The Dominion Observatory

29 April 1905

When next you have an opportunity to stroll through the Experimental Farm, take a look at the impressive red stone building with the verdigris copper, domed roof located off of Maple Drive close to Carling Avenue. It was once the Dominion Observatory, for a time the proud owner of the largest telescope in Canada. Its construction was due to the efforts of two men, Dr Frederick King, the first Dominion Astronomer, and Otto Klotz. The two initially worked together at the Cliff Street Observatory located on a small road overlooking the Ottawa River, roughly where the Supreme Court building stands today. This observatory was established by the government in the late 1880s to determine standard time, make “exact determinations of geographical locations” for explorers of the North West Territories, which at the time included Saskatchewan and Alberta, and to rate, test and adjust chronometers and other surveying instruments.

cliff st

The Cliff Street Observatory,  Canada Science and Technology Museum

The facilities on Cliff Street observatory were rudimentary. Its 6-inch aperture equatorial telescope was too small for serious scientific work. Moreover, the building was on such a narrow lot that there was insufficient space to build a heated room for people working there. Even more problematic was that the observatory only had a clear view of the sky to the north over the Ottawa River and to the south, though its southern view was often obscured by smoke from the many coal burning fireplaces in Ottawa. Its east and west view were obstructed by other structures, including a stable.

Plans for building a new, larger observatory date from late 1898 when King with Klotz’s help sent a memorandum to Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior, recommending the construction of a new government-owned observatory to replace the inadequate Cliff Street facility. In the memo, King argued that astronomical investigation in Canada had been long neglected. A new observatory would help to address this shortcoming. It would also be of considerable scientific value for many branches of science, and would stimulate the study of science throughout the Dominion. He also advocated for the advancement of “pure” science as opposed to just “practical” science on the grounds that unforeseen benefits can emerge from such research, and that the Government should not leave this “wholly in the hands of foreign investigators.” King also recommended that the observatory be built on a knoll of land on Parliament Hill between the Centre and West Blocks. Later, when the knoll became the location of the Victoria Monument, he recommended building the observatory where the Summer Pavilion stands behind the Parliament buildings. King estimated that a 10-inch telescope and the construction of a suitable building with a 22-foot diameter dome roof with rollers would cost $16,075.00.

According to J. H. Hodgson, the author of the definitive account of the history of the Dominion Observatory, Klotz, ostensibly King’s subordinate, disagreed vehemently with the proposed site of the new observatory. It seems that relations between King and Klotz, who once had been close friends, had deteriorated owing to professional jealousy and perceived slights. Klotz thought the proposed site was too small for a national observatory and considered Parliament Hill to be “hallowed and sacred ground,” that would be profaned by such a use. He also had a different vision than King’s for the work of the new observatory, envisaging it expanding into other related areas of scientific research. While he agreed with King that there was a pressing need for better facilities, Klotz disagreed with King’s recommendation of a 10-inch equatorial telescope, which had quickly grown into a proposed 12-inch instrument, on the grounds that neither he nor King had any experience on such a machine. Klotz believed that the funds could be better used on a geodetic survey of Canada. He thought King just wanted to be able to brag that he was the Dominion Astronomer in change of a prestigious, world-class telescope.

In the end, Klotz won the argument on the site for the new observatory. Before settling on its Experimental Farm location, other sites considered included the bluff at the end of Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) overlooking the Ottawa River, a lot south of Strathcona Park, a location close to Rockcliffe, and a city lot at the corner of Maria Street (Laurier Avenue) and Concession Street. Neapean Point was also a contender but was rejected owning to concerns that the vibrations of trains running nearby might disrupt the delicate astronomical equipment. While the Experimental Farm was distant from the city centre and civil servant offices, it had the benefit of lots of space, and unobstructed views far from Ottawa’s smog and lights. An extension of the Ottawa Electric Railway to the Farm would also solve the problem of ready access.

 

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The 15-inch aperture telescope, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1 May 1905

While Klotz won the argument over the observatory’s siting, King ruled over its instrumentality. He apparently had little trouble persuading the government to purchase a still larger 15-inch aperture, equatorially-mounted, refracting telescope and other astronomical equipment from Professor John Brashear of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The local Pittsburgh newspaper headline read “No Limit As To Price.” The mountings for the 19 foot 6 inch long telescope, with a magnifying capacity of 1,500 times, were made by Warner and Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio. The instrument was completed by January 1903 at a cost of $14,625.59, well ahead of the completion of the observatory itself. The telescope was the same size as the one used at Harvard University, and second only in size to the huge 36-inch aperture Link telescope built in 1888 at Mount Hamilton, California.

The initial plans for the new two-storey high observatory with a revolving dome were drawn by government architects in 1901. David Ewart, the chief Dominion Architect, is credited for the observatory’s Baronial style architecture. Construction tenders closed in November 1901 with Theophile Viau winning the contract with a bid of $74,999. The contract was awarded in August 1902, and construction got underway shortly afterwards at the Experimental Farm. The final cost of the building was $93,800, far more than initially appropriated by the government for this project. It was ready for occupancy in April 1905. There were initially fourteen permanent staff members—all male. There were no female employees as no washroom facilities were provided for female personnel.

observatory

The Dominion Observatory, circa 1905, Canada Department of Mines & Resources, Library and Archives Canada,  PA-034064.

The state-of-the-art Dominion Observatory was unveiled to the men of the press gallery of the House of Commons on Saturday, 29 April 1905. That evening, journalists gathered in front of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill to be conveyed to the Experimental Farm. On arrival at the Observatory, they were met by the institution’s three leading astronomers, Dr King, Mr Klotz and Mr J.S. Plaskett, who explained to the men the workings of the astronomical instruments. With a clear sky, each journalist had an opportunity to view the constellations. Afterwards, Plaskett exhibited magic lantern views of Canadian scenery. (The magic lantern was an early slide projector.) Over coffee, Dr King spoke about the great value of the government’s contribution to the pursuit of astronomical knowledge. He hoped that the Dominion Observatory would be to Canada what the Greenwich Observatory was to England. Dr King indicated that one of the immediate practical benefits of the Observatory was the determination of the positions of various points throughout Canada used by surveys conducted by Dominion surveyors. The Observatory would also be used to calculate standard time for the country. Later, the Observatory conducted pure research into spectroscopic binary stars. (Spectroscopic binary stars are binary stars that are so close together that they cannot be viewed separately with a telescope. They are revealed by the Doppler effect on the light each star is emitting, shifting from red to blue as they move.) It also assumed responsibility for seismic, magnetic and gravimetric analyses. In 1914, a new building was built on an adjacent lot to house the Geodetic and Boundary Survey divisions. A full weather station was also maintained at the Observatory.

Within just a few years after the opening of the Dominion Observatory, its 15-inch aperture telescope was deemed to be too small. In 1913, the Ottawa Evening Journal opined that while the Dominion astronomers were doing sterling work on binary stars despite the small size of their telescope, a larger instrument was now necessary. The 15-inch aperture telescope was smaller than that of most national observatories, and was “altogether out of keeping with the standing of Canada.” It encouraged the construction at the Observatory of an instrument with an aperture of 60 inches, or better yet, one of 72 inches. The newspaper placed the cost at $70,000, with a special tower to house it costing an additional $40,000.

The newspaper’s argument found traction in government circles. Mr J.S. Plaskett of the Dominion Observatory designed a 72-inch aperture telescope. However, instead of Ottawa, the decision was made to locate it in Saanich, British Columbia, a site considered far superior to the Experimental Farm station. The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on Observatory Hill was completed in 1918. It quickly became world renowned for its research into the Milky Way.

Observatory today

The Dominion Observatory, 2016, Google Maps

When Dr King died in 1916, Otto Klotz assumed his responsibilities as Dominion Astronomer despite his German roots and widespread anti-German sentiments at the height of the First World War. Klotz died in 1923. The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa continued operations until April 1970 when its astronomical and time-keeping work was assumed by the National Research Council of Canada. The Observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope was given to Canada’s Science and Technology Museum. The old Observatory currently houses the Office of Energy Efficiency, part of Natural Resources Canada.

 

Sources:
Brooks, Randall & Klatts Calvin, 2005. The Dominion Observatory 100th Anniversary, http://www.casca.ca/ecass/issues/2005-me/features/brooks/e-Cassi_DomObsV4.htm.
Evening Journal, (The), 1901. “Sites For The New Buildings,” 31 May.
—————————-, 1903. “Ottawa’s New Observatory,” 28 February.
—————————-, 1905. “Private View of New Dominion Observatory,” 1 May.
—————————-, 1913. “The Dominion Observatory,” 27 February.
Hodgson, J.H., 1989. The Heavens Above and the Earth Beneath: A History of the Dominion Observatory, Energy Mines & Resources.
Pittsburgh Daily Post, 1900. “Big Telescope Goes To Canada,” 5 March.

 

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Bryson, Graham Ltd: “Ottawa’s Greatest Store”

6 September 1870

Sparks Street used to be the beating heart of Ottawa commerce, home to several major local department stores that had their roots in the late nineteenth century. These included L. N. Poulin’s Dry Goods store, R.J. Devlin & Company, Murphy-Gamble, and Bryson, Graham Ltd. One by one they disappeared into history. Most were bought out by larger chain stores before they too succumbed as shoppers flocked to exciting new suburban shopping centres with ample parking facilities that were closer to where people lived. But back during the early twentieth century when Sparks Street was at its zenith, the place to shop was Bryson, Graham Ltd, then known as “Ottawa’s Greatest Store.”

Bryson 1875 William James TopleyLAC-002237

Charles Bryson’s Dry Goods Store, 53 Sparks Street, 1875, William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-002237.

It opened for business on 6 September 1870 as Patterson & Bryson at 53 Sparks Street on the north side of the street, west of Elgin. The firm was named after its two principals, Joseph H. Patterson and Charles B. Bryson. Initially, there wasn’t much going for the modest dry-goods business. With the main commercial streets in Ottawa at that time being Rideau, Sussex and Wellington, the store had an unpromising location. Business was tough during those early years. Indeed, in 1873, the partnership ended, with Patterson decamping to New York City to establish a dry goods business there. Bryson, a country boy from Richmond who had come to Ottawa in 1864 and learnt the dry-good business working at the firm T. Hunt & Sons, soldiered on alone. The split-up appeared to have been relatively amicable, or at least any hard feelings healed over time. On the firm’s silver anniversary in 1895, Patterson sent Bryson from New York a souvenir of their first day in business. Concealed inside twenty-five nested envelopes was the first 5-cent piece the store took in. On one side was engraved “P & B” with “6th Sept., 1870” inscribed on the other.

Things began to pick up in the 1880s after Bryson welcomed Frederick Graham into the business which by this point had moved along the road first to 110 Sparks Street and then to 152 Sparks Street. Like his colleague, Graham was a country boy. He had come to Ottawa to sell agricultural equipment for William Arnold on Wellington Street. Dissatisfied with his career choice, he joined Bryson in 1880 and very quickly proved his worth. After only a year, he was offered a piece of the business and became a junior partner. Bryson, Graham & Company was born. It was a partnership that was to last close to fifty years. Bryson took charge of the management of the company while Graham took responsibility for buying. In 1882, Graham became part of the family as well, marrying Miss Margaret Bryson, Charles Bryson’s sister.

Bryson Graham Topley StudioLAC-PA-033935-April 1982

Bryson, Graham & Company, Corner of Sparks Street and O’Connor Street, April 1882, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, PA-03935.

During the early 1880s, the duo introduced a radical innovation to Ottawa—“One Price for All.” Hitherto, Ottawa residents haggled with merchants for all their purchases, a process that wasted valuable time and typically left somebody dissatisfied. At the same time, Bryson and Graham advertised “Maximum Value for the Money.” Initially, this novel approach to selling cost the partners business, but the general public quickly caught on.

In one possibly apocryphal story set sometime in the 1880s, ten lumbermen entered Bryson Graham to purchase their gear for the coming logging season. They picked out goods worth $650, a very large sum back in those days. The foreman offered to pay $600. The salesman refused. The foreman then asked if he would throw in a vest for each of the workers. Again, the salesman refused. A pair of braces? Again, the answer was no. The group left the store in a huff, repairing to “The Brunswick” for a drink. They later came back, their leader indicating that they would pay the $650 if the salesman threw in a collar button for each of the men. Again, the salesman refused. When called over, Bryson backed up his salesman and explained the store’s pricing policy to the lumbermen. Giving up and paying the full amount, the foreman admitted that he had bet $10 that he could beat down the store. He added that “it was worth more than $10 to find there is one honest price store in Ottawa.”

The reputation of Bryson and Graham for integrity and straight dealing was the backbone of their company. Over the next fifty years, the company prospered mightily. In 1883, the company expanded eastward, leasing the adjoining store. In 1887, the firm added home furnishings when it acquired the stock and premises of Shouldbred & Company, followed by the acquisition of the stock of dress-goods and silks from Mr John Garland. In 1890, John Bryson, the brother of Charles opened a grocery store in the Bryson-Graham premises. This business was later formally consolidated into the family enterprise. This was a gutsy step. The grocery business in Ottawa had previously been an albatross for other department stores. In 1892, the firm bought the china and crockery business of Mr Sam Ashfield in the neighbouring store. Two years later, the company expanded yet again and acquired the entire block when it took over the corset business of yet another neighbour, Mrs Scott. On their silver anniversary in 1895, the firm built a factory extension to Queen Street.

To mark twenty-five years of progress and expansion, the store’s staff gave Charles Bryson a gold-mounted ebony cane. They also presented a testimonial to their boss reading “…under your control, we are happy to labour, and hope that our constant efforts and devotion to business will meet with your appreciation. With great pleasure do we take this opportunity to congratulate you on your past success, and to say that we are proud to see your business house classed amongst the most important and successful houses of the Dominion.”

Innovations and expansion continued during the store’s second twenty-five years. In 1898, Bryson, Graham & Company was the first in Ottawa to use the “comptometer,” the first successful, key-driven, calculating machine. It was used for adding and calculating work, sales checks, statements and invoicing. In 1909, the partnership was transformed into a limited liability company. Two years later, the company erected a large warehouse on Queen Street to store its extensive inventory.

Bryson Graham 28-2-1920 TOC

Cover to the Special Supplement in Celebration of Bryson-Graham’s Golden Anniversary, The Ottawa Citizen, 28 February 1920.

In 1917, the long and successful partnership of Charles Bryson and Frederick Graham came to an end with the former’s death. Graham became the company’s president, with Mr James B. Bryson, the son of Charles, as vice-president. In 1920, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper celebrated the golden anniversary of the company with a supplement dedicated exclusively to the department store, its history, and its successes. The newspaper opined that the secret of the retailer’s success was the character of Charles Bryson—“his untiring efforts, his forceful personality and his integrity.” The paper also re-published his obituary that stated that Bryson “was a gentleman in business as in his private life; a kind employer, a devoted friend, a real Christian.” The newspaper stated that the many friends of “Ottawa’s Greatest Store” hoped that “the next fifty years will witness an expansion proportionate to that of those gone by.”

This wish was not granted. Three years later, in 1923, Frederick Graham died, and the venerable company on Sparks Street passed fully into the hands of the next generation of Brysons and Grahams. James Bryson took over as president and W.M. Graham stepped into the vice-president’s position. For a time, Bryson-Graham continued to do well, but its years of expansion were over. It had apparently transitioned into a comfortable middle age. While it continued to provide a wide range of quality goods to Ottawa customers at reasonable prices, the drive and determination of its founders were gone.

Bryson graham sale oj 17ap1953

Bryson-Graham’s Last Advertisement, The Ottawa Journal, 17 April 1953

Business suffered through the lean years of the Depression and World War II. By the late 1940s, the company was dowdy and old fashioned. In May 1950, Ormie A. Awrey, who had been vice-president and general manager of the firm for the previous eleven years acquired control of the business from the children of the late Charles Bryson and Frederick Graham, buying 85 per cent of the company for $1 million. He later bought the remaining shares. Awrey promised to carry on the traditions of the old firm, but the retailer continued to decline. Parts of the old building were rented out to other retailers, including Bata Shoes, Swears and Wells, and Dolcis.  In February 1953, he sold the Bryson-Graham block in February 1953 to J. B. and Archie Dover of Dover’s Ltd for only $310,000. After holding a clearance sale of its stock and fittings, Bryson-Graham, now billed as “Ottawa’s Oldest Department Store,” closed for good on 18 April 1953, ending an 83-year presence on Sparks Street.

 

Bryson Graham 2017

The Bryson-Graham building today, corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets, July 2017, Nicolle Powell

Today, the Bryson-Graham building at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets still stands. The ground floor is occupied by Nate’s Delicatessen.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Elder, Ken, 2009. Bryson, Graham & Co., Ottawa Canada, http://www.eeldersite.com/Bryson-_Graham_-_Co.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1920. “Bryson-Graham Ltd Celebrates Its Golden Jubilee, 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Silver Anniversary of Store,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Character of Founder Largely Responsible For Store’s Success,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Battery of Comptometers Used in Bryson-Graham’s Stores,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Hard Work One Secret Of The Success Won By Messrs. Bryson-Graham,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “One-Price Policy Was Introduced In Ottawa By Bryson-Graham Co.” 28 February.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1895. “A Five Cents With A History,” 10 September.

————————–, 1935. “The Shops of the Capital, What they Were and Are,” 10 December.

————————–, 1950. “O.A. Awrey Acquires Control of Bryson Graham Ltd,” 5 May.

————————–, 1953. “Dovers Buy Bryson Blok,” 12 February.

————————–, 1953. “$10,000, Bryson-Graham Sale Heads May Property Deals,” 4 July.

Urbsite, 2012, Sparks Street Deartment Stores: Bryson Graham and Company, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/10/sparks-department-stores-bryson-graham.html.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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

 

The Russell Theatre

15 October 1897

On the site of the National Arts Centre (NAC) there once stood an earlier playhouse called The Russell Theatre with its front entrance on Queen Street. On hundred years ago, it was the centre of arts and culture in Ottawa just as the NAC is today. The three-storey structure, which cost $100,000 to build, was owned by The Russell Company, the proprietor of the adjacent Russell House Hotel, which was itself the city’s leading hotel prior to the building of the Château Laurier. Work on the site began at the end of March 1897 when labourers tore down the old “Leader Hotel,” also known as the “Walsh building,” on Queen Street. The Russell Company, seeking the finest that money could buy, hired the New York theatrical architectural firm of J. B. McElfatrick and Son that had built theatres across the United States. Michigan native Fuller Claflin was the on-site architect. The general contractor for the project was Mr “Ed” C. Horne of New York, with whom Claflin had worked on many similar assignments. Imported talent, mostly from the United States, also made the stage decorations, the tile mosaics, the papier maché work, as well as the ornamental paintings and frescos. Even the masons and bricklayers employed on the job came principally from New York. Dr W. A. Drowne, who had been the manager of the Plattsburgh theatre in Plattsburgh, New York, was hired to manage the new Russell Theatre.

Russell Theatre cross sectio 2-10-97

Cross section of The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 2 October 1897.

The theatre, which was built in the Italian renaissance style, was a marvel of late nineteenth century technology, and was judged second to none among North American theatres. It seated roughly 1,500 patrons on three floors and in ten boxes. On the balcony, there was a large room where light refreshments were served during intermissions and after performances. A ladies’ parlour (a.k.a. bathroom) was to be found on the first floor, with the gentlemen’s toilets on the balcony level. In the gallery, there was a smoking lounge for gentlemen. The steam-heated building was equipped with the latest stage apparatus and a modern electrical lighting system, with the wires carefully run through brass tubing to deter fires. In the case of fire, it had a fire pump with ten water outlets each equipped with fire hoses distributed throughout the building. The ground floor was laid in concrete, and the stairwells were separated from the auditorium by brick walls. The proscenium opening was protected by an asbestos curtain. Asbestos was also used in the plaster to retard burning. In an act of hubris suitable for a Greek tragedy, The Evening Journal said the theatre was “practically fireproof.”

On 15 October 1897, the Russell Theatre officially opened its door to the general public. Seats for the premiere had been auctioned off a few days earlier, with the proceeds in excess of the established ticket prices donated to the Prescott and Russell Fire Relief Fund. Roughly $200 were raised to help victims of a massive bush fire that had earlier destroyed three villages in eastern Ontario—Casselman, South Indian and Cheney’s—killing at least six people and leaving hundreds homeless.

Russell Theatre, Kismet 16-Oct-97

Advertisement for Kismet, the Premiere Production at The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 15 October, 1897.

The gala opening featured Kismet or Two Tangled Turks, a comic opera in two acts by the German-born Broadway composer Gustave Kirker, with the libretto by Richard F. Carroll. Unfortunately, the play “was not altogether a success” opined The Evening Journal. The performance lacked “snap and vim” and was judged “dull” for long periods. The problem seemed to lie more with the play than with the theatrical company. The newspaper said that Miss Minerva Dorr, who played the role of the Sultan (sic) of Turkey, had a commanding presence and an exquisite voice while Mr John Saunders was very humorous as the Grand Vizier.  The dancers “of the Odalisques” were also judged to be quite pleasing. In general, the theatrical company was considered to have been good, but would have done better with a better play.

If the play was lacklustre, the theatre wowed Ottawa’s elite. Prior to the beginning of the performance, coloured lights played over the stage curtain that was painted with a scene of the loops of the Selkirk River of Manitoba. Being the première, people turned out in their finest with the newspaper giving a detailed account of the outfits of prominent Ottawa women. A Miss Davis wore “a dainty dress of dresden muslin-de-soie over cream silk, the trimming of cream lace and nile green satin ribbons forming a bolero and full front bodice. Diamond and pearl ornaments.”

It seems the Journal’s judgement of the Russell’s first theatrical production was an accurate assessment of the theatre’s first seasons—second-rate. In a letter to the editor, a theatre-goer in 1899 moaned that the Russell Theatre had claimed that it had been unable to book first-rate theatrical companies since they had already been contracted to play in Toronto and Montreal. He thought that while the excuse might have been a fiction, the result was “painful.” Another angry theatre patron complained that if Ottawa had to put up with second-rate attractions, at least the prices charged shouldn’t be higher than those charged in Montreal.

Fire put an end to the complaints. On 9 April 1901, roughly two hours after the last patrons had left a production of The Belle of New York, a musical comedy written by Hugh Morton with music again by Gustave Kirker, a fire broke out behind the Russell’s stage. Despite the asbestos curtain and other fire retarding measures, the theatre was quickly gutted, its wooden interior fixtures burning like tinder. The alarm was raised by the theatre’s caretaker who had an apartment close to the stage. He had just fallen asleep when he was woken by a loud rushing sound, with his room filling with smoke. Almost naked, he rushed out of the theatre to the nearby police station to bring help. Dr Drowne, the Russell’s manager, and Mrs Drowne who also lived in the theatre, barely escaped with their lives. They fled with only the clothes on their backs. All their possessions, valued at $2,000, were lost.

By the time Fire Chief Provost and his men got to the Russell Theatre, flames were already shooting through the roof. But firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control by plying water streams onto the structure from the Free Press Building at the corner of Queen and Elgin Streets. While the theatre was a write-off, the firemen were able to save surrounding buildings, including the Russell House Hotel. Aiding them was the weather—wet with the wind blowing away from the hotel.

The cause of the blaze was never ascertained. The caretaker thought it started in the furnace room. Others believed it had been caused by a wayward cigarette dropped by one of the players. However, Dr Drowne disagreed, saying he was very strict with smoking around the stage. Also, he had passed through the theatre after The Belle of New York troupe had left, and had checked on every room before retiring for the night.

The next day, Ottawa residents woke up to the realization that only by chance had a great tragedy been avoided. Had the fire broken out just two hours earlier, many men, women and children might have been trampled in a rush for the doors. Despite the considerable fire precautions taken in its construction, the consensus was that the theatre had not been safe due to insufficient exits, especially from the dress circle and balcony levels. Many considered the theatre to have been a “death trap.”

Speculation also began on whether the theatre would be rebuilt. The initial assessment was not favourable. Fire losses were estimated at $100,000, with insurance covering only $63,000. Also, the theatre had not been profitable; no dividends had been paid since the day it was opened. But at a meeting of directors four days after the fire, management announced that an arrangement had been reached to rebuild the Russell Theatre between the owners of the theatre and the Ambrose J. Small Company of Toronto, a theatre management company that had leased the Russell. Apparently, the Ambrose J. Small Company had already booked engagements for two-thirds of the coming season.

As an aside, many years later in 1919, Ambrose J. Small, who was a major Canadian theatre mogul who owned or operated theatres in several Ontario cities, was to disappear under circumstances worthy of a paperback thriller. After receiving $1.7 million from the sale of his theatre operations, it was alleged that he was murdered by his wife and her lover, with his body incinerated in the furnace of the Grand Opera Theatre in London, Ontario. The allegations were never proven. At one point, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was approached for assistance in solving the case. While interested, Sir Arthur declined to help. Never solved, the police closed the case in 1960.

Russell Theatre interior, 1928 Mikan 7821743 government

Interior of the new Russell Theatre before its demolition in 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 7821743.

The new Russell Theatre reopened on 7 October 1901, almost four years to the day after its first debut. Although rebuilt along similar lines to the original theatre and finished as before in old gold, ivory and red, with shades of blue under the galleries, there were significant differences. Capacity has increased to 1,900 seats from 1,500, with 590 on the ground floor, 500 in the balcony, 700 in the gallery, with the remainder accommodated in twelve boxes. There were other differences too. Most importantly, there were a lot more exits, including four on the gallery and three on the balcony. Frederick Challener, a distinguished Canadian artist, had also been commissioned to paint three murals on the ceiling, depicting the “Triumph of Drama,” “Love” and “Hate.”

Russell Theatre ceiling 1928, Mikan 4821747 Government

Ceiling of the new Russell Theatre showing “The Triumph of Drama” by Frederick Challener, RCA, 1928, Library and Archives Caanda, Mikan 4821747.

The re-opening play was a production of Dolly Varden, a comic opera by the Broadway composer Julian Edwards based on the character Dolly Varden from the Charles Dickens’ book Barnaby Rudge. Miss Lulu Glaser played the lead role. This debut fared better than the first. The Journal’s review described the production as “bright and clever entertainment, while Miss Glaser was “vivacious and dainty.” Unlike Kismet in 1897, Dolly Varden had the necessary “vim.” The newspaper was particularly impressed by a chorus by the entire company performed a cappella. The costumes were also deemed to have been gorgeous.

During that first week, Dolly Varden played for two nights. This was followed by two nights of vaudeville by Shea’s Vaudeville from the Garden Theatre in Buffalo. The week was rounded out by a performance by Louis Morrison in The New Faust on the Friday, followed by Madame Modjeska and Louis James in productions of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII on the Saturday.

The curtain fell for the last time at the Russell Theatre on 14 April 1928. The theatre, along with the now empty Russell House Hotel and other properties on the Russell Block bordered by Sparks, Queen and Elgin Streets and the Canal had been acquired by the Federal District Commission (FDC). All were slated for demolition as part of the Commission’s plan to beautify Ottawa. On that last night, The Dumbells performed in “Bubbling Over,” a series of eleven comedic and musical acts, to a capacity crowd. Led by Captain Merton Plunkett, the troupe was a prominent and extremely popular Canadian vaudeville group that had been formed during World War I by members of Canada’s Third Division. The company took their name from the dumbbell emblem of the Third Division.  At the end of their performance, Captain Plunkett told the audience that it was fitting that a strictly Canadian company should be the last to appear at the Russell.

As The Dumbells were loading their props and other equipment onto a horse-drawn cart after their show, the derelict Russell House Hotel caught fire. Although firemen were able to save the adjacent Russell Theatre from the flames, nothing could save it from the FDC. Three months later, it was demolished. Fortunately, on hearing of the existence of the beautiful ceiling murals by Frederick Challener, Canada’s National Gallery asked that they be saved. The murals now reside at the Gallery. In 1985, the Gallery also obtained Challener’s preliminary scale model of the main mural, Triumph of Drama. See Maquette of Triumph of Drama. 

Sources:

Alberti, Louis-Gèrard, 2015. “The Russell Theatre,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/russell-theatre-emc/.

Bordman, Gerald with Norton, Richard, 2010. American Musical Theatre, A Chronicle, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York.

Evening Journal (The), 1897. “Ottawa’s New Theatre,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “Down Comes The Wall,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “The Russell House Company,” 7 June.

————————–, 1897. “Opera House Decorations,” 14 July.

————————–, 1897. “At Work On The Scenery,” 18 August.

————————–, 1897. “With The Labor Men,” 21 August.

————————-, 1897. “An Up To Date Theatre,” 2 October.

————————-, 1897. “The Russell Offer,” 9 October.

————————-, 1897. “$200 For Fire Sufferers.”

————————-, 1897. “Up Goes The Curtain,” 16 October.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 18 September.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 23 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Fire,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Theatre A Ruin Today,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Opposed To Rebuilding,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Did Not Pay,” 10 April.

————————-, 1901. “Music And Her Devotees,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Will Open Oct. 7,” 25 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Is Completed,” 4 October.

————————-, 1901. “At The Theatre, Opening Of The Russell,” 8 October.

————————-, 1928. “Dumbells’ Review ‘Bubbling Over,’ A Delight In Music And Comedy,” 10 April.

————————-, 1928. “Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey To Flames,” 16 April.

————————-, 1928, “To Salvage Murals, Russell Theatre,” 22 June.

————————-, 1928. “Strip The Russell, Movable Objects,” 6 July.

Moogk, Edward and Kellman, Helmut, 2014, “The Dumbells,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-dumbells-emc/.

NGC Magazine, 2013. “Artists, Architects and Artisans Photo Gallery, 5 November, http://www.ngcmagazine.ca/exhibitions/artists-architects-and-artisans-photo-gallery/Maquette-for-the-Triumph-of-the-Drama-Russell-Theatre-Ottawa.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt, “13 April.

————————-, 1901. “The Russell Theatre, A Suggestion,” 12 April.

The Russell House Hotel

8 June 1863

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the centre of Ottawa’s social life was the Russell House Hotel that stood on the southeast corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. It was a grand and stately hostelry that dated back to about 1845. Originally, the hotel was a three-storey structure with an attic and tin roof known as Campbell’s House after its first owner. Located in Upper Town close to the Rideau Canal, it was the main stopping point for people vising Bytown, later known as Ottawa. Its food and other supplies came from Montreal by river in the summer and overland by sled in the winter.

russell-hotel-1864-library-and-archives-canada-c-002567b

The original Russell House Hotel, formerly Campbell’s Hotel, c. 1864, Library and Archives Canada, C-002567B

When Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, the future of the small community was secured. Its population soared after the Parliamentary and Governmental buildings were completed in the early 1860s, and civil servants and Members of Parliament decamped from Quebec City to Ottawa. Thinking ahead to the business opportunities that this influx of people would bring, Mr James A. Gouin from Quebec City bought Campbell’s Hotel. He renamed it the Russell House after the Russell Hotel in Quebec City where he had worked.

russell-hotel-1-12-1863-oc

Advertisement, The Ottawa Citizen, 17 July 1863

Advertisements dated 8 June 1863 appeared regularly in the Ottawa Citizen through the latter part of that year announcing that Gouin, the new proprietor of the Russell House, had completely repainted and refurnished “this commodious Establishment,” and that “on the 10th instant” would be ready to receive visitors. The hotel could accept twenty five to thirty boarders “at reasonable rates.”  The advertisement added that Gouin had been “connected for many years with Russell’s Hotel, Palace Street [Côte du Palais], Quebec.” This hotel, located just a few blocks from the provincial parliament buildings (now the site of Parc Montmorency), had been owned by the Russell family, Americans who had apparently settled in Quebec when it had been the centre of the lumber industry. Gouin later built the Caledonia Springs Hotel, a famous spa in eastern Ontario, and was appointed Ottawa Postmaster by Sir John A. Macdonald.

russell-hotel-james-grouin-1895-the-canadian-album

Mr James A. Gouin, First Proprietor and Manager of the Russell House Hotel, The Canadian Album, 1895.

Like its namesake at Quebec, the new Russell House Hotel was conveniently located at short stroll from Parliament Hill. It immediately attracted the great and powerful, becoming the home for many Members of Parliament, including Sir John A. Macdonald, in need of a place to live while the House of Commons and Senate were in session.  On Confederation Day, 1 July 1867, the Russell House was full, hosting prominent Canadians from across the country who had come to Ottawa to bear witness to that first Dominion Day, now known as Canada Day. Other prominent early guests included George Brown, the fiery Liberal MP. He was apparently staying at the Russell when he penned a complaint to Macdonald regarding the cost of building the Parliament buildings saying: Never mind expenses. Go ahead. Ruin the Country. Stop at nothing. Why not fountains and parks and gardens? It is also believed D’Arcy McGee, the Canadian nationalist and Father of Confederation who was assassinated in 1868 penned some of his poems at the Russell House Hotel.

russell-hotel-topley-studio-fonds-lac-pa008436

The Russell House Hotel, July 1893, Topley Studio Fonds/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008436.

The hotel was enlarged during the 1870s, with the “New Wing” erected on the Elgin Street side across from the Central Chambers (which still stand today). The hotel’s dining room was located in this wing. In 1880, the original Campbell’s Hotel building was torn down and was replaced by a new, larger, five-storey building on Sparks Street, built in the French Second Empire style, with shops located at ground level. Shortly afterwards, a final extension was made on the east side of the building towards what was then known as Canal Street. (Canal Street disappeared with the building of Confederation Plaza and the extension of the Driveway in 1928.) In the end, the hotel boasted more than 250 rooms.

The hotel reached its peak of popularity during the 1880s and 1890s, and was famous across the country as the place to stay while visiting the nation’s capital. The hotel’s manager, François Xavier St Jacques, who succeeded Gouin, was a living legend. Known as “the Count,” St Jacques was a great eccentric who greeted guests wearing high heel shoes that gave him an odd gait. Visiting Victorian luminaries, such as Oscar Wilde, Lilly Langtry, Lillian Russell, and the boxer “Gentleman” Jim Corbett were Russell House guests. Sir Mackenzie Bowell lived there for seventeen years, including when he was prime minister from 1894 to 1896. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was another long-term tenant, staying at the Russell for ten years before moving to Laurier House in 1897. The hostelry with its long bar and leather chairs was also the site of many political intrigues and debates over the decades, second only to the Parliament buildings themselves.

russell-hotel-dining-may-1884-topley-studio-lacpa-027059

Russell House Hotel Dining Room, May 1884, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027059.

The Russell House Hotel, synonymous with Ottawa and renowned across the country for elegance and fine dining, was eclipsed by the Château Laurier Hotel when that hotel opened for business a short distance away in 1912. By then, the grand old lady had become worn and shabby. In 1923, several thousand dollars was spent upgrading the main entrance and the rotunda, but it was too little too late. By that point, the hotel was rat and cockroach infested.

At noon on 1 October 1925, the hotel closed for good, a victim of rising costs and declining occupancy rates. Paradoxically, bookings during the hotel’s last summer had been strong, with the hotel attracting both tourist and convention business; the Russell was the headquarters of the Dominion Trades & Labour Congress that year. But that was not enough to keep the venerable hotel from closing. On its last night, more than 150 guests were booked into the hotel. They had to take “pot luck” for supper in the cafeteria as food supplies were limited. In the rotunda, a number of old timers sat on battered chairs reminiscing about happier times. One hotel veteran was moved by the occasion to pen a poem entitled “Old Russell Farewell.” Its first verse went:

Adieu, adieu old rendezvous

With saddened hearts we’re leaving you;

‘Twas here friends were wont to meet;

Here argued we affairs of state,

How oft’ we talked long and late,

To make the other fellow know.

Ah! Life is but a passing show.

The next morning, with guests forced to seek their breakfast outside of the hotel, the place was virtually deserted. By shortly after noon, the only employee left out of a staff of 150 was a desk clerk tallying up the last day’s receipts. Gone also were the hotel’s “permanent” residents who had called the hotel home. One had been living at the Russell for thirty-three years.

Initially, its then owner, Russell L. Blackburn, planned to tear down the old hotel and replace it with a modern $1 million hostelry. However, Ottawa City Council balked at his demand to fix his property tax at $7,400 for twenty years. The empty building went into limbo, though the many ground-floor stores continued to operate until the Federal Capital District (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell block of buildings and torn them down as part of its efforts to beautify the capital. In its place, the FDC built Confederation Plaza in commemoration of the diamond anniversary of Confederation in 1927.

The FDC bought the hotel property and the adjacent Russell Theatre property for $1,270,379.15 (equivalent to roughly $17.7 million in today’s money). The deal was still incomplete when just before midnight on 14 April 1928, the hotel went up in flames in a massive fire. Virtually all of Ottawa’s available fire equipment, which at the time was still being pulled by horses, were called in to tackle the blaze. Five firemen were injured by falling debris and flying glass. The cause of the fire was never ascertained. There was a suspicion of arson as first responders found fires in various places on different floors. However, the fire marshal speculated that had the fire been due to an electrical fault, the fire could have easily spread through the walls and floors before the alarm was called in. Alternatively, the evening’s high winds could have carried embers from floor to floor through the hotel’s many broken and open windows.

russell-hotel-fire-samuel-j-jarvis-lac-pa-025085

Russell House Hotel after the fire, 1928, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025085.

Thousands of Ottawa citizens watched the firemen fight the blaze. Many were in evening clothes having just left parties and dances. Guests at the Château Laurier Hotel located across Connaught Plaza from the Russell watched the fire from the windows of their rooms. Other spectators arrived by car, with the best parking spots on Parliament Hill near the East Block. There, people watched in the comfort of their heated automobiles. Knowing that the building was slated for demolition, people cheered as the fire progressed. It reached its height at about 2.30am when the flag pole over the central entrance succumbed to the flames. At 4am, more than a thousand hardy spectators were still on hand despite the cold. The firemen were able to contain the blaze, and stop the conflagration from spreading to other structures. At one point Ottawa’s City Hall further down on Elgin Street was threatened. Ironically, the City Hall was to be destroyed by fire three years later.

russell-premieer-hat-co-1928-lac-mikan-4821789

The Premier Hat Company before the fire, 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4821789.

Losses from the Russell Hotel fire were relatively modest given the scale of the blaze. The Hotel was insured for only $30,000, the low amount reflecting the fact that it was almost derelict and had been emptied of its contents. Some of the small, street-levels shops were not so lucky. “The Treasure House” owned by Herbert Grierson, which sold jewellery, pottery, paintings, china and leather goods, suffered losses of $15,000-$20,000, of which only $8,000 was covered by insurance. The Premier Hat Company lost $10,000 in stock but carried only $2,500 in insurance. Looters also walked off with dozens of hats; one was seen carrying seventeen. Although the owner, Mr Samuel Gluck, was on hand, he was unable to rescue his stock in time owning to difficulty in obtaining a moving truck. Eighteen crates of Persian and Chinese carpets worth $90,000 were also stored in the former cafeteria of the Russell on Elgin Street awaiting auction. Fortunately, the carpets escaped with only minor water damage. They were disposed of in a “fire sale” held a few days later.

With the hotel ruined, the authorities moved to clear the rubble. It took longer than expected with the city threatening legal action against the wrecking company if it didn’t hurry up. But at precisely 1.06 pm on Saturday 10 November 1928 the grand old Russell House Hotel, which had been the focal point of Ottawa social and political life for over sixty years, entered history. The last remnant to go was its 80-foot chimney. Recognizing the historic nature of the event, A. Brahinsky, a representative of City Iron & Bottle Company, announced the time of the pending demolition to allow citizens to come and watch the spectacle. Hundreds cheered as the chimney crash to the ground, brought down by heavy cables and a horse truck. There must have been a few tears, however. The Ottawa Journal commented that “there must be many among us who, as one by one the old landmarks go, feel little but loss of happy reminders of a brave and gracious past.”

Today, no trace of the old Russell House Hotel remains. The site of the hotel is now occupied by the War Memorial.

 

Sources:

Cockrane, William, Rev., 1895. The Canadian Album. Men of Canada; or Success by Example in Religion, Patriotism, Business, Law, Medicine, Education and Agriculture, Bradley Garretson & Co: Brantford,

Evening Journal (The), 1924. “Fixed Hotel Assessments,” 2 October.-

—————————, 1925. “Reached No Decision Over Hotel Request,    23 January.

—————————, 1925. “New Russell House Is Going Out Of Business After Being In Operation Over 50 Years,” 1 September.

—————————, 1925.  “Russell Hotel Comes To An End Of Long Career,” 1 October.

—————————, 1928. “Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey To Flames,” 16 April.

—————————, 1928. “Russell Hotel For 60 Years Past An Intimate Part Of City Life,” 16 April.

—————————, 1928. “Demolish Russell,” 9 November.

—————————, 1928. “Hundreds Watch Demolition of Big Chimney At Russell,” 12 November.

—————————, 1928. “The Old Russell House: Some Memories,” 13 November.

—————————, 1934. “Understanding Shown In Letters Between King, Ministry and Ottawa Concerning Beautification of City, 6 January.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1863. “Russell House,” 17 July.

————————-, 1925. “Russell Hotel Closes Doors: Passing of Historic Hotel Is Devoid Of Any Ceremony,” 1 October.

————————-, 1928. “Fire Will Help Park Scheme To Pass Commons,” 16 April.

 

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.”

perley-building-topley-studio-fondslibrary-and-archives-canadapa-027381

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.

carnegie-theodore-c-marceaulibraryofcongress

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.

carnegie-library-canada-dept-of-mines-and-technical-surveyslibrary-and-archives-canadapa-023297

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.

carnegie-library-interior-william-james-topleylibrary-and-archives-canadapa-009086

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.

 

 

 

The Rideau Club Fire

23 October 1979

Ottawa’s history has been marked by major fires that have reshaped its contours. Most devastating were the massive conflagrations of 1870 and 1900 that twice destroyed much of the western suburbs of the capital, as well as large chunks of Hull on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. The mysterious and deadly fire of 1916 that gutted the Centre Block on Parliament Hill is also worthy of a “dishonourable” mention. Other historic buildings lost to flames include the Russell Hotel, destroyed in 1928 and the old City Hall, gone in 1931. The former stood at the corner of Elgin and Sparks Street, roughly where the War Memorial is located today, while the site of the latter is now Confederation Park on Elgin Street. A more recent calamity was the fire that consumed the Rideau Club building during the evening of Tuesday, 23 October 1979. The landmark building had one of the most prestigious addresses in the Capital, being located at 84 Wellington Street on the corner of Metcalfe Street, immediately across from the front gates of Parliament and right beside the then American embassy.

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Early photograph of the Rideau Club, corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, Ottawa, Date unknown, likely circa 1910, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009225.

For those unfamiliar with the Rideau Club, it is unquestionably the senior, and most exclusive, private club in Ottawa. It was founded in 1865, two years prior to Confederation, by an act of the Province of Canada. The Bill, titled an Act to Incorporate the Rideau Club of the City of Ottawa, sailed quickly through both the Provincial legislature and the Legislative Council (the upper house of Parliament), spurred no doubt by the fact that more than two-thirds of the Bill’s sixty-three petitioners were parliamentarians. The Club was modelled after the British gentlemen’s club that had become very popular in Victorian London. Such clubs provided a haven for gentlemen, or aspiring gentlemen, seeking a quiet respite from home life and a place to entertain guests. The clubs were also useful for business meetings and networking. Although Ottawa in 1865 had lots of taverns and bars catering to its many loggers, there was little in the way of refined amenities. The capital was still a small, rough-hewed, shanty town that had been cut out of the wilderness only thirty years earlier. At a stretch, its population may have been about 18,000. But having been named the capital of Canada in 1857, and with the construction of the parliamentary and government buildings nearing completion, the town was welcoming an influx of parliamentarians and senior civil servants used to the creature comforts of Toronto, Quebec or Montreal. The Rideau Club was their way of bringing some of the finer things of life to the nation’s capital.

The Club’s constitution and rules drew heavily from those of Montreal’s St-James Club established in 1858, with its membership transcending language, religion and political barriers. Its initial membership list reads like a roll call of Canada’s notables of the time. First on the list of petitioners was none other than the Conservative John A. Macdonald, who at that time was the Premier of Canada West, and, along with Sir Naricisse-Fortunat Belleau, who was the Premier of Canada East, headed the last government of the Province of Canada before Confederation. Macdonald subsequently became the first Premier of the new Dominion of Canada following Confederation in 1867, receiving a knighthood for his work in uniting the British colonies of North America. Macdonald was to become the Rideau Club’s first president. Second on the list was George-Étienne Cartier, who had shared the premiership with Macdonald in an earlier Provincial government. Like Macdonald, Cartier was a “father of Confederation,” and was made a baronet by Queen Victoria for his role in founding the Dominion of Canada. Eight other “fathers of Confederation” were on that first membership list, including D’Arcy McGee, who was assassinated in 1868, George Brown, the fiery Reform leader who founded The Globe newspaper, the above-mentioned Sir Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau, and Hector-Louis Langevin who was later embroiled in the Pacific Scandal of 1873 involving bribes in the bidding for a national railway. Another founding member of the Rideau Club was John Sandfield Macdonald who also had been a former Premier of the Province of Canada. After Confederation, he became the first Premier of Ontario. Ottawa’s entrepreneurial elite were also represented on the initial Club subscription list. Robert Bell, the editor and owner of The Ottawa Citizen newspaper and Alonzo Wright, a lumber baron, were founding members.

The club’s first home was at 200 Wellington Street, the location of Doran’s Hotel, Ottawa’s leading inn at the time. In 1869, the Club moved to the Queen’s Restaurant, located at the eastern corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, the site of the Langevin Building today named in honour of Hector-Louis Langevin. In 1876, the Club moved to the other side of Metcalfe Street when the Rideau Club Building Association acquired land for $4,000 from the famed Ottawa photographer, James Topley, and built a modest clubhouse. With the subsequent purchase of an adjoining lot, the building was enlarged on three occasions, the last in 1911, to meet the needs of the Club’s expanding membership. This building, with its front doors facing Parliament Hill, would be the Club’s home for 103 years.

Although the Club welcomed members from all political stripes, francophones, anglophones, Catholics and Protestants, it was strictly men only. Also like most private gentlemen’s clubs of the time, Jews were not welcome; anti-Semitism, though often subtly expressed, was widespread in Canada. Although the Club’s membership rules did not explicitly reject Jewish membership, the selection process for members effectively did so. Should a member propose a Jew for membership, it only required a small, anti-Semitic minority to anonymously block the application. Two rejections meant that an applicant was “blackballed” (i.e. barred) for life. It took almost one hundred years before the Club admitted its first Jewish members in 1964, a reform made possible be changing in the selection mechanism so that members were required to give reasons for vetoing an application.  Among the first Jewish members were Louis Rasminsky, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, and Lawrence Frieman, the owner of a major Ottawa department store and a prominent philanthropist. It took another fifteen years before women broke down similar discriminatory barriers. Jean Pigott, a former Member of Parliament and an adviser to Prime Minister Joe Clark became the first female member in the summer of 1979, just months before the Rideau Club was gutted by fire.

The fire, which destroyed the four-story edifice, began at about 5pm on the evening of 23 October 1979, a timing to which I can personally attest as I was outside the Rideau Club shortly after the fire was detected. I had been walking along Sparks Street after work on the way to W.H. Smith bookstore when I smelt an acrid odour as I approached the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe Streets. Seeing a curl of smoke coming off of the Rideau Club roof, I rushed to a gift shop on Metcalfe Street to use its telephone to raise the alarm. I was in the process of dialling when I heard the arrival of fire engines. Over the next several hours, I stayed to watch the unfolding drama from the safety of the Parliament Hill lawn, along with several thousand passersby, civil servants, and parliamentarians, including Prime Minister Joe Clark.

With the Club’s telephone lines dead, the fire was called in by a Club staff member who had gone to a Sparks Street clothing store to use their telephone. He had initially tried the neighbouring U.S. embassy, but got no response at the front door. At the time, there was only one member inside the Club, former Governor General Roland Michener who was eating toast and drinking tea while reading a newspaper in an upstairs sitting room. With considerable understatement, the Club’s bartender, Philip Sylvain, informed Michener that “there may be a slight fire,” and advised him to leave the building. After the hall porter help him to don his overcoat, the 80-year old former governor general made his way to the National Press Club for dinner where he created pandemonium when he informed journalists that the Rideau Club was on fire.

Apparently starting in the basement, near the elevator shaft, the blaze quickly spread through the building, its path facilitated by the building’s dry wooden interior coated by many layers of paint. Although the Club had recently been renovated, there were no sprinkler system. The cause of the fire was never clearly ascertained. Initial suspicions focused on the furnace boiler or faulty wiring, but Ontario’s Fire Marshall’s Office later rejected both possibilities. In the event, sixty fire fighters responded to the alarm with seven pumper trucks, three aerial trucks and two ladder trucks, as well as a squad truck and other emergency vehicles. Fifty policemen secured the scene and directed traffic, while an estimated 6,000 people looked on from Parliament Hill.

As night fell, the flames lit up the sky. At 6.20pm, the flag on the roof the Club caught fire. Shortly afterwards, the heavily-painted balcony burst into flame, spectacularly illuminating the structure. At the fire consumed the historic building, Rideau Club members, and indeed all of Ottawa, grieved. One member described the event as “going to the funeral of an old friend.” The building was completely gutted. Along with its meeting place, the Club lost priceless records, and many works of art, including two paintings by the famed Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson. Surviving were some cutlery, plates, and seven 19th century Ottawa prints salvaged from the Ladies’ dining room. An Inuit soapstone carving used as a Billiard Trophy was also recovered from the wreckage. Amazingly, more than $10,000 worth of wine and liquor was additionally retrieved, having been stored in a cellar protected by thick, stone walls.

Also gone in the blaze were priceless artifacts housed in the National Capital Commission’s tourist centre located in a corner of the Rideau Club building. Lost treasures included 150-year old model of an 18th century fighting ship, tools used in the construction of the Rideau Canal during the 1820s, and a hand-woven tapestry. As well, tourist brochures worth $100,000 were destroyed.

With the wind blowing from the west, the Rideau Club’s immediate neighbour, the Beaux-Arts U. S. Embassy building constructed in 1931, avoided damage. A firewall and timely action by fire fighters also spared the adjoining Blackburn building at the rear. However, sparks and burning embers from the Rideau Club fire threatened the Langevin Building, home of the Prime Minister’s Office, on the eastern side of Metcalfe Street. Although the fire jumped the road, firemen were able to contain the blaze to the eastern roof of the Langevin Building, using a turret gun and two hand lines that pumped 750 gallons of water per minute onto the roof. As a precautionary measure, staff were evacuated and furniture and files were moved into the interior hallways. Even though the building was saved, the damage, estimated at $500,000, was extensive.

The next morning, Ottawa citizens awoke to the sight of a smoldering, burnt-out shell in the heart of their city. The cost of the fire was placed in the millions. Although Club members hoped that the exterior walls might be saved and the structure rebuilt, the government, which had expropriated the building in 1973, quickly concluded that the edifice was unsafe and beyond repair. With a pending visit by U.S. President Carter, the remains of the Rideau Club were demolished with almost unseemly haste three weeks after the fire.

Neither the Langevin Building nor the Rideau Club building were insured. When the government decided to expropriate the Rideau Club building to make way for a possible future Parliamentary building—an idea that was subsequently quashed owing to high costs—it had originally offered Club members a meagre $1.3 million in compensation. Taking the matter to Federal Court, Club members in 1980 were finally awarded $10.5 million, including interest, in compensation by Mr Justice James Jerome, one of the few Federal judges who was not a member of the Club.

Rideau Club site 2016

Site of the Rideau Club taken from the same angle as the earlier c.1910 Topley photograph, May 2016, Google Streetview.

After using the Chateau Laurier as an interim home after the fire, Club members applied their compensation money to purchase the fifteenth floor of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building at 99 Bank Street, paying more than $5 million for the floor. An additional $3 million was spent on furnishings. From this penthouse floor, members have a fine view of the Parliament buildings and the surrounding Ottawa skyline.

Today, the site of the old Rideau Club building is an open square, featuring a stature honouring Terry Fox, the one-legged marathon runner who died from cancer in 1981 while attempting to run across Canada.

 

Sources:

Lynch, Charles, 1990. Up from the Ashes: The Rideau Club Story, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

McCreery, Christopher, 2015. Savoir-Faire, Savoir Vivre: Rideau Club 1865-2015, Dundurn: Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1979. “Historic Rideau Club In Ruins,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Priceless exhibits lost from NCC’s Collection,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Flames Posed Security Worry,” 24 October.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1979. “Members could only watch and grieve,” 24 October.

————————–, 1979. “Fire cause puzzles investigators,” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Entire city block lay at wind’s mercy.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club death marks changing face of Ottawa.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club blaze began near elevator.” 1 November.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club will crumble,” 7 November.

Province of Canada, 1865. Statutes, 4th Session of the 8th Parliament of Canada, “An Act to incorporate the Rideau Club in the City of Ottawa,” 29 Victoria, Cap XCVIII.