Parking Meters Arrive in Ottawa

25 April 1958

By the time of the Great Depression the automobile had replaced the horse-drawn carriage. In 1929, five million cars were produced in the United States, with another quarter million made in Canada. City streets were becoming clogged with vehicles, and parking was becoming a serious problem everywhere. Through the working week, people drove their vehicles to downtown offices, and parked them on neighbouring streets for eight hours or longer. This left little room for shoppers. Although the Depression drastically slowed the production and sale of cars, it didn’t solve the parking problem. Carl C. Magee, a noted American publisher, came up with a solution–the coin-operated parking meter. (Magee had become prominent during the 1920s for publicizing the Teapot Dome Scandal, the biggest U.S. political scandal prior to Watergate, that led to the Secretary of the Interior being jailed for corruption.) Magee, in co-operation with University of Oklahoma engineers Holger Thuesen and Gerald Hale, developed a working prototype. In May 1935, Magee filed a patent in the United States for a coin-controlled device, receiving U.S. patent 2,118,318 three years later for his invention. American cities took to the new invention like proverbial ducks to water as a way of encouraging motorists to vacate parking spaces. The fact that parking meters were a real money spinner certainly helped too. Meters paid for themselves in four or five months.

Parking meter

Image from Carl C. Magee’s patent application for the coin operated parking meter filed 15 May 1935. Patent received 24 May 1938, U.S. Patent Office.

Oklahoma City installed Magee’s “park-o-meter” on its streets in July 1935, just weeks after Magee filed his patent application. Reporting on the event, The Ottawa Journal called the new device the “automat of the curbstone,” describing it as “a metal hitching post with meter attached” that promised “to solve the pest of the streets – ‘the parking hog.’” It opined that people will be watching the experiment with great interest.

Ottawa wasted little time in exploring the possibility of introducing parking meters to the streets of the nation’s capital. In 1936, City Council received an offer from one O. G. O’Regan to install parking meters in downtown Ottawa. In a letter, O’Regan explained that the cost of the meters would be paid by parking fees, and that after the costs were met, the revenue would accrue to the city. Ottawa’s Board of Control said that O’Regan should speak to the Automobile Club, the Board of Trade and other groups to educate the public about such a drastic change in parking regulations. In an editorial the Journal said that the parking meter was “so new that probably many people are unfamiliar with it.” Assessing the pros and cons of a trial, the newspaper argued that if free street parking is not a “right,” then Ottawa might as well make some revenue from it “if the privilege is to be extended.” Also, if meters reduced casual parking, merchants might benefit. However, the newspaper was uncertain whether Ottawa citizens would take kindly to the idea, and wasn’t sure if meters could be used with parallel parking.

Parking wellington st 1920s Dept. of Interior LAC PA-034203

Parking on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 1920s – already a problem, Department of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada, PA-034203. Notice the row of stately elm trees that lined the sidewalk. Sadly, they all succumbed to Dutch elm disease mid-century.

Ottawa did not take kindly to the idea. It took three attempts and twenty years before City Hall got the votes to install meters. On the first attempt in 1938, the Traffic Committee and the Board of Control recommended the installation of 903 meters in downtown Ottawa for a six-month trial period. Supporters of the measure hoped that meters would be more effective than existing parking regulations in curbing lengthy parking stays. In 1937, 14,000 parking tickets were handed out to motorists who had overstayed the 30-minute parking limit, but only 900 fines were issued.  Opponents argued that instead of unsightly meters, parking problems could be addressed through the enforcement of existing rules. Mayor Stanley Lewis opposed meters as did merchants who feared losing business if free parking was eliminated. A concession on the part of meter supporters to reduce the charge for the first twelve minutes to only one cent was not sufficient to change minds. With Toronto and Montreal having turned down metered parking, Council rejected meters on an 18-8 vote. The measure was put onto the backburner for a decade.

In 1947, the issue resurfaced. By this time, meters had apparently been installed in 1,200 U.S. cities and 49 Canadian communities, including Kingston, Oshawa and Windsor. Once again, the Traffic Committee and the Board of Control favoured their introduction. But Stanley Lewis, who still occupied the mayor’s chair, remained a steadfast opponent. At Council, the debate was fierce. Supporters argued that metered parking would allow for a more equitable distribution of limited parking spaces, would speed up business, reduce congestion, and increase municipal revenues. The anti-meter faction argued that meters would ruin the look of Ottawa, would clutter sidewalks, and that shoppers would avoid areas that had metered parking. Some also contended that metered street parking was a “nuisance” tax on motorists, and that their advantages were unproven. One alderman suggested that to reduce congestion, he would ban all parking on Bank and Sparks Streets, and convert part of Major Hill’s Park into a parking lot. “The park is only frequented by tramps, and the public do not go there.”

In December 1947, Council narrowly voted (12-10) in favour of installing parking meters for a one-year trial, and issued a request for tenders. One would think that this would have been the end of the matter—far from it. Two firms, the Mi-Co Meter Company of Montreal and the Mark Time Meter Company of Ottawa, submitted bids for the contract. Early the following year, the Board of Control selected Mi-Co on the basis that it offered the lowest price. However, City Council subsequently rejected the Mi-Co bid in favour of Mark Time meters. While Council did not have to select the lowest bid, the rationale for overturning the Mi-Co bid was murky. The Mi-Co Meter Company, whose meters were actually made in Ottawa by a company called Instruments, Ltd, indicated that it would seek an injunction to stop the city from signing a contract with Mark Time on the grounds that it had won the tender since its meters were cheaper and conformed to City specifications whereas Mark Time meters did not. Among other things, the City had specified that the dial indicating the amount of time available was to be visible on both sides of the meter. This requirement that was not met by Mark Time meters. After another stormy Council session, Council voted 17-7 to rescind the awarding of the contract to Mark Time. It was a pyrrhic victory for Mi-Co. Ten days later City Council overturned the parking meter trial on an 18-2 vote. According to the Ottawa Journal, this decision “positively, definitively, officially and finally” meant that parking meters would not be installed on Ottawa streets.

With the parking debate in abeyance in Ottawa, Eastview (Vanier), which was a separate municipality, got a jump on its municipal big sister by introducing parking meters in May 1951 along Montreal Road. The charge was one cent for the first twelve minutes and five cents for an hour of parking time from 8am to 8pm Monday to Saturday. The experiment was a great success with congestion along Montreal Road substantially reduced. The fine for a parking violation was $1 if paid within 48 hours at the police station, or $3 if the infraction went to court.

Shortly afterwards, despite the “definitive” decision not to install parking meters in neighbouring Ottawa, the City Council’s Traffic Committee again recommended the installation of meters on certain Lowertown streets and well as on Lyon, Sparks and Queen Streets. But with Charlotte Whitton assuming the mayor’s chair in 1951, the recommendation went nowhere. The pugnacious and irascible Whitton was dead set against parking meters. “[If] we want space on our streets for moving traffic, we surely don’t want to rent out public streets and give people the right to store their cars there,” she said. She favoured more off-street parking instead.

It wasn’t until after Whitton had been dethroned in 1956 that the parking meter issue resurfaced in any significant manner at Ottawa City Council. By this time, meters had become a familiar part of the urban landscape in most North American towns and cities. Toronto had succumbed in 1952 and Montreal two years later. The Journal newspaper had also for several years run a series of favourable articles on the success of meters in other towns in curbing traffic congestion and, incidentally, raising huge sums for municipal coffers. These articles were helpful in preparing the ground for parking meters. In mid-December 1957, Ottawa’s Civic Traffic Committee unanimously recommended the installation of parking meters, the last outspoken critic of the machines on the Committee having thrown in the towel. A few days later, City Council passed the measure virtually without debate, agreeing to install meters in central Ottawa in the area bounded by Laurier, Kent, Wellington and Elgin as well as in Lowertown along Rideau from Mosgrove (located where Rideau Centre is today) to King Edward and along bordering side streets for one block.

Parking meter, Duncan 50 model

The Duncan-Miller Model 50 parking meter

To help avoid the contract problems that the City had ten years earlier, precise specifications were issued in the call for tenders. Four companies—Sperry Gyroscope Ottawa Ltd with its Mark Time meter, the Duncan Parking Meter Company of Montreal with its Duncan “50” and Duncan “60” models, The Red Ball Parking Meter Company of Toronto, and the Park-o-Meter Company also of Toronto—submitted bids to install 925 meters. Nettleton Jewellers examined the clockwork mechanism of all test machines submitted with the tenders. The winner was the Duncan Parking Meter Company of Montreal for its economy Duncan “50” model at $55 each.

Within weeks of the tender being accepted in February 1958, meter poles began to sprout on Ottawa streets. After testing, the first meters went “live” on Rideau Street on Friday, 25 April 1958. Traffic Inspector Callahan said that the meters were effective immediately and “must be fed” wherever they had been installed. Motorists were also given instruction on how to park—with front wheels opposite the machines. If a car occupied more than one space, both meters would have to be fed, five cents for 30 minutes, 10 cents for an hour. It was also illegal for motorists to stay longer than one hour; topping up the meter was not permitted. A parking infraction led to a $2 ticket. The meters were a great success, especially financially. The meters began pulling in $3,500 per week, considerably more than had been expected, with annual maintenance and collection expenses placed at only $20,000.

Parking meter, at Carnegie Library

Test parking meter in front of the Ottawa Library, April 1958, City of Ottawa Archives/An 56739.

Over the next half century, the ubiquitous parking meter ruled downtown curbsides, standing every car length or two depending on whether single-headed or double-headed machines were being used. But in the 2000s, single-space curbside meters began to give way in Ottawa to multi-space machines (Pay and Display) that gave motorists a slip of paper that indicated the expiry time to be placed on the dashboard. This innovation permitted more cars to be parked on a given street, and eliminated “free” parking when a motorist parked in a spot with unused time on a standard meter. It also helped to reduce the clutter of unsightly meters on city sidewalks.

Other technological advances are also reducing the number of parking meters. Some communities have adopted in-vehicle parking meters—an electronic device that motorists can charged up and display on a car window. Others have embraced pay-by-phone parking with licence plate enforcement. In 2012, pay by telephone parking arrived in Ottawa through a system called “PaybyPhone” that is available in major cities around the world. After registering, a motorist enters a location number and selects the desired length of parking time up the permitted maximum. The parking charge is automatically debited to a credit card. Parking enforcement officers have a hand-held device that has real-time access to licence plate numbers and paid vehicles.

Looking forward, one can envisage further technological changes that could accelerate the demise of the parking meter, including in-car sensors and shared, autonomous vehicles that people call when needed. The parking meter, even the modern, multi-space machines now found on Ottawa streets, may soon become as rare as a telephone call box.

 

Sources:

 Everett, Diana, 2009. “Parking Meter,” Oklahoma Historical Society, http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=PA015.

Google Patents, 2017. Coin Controlled Parking Meter, US2118318 A, Inventor: Carl c Magee, May 24, 1938.

Grush, Ben, 2014, “Smart Attrition: As the parking meter follows the pay phone,” Canadian Parking Association, http://canadianparking.ca/smart-attrition-as-the-parking-meter-follows-the-pay-phone/.

Ottawa, (City of), 2017. How to pay for parking, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/transportation-and-parking/parking/how-pay-parking.

Ottawa Sun, 2012. “Pay by phone parking arrives,” 5 April.

Ottawa Citizen, 1958. “Something Has Been Added,” 19 April.

Ottawa Journal, 1935. “The Automat of the Curbstone,” 29 July.

——————-, 1936. “Parkometer Proposal Is Referred To Board,” 22 September.

——————-, 1936. “Parking By Meter,” 23 September.

——————-, 1936. “Consider Parkometer Plan,” 23 September.

——————-, 1938. “No Harm In Trying The Parking Meters,” 16 April.

——————-, 1938. “Council Rejects Parking Meter Plan,” 21 June.

——————-, 1948. “Ottawa Firm Seeks Injunction to Restrain Meter Negotiations,” 10 June.

——————-, 1948. ‘“In Again, Out Again Meters’ Voted Out at Council Caucus,” 12 June.

——————-, 1948. “Right Decision on Parking Meters.” 19 June.

——————-, 1948. “And Now Let’s Forget Them!” 23 June.

——————-, 1950. “Parking Meters Approved For Eastview,” 26 October.

——————-, 1951. “134 Parking Meters Go In At Eastview,” 7 May.

——————-, 1951. “Eastview Find Parking meters Clear Montreal Road,” 16 June.

——————-, 1953. “Down With Meters Says Mayor,” 23 December.

——————-, 1957. “Board of Control,” 13 December.

——————-, 1957. “Parking Meters,” 17 December.

——————-, 1958. “Six companies Tender On Meters,” 29 January.

——————-, Parking Meter Proposal Submitted,” 31 January.

——————-, 1958. “Ottawa Buys 1,000 Parking Meters,” 18 February.

——————-, 1958. “Rideau Street Parking Meters In Operation,” 25 April.

——————-, 1958. “Meters Earn $3,500 A Week,” 14 August.

PaybyPhone, 2017. Welcome to PaybyPhone, Ottawa, https://www.paybyphone.com/locations/ottawa.

 

 

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The Arrival of Traffic Lights

5 March 1928

It’s hard to imagine city driving without the ubiquitous traffic lights that govern the ebb and flow of cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians on our streets and avenues. For the most part, we take them for granted. But when a power failure temporarily puts out the lights, the resulting gridlock reminds us how much we rely on them to keep our roads safe and traffic flowing. In contrast, back in the days before the arrival of the automobile when life moved at a more leisurely pace, there was little in the way of traffic controls. Even whether one should keep to the left or to the right was uncertain. As well, everybody had the same right to use the streets and highways as long as one took care not to injure others. Intermingled among horse-drawn delivery wagons, hansom cabs and omnibuses were cyclists and pedestrians. Not only was jaywalking an unheard-of offence, people thought nothing of strolling down the centre of the street.

The pace of life began to quicken in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of electric streetcars. But the arrival of the automobile in large numbers early in the twentieth century was the real game changer. With the rules of the road ill-defined, city streets had become increasingly dangerous. Traffic control became a priority in all major cities. To gain an appreciation of the chaotic traffic conditions in a major North American city during the early 1900s, here is a link (San Francisco Street Scene) to a fascinating short film of a drive down Market Street in San Francisco just days before the famous earthquake devastated the city in 1906.

Traffic lights actually predate the automobile. In late 1868, gas-lit signals were installed at the intersection of Bridge, Great George and Parliament Streets close to the Houses of Parliament in London to help control heavy horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic. Adapted from railway signals by engineer John Peake Knight, the three semaphore signal arms stood on a pillar twenty-two feet high. The horizontal signal arms indicated “stop” and “proceed with caution.” At night, gas lights were used with coloured lenses. Similar to today, a red light indicated that traffic should stop and a green light “proceed with caution.” The lights and signals were manually controlled by a police constable who would also blow a whistle to indicate he was about to change them. Although the new invention was effective at controlling traffic, a month after its installation a gas leak led to an explosion that severely injured the attending constable. This effectively scuppered gas-powered traffic signals in London.

Fast forward to the early years of the twentieth century, manually-powered semaphore traffic signals were used in many American cities to help control traffic. Like their British counterpart, the arms indicated whether traffic should stop or go. Instead of gas, kerosene was sometimes used to light lamps at night, with the standard red or green lenses indicating “stop” and “go,” respectively. In 1923, the inventor Garrett Morgan of Cleveland successfully took out a U.S. patent (# 1,475,024) for a hand-cranked semaphore traffic signal that featured three positions: stop, go, and all stop so that traffic could give way to pedestrians. Morgan reportedly sold his invention for $40,000 to the General Electric Company, a considerable sum in those days.

Traffic lights as we know them date from 1912 when one Lester Wire of Salt Lake City, Utah, who was head of the city’s traffic squad, invented a two-colour, red-green system. Wire never patented his device though it was apparently employed in Salt Lake City. In 1913, James Hoge of Cleveland submitted a patent in the United States for an electric “Municipal Traffic Control System” that consisted of “traffic control boxes or signals at street intersections and other suitable points.” Hoge’s objective was to permit policemen to better control traffic in order to give priority to emergency vehicles. Lamps of different colours would be used with one colour (red) to indicate “stop” and another colour (white) to indicate “move.” He received his patent (# 1,251,666) on 1 January 1918.

The modern, three-colour (red, amber, and green), electric traffic light, first appeared on street corners in Detroit in 1920. Its inventor was William L. Potts, a police officer who, like others at that time, was concerned about worsening road safety owing to the increasing popularity of the automobile. Like Lester Wire before him, Potts did not patent his device, apparently because being a government employee he was not eligible to do so. Within a few years, Potts’s three-colour, electric traffic lights were being widely used in American cities.

Electric traffic lights came to Canadian streets in 1925, first in Hamilton, Ontario and shortly afterwards in Toronto as a means of reducing the number of police constables directing traffic at major intersections. Taking note of Toronto’s favourable experience with traffic lights, police magistrate Charles Hopewell wrote in late 1927 to Ottawa’s Mayor John Balharrie and City Council recommending traffic lights of the three-colour variety be installed as an experiment at three major intersections on Sparks Street—at Bank, Metcalfe, and O’Connor Streets. He recommended against installing lights at the intersection of Sparks and Elgin Streets owing to uncertainty over government plans for the area. The Dominion government had recently expropriated land in this area, including the site of the old Russell Hotel, with a view towards beautifying Ottawa, which included widening Sparks and Elgin Streets. At each of the three chosen intersections, four traffic lights would be installed on the existing “Whiteway” lamp poles. Hopewell recommended the “Co-ordinated Progressive System” of traffic lights made by the Canadian General Electric Company over equipment manufactured by the Northern Electric Company, a forerunner of Northern Telecom. He estimated the purchase and installation costs at approximately $2,600 (about $37,000 in today’s money). After consulting the Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission, the annual electricity cost for running the twelve sets of traffic lights, each equipped with three 60 watt bulbs, was estimated at $640.

Although Council supported Hopewell recommendation to install traffic lights on Sparks Street, the Police Commission in December gave the contract to Northern Electric rather than Canadian General Electric. The cost of buying its automatic traffic control system with twelve sets of lights was under $1,800, much lower than Hopewell’s initial estimate. The funds to buy the equipment came out of unused resources in the police department’s 1927 budget. Of the twelve sets of traffic lights, eleven were mounted horizontally on existing light poles. The twelfth was mounted vertically to see which configuration of lights would be more visible.

Although newspapers optimistically reported that the traffic lights would be ready for Christmas, it took longer than expected for the hydro company to connect them. Finally, shortly before 8am on Monday, 5 March 1928, the new, automatic traffic lights on Sparks Street were switched on. The street lights were synchronized to facilitate travel down the street. They were on a 45-second cycle, with a twenty-second green light, followed by a five-second amber caution light, and a twenty-second red light. Twenty seconds were deemed sufficient time to allow streetcars to unload and load their passengers. Initially, the lights were in operation Monday through Saturday. Extra police were on hand that first day to assist the public in observing the rules. Magistrate Hopewell was also there to witness the lights in use for the first time. He returned at noon to check how things were running.

Overall, the introduction of traffic lights went smoothly, though the volume of traffic was unusually light that first day, possibly owing to cold weather. The street cars were running normally, however, allowing police officials to check the timing of the lights. Groups of people stood around the street corners to watch the lights change colour. A number of car drivers and streetcar operators drove through red lights, but police overlooked the infractions owing to people’s unfamiliarity with the new system. Police also stressed that pedestrians should obey the lights as well.

traffic-signal-28-11-28

The pedestal street lights installed on Wellington Street in 1928, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 28 November 1928.

Naturally, there were complaints. Some motorists didn’t like the location of the lights. Magistrate Hopewell said it would take at least a week for the traffic lights to prove their efficiency. In the meantime, the system would be studied and improved, if necessary.

The new lights were judged to be a complete success, and were quickly rolled out to other important road junctures, including the Sparks and Kent and the Bank and Laurier intersections a few months later. The operation of the street lights was also extended to Sundays.

Wellington Street received its traffic lights in late 1928 at intersections with Elgin, Metcalfe, O’Connor, and Bank Streets. Instead of installing the lights on existing poles, new pedestal-type traffic lights were erected—a first in Canada. The lights, with top red, middle amber, and bottom light green, were mounted on pedestals with a two-foot base, standing over nine-feet high. The city had hoped to have the new traffic lights in operation earlier in the year, but delayed their installation pending approval from Prime Minister Mackenzie King who took a personal interest in plans to improve the Capital. The traffic lights were synchronized so that automobiles travelling at twenty miles per hour from the Château Laurier Hotel to Bank Street would not have to stop. The Ottawa Evening Journal proudly noted that Ottawa was the only city in North America, other than Buffalo, New York, to have an entire thoroughfare equipped with these new type of lights.

From then on, there was no looking back. Traffic lights, proven effective at controlling the flow of traffic and improving road safety, were here to stay.

Sources:

About Money, 2016. “Garrett Morgan 1877-1963,” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/03/the-origin-of-the-green-yellow-and-red-color-scheme-for-traffic-lights/.

Bio, 2016. “Garrett Morgan Biography,” http://www.biography.com/people/garrett-morgan-9414691#cleveland-tunnel-explosion.

Brown, J. E., General Manager, Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission to Mr. C.E. Pearce, Board of Control, 1927. “Letter,” 24 October.

City of Ottawa, 1927. “Minutes,” Traffic Control System, 6 December.

Globe and Mail, 2015. “First electric traffic signal installed 101 years ago,” 5 August.

History, 2016. “First electric traffic signal installed,” This Day in History, August 5. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-electric-traffic-signal-installed.

Hopewell, Charles, Police Magistrate, to Mayor and Board of Control, 1927. “Letter.” 3 October.

——————————————————-, 1927. “Letter.” 5 December.

Idea Finder, 2007, “Traffic Lights,” http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/trafficlight.htm.

Mark Traffic, 2016. “Traffic Lights Invented by William L. Potts,” http://www.marktraffic.com/traffic-lights-invented-by-william-l-potts.php.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1927. “Traffic Lights Installed For Holiday Rush,” 12 December.

————————————, 1928. “New Automatic Signal System In Operation.” 5 March.

————————————, 1928. “Wellington St. Traffic Lights Now Are Likely,” 27 April.

————————————, 1928. “Traffic Lights To Operate Sundays,” 7 May.

————————————, 1928. “Ottawa To Get Latest Types Signal Lights,” 28 November.

Today I Found Out, 2016. “The Origin of the Green, Yellow and Red Color Scheme For Traffic Lights,” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/03/the-origin-of-the-green-yellow-and-red-color-scheme-for-traffic-lights/.

U.S. Patent Office, 1918. “Municipal Traffic Control Signal of J. B. Hoge, Patent Number 1251666,” 1 January, https://www.google.com/patents/US1251666.

Ottawa Enters the Automobile Age

11 September 1899

At the end of the nineteenth century, the world stood at the cusp of the automobile age. For decades, inventors, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs in Europe and North America had been working hard on developing a vehicle that could be driven on streets and highways without the aid of horses or other draught animals. In 1875, l’Obéissante, a steam-driven vehicle invented by Amédée-Ernest Bollée of France, which could carry twelve passengers, travelled from Le Mans to Paris in eighteen hours. Ten years later, Karl Benz invented the Motorwagen, the first automobile with a gasoline-powered engine. The first International Motor Show was held in Berlin in 1897. Also that year, battery-powered, electric automobiles, nicknamed “hummingbirds,” were introduced as taxis in London. According to the Annuaire Generale de l’Automobile, there were about 10,000 vehicles in Europe in 1899, of which roughly two-thirds were in France.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Duryea Brothers built their first internal combustion car in 1893. Three years later, Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds started production of gasoline-driven automobiles. In June 1899, there were only 72 automobiles in New York City, most of which were electric hansom cabs. In 1900, total U.S. vehicle production topped 4,000, with some 8,000 automobiles on American roads. By 1910, U.S. car production, led by the Ford and Buick companies, had ramped up to almost 130,000 units.

Canadians too were busy. Henry Seth Taylor, born in Stanstead, Quebec in 1833, is credited with building the first car in Canada, a four-wheeled steam buggy that he demonstrated at the Stanstead Fair in 1867. Sadly, it was not successful, and Taylor turned his attention to other inventions. In 1893, William Still and Frederick Featherstonehaugh built an electric automobile in Toronto that had a top speed of 15 miles per hour, and was showcased at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition of that year. Three years later, George Foot Foss of Sherbrooke, Quebec built a four-horsepower, one-cylinder, gasoline-powered vehicle, later dubbed the “Fossmobile.”

Warren Y. Soper, the partner of Thomas Ahearn in Ottawa’s electricity business that owned the Ottawa Electric Company and Ottawa’s tram system among other things, was an early automobile investor. He was one of a group that bought out Canada’s leading bicycle companies in 1899 to create the Canadian Cycle and Motor Company (CCM) that operated out of Toronto. While primarily a bicycle company, the new firm under President Walter Massey also began to produce automobiles, including the electric Ivanhoe from 1901-1904 and the Russell, an electric, two-passenger runabout produced from 1903 to 1916 by a CCM subsidiary, the Russell Motor Car Company. The Russell is considered Canada’s first, successful, production automobile.

At the turn of the century, the automobile was still a rich man’s toy. Cars were custom-made in very small workshops, and could easily cost $2,000-2,500, many times the average worker’s annual income. Assembly-line production, which was to lower the price of an automobile to within the grasp of the middle class, was still a decade or more in the future. But for the wealthy seeking a mode of transportation, an automobile was competitive with a traditional two-horse carriage. It also had the allure of a status symbol. In 1899, the Ottawa Journal noted that to own and operate a two-horse carriage in New York would cost $120 per month or more, excluding the cost of purchasing a “flash carriage.” This monthly bill, included $30 for the upkeep of each horse plus an additional $5-15 for shoeing and veterinarian bills, and a further $40 to pay the wages of a full-time coachman. By comparison, one could lease an automobile, complete with driver, for $180 per month, including the cost of repairs. In fine aristocratic style, the chauffeur could wear private livery while the lessee’s crest or monogram could be painted on the doors of the vehicle. Automobiles were also more spacious that horse-drawn carriages, and could go for longer distances.

When Ottawa got its first glimpse of the horseless carriage is a bit murky. A 1912 Ottawa Evening Journal article stated that first first automobile to grace Ottawa’s streets was a De Dion in 1898, driven by Harry Ketchum, the owner of an Ottawa bicycle company, who had imported it from France. The  one-cylinder vehicle, which had four spoke wheels, was described as a cross between a bicycle and an automobile, with something like a bicycle seat for the driver and a passenger seat “located dangerously near the front wheels.” However, there was no mention of the vehicle in the 1898 press. Moreover, the following year, when Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street on 11 September 1899 in an electric automobile, the Journal described the car as Ottawa’s first.

Ahearn had imported the electric vehicle from Chicago. Earlier that year, he and W.W. Wylie, the manager and chief mechanic of the Ottawa Car Company, another firm owned by Ahearn and Soper that manufactured electric streetcars on Slater Street, had gone to an automobile show at Madison Square Gardens in New York. The two men were captivated by what they saw. The automobile they ordered was a two-seater, electric buggy with pneumatic tires that could run at five speeds, ranging from 2 to 15 miles per hour. It had a range of 50 miles on a single charge. The make of the vehicle was not reported.

The Journal said that the vehicle looked like an ordinary carriage except for the fact that there was a steering lever in front of the seat, and a brake rising through the floor in front of the dashboard. The storage battery was hidden within the body of the vehicle, with a meter in front of the driver showing the amount of charge available. Two buttons under the seat allowed the driver to turn on and off the current “at will.” The vehicle was also key-controlled to prevent it from being operated if left unattended. The keyhole was located under the seat. The automobile’s gearing, covered and dust-proof, was attached to the bottom of the carriage at the real axle. The vehicle weighed 1,000 pounds, and cost $1,600.

On that Monday morning, Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street in front of hundreds of people who admired the passage of the swift and silent automobile. Seated beside Ahearn was Alexander Burritt, Ottawa’s City Registrar, who Ahearn chauffeured to his office—Ottawa’s first commute by car. Later that day, Ahearn and his son Franklin took a spin out to Britannia to witness work on the streetcar line that was under construction.  Afterwards, the vehicle was put on display at the 1899 Central Canada Exhibition.

Automobile 12-5-04

Automobile Advertisment, Wilson & Co., Ottawa, 12 May, 1904, The Ottawa Journal

While it may be uncertain whether it was Harry Ketchum or Thomas Ahearn who drove the first car on Ottawa’s streets, it appears that Ketchum sold the first car in Ottawa in 1902 to Dr Mark  McElhinney, later secretary of the Ottawa Valley Motor Car Association,  for $900. The make of the automobile is unknown. Ketchum also opened one of the first car dealerships in Ottawa. In early 1903, Ketchum & Company, which sold are repaired bicycles out of their premises in the Grant Building on the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Streets, offered for sale the “pick of the American market,” including the “celebrated Winton Touring Car, the Stanhope, and a full line of Ramblers.” At roughly the same time, Wilson & Company marketed the Pierce Motorette, a single cylinder, gas powered vehicle made by the Pierce Arrow Automobile Company of Buffalo, New York, out of its offices at 142-146 Bank Street. It later added to its range the Pierce Stanhope and the top of the line Pierce Grand Arrow, as well as a Ford touring car, an Olds runabout, an Oriental Buckboard and the “made in Canada” electric Ivanhoe.

Despite eye-popping prices that started at roughly $600, orders for automobiles came pouring in. By August 1903, there were fourteen cars on Ottawa streets, eighty by mid-1905. Colonel Hurdman was the talk of the town when he purchase a $3,000 Pierce Arrow from Wilson & Company in May 1904. The two-cylinder, 18-horsepower vehicle was the first of its kind in Ottawa. It could carry five passengers comfortably, two in front and three in the “tonneau.”  The automobile was furnished with two burnished headlamps, and was painted blue and gold. It could travel 150 miles on one tank of gas.

Complaints about reckless drivers scaring horses and pedestrians alike also started to pour in. Recall that during these early years of motoring, people didn’t need to pass a government driving test in get behind a steering wheel. In August 1903, the Ontario government passed legislation restricting the speed of automobiles on any public highway within a town or city to 10 miles per hour. Racing was also forbidden, and when approaching a horse, the driver of an automobile had to exercise every reasonable precaution to prevent frightening the animal. The fine for the first offence was $25; subsequent offences could lead to one month in prison.

Motoring bodies also provided guidance to new drivers who were instructed to obey the rules of the road, keep to the right and pass only on the left, and to respect the 10 miles per hour speed limit. Motorists were also cautioned that vehicles did not have right-of-way at street crossings (this was before street lights), and not to drink and drive. Apparently, nine-tenths of automobile accidents at that time involved intoxicated drivers.

Byward Market William James Topley  Library and Archives Canada  PA-009842

Byward Market, Upper photo taken circa 1895, William James Topley/Library Canada, C-005647. Lower photo taken circa 1920, Library & Archives Canda, C-006254. In roughly twenty-five years, horses all but vanished.

Byward Market, c.1920-30, LAC, C-006254

Of course accidents happened. The first automobile accident on Ottawa streets occurred at 10.30pm on 9 November 1903 when Joseph O’Grady of Britannia was run down by a car driven by Harry Ketchum at the corner of Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue) and Bank Street. After receiving immediate care from Allen’s Drugstore located at that corner, O’Grady was taken to the Water (Bruyère) Street Hospital to be treated for a broken leg. Ketchum said he was going “fairly slowly” when O’Grady, who had been waiting for a tram, walked onto the street in front of his automobile after failing to hear his horn. O’Grady did not blame Ketchum for the accident.

Needless to say, Harry Ketchum also received the first speeding ticket issued in Ottawa. In early June 1905, Constable Ethier charged him and Mr E.G. Shepherd with speeding and racing on Wellington Street. At their trial, the officer estimated that the two men were driving their vehicles in excess of 25 miles per hour, taking only seconds to traverse the distance between Kent and Bay Streets. Ketchum argued that the two cars could not have possibly been going faster than 10 miles per hour since Shepherd’s car was in poor condition. He brought in a professional chauffeur, Joseph Gentile, who had driven Shepherd’s car that same day to testify that the vehicle could not have exceeded the speed limit. Ketchum also testified that the two men had only pretended to have been racing. The judge, unable to arrive at any idea of the speed of the automobiles, dismissed the case.

While the introduction of the automobile and the demise of the horse and buggy had their drawbacks, including accidents, smells, and loud noises that disturbed the serenity of town and countryside, there were many positives, in addition, of course, to greater ease of travel and communication. Prior to the automobile, vast tracks of arable land were devoted solely to the production of fodder and grain to feed horses and other draught animals. It’s also often forgotten that animal waste posed serious pollution and disposal problems for cities. The spread of disease was another issue. As early as 1900, the Ottawa Journal reported the hope of the medical profession that “when automobiles glide through Ottawa streets and the horse is only used for pleasure,” that tetanus will almost completely disappear. The same article also hope that the arrival of the automobile would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It noted that in Paris where the automobile was already widely used, the proportion of accidents causing death involving automobiles was significantly lower than those involving horse-drawn vehicles.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the automobile, its allure proved irresistible. Within a few short years, the face of Ottawa was irrevocably changed. In 2011, there were 515,784 registered vehicles in Ottawa and 653,324 licensed drivers. Sadly that same year 3,690 people were injured in collisions with 25 fatalities.

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————————–, 1899. “A $6,000,000 Company,” 22 August.

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