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 in harmony 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 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. U.S. entrepreneurs, such as Captain Levi Young, Franklin Bronson, Ezra Eddy, and J.R. Booth, 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. 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, totally 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. It 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. But the biggest blow to Caplan’s fortunes was the building of the Rideau Centre. 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/.

 

The Iceman No Longer Cometh

18 May 1963

In today’s modern world, frequent visitors to the typical Canadian household are FedEx or UPS deliverers dropping off the latest purchases from Amazon or other virtual retailers. Back in our grandparents’ day, the typical household also received lots of commercial visitors—the postman, the milkman, the Fuller brush man, and the occasional telegram delivery boy. But no visitor was more welcome during the hot summer months than the burly iceman with his frosty block of ice, grasped between large metal tongs, destined for the family icebox. In the years before air-conditioning, the only way to mitigate those sweltering, sticky days of July and August was to indulge in your favourite chilled drink or ice cream. And for that, ice was essential. Through the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the most common form of ice in Canada and the United States was natural ice “harvested” from lakes and rivers during the depth of winter and stored in “ice houses” for the summer sales season. A huge industry developed around cutting, storing and delivering ice. It even went international, with ice cut in the Boston and New York areas sent by speedy clipper ships to the islands in the West Indies.

Ice cream the Packet 22-5-1847

Advertisement for ice cream that appeared in The Packet, 22 May 1847.

When ice “harvesting” began in Ottawa is uncertain. Certainly, ice was available in the summer of 1847. In late May 1847, Thompson & Smillie’s, confectioners in Lower Bytown, advertised ice cream for sale in The Packet newspaper.  Where there’s ice cream, there has to be ice.

By the 1880s, ice harvesting on the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers was big business, employing hundreds of people. The ice industry provided welcome jobs during the winter when the lumber mills were closed and employment hard to find. The largest Ottawa ice dealers at the time were Jos. Christin & Company, Charlebois & Eros, and Moise Lapointe. Tens of thousands of tons of ice was harvested annually above the Chaudière Falls close to the Prince of Wales Bridge and below the Falls near Nepean Point. Ice was also cut on the Rideau River in Mooney’s Bay.

The ice-harvesting process was straightforward, with the season lasting for five to ten weeks. When the ice was thick enough, roughly 18 inches, a depth typically reached by late January or early February, teams of men would clear the snow using horse-drawn scrapers. A straight line was then drawn across the newly cleared ice field. Two sharp blades, 44 inches apart, scored parallel furrows into the ice. These grooves were used as guides for the ice sawyers who cut out a column of ice. They then cut the ice perpendicular to these grooves to make large blocks called “cakes.” Using ice clamps, strong men hoisted these mega ice cubes out of the water which were then loaded onto horse-drawn sleighs for delivery to Ottawa’s ice houses for storage. There, the blocks were placed in tiers, one upon the other, separated by a few inches to stop them freezing into one huge block. Bark or sawdust was often used to provide insulation. While more than half of the ice might be lost through melting, there was usually sufficient remaining to meet the demand for ice during the hot summer months.

Ice ad odc 1866-5-24

Advertisement for ice, Ottawa Daily Citizen,  24 May, 1866

Prices were affordable. In 1866, T. Starmer, located at 126 Rideau Street opposite Matthew’s Hotel, advertised that he would deliver 10 pounds of ice daily, with a double amount on Saturdays for Sunday use, through the season (May 1st to October 1st) for a fee of $5. The same price was being charged thirty years later by the Ottawa Ice Company. Discounts were provided if one paid in advance and bought larger quantities of ice.

If a household had its own ice house, the cost of a season’s worth of ice was even cheaper. The Citizen reported that a man satisfied his home’s need for summer ice for only $4. The man purchased his ice from a dealer in the winter, and stored it in his personal ice house which was tucked away under the shade of a big tree in his backyard.

Owing to pollution concerns, the Ottawa Board of Health passed regulations in the early 1890s to restrict the harvest of ice on the Ottawa River to above the Chaudière Falls. Despite this, dealers persisted in cutting ice lower down the river. Apparently, they could save $1,000 to $1,300 per year by cutting below the Falls. After one ice dealer received a summons for cutting ice on the Ottawa River to the east of Earnscliffe, then the home of Sir John A. Macdonald, and now the residence of the British High Commissioner, dealers appealed to City Council for a relaxation of the regulations. These appeals were resisted by Dr Robillard, the head of the Ottawa Board of Health, even though an analysis of ice samples taken from the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers proved to be satisfactory. He thought that a one-off sampling was insufficient to ensure safety, pointing out that Ottawa’s sewers discharged on the Ontario side while the “washings of Hull and of the pulp industry” poured into the river from the Quebec side. With fears of cholera returning with the warm weather, City Council resisted the ice dealers’ appeals.

ice fishing LAC topley (2)

Ice harvesting, Ottawa River, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, R639-0-5-E.

In 1912, the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company began operations on Nicholas Street. Its president was Thomas Cameron Bate. Its vice-president was Thomas Ahearn, who, along with his partner of many years, Warren Soper, was involved in everything electrical in the city. The company used liquid ammonia as the cooling agent for making its ice, a process that had become economically feasible during the late nineteenth century. Instead of using potentially unsanitary river water, it drew its water supply from artisan wells almost 500 feet deep. The water was also tested daily. The company claimed that its ice was seldom touched by hands. While it advertised that it could make 50 tons of artificial ice per day, the company could only satisfy a small portion of Ottawa’s ice needs. Natural ice remained in strong demand.

Ice cutters Hogs back 3371780 LAC

Ice Harvesting at Hog’s Back, Rideau River, in the 1930s, Library and Archives Canada, 3371780.

In 1927, thirteen of the largest ice dealers in Ottawa and Hull, including the Artificial Ice Company, banded together to form the Icemen’s Association, and incidentally to raise prices. From then on, no allowance would be made for summer vacations. Previously, customers could suspend their ice service when they were away on holiday, and receive a credit for that time from ice companies. More significantly, apartment dwellers were henceforth charged a steep delivery premium of 50 cents per month per flight of stairs that the iceman had to climb carrying his load of ice. For some, this charge effectively doubled the price of ice.

For the next thirty years, ice harvesting continued to be an annual winter event on the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. The process remained little changed from that of the previous century. Horses continued to be used to remove snow and slush from the ice field and to scrape the surface. However, power saws with 24-inch diameter blades were used to cut the ice, though men still used long, cross-cut saws to finish the cuts. After breaking off each 300-pound block of ice with crowbars, men guided the blocks using sharp pikes down a water channel to the landing machine—essentially a gas-powered, toothed conveyor belt that hoisted the blocks onto the back of a truck for delivery to the ice houses. On arrival, ice packers stacked the blocks which were insulated with sawdust. The Department of Health and Welfare kept a close check on ice quality to ensure that the ice was safe for human consumption.

After the war, demand for ice remained strong for a time, notwithstanding the gradual introduction of electric refrigerators into Ottawa kitchens. Old-fashioned ice boxes remained in service. In early 1950, Ottawa ice dealers said the demand was as strong as it had been ten or fifteen years earlier, and planned to store 300,000 tons of natural ice during the 1950 ice season. However, within just a few years, the Ottawa ice industry had gone the way of the buggy whip, a casualty of technological change. In 1959, it was reported that no company was cutting natural ice from either the Ottawa or Rideau Rivers. The last advertisement for natural ice appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on 18 May 1963 in the classified ad section. Two thousand large blocks of natural ice were available if one called 684-5237. The name and the address of the seller, and where the ice was sourced, were not revealed.

Even the artificial ice producers had difficulty in competing with the modern refrigerator. The building of the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company on Nicholas Street was purchased in 1962 by the University of Ottawa which wanted the land for new university buildings. The company was officially closed in 1967.

After that, only the old, now vacant, ice houses were left to remind Ottawa residents of the once-great ice industry. And they too succumbed one by one. Typically made of wood and filled with old sawdust, many ice houses were destroyed by fire. Others were torn down. A few smaller ones found new life as cottages or offices.

Today, several companies supply ice to Ottawa. One of the largest is the Arctic Glacier Company of Winnipeg which has a production facility on the Hawthorne Rd in Ottawa. Its bags of packaged ice can be purchased at service stations and grocery stores throughout the city. Big 300-pound blocks are also still available, as is ice for commercial purposes.

Sources:

Ottawa Citizen, 1893. “The Ice-Men’s Cool Request,” 18 January.

——————, 1894. “Ice Harvest,” 11 February.

——————, 1912. “Pure Ice At Last,” 27 December.

——————, 1948. “It’s Harvesting Time For Rideau River Ice ‘Crop,’” 5 February.

——————, 1949. “Ottawa’s Ice Harvest Is Cold Business,” 12 February.

——————, 1950. “Winter Sets Back The Ice Harvest,” 12 January.

——————, 1959. “Ice Company To Oppose U of O Bill,” 20 December.

——————, 1962. “New U of O Building,” 4 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “Cold Water,” 5 February.

——————-, 1920. “Ottawa Business Romances,” 21 April.

——————, 1927. “New Regulations Govern Ice Selling,” 3 May.

Packet, 1847. “Ice Creams,” 22 May.

 

Work or Bread!

5 April 1877

When we think of an economic depression, we usually think of the Great Depression that started in late October 1929 with the New York stock market crash and lasted through the “Dirty Thirties.” But there was another global economic downturn, sometimes called the Long Depression, that started with the Panic of 1873 and lasted until 1896 according to some historians. Like the Great Depression, it resulted from a combination of real, financial and monetary factors. It began in central Europe with a stock market crash in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The bursting of a speculative bubble revealed overextended financial institutions and stock market manipulation, leading to bank failures and corporate insolvencies. The financial impact rippled across international borders and even the Atlantic. (Sound familiar?) In North America, there had been a huge overinvestment in railways—the “dotcom-like” speculative investment of the nineteenth century. Many of the railway companies had raised large sums of money based on unrealistic expectations of future profitability. In September 1873, Jay Cooke & Company, a large U.S. bank and a major investor in railway bonds, failed. This sparked a financial panic in New York. Share prices collapsed. The stock exchange closed for ten days. In the months that followed, dozens of railway companies failed, bringing down financial institutions in their wake.

Panic of 1873

Closing the doors of the New York Stock Exchange, 20 September 1873, Picryl

These developments happened against the backdrop of a global economy undergoing major structural changes. The industrial revolution was in full swing. Germany and the United States were challenging Britain’s economic supremacy. New industries and new production processes were rapidly overturning the old economic order. Productivity was rising and prices for industrial and agricultural goods were falling. While many took advantage of the opportunities being created and prospered, those who were unable to adapt to the rapid changes suffered.

Added to these shocks in North America was the impact of the epizootic of 1872-3—an equine flu that started outside of Toronto and spread across Canada and the United States. While the mortality rate was typically low, few horses outside of certain isolated regions were spared. It took weeks for stricken equines to recover, with crippling consequences for an essentially horse-drawn economy. Even the railways were affected as coal was shipped to rail terminals using horse-drawn wagons.

Governments did little to ease the pain of the downturn in economic activity. The idea of government assistance for the poor was still in the future. With all major countries, including Canada, wed to the gold standard, there was also little scope for monetary action to support economic activity, even if central banks (if countries had them) wanted to do something. Meanwhile, the United States joined gold standard countries in 1873, after having had an unbacked fiat currency since the start of their civil war. It ended the unlimited coinage of silver (the Crime of ’73 according to silver supporters) which might otherwise have led to lower interest rates. Protectionist sentiments rose everywhere. The major countries, with the exception of Britain, adopted high tariffs in an effort to protect domestic industries and jobs. International trade suffered.

Canada was in the thick of all these trends. As is the case today, it was a small economy closely linked to its southern, much larger, neighbour. When the United States entered the Long Depression, so did Canada. To make matters worse, the United States had abrogated its trade reciprocity deal with Canada a few years earlier. Although the reciprocity agreement only covered natural resources, this mattered importantly for Canada.

Panic Hon. Sir Richard Cartwright, 1881 Topley Studio Fonds LAC PA-025546

Hon. Sir Richard Cartwright, 1881 Topley Studio Fonds Library and Archives Canada, PA-025546

In February 1876, Richard Cartwright, the Liberal Minister of Finance, attributed the ongoing depression in Canada to: poor U.S. economic conditions, which were “visibly affecting Canadian interests;” overlarge imports; excessive inventories which were depreciating in value; greedy banks who extended loans “to men of straw, possessing neither brains nor money;” and a depression in the lumber trade owing to “inexperienced operators unable to compete when U.S. prices fall.”

To help ameliorate matters, he said that the government was taking advantage of cheap labour and materials to bring forward public works projects. Cartwright, a proponent of free trade, resisted calls for tariffs on manufactured goods beyond those necessary for revenue purposes on the grounds that manufacturing employment accounted for only 40,000 jobs. The government needed to look after the interests of the other 95 per cent of the working population.

In Ottawa, matters came to a head in early 1877. Unemployment, which was always high in winter owing to the seasonality of many jobs, was worse than usual. Each morning, hundreds of unemployed, able-bodied men congregated in the Byward Market looking for an hour or two of work. Times were tough even for those who had jobs. Pay had been reduced from $1.25 per day to a meagre 90 cents per day.

On 5 April 1877, 200-300 unemployed men assembled as usual early in the morning in the Byward Market looking for work. When little was forthcoming, they decided they would do something about their situation. Perhaps the Mayor of Ottawa, William Waller, would be able to able to provide work or bread. The men marched on City Hall on Elgin Street. Unfortunately, the mayor was absent. A messenger was dispatched to find him. Meanwhile a Citizen reporter interviewed some of the men while they waited. Their stories were dire. Many had large families to feed but had been out of work for months. Starvation stared many in the face. Peter Boulez had a family of twelve, but had had no employment since the previous November. With his limited savings exhausted, he needed to find work to put bread on the table. Hans Shourdis had been living off of soup for the past four months, “his stomach a stranger to meat.” Christmas had been his last satisfying meal. A kindly lady had given him charity but that all went to his five children.

When Mayor Waller appeared, he said that he deeply sympathized with the workmen. However, he reminded them that the depression was being felt across the country, and opined that the Dominion government was not responsible for the hard times. He announced that City Council would be meeting on the following Monday to discuss a drainage scheme worth $300,000, one third of which could be expended annually. This project would hire a lot of citizens in need. He expected work to proceed as soon as the frost was out of the ground. The Mayor also said that he had instructed the City Collector not to go after the unemployed for unpaid taxes until they had work.

The men next marched on the Parliament Buildings to seek an immediate interview with Premier Alexander Mackenzie, whose Liberal Party had come to power in November 1873, virtually at the onset of the depression—a timing that had not gone unnoticed by the unemployed workers. At the main entrance of the Centre Block, the men sent a messenger to the Premier who was in the Railway Committee Room attending a meeting of the House Banking and Commerce Committee. When Mackenzie refused to see them, the unemployed workers entered the building and approached the Committee Room’s entrance. They sent another messenger to Mackenzie. When nothing happened, two of the workers’ leaders opened the door, insisting to see the Premier. When a committee member shouted “Shut the door,” the door was closed in their faces. Indignant, some of the workers suggested starving them out “like they did at Sebastopol” during the Crimea War. Others forced the door to great cheers, including cheers for Sir John A. Macdonald, Mackenzie’s arch rival.

Needless to say, committee members were shaken by this invasion. Some apparently thought the men were there “to wipe them out.” However, others regained their composure and said that the men were harmless. They simply wanted to speak to Mr. Mackenzie. One of the unemployed men stood on a table and addressed the crowd. He was angry that the Premier had eluded them, calling it “a hardship and an insult.” Peter Mitchell, the MP for Northumberland County, New Brunswick, and a Father of Confederation, calmed them by saying that the Premier would no doubt give an interview at some other time and place. After giving three more cheers for Sir John A. Macdonald, the unemployed men left though not before issuing a statement:

“That we the unemployed workingmen of Ottawa, strongly censure the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie for refusing to meet a delegation sent from among us to ask his opinion as to the chances of work during the coming season. And we condemn him for allowing a door to be slammed in our faces, and call upon the workingmen of the Dominion to join us in rebuking the treatment received by us.”

The men made an orderly departure from Parliament, committing themselves to meet again in the Market later that day to plot strategy. That evening, the men, along with political representatives from all levels of government, met outside in the Market Square despite a light rain. Plans to meet in the Market Hall had been foiled by locked doors and a missing key. There was a number of rousing speeches. Mr. Bullman, the self-appointed chairman of the men, spoke on “how the wealth of the world was unequally distributed” and how the poor were oppressed. He said that he had been splitting hardwood for 25 cents a cord and had to feed a family of small children. (His credibility was later damaged when it was revealed that he was not unemployed, and had left a job at the gas works to attend the meeting.) A Mr. Hans added that “it was natural for money to flow into the rich man’s pocket as it was for the water of the St Lawrence to flow into the ocean.” At the end, it was agreed to send a deputation to approach Mackenzie on behalf of the workers.

At 9 am the next morning, a crowd of more than 600 gathered in front of the City Hall and marched to the West Block on Parliament Hill, the location of Premier Mackenzie’s office. The deputation, which comprised the City of Ottawa’s two MPs, one Liberal the other Liberal-Conservative, the Liberal MPP for the City, Mayor Waller, and Mr. Bullman, met with the Premier. This time, Mackenzie agreed to address the men.

The Premier offered the unemployed little in the way of government relief. He claimed that government was “powerless” beyond commissioning public works, pointing to the Welland and Lachine Canals. He also argued that aid should come from the provincial legislature and local charities. Just because Parliament resided in Ottawa was not a reason for the Dominion government to support Ottawa employment. If a man needed a job, he should go to the North-West Territories (Alberta and Saskatchewan) where he could get 100 acres of good farmland for nothing. However, Mackenzie promised that members of Parliament would personally donate as much as they could afford to relief efforts. He was also sure that the Ottawa men’s suffering was only temporary.

The Premier’s response did not go over well. There were more meetings, marches and speeches during the days that followed. The unemployed men sent a “memorial” (an archaic term for a public letter) to the Senate demanding government action in Ottawa and the surrounding area for public works to provide jobs and alleviate distress. Mayor Waller distributed “bread tickets” to the most urgent cases, while City Council expedited expenditures on the drainage project. A large number of men were put to work clearing out the Rideau Canal’s Basin. A relief fund was organized into which the Ottawa area’s more wealthy citizens contributed, including Alonzo Wright and Erskin Bronson. The Ladies Benevolent Society of St John’s Church held a fund raiser in the Temperance Hall selling “fancy work,” refreshments, and flowers and fruits. The take of the last show of the Grand Shaughraun Company at the Opera House also went to poor relief. These relief funds were managed by a committee of aldermen and clergymen which assessed each request for aid “to ascertain who is deserving and who is not.” These funds helped. But it was the arrival of warmer weather that had the most impact, with hundreds of men returning to jobs in the Chaudière lumber mills.

The following year, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative Party thumped Premier Mackenzie’s Liberal Party in the 1878 federal election. This election ushered in the Conservative “National Policy” which sharply raised tariffs on American manufactured goods in order to boost the Canadian manufacturing sector, create jobs, and, just coincidently of course, to protect the interests of businessmen that supported the Conservative Party. Despite some tinkering around the edges, this high-tariff policy remained in effect until the Auto Pact of 1965.

Sources:

History Central, 2019. The Panic of 1873, https://www.historycentral.com/rec/EconomicPanic.html.

Poloz, Stephen, 2017. Canada at 150: It Takes a World to Raise a Nation, speech given at the 50th Anniversary of Durham College, Oshawa, Bank of Canada, 28 March, https://www.bankofcanada.ca/2017/03/canada-150-takes-world-raise-nation/.

Ottawa Daily Citizen (The), 1876. “The Commons,” 26 February.

—————————-, 1877 “Work or Bread,” 5 April.

—————————-, 1877. “Editorial,” 6 April.

—————————-, 1877. “The Unemployed,” 6 April.

—————————-, 1877. “Memorial To The Senate,” 9 April.

United States History, 2019. The Panic of 1873, https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h213.html.

 

 

 

Devlin’s-Morgan’s

23 March 1973

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

Devlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devlins asphalt 30-6-1893 OJ

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

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

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

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

Devlin's snow prediction OJ 12-11-1889

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bytown Consumers Gas Company

25 March 1854

For millennia, cities, stores and homes went dark after sunset. Artificial lighting was limited to the illumination provided by fireplaces and torches of various description. Outdoors, wealthy pedestrians might hire a link-boy who, for a small fee, might carry a flaming brand to light their way. The alternative was the feeble light cast by a lantern, or making do with moon and star light. At home, candles made of tallow from rendered beef, mutton or pig fat, which cast a sputtering and smelly glow, were widely used. Also popular and inexpensive were rush-lights made from the pith of the rush plant dipped in grease. The poorest had to be satisfied with a saucer of grease and a twist of cloth. The wealthy could afford sweet-smelling, beeswax candles. Regardless, evenings must have been dim and shadowy, the light uncertain.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, burning oil derived from the rendered blubber of whales became popular owing to the bright light such fuel provided. The right whale, so-called for being a slow swimmer, which made it easier to catch, and its propensity to float after being harpooned, was the preferred catch. Sperm whales were also prized. Top quality sperm oil, also called spermaceti, was used to make candles given its waxy nature and lack of smell. The spermaceti organ of a sperm whale could contain as much as 1,900 litres of this valuable commodity—the reason why these great beasts were hunted to near extinction along with their right whale cousins.  In 1850, whale-oil lamps were placed over public wells in Bytown’s Upper and Lower Town.

Gas ODC 15-7-1854

Notice that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, 25 March 1854

A new lighting alternative came to the fore during the first half of the nineteenth century, first in Europe then in North America. This was manufactured gas, sometimes called coal gas. Manufactured gas was made by distilling black, bituminous coal in a heated retort. (A retort is a closed vessel made of glass or metal.) The vapour was then cooled and purified. The resulting gas was then stored and conveyed to consumers via underground pipes. Manufactured gas was first used for lighting in Europe during the early nineteenth century. Reportedly, by the mid-1820s, most English towns of any significance were lit by gaslight. The technology crossed the Atlantic, with Boston and New York both furnished with gaslight by 1825. Gaslight came to Montreal and Toronto during the 1840s.

In 1854, Bytown’s leading citizens thought their community was sufficiently large to make a gas works in the town a paying proposition. Although Bytown boasted a population of only 7,000 souls, the town had great prospects. Area politicians hoped to convince the government that Bytown would make a fine capital for the new Province of Canada. Twenty prominent electors requested that Mayor Friel hold a public meeting “on the propriety of getting up a Gas Company for the town.”

In early March 1854, a Town Hall Meeting, chaired by the mayor, was held to discuss the issue. Six resolutions were passed. First, it was resolved that the inhabitants of Bytown were of the opinion that the bringing of gas to the town was “of considerable importance, both socially and economically.”

Second, a joint-stock company should be established to be called The Bytown Consumers Gas Company. The resolution also asked for the support of the Mayor and the Corporation of Bytown of an application to the Provincial Legislature for the necessary powers.

Third, it was resolved that the population of Bytown was sufficiently large and wealthy to make a gas works a profitable investment.

Fourth, it was agreed that a “book” be opened immediately to take subscriptions for stock in the new company, and that an application be made to the Provincial Legislature for an act of Incorporation.

Fifth, it was resolved that a Committee be formed to obtain subscriptions in the new company, and that a meeting of stakeholders would be called to organize a company once £2,000 ($10,000) had been collected. The Committee would include three area members of the Provincial Parliament—G. B. Lyon, E. Malloch, and John Egan—as well as the current mayor, Henry. J. Friel, as well as Alexander Workman, and Joseph-Balsora Turgeon, two prominent politicians who would later become mayor.

Sixth, the citizens agreed that the new gas company should have a capitalization of £10,000, divided into shares of £10 each.

Events moved quickly. Three weeks later, it was official. A notice dated 25 March 1854 appeared in the Ottawa Citizen announcing that an application would be made to the Parliament of Canada at its next session to incorporate The Bytown Consumers Gas Company. It also serviced notice that it would request the ability to dig up roads for the purpose of laying pipes and to be able to hold property and undertake whatever was required for the manufacture of gas.

The following month, a declaration of intent to establish a gas company in Ottawa was registered in the Registry Office of the County of Bytown and sent to the provincial secretary in Quebec. This declaration was required under legislation passed the previous year entitled An Act to provide for the formation of incorporated Join Stock Companies for supplying Cities, Towns and Villages with Gas and Water (Victoria 16, Chapter 173). The act set out the objects of such firms, their rights and obligations. Such rights including the laying down of pipes under public roads so long as they caused no unnecessary damage and permitted free and uninterrupted passage along the streets when the works were underway. The Act also required a gas company to locate their gas works so as not to endanger public health or safety. Consistent with the provincial act, Mayor Friel signed By-law 110c a few days later giving the Bytown Consumers Gas Company the authority to dig up Bytown’s streets and squares to lay down its gas pipes consistent with the provincial legislation. Later, the Ordnance Department gave its consent for the company to install gas pipes along Sappers’ Bridge over the Rideau Canal subject to a nominal rent and the company’s agreement to remove the pipes if requested.

At the beginning of May, sufficient funds had been raised to require the meeting of stakeholders as specified under the fifth resolution approved the previous March. Subscribers to the capital stock of the company met in the office of John Bower Lewis, the second mayor of Bytown (and future first mayor of Ottawa). There, the senior officers of the company were elected: Dr, Hamnet Hill as President; Alexander Workman as Vice-President; and C. H. Piney as Treasurer/Secretary. A corporate seal for the company was adopted, and a corporate by-law was passed authorizing the opening of a stock book.

The first task of the company’s trustees was to find an expert to provide advice on building a gas works. They hired W. R. Falconer of Montreal to make estimates, plans and specifications. Within three weeks, Falconer had submitted his report. He estimated that the cost of the proposed gas works would be £8,310, including the £300 needed for land on which to build the plant. He recommended that while all the tanks and buildings could be erected that summer, the pipes should be laid the following spring, with the works in operation by 1 August 1855.

Subsequently, a Mr. A. Perry of Montreal submitted a tender for the contract according to Falconer’s specifications. To the disappointment of the shareholders in the Bytown Consumers Gas Company, his price to do the work came in at £8,375, excluding the cost of purchasing the necessary land for the gas works. Perry, however, must have liked the company’s prospects. He submitted a supplementary tender offering to buy £1,000 of the company’s shares and to loan it a further £3,000 at 6 per cent per annum for ten years.

The trustees demurred, of the view that Perry’s financial offer was too expensive. They did, however, find a suitable piece of property for £500 that they believed was large enough to accommodate the gas works and allow for future expansion.

However, at a meeting of stockholders held in August 1854, President Dr. Hamnet Hill revealed that the take-up of shares in the Company had been discouraging. Only £3,925 had been raised locally, and no Montreal investors had been found. He was disappointed that people who had said they would subscribe for shares had subsequently backed out, or had bought a smaller amount. He recommended two options to shareholders. Either they wait until “other persons of enterprise” came forward, or dissolve the company and return the investments of people less the costs already incurred.

What exactly happened next is unclear. There is a brief reference in the Ottawa Citizen in September 1854 to the effect that Bytown had “decided against a gas works.” However, in December 1854, the company was still around with the press reporting on a major shake-up of the firm’s senior officers. Alexander Workman resigned as Vice-President and was replaced by Mr. J. M. Currier. Henry Friel was elected Chairman and Francis Clemow was appointed secretary. At the same meeting, it was announced that a site for a gas house had been purchased on King Street (now King Edward Avenue) between Rideau and York Streets for £500. Somehow the necessary capital for the company had been found.

Pipes were laid through 1855, with the main line running under Rideau, Sparks, Sussex, York and Nicholas Streets. By the beginning of 1856, work had progressed sufficiently, despite “some trifling difficulties,” to permit the lighting of gas. In mid-April 1856, the price of gas was set thirty shillings per thousand (presumably cubic) feet, payable at the end of each quarter. A 25 per cent discount was given for prompt payment. This was an astronomical price by today’s standard and was a source of complaint. The Bytown gas price was roughly 50 percent higher than the price in Montreal, which was $5 per thousand feet (20 shillings), less a 35 per cent discount (in 1859), twice the New York price and five times that of that in London. A lack of economies of scale owing to Bytown’s small size might have been a factor in the price differential. By the early 1890s, Ottawa’s gas price had dropped to $1.80 per thousand cubic feet.

Gas ODC 25-12-1860

Advertisement for gas-lit chandeliers, Ottawa Citizen, 25 December 1860.

Notwithstanding the exorbitant price, gas street lights quickly lit Ottawa’s main streets, starting with Rideau and Sussex Streets. Advertisements appeared in local newspapers urging wealthy homeowners to lit their houses with gas lamps. In 1860, William Stevenson, a steam and gas fitter who operated out of Ogdensburg, New York advertised French and English chandeliers for sale in the Ottawa Citizen. He claimed his prices were cheaper than what could be obtained from Montreal, notwithstanding duties. He invited Ottawa residents to check out his store in Ogdensburg where he always had a large stock on display. He also offered a money-back guarantee. This was cross-border shopping nineteenth century style!

The introduction of gas has its downside—pollution. The Bywash, which ran from the Rideau Canal down King Street to the Rideau River became fouled with tar and other refuse from the coal gas plant on the street. Fish deserted the creek and people could no longer drink or wash in it. There is a report of boys who went swimming in the Bywash being dyed a dark colour by the dirty water. Apparently, it took a month for the stain to wear off. The Bywash was finally covered over and converted into a sewer. Of, course, the pollution didn’t go away. It was just hidden from view, and was still funnelled untreated into the Rideau River and thence into the Ottawa River.

In 1865, the Bytown Consumers Gas Company updated its name to the Ottawa Gas Company. Twenty years later, it rapidly lost its lighting business to a new competitor—electricity introduced to Ottawa by Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper. However, manufactured gas remained the fuel of choice for home stoves—electric stoves and ovens were uneconomic until the 1930s. As prices fell over time, gas was also increasingly used for heating. In 1906, Ottawa’s electric and gas industries were merged into a giant lighting and heating monopoly called The Consolidated Light, Heat and Power Company controlled by Soper and Ahearn. This state of affairs continued until 1949 when, following a city plebiscite, Ottawa purchased the electrical side of the firm to form Ottawa Hydro, leaving the Ottawa Gas Company in private hands. In 1957, Consumers Gas of Toronto purchased the company. The following year, natural gas was piped into the Ottawa area, and the production of manufactured gas ceased.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, Bylaws.

National Post, 1957. “Share Purchase Offer Expected For Gas Firm,” 18 May.

Newton, Michael, 1979. Lower Town, Ottawa, Vol. 1, 1826-1854, Manuscript Report # 104, National Capital Commission.

Ottawa Citizen, 1854. “Town Hall Meeting,” 6 March.

————————-, 1854. “Gas Company,” 25 March.

————————-, 1854. “No Title,” 6 May.

————————-, 1854. “To the Shareholders of the Bytown Consumers Gas Company,” 6 August.

————————-, 1854, “From Our London Correspondent,” 23 September.

————————-, 1856. “Meeting of Shareholders,” 9 April.

————————-, 1859. “The Cost of Gas,” 28 October 1859.

————————-, 1926. “Gas Refuse Hurt Old Bywash Creek,” 24 July.

————————-, 1926. “Dye Took Month To Wear Off Boys,” 31 July.

————————-, 1928. “Pioneer Industries Won Over Hardship,” 13 March.

————————-, 1949. “OLHP IS Formally Absorbed,” 31 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1960. “Older Than Ottawa,” 26 April.

 

 

Meet Me At Murphy’s

29 January 1983

One of the greatest of the shopping emporiums that used to line Sparks Street, once the commercial heart of Ottawa, was Murphy-Gamble’s. It ranked amongst the finest Canadian department stores, and had a well-earned reputation for quality merchandise. The store attracted the custom of the city’s elite, including governors general and prime ministers. But its particular claim to fame was its restaurant, the Rideau Room, located on the fifth floor of the building at 118-124 Sparks Street. It was the only Ottawa’s department store that featured a dining room. Here, one could enjoy fine food accompanied by a live band, sometimes a trio, sometimes a seven-piece orchestra. It also served high tea each afternoon to weary customers who needed to catch their breath before renewing their assault on the store’s many departments. “Meet Me At Murphy’s” became an oft-heard refrain.

Murphy, John Company August 1892, Topley Studio LAC 138219

John Murphy Company, 66-68 Sparks Street, August 1892, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 138219

Murphy’s roots actually begin in Montreal where in 1867, John L. Murphy opened a dry-goods store on Catherine Street.  In 1890, Murphy expanded to Ottawa, buying Argyle House, a dry-goods store located at 66-68 Sparks Street from David Gardner who had himself acquire the entire stock of Argyle House for 61 cents on the dollar in a bankruptcy sale. He also leased the premises for a few months to clear the stock. Argyle House had been known for its high-end merchandise and for catering to Ottawa’s elite. The store had originally been opened in the early 1870s by James Russell.

The new John Murphy & Company store prospered under the management of Samuel Gamble, the company’s first vice-president who also happened to be John Murphy’s son-in-law. In 1904, John Murphy, now seventy years of age, sold his Montreal store to Robert Simpson Company of Toronto. The store continued to operate under the well-respected John Murphy & Company name. This left the Ottawa branch, now a stand-alone operation, to find a new name. In recognition of the success achieved under Samuel Gamble’s direction, the Murphy, Gamble Company was born. John Murphy continued to act as an advisor to the firm, his knowledge being invaluable. During his career as a merchant, he had made more than 100 ocean crossings to buy quality goods from European fashion houses. At this time, the three-storey building at 66 Sparks Street was expanded back towards Queen Street, thereby increasing the selling space by one-third.

Murphy-Gamble

Murphy-Gamble Co at 118-124 Sparks Street, circa. 1955. The Centre Cinema next door is showing a double feature of Black Pirates and Thunder Pass which were both released in 1954. Notice the old Ottawa Citizen building on the right. Rankly.com.

In 1910, the company expanded again. A five-storey store was constructed at 118-124 Sparks Street, the former site of the Brunswick Hotel. The new store opened in early January 1910. The last day of trading out of the old premises proved to be memorable. So many shoppers, mostly women, crowded into the store to snap up merchandise on sale that store staff were overwhelmed. Police had to be called in to control the enthusiastic shoppers. For an hour and a half, the doors were locked with “blue coats” on guard to repel would-be bargain hunters from storming inside. The next day, Murphy-Gamble’s new premises were also swamped by shoppers wanting to get a first glimpse at the new department store. That opening day, uniformed boys assisted ladies from their cars and carriages into and out of the emporium.

Reportedly, the new store cost $175,000 to build; no expense was spared in its construction and its fittings.  As far as possible, contracts and subcontracts were awarded to local Ottawa firms. Its architect was Ottawa’s Colborne Powell Meredith, it’s builder, Frederick W. Carling. The building, apparently one of the first of its kind in eastern Ontario, was constructed of reinforced concrete, a new method at that time. It also boasted what has been described as “Chicago-style glazed curtain wall façades” on both its Sparks and Queen Street sides. The pillars holding up the five storeys were also made of concrete, reinforced with steel rods, as were the stairways. There were hardwood floors throughout. The building was deemed fire proof, and was equipped with automatic fire doors and hoses on each floor. It was the first building in the city to carry electricity and lighting through underground conduits. The new edifice was called the Carling Block, presumably in honour of its builder.

On the basement level, which opened onto Queen Street, there was a high-class grocery store. There were windows displays along the entire façade. To one side was an entrance and a passageway for receiving goods. Lockers and toilets for male employees were located on this floor, The Sparks Street entrance, which was covered by a marquee, was to be found on the first, or ground floor. All interior fittings on this floor were made of mahogany. Window displays ran along Sparks Street. Two public telephones were located here for the use of customers. The women’s and men’s clothing departments were on this floor. The millinery and mantles department were found on the second floor. Fittings on this floor were made of oak. To the rear were offices; dressing rooms were located on the sides. A spacious stairway led from the main floor to an overhead gallery, or ladies’ waiting room, called “The Mezzanine.” On the third floor was the carpet, curtains and draperies department, along with customers’ washrooms. The fourth floor was devoted to manufacturing purposes, while the fifth floor was initially used for storage and bathroom facilities for female staff. Later, the fifth floor became the site of the “Tea Rooms” and later the much-loved “Rideau Room” dining room.

Murphy-Gamble window, William Topley, 1920 LAC 3382921

Murphy-Gamble Window Display of Hoover Vacuum Cleaners, Christmas 1920, Topley, LAC 3382921.

Samuel Gamble died in 1913 and the management of Murphy-Gamble’s passed first to Mr. J.T. Hammill and then to Mr. S.L.T. Morrell. In 1925, James L. Murray, and his two sons, Walter L. Murray and G. Scott Murray, purchased Murph-Gamble’s. The Murrays operated a similar business in Hamilton, Ontario called Murray Sons, Ltd. The two Murray sons moved to Ottawa to manage the Ottawa firm which continued to trade under the Murphy-Gamble marque. The firm thrived under the new management. Two more floors at the back of the store and an elevator were added in 1948. The firm also established buying offices in all the major cities of Europe, as well as in Mexico and the Far East.

On staff at Murphy-Gamble’s was a master tailor and dress designer, Ernest Gordon. A Gordon gown was a much sought-after attire for gala events. Reportedly, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands bought a Gordon gown.  Gordon died in 1948, having worked at Murphy’s for thirty-three years.

Murphy-Gamble tea 23 Sept 1927 OC

Advertisement for Tea and a Modelling Show, Ottawa Citizen, 26 September 1927.

Christmas was a special time of the year at Murphy-Gamble’s. A fifty-foot Christmas tree was installed by the stairwell each year until later renovations made this impossible. A store choir sang carols every day during the week leading up to Christmas. Instead of Santa Claus coming to the store’s toy department, a series of parties was held for children in the Rideau Room where Santa gave a gift to every child. Easter was also special, bringing a visit from the Easter Bunny who handed out candy to the kiddies along with a copy of the Easter Bunny story.

Murphy’s was also known for going the extra mile for its customers. Reportedly, a bride-to-be asked Murphy’s to bake her wedding cake, just as the firm had done for her mother and grandmother before her. There was one hitch. The bride lived in the North West Territories. Undeterred, Murphy’s delivered the cake via a military plane and dog sled!

Murphy-Gamble Company stayed in the Murray family for close in fifty years. In 1972, now under the presidency of Russell Boyce, the son-in-law of Scott Murray, the venerable Ottawa landmark was sold to Robert Simpson Company, the same company that purchased the original family store in Montreal in 1904. All 300 of Murphy-Gamble’s staff were re-hired. The Murphy-Gamble sign came down to be replaced by Simpson’s.

Simpsons logo

Robert Simpson Company logo.

Simpson’s operated out of the 118-124 Sparks Street location for eleven years. At the end of 1982, Simpson’s, now owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, announced that the Sparks Street store would close owning to low profit margins. The Ottawa Citizen said that shoppers were like “mourners at an Irish wake.” On 29 January 1983, Simpson’s closed its doors for a last time with the loss of 85 permanent and 150 part-time jobs. The company published a final “Thank You” to its loyal Ottawa customers. The closure of the store after almost seventy-five years of business under various owners marked the end of a retail tradition. It left only the budget conscious Zellers remaining as the last department store on Sparks Street until it too closed in 2013.

Scotiabank ottawa, 2017 Nelia

Bank of Nova Scotia, Sparks Street Branch, the former Murphy-Gamble building, 2017, Photo credit: Nelia.

The former Murphy-Gamble/Simpson’s building was acquired by the Bank of Nova Scotia in January 1983. After extensive renovations, the former department store was converted into a bank branch.

Sources:

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950, Meredith, Colborne Powell, http://www.dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1483.

Daily Citizen, 1890. “$68,000 Bankrupt Stock of Dry Goods,” 17 May.

Heritage Ottawa, 1983. Newsletter, February.

Ottawa Citizen, 1972. “Fond farewell to Murphy’s,” 24 June.

—————-, 1982. “Simpsons’ loyal friends already mourning loss,” 31 December.

Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1910. “Last Day Was Memorable One,” 10 January.

—————————–, 1925, “Murphy-Gamble, Ltd. Store Acquired By Hamilton Firm,” 1 September.

—————————–, 1952. “Walter M. Murray Is New Head of Murphy-Gamble,” 18 November.

Evening Journal, 1890. “Argyle House,” 18 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1904. “Retail Dry Goods Deal,” 21 December.

——————-, 1910. “Magnificent New Addition To Ottawa’s Commercial Buildings,” 26 February.

Urbsite, 2012. Murphy-Gamble, Sparks’ Department Stores III, 14 May.

 

The Grand Chaudière Dam

16 October 1868

We have in our very midst unrivalled water powers, and it would argue the utmost lack of energy, the blindest fatuity, were they to remain undeveloped. “Impressions of Ottawa,” Ottawa Citizen, 6 November 1860.

The mighty Ottawa River, also known as the Kichissippi in Algonquin and the Outaouais in French, stretches more than 1,100 kilometres. Its source is Lac Capitmichigama in central Quebec from which it runs west to Lake Timiskaming before heading south to form the boundary between Ontario and Quebec, passing through the National Capital Region on its way to meet the St. Lawrence at the Lac des Deux Montagnes in Montreal. Its watershed covers an area of more than 146,000 square kilometres.

For countless generations, the Ottawa was a key transportation and trading route for the indigenous peoples of this land. Later, it became the route for European explorers and settlers into Canada’s interior. Led by native guides, Samuel de Champlain explored the Ottawa River in 1613. It subsequently became an important thoroughfare for French voyageurs and coureurs des bois trading manufactured goods with the First Nations for beaver and other pelts which were in high demand in Europe. Later still, loggers and lumbermen of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who were exploiting the ancient forests of the Ottawa Valley, relied on the river to transport logs and square timber (logs that had been stripped of their bark and roughly squared) to markets.

With a vertical descent of 365 metres, the Ottawa River is turbulent and fast-flowing even today despite more than 50 dams and hydro facilities constructed along its main branch and tributaries.  According to the Ottawa Riverkeeper, the Ottawa is one of the most regulated rivers in Canada. Nonetheless, it remains a magnet for white-water canoers and rafters.

For nineteenth century lumbermen trying to bring rafts of logs down the Ottawa, its rapids and falls were a nightmare, posing dangers to life and limb. However, the entrepreneurs of Ottawa and Hull saw the potential for profit from those same rapids and falls if they could be harnessed to produce the motive power necessary to drive the big saws that processed the raw lumber. By damming the Ottawa, mill owners could channel the flow of water through their mills. A tamed river also meant a safer river for the log drivers.

One of the major obstacles on the Ottawa River was the Chaudière Falls, known as the Giant Kettle in English. In 1829, Ruggles Wright, the son of Philomon Wright who founded Hull, built a timber slide on the Quebec side of the river to permit logs and rafts of timber to bypass the falls. Three years later, another slide was constructed by George Buchanan on the Ontario side of the river. To build the slide, a dam was constructed that ran roughly parallel to the shore to divert water into a channel. (The dam can be seen in an 1832 plan of the first Union Bridge across the Ottawa River by Joseph Bouchette.)

Plan and elevation of Union Bridge by Burrows in Joseph Buchette, 1831, p.82 (2)

The initial 1832 dam built by George Buchanan can be seen in the middle left hand side of the map of the Chaudière Falls and Bridge from Joseph Bouchette, The British Dominions in North America, 1832.

In 1854, at the behest of the mill-owners and lumbermen of Bytown, the Department of Public Works of the Provincial Government, constructed a 640-foot dam with log booms on the south side of the Chaudière Falls. It extended from the pier built by George Buchanan at the head of his timber slide to Russell Island above the Falls. The purpose of the dam was threefold. First, it would provide a more constant supply of water during the low water summer months. Second, it would furnish a 140-acre pool of calm water for the storage of logs waiting to be processed in the adjacent mills. Previously, only a day’s worth of logs could be stored. Third, it would reduce the loss of timber inadvertently going over the Falls. It was reported that £3,000 pounds worth of logs was lost annually owing to the timber cribs getting into the wrong channel. There was no mention of the fate of the men driving the logs.

A second dam with booms was also constructed on the north side of the river to ensure a constant supply of water for the Hull mills. According to the Citizen, “There is no limit to the extent of the commerce that may be created by the mills and factories that can be put into motion by the water of the Chaudière.”

Despite the hyperbole, the newspaper was on to something. Between 1856 and 1860, the timber industry expanded rapidly with Messrs. Perley, Booth and Eddy joining timber pioneers such as Messrs. Baldwin, Bronson, Harris and Young. The millowners sought more River “improvements” to expand their capacity. Reportedly, the lumber barons, to whom the government had leased water rights, were “exceedingly irritated and annoyed” to go with out water for their mills during the low water summer months while at the same time “a mighty volume of water [was] plunging over the Falls.” With many mills forced to close for part of the year, there was a loss of profit, especially as mill owners tried to keep skilled workers on payrolls as long as possible fearing that they might leave the region if they were laid off. Even so, many found themselves temporarily unemployed during the low water months—a serious condition as there was no unemployment insurance. The Citizen opined that “fathers of families, others younger—the hope and strength of the country—[were] standing idle, in want of work…while the mighty volume of the Ottawa rushed by the silent mills uncurbed and useless to man.”

Mr. Baldwin proposed that the government build a submerged dam across the main channel a few hundred yards above (west of) the Chaudière Falls, to divert the river towards the lumber mills. However, excess water would continue to flow over the dam during periods of high water and avert spring flooding. The government was not convinced. To allay governmental concerns about potential flooding, Baldwin suggested lowering Russell Island, located at the south end of the proposed dam, by six feet to provide an additional area of discharge during periods of high water. During low water, it would stand above the waterline and would act as an auxiliary dam. He figured that the water running over the lowered island during the spring freshet would offset the obstruction caused by the proposed dam. Still unconvinced, the Department of Public Works refused to fund the project and demanded the backers of the project, should they go ahead themselves, provide bonds of indemnity to compensate landowners who might be flooded by the dam.

With the capital for the venture provided by “a large party of the leading residents of the city and others,” the project went ahead under the supervision of Mr. John O’Connor during the fall of 1868. The submerged dam was 350 feet long and 75 feet wide at the base, tapering to 24 to 48 feet wide at the top. It was built of strong crib-work filled in with stone and braced with longitudinal timbers faced with 5-inch thick planks upon which guard timbers were attached using iron bolts. Guard piers protected each end of the dam. Reportedly, workers excavated 8,000 tons of rock, presumably from Russell Island.  The project costed roughly $10,000, and was completed in five weeks using a workforce of 200 men.

The Grand Chaudière Dam was inaugurated on 16 October 1868, a day which the Citizen said would be “long remembered in the annals of the lumber interest of the valley.” The paper also praised the “enterprise of our American citizens—by whom the majority of the milling establishments at the Chaudière are owned.”

A few days later, sixty of the leading citizens of Ottawa assembled on Russell Island for a celebration to mark the completion of the dam, “and pledge a bumper to the health of the builder, and prosperity to the trade.” Chairing the gathering was Richard Scott, the Liberal member of the legislative assembly who represented Ottawa in the Ontario legislature. Other attendees included, Joseph M. Currier, the Conservative member of parliament for the City of Ottawa, Mayor Henry Friel, and a number of Dominion Government cabinet ministers despite the government’s earlier opposition to the project. Samuel Tilley, the Minister of Inland Revenue, apologized for the absence of Sir George Cartier and others who could not attend owing to important engagements elsewhere. James Skead, a prominent area businessman and senator, argued that similar works like the Chaudière dam were needed elsewhere on the Ottawa River.

Chaudiere Falls pre 1900

Map of the Chaudière area before the construction of the Chaudière Ring dam in 1908. The 1854 dam between Chaudière Island and Russell Island can be seen in the middle left of the map. The Grand Chaudière Dam is not visible.

The impact on timber production owing to the construction of the Grand Chaudière Dam was considerable. Reportedly, the small mill owned by Mr. Young increased its monthly production by 1 million feet of lumber, the product of 5,000 standard logs, during the first dry season after the completion of the dam. Extrapolating these figures to include the much larger operations of Messrs. Baldwin, Bronson, Booth and Perley, the Citizen calculated that a total of 13 million additional feet of lumber were produced every month during the dry season. With a dry season averaging three months, the value of increased production amounted to an estimated $507,000 dollars—a huge sum. As well, there was no flooding during the spring freshet as feared by the government. The expectations of the dam’s backers were more than fully met.

With the mills working at full capacity from the beginning to the end of the milling season, the Citizen wrote: The completion and successful working of the dam may be said to be the crowning point of numerous victories over great natural obstructions and difficulties. The vast water power which has for ages been conserved in the Chaudière Falls, has now been utilized to an extent which few of the last generation ever dreamt of, and which but few of the present generation, who thoroughly understood the difficulties, could, a few years ago, have supposed could be realized.

Today, the Grand Chaudière Dam, which permitted a huge expansion of the Ottawa timber business during the second half of the nineteenth century, is long gone. It was replaced by the Chaudière Ring Dam in 1908 which massively expanded the hydro-electric generating capacity of the Chaudière Falls, and provided the bulk of Ottawa’s electricity during the early twentieth century.

 

Sources:

Haxton Tim & Chubbuck, Don, 2002, Review of the historical and existing natural environment and resource uses on the Ottawa River, Ontario Power Generation, https://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/tim_haxton_report.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen, 1854. “No Title,” 29 July.

——————, 1854. “Ottawa Improvements,” 7 October.

——————, 1854. “Public Works On The Ottawa,” 28 October.

——————, 1868. “Inauguration Of The Great Chaudiere Dam,” 23 October.

——————, 1869. “The Pubic Works on the Ottawa And Its Tributaries,” 12 August.

——————, 1869. “The Lumbering Interests Of Ottawa, 16 August.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2019. Dams, https://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/home/explore-the-river/dams/.

 

The Cross-City Tunnel

5 May 1910

On 5 May 1910, the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) announced its intention to build a new railway entrance into the Capital. Its arch rival, the Grand Truck Railway (G.T.R.), had already commenced construction of a new Central Station in downtown Ottawa located on the east side of the Rideau Canal.  Across the street from the station, the railway was also building a baronial-style hotel to be called the Château Laurier after the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Railway tunnel

Map of Ottawa that appeared in major Ottawa newspapers indicating the proposed route of the C.P.R. tracks in black running along the bed of the Rideau Canal (upper right) and under Wellington Street to LeBreton Flats, Ottawa Citizen 5 May 1910.

While the C.P.R. had been using the old Central Station for its transcontinental service since 1901, it was not happy with its access to downtown Ottawa. For starters, it had to use its competitor’s tracks and station for which the C.P.R. was forced to pay through the nose. Secondly, its trains coming to downtown Ottawa from points west had to take a long detour crossing the Prince of Wales Bridge located on the western outskirts of the city to the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, travel through Hull, and then retrace their journey across the river, this time over the Inter-Provincial Bridge (a.k.a. the Alexandra Bridge), to arrive at the Central Station. As well, trains travelling westward from Central Station had to reverse their way into the C.P.R.’s Union Station located on Broad Street in LeBreton Flats. This was considered dangerous.

To correct these deficiencies, the C.P.R. proposed a massive re-structuring of Ottawa’s transportation infrastructure. First, it announced its intention of acquiring from the Dominion government the bed of the Rideau Canal from the head of the “Deep Cut,” at roughly Waverely Street, to Sappers’ Bridge (approximately were the Plaza Bridge is today). The railway would dam and drain the Canal from that point and run a new track along its bed from a rail hook-up near Nicholas Street to a point roughly opposite the new G.T.R. Central Station. To keep the water in the blocked Canal from going stagnant, the C.P.R. proposed either a drain to the Rideau River or a drain to the locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel.

Second, the railway proposed running a double-track line from the downtown terminal through a tunnel fifty feet underground that would go from Sappers’ bridge under much of Wellington Street before coming out near the Aqueduct in LeBreton Flats. There, the new track would link up with the existing C.P.R. tracks and proceed into Union Station.

By using this new tunnel, trains could travel from Union Station in LeBreton Flats to downtown Ottawa in five minutes, lopping off as much as 25 minutes in time from their former circuitous route. The C.P.R.’s Montreal Express train could also start at Union Station and stop at the downtown station before heading east.

While the cost, estimated at roughly $1 million, was considerable, the railway would no longer have to pay the exorbitant charges for the use of its competitor’s tracks. As well, the shorter route would reduce costs, and by saving time offer a more attractive travel option for C.P.R. customers. Backing into Union Station would also be a thing of the past.

From the outset, the C.P.R. realized that the Achilles’ heel of its plan was its proposal to dam the Rideau Canal. It argued that the Canal would be little missed as only a comparatively modest amount of freight moved along its length, especially down the portion of the Canal from Dow’s Lake to Sappers’ Bridge. It contended that opposition to closing it was based on sentiment rather than economics.

To set against the loss of the Canal, railway executives argued that more efficient train access to the downtown core would benefit Ottawa residents and help to boost the tourist business. The new entrance into Ottawa would also improve the city’s position on transcontinental rail routes and would help make a reality the Capital’s ambition of becoming a major railway hub.

The idea met widespread opposition, especially from the mercantile and shipping companies that depended on the Rideau Canal. At a meeting of Ottawa’s Board of Trade sentiment was unanimous against any interference with the Canal. Communities located on the Canal south of Ottawa also objected strenuously. Kingston was particularly vocal in its opposition. Ottawa’s Evening Journal opined that the C.P.R. “ought to be ashamed of itself” for proposing the destruction of a national water route.

Some critics thought the C.P.R. was not really serious, and that the plan was  a stalking horse for another objective, presumably some sort of concession from the government. They noted that the C.P.R. would face the difficult task of obtaining approvals from the Ottawa City Council, the Railway Commission, and the Dominion government, possibly even from the Imperial government in London, since the Canal was built for military purposes by the Imperial government. An unnamed Militia official told the Evening Journal that the Rideau Canal formed a “most important portion of the military defence system of this country.” The same official opined that “any government trying to interfere with the defence works of Canada and the Empire to suit a railway…would drive them out of office.” He thought the proposal was “a bluff.” Of course, for many, the idea of the Rideau Canal still being considered as part of Canada’s defence system bordered on the ridiculous.

At a presentation to Ottawa City Council, Mr. D. McNicoll, the C.P.R.’s Vice-President and General Manager, was asked if the proposal was a “bluff.” He replied: “I’m willing to spend a million to show it isn’t.” He added that the C.P.R.’s president, Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, and the company’s Board of Directors had approved the plan and had appropriated the required funds. The only thing needed was the necessary approvals from the various levels of government.

Almost immediately, alternative plans were put forward that would avoid blocking the Rideau Canal. Mayor Hopewell came up with a daffy suggestion to build a 3,000-foot long curved bridge, with a pier on a small island in the middle of the Ottawa River, that would loop around Parliament Hill linking Victoria Island close to the Chaudière Falls in LeBreton Flats to a point near the locks of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa. The C.P.R. rubbished the idea arguing that the mayor’s proposal would cost triple the amount of the tunnel idea, the grade would be too great for its trains, and that it would not solve the problem of having to back into Union Station at LeBreton Flats. Another plan that was briefly considered was shifting the Rideau Canal twenty feet to the west from the Deep Cut to Central Station to allow for the construction of additional C.P.R. lines into Central Station.

An alternative that gained more traction was proposed by Mr N. Cauchon of the engineering firm Cauchon & Haycock who worked as a consultant to the C.P.R. To address the concerns of shippers while sticking with the C.P.R.’s proposal, Cauchon suggested digging a new canal from Dow’s Lake to the Ottawa River using the same route through Mechanicsville first proposed by British engineers in the 1820s. The new canal outlet would be situated above the Chaudière Falls and hence require a new set of locks to pass the rapids to be located where the timber slide was.

Cauchon envisaged linking the Rideau Canal system with the Georgian Bay Ship Canal then under consideration by the Dominion government.  The Georgian Bay Ship Canal was a massive construction project aimed at permitting ocean-going freighters to transport grain from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via a canal that linked Lake Huron with the St Lawrence River and from there the Atlantic Ocean via the French River, Lake Nipissing, the Mattawa River and the Ottawa River.

Ottawa City Council was receptive to the C.P.R.’s desire to have a new entrance to the Capital as long as the Rideau Canal was not blocked. Working with the Board of Trade, it commissioned two engineers to examine a variety of proposals from a citywide perspective. The engineers endorsed Cauchon’s plan of a cross-town tunnel combined with re-routing the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River at Dow’s Lake. However, they proposed that both the C.P.R. and the G.T.R. use the tunnel to Central Station. They also recommended that the City buy and pull up the cross-city G.T.R. tracks that ran along Isabella Street and hindered Ottawa’s growth to the south. In their place, they advised the City to build a scenic boulevard and resell the adjoining land for development or parks. As well, they recommended that the new portion of the Rideau Canal through Mechanicsville and Hintonburg should be deep enough to accommodate the ocean-going vessels using the Georgian Bay Ship Canal with appropriate harbour and port facilities constructed at the juncture of the diverted Canal and the Ottawa River. They also thought that a large factory site could be constructed for manufacturing industries alongside the Mechanicsville waterfront on the Ottawa River heading westward.  As for the old locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel, one suggestion was to re-purpose them as public swimming baths. Mayor Hopewell thought that a series of small cascades over each lock gate would look very pretty lit up at night.

The engineers’ proposal was predicated on the Georgian Bay Ship Canal being completed within five to six years. The engineers also hoped that the Dominion Government could be persuaded to contribute the funds needed to construct the diverted Rideau Canal since the estimated cost only represented an additional 1-2 per cent of the $125 million price tag for the Georgian Bay Ship Canal.

In April 1911, roughly eleven months after the C.P.R. had announced its plan for a tunnel, Ottawa City Council endorsed the engineers’ report with the recommendation that the City begin negotiations with the G.T.R. over acquiring its cross-city tracks. However, many remained sceptical. One member of Council thought that people were “insane” if they believed that C.P.R. would build a tunnel under Wellington Street within 25 years.

How right the councillor was! Problems immediately arose. First, the G.T.R. refused to sell its cross-city tracks to the City. Second, the Dominion government, at best lukewarm to the City’s grand design, was not willing to pay for diverting the Rideau Canal or to closing it at the Deep Cut. Third, plans to build the Georgian Bay Ship Canal fizzled after Laurier’s Liberal Party was defeated in the 1911 General Election. They were later abandoned, a victim of cost considerations and changing government priorities.

With the proposal to divert the Rideau Canal a non-starter, a modified plan involving narrowing it from the Deep Cut to Sappers’ Bridge to provide space for the C.P.R. tracks to come into downtown Ottawa briefly gave the tunnel proposal new life. As an adjunct to this modified proposal, the C.P.R. planned to locate its downtown station on Canal Street to the south of Sappers’ Bridge on the western side of the Canal across the Canal from the G.T.R. station; rumour had it on the site of the Russell Hotel.

Although the C.P.R. evinced its willingness to start construction as soon as the municipal and Dominion governments gave their approval, the railway seemed to lose interest despite Vice President McNicoll repeatedly saying that the plan was “not dead, but sleeping.” However, by 1913, the tunnel proposal was abandoned.

Ultimately, the C.P.R. negotiated a new deal with the G.T.R. to use the new downtown Central Station which in 1920 was renamed Union Station following the closure of the old Union Station in LeBreton Flats. The G.T.R.’s cross-city tracks (now owed by its successor company, the Canadian National Railway) were finally pulled up during the 1950s. Instead of becoming a scenic boulevard, the site of the old tracks became the location of a cross-city highway—the Queensway. While the Georgian Bay Ship Canal never got off of the drawing board, the St Lawrence Seaway, which allowed ocean-going ships to go from the Great Lakes to Montreal and beyond, was opened in 1959.

As a final sidebar to this story, on 4 May 2018, virtually 108 years to the day from when news of the C.P.R.’s intention to build a cross-town train tunnel became public, city officials, politicians, and company representatives converged on the eastern end of the LRT to drive in a ceremonial “last spike” in the Confederation Line’s tunnel under the city of Ottawa. Similar to its proposed early twentieth century counterpart, the tunnel is roughly 50 feet underground, and runs from a location near Ottawa University to LeBreton Flats. Instead of following the C.P.R.’s route below Wellington Street, it is located two blocks further south under Queen Street.

Sources:

CBC, 2018. “There was no last spike, but the Confederation Line track is finished,” 4 May, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/lrt-tunnel-track-finished-1.4649177.

Churcher, Colin, 2018, The Railways of Ottawa, https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/findings.htm#CCRUnion.

Evening Journal, 1910. “C.P.R. Want To Build A Tunnel Under The City,” 6 May.

——————–, 1910. “Will Consider Other Scheme,” 10 May.

——————–, 1910. “Mr. M’Nicoll Explains C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme,” 8 June.

——————–, 1910. “Board Of Trade Is Opposed To Tunnel,” 17 June.

——————-, 1910. “Mayor’s Plan Went Further,” 8 July.

——————-, 1910. “Proposed Diversion Of The Canal By Way Of Dow’s Lake And The Chaudiere,” 16 July.

——————, 1910. “New Scheme For A C.P.R. Entrance To The City,” 8 December.

——————, 1911. “Experts’ Report Railway Entrance,” 3 April.

——————, 1911. “Mr. Tye’s Solution Ottawa’s Problem,” 4 April.

——————, 1911. “How Engineer Tye Would Solve Ottawa’s Problem Of The Railways,” 4 April.

——————, 1911. “Government Should Pay,” 5 April.

——————, 1911. “Approved The Entrance Plan.” 8 April.

——————, 1911. “Abandon Moving Canal: New City Entrance Plan,” 19 August.

——————, 1911. “Approves Of Tunnel,” 22 August.

——————, 1912. “States C.P.R. Scheme Is Certainty Say V-P M’Nicoll, 25 July.

——————-, 1913, “Revivies Tunnel Scheme,” 21 March.

——————-, 1913. “Is C.P.R. To Abandon Its Tunnel Scheme Now?” 24 April.

——————-, 1913. “C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme Is Temporarily Abandoned,” 18 June.

——————-, 1913. “C.P.R. Finally Abandons Scheme For Local Tunnel,” 9 September.

Griffiths, John, 2007. “Broad Street Station in Ottawa,” Branchline, http://www.bytownrailwaysociety.ca/phocadownload/branchline/2007/2007-06.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen, 1910. “Gigantic Project of C.P.R. — New Railway Entrance And Underground Line Through The City,” 5 May.

—————–, 1910. “The C.P.R. Entrance,” 13 May.

—————–, 1910. “C.P.R. Entrance,” 31 May.

—————–, 1910. “Plan Not Suitable,” 2 June.

—————–, 1910. “C.P.R. Asks City To Approve Plans New Railway Entrance,” 8 June.

—————–, 1910. “See Ocean-Going Ships In Ottawa Adjunct Of C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme, 15 September.

—————-, 1910. “Ask Outside Engineer To Report On Feasibility Of C.P.R. Tunnel,” 22 October.

——————, 1911. Engineers’ Report On Railway Entrance Embraces C.P.R. Canal Closing Plan, 3 April.

—————–, 1911. “Minister Favors Joining Canals,” 7 April.

—————–, 1912. “Tunnel May Be Held Up,” 28 May.

OTrain, Confederation Line, 2018, https://www.ligneconfederationline.ca/the-build/pimisi/overview/.