Velocipedes and Bicycles

1 May 1869

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the bicycle or its predecessor, the velocipede, were introduced to Ottawa. But, the first reference to a velocipede in the Ottawa Daily Citizen appeared in February 1862. However, instead of referring to a two-wheeled vehicle, it was the name of a horse that competed in the winter ice races held in Aylmer, Quebec. Out of a field of four, Velocipede, a brown colt owned by a Mr. Kenny, came in last in races held on in February 1862. If punters wondered what a velocipede was, they were certain it wasn’t a runner.

The velocipede was invented in Germany in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais. In its earliest form, it consisted of two wheels attached to a saddle. As there were no pedals, riders pushed themselves along with the feet. This design remained essentially unchanged for roughly fifty years, until Pierre Michaux or his employee Pierre Lallement (accounts vary) added pedals to the front wheel in 1863. This improved velocipede became all the rage in France among both men and women, with the craze spreading around the globe. In 1868, it was reported that so many people were using velocipedes on the Champs Élysées at night that police were requiring riders to attached lanterns to their machines owing to the number of accidents.

Man riding a velocipede, c.1870, State Library of Southern Australia.

In mid-February 1869, the Citizen reported that velocipedes were about to be introduced into Toronto, and that a carriage builder had gone to New York to obtain a pattern to manufacture them. A few days later, the newspaper said that a velocipede had appeared on Toronto’s King Street and had caused much excitement… and laughter when the rider “came to grief.” Meanwhile in Montreal, velocipede “fever” had set in, with schools established to teach people how to ride them. It was also reported that France was apparently exporting the machines in huge numbers to North America. The Citizen opined that “surely, the world is suffering from velocipede on the brain.”

The newspaper was, however, dubious about how long the velocipede fad would last. In May 1869, it claimed that six months of velocipeding in the United States had “been sufficient to show that this mode of locomotion is practically worthless.” The Citizen also reported that in Harrisburg, New York the velocipede had found a new rival—stilts.

The problem appears to have been that velocipedes were very heavy and, while they performed well on prepared tracks, they were difficult to ride on ordinary roads. Riders quickly exhausted themselves. As well, with its pedals attached directly to the front wheel, a velocipede had a tendency to swerve every time one pushed down on a pedal. They were also uncomfortable to ride owing to their heavy iron frames and solid wheels. Uneven road surfaces were another problem. These were the days long before smooth, asphalted road surfaces. At best, city roads were cobbled or “macadamized,” in other words made up of layers of stones. Owing to its uncomfortable ride, the velocipede was sometimes referred to as “the boneshaker.”

While Toronto and Montreal might have led the pack when it came to velocipeding in Canada, Ottawa was not far behind. By late April 1869, velocipedes were sufficiently numerous on Ottawa’s relatively smooth wooden sidewalks, that the “new fangled equestrians” were a great nuisance to “dress trains,” baby perambulators, and pedestrians in general. So great was the problem, police were instructed to ticket offenders. However, at the police court held on 1 May 1869, the presiding magistrate dismissed charges on the grounds that there was no city by-law prohibiting velocipedes from city sidewalks. In Toronto, however, a similar case led to a $1 fine being levied.  

By the summer of 1869, velocipede races were seemingly commonplace in Ottawa. In August of that year, the St. George’s Picnic, held in McKay’s Grove near New Edinburgh, featured a velocipede race. A “handsome silver medal” was awarded to the winner.

As an interesting aside, an article that appeared in the Citizen in 1869 but attributed to the Pall Mall Gazette of London referred to a proposal to make what would likely have been the world’s first, dedicated, city bike lanes. The article said that “An enterprising individual in Berlin” had suggested that the city cover over the gutters on each side of its streets to be “the future velocipede high road of the city.” He also proposed a thousand tricycles with uniformed drivers could use these lanes to deliver parcels, letters, and passengers for a small fee—a sort of nineteenth-century cross between UPS and Uber.

A “high-wheeler” like the one made in 1877 by Mr. Back. Howard Morton/Library and Archives Canada, C-002624.

The 1870s saw the appearance in Ottawa of the “high-wheeler” bicycle, also known as the “ordinary” or the “penny-farthing,” named after the two old British coins. The huge front wheel, which could have a diameter of four to five feet, was the “penny” and the small rear wheel, the “farthing.” The big front wheel apparently offered improved shock absorption. The bicycles were so high that a two-step stool was necessary to mount them.

In 1877, a Mr. Back, then eighteen years old, read about this latest technological marvel in American magazines and yearned to own one. Unable to afford the expensive machine that cost as much as a worker might earn in six months, the enterprising young man made his own machine using carriage wheels. The frame and handlebars he crafted from flat iron and pipe, while the pedals were fashioned from blocks of wood. Not surprisingly, the vehicle was heavy. But it rode well, and became the talk of the town. Back went on to sell four copies to other Ottawa residents. Years later when interviewed by the Ottawa Journal, Back, now a piano tuner at Orme’s Music Store on Sparks Street, said that he had recently seen one of his creations for sale in a second-hand shop.

In mid-August 1880, an advertisement submitted by A.E. Wilson appeared in the Citizen asking gentlemen who were interested in forming a bicycle club to meet at No. 40½ Elgin Street, opposite the Russell House to look at price lists for machines. That evening, the men formed the Ottawa Bicycle Club. Members of the club apparently wore a distinctive uniform. Riding on Sundays got members in trouble with local churches that viewed biking on Sunday as a desecration of the Sabbath. The Club advised people to ride “as unostentatiously as possible” on Sundays.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of velocipedes and high-wheeler bicycles led to accidents. In one possibly apocryphal story, Sir Hector Langevin, then Minister of Public Works, was run down by a high-wheeler. It was reported that because of this accident, an Order-in-Council was issued to bar high-wheelers from Parliament Hill. This ban apparently lasted for five years.

In 1884, a man on a bicycle was involved in a serious accident with a horse and buggy at the top of the hill on Albert Street. In a letter to the editor of the Citizen, an irate witness to the accident said that the horse had been spooked by the cyclist, causing the animal, vehicle and the two clergymen riders to capsize off the cliff and fall onto rocks ten feet below. While the horse was severely injured, the two men escaped with only bruises. The witness described the cyclist as being tall, with a light moustache, and wearing the uniform of the Ottawa Bicycle Club. He ended his letter by writing: “It is full time that a stop was put to allowing such machines to run on the streets and endanger the lives and limbs of the travelling public.” He was not alone in demanding such a ban. The Canadian Wheelmen’s Association, which was established in 1882 in St. Thomas, Ontario to promote biking, apparently spent considerable time and resources defending cyclists’ rights from attempts to legislate bicycles off of city streets. The Association had a branch in Ottawa and other major cities, and more than 650 members across the country in early 1885.

The Humber safety bicycle, 1892. The Humber was made under licence in Canada. Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.

By the mid-1890s, the high-wheeler had been replaced by the more familiar “safety bicycle” or “low bicycle” that didn’t risk life or limb in case of a tumble. Like modern bicycles, safety bikes utilized a chain and had two wheels of the same size. Initially equipped with sold tires, inflatable pneumatic tires were introduced in 1892. Pneumatic tires provided a much more comfortable ride. The first bicycle so equipped in Ottawa was a “Humber” safety bicycle. Its pneumatic tires were described as “a large rubber hose,” and was quite the novelty. The bicycle cost $170 (more than $5,000 in today’s money) and was brought to the city by a syndicate made up of Messrs. W.B. Parr, D.F. Blyth, Stewart McClenaghan, and Dr. M.G. McElhinney. McElhinney was the first to ride it from downtown to the Electric Park on Bank Street, near Patterson’s Creek. Stewart McClenaghan ended up owning the bicycle. Dr. McElhinney must have been passionate about all things related to personal transportation. In 1902, he purchased the first automobile sold in Ottawa.

As bicycle cycle production ramped up and new manufacturers entered the market, the cost of safety bicycles declined. By 1896, the Humber was down in price to a much more affordable, though still expensive, $65. A biking craze ensued in North America and Europe among both men and women eager to adopt this effective, invigorating and liberating form of transportation.

Mabel Williams with Bicycle at 54 Main Street, Ottawa, residence of James Ballantyne, July 1898, Library and Archives Canada, 3191717.

Biking was quickly adopted by early feminists. In the United States, Susan B. Anthony said the bicycle had done more to emancipate women than anything else. “It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel–the picture of free, untrampled womanhood.” While female cyclists were initially hampered by the Victorian dress code that mandated long skirts, petticoats and corsets for women, the impracticality of this type of costume for cyclists led to pressure for more rational dress.

Susan B. Anthony, 1890, author unknown, Wikipedia

By May 1895, Ottawa had roughly 250 bikers who, like bicycling enthusiasts elsewhere, sought good, smooth roads on which to drive. At that time, city streets in Ottawa were mostly made of crushed stone, wooden blocks, or cobbles. Even when well maintained, which they seldom were, such roads quickly became heavily rutted. Not surprisingly, Ottawa’s city fathers came under pressure to pave the streets.

At the end of August, 1895, Sparks Street was paved with asphalt from roughly where the National Arts Centre is today to Bank Street. The newly-paved street was inaugurated by bicycle races sponsored by Mayor Borthwick and City Council. Thousands of Ottawa residents turned out in the early evening to cheer on competitors in three races. The first was from the old Russell Hotel, which stood where the War Memorial is today, to Bank Street. It was won by T. Harvey of Hull with W. Besserer, in second place. Harvey also won the second race from the Russell to Bank Street and back, three yards ahead of A. Parr. In the third and final race, in which contestants had to had to go twice around the same course dismounting at each turn, Besserer emerged victorious beating out Harvey.

The introduction of the automobile at the beginning of the twentieth century put a brake on the bicycle mania of the 1890s. However, the bicycle’s utility as an effective mode of transportation and exercise meant that the vehicle has had enduring appeal. Today, the bicycle is popular as a fun, environmentally-friendly and healthy form of transportation and recreation suitable for people of all ages.

Sources:

Age of Revolution, 2020. The Velocipede, https://ageofrevolution.org/.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1862. “The Trotting Races At Aylmer, 22 February.

————————–, 1868. “No Title,” 18 December.

————————–, 1869. “Toronto 13th,” 19 February.

————————–, 1869. “Police Court,” 3 May.

————————–, 1869. “Defective,” 3 May.

————————–, 1869, “The Failure Of The Velocipede,” 10 May.

————————–, 1869. “St. George’s Pic Nic (stet),” 17 August.

————————–, 1869. “No Title.” 1 October.

————————–, 1880. “Ottawa Bicycle Club,” 18 August.

————————–, 1884. “A Complaint,” 26 July.

————————-, 1892. “Local Briefs,” 27 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1895. “Do You Ride A Bike?”  27 May.

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

—————————–, 1896. “We have the best,” Fotheringham & Popham, 17 March.

—————————–, 1942. “Return of Bicycling Recalls Wheeling In Mauve Age,” 11 April.

Smith, Kenneth, V. 2012. “Competitive Cycling in Canada,” Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cycling.

Smithsonian, 2021. The Development of the Velocipede, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/si-bikes/si-bikes-velocipede.

World Bicycle Relief, 2021. How Women Cycled Their Way To Freedom, https://worldbicyclerelief.org/how-women-cycled-their-way-to-freedom/.

It’s Electrifying!

1 May 1885

During the late nineteenth century, the race was on to develop a practical electric lamp, one that delivered a steady, brilliant, and durable light. It also had to be cheap; the electric light was up against a well-established competitor, the gas lamp. Gasworks were major industries at the time. Well capitalized and employing tens of thousands, they lit city streets, businesses and homes, with gas delivered through underground pipes. There were two electric contenders at that time, the arc lamp, which was first demonstrated by Humphry Davy at the beginning of the century but was not a practical source of light until the invention of efficient generators (dynamos) in the 1870s, and the incandescent lamp, perfected by Thomas Edison in 1879. The arc lamp consisted of an “arch” or arc of light between two carbon electrodes in air. While providing an intense, bright light, arc lamps burnt very hot, often emitting sparks. To protect against fire, arc lamps were often equipped with glass globes, open at the top to release the heat. The globes also helped to diffuse the light, which improved its quality, and to block dangerous ultra-violet emissions, though people were unaware of such radiation at the time. Edison’s incandescent bulb used a carbon filament inside a vacuum tube that produced light and heat when electricity was passed through it. Its light was much less intense that that of the arc lamp. For illuminating large spaces, especially outdoor spaces, the arc lamp initially had the edge over the incandescent bulb. In contrast, the smaller incandescent bulb was much better suited for indoor settings. Arc lamp street lights were installed in Paris in 1878 for the Exposition Universelle. The following year, Charles Bush fitted Cleveland’s Public Square, a four-block downtown plaza, with arc lights. The eponymous Bush Electrical Company, a precursor firm of the General Electric Company, became a supplier of arc lamps throughout North America.

Electric lighting arrived in the Ottawa area in mid-1881 when E.B. Eddy installed Bush arc lights in his huge lumber, match, and woodenware works in Hull, Quebec located at the Chaudière Falls. Forty arc lights, with a generator run by waterpower to provide the electricity, illuminated the yard at a cost of $11,000. The carbon electrodes, or “pencils,” used in the lamps lasted eight hours before needing to be replaced. Eddy’s lights were fifty percent cheaper to run than naphtha or coal gas lamps. A small, five arc-light system was subsequently fitted on the Ottawa side at the Levi Young mill on Victoria Island at a cost of $900. The system was sufficient to light the mill’s interior, the walls of which were painted white to reflect back the light, and the lumber yard outside. So good was the illumination that it was reported that the workmen preferred to work at night under the lights.

While E. B. Eddy was installing electric lights at his lumber works, Henry C. Spalding, a Boston electrical engineer and inventor, came to Ottawa to present City Council with an ambitious plan to light the entire city by placing large, Bush arc lamps on ten high towers, as much as 200-240 feet tall. He had chosen Ottawa as a candidate for his lighting system since it was small city, hence cheaper to light, and, being a capital, would be a conspicuous place for a successful trial. His was a radical, and largely untested, concept at the time, though such towers were later erected in some U.S. cities. In May 1881, City Council approved a trial of Spalding’s tower idea, but the project never got off the ground. No doubt, the huge expense was a factor. Spalding wanted $150,000 per year, though he would provide free lighting for thirty days. Adequate power supplies was likely another factor. Despite this setback, Ottawa City Council was unfazed. A committee struck to look at city lighting concluded in December 1881 that the city had sufficient water power to light lamps of 4,000 candle power suspended from four 200-foot towers at a capital cost of about $20,000, and a running annual cost of $7,000-8,000. The following January, a test tower, 100-200 feet high (accounts vary) was built at the top of Nanny Goat Hill overlooking Lebreton Flats, roughly where Christchurch Cathedral is located today. On 7 April 1882, the tower’s arc lamps were tested. They were a big disappointment. Their brilliance fluctuated, and they provided less volume of light than expected. The idea of lighting the city using towers was dropped.

Arc Lamp, 1884, San Jose
Tower Arc Lamp, installed in San Jose, California, 1884

While the City explored other options of lighting its streets, incandescent lighting came to Ottawa. In early April 1883, Thomas Edison’s patented light bulbs were installed for the first time in Canada at the Canada Cotton Manufacturing Company in Cornwall. Four hundred visitors came to see them switched on. Many were parliamentarians from Ottawa. Duly impressed with what they had seen, a plan to electrify Parliament was swiftly put into motion, equipping the Senate and the House of Commons with 150 Edison lights, each of 16 candle power, in both chambers. Thomas Ahearn, Ottawa’s entrepreneur and inventor par excellence of the nineteenth century, and his partner Warren Soper, supplied the power plant in the House of Commons’ basement. The lighting system, which was furnished by the Edison Electric Light Company, were officially switched on when Parliament opened for the second session of the 5th Parliament on 17 January 1884, though not before Ottawa experienced what was probably its first electrical fire. When the Edison representative turned on the lights in the Senate Speaker’s dining room to give a demonstration to Sir Hector Langevin, the Minister of Public Works, prior to the official launch, the rubber and silk insulation around the wiring caught fire. Fortunately, the fire was quickly extinguished, and repairs made.

Thomas Ahearn
Thomas Ahearn, engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur par excellence

The following year, Ottawa’s City Council took steps to replace the city’s aging gas streetlights with electric lights. The need for new street lights had become pressing. In early 1884, the City’s Fire and Light Committee had complained that Ottawa’s naphtha and gas street lights were in “a dilapidated state.” In March 1885, the City signed a contract with the Ottawa Electric Light Company (OELC) for the provision of electric street lights.  The OELC was owned by a group of prominent Ottawa businessmen. Its president was Gordon B. Pattee, one of the city’s lumber barons. The OELC would “supply, erect, maintain and keep in repair” 165 arc lamps, each of 2,000 candle power, for three years, as well as additional lamps as may be required. The price tag was less than a tenth of that demanded by Henry Spalding four years earlier. The City would pay $13,000 per annum for the initial 165 lamps, $40 per lamp, per annum, for the next fifteen lamps, and $80 per lamp, per annum, for any additional lamps beyond 180. The City required wires to be kept completely insulated, with all installations of plant and equipment inspected and approved by the City Engineer and the “Superintendent of the Fire Alarm.” The location of lamps and poles were also subject to the approval of the City Engineer. The contract required the OELC to keep the lights on every night from “dark to daylight, excepting when the moon shines bright and clear and the sky is unclouded.” The lamps had to be lit a minimum of 280 nights each year.

Work to put up the necessary poles and install the arc lamps commenced immediately. Six weeks later, at dusk on 1 May 1885, Ottawa’s new electric street lights were officially switched on in the presence of Mayor McDougall and other city fathers. The City celebrated the event with a band and a parade.  The night before, while the streetlight system was being tested, Ottawa’s City Council had given the OELC company permission to produce and sell electricity throughout the city. By-law No. 600 authorized the company to “construct, maintain, complete and operate works for the production, sale and distribution of electricity for purposes of light, heat and power.” The by-law also gave the company permission to string its wires on poles “along Ottawa’s streets, squares and bridges.”

Government and citizens were delighted with their new street lights. The Daily Citizen enthused that the lights placed Ottawa “ahead of any city in America.” In an editorial, the newspaper described the event as “one which should mark another era in the progress of the city.” At year-end, the Fire and Light Committee boasted that Ottawa was the “best lighted” and only city in Canada that was entirely lit by electricity. 199 electric arc lights had been installed covering a larger area that what had been lit previously by naphtha and gas. Costs had also been reduced. Lighting costs for 1885 amounted to $13,651, down from $15,447 in 1884, prior to the introduction of electricity.

In May 1887, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper established the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company (CELPC). This company was the first to provide incandescent lighting for general use in stores and homes in both Ottawa and Hull. Reportedly, lines were strung along their principal streets under the direct supervision of Thomas Ahearn.

After a “rate war” that occurred following the establishment of the Standard Electric Company in 1891, the OELC, the CELPC and Standard Electric merged in 1894 to form the Ottawa Electric Company with Thomas Ahearn as its President. The merger created a virtual monopoly in the production and distribution of electricity in the area. After buying out the Ottawa Gas Company in 1906, a holding company called the Consolidated Light, Heat and Power Company was incorporated. Three years later, it changed its name to the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company. In 1950, the company was acquired by the Ottawa Hydro Commission.

Sources:

Adamek, Anna, 2014, “Turning On The Lights In Parliament,” Parliament of Canada, http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/House/collections/collection_profiles/CP_electrification-e.htm.

Ahern, Dennis, 2013. “Thomas Ahearn, The Canadian Edison,” Ancestery.com, 2013, http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~aherns/ahedison.htm.

Daily Citizen, 1885. “Ottawa Electric Light Company,” 19 February.

————–, 1885, “The Electric Light,” 1 May.

—————, 1885. “Advancement,” 2 May.

————–, 1894. “Notice,” 3 August.

————–, 1927. “Ottawa Heat, Light & Power Co. Reports Another Successful Year,” 1 March.

————–, 1928. “Electric and Gas Companies of Ottawa Were Organized In Face Of Considerable Hardships,” 13 March.

Edison Tech Center, 2010: The Electric Light: Arc Lamps, http://www.edisontechcenter.org/ArcLamps.html#works.

Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January, http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/01/moonlight-towers-light-pollution-in-the-1800s.html.

Mayer, Roy, 1997. “Turning Up The Heat,” Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Raincoast Books: Vancouver.

Ottawa City Council, 1885. “Minutes: Memo of understanding between the Ottawa Electric Light Company and the Corporation of the City of Ottawa,” 16 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes: “Consideration of Contract for electric street lighting,” 20 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes, By-law 600: Authority granted to The Ottawa Electric Light Company,” 30 April.

——————–, 1886, “Minutes, Report of the Fire and Light Committee,” 15 January.

The Citizen, 1928. “Electric And Gas Companies Of Ottawa Were Organized In Face Of Numerous Hardships,” 13 March.

The Globe, 1881. “The Electric Light: An Experiment of Lighting the Streets to be Tried at Ottawa,” 24 May.

————-, 1881. “The Electric Light: Proposed Scheme for Illuminating the Capital,” 2 June.

————-, 1881. “New Uses for Gas: The Time for Its Abolition Not Yet Arrived,” 27 August.

————-, 1881. “Notes from the Capital: The Electric Light Again,” 12 December.

————-, 1882. “Trial Of The Electric Light,” 11 January.

————-, 1882. “Notes From The Capital: Electric Light Experiment,” 13 January.

————-, 1882. “From The Capital,” 8 April.

————-, 1882. “The Electric Light: Practical Results of its Working in Ottawa,” 2 August.

————-, 1883. “Electric Light: Edison’s Light in Operation in Canada,” 4 April.

Uren, Janet, 2014. “The Man who lit up Ottawa,” The Citizen, 1 August.

Images: Tower Arc Lamp, Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January, http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/01/moonlight-towers-light-pollution-in-the-1800s.html.

Thomas Ahearn,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Ahearn, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012222.

End of the Line

1 May 1959

At 3.25am on the morning of Friday, 1 May 1959, the last of Ottawa’s red electric streetcars, #837 driven by operator Gordon Anderson, pulled into the Cobourg Barn after having completed its final run from Britannia. Despite the early hour, on board as witnesses to history were management and union officials of the Ottawa Transit Commission (OTC). The following day, the OTC organized a parade in honour of the streetcars. Thousands of Ottawa citizens lined the parade route from George Street to Holland Junction to bid adieu. The old streetcars, decorated with “Goodbye” signs, were accompanied by the 40-piece O’Keefe marching band, 30 majorettes, and a host of city officials, retired employees, and members of railway organizations.

The festivities marked the end of an era dating back seventy years.  During the late 1880s, Ottawa had advertised in major papers for offers to build and operate an electric streetcar system. Negotiations were initially opened with a firm headed by Mr. Henry N. Bate, a prominent Ottawa merchant, but went nowhere. In 1890, a Toronto syndicate led by Mr. William H. Howland, a businessman and former mayor of Toronto, entered into talks with Ottawa officials. After months of negotiations, a detailed proposal was finally hammered out. However, Howland’s solicitor was unable or unwilling to provide a required $5,000 performance bond in a form acceptable to the City. When a deadline extension ran out during the afternoon of 20 November 1890, it looked like Ottawa’s efforts to obtain an electric transit system had failed again. But that evening, as discussions at City Council continued, an alderman announced that the city clerk had just received a letter from two local men, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, indicating their willingness to build and operate an electric streetcar system on the same terms as negotiated by Howland. The duo had brought electricity to the city some years earlier and had an excellent reputation. Unlike their competitor, they enclosed a $5,000 cheque made out to the City as security for the proper completion of the contract. A heated debate followed over the legalities of accepting the Ahearn-Soper offer. Howland’s solicitor, under protest, offered to provide a similar cheque. But it was too late. Council awarded the Ottawa electric streetcar franchise to the home-town boys on a close 12-10 vote.

The Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company, with capital of $500,000, was quickly up and running. Just two and a half months after breaking ground in early April 1890, the tracks and overhead electrical lines were installed, with a test run made on 24 June. The following day, the streetcars were opened to the public, with hundreds turning out to enjoy free rides. Four routes were promised: Main Line which ran down Rideau and Sparks Streets, Bank Street Branch, Elgin Street Branch, and the New Edinburgh Branch. A ticket on the new transit system cost five cents, a price that remained unchanged until 1928. The official launch of the service took place on Monday, 29 June, 1891. Four closed cars, festooned with bunting and carrying 140 invited guests including Mayor Thomas Birkett, made the inaugural trip from the Albert Street Barn (garage) to the exhibition grounds at Landsdowne Park. It’s said that Thomas Ahearn’s five-year old son, Frank, threw the switch which started the flow of electricity.

Thomas Keefer, the combative president and majority shareholder of the Ottawa City Passenger Railway (OCPR), which had a charter to provide a horse-drawn railway service in the city, objected to the new electric streetcars. However, his complaints were silenced when Ahearn and Soper bought his company in October 1891. With the merger, the new company was called the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER). The horse service ceased operations by 1893.

As Ottawa was the first city in Canada to have an electric traction public transit system, other cities were watching closely, especially how the service would operate during the winter months. Under their contract with the City, Ahearn and Soper were permitted to run sleighs during the winter season. But, undaunted by the snow, the duo used an electric rotary brush to clear the rails. Streetcar service ran unimpeded that first winter. Ottawa’s mayor had been so certain that winter service was impossible that he had offered to host a banquet in their honour should they succeed. In late February 1892, Ahearn, Soper and the directors of the OESR were feted at a special dinner; streetcars bore the guests home after the event.

Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895
Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895

The rotary snow brushes proved to be a sensation among Ottawa citizens. While store merchants objected to snow being sprayed all over freshly cleared entrance ways, as did pedestrians caught on the street as the sweepers went by, there was no doubt of their effectiveness. During that first winter, the stretch of Bank Street between Slater and Cooper Streets became the site of an impromptu contest between brawn and technology. As crowds cheered and jeered, men shovelled snow on the track in front of the streetcar sweepers. As fast as they could shovel, the sweepers brushed the snow aside. As dusk fell, victory was accorded to the newfangled machines.

The electric streetcars were part of what economists today would call a vertically integrated system. Ahearn and Soper also owned the company that provided the electricity that ran the streetcars, having built a powerhouse at the Chaudière Falls. They also purchased the Ottawa Car Company which built the streetcars. Conveniently, the rear entrance of Ottawa Car was right across the street from the Albert Street garage of the Ottawa Electric Railway. Ottawa Car made streetcars for the OER, as well as other urban transit systems, until it went out of business in1948.

Early OER streetcars were luxurious for the time. Called “Toonervilles,” they were electrically heated for the comfort of their passengers, and were equipped with clocks. Coco mats were laid down on their floors in winter to absorb melting snow. The exterior of the cars were painted red and green and sported gold scrollwork. Distinctive insignia on their roofs allowed customers to tell the route of the car from a distance. Cars were staffed by a driver and conductor, both of whom wore blue uniforms with silver buttons. Later, larger, roomier vehicles were introduced. In 1924, “pay-as-you-enter streetcars,” manned by only a driver, were brought into service.

Things began to sour for the streetcars in the late 1920s. Ridership slumped during the Depression, reducing revenues despite a ticket price increase to seven cents. Employees’ pay was cut by 10 per cent in 1931. Although ridership improved markedly during World War II, net income remained weak owing to rising costs and the wartime “Excess Profits Tax” levied by the Federal Government. Necessary infrastructure investment was deferred, and second-hand cars purchased from the Toronto Transit Commission were put into service. After the war, following a dispute over ticket prices, public sentiment began to favour public ownership of the company. A plebiscite in November 1947 overwhelming supported a government buy-out. On 12 August 1948, at a cost of $6.2 million, the OER passed out of private hands, and the Ottawa Transit Commission was born.

Ottawa Streetcar
Ottawa Streetcar in front of Union Station, Corner of Elgin and Rideau Streets, circa 1950

But the future continued to darken for Ottawa’s streetcars. With private ownership of cars rapidly rising as wartime austerity faded, transit ridership declined by a third by 1955 from its 1946 peak. In an effort to halt the rot, the OTC introduced trolleybuses, i.e., wheeled vehicles powered by overhead electrical lines, in 1951. While far cheaper than streetcars to purchase, trolleybuses could not compete with buses which were also competitively priced and didn’t require the costly electrical infrastructure. Buses were seen as modern and flexible, and already serviced Ottawa’s outlying areas following the annexation of portions of Nepean and Gloucester Townships. Internal and external reports commissioned by the OTC on the future of the transit system all called for the streetcars to be retired. To sustain an electric traction transit system would have required major capital investments to replace aging streetcars and to upgrade antiquated track and electrical systems, money the OTC did not have. Streetcars seemed to have few fans in official circles either. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, disliked them. A conversion to bus transit would allow for the elimination of unsightly electrical wires that marred views of Parliament Hill. Amidst Cold War fears, Mayor Charlotte Whitton claimed in 1955 that electric streetcars and trolleys were vulnerable to a sneak attack on the power grid; one blow could knock out Ottawa’s transport system. The coup de grace came on 5 August 1958 when Ottawa City Council under Mayor George Nelms voted to phase out the 96 streetcars and 10 trolleybuses and to replace them with 107 buses. By early 1959, streetcar lines were disappearing in rapid succession, until only the Britannia line remained when the last streetcar clattered into history that early May morning.

Sources:

Angus, F. 1983. “Seven Hundred Days, The Story of Ahearn & Soper and the Beginning of Electric Traction in Ottawa,” Canadian Rail, November/December.

Burghardt, E., 2013. “Horses, streetcars, and light rail: A look at Ottawa’s transit systems,” Gazette, University of Ottawa, http://www.gazette.uottawa.ca/en/2013/05/horses-streetcars-and-light-rail-a-look-at-ottawas-transit-systems/.

Langlois, R. 2009. Ottawa Streetcars Removed Fifty Years Ago, Youtube Video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbqoBnhiak4.

McKeown, B., 2006. Ottawa’s Streetcars, Railfare, DC Books, Pickering.

The Citizen, 1910. “Ottawa Electric Railway Has Reached Its Twentieth Birthday,” 22 October.

————–, 1986. “OC Transpo,” 25 April.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953, “The Tracks of Time—From Toonervilles to Trolley Buses,” 28 April.

Image: Streetcar with rotary sweeper, circa 1900, Library and Archives Canada

Image: Streetcars in front of Union Station, circa 1950, http://www.reddit.com/r/ottawa/comments/1105c8/old_ottawa_streetcars_at_elgin_and_rideau/.