The Byward Market in Flames

28 April 1874 and 2 January 1957

Ottawa’s Byward Market is one of the capital’s top attractions for both residents and tourists. Home to the oldest and largest farmers’ market in the city, the streets surrounding the main market building host a myriad of restaurants and chic bars intermingled with trendy shops and specialty stores. Long a Francophone, working-class, residential area as well as commercial district, the market area has in recent years begun to attract the well-heeled looking for residences in close proximity to work as well as to the vibrant nightlife that is here on offer. The district is also a draw for the city’s less fortunate with shelters for the homeless close by. This combination of wealth and poverty and old buildings cheek by jowl with glitzy, new condominiums gives the neighbourhood an eclectic, edgy vibe.

While some of its buildings date back to the mid-nineteenth century, most structures in the Byward Market neighbourhood are newer, owing to recurring fires that have beset the area over the decades. Indeed, the current market building only dates to 1926, when the previous market building was destroyed by fire.

Newspaper clipping, 2 May 1874, Ottawa Citizen.

There had been at least two major conflagrations that destroyed entire blocks of homes and stores. The first broke out early in the morning of Tuesday, 28 April 1874. It was to be one of the most destructive fires every to occur in Ottawa up to that point, causing in excess of $100,000 in damages, a huge sum of money in those days. Insurance covered only a portion of the losses.

The fire encompassed more than an entire city block, extending from the market square at York Street to Clarence Street to Sussex Street. Destroyed on the west side of the market square were a row of wooden stalls and shops owned by the City of Ottawa and leased to a number of businesses. One of those businesses was a fish shop owned by Moise Lapointe. The family-owned business fortunately survived the blaze, and continues to operate in the Market to this very day.

Other buildings burnt to the ground included the City Hotel, the Smith’s block, the Henry Block, the McCann Block, and the Gibson building. Mr. T. Forfar’s agricultural implement warehouse was lost, as was a furniture store, a grocer located in the Gibson building, a fruit store in the McCann Block and Mr. A.B. Macdonald’s Auction and Commission Rooms which were full of furniture at the time ready to be auctioned off. Godbout’s Tailor and Lamontagne’s Jewellery, both located in the nearby Lyon Building, were damaged. Fortunately, no one was killed in the fire though there several individuals were hurt by falling debris or received burns. Many were left homeless.

The fire was fanned by a strong northerly wind that whipped sparks and cinders over adjacent blocks. According to the Ottawa Citizen, for a time, people feared that the entire Lower Town business district would go up in flames. Residents in the affected area began throwing personal belongings and furniture out into street. Neighbour merchants did likewise in attempts to save their stock. York and Clarence Streets were soon clogged with these effects. Reportedly, costly pianos stood side by side with old household stoves, some supposedly still lit with fires inside them. Their owners ranged in age “from helpless infancy to worn out old age.”

There was considerable criticism of the response of the Ottawa Fire Brigade under Chief Young. It took a long time before the firemen were able to bring their horse-drawn, steam engine, the “Conqueror,” to the scene of the fire despite the short distance from the fire station. There were also delays in getting the hoses into action with the result that the firemen didn’t really begin to fight the blaze until an hour after the alarm was sounded. The Citizen opined that the buildings on the south side of York Street might have been saved had there been better fire management.

When the hoses were finally brought into play, water pressure was lost owing to leaks in the hoses. One leak was so powerful that a spray of water was sent fifteen feet high into the air, with gallons of water wasted down the drains. None of the hoses were able to send streams of water over the roofs of the burning buildings.

There were other problems. The water level in the By-Wash, which led from the Rideau Canal through the market area towards the Rideau River and was the source of water to fight the fire, was low. A quick-thinking engineer built a dam made using an old door to raise the water level. Even so, gravel clogged up the suction pipe. There was also insufficient coal on hand to power the “Conqueror.”

Fortunately, the volunteer Chaudière Fire Company and its “Union” steam engine came to help the Ottawa Fire Brigade. The Citizen causticallynoted that they had no leaking hoses.

An inquest was held a few days later in Starr’s Hotel on Clarence Street. (This was the same hotel/tavern where Patrick James Whelan, the man executed for assassinating Thomas D’Arcy McGee, had been arrested in 1868.) The fire began in a pile of straw in a shed behind the Cardinal Hotel—another tavern—owned by Felix Cardinal to the rear of the McCann Block. The Cardinal family lived above. The alarm was sounded by Felix Cardinal Junior.  The junior Cardinal, who was a heavy drinker, had fallen asleep in the downstairs bar the previous night, after having downed four or five glasses of whiskey. Sometime before 5:00am, he awoke and spotted a fire in the back stable area. He called out to his father, and the two of them attempted to extinguish the blaze and save their horse. In the process, the senior Cardinal’s hands were badly burnt. Neither of the two Cardinals knew the cause of the blaze.

Mr and Mrs John Hurley, the neighbours to the rear of the Cardinal Hotel, testified seeing Felix Cardinal trying to extinguish a fire by raking the straw out into the yard, but that only made the fire worse. John Hurley, while not knowing the cause of the fire, alluded to regular fights and quarrels in the Cardinal household and said that he typically slept in his clothes in order to be ready in case there was a fire. However, while there had been a fight the night before the blaze, all had been quiet with no lights showing when he saw the fire.

The inquest never resolved the cause of the fire, beyond concluding that it started in Felix Cardinal’s shed. The Ottawa Fire Brigade was highly criticized, with the inquest saying that it had insufficient men to attend to the hoses and that it was not organized efficiently. In addition, the Brigade had not taken steps to ensure the adequacy of water in the By-Wash and that no measures had been taken to keep sand and gravel away from the suction pipe. The inquest’s jury found that Chief Young was either too relaxed in taking his responsibilities, or did not have the necessary authority to fulfill his duties as Fire Chief. The jury also censured the City’s Light and Fire Committee for not organizing a sufficient force to operate the steam engine efficiently. The jury furthermore recommended the prohibition of erecting wooden sheds behind buildings on the principal streets of Ottawa.

The aftermath of the disastrous 2 January 1957 blaze in the Byward Market neighbourhood, City of Ottawa Archives

Another huge fire struck the Byward Market area on 2 January 1957, consuming the block between Clarence Street in the south to Murray Street to the north, between Sussex and Parent Streets, overlapping the site of the 1874 conflagration. The1957 fire started in the elevator shaft of the Book Unit and Typewriter Unit of the Department of Printing and Stationery, located at 47 Clarence Street. It was discovered shortly before 6:30 am by Gordon Low, a member of the cleaning staff in the building. Yvon Saumier of Navan, who was having an early morning coffee in the restaurant at the Chez Lucien Hotel at the corner of Clarence Street and Parent Avenue heard a blast and saw flames shooting through the roof of the government building. With a stiff north-westerly breeze blowing, the fire quickly spread through neighbouring buildings, eating its way along Clarence and Murray Streets toward Parent Avenue, leaving a swath of destruction in its wake. Flames shot up some 150 feet in the air. Scantily clad residents from area homes and apartments fled into the streets, shivering from the cold, clutching whatever they could rescue with them.

In addition to the government building, lost in the blaze were the Victoria Hotel, the 60-room Chez Lucien Hotel, which had been renovated two years earlier for $200,000, two apartment buildings, several rooming houses, Pioneer Distributing on Murray Street, Camille Methot’s barber shop, the Soublière Supply Company, Beaudry’s Confectionary, and Aline’s Dress Shop. Total losses were in excess of $1 million and roughly 200 people were left homeless. The Chez Lucien Hotel was later rebuilt.

More than three hundred firefighters fought the blaze, including off-duty men and firemen from Hull. Tackling the fire was made more difficult by the bone-chilling cold. It was -23 degrees Celsius that night, with the wind chill considerably lower. Ice was everywhere, making the footing dangerous. Hoses quickly froze as the firemen moved from hydrant to hydrant down the street as they chased the fire. Downed hydro wires lying in the streets were another hazard.

The Sisters of Joan of Arc, whose convent stood at the corner of Clarence and Sussex Streets, opened an emergency kitchen serving hot soup, coffee, doughnuts and toast with jam to weary firefighters and the homeless. The Salvation Army also set up a booth providing hot drinks. Additionally, a coffee kitchen was set up across from the Victoria Hotel on Murray Street at the John C. Preston Office Equipment Company. When firemen came in with frozen mitts, one of the workers in the company who was distributing refreshments, called A.J. Freiman’s, the big department store on Rideau Street. Within minutes, two large bags full of heavy, cowhide mitts were delivered for the firemen.

Given the size of the blaze and its intensity, it was surprising that there were no fatalities. Three firemen were hurt when a wall fell onto them. Two women were also temporarily hospitalized due to shock; one had a mild heart attack.

The city stepped in to provide assistance for the homeless. A week later, a fire victims’ benefit was held at the Français Theatre, sponsored by the East Ottawa Municipal Association. This included variety acts, and a full-length colour feature movie donated by Robert Maynard, the owner of the cinema. The film was a US civil war epic titled Great Day in the Morning, starring Virginia Mayo and Robert Stack. A “silver” collection was held, collecting $300 from the crowd of 500 cinema goers.

Despite the fire, the Byward Market, while physically altered, endured.

Sources:

Ottawa Citizen, 1874. “Destructive Conflagration,” 28 April.

——————, 1874. “Fire Investigation,” 2 May.

——————, 1874. “Fire Investigation,” 4 May.

—————-, 1957. “$1,000,000 Blaze,” 2 January.

—————-, 1957. “City Set To Provide Aid To Fire Homeless—Nelms,” 3 January.

—————-, 1957. “Fire Victims Benefit Show,” 11 January.

—————-, 1957. “200 Homeless In Ottawa Fire,” 2 January.

The Royal Canadian Mint

2 January 1908

The right to mint coins has long been a jealously-held prerogative of the sovereign. During ancient and medieval times, those that tried to usurp this privilege risked dire punishments if caught, including death by decapitation, or by hanging, drawing and quartering. The severity of the punishment reflected the perceived severity of the crime—treason. A nation’s coinage was an extension of the sovereign whose image those coins carried. The making of money was also a very profitable business that the Crown wanted to protect for itself. The face value of the gold, silver or copper coins was higher than the intrinsic or bullion value of the metal. The difference was profit called “seigniorage,” meaning “belonging to the seigneur (lord).”  The counterfeiting of coins carried the death penalty in Canada well into the nineteenth century.

$newcoins
First series of distinctive Canadian coins, minted in England in 1858. Note the 20 cent piece. Bank of Canada Museum

In 1850, a shortage of coins led the government of the Province of Canada to pass legislation to establish a mint in Canada. Hitherto, all coins in circulation in Canada were minted in other countries, mostly Britain, the United States, Mexico and France. Although the legislation was signed into law by the Governor General, Lord Elgin, the act was “disallowed” by the Imperial government in London on the grounds that it involved “an uncalled for and most objectionable interference with the Prerogative of the ‘Crown.’” It didn’t help that the issue was part of a much broader tussle between the Canadian and British governments on whether Canada’s currency should be consistent with that of the United States, i.e. dollars and cents, or should conform to that used throughout the British Empire, i.e. pounds, shillings and pence.

In the event, the forces in favour of using dollars and cents won the day. In 1858, the first distinctive Canadian coins, denominated in cents, were produced. However, the coins were made in England by the Royal Mint, the principal supplier of Canadian coinage for the next fifty years. Canadian coins were also minted by Ralph Heaton & Sons, a private Birmingham mint, when the Royal Mint was too busy to fill a Canadian coinage order. Such coins are identical to those made at the Royal Mint except for a small letter “H.”

In 1862, a mint was briefly established in New Westminster, British Columbia to convert gold that was being panned or mined along the banks of the Fraser River into useable coins. Hitherto, the gold bullion had to be transported at considerable cost to San Francisco for conversion with the profit going to the San Francisco mint. As James Douglas, the Governor of the colony, was initially supportive of the initiative, minting equipment was purchased from the United States. However, Douglas subsequently changed his mind. Nevertheless, he permitted a very small number of trial gold and silver pieces called patterns to be struck for the London Industrial Exhibition of 1862. Although most of the patterns were melted down after the exhibition, a few, which had been given to senior government officials, survived. These trial coins are among the rarest of Canadian coins. Examples were recently acquired by the Bank of Canada Museum.

Following the establishment of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Canadian coins continued to be made in England. In the 1890s, Senator Thomas McInnes of British Columbia was the most prominent champion for the establishment of a mint in Canada. He argued that under the British North America Act the Dominion had the authority to establish a mint, and that a Canadian mint could profitably convert Canadian-mined gold, which mostly came from British Columbia, into coins. He added that mints had been established in Australia at both Melbourne and Sydney some thirty years earlier.

The federal government was not enthusiastic. It its judgement, there was not a lot of profit to be had in making gold coins. As well, the government feared that Canadian gold coins would displace Dominion notes that were already in circulation. (U.S. gold eagles and British gold sovereigns, while both legal tender in Canada, were seldom used.) Some also feared that a domestic mint would lead to pressures to make excessive amounts of subsidiary silver coins leading to inflation. Opponents also noted that the Australian examples cited by McInnes were not relevant as Australia used the same currency as Britain. Hence, the sovereigns, which were produced by the Australian mints to the same specifications as British-made sovereigns, could circulate freely in Britain. There were also concerns about the cost of establishing a Canadian mint. Some claimed that the annual demand for Canadian coins could be minted in just one month, leaving a domestic mint idle eleven months out of twelve.

Despite these objections, Senator McInnes introduced resolutions in the Senate in favour of a mint on at least two occasions. Each time, he was asked to withdraw it, something that he reluctantly did. Sitting as an independent, he did not have the backing of any political party. He was also known for championing the quixotic idea of making Gaelic an official language in Canada. Senator McInnes was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia in 1897. Out of his depth in his new capacity, he was later fired by Governor General, Lord Minto, at the request of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

The Canadian banking community was divided over the issue of a Canadian mint. Some saw merit in having one from a nationalistic standpoint. National mints were established in all important countries, including many smaller than Canada. However, others worried that Canadian-minted gold coins would find little acceptance outside of Canada. In transactions with the United States, they feared that U.S. banks would demand U.S. gold coins or bullion. Hence, Canadian gold coins would have to be melted down before the gold could be transferred to U.S. banks. Consequently, Canadian banks would likely continue to hold their reserves in readily usable U.S. gold coins.

But McInnes’ idea for a Canadian mint found supporters. Several Boards of Trade, including that of Ottawa, came out in favour of his plan on both economic and nationalistic grounds. In 1894, John Mara, a Conservative MP also from British Columbia, advocated the establishment of a Canadian mint to make silver coins using metal mined from his province. However, Sir George Eulas Foster, the Conservative Minister of Finance at the time, quashed the idea.

Government attitudes towards the establishment of a mint in Canada began to shift in 1899. In May of that year, the now Liberal Finance Minister William Fielding indicated that steps might be taken to establish a branch of the Royal Mint in Canada. In October 1900, he announced in Montreal that the government had entered negotiations with the British government and that enabling legislation to permit the establishment of a branch of the Royal Mint in Canada would be introduced in the next session of Parliament. He stated that since the new branch would be making British coins when not needed to mint Canadian coins, concerns that a Canadian mint would be underutilized had been addressed.

The Ottawa Mint Act was well received by both sides of the House of Commons, and was given Royal Assent in May 1901. The legislation appropriated up to $75,000 per year to cover salaries, contingencies, other allowances and expenses incurred in operating the branch of the Royal Mint. In return, all fees, duties or charges received or collected by the branch would be paid to the Canadian government. Mr Fielding, the Finance Minister, told the House that the Mint would be under the direction of experts from the Royal Mint in London, and that plans for a building had been submitted to Public Works with the cost of construction estimated at about $259,000. The minting machinery would cost an additional $64,000. While most of the minting equipment were to come from England, the electrical equipment for the facility was to be provided by Ottawa’s own Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper. Annual maintenance expenses were placed at $65,000 annually. This would be more than covered by the seigniorage profits on the production of silver and copper coins; little profit was expected on the making of gold coins. Profit after expenses were estimated at no less than $20,000 per year. When not producing Canadian coinage, the branch would be making British sovereigns using Canadian gold.

The Minister also assured the House that there would not be a “reckless” coinage of silver coins. The silver issue would only be as large as the Canadian economy could absorb. He stated that no one wanted a “silver question” in this country. This was an allusion to the currency “battles” underway in the United States at that time between those who wanted easy money achieved through the free minting of silver coins, and those who favoured a strict adherence to the gold standard.

Royal Mint, c.1908 Topley Studio Fonds Library and Archives Canada PA-012645
Royal Mint, Sussex Street, Ottawa, circa 1908. The building remains largely unchanged today. Topley Studio Fonds/Library and Archives Canada, PA-012645.

Despite widespread support for the establishment of a branch of the Royal Mint in Canada, it took several years to find an appropriate location for the new mint. One suggestion was to locate it at Nepean Point. This idea was rejected by the militia authorities who owned the land. The government took so long to find a building site that Mr Thomas Birkett, the MP for Ottawa, asked “if it was their [the government’s] intention to erect a mint or just dangle it in front of the electors of Ottawa.”

A site on Sussex Street was finally acquired in 1905 after lengthy negotiations with the Canadian Pacific Railway, the owner of the property. The CPR had initially asked $40,000 but settled for $21,500 after the government moved to expropriate the land that had an assessed value of $19,000. The government also acquired a neighbouring lot for $5,000. The actual building, which was constructed by Sullivan and Langdon of Kingston, Ontario, took two years to erect at an all-in cost (land, building and machinery) of $509,000, far higher than the original estimate. However, the government owned a state-of-the-art facility that was unmatched in the world. While senior officials and experts were brought over from the Royal Mint in London to manage and operate the new branch, most of the 60 plus Mint workers were Canadian, largely from the Ottawa area.

Royal Mint, 1909, Steaming Operation, William James Topley Library and Archives Canada PA-009646
Steaming Operations, Royal Mint, Ottawa, 1909, Topley Studios/Library & Archives, PA-009646.

At 3pm on 2 January 1908, the Governor General, Lord Grey, formally declared the Canadian branch of the Royal Mint open in front of roughly 300 guests, including Cabinet Ministers, Deputy Ministers, MPs, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, managers of all local banks, and other dignitaries, including Sir Sanford Fleming, the man who first proposed worldwide standard time zones. The guests were received by Dr J. Bonar, the head of the Ottawa Mint and his wife Mrs Bonar. Dr Bonar’s official title was Deputy Master since the British Chancellor of the Exchequer was the Master of the Royal Mint. Dr Bonar sent a cablegram to his counterpart at the Royal Mint in London announcing the formal start of Canadian operations. After the typical congratulatory speeches, guests were taken on a tour of the facility by Dr Bonar and Mr A. W. Cleeve, the Superintendent of the Mint.

Royal mint 50 cents
1908 Canadian silver 50 cent piece, the same as the first coin ceremonially struck by Lord Grey, Bank of Canada.

The highlight of the afternoon was the striking of the first silver coin—a 50 cent piece—by the Governor General. This coin was placed in a small box with a blue satin interior and presented to Lady Grey. After this ceremony, the party moved to a copper stamping machine. There, Lady Grey raised the lever and struck the first copper coin to be minted in Canada. Each guest was presented with a newly-struck copper penny to commemorate the event.

Mint sovereign
Canadian-minted British sovereign, 1908. The small “C” (indicated by red arrrow) above the date indicates its Canadian provenance, Bank of Canada.

At the start, the new Royal Mint branch focused on making subsidiary, i.e. silver and copper, Canadian coins. Its production of British sovereigns was limited to only 636 during 1908, the Mint’s first year of operation, though production did ramp up to almost 257,000 in 1911. (Given the limited production of the 1908 sovereign, the numismatic value of this coin today is considerable.) The gold sovereigns minted in Ottawa are identified with the letter “C” for Canada just above the date, but are otherwise identical to sovereigns minted in Britain. The Mint didn’t get around to coining Canadian $5 and $10 coins until 1912. Production was discontinued in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. The minting of gold sovereigns was also halted for a time. Production resumed from 1916 to 1919.

Royal Mint $10, J&M
Canadian $10 gold piece, minted in Ottawa, 1914, Bank of Canada.

In August 1931, the Conservative Government of R.B. Bennett severed the link between the Royal Mint and its Canadian branch. Under new legislation, the Ottawa facility commenced operations as the Royal Canadian Mint reporting to the Minister of Finance. In 1969, the Mint became a Crown Corporation. Today, the Royal Canadian Mint’s Sussex Avenue facility produces Canadian collector and commemorative coins. Circulating Canadian coins are produced at the Mint’s Winnipeg’s facility that was opened in 1976. This facility also produces coins for many other countries. 

Sources:

Berry, Paul, 2017. “New Acquisitions: British Columbia Gold Pieces,” Bank of Canada Museum, 30 May.

Canada, Government of, 1931. An Act respecting the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mint.

Canada, Province of, 1851. Appendix to Journals of the Legislative Assembly, “Message, Dispatch from Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Colonies communicating Her Majesty’s disallowance of an Act of last Session, entitled, “An Act to Amend the Currency Act of this Province,” also, of sundry communications in relation to that Act,” 28 July.

Canadian Coin News, 2015. Rare 1862 gilt coins offer glimpse into B.C.’s gold rush, 18 August, http://canadiancoinnews.com/rare-1862-gilt-coins-offer-glimpse-into-b-c-s-gold-rush/.

Chard, 2017. Gold Sovereigns, Branch Mints – Ottawa Canada, https://goldsovereigns.co.uk/ottawamintcanada.html.

Evening Citizen (The), 1907. “Mint Will Open Thursday,” 31 December.

Evening Journal (The), 1890, “The Question Of A Mint For Canada,” 5 May.

————————–, 1894. “Canada’s Native Silver,” 19 July.

————————–, 1897. “Wanted A National Mint,” 18 May.

————————–, 1897. “National Mint Wanted,” 3 June.

————————–, 1899. “Resolution Favoring A Canadian Mint,” 16 May.

————————–, 1900. “A Dominion Gold Coinage,” 24 October.

————————–, 1907. “Money Making Experts Here,” 12 September.

————————–, 1908. “Formal Opening of Royal Mint,” 3 January.

————————–, 1909. “A Gold Coinage,” 20 October.

————————–, 1912. “The Annual Address of the Imperial Bank’s President,” 28 May.

J&M Coin & Jewellery Ltd. 2017. Canadian Gold Sovereigns, 1908-1919, https://www.jandm.com/script/getitem.asp?CID=3&PID=50.

Powell, J. 2005. A History of the Canadian Dollar, Bank of Canada.

Powell, J. & Moxley, J. 2013. Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, General Store Publishing House: Renfrew.

Royal Engineer (The), 2017. The Gosset Gold Coin Affair, http://www.royalengineers.ca/GossetGold.html