled Derby,” 3 February.

————————————, 1930. “Melville Suffers Two Smashed Ribs On Rochester Trip,” 4 February.

————————————, 1930. “Another Huge Crowd To See Dog Teams Go,” 4 February.

————————————, 1930. “These Dog Derby Judges Men With A Keen Sense For Adventurous Life,” 5 February.

————————————, 1930. “St. Godard’s Team Runs Into Crowd At Starting Post,” 5 February.

————————————, 1930. “St. Godard Wins Dog Derby; Brydges Comes Second,” 5 February.

————————————, 1930. “Godard Sets Up World Record 100-Mile Course.” 6 February.

————————————, 1930. “Toby Attends Ball As St. Godard Gets Beautiful Trophy,” 7 February.

————————————, 1930. “Total Dog Derby Donations $3,895, 25 February.

————————————, 1931. “Goes To Dogs With Great Vigor,” 6 February.

————————————, 1931. “Junior Dog Derby To Be Big Feature Of Carnival Week,” 29 December.

————————————, 1934. “Toby, Famous Lead Dog, Dead,” 31 July.

Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, 2106. Emile St. Godard, http://honouredmembers.sportmanitoba.ca/inductee.php?id=360&criteria_sort=name.

Mush Larose, 2016. Ottawa Region Harness Dog Sports Club, http://mushlarose.ca/.

Sam Waller Museum, Le Pas, Manitoba, Sled Dog Racing, Community Memories, Virtual Museum, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line_index&fl=0&lg=English&ex=00000382&pos=1.

Rankin, Joan, E. 1990. Meet me at the Château, A Legacy of Memory, Natural Heritage Books: Toronto.

Timberland Tours, Avec chiens de traineaux toute l’année, http://timberlandtours.ca/index.html.

Yukon Quest, 2016. The 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race – Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, http://yukonquest.com/about.

A Free, Public Library

30 April 1906

While libraries have existed since the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt more than four thousand years ago, free, public libraries are a recent phenomenon, dating back only to the nineteenth century. Previously, libraries were the preserve of the Church, kings and wealthy private citizens—the small minority who were literate and had the resources to afford books. Mass education was viewed by elites with suspicion. It might lead people to question their station in life. In a largely agrarian society, knowing how to plough fields, grow crops, and raise livestock were deemed far more important skills for the common person than reading and writing.

Ideas became to shift during the industrial revolution. Social reformers started to advocate in favour of educating workers in order to advance science and reduce superstition. Increasingly, an educated workforce was seen as an economic blessing rather than a social curse. With thousands of men and women pouring into the cities seeking employment in those “dark satanic mills,” the Church and temperance supporters hoped that edifying lectures and libraries would reduce crime, and keep people out of bars and brothels during their (limited) time off. Starting from the early nineteenth century, mechanics’ institutes and literary and philosophical societies, often sponsored by wealthy industrialists, began popping up in the major cities of Britain. These institutions provided lectures on scientific subjects to their members, typically industrial workers and clerks, who could join for a small fee. They also operated libraries and reading rooms for the benefit of their members. In Britain, the Museums Act of 1845 allowed boroughs to raise funds to support museums and libraries for the edification of the general public.

Similar developments took place in Bytown, later Ottawa, albeit with a lag. Calls for a library to be established in Bytown started as early as 1837. Four years later, a small, circulating library opened for subscribers out of the offices of Alexander Gray, a jeweller and bookseller. Unfortunately, it apparently failed after only one year. In 1847, the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute was founded by the town’s leading citizens. In addition to uplifting educational lectures, the Institute provided a library for its members. Drawing principally upon the English-speaking community, the Institute was unable to attract sufficient members, and quickly became inactive. It was, however, revived in 1853 as the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum (BMIA). Area Francophones established their own cultural institution, l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa in 1852 that still exists today.

The new BMIA, which received an annual grant from the provincial government, did better than its antecedent. It too provided lectures, classes, a reading room and a small circulating library for its members initially out of the basement of the Congregational Church located near Sappers’ Bridge. By 1856, BMIA had a library of roughly 1,000 volumes, mostly academic works though there were a few novels as well. It also subscribed to British, French and American newspapers, journals and periodicals. In 1869, the BMIA merged with the Ottawa Natural History Society to form the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS). While the new organization continued to offer classes, held lectures, and maintained a growing library, its membership was drawn largely from the ranks of civil servants and industrialists rather than mill workers and labourers. Although a fine Parliamentary Library also existed in Ottawa, its use was also largely confined to the town’s elite rather than the working poor.

In 1882, the Ontario Government passed the Free Libraries Act, allowing municipalities to establish public libraries funded out of local taxes with the assent of the ratepayers. A number of cities across the province, including Toronto, took advantage of this new legislation and established public libraries for their citizens. In these cases, the libraries of local mechanics’ institutions were transferred to the new municipally-run libraries. In Ottawa, however, the new legislation had little impact.

During the early 1890s, the Ottawa Council of Women began to lobby for the establishment of a free library in the Capital. In February 1895, the Council, chaired by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, issued the following statement:

“Whereas the Local Council of Women of Ottawa feel that the establishment of a Free Library would be a benefit to the city, resolved: That this Council recommend that the subject be brought prominently before the public through the medium of the press and that a petition to the city council in accordance with the terms of the Free Libraries Act, be prepared for circulation by the Women’s Council.”

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The Perley mansion at 415 Wellington St was offered to the City as a home for a public library in 1896. Topley Studio Fonds/Library & Archives Canada, PA-027381.

In March 1885, the Council of Women submitted its petition to the city with 280 signatures (almost triple the number required by law). The city then prepared a draft by-law establishing a free library to be voted on by Ottawa ratepayers at the upcoming municipal elections. Ratepayers consisted of men over 21 years of age who owned property in excess of $400. Single women and widows who met the property requirement could also vote.  The Council of Women then launched an advertising campaign in support of a free library. With the support of Philip Ross, the editor of The Evening Journal, the Council of Woman published the “Woman’s Edition” of the newspaper in April 1895, with all profits of the edition going to a fund for the free library. In this edition, all the articles, stories and letters were written and edited by women. Front and centre were articles in support of a free library. The movement got a further boost when the heirs of William Perley, a lumber baron, offered the Perely mansion on Wellington Street as home for the new library.

However, the efforts of the women came up short. In the vote held in January 1896, the city’s eight wards all decisively turned down the idea of a public library, with the popular vote 1,958 for and 3,429 against. It seemed that cost of running a library, estimated at about $10,000 per year, was too steep for ratepayers. Instead of becoming a library, the Perley mansion became “The Perley Home for Incurables” until the land was expropriated by the Dominion government in 1912. (In the long run, the location did become a library; the site is now the home of Library and Archives Canada.)

The Council of Women did not give up, and continued to press the issue at city council. But councilmen, while supporting the idea of a free library, collectively continued to reject the idea as being too costly. In 1899, a draft by-law was defeated on second reading on a vote of 13-11. By the early 1900s, with over 400 public libraries in Ontario, Ottawa was looking decidedly backward.

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Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919, Theodore C. Moreau, Library of Congress

Salvation came from the United States. In 1901, Otto Klotz, past president of the OLSS and husband of Marie Klotz who was a leading light in the Ottawa Council of Women’s fight for a public library, wrote Andrew Carnegie, the prominent, Scottish-born, American philanthropist for funds to build a free, public library in Ottawa. The day after Klotz sent his letter, Ottawa mayor W. D. Morris also petitioned Carnegie for funds. By this point, Carnegie had funded hundreds of libraries throughout the United States, Canada, and Britain. Within weeks of receiving the letters, Carnegie pledged $100,000 to pay for an Ottawa Public Library, if Ottawa found a site and if it would agree to spend not less than $7,500 per year in upkeep.

It took several years, however, to bring this about. First, the city hoped that the Dominion government would supply land for the library. When that didn’t happen, city council purchased a site at the corner of Laurier Avenue (then called Maria Street) and Metcalfe Street. Second, it took time to select the design by architect E. L. Horwood out of eleven plans submitted. Third, the project was almost derailed following publication of Carnegie’s views that the United States should annex Canada. But work proceeded. In 1905, council approved $15,000 for the purchase of books, of which $3,500 was spent on French books. Lawrence Burpee, former clerk at the Department of Justice, was selected as Librarian. In turn, Burpee hired an assistant librarian, a cataloguer, three assistants for the circulation desk, and a caretaker. To help expedite the huge task of cataloguing books, Burpee purchased ready-made index cards at a penny a card from the U.S. Library of Congress.

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The Carnegie Library. Notice the stained glass window above the entrance, and the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters on the lintel. Department of Mines and Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada, PA-023297.

Opening day was Monday, 30 April 1906. Carnegie himself was there for the big event. It was the great industrialist and philanthropist’s first visit to Canada. He came the day before via Toronto, where he had given a speech at the Canadian Club. He was met at the train station by Sir Sandford Fleming and the U.S. Consul General who conveyed him to Government House where he stayed on his short trip to Ottawa. The evening before the official opening, Carnegie was the guest of honour at a formal dinner at the Russell House Hotel. With the prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at his side, Carnegie spoke extemporaneously about the union of English-speaking countries, especially the United States and Canada—his favourite hobby horse. Calling himself as a “race imperialist,” he dubbed Canada “the Scotland of America,” and disingenuously envisaged Canada annexing her southern neighbour, just as Scotland had “annexed” England, and “afterwards boss it for its own good, as Scotland did also.” [James VI of Scotland became James I of England at the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.] He also praised Laurier for maintaining Canada’s fiscal independence [from Britain] and for not being swept into the vortex of militarism [a dig at the British who were engaged in an arms’ race with Germany]. Despite Carnegie’s annexationist and racial views, Laurier replied graciously saying that he too was a “race imperialist,” and opined that the separation of England from her American colonies had been a “crime,” and hoped for re-union. He added that had he “not been born of French parentage, there was nothing he would have rather been than a Scot.”

For the official opening the next afternoon, the classical, four-storey library building was clad in Union Jacks, the Stars and Stripes and colourful bunting. Constructed at a cost of slightly less than $100,000, the building was made of Indiana sandstone. The central main entrance was bracketed by four Corinthian columns, two on either side. Above the entrance was a large stained glass window that featured famous authors—William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, Lord Tennyson, and the Canadian Confederation poet Archibald Lampman. Overhead, on the lintel of the building, was inscribed the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters. For the official opening, these words were hidden by bunting to avoid embarrassment as the official name of the building was “The Carnegie Library,” a name used by the Ottawa Public Library into the 1950s.

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Interior of The Carnegie Library looking towards the main entrance, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009086.

The building’s interior walls were clad in Italian marble with beautiful red oak wooden flooring and wainscoting. In front of the entrance hung a portrait of Carnegie painted by Miss V. Fréchette, the daughter of Achille Fréchette the translator of the House of Commons, and Annie Howells Fréchette who edited the “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal in 1895. The basement held classrooms, a newspaper room, a furnace room and the caretaker’s quarters. The ground floor was devoted to reading rooms to the right and left of the large lobby, the librarian’s offices, the stack room as well as the circulation desks. A marble and bronze staircase led upstairs to boardrooms, a reference department, a lecture room for 125 persons, staff offices, and a cloakroom.

After the customary welcoming speeches, Carnegie thanked the city and praised it for constructing such a fine building. He then reprised his speech on “race imperialism.” On a tour of the facilities, Carnegie was “waylaid” by a delegation of the St Andrew’s Society who gave the philanthropist an honorary membership to the Sons of Scotland of Canada. After the ceremonies, Carnegie left by train for Montreal, where he was granted an honorary degree at McGill University, and gave yet another speech on race imperialism before returning to New York.

The Carnegie Library was a great success. By the end of 1907, almost 20,000 library cards had been handed out, with an annual circulation of 129,000 books. So successful was it that the old Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society closed for good, its members flocking to the free services provided by the city. Before long, strong demand for the Library led to the establishment of branch operations. In 1916, Carnegie donated an additional $15,000 to build a western branch on Rosemount Avenue. It opened in 1919. This donation was the last Carnegie gave to Canada. He died in 1919 at the age of 83.

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Columns salvaged from The Carnegie Library, Rockcliffe Rockeries, 2016, by Nicolle Melanson-Powell

By the 1960s, the downtown Carnegie library was showing signs of age. Serious cracks had opened up in its walls and ceilings under the weight of the books it contained. In a time when little thought was given to heritage considerations, the beautiful, classic structure was demolished in 1971, a year after the gracious Capitol Theatre also succumbed to the wrecking ball. It was replaced by the current, Brutalist style, concrete building that was completed in 1974. The only thing retained from the old building was the stained glass window. The Library’s Corinthian columns were also saved and were reused as a “folly” in the Rockcliffe Rockeries.

Today, things have gone full circle. Plans are afoot to replace the current central library at 140 Metcalfe Street. Also, the aging Rosemount Branch, built a century ago using a Carnegie donation, is too small for current needs. Its future is now in doubt.

Sources:

Bytown Gazette & Ottawa Advertiser (The), 1841, “Circulating Library,” 9 December.

Carnegie Library (The), 1908. 3rd Report, Ottawa: The Ottawa Printing Co. (Limited).

Evening Journal (The), 1895, “Women In Council,” 4 February.

—————————, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.

—————————, 1895, “Free Library Law,”19 December.

—————————, 1896. “Just the Place,” 4 January.

—————————, 1896. “All Jumped On,” 7 January.

—————————, 1899. Free Library By-Law Killed, 5 December.

—————————, 1901. “Free Public Library for City of Ottawa, Carnegie to donate $100,000,” 11 March.

—————————, 1906. “The Program In Ottawa,” 28 April.

—————————, 1906. “The Carnegie Library,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Carnegie Library Formally Opened,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Reception of Library King,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Ceremonies at the Opening,” 1 May.

—————————, 1967. “Old Library to Come Down,” 21 November.

—————————, 1969. “Funds, Weather, Moon Shot Blames for Library Woes,” 12

September.

————————–, 1970. “Library Cracks Up,” 8 August.

—————————, 1971. “Old Building Wrecked by Cohen’s, 24 September.

—————————, 1974. “Salute to the New Central Ottawa Public Library,” 8 May.

Gaizauskas, Barbara, 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History of The Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, Carleton University, M.A. Thesis, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.

Jenkins, Phil, 2002. The Library Book: An Overdue History of the Ottawa Public Library, 1906-2001, Ottawa: Ottawa Public Library.

Rush, Anita, 1981. The Establishment of Ottawa’s Public Library, Carleton University.

Urbsite, 2012. Unforgotten Ottawa, The Carnegie Library, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/09/unforgotten-ottawa-carnegie-library.html?q=Carnegie+library.

 

 

 

Britannia-on-the-Bay

24 May 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defunct Trolley Station, Britannia Park, 2015.

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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