Sappers’ Bridge

23 July 1912

It ended with a crash that sounded like a great gun going off, the noise reverberating off the buildings of downtown Ottawa. After faithfully serving the Capital for more than eighty years, Sappers’ Bridge finally succumbed to the wreckers in the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, 23 July 1912. However, the old girl didn’t go gently into that good night. It took seven hours for the structure to finally collapse in pieces into the Rideau Canal below. After trying dynamite with little success, the demolition crew rigged a derrick and for hours repeatedly dropped a 2 ½ ton block onto the platform of the bridge before the arch spanning the Canal gave way. Mr. O’Toole the man in charge of the demolition, said that the bridge was “one of the best pieces of masonry that he [had] ever taken apart.”

Sappers' Bridge Burrowes

View of the Rideau Canal and Sappers’ Bridge – Painting by Thomas Burrowes, c. 1845, Archives of Ontario, Wikipedia.

The bridge, the first and for many decades the only bridge across the Rideau Canal, dated back to the dawn of Bytown. In the summer of 1827, Thomas Burrowes, a member of Lieutenant Colonel John By’s staff, gave his boss a sketch of a proposed wooden bridge to span the Rideau Canal, which was then under construction, from the end of Rideau Street in Lower Bytown on the Canal’s eastern side to the opposing high ground on the western side. Colonel By accepted the proposal but opted in favour of building the bridge out of stone rather than wood. Work got underway almost immediately, with the foundation of the eastern pier begun by Mr. Charles Barrett, a civilian stone mason, though the vast majority of the workers were Royal Sappers and Miners. On 23 August 1827, Colonel By laid the bridge’s cornerstone with the name Sappers’ Bridge cut into it. The arch over the Canal was completed in only two months. On the keystone on the northern face of the bridge, Private Thomas Smith carved the Arms of the Board of Ordnance who owned the Canal and surrounding land. The original bridge was only eighteen feet wide and had no sidewalks.

Reportedly, one of the first civilians to cross Sappers’ Bridge was little Eliza Litle (later Milligan), the six-year old daughter of John Litle, a blacksmith who had set up a tent and workshop where the Château Laurier Hotel stands today. Apparently, Eliza was playing close to the Canal bank on the western side when she was frightened by some passing First Nations’ women. She ran screaming towards Sappers’ Bridge which was then under construction. A big sapper picked Eliza up and carried her over a temporary wooden walkway and dropped her off at her father’s smithy.

Back in those early days, there were two Bytowns. Most people lived in Lower Bytown. It had a population of about 1,500 souls, mostly French and Irish Catholics. The much smaller Upper Bytown, which was centred around Wellington Street roughly where the Supreme Court is situated today, had a population of no more than 500. This was where the community’s elite lived, mainly English and Scottish Protestants. The two distinct worlds, one rowdy and working class, the other stuffy and upper class, were linked by Sappers’ Bridge. While the bridge joined up Rideau Street on its eastern side, there was only a small footpath on its western side. The path wound its way around the base of Barrack Hill (later called Parliament Hill), which was then heavily wooded, past a cemetery on its south side that extended from roughly today’s Elgin Street to Metcalfe Street, until it reached the Wellington and Bank Streets intersection where Upper Bytown started. It wasn’t until 1849 that Sparks Street, which had previously run only from Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) to Bank Street, was linked directly to Sappers’ Bridge. During the 1840s, that stretch of path to Sappers’ Bridge was a lonely and desolate area. It was also dangerous, especially at night. It was the favourite haunt of the lawless who often attacked unwary travellers. Many a score was settled by somebody being turfed over the side of the bridge into the Canal. People travelled across Sappers’ Bridge in groups: there was safety in numbers.

Bytown, which became Ottawa in 1855, quickly outgrew the original narrow Sappers’ Bridge. In 1860, immediately prior the visit of the Prince of Wales who laid the cornerstone of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, six-foot wide wooden pedestrian sidewalks supported by scaffolding were added to each side of the existing stone bridge. This permitted the entire 18-foot width of the bridge to be used for vehicular traffic.

But only ten years later, the bridge was again having difficulty in coping with traffic across the Rideau Canal. There was discussion on demolishing Sappers’ Bridge and replacing it with something much wider. The Ottawa Citizen opined that such talk verged on the sacrilegious as Sappers’ Bridge was “an old landmark in the history of Bytown.” The newspaper also thought that it was far too expensive to demolish especially as the bridge had “at least another century of wear in it.” It supported an alternative proposal to build a second bridge over the Canal.

In late 1871, work began on the construction of that second bridge across the Canal linking Wellington Street to Rideau Street, immediately to the north of Sappers’ Bridge. It was completed at a cost of $55,000 in 1874. It was called the Dufferin Bridge after Lord Dufferin, Canada’s Governor General at that time. Another $22,000 was spent on widening the old Sappers’ Bridge on which were laid the tracks of the horse-drawn Ottawa Street Passenger Railway.

Despite the upgrade, Ottawa residents were still not happy with the old bridge. Sappers’ Bridge was a quagmire after a rainstorm. On wag stated that “It is estimated that the present condition of the bridge has produced more new adjectives that all the bad whiskey in Lower Town.” One Mr. Whicher of the Marine and Fisheries Department was moved to write a 24-verse parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Bridge about Sappers’ Bridge. In it, he referred to “many thousands of mud-encumbered men, each bearing his splatter of nuisance.” He hoped that a gallant colonel “with a mine of powder, a pick and a sure fusee (sic)” would blow it up. His poem was well received when he recited it at Gowan’s Hall in Ottawa.

Sappers' Bridge 1878 Wiliam Topley -Library and Archives Canada

Sappers’ Bridge (left) and Dufferin Bridge (right), c. 1878, Topley Studio and Library and Archives Canada. The old Post Office is in the centre of the photograph. Notice the horse-drawn passenger railway in operation on Sappers’ Bridge.

But it took another thirty-five years before the government contemplated doing just that.  As part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to beautify the city and make Ottawa “the Washington of the North,” the Grand Trunk Railway began in 1909 the construction of Château Laurier Hotel on the edge of Major’s Hill Park, and a new train station across the street. Getting wind of government plans to build a piazza in the triangular area above the canal between the Dufferin Bridge and Sappers’ Bridge in front of the new hotel, Mayor Hopewell suggested that Sappers’ Bridge might be widened as part of these plans in order to permit the planting of a boulevard of flowers and rockeries to hid the railway yards from pedestrians walking over the bridge. He also added that public lavatories might be installed beneath the piazza.

Sappers' Bridge Demolition Ottawahh

Demolition of Sappers’ Bridge, 1912. The arch of Sapper’s bridge is gone leaving only the broken abutments and rubble in the Canal. The newly built Château Laurier hotel in in the background on the right. Dufferin Bridge is in the centre of the photograph. Bytown Museum, P799, Ottawahh.

In the event, the federal government decided to demolish Sappers’ Bridge. Both the Dufferin and Sappers’ Bridges were replaced by one large bridge—Plaza bridge. This new bridge was completed in December 1912. The piazza over the Canal was also built. It was bordered by the Château Laurier Hotel, Union Station, the Russell House Hotel and the General Post Office. A straw poll conducted by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper of its readership, favoured naming the new piazza “The Plaza.” However, the government, the owner of the site, had other ideas. It decided on calling it Connaught Place, after Lord Connaught, the third son (and seventh child) of Queen Victoria who had taken up his vice-regal duties as Canada’s Governor General in 1911.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the beautification of downtown Ottawa continued. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell Block of buildings and the Old Post Office to provide space for a national monument to honour Canada’s war dead. The war memorial was officially opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In the process, Connaught Place was transformed into Confederation Square.

Little now remains of the old Sappers’ Bridge. Hidden underneath the Plaza Bridge is a small pile of stones preserved from the old bridge with a plaque installed by the NCC in 2004 in honour of Canadian military engineers. The bridge’s keystone with the chiselled emblem of the Ordnance Board was also saved from destruction. For a time it was housed in the government archives building but its current location is unknown.

 

Sources:

Ross, A. H. D. 1927. Ottawa Past and Present, Toronto: The Musson Book Company.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1871. “editorial,” 3 May.

————————, 1972. “A Dirty Bridge,” 10 April.

————————, 1874. “Sappers’ Bridge,” 9 October.

————————, 1913. “‘Connaught Place’, Cabinet’s Choice of Name for Area Formed By Union of Sappers’ and Dufferin Bridges,” 24 March.

————————, 1925. “Muddy Sappers’ Bridge In the Seventies,” 18 July.

———————–, 1928. “Girl of Six Was the First Female To Cross Sappers’ Bridge Over Canal,” 23 June.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1910. “Widening of the Bridges,” 3 June.

———————————–, 1912. “Early Days In Bytown Some Reminiscences,” 27 April.

———————————–, 1912. “When Ottawa Was Chosen The Capital of Canada,” 4 May.

———————————–, 1912. “Bridge Is Blown Down,” 23 July.

———————————–, 1914. “Notable Stones In the History Of The Capital,” 16 March.

 

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The Victoria Memorial Museum

10 May 1901

At the end of Metcalfe Street between McLeod and Argyle Streets can be found the Canadian Museum of Nature, housed in a magnificent baronial building with beautiful stained glass windows. Constructed over a several-year period during the first decade of the twentieth century, the edifice’s official name is the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, in commemoration of Queen Victoria who died in January 1901. Within weeks of her death, the government chose to honour her reign by the construction of a museum.

Victoria Tower post card

Post Card of The Victoria Memorial Museum, before 1915, Valentine & Sons’ Publishing C. Ltd, London, Toronto Public Library.

On 10 May, 1901, a sum of $50,000 appeared in the supplementary estimates for the 1901-1902 fiscal year for the commencement of work on the Victoria Memorial Museum. After considerable debate, the appropriation was approved by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, though the Conservative opposition complained about the lack of a definitive plan for the building.  The government was also uncertain of its location. It favoured siting the building at Major’s Hill Park, with a bridge across the Rideau Canal connecting the Park to Parliament Hill, roughly where the Château Laurier Hotel is situated today. However, others thought Nepean Point might be a good location. Still others objected to both locations arguing that the land should be conserved for parklands. They preferred a location somewhere in the south of the city. Mr. Joseph Tarte, the Minister of Public Works, assured the House that no work would commence until he and his colleagues were convinced they had found the best design and the best site for the new building. To that end, he had sent David Ewart, the Chief Dominion Architect, to Europe to look into museum designs.

The site finally selected for the new museum was a property owned by the Stewart family a mile due south of Parliament Hill. Located there was a stone building called Appin Place surrounded by fields and gardens. Appin Place was a homestead that dated back to 1856, though actual construction of the house was delayed until 1862 owing to the death of the property’s owner, William Stewart, who had been the Member of Parliament for Bytown in the Province of Canada legislature. Appin Place, whose paddock was sometimes used as a cricket pitch, was a well-known landmark. It was surrounded by a massive cedar hedge that was noted for its beauty. The hedge had been transplanted from a nearby swamp during the 1840s. The house itself was built on the highest point of land in “Stewarton” in a direct line and level with the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Appin Place was reportedly where Lord Dufferin had presented the colours to the Governor General’s Foot Guards in 1874. The government acquired the land for $73,500 at a sheriff’s sale in 1903 or early 1904.

The museum was designed by David Ewart, and built by George Goodwin of Ottawa. Goodwin had won the contract for building the museum with his bid of $950,000, excluding the cost of the electrical work, heating and furnishings. His was the lowest of four bids on the government contract. He would later come to rue winning the contract. The total cost of the building came to roughly $1,250,000, equivalent to more than $27 million in today’s money. Goodwin had previously worked on other public works projects, including the construction of the Trent Valley and Soulonges Canals.  The new museum measured 430 feet by 169 feet with a tower 97 feet high. Its walls were built using Scottish work masonry in Nepean brown stone, with trimmings in Nova Scotia red stone. Credit Valley stone was also used. The four-story building was fire-proof with its floors made of porous terra cotta covered with concrete. Wooden sleepers were set into the concrete to which wooden floors were fastened. The walls of the basement were lined with enamelled brick.

Demolition of the old stone Appin Place took only three days in mid-April 1905. Work on the foundation of the new museum commenced almost immediately. The structure was scheduled to take four years to build. But problems, disputes, and tragedy dogged the construction which took longer than expected. Goodwin wanted to substitute stone quarried in Ohio for the Nova Scotia stone, but was overruled by government; the contract called for Canadian stone throughout. In 1908, a labourer fell to his death while working on the building. He apparently lost his footing when he was 70 feet up on the girders. While he survived the fall, he sustained grievous injuries and died at St. Luke’s Hospital. By 1911, six stone cutters who had worked on the building had died from “stone cutters’ lung disease”—an illness, now called silicosis, caused by the inhalation of dust—that causes shortness of breath, cough, bluish skin, and ultimately death.

The name and organization of the new museum also proved to be controversial. A delegation of Ottawa’s finest, including Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper (the partners who owned Ottawa’s electrical company and electric railway), J.R. Booth, the timber baron, and Erskine Henry Bronson, after whom Bronson Avenue was later named, appealed to the Prime Minister. They wanted the new museum to be called the National Museum of Canada that would report to a special government commission comparable to the British Museum in London and the National Museum in Washington D.C. Laurier promised to consult his Cabinet. The appeal failed.

Victoria Memorial Museum without tower LAC PA-48179

The Victoria Memorial Museum Without its Tower, Library and Archives Canada, PA-48179.

As the building was finally nearing completion in early 1911, cracks began to appear in the front tower owing to settling. A slight separation was also noted between the tower and the main building. The Ottawa Evening Journal ominously noted that the contractor, George Goodwin, was the builder of the Laurier Tower, an addition to the West Block on Parliament Hill erected a few years earlier that had subsequently collapsed. Government engineers initially thought that the cracks in the museum would soon be remedied. However, they proved to be wrong. By late 1911, cracks had appeared on both sides of the entrance rotunda. Some were as much as five inches across. The cracks were plastered over several times, only to reappear. In late 1913, the Department of Public Works denied that it was considering dismantling the tower. However, by the summer of 1915, it became obvious something had to be done to ensure public safety. There was even talk of tearing down the entire building. In the end, engineers decided that while the building could be saved, the tower had to come down. It was simply too heavy to be supported by the foundation which rested on unstable clay. Goodwin, the builder, who reportedly lost a fortune on the building, died later that same year. It is said that he had tried to warn the government about problems with the building’s specifications but his concerns had been brushed aside.

Victoria Memorial Museum inside, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada LAC-065507

Inside of the Victoria Memorial Museum, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada/Library and Archives Canada, C-065507.

Despite worries about its solidity, staff moved into the Victoria Memorial Museum in 1911 in order to get ready the many artifacts in the government collection. This included the Geological Survey’s collection of Canadian ores and minerals, fossils, stuffed mammals and birds, insects, as well as First Nations’ handicrafts, phonographic records of songs of indigenous peoples, as well as antiquities and other objects of scientific value. The National Gallery of Canada, with its over four hundred paintings, sketches, etchings and sculptures, also moved into the Museum. In 1913, the Museum acquired a complete skeleton of a “duck-billed” dinosaur, of the family Trachodonatae, discovered in the Red River Valley of Alberta. According to the Ottawa Evening Journal, the fossil was three million years old. Today, this animal is known as a hadrosaur, the old name of Trachodon no longer being used. The fossil, which can still be seen at the Museum of Nature, is actually about 65 million years old.

When the museum first opened its doors to the general public is a bit murky. The National Gallery of Canada located in the Museum building opened in mid-May 1912, from 9 am – 5 pm Monday to Saturday. It is probable that the Geological Survey’s collection opened at the same time. Admission was free. Owing to the great popularity of the museum, opening hours were subsequently extended to Sunday afternoons despite opposition from some clergy.

When the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was gutted by fire in early 1916, the Victoria Memorial Museum was quickly fitted out as the temporary home of the Senate and House of Commons. The House of Commons was located in the lecture hall while the Senate was housed in the hall previously devoted to fossils and extinct animals, a fact that caused great hilarity. Some wags noted that little had changed. Parliament met at the museum until 1920. The previous year, the body of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had laid in state in the temporary House of Commons chamber.

Victoria Memorial Museum today Google

Museum of Nature, Victoria Memorial Museum Building, 2017, Google Street View.

Over its life of more than 100 years, the Victoria Memorial Museum building has undergone two major renovations. During the early 1970s, it was closed to allow for workmen to stabilize the building which was still sinking into the Ottawa clay that lay beneath it. In 2010, a major building renewal and renovation took place. A 65-foot glass tower was installed in the same location as the old tower that was torn down in 1915. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth in 2010 and is called the “Queen’s Lantern.”

Sources:

Canadian Museum of Nature, 2018. Historical Timeline, https://nature.ca/en/about-us/history-buildings/historical-timeline.

Globe, 1912, “The National Art Gallery of Canada,” 4 May.

—————————–, 1915. “”Contractor Goodwin Dead,” 1 December.

—————————–, 1916. “Tempoarary House of Parliament,” 5 February.

Globe and Mail,” 2006. “New life for old bones,” 21 October.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1904. “Commons And Ottawa Items,” 25 March.

————————–, 1904. “To Build Royal Victoria Museum,” 27 September.

————————–, 1905. “Number One Hard Wheat Threated by the States,” 10 February.

————————–, 1905. “Appin Place, Historic House, Will Disappear,” 4 March.

————————–, 1905. “Stewart Homestead A thing Of The Past,” 17 April.

————————–, 1906. “He Must Use The Canadian,” 2 May.

————————–, 1908. “Fatal Fall From Victoria Museum,” 16 June.

————————–, 1910. “Deputation on Change of Name,” 8 December.

————————–, 1911. “One Million And A Quarter Dollars of Estimates Passed,” 24 March.

————————-, 1911. “Cracks In Museum Wall Is Not Growing Larger,”21 April.

————————-, 1911. “Five Stone Workers Dead,” 8 May.

————————-, 1912. “Art Gallery To Open On Saturday,” 14 May.

————————-, 1913. “Dinossaur (sic) Is Secured For Museum,” 4 January.

————————-, 1913. “Museum Tower,” 2 October.

————————-, 1915. “Sealed Tenders for Partial Removal Of Tower,” 11 August.

————————-, 1915. “Contractor For Museum Warned Minister Plans Would Not Suit,” 12 August.

————————-, 1914. “Fine Skeleton Of Dinosaur At Victoria Museum,” 12 September.

 

The Ottawa City Hall Fire

31 March 1931

Ottawa’s first city hall was a wooden structure built close to Elgin Street in 1848 by Nicholas Sparks. It had originally been a market. But when the market failed the following year, eclipsed by the more popular Byward Market in Lower Town, Sparks donated the building to Bytown (later known as Ottawa) as the town’s city hall. For close to thirty years it served in this capacity, for a time also doubling as the community’s fire hall. Pressed for space, the city’s municipal offices moved into a bespoke building constructed in 1876 on an adjacent lot located on Elgin Street between Queen and Albert Streets—roughly where the National Arts Centre is today. The four-storey, stone building was designed by the architects Henry H. Horsey of Ottawa and Matthew Sheard of Toronto in the French Empire style, a mode of architecture which was much admired during the late nineteenth century. The City Hall, built for $85,000, was apparently considered by many at the time as “the finest example of municipal architecture.”

City hall old LAC C002185

The first Ottawa City Hall constructed in 1848. The main floor was used as a fire hall.  Library and Archives Canada, C-002185.

But by the 1920s, the City had once again outgrown its now aging city hall. In 1927, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King came to an agreement with the City over the eventual expropriation of the building, along with the Police and Central (No. 8) Fire Station buildings located behind it, the Russell Hotel, the Russell Theatre, and the Post Office, in a grand plan to beautify Ottawa through the creation of Confederation Park, the construction of a War Memorial to honour Canadian service personnel who died during the Great War, and the widening of Elgin Street. Although the Russell Block was expropriated in 1927 by the federal government, and the City itself took over several buildings including Knox Presbyterian Church for the widening of Elgin Street, plans for the park stalled with the coming of the Great Depression in 1929 and the election of a parsimonious Conservative government under R. B. Bennett in 1930.

City Hall Topley StudiosLACMikkan3325359

Ottawa City Hall, 1877-1931, Elgin Street, Library and Archives Canada, Mikkan 3325359.

The municipal offices were still located in their Elgin Street premises when a fire gutted the building.  During the evening of 31 March 1931, two men passing by the nearby Post Office spotted smoke and flames coming from the top corner of the north-east side of the City Hall. The passers-by rushed to the No. 8 Fire Station. The fireman on duty initially thought the men were pulling an April Fool’s prank on him. But after stepping outside, he quickly call out the fire fighters. The first alarm sounded at 9.25 pm with a second alarm sounding a few minutes later, calling in fire fighters from across the city.

Firemen initially entered the east tower of the Hall that led to the office of Vincent Courtemanche, the City’s paymaster. Courtemanche was working late that night preparing workers’ pay sheets. Hearing the hubbub outside his office, he initially thought a prisoner had escaped from the police lock-up. On finding that the City Hall was ablaze, he rushed upstairs to warn Finance Commissioner Gordon who was also working late. The two men fled the building after retrieving $8,000 in cash and $20,000 in cheques. Gordon also managed to save a cheque-writing machine newly purchased for $1,000.  Reportedly, a one-ton safe was dragged be two policemen and two volunteers from the Treasury Department to the offices of Hugh Carson Ltd, the maker of leather goods at 72 Albert Street, for safe-keeping.

The fire started in the office of T. B. Rankin, the accountant of the City’s engineering department located on the northeastern corner of the top floor. Firemen were able to bring two hoses to Rankin’s office, but the blaze had already spread through the false ceiling and could not be contained. It quickly swept through the neighbouring offices of the Waterworks department and the draughting room of the Works department. The office of the building inspector was also consumed by the flames.

Downstairs, a meeting of the Central Council of Social Agencies was underway in the Board of Control boardroom. Controller J.W. York, who was attending the meeting, immediately called Mayor Allen and other councilmen. After saving the records of the Board of Control, Controllers Gelbert and York, along with a Journal newsman, went upstairs to salvage records from the Waterworks and Works departments. The three men had a narrow escape when a wall collapsed under the pressure of the water from the firemen’s hoses on the other side of the wall of the room they were in. They were forced to drop everything and flee to safety. Following his arrival on scene, Mayor Allen took charge of saving documents. Men frantically slid steel filing cabinets filled with important municipal records down the building’s marble staircase to get them outdoors.

The fire was intense. Seven firemen were injured when the top floor on which they were working collapsed without warning, dropping them more than fifty feet into the basement. Some were pinned for more than an hour under smoldering debris while their colleagues desperately dug to free them. Rev. Father J. L. Bergeron of Ottawa University smashed the glass of a basement window and crawled in to administer last rites to the pinned men. Fortunately, the sacrament was not needed. All the trapped firemen were rescued by their colleagues who “worked like Trojans” to get them out. None of their injuries proved to be life-threatening. But it was a narrow escape. Later in the Water Street hospital, one of the injured admitted that they had received “a real break,” though he phlegmatically added that it was “all part of the game.” Ironically, just two weeks before the fire, the City’s Board of Control had received a report indicating that the Works department vault was supported by only one girder that placed it at risk in the event of a fire. The Board of Control had discussed the building of a more secure vault at the rear of the City Hall at a cost of $70,000 dollars but no decision had been taken.

One hundred and twenty-five firemen from across the city were called out to fight the blaze. To help increase the water pressure, an old steam engine from No. 7 Fire Station was brought into action. A detachment of the RCMP was also called in to help Ottawa police keep more than 20,000 on-lookers from hindering the work of the fire brigade, and to keep them a safe distance from falling debris and flying embers. Just after midnight, tons of masonry from the stone tower at the south-west corner collapsed sending the vault in the Assessment department through the floor through the Health department, the Board of Control room, and the Central Canada Exhibition offices.

Fortunately, the fire didn’t reach the ground floor office of N. H. Lett, the City Clerk. His precious records of elections, plebiscites, and vital statistics survived the fire. Paintings and other valuables were also rescued, including portraits of former mayors and pictures of the King and Queen. Small busts of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier were later found in the Mayor’s Office intact albeit somewhat water damaged. The stock of a little cigar stall that stood at the front entrance was also saved. Estimated losses associated with the fire were placed at more than $200,000. Total insurance coverage amounted to only $91,200 for the building and $10,000 for contents. The cause of the blaze was never ascertained.

Even before the flames were extinguished, work began on finding temporary accommodations for civic workers. The City obtained permission from the federal Department of Public Works to use two floors of the Regal building on O’Connor Street that had just been vacated by the Department of Labour for the Confederation Building on Wellington Street. But efforts to move furniture into the building and set up a switch board were quickly halted when the owner of the building objected. As the City began seeking other alternatives, Mayor Allen and other City Controllers worked out of Controller York’s law office. Some city services set up temporary offices at the Coliseum on Bank Street, others on Bank Street and in LeBreton Flats. Three days after the fire, the City found satisfactory accommodations in the Transportation Building on Rideau Street. (The Transportation Building, built in 1916, stands at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive and is now incorporated into the Rideau Centre.) Previously the home of the Auditor General, the City rented the top three floors at a cost of $22,500 per year, equivalent to $1.50 per square foot. Most civic departments eventually moved here.

Despite the confusion in the days immediately following the fire, most municipal services were unaffected. City staff were paid on time that week by City Paymaster Courtemanche using temporary facilities at the Police Station. Only Ottawa’s sweethearts were disappointed. City Clerk Lett halted the issuance of marriage licences for twenty-four hours owing to his stock of blank certificates being waterlogged.

The Mayor and Council quickly initiated talks with the Bennett government over the future of the gutted City Hall building. The Mayor proposed that the federal government purchase the land for $2 million consistent with the 1927 plan to establish Confederation Park on the site. But Bennett’s government demurred. The price tag was simply too great. Discussions then focused on whether to restore the damaged building, rebuilt on the same site, or seek an alternate site for a new City Hall. The Ottawa Journal was of the view that restoring the damaged building was a waste of money. It opined that the fire had shown the “folly and danger” of its “ugly, wooden towers which architects of a generation or two ago seemingly insisted upon.” It added “The truth is that a lot of mid-Victorian architecture was as slovenly as the dress of a lot of mid-Victorian women – and about as useless.” What had been viewed as the epitome of fine municipal architecture fifty years earlier was now thoroughly out of fashion and a fire hazard to boot.

It took some months for Council to make its decision to demolish the gutted building, contracting with D. E. Mackenzie to pull it down for $1,800 in October 1931. The City retained ownership over the cornerstone, and all plaques and memorials. The decision to demolish the old building was not unanimous. Mayor Allen and Controller Gelbert favoured erecting a temporary roof and using the basement as the civic employment office. A number of potential locations were discussed for a new home for the City Hall, including sites on Wellington Street next to St. Andrew’s Church between Kent and Lyon Streets, the west side of Elgin Street between Queen and Albert Streets, as well as rebuilding on the existing site. But with a price tag of $600,000, and in light of the considerable expenditures the City had recently incurred on sewer upgrades following the sewer explosions earlier that year, and the cost of building a water purification system, city fathers believed it prudent to wait until better economic conditions prevailed before re-building. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that Ottawa moved into new accommodations constructed on Green Island. The new City Hall building was officially opened by Princess Margaret in early August 1958. The structure, now known as the John G. Diefenbaker building, is currently occupied by Global Affairs Canada.

With the creation of a single-tier city structure, and the merger of surrounding communities into the City of Ottawa in 2001, city government moved to the offices of the defunct Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton at the corner of Laurier Avenue and Elgin Street, facing Confederation Park. Interestingly, this is roughly the site proposed for Ottawa’s City Hall by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in 1931. 

Sources:

Citizen (The), 1931.”5 Firemen In Narrow Escape, Property Loss $15,000,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. “Ask Government If It Wants City Hall Razed,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. “City Hall Built in 1875-76, Renovated During 1910-11,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. ‘For A New City Hall,” 2 April.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1931. “Mayor and Board See Premier About City Hall,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “How Ottawa City Hall Looks Today After Night Blaze of Six Hours,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Three firemen Say They Had A Lucky Break,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Cause of Blaze – A Mystery To Chief Lemieux,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Thrilling Scenes And Brave Rescues Mark City Hall Fire,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Fourth Floor Collapses Trapping Seven Men Under Debris In Cellar,” 1 April.

———————————–, 1931. “Board in Special Meeting Decides on New Offices,” 1 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Ask Government $2,000,000 For City Hall Site,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “City Business Carried on Despite Difficulties Faced Securing Temporary Offices,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Why Waste $150,000 On An Inadequate Building,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Wretched Wooden Towers,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Will Consider Construction New City Hall on Present or Some Other Location,” 3 April.

———————————-, 1931. “New Quarters For City Staff Are Arranged,” 4 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Will Demolish The Fire Ruins Of City Hall,” 12 August.”

———————————-, 1931. “Another Site For New City Hall Offered,” 18 September.

———————————-, 1931. “Decide To Tear Down City Hall Ruins At Once,” 3 October.

———————————-, 1931. “Still Unable Start Tearing Down Building,” 6 October.

The Old Supreme Court Building

11 September 1956

Few Canadians are likely to be aware that there used to be another major building on Parliament Hill besides the Centre Block, home of the House of Commons and the Senate, and the East and West Blocks. (Starting in the Fall of 2018, the West Block will become the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block is restored and renovated, a process that is expected to take ten years.) That other structure was the old Supreme Court building located just inside the western gates of the Parliamentary Precinct, with its entrance on Bank Street. Bizarre and horrific as it might sound to history and architecture buffs, the building was torn down in the mid-1950s and replaced by a parking lot.

The story begins back before Confederation. During the early 1860s, the three iconic Parliamentary Buildings were constructed on what was then called Barrack Hill in the neo-Gothic style popular at that time. By 1865, the construction of the East and West Blocks were sufficiently advanced to permit civil servants to finally decamp from Quebec City to Ottawa, the new capital of the then Province of Canada. The following year, the Centre Block was ready for the opening of Parliament in June, though work on the Victoria Tower and the Library continued until 1873 and 1877, respectively.

Supreme Court-Topley StudioLAC-PA-008389

Old Supreme Court Building, with the West Block in the background,  late 19th century, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008389.

The same year the Tower was finished, work began on a two-story structure constructed of the same stone as that used to build the Parliament buildings at the base of the western side of Parliament Hill. Designed by the Chief Dominion Architect, Thomas Seaton Scott, the building was erected to house government workshops whose purpose was to construct and repair government furnishings, such as bookcases and cabinets. Previously, such work had been conducted in the basement of the West Block but the rooms used were too cramped and too dark. The new workshops were completed in 1874. It’s likely that the interior fittings for the Parliamentary Library were made there. Contrary to later folklore, there is little evidence to suggest that the workshops building was ever used as a stable.

An 1875 article entitled “The Workshops of the Board of Works” in the Ottawa Citizen gives a fascinating account of the building shortly after its opening.  Although the Citizen’s reporter didn’t care for the building’s architecture, claiming that it didn’t present “any great claims to beauty of style” and looked “unfinished,” he highly recommended tourists visiting the two-storey, mansard-roofed structure. Apparently, its director, Mr. Pruneau, proud of his domain, was ever ready to provide tours to visitors. The journalist opined that the workshops’ interior was “admirably arranged” with a 25-horse power engine in the basement that powered the machinery located above, and a boiler. He was also impressed that the building was heated by steam, and was consequently very comfortable to work in.

On the workshops’ ground floor were offices, including that of Mr. Pruneau, and storerooms filled with cupboards and drawers. There were also a machine shop and a turning shop used for making furniture. A variety of specialist wood-working tools were on hand, including a morticing machine, and lathes used to make table and chair legs. All were driven by steam. Upstairs was the carpenters’ shop containing twelve double benches, circular saws, and other tools. Next door was the cabinet makers’ shop. At the time of the visit from the Citizen’s journalist, a handsome black walnut bookcase was being readied to go to the finishing room for its final varnishing and polishing. The journalist’s opinion was the workshops were among the finest in the Dominion, and were a credit to all who worked in them.

But the government workshops were not to last. In July 1881, their fittings, tools and stock were sold off at auction. Either there was insufficient work to keep them fully employed following the completion of the Parliamentary Library, or in-house production of furnishing was not cost-effective. Instead, the building was renovated to house the new Supreme and Exchequer Courts of Canada. (The Exchequer Court became the Federal Court of Canada in 1971.)

The Supreme and Exchequer Courts came into existence in early January 1876. There were initially six Supreme Court Justices who at that time also sat on the Exchequer Court bench. The Justices were temporarily allocated four rooms in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill close to the House of Commons chamber. A reading room was used as a court room, while three nearby offices were used for the judges’ consulting room, office space for staff, and a room for counsel. No space was allocated for offices for the six Justices.

Plans were drawn up to build an extension onto the West Block to permanently house the two courts but with an economic recession underway in 1876, the $120,000 price tag was too much for the Liberal Government of Alexander Mackenzie. It didn’t help that the Supreme Court did not have the prestige that it has today. It wasn’t even the highest court of the land. That honour went to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. So, the Justices had to make do with their temporary offices in the Centre Block until the government workshops building was fitted out for them. They moved in during the spring of 1882.

$12,500 was allocated to convert the workshops into a court room and suitable offices. The outside of the building was improved and made more elaborate. Gabled windows were added to provide better lighting into the upstairs courtroom. On the ground floor were offices of the registrar and his clerks, and the précis writer. Upstairs, in addition to the courtroom, were six private rooms for the Justices, a conference room, a barristers’ room, a consulting room and a waiting room. The only thing the building lacked was a law library. The Justices and staff had to go to the Parliamentary Library at the top of Parliament Hill if they wanted to consult a legal tome. The National Gallery was also given space in the renovated building, occupying part of the ground floor to the rear with a staircase to another room on the second floor. This led to a lot of grumbling from the Justices who wanted that space for their Library.

Supreme Court 1890 interior James Topley-LAC-PA-027195

Interior of the old Supreme Court, 1890, James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027195.

In 1887, a report was compiled listing the complaints of the building’s occupants. In addition to the lack of a library, there was a bad smell, the roof leaked, and there was insufficient storage space. The Justices also complained about a lack of privacy owing to the public going to and fro in front of their offices to look at the paintings in the National Gallery. To ease the congestion and address some of the concerns, the Gallery moved out later that year. But the freed-up space was needed for the Exchequer Court that had been split off from the Supreme Court and consequently needed its own staff and accommodations. The building was finally extended to the north in 1890, nearly doubling its size, at a cost of $30,457. The Justices moved into the new wing with their old offices converted into a law library. A private entrance was also built. No longer did the Justices have to mix with the general public when going to and leaving work. Most complaints ended.

By the late 1930s, the Supreme Court building was showing its age. In May 1939, during the Royal Visit just before the outbreak of World War II, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI, laid the cornerstone of a new Supreme Court building on Wellington Street. It would be seven years, however, before the Supreme Court Justices managed to move into their new quarters. Their building, once finished, was temporarily used to house civil servants required to operate the bureaucratic war machine. It wasn’t until the end of 1945 did the Income Tax and National War Services Departments moved out to allow the Justices to move in.

For the next few years, the increasingly dilapidated old Supreme Court building continued to be used for government offices, first for Government Economy Control, then for the Government Travel Bureau. In 1954, it was briefly the stage for a television movie being made by CBC starring Lloyd Bridges, directed by the Hollywood director Victor Stoloff. (The film, to be one of a series of thirteen shows based on real life RCMP cases, subsequently disappeared off of the radar screen though a similar series was made for CBC television in 1959 by Ottawa’s Crawley Films.)

In the spring of 1956, the word came that the old building was to be demolished in phase one of a plan by the Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, to build a grand mall from the West Block on Parliament Hill to the new National Library. The plan called for the western slope of Parliament Hill to be terraced with the mall running from that point, behind the Confederation and Justice buildings where Vittoria Street is located, and in front of the new Supreme Court building. (Earlier plans had also called for the demolition of the West Block and its replacement with a modern concrete building. Thankfully, this idea was dropped.) The site of the old Supreme Court would be used temporarily as a parking lot to relieve parking congestion on the Hill until work started on later phases of the plan.

In the House of Commons, Conservative opposition leader John G. Diefenbaker and George Nowlan, another senior Conservative, were appalled. They pleaded with the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent to save the old building, the home of more than fifty years of Canadian judicial history. Ottawa’s mayor Charlotte Whitton launched a “Save-the-Old-Supreme-Court” campaign. She also tried to put forward a motion at a meeting of the FDC to find other possibilities for the area that didn’t involve tearing down the old building. All was for naught. On 11 September 1956, workmen started stripping off the slate roof as the first step in demolishing the old building.

Supreme Court site Googe streetview august 2017

Site of old Supreme Court, Google Streetview, August 2017

Within a few short weeks the building was gone—“an act of engineering barbarism by the utilitarians” according to R. A. “Dick” Bell, later the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carleton. On the other hand, the Ottawa Journal opined that the old building was “not an embellishment to Parliament Hill from a landscaping or architectural standpoint.” It thought that the “national capital must grow even though among the growing pains are regrets that some of the old must necessarily be replaced.” In 1958, a commemorative plaque was affixed to a low wall made of salvaged stone that separates the parking lot from the sidewalk. Some of the stones from the building were also used to make a pond on the 14th hole of the Rivermead Golf Club in Gatineau, Quebec.

The public outcry from the demolition of the building apparently rattled the government. Future plans for the area were put on the backburner, and were shelved for good with the election of Diefenbaker’s conservatives in 1957.

The site of the old Supreme Court remains a parking lot.

 

Sources:

Globe (The), 1881. “Dominion Estimates: The Proposed Expenditures for the Year 1881-82,” 16 February.

—————, 1881. “Notes From the Capital,” 28 July.

Nowlan, George, 1956. House of Commons Debates, 22nd Parliament, 3rd Session, Vol. 4, p. 3377.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1875. “The Workshops of The Board of Works,” 23 March.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1946. “Eminent Judges Move Into Wellington Street Building,” 3 January.

———————–, 1949. “Diefenbaker Both Right and Wrong About Old Supreme Court history,” 24 December.

————————, 1954. “Ottawa Actors Face Camera, Start Shooting Mountie Film,” 25 January.

————————, 1955. “Build Sweeping Mall From Hill To New National Library Site,” 30 December.

————————, 1956. “Fails to Get Fate of Old Supreme Court Building Before House,” 4 May.

————————, 1956. ‘Mayor Unable to Save Old Supreme Court.” 7 July.

————————, 1956. “Old Supreme Court Being Demolished,” 11 September.

————————, 1956. “West Block Reconstruction Shelved,” 15 October.

————————, 1956. “Built Pond on 14th Hole at Rivermead,” 8 November.

————————, 1958. “A Plaque for the Old Court,” 29 March.

————————, 1958. “Bell Expects Early Action on Capital,” 23 May.

————————, 1979. “Gov’t studying future of ‘parliamentary precinct,’ 17 September.

Snell, James G. and Vaughan, Frederick, The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution, Toronto: The Osgoode Society, 1985.

Urbsite, 2013. Workshops, The Old Supreme Court, 24 June, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2013/06/workshops-old-supreme-court.html.

 

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.

 

telescope

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.

 

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.

$newcoins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Mint, c.1908 Topley Studio Fonds Library and Archives Canada PA-012645

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

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

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

Royal Mint, 1909, Steaming Operation, William James Topley Library and Archives Canada PA-009646

Steaming Operations, Royal Mint, Ottawa, 1909, Topley Studios/Library & Archives, PA-009646.

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

Royal mint 50 cents

1908 Canadian silver 50 cent piece, the same as the first coin ceremonially struck by Lord Grey.

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