Ogilvy’s

18 November 1887

Once upon a time, Ottawa was the home of many high-quality, independent department stores. The discriminating shopper had a choice between Devlin’s and Murphy-Gamble on Sparks Street and Freiman’s, Ogilvy’s, Larocque’s, and Caplan’s only a short walk away on Rideau Street. However, one by one, they succumbed to changing tastes and the formidable competitive power of the national chain stores, such as Simpson-Sears, Eaton’s and The Bay. The last to fall was the doyen of the group—Ogilvy’s. The store, which could not compete with the opening of the glitzy Rideau Centre in 1983, was sold in 1984, lost its name in 1989, and was shuttered for good in 1992. 

Advertisement, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 18 November 1887.

Ogilvy’s began operations on 18 November 1887 at 92 Rideau Street near Mosgrove Street, now roughly the location of the Rideau Centre. Its proud owner was Charles Ogilvy, a devout, Scottish-born Presbyterian, who was only 23 years old at the time, but already had twelve years’ experience in the dry-goods business, working for the firm Elliott & Hamilton in Ottawa.  His small shop measured only twenty by thirty feet, and employed two others besides himself—Bob Halkett, a clerk, and John Pittaway, the messenger boy.

From those humble beginnings, the store, originally known as Charles Ogilvy’s, prospered under its “one-price” policy. It quickly became respected for its truth in advertising and the attention it paid to customers. Charles Ogilvy and his two colleagues worked long hours. Pittaway arrived at 7:30 am each day to sweep out the shop, refresh the displays and otherwise get the shop ready for business. The store stayed open late at night, even past midnight, to accommodate shoppers dropping in to pick up items that had been set aside for them earlier in the day. This close attention to customer service paid off. Within a year, the firm had expanded to include 94 Rideau Street next door. And by 1900, it had grown further to encompass 96 and 98 Rideau Street as well.

Charles Ogilvy, circa 1901, Library and Archives Canada.

In 1903, Charles Ogilvy bought the Doran property, then occupied by a number of shacks, at the corner of Rideau and Nicholas Streets for $17,500 in anticipation of future expansion. The site was considered to be one of the best commercial properties in Lower Town. Ogilvy’s dream was realized four years later when he constructed a new store on this site. The modern, three-storey, steel and concrete building was designed by Ottawa architect Werner E. Noffke of the firm Messrs. Northwood & Noffke. Before designing the structure, Noffke visited similar stores across Canada and the United States for the latest ideas. Noffke chose a classical design for the new department store with simple Grecian accents. Its external cladding consisted of buff-coloured brick with trimmings of Indiana limestone. The building’s biggest innovation was the large display windows that lined Rideau and Nicholas Streets. Its interior fittings were of a rich, golden oak.

Charles Ogilvy’s moved to its new premises at 126 Rideau in August 1907. On the ground floor was a large men’s wear department, a special counter for the “justly celebrated Ladies’ Home Journal Patterns,” silks, gloves, hosiery, underwear, ladies’ neckwear, ribbons, laces, and embroidery. Customers had their choice of taking a broad staircase or an elevator up to the second floor where the Ladies’ Ready-to-Wear Department was located. Also on that floor women could purchase corsets and “whitewear.” As well, fashions for infants and children were located on this floor as were home furnishings. The third floor housed dress-making rooms for those people who might have purchased patterns and fabric on the ground floor. Reserve stock was stored in the basement, also the location of lockers and staff toilets.

In 1908, the store was incorporated as a limited liability company, with the new firm known as Charles Ogilvy Ltd. The share capital of the company was $150,000 divided into 7,500 shares with a par value of $20. Ogilvy gave shares to some of his long-time employees, including William McGiffin, and John Pittaway, the company’s former messenger boy twenty-one years earlier. Pittaway later became a director of the firm and the superintendent of the store’s operations.

Drawing of the new Ogilvy building by Werner Noffke, Ottawa Journal, 12 May 1906

Ogilvy’s continued to prosper, with an extension added to the rear of the building to Besserer Street in 1917. This addition effectively doubled the floor space of the firm. Later, Charles Ogilvy bucked the Great Depression, adding a fourth floor to the business in 1931 and a fifth in 1934. A parking lot was also purchased near the store in 1938 to accommodate 100 cars. A cafeteria was set up on Besserer Street for employees in 1947, where lunches could be had at cost or less along with coffee, cold drinks and sandwiches for staff during their morning and afternoon breaks.

The expanding store offered a wide range of additional departments and services, including workshops for upholstery and fur coats, a power tool shop, a “Sportsman’s Lodge, a full-range furniture store, and an electrical department, offering the latest innovations in home appliances, such as electric refrigerators, ranges and vacuum cleaners, with specially trained staff on hand to help guide the customer in the use of her new purchase.

Much of Ogilvy’s success was due to the firm’s treatment of its employees which rose in numbers from three in 1887 to more than 600 by 1953. Staff were treated well, especially through the dark years of the Great Depression when not one person was let go. Service people were also given half pay while in the armed forces, with a job guaranteed for them on demobilization. Moreover, Charles Ogilvy gave shares in the firm to long-time employees. Indeed, the department store became owned by its employees after Ogilvy’s death in 1950. Employees were additionally given a benefit package far superior to that offered by most enterprises at the time, including a group life and health insurance plan, a retirement annuity plan, and a shorter work week to permit better work-life balance. Employees were also members of The Employees’ Club of Charles Ogilvy, or the “ECCO Club” for short, which hosted sporting and social events and even had a recreation centre on the Rideau River. The company had a hockey team for a time called the Ogilvy’s Dry Goods Earthquakes.

Charles Ogilvy died in January 1950, leaving a relatively small estate of less than $300,000. His chief beneficiary was his second wife, Elizabeth Johnstone Kennedy Ogilvy, who he had married in 1947. (His first wife of many years, Elizabeth Roby Addison, had died in 1946.) He also left shares in Ogilvy’s to key employees, including to the faithful John Pittaway who was still attached to the firm. A provision of his will left the family residence at 488 Edison Avenue to his wife for her use until her death after which it would be given to Charles Ogilvy’s Ltd as a rest and convalescence home for employees. Also after the death of his wife, the residue of his estate was to be divided equally among Ottawa charities, including the May Court Club, Union Mission, the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Ottawa Day Nursery, the Salvation Army, the Lady Grey Hospital, the Perley Home, and the Ottawa Association for the Blind.

The department store continued to flourish after Charles Ogilvy’s death through the 1950s and 1960s. The Ogilvy’s Annex, a two-storey addition on the western side of the main building, was added in 1960. Two new outlets were opened at Billings Bridge and at Lincoln Fields, and staff increased to 700-800 persons. However, in 1969, Ogilvy’s main store on Rideau Street suffered a major fire with damages estimated at $1.2 million. The store lost its entire stock and was closed for close to three weeks. Other retail outlets were also affected by the three-hour blaze including Trudel Hardware, Classy Formal Wear and the Guardsman Restaurant.

While Ogilvy’s recovered from this blow, the store then began to feel the competitive pressures from the big nation retail chain stores that entered the Ottawa market in the early 1970s. Profitability declined. But the big blow came in 1983 with the opening of the Rideau Centre just a few steps to the west of Ogilvy’s main store. After posting a profit of $482,000 on sales of $23.2 million in 1982, Ogilvy’s lost $280,000 on sales of $25.4 million in 1983. The firm never returned to profitability.

After months of dickering, the 240 shareholders of Charles Ogilvy Ltd. sold the business outright to Joseph Segal and his partner John Levy, the owners of Robinson’s, a regional department store chain based in Hamilton, Ontario. The price was $10.9 million, of which $10 million represented the value of the Rideau Street main store. This valued the business along with its inventory at less than $1 million. The shareholders, mostly store employees, did well out of the deal. They received $87 per share, half in cash and half in preferred shares in Robinson’s payable in full by 1989. This compared to $20-25 they had paid for their shares originally.

The closed Ogilvy building on Rideau Street, 2005 by SimonP, Wikipedia Commons

Segal and Levy immediately sold the Rideau Street main building for $10 million to a subsidiary of Comark Inc., the operator of high-fashion ladies’ fashion stores. The Ottawa retail business, now called Robinson-Ogilvy, was consolidated onto the first two floors and the basement of the Rideau Street building, which the firm rented on a long lease from Comark. The upper floors were rented out to other businesses. The Robinson’s chain also invested $2 million in upgrades to attract a more youthful clientele.

The investment failed. In 1986, Segal and Levy sold the Robinson’s chain of stores including the three Robinson-Ogilvy stores in Ottawa to Comark Services Inc, the firm that owned Irene Hill and Brettons. But Comark also struggled to make a go of it. Ogilvy’s, once the largest department store in Ottawa, now had less than one half of the floor space of Eaton’s or The Bay. Moreover, it never found its niche market, and struggled to re-build customer loyalty. The firm also lost the loyalty of its staff owing to layoffs.

Ogilvy’s three-storey façade, 2019, Google Streetview

In 1989, in a last-ditch effort to rebrand itself, the Ogilvy name was dropped, leaving the firm to operate solely as Robinson’s. The chain briefly opened a big branch store in the new Place d’Orléans Mall in the East end, but it was quickly forced to sell that business to The Bay in May 1992. The following month, the firm that Charles Ogilvy had started in 1887 disappeared into history.

The mortal remains of the firm—the old head office building on Rideau Street—remained. Vacant, the building was purchased in 1995 by Viking Rideau Corp. with a view to incorporating the structure into the Rideau Centre. In 2000, the five-story building was designated as having historical and architectural significance under the Ontario Heritage Act. However, Viking Rideau objected to this designation and sought permission from Ottawa City Council to demolish the building. Heritage organizations, especially Heritage Ottawa, strenuously objected. In the end, an agreement was reached to conserve the original three-storey façade along Rideau and Nicholas Streets. This agreement was carried out by Cadillac Fairview as part of a larger renovation of the neighbourhood in 2015 following its purchase of the building from Viking Rideau.

Sources:

Heritage Ottawa, 2022. Charles Ogilvy Ltd. Department Store.

Ottawa Citizen, 1902. “Hockey,” 21 February.

——————, 1903. “Real Estate Deal,” 30 October.

——————, 1906. “To Build A Fine New Store,” 11 May.

——————, 1907. “Charles Ogilvy’s New Store Opened Tuesday,” 7 August.

——————, 1908. “Is Now A Company,” 13 April.

——————, 1908. “New Company Gazetted,” 20 April.

——————, 1931. “Ogilvy’s,” 8 May.

——————, 1933. “Chas. Ogilvy Shows Confidence By Store Addition,” 26 June.

——————, 1950. “Charles Ogilvy, Noted Ottawa Merchant, Is Dead,” 27 March.

——————, 1956. “Charles Ogilvy Ltd. Completes 66 Years’ Service to Area,” 31 October.

——————, 1960. “Expansion By Ogilvy’s to Start This Summer,” 13 June.

——————, 1984. “Talks resume in bid to buy Ogilvy chain,” 29 November.

——————, 1984. “New-Look image follows Ogilvy’s $10 million merger,” 28 December.

——————, 1986. “Ogilvy’s two-pronged challenge,” 11 March.

——————, 1986, “Ogilvy’s workers bitter after a week of layoffs,” 12 April.

——————, 1986. “Comark wrapping up purchase pf Ogilvy stores,” 1986.

——————-, 1988. “An institution struggles to recover its dignity,|” 18 December.

——————-, 1989. “Ogilvy’s name Robinson’s in name-dropping move,” 11 August.

——————-, 1992. “No Case for Robinsons,” 23 June.

——————, 1992. On the eve of demolition, the history of Ogilvy’s shines,” 15 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1912. “Charles Ogilvy, Ltd. To Enlarge Present Store,” 25 July 1914.

——————-, 1931. “Charles Ogilvy, Ltd. Opens New Section,” 5 March 1931.

——————-, 1950. “Pioneering Merchant Charles Ogilvy Dead,” 27 March.

——————-, 1950. “Charles Ogilvy Leaves Estate of $299,404,” 14 June.

——————-, 1969. “Fire Damage Estimate: Nearly $1,200,000,” 30 December.

The Ottawa Journal Closes

27 August 1980

Headline, Ottawa Journal, 27 August 1980

Rumours had been circulating that the Ottawa Journal was living on borrowed time. Staff were worried. But Jim Rennie, the executive editor, met with the newspaper’s editorial staff to provide some reassurance. They were doing good work, and circulation was on the rise. After falling to a low of only 52,000 copies per day the previous year, readership had risen to 77,000. The goal of 80,000 by mid-September 1980 was in sight.  But on the very evening of that staff pep talk, Rennie received an unexpected and unwanted telephone call; the newspaper was folding.

The next morning, under the headline “Ottawa Journal closed,” Arthur E. Wood, the publisher, wrote: “It is with deepest regret that I am obliged to announce the cessation of publication and closure of The Ottawa Journal effective with this morning’s edition, Wednesday, August 27, 1980.”

Less than a year earlier, Wood, then the publisher of the Montreal Star, delivered the same bad news to that newspaper’s staff.  A few months after a ruinous and lengthy pressmen’s strike that saw the newspaper lose circulation and advertisers to its rival, the Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Star collapsed.

Wood explained to Journal staff that over the past five years, the paper’s financial losses had grown from $112,000 in 1975 to $3,400,000 in the first eight months of 1980. Such losses were simply not sustainable. Although circulation has risen significantly in recent months, more newspaper sales ironically increased the red ink as advertising revenue didn’t rise commensurately, and the cost of producing the additional newspapers outweighed the higher circulation revenue. Advertisers stuck with the Ottawa Citizen despite its higher advertising rate per column inch. Even The Bay, then owned by the Thomson group, the proprietors of the Journal, cut back its advertising in the Journal. Among the reasons cited for the inability of the Journal to attract advertisers was that both newspapers were going after the same demographic group. One observer also suggested that the newspaper’s failure to switch to offset printing from hot lead typesetting when the Ottawa Citizen did in 1973 was an important factor as advertisers had to prepare two different types of advertisements, one for the Citizen and one for the Journal. The additional expense was not worth the effort.

With the closure of the newspaper, 375 people lost their jobs. Only Wood was assured of a new position within the Thomson newspaper empire, the owner of the Ottawa Journal since the beginning of 1980.

The Journal had a long history in Ottawa. It had been founded almost 95 years earlier in 1885 by Alexander Smith Woodburn. In its first edition, which came out on 10 December of that year, Woodburn stated that the reason for a new daily newspaper in Ottawa was obvious. But to ensure there was no doubt, he added that Ottawa needed a newspaper that was “able and independent,” ready to express the opinions of, and advocate for, the interests of the city’s citizens. He opined that there was a “pressing need” for a daily newspaper of “high moral form, free from political partisanship and party prejudices,” and “loyal to the Empire and zealous in the promotion of the best interest of its noblest member—the Dominion of Canada.” As the Ottawa Citizen was the leading English-language newspaper in Ottawa, Woodburn’s words were a not so veiled attack on that newspaper.

Woodburn added that the new Ottawa Evening Journal would not be the mouthpiece of any clique, political party or religious denomination, and would cover the news without favour to friend or foe. While the newspaper would provide news of the world, it would, of necessity do so in a condensed fashion. Its principal focus would be on matters pertaining to Ottawa, especially civic affairs.

The Journal’s office was located at 36 Elgin St. The cost of the daily newspaper was two cents. The newspaper’s first editor was John Wesley Defoe. He held the position for only six months before he headed out to Winnipeg to work for the Manitoba Free Press. He was later to become that newspaper’s editor, a position he held from 1901 to 1944. Defoe was succeeded at the Journal by Mr. A. H. U. Colquhoun. 

P. D. Ross, Ottawa Citizen, 18 January 1910.

In 1886, Philip Dansken Ross bought a 50 per cent interest in the financially shaky Journal from Woodburn. Four years later, he bought out his partner, and became president of the company. He was to remain at the head of the newspaper until his death in 1949. In 1917, Ross organized the merger of the Journal with the Ottawa Free Press. An eminent pressman, he was also a founder of the Canadian Press newspaper association. Four months before his death, he sold his shares in the Ottawa Journal to his colleagues working for the newspaper.

Ross was a man of many parts. In his early years, he was an outstanding athlete both at McGill University and later as a player for the Ottawa Senators. In 1892, he was named as one of the original trustees of the Stanley Cup. He later became chairman of Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission. Politically, he was a conservative, and was active in Ottawa politics at all levels of government. Reflecting his political affinity, the Ottawa Journal was broadly seen as a Conservative newspaper.

In July 1959, ten years after Ross’s death, the newspaper, never financially strong, was acquired by the newly-formed FP Publications Ltd. The company, based in Winnipeg, was owned by Colonel Victor Sifton of Winnipeg and G. Max Bell of Calgary. Other newspapers owned by the group at that time included the Winnipeg Free Press, the Victoria Daily Times and the Daily Colonist as well as several Albertan newspapers. In January 1980, the Ottawa Journal was purchased by the Thomson Corporation, established by the Canadian Roy Thomson, 1st Baron of Fleet. The Thomson group owned roughly 200 Canadian and British newspapers, including London’s prestigious Times and Sunday Times.

The closure of the Journal, just months after it was acquired by the Thompson group, came as a shock to Ottawa citizens as well as its employees. When woken at 3:00 am by a journalist with the news, Mayor Marion Dewer thought she was having a bad dream. Jean Pigot, president of the Morrison-Lemothe Bakery and the Progressive-Conservative MP for Ottawa-Carleton from 1976 to 1980, and later Chair of the National Capital Commission, is reported to have exclaimed: “Good Lord, I don’t believe it.”

Shock changed to anger when it was revealed that on the same day the Thomson group closed the Ottawa Journal, it’s arch rival the Southam group of newspapers closed the Winnipeg Tribune. The dual closures left the Southam-owned Ottawa Citizen the sole English-language newspaper in Ottawa, and the Thomson-owned Winnipeg Tribune the sole English-language newspaper in Winnipeg. Southam’s also sold the fixed assets of the Tribune to the Thomson group for $2.5 million.

The chairman of Southam’s, St. Clair Balfour, claimed that there had been no deal between the two newspaper groups, though there had been discussions about the losses each had been suffering. Balfour said the both groups believed that confusion and uncertainty among employees and shareholders would have been heightened had the decisions to close the two newspapers been separated by weeks or months. The situations at the Tribune and the Journal were mirror images of each other.

Outrage over the closure of the two newspapers that left the Southam and Thomson newspaper chains with monopolies in Ottawa and Winnipeg, respectively, led to the creation of the Royal Commission on Newspapers, commonly referred to as the “Kent Commission” in 1980. Among other things the Commission recommended that the government block further cross-media concentration, and that newspapers put on public record reports on their editorial purpose and policy, and establish advisory committees composed of journalists and outsiders. The Commission also advised the establishment of a Press Rights Council within the government’s Human Rights Commission to review the annual reports of newspapers’ advisory committees.

Following widespread outrage within the newspaper industry, and fears of “Big Brother,” the recommendations of the Kent Commission were set aside. At a time when the government of Pierre Trudeau faced more pressing issues, such as a deep economic recession, and Quebec separation, it was unwilling to take on the wrath of the newspaper industry. However, the upshot of this was further concentration in the industry. By the year 2000, three chains (Hollinger/Southam, Quebecor/Sun Media and Torstar) reportedly controlled 72% of daily newspaper circulation in Canada.

Today, concerns about concentration of ownership in the newspaper industry are overshadowed by broader issues. The rise of digital media has led to a major shift away from print media. Newspapers are closing around the globe, leading to the loss of thousands of journalist positions, as readers and advertisers gravitate towards on-line content. In the process, the likes of Google and Facebook have scooped up the lion’s share of advertising revenue. According to Canadian Media Concentration Report, there has been a breakdown of the three-way beneficial relationship between advertisers, journalists and the public.

Not all are concerned about this, with some arguing that media fragmentation rather than media concentration is more relevant. However, the democratization of news provision—everybody can be a “journalist” and upload material to the web—and the algorithms used by search engines to disseminate content has led to “echo chambers” where readers only see material that support their world view. This phenomenon, combined with “fake news,” pushed by those with a particular agenda, have contributed to widening social divisions.

Sources:

Creely, Tim. 1984. “Out of Commission,” Ryerson Review of Journalism, http://rrj.ca/m3557/, Spring.

Keshen, Richard & MacAskill, Kent, 2000. I Told You So: The Kent Commission,”

New York Times, 1949. “P.R. Ross, Headed Ottawa Journal; President of newspaper since 1886 Is Dead at 91 – Acquired Publication for $8,000, 6 July 1949.

Ottawa Citizen, 1980. “Ottawa Journal folds,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Citizen to fill the void,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Without advertising increases, circulation hike actually hurt,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Shutdown confirms rumors,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Massive changes revealed,” 27 August.

Ottawa Journal, 1885. “Prospectus,” 10 December.

——————-, 1949. “P.D. Ross, Journal President, Dies At 91,” 5 July.

——————-, 1980. “Ottawa Journal Closed,” 27 August.

Royal Commission on Newspapers, The Kent Commission, 1980.

Victoria Daily Times, 1959, “Victoria Newspapers Join National Group,” 16 July.

Winseck, Swayne, 2017. Canadian Media Concentration Research Report, http://www.cmcrp.org/.

Instant Mashed Potatoes…

7 February 1961

The post-war years saw a revolution in the kitchen, both in terms of what we ate and how our food was prepared. With growing affluence and improving technology, out went the icebox and in came the modern electric refrigerator. Electric stoves became commonplace. In 1955, early adopters bought their first microwave ovens. Processed foods were rapidly filling up the new suburban supermarkets. Swanson’s TV dinners, the first successful frozen meal, hit groceries’ freezer shelves in 1954, allowing the entire family to enjoy the dinner of their choice in front of that new household necessity, the television. For 98 cents, one could choose among Salisbury steak, meatloaf, fried chicken, or turkey, accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas. Later, a dessert was added. Technological improvements also made canned and frozen foods more palatable. Processed foods were a hit with harried women who did the grocery shopping and prepared the meals along with raising a family and, in increasing numbers, entering the paid workforce.

One of the earliest convenience foods was dehydrated potatoes. In 1905, Ernest W. Cooke applied for a US patent for “Dehydrated Potatoes and Process of Preparing the Same.” It was granted in 1912 (No. 1,025,373). Under Cooke’s process, potatoes were cut up into small pieces, shredded, cooked slightly, then dried. They could be reconstituted by simply adding water. Cooke claimed that his process preserved the majority of the cell walls of the potato, making a palatable product. Previously, the hydration of dried potatoes whose cell walls had been crushed resulted in a “mucilaginous starchy mess, which is entirely inedible,” he said.

Advertisement for French’s instant mashed potatoes, Ottawa Citizen, 19 December 1959.

The demand for dehydrated potatoes was not strong, however. After rising somewhat during World War I, demand for the product cratered during the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t until the United States entered World War II that the product found a major buyer in the US military looking for ways of feeding its troops. Military demand for other types of dehydrated vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots also rose though potatoes was by far the number one dehydrated vegetable.

Following the war, demand for dehydrated potatoes remained strong with the US government purchasing large amounts to support potato prices and to send overseas as foreign aid. The product, while nourishing, wasn’t very good. American GIs who were forced to eat the potato mush during the war hated it.

It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that RT French Company, then a subsidiary of the British firm Reckitt & Colman, successfully launched instant mashed potatoes onto the retail market. Its process for making the instant spuds was based on a British patent for the product developed during the war by Theodore Rendle. The patent was for “improvements in and relating to the preparation of cooked starchy vegetables in powdered form,” such as mashed potatoes. This product was available on Ottawa’s supermarket shelves by the late 1950s.

At this point, enter Dr. Edward A.M. Asselbergs, a senior researcher at the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Research Centre at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa. On 7 February 1961, he and two colleagues, Hugh Hamilton and Patricia Saidak, filed a Canadian patent application for a new process for preparing dehydrated cooked mashed potatoes. The patent (CA 620541) was granted the following May. A US patent was granted in 1966 (No. 3,260,607). Asselbergs had immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1950. He held a BSc from the University of Wageningen, an MA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Cornell University.

Dr. Asselbergs showing his thin film of processed potatoes, Ottawa Journal, Dominion Wide, 30 November 1961.

Asselbergs’ team had invented a new form of instant mashed potato, one that was neither in the form of granules nor flakes, which were already available, but rather took the form of “crystal-like particles” with an average thickness of three to four potato cells. The new production process consisted of cooking cut-up potatoes for roughly six minutes in boiling water, “fluffing” them to facilitate the removal of moisture, then mashing them between two rollers to form a continuous, perforated layer. This potato layer was then dried on a heated surface to produce the crystal-like particles. The physical structure of the new instant mashed potatoes was different from both granular and flaked instant mashed potatoes. Experiments were carried out on Idaho Russet potatoes as well as potatoes grown in Canada, including the Sebago potato grown in Prince Edward Island.

The impetus for the invention came from the Canadian potato industry. They hoped that a new product would revive demand for potatoes that had been weakening for some years. As well, it was hoped that the establishment of instant mashed potato factories close to potato fields would allow for the economical use of fresh potatoes that could not be profitably transported long distance. Instant mashed potatoes could also be stored indefinitely.

The new recipe for instant mashed potatoes was big news in Canada. Alvin Hamilton, the federal minister of agriculture personally congratulated Asselbergs for his invention.

Asselbergs and his research team didn’t rest on their laurels. Success with instant mashed potatoes led them to experiment with other vegetables and mixtures. Less than a year later, they came up with a number of dehydrated products including, fish and potatoes, lamb and potatoes, beef and potatoes, pork and potatoes, chicken and potatoes, cheese and potatoes, as well as dehydrated turnips and pumpkins. For the fish and meat dishes, the bones were first removed, the meat was then cut up and mixed with various amounts of mashed potatoes with the mixtures subsequently fed into a drum dryer at a pressure of 90 pounds per square inch and at a temperature of 280°F. The product was then rolled out into a tissue thin layer that crumbled into flacks.

Asselbergs said that these meals could be stockpiled for emergency use and would keep indefinitely in the kitchen. He added that both the instant and reconstituted mixtures had excellent flavour and colour. Spices were already added. As well, the loss in nutritional value was no greater than that involved in an ordinary cooking process.

The dehydrated mixtures could be converted into hot meals within minutes, or even eaten dry without any preparation. The fish and potato mixture was produced at an experimental fish processing plant in Valleyfield, Newfoundland. An Ottawa women’s auxiliary church group tested the new product on their families and reported back to the Asselbergs team and the Test Kitchen at the Experimental Farm on its reception. The Ottawa Journal reported that “By merely adding water or milk to the fine crystalline mixture, and warming it up, the housewife can prepare tasty fillings for fish cakes, meat pies, casseroles, croquettes and even pumpkin pies in a matter of minutes.” The newspaper offensively added “If she is too lazy to do even this, the basic mixture can be eaten in its instant form.”

The inventions earned Asselbergs more congratulations from Alvin Hamilton, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture.

Not everybody was enthusiastic. The Kingston Whig Standard, in another journalistic “Leave it to Beaver-June Cleaver” moment, wrote that the “only reward or thanks [for the new instant foods] came from the bride with no cooking talents at all.” Instant food might be “a boon to the camper or the all-thumbs bachelor-for-a-weekend, but there is something in this note of progress which makes for some dismal contemplation of the future.”

Advertisement, c. 1965, for Shirriff’s Instant Mashed Potatoes, source unknown.

What was the upshot of these culinary innovations? Well, the food industry didn’t rush to license Asselbergs’ patents. His instant mashed potatoes patent was, however, assigned to Salada-Shirriff-Horsey which had a potato processing plant in Alliston, Ontario, and produced instant mashed potatoes, possibly using Asselbergs’ patented process in Canada. The other patents for meat and potato flakes didn’t catch on. Apparently, they were a little too “instant” for most people.

Dr. Edward Asselbergs did not profit from his inventions. Being a public servant, his inventions belonged to the Crown. In 1962, Asselbergs was elected president of the Canadian Institute of Food Technology, which had roughly 700 members from the Canadian food industry. He subsequently left the Department of Agriculture to take up a senior position at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy.

He retired and returned to Canada in 1985. He died in 1996 in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Instant mashed potatoes continue to be sold in North American grocery stores as a quick and easy replacement for fresh spuds. Major producers include Idahoan Foods and Betty Crocker.

Sources:

Canadian Patent Data Base, 1961. “Preparation of Dehydrated Cooked Mashed Potato,” inventor: Asselbergs, Edward A.M., Hamilton, Hugh A. and Saidak, Patricia, Patent # 620541, 23 May.

Kingston Whig-Standard, 1961. “Instant Everything,” 6 December.

Ottawa Citizen, 1961. “If You Like Them Mashed,” 3 March.

——————, 1961. “Yet Another Instant Dish,” 7 December.

——————, 1996. “Edward Asselbergs,” obituary, 5 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1961. “Revolution in ‘Instant’ Food, Ottawa Scientists’ Project,” 30 November.

——————-, 1963. “Eight New Dried Food Mixes Developed,” 6 July.

——————-, 1965. “Fish Potatoes May Be Added To Instant Food Varieties,” 21 January.

Sault Star, 1962. “Instant Foods,” 19 January.

Rasmussen, Clyde L. and Shaw, W. Lawrence, 1953. Preliminary Planning for Vegetable Dehydration, US Department of Agriculture, Western Regional Research Laboratory, Bureau pf Agriculture and Industrial Chemistry, Albany, California.

UK Patents, 1944. “Improvements in and relating to the preparation of cooked starchy vegetables in powder form,” inventor: Rendle, Theodore, Patent # GB566167A, 18 December.

United States Patent Office, 1912. “Dehydrated Potatoes and Process for Processing the Same,” Ernest William Cooke, inventor, Patent # 1,025,373, 7 May.

———————————, 1966. “Preparation of Dehydrated Cooked Mashed Potato,” inventors: Asselbergs, Edward A.M., Hamilton, Hugh A. and Saidak, Patricia, Patent # US3,260,607, 12 July.

The Green Valley Restaurant

30 June 1947

The Green Valley Restaurant, Prescott Highway, Ottawa

For more than fifty years, the family-run Green Valley Restaurant was a landmark on the Prescott Highway, later known as Prince of Wales Drive. Despite being far from the downtown core, the restaurant was an enduring favourite of Ottawa diners. It garnered a reputation for fine dining. Thousands made their way out past the Experimental Farm, tempted by the Green Valley’s traditional offerings of prime rib of beef, leg of lamb, chicken pot pie, salmon, trout and scallops. For those who still had room, a wide range of home-style desserts were served, including carrot cake, coconut cream pie, and cheesecake with raspberry sauce.  A dessert favourite among the younger set was the “Mickey Mouse” – scoops of ice cream decorated with chocolate wafers ears and maraschino cherry eyes. A Sunday brunch attracted the after-church crowd. The restaurant became the place to celebrate birthdays, Mothers’ Day, weddings and wakes.

Green Valley Cabins, Prescott Highway, Ottawa.

The Green Valley had an unlikely genesis in the depth of the Great Depression when Waldorf John Stewart, who had moved to the spot with his wife, Florence Irene, neé Mulligan, in around 1933, built an attractive play house for their young daughter Miriam on their property. Visible from the highway, travellers to the Ottawa area began stopping and asking whether they could rent it for short stays. Recognizing an investment opportunity, Stewart built twenty-four tourist cabins, which became known as the Green Valley Tourist Court. The new hostelry was open on a seasonal basis from May to mid-October. The new business was named after his wife’s nearby family farm. Stewart also began selling ice cream and hot dogs to holiday makers and day trippers from Ottawa out for an afternoon drive.

Waldorf J. Stewart, Ottawa Citizen, 18 September, 1956.

At the end of June 1947, Stewart expanded the food side of the business, opening the Green Valley Restaurant for guests staying in his cabins as well for the general public. He advertised his new restaurant in both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal noting that meals would be prepared by chef “Gustave,” formerly of the Engineers’ Club of Montreal and the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity of McGill University. The restaurant was an instant success.

The following year, Lyall M. Gillespie, married Stewart’s daughter Miriam, and joined the family business. Gillespie who had university degrees in business and commerce, took an active interest in the restaurant, doubling its capacity to 120 guests with the construction of the “Pine Room,” and expanding its menu.  Later, Gillespie left another enduring mark on Ottawa’s tourist fabric. As a member of Ottawa’s Board of Trade, he was the person responsible for persuading the federal government to hold a regular “Changing of the Guard” ceremony on Parliament Hill. So successful was the event among Ottawa’s tourists and residents that Prime Minister Diefenbaker made the temporary, summer season event a permanent feature of Ottawa’s tourist calendar in 1959.

Within a few years, the Green Valley Restaurant had eclipsed the tourist accommodations’ side of the business. In 1956, the restaurant expanded again with the building of the “Walnut Room.” Capacity increased to 225 guests. A gift shop called “Now and Then,” sold souvenir items, chinaware and jewellery. The expansion, along with the construction of new cooking facilities, which included two walk-in freezers, a poultry-prep station, a pastry station, a vegetable-prep station, as well as a dishwashing section and a dessert table, cost $300,000—a huge investment, roughly equivalent to $3 million in today’s money.

Green Valley Restaurant and Tourist Court, Prescott Highway, Ottawa

These changes vaulted the Green Valley Restaurant into the top echelon of Canadian restaurants. Duncan Hines recommended it in his book Adventures in Good Eating that described good eating places in North America. Hines, now best known for the eponymous brand of cake mixes and icings owned by Proctor and Gamble, was an American pioneer in rating restaurants for travellers. The Green Valley was also recommended by the Automobile Association of America, Gourmet Magazine, and Diners’ Club, one of the first purveyors of credit cards. It was also voted by readers of the American Business magazine as the fourth-best restaurant in Canada for business people to entertain clients. Not bad for a family-run eatery on the outskirts of little Ottawa! Graham Kerr, a.k.a. the Galloping Gourmet, was also a frequent patron of the Green Valley Restaurant while he and his family lived in Ottawa for the filming his world-famous television show.

In 1967, Waldorf Steward died, and the Green Valley Tourist Court and Restaurant passed into the hands of his daughter Miriam and son-in-law Lyall Gillespie. That same year, the cabins were closed, leaving the firm to concentrate on its restaurant business. Two years later, Miriam died leaving the firm to her husband Lyall who later ran the business with his second wife, Linda, until his death in 1987. Linda Gillespie with brother John Meyers subsequently managed the business.

Advertisement, Ottawa Journal, 30 June 1947.

By this time, the restaurant was deeply entrenched in the fabric of Ottawa’s hospitality industry. One much loved restaurant tradition was its Christmas tree. Each Christmas season, the restaurant decorated a neighbouring forty-foot spruce with 2,500 coloured lights. Seen for miles, it became a welcome beacon for drivers on the Prescot Highway.

In 1985, this festive tradition was threatened when the owner of the land on which the tree stood decided to develop the property. The land had originally been part of old Green Valley Tourist Court acreage, but had been sold off in 1972. With the tree slated to be cut down to make way for an entrance way, Ottawa residents rose up in arms in an effort to save the landmark tree. A petition to keep the Christmas tree attracted a thousand signatures, while several hundred people protested in person. Mayor Dewar was warned that she would be “a grinch” if the tree was cut down.

During the negotiations between the developer, the restaurant and the city to find a way of saving the tree, somebody tried to kill it by drilling holes around the base of the tree’s trunk and injecting it with an unknown fluid. Arborists opined that the tree, which was already stressed by the cutting of its roots to build a nearby watermain, was unlikely to survive. The magnificent spruce was cut down. Fortunately, the Christmas tradition was maintained when a local tree company donated a replacement tree that the restaurant owners planted on their property.

In 1995, the Green Valley Restaurant passed out of Gillespie/Myers family hands when the business was sold to an outsider, Ron Karam, a lawyer. But for its patrons, little changed. Karam retained the name and the oldy-worldy atmosphere of the restaurant, and its staff.

However, by this time, the still popular but increasingly old-fashioned restaurant was losing ground to more hip downtown eateries. The Green Valley was disparagingly referred to as catering to the “blue rinse set.”

Festive family meal, 1961, National Film Board, Library and Archives Canada, 40301886.

In 2002, the business was sold again. This time to restauranteur Peter Thorp who was the owner of Oscar’s on Queen Street, a purveyor of wood-fired pizzas. At the end of May of that year, the Green Valley Restaurant served it last prime rib. A month later, the redecorated restaurant reopened as Gilmour’s, named after John Gilmour, the pioneer Ottawa lumberman.

Gilmour’s, the successor restaurant to the Green Valley, did not last long. On New Year’s Eve, 2002, just months after it opened, the restaurant was destroyed by fire.

At 7:30pm, while staff were catering to the needs of roughly twenty guests, smoke was detected coming from one of the back vents to the restaurant. The alarm was sounded, and staff and guests were evacuated. There was little hope of stopping the blaze. The building was made of wood with little or no fire stops or flame-retardant materials. Extreme heat prevented fire fighters from entering the building for a time. While the fire was contained by midnight, the fire department remained on the scene until about 6:00am the following morning. Damage was estimated at $1.5 million–$1 million for the building and another $500,000 for its contents.

The building was not replaced. Today, all that is left of the venerable Green Valley Restaurant, an Ottawa landmark for 67 years, is its driveway blocked by concrete traffic barriers.

Sources:

Ottawa Citizen, 1948. “Green Valley Restaurant Newly Enlarged,” 19 May.

——————, 1956. “Green Valley Expands With New Walnut Room,” 18 July.

——————, 1956. “Stewart’s Green Valley Restaurant, 17 September.

——————, 1967. “Stewart, Waldorf John,” 3 February.

——————, 1985. “Huge Christmas Tree vandalized,” 11 July.

——————, 1985. “Developer submits new plan to keep Christmas tree alive,” 13 July.

——————, 1985. “Ottawa Tradition Continues,” 29 August.

——————, 1987. “Local restauranteur dead at 66,” 21 January.

——————, 1987. “Green Valley Restaurant offers consistency, tradition,” 25 August.

——————, 1992. “What’s on the menu?,” 1 October.

——————, 1996. “Recipe for trouble?,” 25 May.

——————, 2002. “Favourite haunt of the blue-rinse set seeks younger clientele, 22 May.

——————, 2002. “After 67 years the Green Valley succumbs to changing tastes,” 12 June.

——————, 2003. “Landmark goes up in flames,” 2 January.

——————, 2003. “How Green was this Beloved Valley?”, 7 January.

Larocque’s

11 September 1971

The early 1970s was a cruel time for Ottawa’s locally-owned department stores. Familiar companies, which had serviced Ottawa residents for generations, seemed to fall like nine pins, replaced by national chain stores. Freiman’s on Rideau Street was bought out by The Hudson Bay Company. Murphy-Gamble’s, the grand old lady of Sparks Street, became a Simpsons. Meanwhile Eaton’s moved into the Ottawa market, launching an anchor store in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre in Nepean. But perhaps no loss was felt as badly as the closure of Larocque’s, the Lowertown emporium that catered primarily to Ottawa’s francophone community. On 11 September 1971, the Ottawa Journal revealed that the venerable store, a fixture at the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie Streets for more than fifty years, would be closing its doors for good at the end of the year. Staff had already been given their notices. It was the end of an era.

Larocque Department Story, Fall 1971, Going out of business, Ottawa Jewish Archives

The store began its career in 1909 when Joseph Alphonse Larocque launched his eponymous dry-goods business at 270 Dalhousie Street. It was a small store, just 400 square feet, but it was a great success. In 1911, Larocque expanded, buying out the stock of the Parisian Milliners, a neighbouring store on Dalhousie Street, at just over 50 cents on the dollar. He advertised hats and feathers for sale at bargain prices. In March 1913, the J. A. Larocque Company supported the inaugural issue of Le Droit, Ottawa’s French-language newspaper. The store advertised that it had Japanese silks for sale in all colours at only 21 cents a yard, and was the only distributor in Lowertown of Butterick Fashions’ dress patterns. The store also noted that it was the sole distributor of the “famous” D & A corsets made by the Dominion Corset Manufacturing Company of Montreal; all sizes were available. A few months later, the Ottawa Citizen reported that J.A. Larocque was “an energetic businessman who gives personal direction to his business.” The newspaper added that his department store had made “rapid strides in the business world of late,” and that his window displays indicated the high quality of his merchandise.

J. A. Larocque Company, advertisement, Le Droit, 27 March 1913.

Less than ten years later, J.A. Larocque was ready to enter the major leagues of Ottawa department stores. In 1922, he began to assemble parcels of land on east side of Dalhousie Street between Rideau and George Streets. The final piece of the puzzle was his purchase of an irregular piece of property owned by the City of Ottawa. The city had acquired the lot when it widened Dalhousie Street. Larocque’s initial offer of $6,000 didn’t meet the city’s reserve price and was rejected. However, his second bid of $8,000 was accepted. In total, Larocque paid slightly more than $60,000 for the land on which he could build a modern, three-story department store.

Building the new department store may have been a financial stretch for Alphonse Larocque. At the same time as he was purchasing the lot from the City of Ottawa, he downsized his operations at 270 Dalhousie citing excessive rent on half of his premises. He announced a big sale and moved what was left of his stock into the store’s annex which was located around the corner at 119 Murray Street.

Regardless, however, work proceeded on his new department store a few blocks south on Dalhousie Street. The building was designed by architects Millson, Burgess and Hazelgrove, with Alex Garvock acting as the general contractor. Construction began in early August 1922, a little later than planned, but was completed and ready for business by mid-May 1923. The three-story building with a basement was built at a cost of roughly $200,000. Including land and stock, the enterprise had a value of $500,000—a huge sum of money in those days. Given its corner location, it had the most display windows of any Ottawa department store, with sixteen on Dalhousie Street, and two on each of Rideau and George Streets. There were three entrances, with the main entrance on Dalhousie Street. Conveniently, all Bank Street and St Patrick Street streetcars stopped outside its door, while Somerset Street cars brough customers to within a block’s walk. Advertising copy of the time boasted of the store’s home-like atmosphere and its courteous and experienced staff of fifty bilingual clerks.

Announcing the opening of J. A. Larocque’s new store at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets, Ottawa Citizen, 11 May 1923.

The business did not thrive. Unlike its competitors, it did little advertising. This was probably a sign of weakness rather than strength. Making a virtue out of a likely necessity, the store posted a small advertisement in the Ottawa Citizen in November 1924 describing itself as “the store that does not advertise.” The stored clamed that it devoted the savings from not advertising to lowering prices. It was not enough. J.A. Larocque Company Ltd went bankrupt in September 1926. Its goods were sold off at 46 ½ cents on the dollar.

The department store went into liquidation and was purchased by Vineberg Goodman & Company, a Nova Scotian department store chain that had begun operations in 1904. By 1927, it had outlets in New Glasgow and Truro. It subsequently added an Antigonish branch. Vineberg, Goodman & Co. thought highly of itself. In a 1930 advertisement placed in the Ottawa Citizen, the company claimed to be a business of “transcendent importance in the Maritime Provinces.”

The firm was owned by Harry and Sol Goodman of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and the Vineberg family of Montreal. The Vinebergs were related by marriage to Harry Goodman. In January 1927, the new owners, changed the name of their new Ottawa business from J.A. Larocque & Company to Larocque Registered, thereby conserving the well-known local brand of the business.

Bankruptcy Sale, Le Droit, 23 September, 1926.

Despite the change in ownership, Larocque’s remained true to its French-Canadian heritage, continuing to offer bilingual service to its customers. In October 1930, on its 27th anniversary (the anniversary of the 1904 start of the Vineberg, Goodman & Company in Nova Scotia), it sponsored a Larocque radio show of French-Canadian folk songs and dance music. The program featured the Larocque Orchestra over CNRO, Ottawa’s radio station owned by the Canadian National Railway, the forerunner of CBO radio.

In 1931, the Goodmans and the Vinebergs went their separate ways, with the Vineberg family taking sole control of Larocque Registered in Ottawa. That year, Joseph Hirsch Vineberg moved to Ottawa with his family from Montreal to become the manager of Larocque Registered. Two years later, he took full control of the company.

Coincidently, that same year Alphonse Larocque staged a comeback, launching another J.A. Larocque department store. The new store opened at 269 Dalhousie Street at the corner of Murray Street, just across the street from where he started his original business in 1909. Confusingly, there were now two Larocque department stores on the same street within just a few blocks of each other. However, in 1934, the second J. A. Larocque Company failed. Ignominiously, its stock again bought out by the Vineberg family and sold off at bargain prices at Larocque Registered at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets.

Larocque Registered prospered for more than four decades with its principal clientele being Lowertown’s francophone community. When Joseph Vineberg retired in 1947, control of the firm passed to his sons, Nordau S. Vineberg and Lloyd V. Vineberg who became president and vice-president of the company, respectively. Joseph Vineberg passed away in December 1967.

Four years later, Larocque’s also passed away from Ottawa’s retail scene, its loss a shock to its largely francophone staff and clientele. Even as late as mid-September 1971, the department store was still promoting its charge accounts. The Vineberg brothers explained that Larocque’s was caught in a retail no-man’s land, too small to compete with the national chain stores that were entering the Ottawa market, but too big to compete with specialized boutiques.

Vacant for a few months, the old Larocque store became for a while the temporary home of Caplan’s Department store, which was in mid-1972 in the process of a “million-dollar expansion” behind its main store on Rideau Street.

The former Larocque Department Store, now Mercury Court, May 2019, Google Streetview.

Between 1989 and 1993, the former Larocque Department Store, was remodelled and modernized by Barry Padolsky Associates Inc., and is now the home of this architectural firm. Called Mercury Court, the north end of the roof of the building is adorned with the “flying Mercury” weathervane that used to be located on the top of the Sun Life Assurance building at the corner of Sparks and Bank Streets. Mercury Court is also the home of businesses and the Embassy of Sweden.

Sources:

Doors Open Ontario, 2020.Barry Padolsky & Associates, Mercury Court,  https://www.doorsopenontario.on.ca/en/ottawa/barry-padolsky-associates-inc.

Le Droit, various issues.

Jewish Federation of Ottawa, 2020. Vineberg Family Fonds, https://www.cjhn.ca/en/permalink/cjhn86800.

Ottawa Jewish Archives, 2014. Larocque Department Store, 1923-1971, Facebook, 20 August.

Ottawa Citizen, “no title,” 25 September 1911.

——————, “Assignees Wind Up Several Small Business Firms,” 30 September.

——————, 1913. “J.A. Larocque,” 5 December.

——————, 1922. “Sale of City Property,” 19 April.

——————, 1922. “Announcement,” 19 April.

——————, 1924. “The Store That Does Not Advertise,” 19 November.

——————, 1930. “27th Anniversary Sale,” 7 October.

——————, 1971. “Enter the giants,” 25 November.

——————, 1972. “Caplan’s moves temporarily into old Larocque store,” 29 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1923. “Ottawa’s New Department Store,” 19 May.

——————-, 1971. “Ottawa department store to close,” 11 September.

Saltwire.com, 2017. Goodman Family added to Wall of Fame, https://www.saltwire.com/news/local/goodman-family-added-to-wall-of-fame-156351/.

Urbsite, 2020. J.A. Larocque’s Dalhousie Duel, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2020/01/12-days-of-department-stores-8-ja.html.

Vineberg, Robert, 2021. The Store, A Personal History of Laroque’s, Historical Society of Ottawa, forthcoming Bytown Pamphlet.

Ottawa: Canada’s Oil and Gas Capital?

17 September 1889

The report spread like wild fire through Ottawa. Oil! Black gold was gushing in a powerful stream at a well dug just a couple miles south of Parliament Hill.

Dollar signs must have danced in the heads of Ottawa residents at the rumour. Even in those days before the automobile, the demand for petroleum products, such as kerosene, was strong. Fortunes had been made at Black Creek, subsequently known as Oil Springs, in Lambton county in southwestern Ontario when oil had been discovered in commercial quantities in 1858, and in nearby Petrolia a few years later.  Vast amounts of money were also being made in Pennsylvania where oil had been first struck in 1859, followed by copious amounts of natural gas in the 1880s. There was so much gas that it was being piped unmetered to factories and homes in Pittsburgh. In the process, clean-burning gas displaced dirty coal transforming the once grimy and sooty city—at least until the gas wells started to lose pressure. There was no mechanical means of pumping the gas through pipelines; everything relied on natural pressure.

Ottawa’s “oil strike” occurred on 17 September 1889 at a bog on Tom Hickey’s property on the border of Stewarton and the Glebe (roughly today just south of the Queensway, east of Bank Street). Here, a company had been digging an exploratory well for natural gas. A Citizen journalist rushed out to cover the event. He found that “there was more gush about the report than about the well.” Instead of seeing black gold spewing from the 72-foot high drilling derrick which had been installed at the site, he was shown a small bottle of oily liquid by Alderman Askwith, one of the shareholders in the drilling company, who had also excitedly rushed out to the site on hearing the news. It wasn’t much. One skeptical observer remarked that “ten cents worth of kerosene would produce the present appearance.” Excitement quickly turned to disappointment.

Advertisement, Ottawa Citizen, 3 May 1888.

The story behind Ottawa’s supposed oil and natural gas boom began to the east of the city some months earlier at La Mer Bleue, a bog situated roughly thirty kilometres east of the Capital, today owned by the National Capital Commission. Reportedly, somebody had discovered natural gas emanating from the Mer Bleue bog. When a match was applied, the gas burnt. Most likely, the person had found methane leaching from rotting plant material.

Investors convinced themselves that the gas was available for tapping in profitable amounts. They purchased 300 acres of land in Gloucester Township out on the Montreal Road, including the Mer Bleue property, for $22,000. If sufficient gas at a satisfactory pressure was found, they envisaged two pipelines being laid to Ottawa to carry gas for heating and lighting at an estimated cost of about $300,000. An expert from the Pittsburgh Natural Gas Company was called in to investigate the prospects of the venture.

In late 1887, the investors formed the Capital Gas Company, and was granted a by-law, No. 805, from Ottawa City Council to allow them to dig up the roads to lay pipes to bring natural gas into the city. They expected the project would be finished within two years.

The principals of the company included Mr. G.B. Pattee of Perley & Patee, the lumber company, Mr. Maclean of Maclean, Roger & Company, Mr. Thomas Wallace and two American entrepreneurs, Charles Cammann, a New York banker, and H.W. Mali, a New York merchant. After travelling through the gas-producing regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, Mr. Wallace was so confident of the natural gas prospects at the Mer Bleue property that he bought the necessary equipment for drilling and made arrangements for skilled drillers to come to Ottawa. He and his fellow investors hoped that the availability of natural gas would make Ottawa the commercial capital of Canada as well as its political capital. It would also make them very rich men if it panned out.

With natural gas still to be discovered in appreciable quantities, another group of investors, led by Henry Bate, George McCullough and William Scott, entered the fray, seeking and receiving similar privileges (By-law No. 809) from City Council for their company, the Ottawa Heating & Lighting Company, to lay down pipes on Ottawa’s streets. It was later called the People’s Gas Company or the Citizens’ Gas Company. This set off a battaille royale. Wallace, the spokesperson for the Capital Gas Company, was outraged, saying that Council had broken faith with his company. He thought that he had received a two-year monopoly with his by-law, and that on this basis he had already invested considerable money into the venture. He contended that Ottawa was too small to support two natural gas companies. He also thought that the second company was just trying to block his Capital Gas Company. This charge was not far-fetched as the Bate family was connected to the Ottawa Gas Company, the city’s manufacturer of coal gas which stood to be the big loser should cheap natural gas be piped in from nearby wells.

The By-Law Committee of City Council threw up its collective hands over the issue, and rescinded both companies’ by-laws on the grounds that neither company had been incorporated. Instead, it offered to grant permission to lay underground pipes to transport natural gas through city streets to the first company to be properly incorporated.

The Capital Gas Company received a Dominion charter mid-March 1888. It thought it had won the incorporation race and deserved its exclusive two-year by-law to bring natural gas into Ottawa. Not so fast said the Bate company, now called the People’s Gas Company. Using legal sleight of hand, Bate and his associates had purchased and resuscitated an existing company established in 1881 called the Rideau Gas Company which they argued already had a city By-law, No. 506, which gave it permission to dig up Ottawa’s streets to lay gas pipes. This forgotten company had actually been established to erect tower lights in Ottawa. But under the Ontario law of the time, it had the right to engage in both the electric and gas businesses, though it had no intention in 1881 of engaging in the latter activity. When the tower lighting concept failed, the company went dormant.

City Council laughed at this corporate manoeuvre. The Ottawa Journal called the proceeding a “gas farce.”

All this corporate and legal scheming occurred against the backdrop of one big hurdle—little gas had actually been discovered in the Ottawa area. But the dream, or the delusion, was enough, encouraged by vague statements by experts who cautiously thought that natural gas might be found in Ottawa. For example, in early February 1888, Dr. Bell of the Geological Survey opined that Ottawa conditions were favourable for the discovery of gas, at least to justify some expenditures to prove it. News of a gas strike in Collingwood also wetted investors’ appetite. Maybe it was Ottawa’s turn next.

By June 1888, the Capital Gas Company appeared to have beaten its rival. But as the Journal commented, “all the energy of the Capital Gas company seems to have been used up by its campaign to get its by-law.” There was no actual boring.

The corporate saga didn’t end there. The principal shareholders of Capital Gas had a falling out. When in late December 1888, the People’s Company again sought permission to bring natural gas into Ottawa, Ottawa City Council looked favourably on the request as it has received news from President Alexander McLean and Secretary Benjamin Batson of Capital Gas that their company would not object. Wrong. Wallace and the two New York shareholders of Capital Gas objected vigorously, and sent a letter under the company’s seal to that effect to Ottawa City council. President McLean retorted that Wallace had left for the United States and had improperly taken the company’s seal and records.

Boring for natural gas did finally begin by December 1888. But who did the drilling was not clearly reported though it was most likely the Capital Gas Company.  However, instead of drilling at La Mer Bleue, test drilling commenced in Stewarton at the Hickey farm just a short distance from Parliament Hill. Later reports said that drillers were drawn to the spot by an oily scum found on the surface of a bog on the Hickey property. Given its proximity to downtown Ottawa relative to the Mer Bleue site, a successful well would have been very attractive commercially as there would be no need for laying expensive pipes across miles of countryside.

The first boring attempt at Stewarton failed when the drill, which was operated by a steam engine run by four men, hit quicksand. The derrick was moved to another site. But by April 1889, drilling at the new location had reached the 70-feet mark. Investors hoped to strike gas at a depth of about 800 feet. Drilling continued. After boring through shale at a rate of 40 feet per day, the drillers hit salt-water impregnated coal and stalled for a time. The team struck “oil” at about 1,200 feet mid-September. But the bore hole filled with water as the bottom portion of the well had not been encased, allowing ground water to leak into the well.

Alderman Askwith thought that there was definitely oil mixed with the water in the sample taken from the bore hole. “But to say that we have ‘struck oil’ in any quantity would be a venturesome statement.” He thought the company would continue to drill down to about 2,000 feet, the limit of the equipment, in its search for natural gas. If nothing was forthcoming, they would investigate further the oil find.

The last report on the Stewarton drilling was in mid-November 1889 when a Citizen article reported that drilling would resume “in a few days” after $6,000 had been spent on the exploratory well. Nothing apparently happened. Ottawa’s oil and gas boom was over before it had really begun.

Roughly forty years later, an account of the drilling activity by an elderly man who had worked on the well was published in the Ottawa Citizen. That article stated that the drilling had ceased after nine months at about the 1,800-foot mark when the well hit sulphur water. The well wasn’t a total failure, however. So strong was the water pressure that the sulphur water apparently came to the surface and continued to flow. A pipe was installed, with people coming far and wide to drink the water. Not only was sulphur water prized for its supposed medicinal value, it must have been of far better quality that the water the city piped in to residents from the grossly polluted Ottawa River.

Sources:

NCC, 2019. Mer Bleue, http://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/mer-bleue.

American Public Gas Association, 2019. A Brief History of Natural Gas, https://www.apga.org/apgamainsite/aboutus/facts/history-of-natural-gas.

Browness, Ian and Cynthia Coristine, 2014. “The Bate Brothers of Ottawa, Booklet 2: Charles “C.T.” Bate Merchant, Mayor & More, Bytown Pamphlet, No. 92, The Historical Society of Ottawa.

The Daily Citizen, 1888. “Mr. Wallace’s Return,” 17 January.

———————, 1888. “The Natural Gas Company,” 2 February.

———————, 1888. “Natural Gas Found in Ottawa,” 6 February.

———————, 1888. “Rival Companies,” 4 February.

———————, 1888. “Boring For The Gas,” 21 December.

———————, 1888. “Cheap Fuel And Light,” 22 December.

———————, 1888. “A Hitch In The Gas Business,” 29 December.

———————, 1889. “The Finishing Touches,” 15 January.

———————, 1889. “The Gas Borers,” 8 April.

———————, 1889. “The Hole Won’t Go Down,” 17 April.

———————, 1889. “The City And Suburbs,” 17 August.

———————, 1889. “An Oily Find,” 18 September.

———————, 1889. “Jottings About Town,” 16 November.

———————, 1889. “The City And Suburbs,” 16 November.

———————, 1926. “Glebe Pioneer Has Fine Recollection Glebe-Hickey Lands,” 9 October.

——————— 1926. “More About The Hickey Well By Man Who Worked It 9 Months,” 30 October.

The Evening Journal, 1887. “Gas Coming To Town,” 6 December.

————————-, 1888. “A Question of Gas,” 3 February.

————————-, 1888. “What Dr. Bell Says?,” 4 February.

————————-, 1888. “The Gas Question,” 16 February.

————————-, 1888. “Hopes To Be Like Findlay, Ohio,” 28 February.

————————-, 1888. “The Gas Question,” 29 February.

————————-, 1888. “Odds And Ends,” 6 March.

————————-, 1888. “Another Deal,” 10 April.

————————-, 1888. “Natural Gas Found in Collingwood,” 21 June.

————————-, 1888. “Civic Notes,” 25 June.

————————-, 1889. “No title,” 21 August 1889.

————————-, 1889. “Natural Gas,” 19 October.

Wylie, Robin, 2019. “A Brief History of Natural Gas,” Eniday, https://www.eniday.com/en/education_en/history-natural-gas/.

Mowat and MacGillivray, Stock Market Swindlers

30 August 1930

It was Saturday, 30 August 1930. Two men, soberly dressed in dark suits, waited quietly in an Ottawa courtroom to hear their fate. They had just pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the public and to manipulating the prices of mining companies’ shares. Judge Daly broke the news—three years for each of them in the Collins Bay Penitentiary. It could have been worse. The law allowed for a sentence of up to seven years for their crimes. But they had hoped to get away with just two. However, Justice Daly said that he couldn’t see how a sentence of less than three years would meet the circumstances. He had to look toward to future cases and this would set a precedent. After the pair received their sentences, former colleagues came up to shake their hands and offer condolences. Then, the two men were taken back to the Nicholas Street jail before being processed and sent to Kingston to begin their prison sentences. What had gone so very wrong?

M and M Mowat, OC 6-3-1930

Robert H. Mowat, Ottawa Citizen, 6 March 1930

The story began six years earlier. On 29 February 1924, two young men, Robert H. Mowat and Duncan A. MacGillivray, announced the opening of a brokerage partnership in Ottawa, operating out of the Union Bank building on Metcalfe Street.  The new firm specialized in mining shares, and had a seat on the Standard Stock and Mining Exchange in Toronto. It also provided a statistical service, reporting on developments, production and earnings of mining companies, and produced a publication called The Gold Mines of Ontario which they gave away free to customers.

Mowat, who was a native of Campbellton, New Brunswick, had prior financial market experience. Before establishing the brokerage firm, he had been employed in a prominent Toronto bond house. He was a graduate of the University of Toronto, and had served as an officer in the 26th New Brunswick Battalion. His partner, MacGillivray, was born in North Evans, New York. He also had attended the University of Toronto, and had taken an engineering course at the Kelvin Institute in Glasgow, Scotland. Like his partner, he was a war veteran, having served with the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles in France.

M and M MacGillivray OC 12-3-30 OC

Duncan A. MacGillivray, Ottawa Citizen, 30 March 1930

Their firm, Mowat & MacGillivray, flourished. It was the Roaring Twenties. The North American economy was growing rapidly, and corporate share prices were effervescent. Once the domain of the wealthy, stock markets were now attracting the savings of the middle class. Stock brokerage firms opened everywhere.

With share prices shooting up, easy money could be had by all…for a time. This was particularly true for investments in junior Canadian mining companies. In 1927, the Ottawa Citizen ran a mining supplement that extolled the virtues of investing in Canadian mining companies. “‘Optimism’ Watchword in Canada’s Mining Areas” the headline read. One article argued that if you were willing to take a chance, the “promising prospects of our great North Country are certainly a wonderful purchase because the prospect when it does develop into a mine brings the investor a reward that he cannot look for in any other industry.” Past “promising prospects” had led to profits of 5,000 to 20,000 per cent. It was hard for people to resist such a sales pitch. And it was hard to distinguish between the truly promising and the truly fraudulent. For a time, it didn’t seem to matter. The price of everything rose in a speculative frenzy.

Mowat and MacGillivray were in the thick of it. In that same Citizen supplement, MacGillivray wrote a lengthy positive article about mines in northern Quebec above a two-thirds page advertisement for the Mowat and MacGillivray brokerage firm. Large pictures of the two principals featured on another page. The firm had sponsored and sold shares in dozens of junior mining and oil companies, including Aconda, Arno, Melnor, and Cold Lake Mines.

Mowat and M 29-2-1924 OC

Announcement of Mowat and MacGillivray opening for business, Ottawa Citizen, 29 February 1924.

The partnership grew quickly. By 1927, they had moved out of their Metcalfe Street offices into larger and more prestigious quarters at 128 Sparks Street. Ironically given what was to come, this building had formerly housed a branch of the Home Bank of Canada. The Home Bank had failed in spectacular fashion in 1923, leading to the loss of millions of dollars, a government bailout of depositors, tarnished reputations, criminal charges, ruined investors, and even suicide.

In addition to their seat on the Standard Mining Exchange in Toronto, Mowat and MacGillivray bought seats on other Canadian stock exchanges that specialized in mining companies, including the Vancouver Stock Exchange, the Calgary Stock Exchange, and the Montreal Curb Exchange. The latter exchange was designed for stocks of companies deemed too speculative (i.e. high-risk) to be listed on the Montreal Stock Exchange. Mowat and MacGillivray also bought a seat on the New York Mining Exchange.

Their physical presence also grew well beyond Ottawa. By 1929, the firm had expanded throughout the Ottawa Valley with offices in Cornwall, Pembroke, Perth and Hawkesbury. The partnership established a limited liability company of the same name in Hull. The establishment of a Quebec company was necessary for them to avoid paying high taxes if they were to transact business in Quebec. Their Hull subsidiary had branches in Trois Rivières and Quebec City. Other Ontario offices were located in Belleville and Brockville. The firm also expanded into the Maritimes, with offices in Halifax, Sydney, Yarmouth, New Glasgow, Glace Bay and Windsor in Nova Scotia as well as in St. John and Moncton in New Brunswick.

The two young brokers became pillars of the Ottawa business community, always ready to support local charities and Ottawa events. They also sponsored an in-house hockey team that played in an Ottawa bank hockey league. The firm even donated the Mowat Trophy for the league’s annual competition.

The edifice came tumbling down with the start of the Great Depression in October 1929. Global share prices, led by prices on the New York Stock Exchange, tumbled. Investor losses were huge, exacerbated by the widespread practice of buying shares on margin. Investors put up as little as 10 per cent of a share’s value, borrowing the rest. In a rising market, margin is a way of leveraging gains. However, in a falling market, the reverse happens. Brokers and banks demand more money to cover margin losses, or sell their clients’ shares which only send the market down further. On Black Tuesday (29 October) alone, one local broker said that “hundreds of small Ottawa investors had been wiped out.”

For many stock brokers, after the heady years of the 1920s, the collapse of markets was a death knell. Few people were willing to buy shares of even the most conservatively run company let alone acquire shares in new enterprises, even ones that held promise. Customer orders dried up.

The hard times also exposed shady practices that weren’t apparent during the boom times. Some stock brokers were exposed for running “boiler rooms” or “bucket shops.” A boiler room operation is where stock dealers using high-pressure tactics to sell speculative penny stocks via telephone to the unwary or the gullible. The dealers might also sell the shares at inflated prices. A bucket shop is a stock dealer who sells clients what amounts to a derivative of a stock at some notional price. There is no purchase of shares on behalf of a client on a recognized exchange. Transactions simply goes “into the bucket.” It is a form of gambling with the client betting against the broker who plays the role of “house.”

On 6 March 1930, Ottawa woke to banner headlines in the city’s newspapers: Mowat and MacGillivray’s firm had failed the day before, their offices closed, and their accounts taken over by a receiver. An application against the firm had been filed in Toronto when their cheque in the amount of $933 issued to one W.W. Beaton, a resident of Haileybury, was returned owing to insufficient funds. The purpose of the receiver was to conserve the assets of the company on behalf of its many creditors.

There had been no warning of the failure. It came as a huge shock to the firm’s clients and the Ottawa business community. The previous Christmas, employees had been given substantial bonuses. Just a few weeks earlier, the firm had taken over the Ottawa brokerage firm of George R. Guy & Company. It had also financially supported Ottawa’s first international dog derby that ran at the beginning of February 1930. The company’s hockey team had just won the “Big Four” hockey series, and were in Ottawa’s industrial league playoffs. After beating the Post Office, the brokers’ team, now unemployed, were defeated by the Telephone Company in the finals at the end of March 1930. It was the last time the brokers’ team played.

Initially, Duncan MacGillivray suggested that the firm’s problem was illiquidity rather than insolvency. He claimed that the firm had sufficient assets to cover all its liabilities. But the problem was that the certain assets could not be realized immediately owing to poor market conditions. Later, he attributed their failure to overexpansion and excessive overhead. There was also considerable speculation that the firm would be consolidated with two other troubled brokers—Solloway, Mills & Company and Stobie, Forlong & Company—and reopened.

G.R.F. Troop, an accountant working for the receivers, took immediate control of the firm’s books, and commenced a comprehensive audit of its accounts. Thirty-five of fifty head office staff were laid off and paid their last week’s salary. The remaining fifteen remained to help the auditors go through the books. It didn’t take Troop long to spot financial irregularities. One week after the company failed, the provincial attorney general issued warrants for the arrest of Robert Mowat and Duncan MacGillivray on a charge of conspiracy to defraud their customers.

The pair were taken into custody but were treated with kid gloves. Instead of being held in the cells, Mowat and MacGillivray waited in the arresting officer’s office while bail was being arranged. They, and Inspector McLaughlin, chief of the morality squad, even partook of a substantial luncheon brought in by outside caterers. The two were released on $50,000 bail each. It took months for the receivers to go through the company’s books, delaying their jury trial. In the meantime, the pair remained free, even travelling to the United States in an attempt to find ways of bailing out their company.

In early August 1930, the Crown laid four additional charges of fraud and theft. With that, the two were taken into custody and held at the Nicholas Street jail. Meanwhile, Hull police stood ready to arrest them on Quebec warrants for conspiracy to defraud in connection with their Hull operations.

The day before their jury trial was to begin, Mowat and MacGillivray surprised everybody by pleading guilty to defrauding the public and stock price manipulation. Since they had pleaded guilty, the details of what they did were not revealed. However, there were reports that during a one-week period, auditors found that 65 per cent of client transactions had not gone through a stock exchange. The receivers also found that the company was missing three million shares of various companies that were owed to their customers. Press reports concluded that Mowat and MacGillivray had been running a bucket shop. The extent of client losses was not reported.

Before Justice Daly pronounced sentence, their defence attorney argued that in mitigation of their crime, Mowat and MacGillivray had been good citizens, and only did what “was common practice to that business.” He argued that overhead had swallowed up the firm, and that the pair were now virtually penniless. After sentencing them to three years in the penitentiary, Daly said that he hoped that they would reduce the length of the sentence by good conduct and making some effort to reimburse those who had suffered financially from their crimes.

Two years later, Mowat and MacGillivray, now dress in prison denims rather than banker grey, were taken to a Hull courtroom. Found guilty of conspiracy to defraud their clients related to the actions of their Hull subsidiary, the pair were sentenced to two more years in jail.

Sources:

Globe, The, 1930. “Brokers’ Fines Total $250,000,” 24 June.

————-, 1930. “Penitentiary Terms Imposed on Brokers,” 1 September.

Ottawa Citizen, 1927. “Optimism Watchword In Canadian Mining Areas,” 31 October.

——————, 1927. “Taking A Chance,” 31 October.

——————, 1930. “Further Donations To Dog Derby Fund,” 24 January.

MacGillivray, D.A. 1927. “Interesting Stage North Quebec Mines,” Ottawa Citizen, 31 October.

——————, 1930. “Mowat And MacGillivray Assigns And Interim Receiver Is Appointed,” 6 March.

—————–, 1930. “Text Of Statement By D. MacGillivray,” 6 March.

—————–, 1930. “Expect Report on Defunct Firm About Weekend,” 10 March.

—————–, 1930. “Mowat And M’Gillivray Face Conspiracy Charge,” 12 March.

—————–, 1930. “Bail Bond Hitch Causes Delay In Brokers’ Arrest,” 13 March.

—————–, 1930. “R.H. Mowat Granted Release On $50,000 Bail,” 13 March.

—————–, 1930. “D.A. M’Gillivray Secures Release On $50,000 Bail,” 13 March.

—————–, 1930. “Telephone Hockey Team Scores Second Victory Over Brokers,” 31 March.

—————–, 1930. “Ottawa Brokers Hope To Pay 100 Cents On The Dollar,” 10 April.

—————–, 1930. “Mowat and MacGillivray Committed For Trial,” 11 August.

—————–, 1930. “Brokers Ready To Plead Guilty To Conspiracy,” 29 August.

—————–, 1930. “Ottawa Brokers Given Sentence OF Three Years,” 2 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1930. “Mowat and MacGillivray Have Failed And All Their Offices Are Closed Accounts Taken Over By Receiver,” 6 March.

——————, 1930. “Audit Of Brokerage Firm’s Books Now Underway,” 7 March.

——————, 1930. “Warrant Sworn Out For H. Mowat And D.A. MacGillivray,” 12 March.

——————, 1932. “Mowat and MacGillivray In Hull Court,” 30 March.

——————, 1932. Brokers Given Two Years By Judge In Hull,” 18 July.

Winnipeg Tribune, 1930. “MacGillivray and Mowat Go To Prison,” 30 August.

 

The Last Timber Raft

8 July 1908

These days, Ottawa has become a synonym for “the government” much to the chagrin of the city’s residents. Newspapers constantly complain about things that “Ottawa” has done. This is understandable since government is the principal industry of the city. One in five jobs in the Ottawa-Gatineau area is with the federal government, a fraction that rises to one in four if you include other levels of administration. This wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the twentieth century, trees, not politics, were central to the economic prosperity of Ottawa, and of Hull, its sister community on the other side of the Ottawa River. Saw mills and pulp and paper factories which crowded the shores of the Ottawa River, especially in the Chaudière district, employed thousands. Communities the length of the Ottawa Valley also depended on the forestry business, felling and shipping logs to Ottawa and Hull for processing.

The lumber business in the Ottawa Valley began with Philemon Wright, the man from Woburn, Massachusetts who led the first Europeans to the region, settling on the north shore of the Ottawa River in 1800 in what would later be called Hull, Quebec. The settlers, initially intent on farming, discovered a pristine forest that stretched for as far as the eye could see. By one estimate, the untouched Ottawa Valley, in which the land’s Indigenous people had liven for countless generations, comprised 28 million acres of dense woodland. The settlers quickly turned to exploiting this vast and seemingly inexhaustible resource, containing more than 500 billion board feet of valuable timber (A board foot is a measure of lumber volume, being one foot by one foot by one inch.)

timber-hauling-ottawa-valley-1900-topley-lac-pa-a012606-v6

Hauling Logs in the Ottawa Valley, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada

This ancient woodland was very different from what little remains of the Valley’s forest today. It was estimated that roughly one half of the original forest was made up of white and red pine. A further 45 per cent consisted of other soft woods, such as spruce, balsam and hemlock. The remaining 5 per cent of the woodland was maple, oak, basswood and other species of hard woods. The old-growth trees were also enormous by today’s standards, with stands of white pine rising more than 100 feet.

In June 1806, Philemon Wright navigated the first log raft, christened the Columbo, from the confluence of the Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers down the Ottawa to the St. Lawrence and on to market in Quebec City for sale to the Royal Navy. At that time, Britain was fighting Napoleon’s France. With Britain’s usual Baltic supply of Norwegian pine cut off due to a French blockade, it looked to Canada’s white (sometimes referred to as yellow) pine as a replacement. The tall, straight, first growth trees made ideal masts and spars for its naval vessels.

timber-raft-lac-topley-1882-pa-008364

The assembling of a timber raft on the Ottawa River below Parliament Hill, Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-00843.

To get the timber to Quebec City, Irish and French lumbermen squared the pine logs. The “sticks,” as they were called, were pulled by teams of horses over greased slides to be launched into the water. There, they were bound together to form cribs using withes, strong, flexible branches of birch and alder. Four cribs made a band. The bands were joined together to assemble a raft. On the raft were cabins to house a crew of thirty or more men. The captain had his own quarters, sufficiently commodious to accommodate the occasional passenger. There was also a cook-house to prepare food and to brew tea.

Travelling down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers on a log raft was difficult and perilous, especially during the early days before timber slides were built so that rafts could circumvent fast water. The first such slide was built in 1829 by Ruggles Wright, the son of Philemon Wright, on the north side of the Ottawa River to pass logs around the Chaudière Falls, known in English as the Giant Cauldron. Other rapids that had to be bypassed on the way to Quebec City were found at Long Sault near Cornwall, and Lachine, both on the St. Lawrence.

Even with the construction of timber slides to ease their passage, the big rafts had to be broken down into component cribs before entering a slide, and reassembled afterwards. The journey from Ottawa to Quebec City could take a month or more. However, it wasn’t all hard work, at least for the owners. It is reported that lumber barons hosted large parties of MPs and senators to lunches of pork and beans before departing Ottawa. Also, along the way, raft captains entertained lavishly at various stops during the voyage.

Once in Quebec City, the big timber rafts were disassembled in nearby coves, and sold to waiting British merchants for shipment to Liverpool and other British ports.

In 1836, the Ottawa Valley Lumber Association was formed in Bytown, with meetings held in Doran’s Hotel, the town’s chief waterhole of the age. Early lumbermen included James Skead, David Maclaren, J.S. Currier, and the Buchanan brothers, Andrew and Charles. While the square timber trade was generally very profitable, it was also precarious. John Egan, for whom Eganville, Ontario is named, was a power in the timber trade during the mid-nineteenth century, but went bankrupt in 1854 when prices unexpectedly fell.

The era of the square timber raft peaked during the 1840s, and steadily waned thereafter. Mid-century, Britain adopted a free-trade economic policy thereby eliminating a trade preference enjoyed by Canadian timber producers since the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Navy’s demand for Canadian pine also declined as the age of sail gave way to that of steam.

timber-cook-house-andrew-auborn-merrilees-fonds-lac-3277723

Cook house on a timber raft, Andrew Auborn Merrilees Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, ID No. 3277723.

But Ottawa’s lumber industry adapted. Demand for Canadian sawn timber rose in the rapidly growing eastern cities of New York and Boston, following the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty between Canada and the United States.  U.S. entrepreneurs, such as Allan Gilmour, Captain Levi Young, Franklin Bronson, and Ezra Eddy established sawmills on the shores of the Ottawa River, harnessing its fast-flowing water to power their large timber saws. In 1874, 424 million board feet of timber were cut in Ottawa-area sawmills, along with a further 25 million board feet of square timber. The biggest lumber producer at that time was the E.B. Eddy Company whose output amounted to 55 million board feet. Close behind was Gilmour and Company which produced another 50 million board feet. Canadian-born J.R. Booth’s company cut a further 22 million board feet of timber.

By 1902, 613 million board feet of timber were being produced by nineteen sawmills in the Ottawa Valley. J.R. Booth had vaulted into the number one spot, producing an amazing 125 million board feet of timber. His sawmill was reportedly the largest in the world, able to produce more than 1 million board feet of sawn timber in one eleven-hour day.

As the supply of white and red pine in the Ottawa Valley rapidly diminished, Ottawa’s lumber business turned increasingly to pulp and paper production, making use of the spruce and balsam firs which hitherto had been considered of little value. In 1878, E.B. Eddy constructed the first mechanical pulp mill for the manufacture of fibre products. By 1908, E.B. Eddy was producing 160 tons of pulp every day. In 1926, Eddy built a massive sulphite chemical pulp mill in Hull immediately across the Ottawa River from the Parliament buildings.

Timber slide, Royal Party, 1901, Charles Barkley Powell fonds, LAC ID3194381

The Duke of Cornwall and York and the Royal Party taking a ride on a crib through the Chaudière log slide, 1901, Charles Berkley fonds, Library and Archives Canada, ID No. 3294381.

Owing to waning demand for square timber, and a declining supply of big pine trees, fewer and fewer timber rafts made their way from Ottawa to Quebec City by the end of the nineteenth century. The few that did attracted much attention as the big timber rafts were broken up to make the trip through the government timber slide at the Chaudière Falls before being reassembled below the Parliament buildings for the next leg in their journey to the old capital. Timber rafting became a tourist and spectator sport. An exhilarating trip through the timber slide on a crib became a de rigueur experience for visiting dignitaries. In 1901, the Duke of Cornwall and York, later King George V, took the plunge, just as his father had in 1860.

The last square timber raft to leave for Quebec City from Ottawa began its journey in mid-June 1908 from the upper reaches of the Ottawa River. The Ottawa Citizen reported that the largest raft in years, totalling 135 cribs, owned by J.R. Booth, had descended the Black River in Quebec. The newspaper advised people who wished to see the sight of it shooting the Grand Calumet slide upstream on the Ottawa River to take the CPR train to Campbell’s Bay and the stage to Bryson, Quebec.

On or about 8 July 1908, this last timber raft was ready for its transit through the government slide at the Chaudière Falls. We know this date from newspaper accounts of an inquiry into a hit and run accident that occurred in Ottawa. The suspect, a hackman, F.J.X. Lascelles, had been hired on 8 July to work on Booth’s timber raft going to Quebec City. Another newspaper account two days later advised people to go watch the running of the cribs through the Chaudière timber slide then underway as it was “probably the last [timber raft] that will ever pass down the Ottawa to Quebec City.” Hundreds of spectators took the newspaper’s advice to watch the event. After passing through the slide, the cribs were reassembled below the Parliament buildings into the log raft for its voyage to Quebec City under the direction of pilot Ephrem Lalonde, a raftsman of more than forty years’ experience.

The Ottawa Citizen remarked that this was the end of the adventurous method of transporting timber which had been the most picturesque feature of the timber industry. Subsequent loads of timber were transported by rail.

After peaking during the beginning the twentieth century, the Ottawa Valley timber industry entered a long decline as its supply of wood dwindled. By the mid-1920s, it was estimated that less than four percent of the Ottawa Valley’s original, old-growth forest remained, consisting of not more than 10 billion feet of pine of saw-sized timber, with a further 5 billion feet of other soft woods and 4 billion feet of hard woods. Secondary growth of soft and hard woods was deemed suitable only for pulp and firewood.

Lumbermen looked back in dismay at the wasteful practices of the past. Squaring logs led to the wastage of more than one-third of the wood. Giant hemlocks were cut down solely for their bark used for tanning leather, the wood left to rot where the trees were felled. Land clearances for farms destroyed countless acres of valuable timber. The dead branches and brush from cut trees also provided the fuel for massive forest fires that destroyed valuable stands of timber.

timber-raft-of-booth-topley-lac-id-no.138219

J.R. Booth’s timber raft, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, 138219. With the completed Alexandra bridge in the background, this picture dates from no earlier than 1901. Quite possibly, it is a photograph of the last timber raft to go from Ottawa to Quebec City in 1908.

Today, the lumber and paper mills of Ottawa-Hull are mostly gone. The J.R. Booth Company was bought out by E.B. Eddy in 1943, the first of many mergers and closures. Domtar acquired the E.B. Eddy mills in Ottawa and Gatineau in 1998, and permanently closed them in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The site of the big Eddy pulp mill on the north shore of the Ottawa River across from Parliament Hill is now the location of the Canadian Museum of History. All that is left is the former Eddy paper mill on Laurier Street in the Hull sector of Gatineau. The mill has been owned by Kruger, a Quebec-based forest product company, since 1997.

Although the lumber industry was the backbone of the Ottawa economy for close to two hundred years, providing jobs for thousands, the prosperity that it generated came at a high environmental cost. The industry irrevocably altered the landscape of the Ottawa Valley with the destruction of virtually all of its original woodland. Along with it went the traditional way of life of the Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley, who never ceded ownership of its territory to European setters. The industry also had serious negative consequences for the Ottawa River. Dams built to control water levels to facilitate the transport of logs and to power the sawmills disturbed fish habitats. Sunken logs, and saw dust, routinely dumped into the river, along with chemicals from the pulp and paper mills, and untreated city effluents, polluted the water, killed fish, and brought disease.

Fortunately, with the closure of most of the mills and more effective treatment of city sewage and runoff, water quality in the Ottawa River is improving. However, the extent of the improvement is not known. According to the Ottawa Riverkeeper, water quality monitoring is piecemeal throughout the Ottawa River watershed, and there is no program in place to monitor the quality of water in the Ottawa River over time.

A lasting legacy of Ottawa’s lumbering past is the ring dam at the Chaudière Falls. Once used to make electricity to drive the sawmills, it now produces clean energy to help power downtown Ottawa. While the once dirty industrial area has been greened and opened to the public, the dam’s continued presence remains controversial.

Forestry continues in the Ottawa Valley, though on a much-reduced scale from its glory days. Its focus today is on sustainable forestry practices that respect not only the economic value of the forest but also its cultural and ecological significance.

Sources:

Canadian Museum of History, 2020. The Timber Trade, https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/canp1/ca14eng.html.

Hirsch, R. Forbes, 1985. The Upper Canada Timber Trade: a sketch, Bytown Pamphlet No. 14, Historical Society of Ottawa.

Ottawa Citizen, 1908. “Big Raft Coming,” 15 June.

——————, 1908. “Comment,” 10 July.

——————, 1908. “Police Doing Clever Work,” 17 July.

——————, 1926. “For Over One Hundred Years District Has Been Greatest Lumber Producer In Canada,” 16 August.

——————, 1936. “Had Exciting Adventure On A Journey To Quebec On A Raft,” 15 February.

——————, 2006. “Kruger to change Scott names as Kimberly-Clark deal ends,” 11 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1976. “Great timber trade began on Hull side,” 27 September.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2020. Water Quality and Quantity, https://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/ottawa-river-water-quality/.

OttawaRiver.org, 2005. A Background Study for Nomination of the Ottawa River Under the Canadian Heritage Rivers System – 2005, https://ottawariver.org/pdf/01-intro.pdf.

Outaouais’ Forest History, 2020. http://www.histoireforestiereoutaouais.ca/en/.

Whitton, Charlotte, 1967. “The Ottawa: My land of the white pine tree,” Ottawa Citizen, 27 June.

Caplan’s

31 July 1984

On Tuesday, 31 July 1984, Caplan’s department store, a Rideau Street landmark for almost seventy years, closed its doors for the last time. Many were confused regarding its date of closure. The Ottawa Citizen had erroneously reported that the store had shut the previous Saturday. It subsequently issued a correction apologizing for its error.

The department store had been the life work of Caspar and Dora Caplan. Caspar had arrived in Ottawa from Lithuania in 1892 with only 63 cents in his pocket. On his first day in business as a door-to-door salesman, he reportedly sold some pens to a lady. It was a propitious sale. The lady in question remained a customer for the rest of her long life.

Caplan travelled around the city and outlying communities selling “small wares” from the back of his horse and buggy. With money scarce, he did a lot of his business through barter, exchanging his goods for dairy and farm produce.

From that small acorn did the mighty oak that was to become Caplan’s Department Store grow.

In 1897, Caspar Caplan married Dora Roston of Montreal. As a newly-married man, the life of an itinerant salesman no longer suited. In 1899, the couple opened a bricks-and-mortar shop in LeBreton Flats on Queen Street West. Sadly, their building burnt down in the Great Fire of 1900, forcing Caplan back onto the road.

In 1904, he and his wife opened another store, grandly called the Ottawa and Hull House Furnishing Company, at 491 Sussex Street in the building which later became the Jeanne d’Arc Institute. (The institute, which was operated by an order of nuns established by Mère Marie Thomas d’Aquin, became a boarding house for young, working women from 1917 to 1980. Today, the edifice is a registered Canadian heritage building.) The Caplans’ small store, with floor space amounting to only 750 square feet, sold men’s and ladies’ fashions on the main floor, and linoleum in the basement. The couple had an apartment above their shop. Rent, amounting to $35 per month, included a stable for their horse.

Business boomed for the young, enterprising couple. Sussex Street was a thriving commercial area during the early 1900s, close to the Bytown market, hotels and boarding houses. On payday, people converged on the Caplans’ store to spend their hard-earned money. They were always warmly greeted, often by name. The store also appealed to those short of ready cash as the firm was an early adopter of the “weekly payment” business, a form of installment credit. This was a risky venture as there were no credit agencies back in those days. Credit was extended on the basis of personal knowledge of their customers and trust.

Caplan's old store on Rideau OJ 24-4-65

The original Caplan’s store at 135 Rideau Street before it expanded, circa 1916, Ottawa Journal, 24 April 1965.

The prospering company moved to larger quarters down the road at 557 Sussex Street in 1908. The new premises had 2,250 square feet of floor space. An arc electric light lit the street outside of the store. At that time, the expanding firm added a furniture department to its list of retail offerings.

Eight years later, the Caplans moved again. This time to their 135 Rideau Street location which was to be their address for the next sixty-eight years. The store was incorporated at the beginning of 1916 with a capitalization of $50,000.

The department store was dealt a serious setback in 1917 when a fire of unknown origin, swept through its furniture department. While the blaze was quickly extinguished, more than $15,000 damage was caused which was only partially covered by insurance. Undeterred, the Caplans persevered.

Caplan’s department store flourished through the Roaring Twenties, and even through the Great Depression. In 1928, two new departments were added—shoes and children’s clothing. An elevator was also installed. Two years later, more land was purchased, with a big modernization program launched, both internally and externally. In 1937, a mezzanine floor was added for office space. The store also began to sell furs and electrical appliances. A toy department was added in 1938.

Plans to incorporate the adjoining building into the department store were put on hold owing to the beginning of World War II, and the illness of Caspar Caplan who retired from the business, leaving the operation of the department store in the hands of his wife Dora and their two sons, Samuel and Gordon. When Caspar died in 1943, Dora Caplan took over as president of the company.

After the war and through the 1950s, Caplan’s continued to expand. In 1948, the company acquired the next-door premises. The first phase of a massive expansion plan was completed in 1951. New departments were added—cosmetics, costume jewellery, draperies, kitchenware, woollens, linen and chinaware in 1953, unpainted furniture, outdoor garden supplies, televisions and “wheeled” goods in 1954. The external look of the building was also modernized with the addition of a marble veneer. By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1955, the store had about 45,000 square feet of floor space.

caplan-building-in-1911-lac-pa-005899

The first Caplan store was located in the white building with awnings on the right. The department store later purchased the central brick building with the arched windows. When this photo was taken in 1911, the building housed a dentist and a branch of the Bank of Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada, PA-005899.

caplans-undated-ottawa-jewish-archives

Undated photograph of the modernized Caplan’s façade decorated for Christmas, Ottawa Jewish Archives.

caplans-oc-27-02-2003-by-brigitte-bouvier

Caplan’s department store ready for demolition, 2003, Ottawa Citizen, photo by Brigitte Bouvier

caplans-google-streetview-current

Replica Rideau Street façade of the old Caplan’s Department Store at 135 Rideau Street, Google Streetview.

The store built its reputation of three things: reliable merchandise; a money-back guarantee for unsatisfactory goods; and excellent customer service. Caplan’s was one of the first Ottawa stores to provide parking facilities for its customers—a major plus in an era of growing automobile ownership.

Caplan’s was also known for its good management-employee relations. The firm was reportedly one of the first in Ottawa to move to a five-day work week. Staff had their own recreation association as well as a bowling league. The company also sponsored social events. In the years before provincial health care, Caplan’s provided employees with a low-cost hospital plan as well as life insurance.

The Caplans were also active in the community. Caspar Caplan was a founder of both the Jewish Community Council and of the Adath Jeshuran Synagogue, of which he was president from 1930 to 1935. Samuel Caplan followed in his father’s footsteps, and was the synagogue’s president during the 1950s. Gordon Caplan was active in the Kiwanis Club, the Ottawa Better Business Bureau, and was a founding member of the Rideau Street Merchants’ Association.

Despite ongoing efforts to keep pace with changing times, Caplan’s, like all of Ottawa’s big downtown department stores, began to lose ground during the 1960s and 1970s due to growing competition from suburban shopping centres. In 1972, Caplan’s tried to fight back, launching a “million-dollar expansion.” It held back the tide for a time but it was not enough. The final blow to Caplan’s fortunes was the building of the Rideau Centre in the early 1980s. Not only did foot traffic to the store plummet during the course of construction which closed Rideau Street for a time, but Caplan’s had a glossy, new competitor right across the street when the shopping complex opened for business in March 1983.

After trying to boost business by converting Caplan’s into a discount store, offering reductions of as much as 60 per cent on name-brand goods, George Caplan, the last head of the family-run business, called it quits in January 1984. He announced that most of the department store’s forty departments would be closed, and its staff of one hundred reduced. Only the fashion and accessories departments would be retained. Instead, the first two floors of the Caplan building would be converted into a “mini-mall” of independent retailers, while the upper two floors would be leased as commercial office space. George Caplan also asked the company’s creditors to wait until the end of April 1984 to be paid in order to allow the firm time to re-organize itself. The business owed roughly $1.6 million to secured creditors and $1.4 million to 470 unsecured creditors. Staff were also owed $30,000 in vacation pay.  He stressed, however, that the firm was neither bankrupt nor in receivership.

Caplan’s creditors gave the firm more time. Indeed, the end-April deadline was extended by another 60 days. But sales continued to decline and losses rose. In mid-June, George Caplan confirmed what everybody knew was coming, that the family-owned firm would sell of its remaining stock and close for good. The family would retire from the retail business and would henceforth concentrate on its real estate interests which included ownership of the Caplan building.

The Caplan family’s real estate firm, which was called the Ottawa House Furnishing Company, renovated the old department store building in 1984, and rented parts out to a variety of enterprises, including a Biway discount outlet and a Moores menswear clothing store. A Canada Employment Centre also opened in the building. CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) had offices there as well. Gordon Caplan, the son of founders Caspar and Dora Caplan, kept an office in the building until his death in 1990 at the age of 89.

In 1997, the building was purchased by the Canril Corporation, whose aim was to redevelop the site. Various proposals for the property came and went, including the construction of a casino, a cinema, and a sports museum. With the old building becoming increasingly dilapidated, Canril sought permission to demolish it. This set in motion a battle between heritage supporters, City Council and the developers. To make the situation more complex, any changes to the George Street side of the building was subject to city approval owing to its location in the Byward Market Heritage Conservation District. The same was not true, however, for the Rideau Street side, despite parts of it dating back to the 1870s and the façade being more architecturally and historically significant.

After several minor fires, and a “repair or demolish” order from the Ottawa Fire Marshal, agreement was finally reached with the City to demolish the old building in 2003 as long as any future development of the site included the construction of a replica façade of the old Caplan building.

In 2005, Canril reached an agreement with the City of Ottawa to build a nineteen-storey condominium building on the site of the Caplan building which would extend from 90 George Street to Rideau Street. As per the previous agreement with the city, the developer duly constructed a replica of the Rideau Street façade based on a precise imaging of the building that was made in 2000.

The new condominium tower opened for residents in 2009.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, 2005. Application for new construction in the Byward Market Heritage Conservation District at 90 George/135 Rideau Street—Amendment to previous proposal, 27 January.

Heritage Ottawa, 2017. Caplan’s Department Store, https://heritageottawa.org/50years/caplans-department-store.

Ottawa Citizen, 1917. “$15,000 Damage To Furniture Stock,” 25 June.

——————, 1984. “Faced with bid debts, Caplan’s becomes mall,” 17 January.

——————, 1984. “Caplan’s $3 million in the red,” 17 January.

——————, 1984. “Caplan creditors give it more time,” 2 May.

——————, 1984. “Caplan’s closing its doors,” 14 June.

——————, 1984. “Ottawa bids adieu to Caplan’s after 80 years,” 28 July.

——————, 1984. “Corrections,” 30 July.

——————, 1990. “‘Earthy, friendly’ department store owner Gordon Caplan dies at 89,” 26 November.

——————, 1997. “Vibrancy slowly returns to Rideau Street,” 21 October.

——————, 2002. “Preserving Caplan’s history,” 6 July.

——————, 2003. “Another Ottawa Landmark Is Lost,” 5 July.

Ottawa Jewish Archives, 2020. https://jewishottawa.com/ottawa-jewish-archives.

Ottawa Journal, 1955. “Caplan’s Celebrating 50th Anniversary, 20 April.

——————-, 1965. “Ottawa Firm Observes Its 60th Anniversary,” 24 April.

The Drive-In

15 July 1948

The drive-in theatre was the trifecta of modern American inventions, combining America’s passion for the automobile, its love of movies, and raging teenage hormones. How could it miss? Investors quickly knew they were onto a winner. In the years immediately following World War II, the number of drive-in theatres exploded. By the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 in the United States. Canada, too, embraced the new invention, with more than 240 erected in fields on the outskirts of cities across the country.

Drive in patent

Illustration of a Drive-In Theatre, submitted to U.S. Patent office by Richard Hollingshead, Jr., 1933.

The idea of showing movies outdoors was not new. In Ottawa, Andrew and George Holland in 1896 used an early film projector called the vitascope to show short, silent films on an outdoor, canvas screen at the West End amusement park owned by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company. The site of the showing is now roughly the location of the Fisher Park Public School and the Elmdale Tennis Club.

Bringing cars into the mix was just twenty years younger. Reportedly, space was set aside for automobiles at the Theatre of Guadalupe in Las Cruces, New Mexico as early as 1915 for drivers to see first stage performances and, subsequently, films.

But the drive-in theatre that the post-war generation came to know and love during the 1950s and 1960s was the creation of one Richard Hollingshead Jr. of Camden, New Jersey, who in 1933 received U.S. patent 1,909,537 for the idea. In his patent application, Hollingsworth wrote:

It is contemplated from my invention to provide means whereby an audience, particularly in rural sections, may view a motion picture without the necessity of alighting from the automobile, and as a matter of fact, the automobile serves as an element of the seating arrangements.

The patent envisaged most of the features that became standard with drive-in theatres, including small ramps on which cars would park to allow for better screen viewing. The patent even thought of a device for deterring insects from passing through the projected beam of light.

If anything, the invention was a bit ahead of its time. Economic conditions were harsh during the 1930s, and disposable income was low—not the most auspicious time to launch a new consumer product. Early drive-ins also had problems with sound quality, a shortcoming that was rectified by in-car speakers introduced by RCA in 1941. Many years later, sound was provided through car radios.

It was after World War II that things really took off. Young couples with money in their pockets were buying cars and moving to the suburbs. They were also having children, later to be known as Baby Boomers. This was exactly the demographic that owners of drive-in theatres hoped to attract. Customers could drive to the movies in their shiny, new sedans, with the kiddies, often dressed in their pyjamas, tucked away in the back seat, thereby foregoing the cost of a babysitter. To encourage this, the little ones often got in free.

The first drive-in theatre in Canada opened in July 1946 in Stoney Creek, Ontario, now part of Hamilton. Called the Skyway Drive-In, it had an immense screen that measured 100 feet by 50 feet. Sound was provided by loudspeakers rather by individual, in-car speakers.

drive in OC 15-7-48

Full-page advertisement for the gala opening of the Drive-In Theatre, Ottawa Citizen 14 July 1948.

Ottawa had to wait two more years before the first drive-in theatre opened on its outskirts. At dusk on Thursday, 15 July, 1948, the simply named Drive-In Theatre metaphorically raised its curtain for the first time. The new movie facility, which had a screen that was 48 feet by 36 feet, was located in a fenced-in, fifteen-acre site on Highway 17 (Carling Avenue), close to the Britannia crossroads. The managing director of the company that owned the theatre was H. J. Ochs who also ran five of the only ten drive-in theatres then in operation in Canada. The local Ottawa manager was G.F. White.

That first night was a great success. It was estimated that 1,000 cars filled the parking spaces set in semi-circles in front of the large screen. Courteous attendants showed drivers to their parking spots as they entered the field. Seven policemen were needed to control traffic that backed up down Highway 17. Many would-be patrons were turned away, disappointed.  The fortunate parked their cars on slight rises that tipped them upwards to provide a better view of the movie. Each vehicle had its own loud speaker with volume control. There were also several hundred “walk-in” customers who occupied seats in front of the cars. Naturally, a complete snack bar offered food and drinks to patrons, along with a free bottle-warmer for new parents.

Three films were shown that night, including a lead-off cartoon for the children, followed by a news reel that would put the children to sleep, and then the principal attraction, A Night in Casablanca starring the Marx Brothers. The black and white, 1946 comedy was a parody of the famous Warner Brothers’ war-time film Casablanca featuring Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In the Marx Brothers version, Groucho is hired to run a hotel in post-war Casablanca where a bunch of ex-Nazis are trying to recover stolen treasure.

Two weeks later, Ottawa’s second drive-in theatre, the Auto-Sky, held its own gala opening. This theatre was located at an eighteen-acre site at the corner of Fisher Avenue and Baseline Road. Six hundred cars packed with 1,000 people attended the inaugural performance to watch Gypsy Wildcat, starring Maria Montez. Upping the ante on the Drive-In Theatre, the adventure movie was filmed in Technicolor. Consistent with the vision expressed by inventor Richard Hollingshead, the owner of the Auto-Sky said to the Ottawa Journal that the drive-in was “intended primarily for the farmers of the Ottawa district, who could drive in after finishing their chores and watch a show with the family. For this reason, we let the kids in free of charge.”

What is particularly interesting about this statement from today’s perspective is that the corner of Fisher and Baseline was considered rural. With the exception of the Experimental Farm on the northern side of Baseline, urban sprawl extends today many kilometres from this intersection. The site of the drive-in is now the location of the Fisher Heights neighbourhood.

The drive-in culture reached its peak during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along with drive-in theatres there were, of course, drive-in restaurants, where you could eat in your car with a tray suspended from the car’s window. Both became closely associated with teenagers. Moralists began calling drive-in theatres “passion pits,” owing to their popularity with teenagers and young adults eager for some date-night privacy.

drive in Jacqueline Tremblay Pinterest

The Old Britannia Drive-In Theatre, Carling Avenue, source, Pinterest, Jacqueline Tremblay.

By the 1970s and 1980s, both types of drive-ins were in steep decline, losing ground to fast food chain restaurants, such as McDonalds in the case of drive-in restaurants, and the proliferation of televisions and video cassette players in the case of drive-in theatres. Some drive-in theatres became tawdry, showing kung fu movies, slasher films, and soft pornography. The appeal for families dwindled. With land prices rising as cities grew up around them, it became more profitable to tear down drive-ins and “develop” the sites, rather than to keep them in operation, especially as many operated only during the summer months.

Here in Ottawa, the drive-in at Britannia lasted for 49 years, outliving virtually all of its competitors, though it changed hands several times through the years.[1]  In the 1970s, it was modified to become a two-screen, drive-in theatre. Indoor cinemas, called Britannia Six, were also built on the site.

Drive in oc 16-8-1997

The last advertisement for the Britannia Drive-In, Ottawa Citizen, 16 August 1997.

In mid-August 1997, the old Britannia Drive-In showed it last film. On that final night, the parking lot was half full to watch Men in Black and Spawn. Management handed out balloons and cake to thank the audience for their patronage over the years. It was the end of an era, and the loss of a neighbourhood landmark. In its place, Famous Players built the Ottawa Coliseum which opened in July the following year, with the old Britannia Six torn down for additional parking. Today, the Coliseum has twelve cinemas, and is operated by the Cineplex chain of cinemas.

The closure of the Britannia Drive-in left Gloucester’s three-screen Airport Drive-In located on Uplands Drive as the last remaining drive-in theatre in Ottawa. Also owned by Famous Players, the Airport Drive-in quickly followed the Britannia into history. It was converted into an offsite, airport parking lot.

After that, if you wanted to go to a drive-in theatre in the Ottawa area, you had to drive to Gatineau to the Cine-Parc Templeton Drive-In on Boulevard Maloney Est. However, the Cine-Parc too finally succumbed in 2019 with the retirement of its owners. Its equipment was sold off to a ski resort.

According to DriveInMovie.com, drive-in theatres have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, as “a romantic and nostalgic alternative” to the traditional inside cinema experience. At last count, there were thirty-seven drive-in theatres left in Canada, of which sixteen are in Ontario. At time of writing, the closest one to Ottawa is the Port Elmsley Drive-In located between Perth and Smiths Falls, Ontario.

Sources:

Barnett, Stephen, 2017. “The Passion Pit,” The Weekly View, 23 March, http://weeklyview.net/2017/03/23/the-passion-pit/.

Britannia: A History, The Britannia Drive-In Theatre, https://britanniaottawa.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/britannia-drive-in-theatre/.

DriveInMovie.com, The Internet’s Oldest Drive-In Movie Resource, https://www.driveinmovie.com/.

Hamilton Spectator, 2016. “July 10, 1946: First drive-in theatre in Canada opens in Stoney Creek,” 23 September.

New York Film Academy, 2017. The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (and Where They Are Now), https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-history-of-drive-in-movie-theaters-and-where-they-are-now/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1948. “New Drive-In Theater Opens,” 16 July.

———————-, 1948. “Hundreds Attend Premier Showing At New Theater,” 29 July.

———————-, 1980. “Saturday night at the drive-in,” 16 August.

———————-, 1998. “Movie Madness,” 9 January.

———————-, 1998. “Come early and stay longer,” 3 July.

———————-, 1997. “A Drive-in to history,” 18 August.

———————, 1998, “New Park’n Fly lot offers lower rates than airport,” 14 May.

Ottawa Journal, 1948. “Drive-In Theatre Packs in 1,000 Cars On Opening Night,” 16 July.

Port Emsley Drive-in, 2020, http://www.portelmsleydrivein.com/.

United States Patent Office, 1933. Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. of Riverton, New Jersey, Drive-In Theater, No. 1,909,537, 16 May

[1] For an excellent account of the history of the Britannia Drive-In Theatre, see The Britannia Drive-In Theatre on the blog, Britannia: A History at https://britanniaottawa.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/britannia-drive-in-theatre/.