The Chaudière Ring Dam

19 December 1908

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of the Chaudière Falls to the development of the city of Ottawa. Along with the Rideau Canal, the city owes its existence to the power that was (and continues to be) generated at the Falls. Indeed, one could argue that without the Falls, the lumber industry, which was the economic life blood of the city through the nineteenth century, would have located elsewhere. And without its mills, it’s hard to imagine that little Ottawa would have been a viable candidate to be the capital of Canada in 1857 notwithstanding its ideal location.

From the early nineteenth century, settlers recognized the energy potential of the Falls. Lumber mills popped up on both sides of the River as well as on the islands that straddle the border between Ontario and Quebec, including the Wright’s, Chaudière, Victoria, Albert and Amelia Islands. Logs cut in the Ottawa hinterland were floated down the Ottawa River and its tributaries to these mills. In the years before electricity, the mills were powered by water wheels.

By the early 1880s, water-powered turbines had advanced to the point where it was economic to convert the energy of flowing water into electricity. The first hydro-electric plant in North America opened in 1881 on the U.S. side of the Niagara Falls. That same year, E.B. Eddy used a generator run by waterpower to power arc lights in his lumber, match and woodenware factory in Hull.

By the mid-1890s, Ottawa was known as the “Electric City,” due importantly to the development of electrical power made possible by harnessing the Chaudière Falls. At the time, it was estimated that 20 per cent of Ottawa’s population and 75 per cent of Hull’s population were directly dependent on the Falls for their livelihoods.

The two men most responsible for this electrical revolution, were Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper. Ahearn was an inventor par excellence, Canada’s answer to Thomas Edison, while Warren Soper was the man with the business acumen. Together, the duo formed a powerful partnership that dominated Ottawa for a generation. In 1896, the Illustrated Buffalo Express newspaper wrote:

Through the splendid supply of cheap power afforded by the falls, combined with the business foresight and ability of two of its citizens [Ahearn and Soper], Ottawa has led the van, not only for the Dominion but also in many respects for the continent, in the way of the development of practical electricity.

In addition to powering a timber industry worth $5 million per year, a huge sum in those days, Ahearn and Soper’s Ottawa Electric Company provided power to many Ottawa-area businesses—as long as they were located within four miles of the generators at the Chaudière Falls. The Canadian Atlantic Railway Company’s repair shops in LeBreton Flats were powered by electricity. R.A. McCormick, a pharmacy on Spark Street, was heated electrically. The Ottawa Canoe Club even used an electric motor for hauling canoes out of the water. Ahearn and Soper’s electric railway system was also powered by hydro-electricity. The streetcar system had thirty miles of track with 40 cars running daily through the year. The streetcars were heated and lighted electrically, unheard of luxuries just a few years earlier.

The Ottawa Electric Company also provided street lighting throughout the city as well power for most of the 60,000 incandescent light bulbs in use in Ottawa at that time. The Buffalo newspaper enthused that is amounted to more than one bulb for every inhabitant, “a proportion claimed to be unequal by any other town of like size in America.”

While less expensive than using manufactured gas to light lamps, electricity did not come cheap, notwithstanding what the Buffalo newspaper said. In 1903, electricity reportedly cost 8 cents per kilowatt hour in Ottawa, equivalent to roughly $2 per kilowatt hour in 2019 dollars. The 2019 Ottawa Hydro’s off-peak rate is 6.5 cents a kilowatt hour.

Chaudiere Falls dam 3328647 Dept of Public Works

Picture of the Chaudière Ring Dam shortly after completion in December 1908, Department of Public Works, Library and Archives Canada, 3328647.

Growing demand for electricity as electrical lines were strung across the city, combined with economic growth, led to pressures to increase the production of hydro power at the Falls. However, conflicting interests and bickering among the power owners at the Chaudière caused long delays. On the Ottawa side of the river alone, there were 26 water lots lettered A to Z, most of which were controlled by electric power generators, lumber and flour companies. These lots were leased from the Dominion government for $100 per year. Added to the complexity of the problem was the fact that any agreement among the Ontario and Quebec power owners at the Grand Chaudière Falls had to respect the rights of power owners at the upstream Little Chaudière Falls. While the Dominion government recognized the importance of developing water power on the Ottawa river, it was not going to move until the private power owners came up with a solution to their disagreements.

In 1907, a settlement was finally reached among the water powers on the Ottawa River that settled “the vexed and prolonged differences between the users of water power at the Chaudière Falls.” The agreement was executed on the Ontario side by J.R. Booth, the Ottawa Electric Company, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, the Ottawa Power Company, the Bronson Company, and the Ottawa Investment Company. On the Quebec side were the E.B. Eddy Company and the Ottawa and Hull Power Company. To facilitate matters, Thomas Ahearn and the Ottawa Land Association gave up their water rights at the Little Chaudière Falls.

The agreement was quite simple, and hugely profitable for the power producers. The Ontario and Quebec companies would share the water equally. They would also build a modern dam at the Chaudière Falls, replacing the existing submerged dam built forty years earlier. The new dam would raise the head of water at the cost of partially drowning the Little Chaudière Falls. For its part, the Dominion government would dam the upper reaches of the Ottawa river. By storing water upstream, water could be saved during the spring freshet and slowly released during the low water months of later summer and autumn. A steady, regulated flow of water would allow the hydro turbines to run more consistently and efficiently through the year. It would also improve navigation on the Ottawa River. As well, spring flooding would be mitigated. The City of Ottawa would also benefit. A higher water level behind a new dam would reduce the problem of anchor and frazil ice in the winter that blocked intakes to the City’s waterworks located upstream from the Falls. Anchor ice is submerged ice that forms in face-moving rivers at very low temperatures. Frazil ice is slushy ice that also forms in turbulent, super cold water.

Work began on a new dam in early August 1908 and proceeded rapidly in part owing to the Ottawa River’s extraordinarily low water level that year. The power owners established a committee in charge of the work consisting of George Millen, representing the north shore owners, William Baldwin, representing the south shore owners, and two engineers, J.B. McRae and William Kennedy Jr. Messrs. Quinlan and Robinson of Montreal were the contractors. The site’s superintendent was Mr. J. B. Laflamme who had considerable experience, having worked on the bridge across the Rio Grande River between the United States and Mexico at Eagle Pass and on the Trent Valley Canal. He kept a firm grip on the workers. He is reported as saying: “Two things I do not permit among my men are swearing and drinking.”  In charge of the concrete gangs was Uldric Marcotte would had worked on the piers for the Quebec bridge and the power dam on the Severn River at Ragged Rapids.

The first task was to take some two thousand soundings to determine the elevation of the river bed. Tests were also done to determine the velocity of the water at various points. Detailed drawings and specifications were approved for the contracts for concrete, steelwork, etc. Divers also cleaned the river bed. A temporary road to transport supplies to the site from the Chaudière Bridge was constructed along with a tool house, cement shed and a store shed.

Work began on the dam proper in late August on the Quebec side. Work commenced on the Ontario side shortly afterwards. As many as three hundred men were employed on the site working day and night to ensure that the dam was completed before the end of the season. The cost was $250,000.

Chaudiere dam winch 3326122 Topley LAC

The travelling winch used to raise the stoplogs that controlled the flow of the river, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3326122.

The dam consisted of 49 concrete piers and two abutments constructed in the form of an arc of a circle with a radius of 546 feet, 9 inches, with the centre of the arc situated at a point within the Big Kettle of the Falls. Each pier was made of reinforced concrete, with steel rods bolted together. 1¾ inch anchor bolts fasten the rods to the bedrock of the river. To construct the piers, a wooden mould, made exactly to the shape of the pier, was filled with concrete and allowed to set. Each pier was 39 feet 5 inches long and four feet thick on the upstream side and 2 feet thick on the downstream side. To protect them from ice floes in the winter, the upstream sides were faced with a curved ½ inch steel plate.

The final pier was completed at 2.45 pm on Saturday, 19 December 1908. When the last bucket of concrete was poured, workmen hoisted the Union Jack on an improvised flagstaff in the presence of the engineers and representatives of the contractor. So accurately were the piers positioned, that holes drilled in the steel beams that connected the tops of the piers were only ½ inch out when the final pier was connected.

In total, the construction of the Chaudière Ring Dam entailed the excavation of 7,400 cubic yards of rock, the laying of 8,926 cubic yards of concrete, and the installation of 700 tons of steel.

To regulate the flow of the river through the dam, large stoplogs of British Columbian Douglas fir were purchased from Cameron & Company, and transported by rail across the country, arriving in Ottawa by mid-November. There were 550 pieces, totally more than 300,000 board feet of lumber. According to their position in the dam, the logs, each roughly 24 feet long, came in three sizes, 14 inches x 16 inches, 16 inches x 16 inches, and 16 inches by 18 inches. They were lowered between the piers by an electrically-operated, travelling winch with a lifting capacity of 50 tons. The winch travelled along a rail laid on top of a concrete road that connected the piers.

By the summer of 1909, several thousand horse-power of electricity was ready for sale at $15 per horse power per year, equivalent to 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. 14,000 additional horse-power (roughly 10 Megawatts) could be made available with the installation of additional generators. Once the government had completed the water storage dams on the Upper Ottawa, many times that amount could be generated.

The Chaudière Ring Dam was the principal source of electrical power in Ottawa for the next twenty years. By 1928, however, electrical demand finally outstripped what could be generated at the Falls. Increasingly, additional power had to be purchased from the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, later known as Ontario Hydro.

Chaudiere Ring Dam 2019

Aerial View of the Chaudière Ring Dam, courtesy of Jeff Young.

Today, the Chaudière Ring Dam produces 84.6 Megawatts of clean, renewable hydro-electricity. This is enough power to supply 58,000 homes. All of the six hydro-electric facilities in operation at the Chaudière Falls on both sides of the Ottawa River are owned and operated by Portage Power, a subsidiary of Hydro Ottawa. This includes Canada’s oldest operating hydro-electric plant situated on Victoria Island, which dates back to 1891. In 2017, Generating Station No. 5 located on Chaudière Island, was opened. Its state-of-the art powerhouse with four turbines was constructed entirely below ground. This permitted the creation of the Chaudière Falls Park with a viewing platform over the Falls, thereby restoring public access to the area for the first time in over 100 years.  To reinforce the eco-friendly nature of the new hydro facility, a fish ladder was installed to facilitate the migration of the American eel up the Ottawa River. As well, a sturgeon spawning bed was created to help restore the sturgeon population on the Ottawa River, devastated in the past by pollution.

Despite the environmental credentials of the hydro-electric facilities at the Chaudière Falls, the Chaudière Ring Dam remains controversial given its location at a site long considered sacred by Algonquin First Nations. The area, indeed all of Ottawa, remains unceded Algonquin territory. A “Free The Falls” group seeks the demolition of the Chaudière Ring Dam and the return of the Chaudière and Victoria Islands to their natural state or parkland.

 

Sources:

Back, Margaret, 2016. “Report of March meeting: Franz Kropp – Electrical Power Generation at the Chaudière Falls,” Historical Society of Ottawa, HSO Newsletter, June.

Illustrated Buffalo Express, 1896. “Making the Waterfalls Work,” 27 December.

Lambert, Lindsey, 2014. “Free Chaudiere Falls,” Ontario Rivers Alliance, https://www.ontarioriversalliance.ca/free-chaudiere-falls-lindsay-lambert/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1907. “Water Power Interests Settle Their Differences,” 25 November.

——————-, 1908. “Begin Work on Chaudiere Dam,” 11 August.

——————-, 1908. “Rapid Progress,” 18 August.

——————-, 1908. “Dam’s Progress,” 3 November.

——————-, 1908. “A Most Serious Condition,” 26 November.

——————-, 1908. “Piers Completed At Chaudiere,” 22 December.

——————-, 1909. “Ottawa’s Wealth Of Cheap Water Power,” 9 October.

——————-, 1909. “Electric Power Is Plentiful,” 6 November.

——————-, 1912. “Judge Gunn’s Report,” 2 December.

——————-, 2017. “Chaudière Falls opens up to the public with new viewing platform, free show, 10 October.

Portage Power, 2019. Portage Power, http://portagepower.com/.

 

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 Philemon 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/.

An Electric Banquet

29 August 1892

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the cutting-edge, new technology, and Ottawa was Canada’s high-tech capital, thanks to two factors—the inventive skills of Thomas Ahearn, the Ottawa-born technological genius and entrepreneur, and the power-generating ability of the Chaudière Falls. Ahearn and his partner, Warren Soper, were responsible for providing Canada’s Parliament with indoor, electric lighting long before the U.S. Congress could boast such amenities. The pair later brought incandescent lighting to Ottawa’s homes and businesses. They also built and operated Ottawa’s electrified urban transit system, the Ottawa Electric Street Railway, whose carriages were electrically heated using one of Ahearn’s patented devices. Confounding the “experts,” Ottawa’s electric trams operated through the winter thanks to an electric-powered plough. Ottawa was a great testing ground for electrical devices due to its proximity to the Chaudière Falls, the source of relatively inexpensive hydro power which was exploited by another Ahearn and Soper company, the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company.

Oven
A pictorial description of Thomas Ahearn’s electric oven. Canadian Patent Office, 1892.

In August 1892, the Canadian Patent Office issued three patents to Thomas Ahearn. Sandwiched between his electric water bottle and his electric flat iron, was patent no. 39,916 for an improved electric oven. It was described as “An oven having in its hearth inclosed (sic) pits in which electric heaters are placed.” Just like modern ovens, the interior of Ahearn’s oven was lit by incandescent lamps that allowed a person to monitor whatever was being cooked through a glass window.

While Thomas Ahearn did not invent the first electric oven, there is no doubt that the first dinner entirely cooked using electricity took place in Ottawa on 29 August 1892 at the Windsor House hotel. According to a bemused Ottawa Journal journalist, “a complete repast, comprising a number of courses” was cooked “by the agency of chained lightning.” The hotel proudly proclaimed on its menu that “Every item … has been cooked by the electric heating appliance invented and patented by Mr T. Ahearn of Ahearn & Soper of this city and is the first instance in the history of the world of an entire meal being cooked by electricity.” Even the soup, sauces, and after-dinner coffee and tea were prepared using Ahearn’s electric heaters.

The dinner, or more accurately the feast of some thirty different items, consisted of:

Soup

Consommé Royal

Fish

Saginaw Trout with Potatoes, Croquettes, Sauce Tartar

Boiled

Sugar-Cured Ham, Champagne Sauce,

Spring Chickens with Parsley Sauce

Beef Tongue, Sauce Piquant

Roasts

Sirloin of Beef and Horse Radish

Turkey with Cranberry Sauce

Stuffed Loin of Veal, Lemon Sauce

Entrées

Larded Sweetbreads with Mushrooms

Lamb Cutlets with Green Peas, and Strawberry Puffs

Vegetables

Potatoes, Plain and Mashed

Green Corn, Escalloped Tomatoes

Vegetable Marrow

Pudding and Pastry

Apple Soufflés, Wine Sauce

Apple Pie, Black Current Tarts, Chocolate Cake

Coconut Drops, Vanilla Ice Cream, Maraschino Jelly

Fruits

Apples, Raisins, English Walnuts,

Almonds, Watermelon, Grapes

Black Tea, Green Tea, Coffee

Cheese, Biscuits

One hundred guests were invited by the hotel’s proprietor, Mr Daniels, to enjoy the banquet. The guest list included Ottawa’s Mayor Olivier Durocher, Warren Soper, as well as the presidents of the Ottawa Electric Railway and the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Companies. Also in attendance were numerous newspaper reporters that ensured widespread publicity. The meal was prepared at the electric tram sheds owned by Ahearn and Soper, and rushed by a special carriage to the hotel located several blocks away. The meal included a twenty-one pound roast of beef, a thirteen pound roast of veal, and three big turkeys that were cooked simultaneously in the cavernous Ahearn oven; apparently, the oven could accommodate twice that amount.

After the meal, which was acclaimed as a huge success, with everything “cooked to perfection,” the guests boarded another special tram and taken to view the oven at the tram sheds. There, Thomas Ahearn, who had stayed back to supervise his oven’s operation, provided an explanatory lecture. The arched brick oven was six feet wide with two Ahearn electric heaters installed in the bottom, powered by electricity generated by the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company. The “current consumed by the two [heaters] was 43 amperes at 50 volts.”  The inside of the oven measured four feet by four feet. Peepholes, covered with heavy plate glass, permitted the chefs to observe the progress of the cooking without having to open the door. A major selling feature was the even cooking of the oven—“no scorching in one part and half-done-ness in another part” said the Evening Journal. As a vote of confidence in the new electric oven, Mr Daniels, the owner of the Windsor House hotel, ordered one of Ahearn’s newly patented ovens to be installed in the hotel’s kitchen.

Oven Ahearn
Thomas Ahearn’s Oven In Operation At the Central Canada Exhibition, Ottawa, October 1892, The Electrical Engineer

A few weeks later, there was another, even larger scale, demonstration of Ahearn’s Electric Cooking Oven at the Central Canada Exhibition held in Ottawa. As part of a display of Ahearn electrical products, including electric home heaters, coffee boilers, and special restaurant heaters, a local baker, Mr R.E. Jamieson, used the oven to bake buns, twelve pans at a time, that he sold to the crowds at twenty-five cents each. This was an extraordinary price. A multi-course meal at the Café Parisien on Metcalfe Street could be had for only forty cents. The Electrical Engineer, a New York-based electrical trade journal, quipped that  the expression “‘Went off like hot cakes’ now reads in Ottawa ‘went off like electric cakes.’”

The Ahearn oven that the baker used was slightly different from the one used for the Windsor House banquet, having three heating elements instead of two. The extra element was needed to provide additional heat to offset heat loss through the frequent opening of the door in the cooking of multiple rounds of buns. The oven was also equipped with a pyrometer, turn-off switches, interior lights, and a clock. The oven was the hit of the Fair. Thomas Ahearn was awarded a special gold medal for his display of electrical devices.

While Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper were successful entrepreneurs, making fortunes from their electrically-based, business empire, the Ahearn electric oven proved to be a dud. It was too bulky to be easily used as a household appliance. As well, few homes or businesses were wired for electricity. Even where electricity was available, electric ovens, being energy gluttons, were expensive to operate, and were not initially competitive with the more familiar wood, coal, or gas ovens. It wasn’t until the 1930s that electric ovens became widely accepted.

Sources:

Canadian Patent Office Record and Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, 1893. No, 39,916, Electric Oven, Four Électrique. Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.

Daily (The) Citizen, 1892. “Café Parisien,” 8 October.

Electricity, 1893. An Electric Banquet, 14 September, 1892, Volume 3, July 20, 1892 to January 11, 1893.

Electrical (The) Engineer, 1892. Electric Cooking At Ottawa, Can., Volume 14, July-December.

Electrical Review, 1893. A Course Dinner Cooked By Electricity, Volume 21-23, August 27, 1892 to February 18, 1893.

Evening (The) Journal, 1892. “An Electric Banquet,” 30 August.

Innovateus, 2013. Electric Stove, http://www.innovateus.net/content/electric-stove.

Library and Archives Canada, 2006. Made in Canada, Patents of Invention and the Story of Canadian Innovation, Thomas Ahearn, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/innovations/023020-3010-e.html.

Mayer, Roy. 1997. Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Vancouver: Raincoast Books.

National Academy of Engineering, 2015. Great Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century, http://www.greatachievements.org/.

Images:

Patent No. 39,916, Ahearn Electric Oven, The Canadian Patent Office Record And Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1893.

Thomas Ahearn’s Oven in Operation, Canada Central Fair, Ottawa, October 1892, The Electrical Engineer, “Electric Cooking at Ottawa, Can.,” Volume 14, July-December, author unknown.

Strike! En Grève!

14 September 1891

For the majority of people in Canada during the nineteenth century, life was hard. If you managed to avoid the myriad of killer diseases that prematurely snuffed out the lives of many, you could look forward to long hours of backbreaking work, regardless of whether you lived on a farm, or in one of Canada’s growing urban centres, such as Ottawa. In the sawmills and lumber yards of the Chaudière, the typical work day started at 6am and finished at 6pm, with an hour off for dinner; often people were forced to work much longer. Sunday was the only day of rest. Wages were low. According to an 1886 Royal Commission, domestic servants earned $6-8 per month, with room and board. Adult male workers at John R. Booth or Erskine Bronson’s sawmills brought home $1.00-1.50 per day, while women doing piece work in Ezra B. Eddy’s match factory in Hull could look forward to the munificent income of $0.35-0.75 per day. Boys and girls earned a pittance. Fortunately, prices were much lower than today. Very roughly, a weekly wage of $7.00-$9.00 might be equivalent to $150-200 per week today. But work was often seasonal; the sawmills and lumberyards of the Chaudière closed during the winter.

Working conditions were also poor. Accidents on the job maimed or killed many each year at a time when there was no workmen’s compensation. If you couldn’t work, you weren’t paid. Match workers, usually women or girls called allumettières, faced the horrible prospect of contracting phossy jaw, the colloquial term for phosphorus necrosis, through their exposure to white phosphorus used to make match heads. Phossy jaw caused terrible jaw abscesses, organ failure, brain damage, and, ultimately, death. Respiratory disease was rampant among lumber workers who laboured in poorly-ventilated, dusty sawmills. Sawdust, dumped into the Ottawa River, polluted the water on which residents relied. In the cramped, unhygienic, wooden shanties constructed on LeBreton Flats and in Hull close to the Chaudière mills and lumberyards, typhoid and other waterborne diseases flourished.

Emblem of the Knights of Labor
Emblem of the Knights of Labor

In the late nineteenth century, mutual aid societies, co-operatives, and unions emerged with the objective of improving the lives of working people, a development encouraged by the passage of the Trade Unions Act of 1872 by the government of John A. Macdonald; hitherto, union activity had been viewed as illegal conspiracy. Early unions active in Ottawa included the Canadian Labour Protective Association (1872) and the Canadian Labour Union (1873). Also prominent were the Knights of Labor, an American union and political movement that had begun in 1869 as a secret society. Although the movement had its dark side in the United States, where it was involved in anti-Chinese riots in the west, it was progressive in other respects, supporting gender equality, and equal pay for equal work. It also welcomed black members, though it condoned segregation in the U.S. south. By the 1880s, it had hundreds of thousands of members, and had opened branch assemblies in Canada, including in Ottawa and Hull, despite opposition from the Catholic Church.

The Knights of Labor were prominent in the great Chaudière strike that began on 14 September 1891. For the next month, lumbermen and sawmill workers staged an impromptu and illegal labour walk-out over a pay cut unilaterally imposed by the lumber barons. The strikers also wanted a reduction in their long working hours. While strikes were legal back in those days, six months’ notice had to be provided to management. Napoléon Pagé, a journalist who had started the Hull assembly of the Knights known as the Canadienne, was a prominent strike leader, though the Knights of Labor never endorsed the strike given the legal requirements to call a walk-out; they officially favoured arbitration. Nonetheless, Pagé’s newspaper, Le Spectateur, became the voice of the striking workers. Also prominent among the leadership of the mill and lumber workers was J. W. Patterson, head of the Ottawa Trades and Labour Council, and Napoléon Fateux (or Fauteux). Fateux, a mill worker, was a particularly effective leader, counselling restraint and peaceful assembly. He warned against mixing strike activity with alcohol, and urged older workers to curb young hotheads.

1891 was a bad year for the Canadian lumber industry. Important markets in Britain and South America were weak owing to a global economic recession; the previous year, an international financial crisis had erupted when Baring Brothers, an important British banking house with a global reach, almost collapsed owing to huge losses on its investments in Argentina. The company was famously rescued by the Bank of England.  In response to weak demand and low lumber prices, the Chaudière lumber barons cut the weekly wages of sawmill workers by 50 cents. They also failed to live up to an earlier promise to reduce the work week to ten hours. When George Pattee refused a demand from workers at the Pearly & Pattee Lumber Company to restore the 1890 wage rate, on the grounds that he was only following the policy set by the lumber industry, his workers struck. Quickly, workers at other sawmills and lumberyards downed tools. At its greatest extent, some 4,000 workers had walked off the job—a huge proportion of Ottawa-Hull’s population, which perhaps totalled 50,000 at that time. Large public meetings were held in both Hull and Ottawa, attracting many thousands of people.

The strike was marred by violence and intimidation on both sides. On 15 September, more than two thousand workers marched from the wharf opposite the Booth mill in Ottawa across the Union Bridge to the Eddy match factory. There, the strikers confronted Ezra Eddy himself and other managers. A man, identified by the sobriquet “Red Moustache” violently kicked Eddy in the stomach before the mob dispersed. Later that same day, C.B. Wright, a sawmill owner, told a delegation of strikers that he was prepared to defend his mills “at the rifle muzzle if necessary.” Subsequently, Mr. Ruggles Wright fired blank rifle shots at workers in an attempt to intimidate them. In the ensuing affray, C.B. Wright was injured. There was more violence at the Mason family mill, where the father was roughed up, and his two sons, William and George, were cut by thrown stones.

Ezra Butler Eddy, 1827-1906, Owner of E.B. Eddy Company and sometime Mayor of Hull, Quebec
Ezra Butler Eddy, 1827-1906, Owner of E.B. Eddy Company and sometime Mayor of Hull, Quebec, Library and Archives Canada, PA25792

Ezra Eddy, who was also the mayor of Hull, persuaded two justices of the peace to call out the militia. Two companies of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and two companies of the 43rd Battalion were called up to report to the Drill Hall at 5am on 16 September. The part-time troops, who were mostly civil servants, were armed with bayonets and live ammunition, though their commander, Lt-Col. Anderson, warned them not to take offensive measures without the command of their officers. The soldiers marched from the Drill Hall to Eddy’s in Hull, where two companies were deployed to avert trouble; the remaining two companies were stationed at the Hurdman sawmill. Fortunately, nothing happened. The strikers remained peaceful, and the soldiers were quickly demobilized after a workers’ delegation, which included Napoléon Fateux and J. W. Patterson, convinced Ezra Eddy that the troublemakers were not mill men, but outsiders. The workers’ delegation also promised to assign men to protect private property.

This was not the end of the violence, however. At the end of the month, there was a serious clash at the Perely & Pattee Company when strikers attempted to stop lumber shipments leaving the mill. Chief McVeity of the Ottawa police force and his men responded with batons “in a lively style,” according to The Ottawa Evening Journal. Striking workmen responded by throwing stones and sticks. Serious injuries were averted by the timely arrival of Napoléon Fateux who succeeded in restoring peace. The ferocity of the police response led public opinion, which already broadly supported the strikers, to swing even more in their favour.

Church, civic groups, small merchants, and individuals contributed money and goods to help families of the strikers. At the peak, more than 200 families were being helped daily. Special shops for strikers were established in Place du Portage in Hull and in LeBreton Flats. Strike relief funds were also provided by other unions, both in the Ottawa area and outside, though the amounts raised were small.

By early October, cracks in the owners’ façade were beginning to show, especially after an attempt to use scab labour brought in from Pointe Gatineau failed when striking workers persuaded strike breakers to desist. As one brought-in worker explained, it was “better to stop work and live a little longer.” On 3 October, work resumed at the Hurdman mill in Hull. While the owners had not budged on pay, they instituted a ten-hour work day.

But the workers were also at the end of their tether. On 12 October, more than 1,100 men returned to work on the old terms; that is to say, no raise and no ten-hour day. More followed. As the Journal put it, “men were, with scarcely an exception, heartily weary of hanging around doing nothing, with empty pockets, on the threshold of winter.” Although most mill owners had provided no concessions, rumours of change were rife. The following day, Perely & Pattee reversed the 50 cent reduction on the face-saving grounds that the men had returned to work of their own free will. The other lumber companies quickly followed suit.

By the time the strike ended, at least 1,000 experienced millworkers and lumbermen, short of money, had left Ottawa-Hull. Some 600 went to the Saginaw region in Michigan, which had its own lumber industry. Consequently, the Chaudière lumber companies had difficulty in quickly restoring full operations. With the balance of power shifting towards the workers, the ten-hour work week was finally implemented in 1895.

Sources:

Kealy, Gregory S. 1995. Workers and Canadian History, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Martin, Michael, 2006. Working Class Culture and the Development of Hull, Quebec, 1800-1929, http://web.ncf.ca/fn871/Media/Docs/Book1/Book1_WorkingClassCulture.pdf.

Morton, Desmond, 1998. Working People: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1891. “Violence,” 15 September.

————————, 1891. “Strikers’ Meeting,” 15 September.

————————, 1891. “The Strike,” 16 September.

————————, 1891. “Nothing Done,” 17 September.

————————, 1891. “Hard Knock,” 30 September.

————————, 1891. “Work Stopped,” 1 October.

————————, 1891. “Buzzing Again,” 12 October.

————————, 1891. “”Back to Work,” 13 October.

————————, 1891. “50 Cents More,” 13 October.

National Capital Commission, 2013. “Donalda Charron and the E.B. Eddy Match Company: Working Conditions,” Virtualmuseum.ca, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca.

Images: Knights of Labor, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_of_Labor.

B. Eddy, Library and Archives Canada, PA25792, http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/eddy_e/eddy_e.html.