The Rockcliffe Ski Jump

23 March 1937

Ottawa residents of today might be surprised to learn that one hundred years ago, the centre of skiing in the Ottawa area was Rockcliffe Park, not the Gatineau hills. Sure, the hills of Gatineau were popular among hard core skiers, but they were too far away for those without transport. Rockcliffe Park, on the other hand, was close by, just a streetcar ride away from downtown Ottawa. The Park’s crown jewel was a ski jump operated by the Ottawa Ski Club. The jump was the location of many provincial and Dominion ski-jumping championships during the first part of the twentieth century, drawing thousands of spectators.

Sigurd Lockeberg ski jumping at Rockcliffe Park, circa 1912, Ski Jumping Hill Archive.

Ski jumping in the capital started around 1904. In February of that year, a small notice appeared in the Ottawa Citizen advertising a meeting at the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club on Elgin Street for the purpose of organizing a jumping competition at Rockcliffe Park. The outcome of the meeting was unfortunately not reported. However, another contemporary news article noted that a man by the name of Jack Lawless, a noted canoeist, along with other Ottawa residents were busy practicing ski jumps in Rockcliffe area close to the Ottawa Canoe Club. It seems they attracted some high-class attention. Lord and Lady Minto, who were both described as enthusiastic skiers, were frequent spectators. Ski jumping was described as a “most spectacular sport” which had already taken hold in Montreal, where Norwegians were making long aerial leaps in Fletcher’s Field, now called Jeanne-Manse Park, opposite Mont Royal.

The sport really began to take off following the establishment of the Ottawa Ski Club in 1910. A later newspaper article attributed the construction of the first ski jump tower in Rockcliffe Park to Sigurd Lockeberg and two friends, Frank Bedard and Joe Morin. It was said that the trio illegally cut down trees in broad daylight to make the jump, with the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the lease holder to Rockcliffe Park, casting a blind eye to their doings.

Rockcliffe Park, with its many excellent natural ski jumps, was also a favourite spot of Ottawa Senators to both ski and try their luck at ski jumping. Bruce Ridpath, a forward with the team, reportedly “flew” 29 feet in one of his leaps in early 1911 when he was out one afternoon with teammates Fred Lake, Hamby Shore and Albert “Dubbie” Kerr. Ridpath’s career with the Stanley Cup champions was to be cut short later that year when he was hit by a car in Toronto and suffered a fractured skull.

In March 1912, the ski jump at Rockcliffe Park was the site for the first ski-jumping championship hosted by the Ottawa Ski Club (OSC). The Ottawa Journal described the event as “the nearest diversion Ottawa has to aeroplaning.” In addition to members of the OSC, jumpers from Montreal and Berlin Mills, New Hampshire were invited to compete in front of several thousand avid spectators. Members of the OSC captured six of the twelve prizes provided by the Club. Adolph Olsen of Berlin Mills wowed the thousands of spectators by turning a somersault in the air while jumping—”a feat that would appear impossible unless seen with your own eyes.” The overall champion of the event based on both distance and style was Ottawa’s own Sigurd Lockeburg. Reportedly, Lockeburg received a cup donated by Count Malynski of Russia who happened to be in Ottawa at that time. As an encore, Sigurd Lockeburg and his brother Hans made a tandem jump of 65 feet—a first for Ottawa.

Note the prevalence of Scandinavian names among the jumpers. Ski jumping was a sport with a long pedigree in Sweden and Norway, dating back to the early nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the sport came across the Atlantic with immigrants from that region to Canada and northern United States.

Rockcliffe Ski Jump, “Suicide Hill,” Newton Collection, City of Ottawa Archives

The initial Rockcliffe jump was a ramshackle affair, apparently made of cordwood. It blew down in 1914 to be replaced the following year by a tall artificial tower some 128 feet high. The new ski jump was constructed on the highest point in the park and towered more than 50 feet over the trees. The total descent from the top of the chute to the river level was 255 feet. It was hoped that the slide would allow for jumps in excess of 140 feet.

It did not disappoint. At a championship meet held in February 1915, Ragnar Omtvedt of Chicago jumped a record 145 feet from the highest take-off which was constructed by the OSC especially for his visit. Meanwhile, Adolph Olsen, the Canadian champion, increased his record leap from 92 feet to 122 feet. 

Sadly, this impressive ski jump did not last long. It blew down later in 1915, thus ending ski jumping in Rockcliffe Park until after the Great War. An ice toboggan slide was built on the site instead. Ski jumping moved to a site at Dome Hill near Ironside, Quebec, now a suburb of Gatineau. But it was too far out to attract many people.

In late 1919, the Ottawa Ski Club announced that the Ottawa Improvement Commission had given its blessing to the Club’s construction of a new ski jump at the Rockcliffe Park site.  In February 1920, the new jump was inaugurated. At that first tournament, the Duke of Devonshire, the Governor General, donated the Devonshire Cup for the best amateur ski jumper, resident in the Ottawa area, defined as living within a thirty-mile radius of the capital. There were also prizes for intermediate and junior competitions. The winner of the first Devonshire Cup was Arthur Pinault of the OSC, winning both for style and a distance of 77 feet.

Rockcliffe Ski Jump, circa 1930, National Film Board of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, 3224095.

Ski jumping became a fixture at Rockcliffe Park for the next three years. Indicative of the growing interest in the sport, the new Cliffside Ski Club of Gatineau built at considerable club expense a first-class ski jumping facility at Fairy Lake (Lac des Fées) in 1921. It was a good thing they did. In early 1923, the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the fore-runner of Federal District Commission and the National Capital Commission, closed the Rockcliffe ski jump on the advice of the Department of Justice over liability fears should a jumper or a spectator get hurt at the site.

It took several years of lobbying and negotiation on the part of the Ottawa Ski Club, the Cliffside Ski Club and the City of Ottawa with the OIC to work out a deal that would enable ski-jumping to resume at Rockcliffe Park. Legislation was passed in 1925 that permitted the OIC to return the site of the ski jump back to the City of Ottawa and avoid any potential liability.

After a lot of further dickering, it was finally agreed that the Ottawa Ski Club and the Cliffside Ski Club would share equally in the cost of rebuilding the wooden Rockcliffe ski jump at a cost of about $3,000. Plans for a steel structure were dropped when the quote from the Dominion Bridge Company came in at a whopping $12,000. The two clubs would also share the maintenance of the facility.

In 1926, the new Rockcliffe jump was ready for competitions with the Ontario championships held at the site under the auspices of the Ottawa Ski Club and the Dominion championships under the auspices of the Cliffside Ski Club.

Rockcliffe Ski Jump from Rockcliffe Drive, 8 July 1930, Library and Archives Canada, 5066194.

For the next ten years, ski jumping continued at the Rockcliffe facility as well as at the Fairy Lake jump which was taken over in the mid 1930s by the Norland Ski Club.

However, without warning, on 23 March 1937, C.E. Mortureux, President of the Ottawa Ski Club, announced to the press that the ski jump at Rockcliffe Park had been sold to M. Zagerman & Co. for $125 and would be removed immediately. Mortureux said that it was a Board decision to demolish the ski jump, though it was not unanimous. He said that the OSC was spending $200 per year on maintaining the ski jump and that these dollars could be better spent on upgrading the natural ski jump at the OSC’s site at Camp Fortune. Mortureux also attributed the decision to a decline in ski-jumping in recent years, and that the closure of the Rockcliffe jump was in keeping with similar decisions made by ski clubs elsewhere to move ski jumps to hills outside of urban centres.

Ottawa’s skiing community was shocked by the announcement. Two pro-ski jump members of the OSC’s Board of Directors, Sigurd Lockeberg and Gérard Dupuis, were out of town on the day of the Board made its decision and did not vote. It was not reported whether their votes would have made a difference.

The decision to close the jump set off a firestorm of letters in the Ottawa Citizen. The president of the Cliffside Ski Club, Stewart Bruce, wrote Mortureux asking for an explanation of why the tower had been sold without consultation, pointing out that in 1926 Cliffside had paid $1,536.51 towards the costs of construction, while the Ottawa Ski Club had paid $1,429.97. He estimated that with a 5% depreciation rate, the ski jump was still worth $1,900. 

The Norland Ski Club also issued a statement say that Norland had approached the OSC in late 1936 with a proposition to keep the Rockcliffe ski jump open and in safe and sound condition for the use of all Ottawa ski clubs. In response to this overture, the OSC had a solicitor draw up a draft agreement which demanded that the OSC receive 30 per cent of gross proceeds from any competition held by Norland. Norland refused. As well, the Norland statement indicated the Club’s surprise that the OSC was spending $200 per year on maintenance as Norland members supplied 90 per cent of the labour (gratis) to maintain the jump and often contributed themselves the materials necessary for its maintenance. The statement also took issue with Mortureux’s statement that ski-jumping was on the decline, suggesting instead that it never had an opportunity to flourish under the direction of C.E. Mortureux, the “oft-called Father of Skiing.”

The Ottawa Citizen came to Mortureux’s defence, pointing out the recent closure of two Quebec ski jumps. The article also argued that ski jumping was on the decline owing to the growing popularity of downhill skiing which took more training and a “higher degree of brains and skill.” It added that only the “halt and lame” could be induced to come out to watch ski jumping.

This brought Sigurd Lockeberg, hitherto silent, into the fray. In a letter to the Citizen, he indicated that he had been “heartbroken” when he had heard the news of the ski jump’s demise. He rejected the Citizen’s negative comments, saying that ski jumping required fully as much skill and brains as did other forms of skiing. Moreover, if only the “halt and lame” could be induced to come out to watch the sport, then this would mean the Governor General down to little boys and girls are “a lot of cripples and nitwits.”

He also disputed the notion that the sport was in decline in the Ottawa area or elsewhere. While two jumps had been closed in Quebec, there were special factors that accounted for them. He believed that Rockcliffe was the ideal sport for ski jumping, and that it was a pity that some members of the OSC’s executive decided to tear down the tower. He added that Mortureux himself had indicated that the Board’s decision to demolish the jump had been “irregular” and that he regretted it. Lockeberg closed his statement with some mollifying words, saying that Mortureax had done a lot for skiers in Ottawa, adding that he hoped that the pause in ski jumping at Rockcliffe would only be temporary.

It was not to be. Although the Ottawa Ski Club asked the city of Ottawa to reserve the right to erect a temporary jump in the event of a Dominion championship, the Federal District Commission was not interested. It said that a jump didn’t fit in with its plans for Rockcliffe Park and that reforestation of the ski jump site would commence immediately.

However, Lockeberg was correct when he said that ski jumping was still popular in the Ottawa area. Jumping continued at the Ottawa Ski Club’s site at Camp Fortune for almost another 60 years. In 1960, O’Keefe’s, the beer company, began sponsoring an international ski-jumping event at Camp Fortune, a relationship that lasted for close to two decades. In 1967, the Centennial International Jumping Competition was held at Camp Fortune on the new 60-metre Lockeberg ski jump, named for Sigurd Lockeberg who had done so much for the sport over the decades.

After a downturn in the sport in the late 1970s, ski jumping experienced a revival during the early 1980s led in part by the success of Ottawa-born Horst Bulau, who took the Canadian senior ski jumping championship in 1979 and who subsequently won thirteen World Cup ski-jumping victories during the 1981-1983 period However, the sport subsequently began to fade again. In 1993, the NCC, which had taken over Camp Fortune from the bankrupt Ottawa Ski Club, dismantled the ski jump owing to structural defects which rendered it unsafe.

Various attempts have subsequently been made to revive the sport at Camp Fortune but have so far met with only modest success.

Sources:

Gatineau Historical Society, 2021. Echoes from the Past.

Ottawa Citizen, 1904. “Sporting Notes,” 25 February.

——————, 1912. “Ski Jumpers Made Records,” 4 March.

——————, 1915. “Omtvedt Gave Great Exhibition But Failed to Create New Record in Ski Jumps at Rockcliffe Park,” 22 February.

——————, 1920. “Duke of Devonshire’s Trophy And City Ski Championship Was Won by Arthur Pinault,” 1 March.

——————, 1922. “On The Ski Trails,” 30 December.

—————–, 1923. “Ski-Jumping At Rockcliffe,” 5 February.

——————, 1925. “Approve Plans To Seek Saction of Rockcliffe Jump,” 23 January.

——————, 1926. “New Ski Jump At Rockcliffe,” 2 February.

——————, 1937. “Ski Jump At Rockcliffe Is Landmark Now Vanishing,” 23 March.

——————, 1937. “Removal of Ski Tower Is Giving Rise To Controversy,” 24 March.

——————, 1937. “On the Ski Trails,” 25 March.

——————, 1937. “The Slump in Ski Towers,” 26 March.

——————, 1937. “Letter to the Editor by S. Lockeberg,” 29 March.

——————, 1937. “reforestation On Site Of Rockcliffe Ski Jump Planned,” 23 April.

——————, 1976. “Ski jumping resembles hand-me-down,” 10 March.

——————, 1982. “Bulau zooms to lead in World Ski jumping,” 25 January.

——————, 1993. “Camp Fortune’s ski jump hil casualty of structural defects,” 28 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1904. “Skiing Contests In Montreal,” 22 February.

——————-, 1904. “Great Spot For Skiers,” 23 February.

——————-, 1904. “Skieing,” [sic], 1 March 1904.

——————-, 1911. “Hockey Stars Take To Ski Jumping, Like Real Natives,” 14 January.

——————-, 1912. “Ski-Jumping At Rockcliffe,” 11 March.

——————-, 1915. “Ottawa Ski Club Building A Big Chute On Rockcliffe Park Site,” 7 January.

——————-, 1919. “Not All Who Jumped Dome Hill Landed Right Side Up With Care,” 18 February.

——————-, 1919. “Ottawa Club Plans To Revive Jumping,” 16 December.

——————-, 1925. “Plans For Big Ski Tower Completed,” 1 August.

Ski Jumping Archive, 2021. Ottawa, http://www.skisprungschanzen.com/.

Devlin’s-Morgan’s

23 March 1973

Ottawa residents of a certain age may recall a department store called Henry Morgan & Company located on the south side of Sparks Street close to Elgin Street, a spot now occupied by the Royal Bank of Canada. Morgan’s, as it was known to all, was a branch of an upscale Montreal-based department store chain that had come to the nation’s capital in 1951 with the purchase of the venerable retail firm of R.J. Devlin & Company from the Devlin family.

Devlin

R.J. Devlin & Company, 76 Sparks Street, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3422789.

R.J. Devlin & Company had deep roots in Ottawa, dating back to 1869 when its founder, Robert James Devlin, came to the city from London, Ontario to start a furrier business. Devlin was born in 1842 in Londonderry, the son of an Anglican priest. His father died when Devlin was just twelve years old. A guardian subsequently took the young lad to Canada. Took is the operative word. Devlin was a wealthy young man, having inherited $30,000, a huge sum in those days. But when he was out one afternoon as a volunteer water-carrier for the London Fire Brigade, his so-called guardian absconded, leaving Devlin penniless. Forced to look quickly for work, Devlin found a job in a fur factory. He later worked as a journalist for the London Free Press writing a humorous column called Korn Kob Jr. At some point, he met the Hon. John Carling, later Sir John Carling, a prominent London businessman who represented the city in both the provincial and federal governments. Carling advised Devlin that he should start a furrier business in Ottawa which at the time was growing rapidly, the government having just moved there from Quebec City. He arrived in 1869 and set up a fur and hat store on Rideau Street close to the canal. He later moved to No.37 Sparks Street across from the Russell House Hotel. The store’s sign was a large tin hat on which was written the store’s motto — “Hats that R Hats.”

Devlin’s three-story shop at 37 Sparks Street sold hats on the ground floor, had a fur “salon” on the second floor, and the Devlin fur workshop on the third floor; Devlin’s manufactured all its fur products on-site. The store itself was famous for its mirrors. They were carefully angled in the stairwell to allow a person on the ground floor to see end-to-end through the second-floor fur salon as well as up the stairs to the workshop. This must have been a handy feature for salespeople to monitor the store for shoplifters.

Devlins ad ODC 25-9-1869 dated 14-9

An early Devlin’s advertisement, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 25 September 1869.

Each Saturday, when Devlin received the week’s sales tally from the store’s accountant, staff could judge how successful the week had been by Devlin’s choice of cigars. If sales and profits were strong, he would send a clerk over to Nye’s Cigar Store in the Russell Block to purchase 25 cent cigars—the very best. If sales were lacklustre, the clerk would buy cheap ones. Staff wanting a raise would know to approach Devlin only when he purchased the expensive cigars.

In 1891, Devlin built a four-storey building on a 66 x 98-foot lot, formerly known as the Kenley property, at 76 Sparks Street between Elgin and Metcalfe Streets. Before the growing company occupied the entire building, also known as the Carleton Chambers, Devlin’s rented space to a number of tenants, including Ahearn & Soper, Robert Masson’s Shoe Company, and the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. Reportedly, Devlin had difficulty renting the fourth floor since potential tenants didn’t trust the elevator to go so high, and were reluctant to walk up four floors. During the early twentieth century, the store expanded beyond hats and furs to become a women’s and men’s clothes store.

What particularly distinguished R.J. Devlin & Co. from its competitors was the store’s advertising. The advertising copy, which was always prepared by Devlin himself, often took jibes at politicians of all stripes, as well as Ottawa and its residents. A friend of Mark Twain, Devlin had a devilish wit. He called the beaver “Canada’s original lumber king whose tail is as devoid of fur as the head of the average senator.”

Devlins asphalt 30-6-1893 OJ

R.J. Devlin’s satirical advertisement regarding the state of Sparks Street. Ottawa Journal, 30 June 1893.

He frequently complained about the state of Ottawa’s roads, especially Sparks Street. In one of his ads, he quipped that “fishing was recorded as good on a ravine called Sparks St – but if any of my patrons will come to the opposite bank and shout, I well send over a boat and ferry them across.” Another read “my business is located behind a rut on what is known as Sparks Street – not the small rut over on Elgin Street but the large one near the middle of the block [i.e. in front of Devlin’s store].” In 1893, he wrote a satirical piece arguing that Ottawa citizens didn’t need a clean, solid, enduring pavement on Sparks Street. Leave well enough alone. If it was good enough for our forebears it’s good enough for us – as long as “you wear long boots or are handy on stilts.” Sparks Street was finally paved in 1895.

Devlin didn’t spare himself either. For one sale he advertised: “There is a surplus of furs which I should not have – and a chronic deficit in my bank account which the manager says he won’t have – so – betwixt the Devil and the Deep Sea, etc.” Another read: For sale – Grey goat coats $6 – they are grey and the are goat – and they are six dollars – which is all I can truthfully say about them.” Another went: “Waterproof coats $5 – they are not even good coats – unless they possess some hidden virtue of which the undersigned is unaware.”

Robert Devlin’s greatest advertising coup occurred in 1889. On 11 November of that year, his advertisement predicted that winter would start in Ottawa on 27 November with a major blizzard accompanied by howling winds. To prepared for the coming storm, men and women should purchase fur coats and warm sleigh robes from his store before it was too late. Recall that these were the days long before Environment Canada, when people relied on the Farmers’ Almanac and weather “seers” for their forecasts.

Devlin's snow prediction OJ 12-11-1889

Devlin’s advertisement warning Ottawa residents that winter would begin with a major snow storm two weeks hence on 27 November, Ottawa Journal, 12 November, 1889

The city waited with bated breath to see if his prediction would come true. The 27th began grey and dull with a stiff wind. The temperature was in the upper thirties, Fahrenheit. Through the morning, the temperature dropped. The occasional snow flurry changed into a heavy and persistent snowfall. By evening, the snow was so deep that the street railway stopped working. The first sleighs of the season appeared on city streets. The snow continued for close to twenty-four hours, with more than a foot on the ground, just like Devlin had predicted.

Devlin was lionized by the success of his prediction. More than 250 people sent him their congratulations. When asked by a Journal journalist the secret of his success, Devlin demurred, reportedly saying “Do you think I am going to impart my priceless system…mine is the only infallible and true method and I mean keeping it too (sic) myself.” Devlin was crowned by the public as Ottawa’s “prize weather prophet.”

Many years later, Devlin’s advertisements were collected by his sons and given to the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa, the forerunner of The Historical Society of Ottawa, and were housed in the Bytown Museum, then operated by the Society. The three leather-bound volumes are currently stored for safe keeping in the City of Ottawa Archives.

With his unorthodox advertising methods, and a strong reputation for quality furs, Devlin’s prospered. Governors general and prime ministers patronized his store. In 1901, an association of Canadian women presented the future Queen Mary with a mink and ermine wrap made in the Devlin workshop. Famous Hollywood stars including Lilian Russell, Maureen O’Sullivan, Jimmy Cagney, and Gene Tierney were Devlin customers. The fabled Pavlova and Field Marshals Ferdinand Foch of France and Douglas Haig of Britain patronized the store. When Winston Churchill visited Ottawa in December 1941, Devlin’s made a sealskin hat for the British prime minister over night. It was presented to the great man by the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

In 1949, R. J. Devlin & Company celebrated its 80th anniversary. By this time, the store had passed to Robert Devlin’s sons, W.F.C. (“Ted”) Devlin and Brian Devlin; R.J. Devlin himself having died in 1918 at the age of 78. Three years later, in April 1951, the brothers sold the landmark store to Montreal’s Henry Morgan & Company. Ted Devlin stayed on as a director of Devlin’s which was now operated as a subsidiary of Henry Morgan & Company. All of Devlin’s staff were retained by Morgan’s as were Devlin’s policies, including the staff pension fund which was instituted by Ted Devlin in one of his last acts as the company’s president.

While Morgan’s initially ran the store under the Devlin name, six months after the purchase, Morgan’s send 10,000 Ottawa residents a questionnaire asking them whether it should retain the historic name or change it to the Henry Morgan Company. Five thousand people responded with a two to one margin in favour of changing the name.

In 1960, Morgan’s of Montreal was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company. While billed as a “merger,” it was in fact an acquisition under which Morgan shareholders received one Hudson’s Bay share and $14 for every Morgan’s share. The deal was worth $15.4 million. While the takeover was reported in the press, few realized the takeover had occurred as the Bay ran Morgan’s outlets, including the one on Sparks Street in Ottawa, under the Henry Morgan & Company name.

In November 1971, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought Ottawa’s A. J. Freiman’s department stores. With Freiman’s main store on Rideau Street, just a short walk away from the relatively small and elderly Morgan’s outlet on Sparks Street, Morgan’s future looked grim. On 23 March 1973, the hammer came down. The Hudson’s Bay Company announced that Morgan’s on Sparks Street would close for good. But, the Hudson’s Bay, still operating under the Freiman’s name in Ottawa, promised that no jobs would be lost with a new giant Freiman’s store to open later that year in a new west end shopping centre. That fall, with Freiman’s now operating under the Hudson’s Bay brand, a huge Bay store opened in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre.

Sources:

Hudson’s Bay Company, 2019. Morgan’s of Montreal, http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/acquisitions/morgans-of-montreal.

Ottawa Citizen, 1931. “Great Devlin Storm Prediction Caused A Sensation In The Eighties,” 5 December.

——————, 1949. “Firm of R. J. Devlin Now Celebrating It’s 80th Anniversary Year,” 5 March.

——————, 1951. “Morgan’s Buys Devlin Company,” 17 April.

——————, 1954. “Bound Volumes of Old Devlin Ads Given To Women’s Historical Society,” 15 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1889. “Winter Is Here,” 28 November.

——————-, 1889. “Prophet Devlin Comes Out On Top,” 28 November.

——————-, 1918. “R. J. Devlin Dead And City Loses Leading Citizen, 22 August.

——————-, 1951. “Devlin’s Becomes Morgan’s After Vote By 5,000 Residents,” 29 October.

——————, 1973. “Morgan store closing ends retailing legend,” 23 March.