The Ottawa City Hall Fire

31 March 1931

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

City hall old LAC C002185

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

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

City Hall Topley StudiosLACMikkan3325359

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Return of Halley’s Comet

18 May 1910

Years before the return of Halley’s Comet, astronomers around the world including at the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm began to prepare for its arrival. The comet was scheduled to return in the spring of 1910, seventy-five years after its previous brush with Earth in 1835. Unlike that earlier year, astronomers now had the instruments to track, conduct spectroscopic research, and photograph this celestial visitor. Beyond knowing that its trajectory would take the comet between the Earth and the Sun, a scant 14 million miles from our planet, they were largely ignorant about it. Experts estimated that the head of the comet was as big as 42 Earths with a tail 62 million miles long and 600,000 miles wide. So close was it to come, astronomers expected that the Earth would pass through the comet’s tail. This was enough to send a frisson of alarm through the general public. Doom-laden views of certain observers, combined with long-standing superstitions that comets were portents of disaster, meant that there was a genuine fear that the end of the world was nigh.

Halley's Comet Yerkes, 29-5-1910 Prof Edward Barnard NYT 3-7-10

Halley’s Comet 29 May 1910, taken by Professor Edward Barnard, Yerkes Observatory, appearing in New York Times, 3 July 1910.

Newspaper coverage was also unhelpful. Although the vast majority of astronomers viewed the return of Halley’s Comet with delight, seeing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view close-up a celestial event of remarkable beauty, considerable column inches were given over to the apocalyptical views of the few. This was an early example of seemingly balanced coverage providing a decidedly unbalanced view of what was likely to transpire. Of course, articles portending disaster sold papers, a phenomenon noted by the Ottawa Evening Citizen. In a swipe of its competitors, most likely the Ottawa Evening Journal, the Citizen remarked after the Comet’s safe passage “There was no collision, as the superstitious and the ignorant feared, and, if truth must be told, some newspapers unfortunately traded in those fears by more or less veiled stories and hints.”

Halley’s Comet was named after Edmond Halley, an English astronomer and friend of Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first to describe the periodic nature of the comet in 1705, and predicted its return in 1758. Sadly, Halley, who died in 1742, was not alive to witness the event. However, the return of his comet, visible to the naked eye on Christmas Day 1758, immortalized him. Looking at historical records from China, historians have dated the first known recorded appearance of Halley’s Comet to 240BC.

We now know Halley’s Comet has a peanut-shaped nucleus roughly 15 kilometres long with a diameter of 8 kilometres, considerably smaller than the late 19th century estimates. Nonetheless, a collision with Earth would have been disastrous. The Chicxulub asteroid that likely led to the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago is believed to have been smaller. Halley’s Comet, a remnant from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, consists of dust, rock and ice. Its tail is made up of dust and sublimated gases that spew off as it approaches the Sun. The comet spends much of its time in the Kuiper Belt that circles the Solar System.

By 1909, the world’s telescopes were trained to the western sky shortly after sunset to watch for the comet’s return. When it was first spotted by telescope is a bit murky. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa received a telegram that a German astronomer had seen Halley’s Comet as early as mid-September 1909. The first Canadian spotting apparently occurred mid-January 1910 in British Columbia. At this point, the comet was hurtling towards the Sun reaching its perihelion (closest approach) on 20 April before commencing its return to the outer Solar System, but not before brushing close to the Earth. It was not yet visible to the naked eye.

With the return of Halley Comet, many newspapers, including the Ottawa Evening Journal, ran articles linking previous appearances of the comet to wars, plagues and other disasters of the past. One story managed to ascribe the biblical Deluge, dated to 2349 BC, to the comet as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1900 BC. Other world-changing events linked to the comet included the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the sack of Rome by Attila the Hun in 451 AD, the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the War of the Roses in 1456, and Wolfe’s Conquest of New France in 1759. For 1910, the article noted the return of the comet coincided with threatened war in the Balkans and labour unrest and socialist demonstrations in America and Europe. Coincidentally, King Edward VII died on May 6th, another apparent “victim” of the comet.

Halley' Comet Fight 13-4-10 OEJ

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 13 April, 1910.

Halley’s Comet’s appearance in the night sky allowed astronomers to use state-of-the art equipment to photograph it and to conduct spectroscopic analyses. In February 1910, the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin announced the discovery of cyanogen gas, a chemical compound related to cyanide, in the comet’s tail. This stoked comet fears to new heights, especially when a French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, opined that all of the earth’s inhabitants would suffocate owing to the gas when the earth passed through the comet’s tail. He reportedly added that if there was also a “diminution of nitrogen and an excess of oxygen,” “the human race would perish in a paroxysm of joy and delirium, probably delighted at their fate.”  Professor Pickering of Harvard University suggested that Flammarion could be right. “The consequences of a collision of the earth with the comet’s tail may mean destruction to us,” he said. Another French astronomer, M. Deslandres of the Paris Observatory thought that the comet’s tail crossing the Earth’s atmosphere would led to an incalculable number of X-rays that would cause the water vapour in the atmosphere to condense leading to rains not “seen since the days of Noah’s great deluge.”

These were minority views within the astronomical profession. The famed American astronomer, Percy Lowell, said “Nothing can occur to the earth in consequence of its passing through the tail of the comet. The consistency of the tail is probably less than any vacuum procurable on earth.” (Mind you, Lowell also spotted “canals” on Mars that supposedly were a desperate attempt by Martians to tap water at the dying planet’s poles.) A similar sanguine view was expressed by Sir Robert Ball of Cambridge University. A Columbia University professor argued “the Maker of the universe” would not allow any harm to come to “the home of the highest form of life that He has fashioned.” Astronomers at the Dominion Observatory patiently addressed the questions of concerned Ottawa citizens. They also lectured at the Y.M.C.A. and other locales about the harmlessness of the comet’s return. At St Mathias Church, Dominion astronomer John Plaskett in a lecture titled “Wonders of Creation” rejected Flammarion’s thesis, echoing Lowell and Ball that there was no danger from the cyanogen gas as it was too rarefied to have any impact.

Halley's Comet Mary Proctor, San Fran Sunday Call

Mary Proctor, astronomer and author, member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1862-1957, San Francisco Sunday Call. University of California, Riverside.

One of the most reasoned, scientific assessments of the return of Halley’s Comet that appeared in the popular North American press was by a respected amateur astronomer, Mary Proctor. In an October 1909 Ottawa Journal article, Proctor said that “the fulfillment of the [Halley’s] prediction may be awaited serenely.” She added “Woe betide it, however, should it come too near to Jupiter, which has the reputation of being the greatest comet capturer of the skies.” (In 1994, this prophetic comment was captured on film when astronomers observed the tidal forces of Jupiter pulling apart the Shoemaker-Levy comet, causing it to plunge into the planet.) Later, after Flammarion’s dire prediction of the end of all life, she reiterated her views even more forcefully, adding “Astronomers are being suspected as conspiring together to keep the uninitiated in ignorance of the true fate awaiting our planet.” Instead of believing in conspiracy theories, she urged people to enjoy the comet’s approach, and “experience a spectacular display of cometary glory.”

After been lost in the light of the Sun for a couple of weeks, Halley’s Comet reappeared in the morning sky shortly before dawn in mid-April, 1910. Its reappearance was noted by Mr Robert Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory on 13 April using the observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope. Owing to intense sunlight, it was not visible to the naked eye, and wouldn’t be for some days. Motherwell discredited reports from around Canada that the comet had been spoted. He ascribed such sightings to confusion with Venus.

Halley's Comet OEJ 16-4-1910

Illustration for serial on a comet striking the Earth, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 16 April 1910.

The Journal took this opportunity to run a fanciful serialized story that had initially appeared in the Aldine Magazine of New York in the 1870s about a fictitious collision of Plantamour Comet with the Earth. In the story, the collision split the Earth into three pieces, with Asia completely vapourized, leaving America the only habitable part of the globe. When the clouds finally lifted, there were two new moons in the sky—Europa and Africa—that had split away from the Earth complete with their own seas and atmosphere. Now separated forever, the remaining people of America could only communicate with the survivors of Europa and Africa by using ten-foot high letters made of tin.

Halley’s Comet became visible to the naked eye in Ottawa early in the morning of 29 April 1910, when it was spotted by Mr Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory. It was visible in the eastern sky at a declination of eight degrees north of the equator. While the two Ottawa newspapers agreed on the sighting, they agreed on little else. The Journal reported that Motherwell got only a partial view of the comet at shortly after 3am in a break in the clouds that lasted just sixty seconds. The Citizen reported that the comet was located by Motherwell at about 4.20am and that the astronomer had a good view for about 30 minutes before the Sun became too bright. By early May, the comet was visible to all who got up early enough. It was to be seen low on the horizon with its tail pointing nearly upwards.

With the comet visibly bearing down on the Earth, the focus of attention shifted to what might happen when the Earth moved through the Comet’s tail, scheduled to occur sometime around May 20th. In preparation for the event, it was reported that restaurants in New York and Paris were hosting comet parties. Recalling Flammarion’s dire prediction, one enterprising restauranteur advertised that pure oxygen would be blown into the dining room to counteract the effects of cyanogen gas. More seriously, Dr Koltz at the Dominion Observatory said that it would take several hours for the Earth to pass through the tail. He rejected any concerns that this transit would have on the Earth, though there may be some magnetic effects. He warned of the possibility that telephone and telegraph service might be adversely affected. Dr King, the chief of the Dominion Observatory, thought there might be a “sort of aurora borealis, but nothing outside of that.” Parliament Hill was deemed a good vantage point to see the comet at its best.

Halley's Coment OEJ 19-5-10

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 19 May 1910

In the event, both the Ottawa Evening Journal and the Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Ottawa was in the comet’s tail for several hours during the night of May 18th. As expected, the Earth’s passage through the tail was uneventful. There was no cyanogen gas, and there was no deluge of biblical proportions, though cloudy skies and rain made comet watching in Ottawa difficult. Telecommunications were unaffected. Dr Kloz said that instruments at the Dominion Observatory detected some slight magnetic effects, but that was all. Newspaper accounts again differed on whether the comet sparked a viewing of the Northern Lights. According to the Journal, shortly after midnight the clouds broke and there was “a magnificent display of the Aurora” that spread across the “entire dome of heaven” before disappearing again as the clouds returned. The newspaper added that the aurora was most brilliant in Toronto and contained “all the colours of the rainbow.” Contrarily, the Citizen reported that “there was none of the auroral effects some had predicted.” There was also no mention of an aurora borealis in Toronto’s Globe newspaper.

Halley’s Comet got progressively fainter during the following days as it continued its journey back out the Kuiper Belt. It returned to the inner Solar System in 1986. This time, however, the comet’s reappearance was unremarkable as it and the Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun when it occurred. For those who missed Halley’s Comet, you’re next opportunity will be July 2061. The showing is expected to be better this time.

Sources:

Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1986. What have we learnt about Halley’s Comet?, https://astrosociety.org/edu/publications/tnl/06/06.html.

Curran, Kevin, 2012. Halley’s Comet, http://www.fallofathousandsuns.com/halleys-comet.html#past-appearances-of-halleys-comet.

Globe (The) 1910. “Through A Comet’s Tail,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1910. “Halley’s Comet Has Been Discovered,” 17 January.

————————————, 1910.  “Halley’s Comet Is Located By Dominion Observatory,” 13 April.

————————————, 1910. “The Earth Takes Its Bath In the Comets Tail Tonight,” 18 May.

———————————–, 1910. “Ottawa Thro’ Comet’s Tail From 8.30 Last Night to 12.30,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1906. “The Star of Bethlehem,” 29 December.

————————————-, 1909. “More About Halley’s Comet,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1909. “Astronomers Preparing For The Return of Halley’s Comet,” 30 April.

————————————, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Said To Be Full Of Cyanogen Gas,” 8 February.

————————————, 1910. “Gas From Halley’s Comet Could Not Affect Earth,” 10 February.

————————————, 1910. “Lectures on Halley’s Comet,” 18 February.

————————————, 1910. “Ottawa and District Will Soon See Halley’s Comet, 14 March.

————————————, 1910. “Harmlessness of Halley’s Comet,” 21 March.

————————————, 1910. “It’s Mighty Little Wisest Men Know About Comets,” 2 April.

————————————, 1910. “Must be Pretty Scrappy Stuff in Halley’ Comet,” 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Was Seen At the Observatory This Morning, 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “When the Comet Struck,” by W. T. Alden, 14 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Seen One Minute,” 29 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet History, And Why Halley’s Is Harmless,” by Mary Proctor, 14 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Night Preparations,” 17 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Passes Very Quietly,” 19 May.

Simon, Kevin, 2015. Fantastically Wrong: That Time People Thought A Comet Would Gas Us All To Death, https://www.wired.com/2015/01/fantastically-wrong-halleys-comet/.

The Villa St-Louis Tragedy

15 May 1956

Tuesday, the 15th of May 1956 was an unremarkable spring day. The Grey Nuns of the Cross who were staying at Villa St-Louis on the bank of the Ottawa River in Orléans a few miles east of Ottawa went about the timeless routine of convent life.  After celebrating Compline, the final church service of the day, the thirty-five mostly elderly residents retired to their spartan cells for the night. There should have been more people staying at the 70-room rest and convalescent home built just two years earlier for $1 million. A group of sixteen student nurses who were about to start a two-week vacation at Villa St-Louis had delayed their arrival to see a play in downtown Ottawa.

Villa St-Louis, CF-100, Mk V, RCAF

The CF-100 “Canuck” Mark V, all-weather fighter/interceptor made by Avro Canada, RCAF photo.

As the nuns slumbered, two CF-100 “Canuck” Mark V interceptor jet fighters from the 445 Air Squadron based at RCAF Station Uplands were in the dark skies above Ottawa. The fighters had been scrambled to seek out and identify an intruder that had entered their operational airspace. The CF-100s were the most sophisticated flying machines in the RCAF arsenal. They were built by A.V. Roe Canada Ltd, also known as the Avro Canada Company, at the time one of the largest corporations in Canada. The company later became famous for the ill-fated Avro Arrow (CF-105), possibly the most advanced fighter aircraft of the age, cancelled by the Diefenbaker government in 1959.

The fighters were scarcely in the air when the intruder was identified as an RCAF North Star cargo airplane, a four-engine propeller aircraft, travelling from Resolute Bay high in the Arctic to St Hubert, near Montreal. Although the airplane had filed a flight plan, the information had not been received at Uplands. So when an unidentified “ping” appeared on the radar screen, the interceptors were sent up, consistent with military protocol at the height of the Cold War.

With the mystery quickly resolved, one CF-100 returned to base. While accounts vary, the other aircraft, number 18367, piloted by Flying Officer (FO) William Schmidt (age 25) with navigator FO Kenneth Thomas (age 20), apparently asked Uplands for permission to join up with two other Canuck fighters that were heading south at 35,000 feet. The request was denied. So, Schmidt continued west to burn off excess fuel before landing. It was the last flight control heard from the aircraft that vanished from the radar screen over Orléans, falling from 33,000 feet in less than a minute. There had been no hint of trouble.

Villa St-Louis Chapel PowellCA004409

Interior of the Villa St-Louis Chapel, Orléans, circa 1956, City of Ottawa Archives, MG393-NP-31447-001.

At 10:17pm, the CF-100 fighter, fully armed with rockets and machine guns, and with its two crew members aboard, plunged into the chapel of the Villa St-Louis rest home at a speed approaching 700 mph. In an instant, the three-storey, brick building was shattered by a thunderous explosion that sent debris and flames hundreds of feet into the air. Eyewitnesses said the jet had plummeted to ground in an almost vertical dive, the airplane spinning in tight circles, its wing lights flashing in the dark.

The blast could be heard fifteen miles away. A red glow in the sky was seen in distant Richmond and Manotick. A Trans-Canada Airway (TCA) pilot flying from Montreal to Toronto witnessed an orange ball of fire that lit up the whole sky for seconds. The Villa’s neighbours in the nearby residential area known as Hiawatha Park were thrown from their beds by the force of the blast that also shattered twenty-four windows in St Joseph’s School a mile and a half away. The explosion and ensuing fire, stoked by gallons of aviation fuel and tons of coal stored in the convent’s basement, totally destroyed Villa St-Louis. Within five minutes, the roof of the building collapsed. Two hours later, there was virtually nothing left save a forty-foot chimney and steel girders twisted in the white heat of the blaze.

Villa St-Louis

The glowing remains of Villa St-Louis, 15 May 1956, Andrews-Newton Photographers Fonds/ City of Ottawa Archives/ MG393-AN-043317-005.

The speed and intensity of the fire left little time for survivors from the crash to escape. Sister Marie des Martyrs recounted that she had gone to bed at about 9.30pm but had trouble falling asleep. Shortly afterwards, she heard the sound of a low flying airplane—not an unusual sound given that Rockcliffe air force base was but a short distance away. Suddenly, the building was shaken by a terrific explosion that sounded like a thunderclap, followed by splintering wood and breaking glass. There was fire everywhere. Putting on her slippers and robe, she joined other nuns making their way to the fire escape. There was no panic. She descended to the bottom of the fire escape but flames had already reached the lower floor, partially blocking her exit. However, she managed to jump clear and landed uninjured. She believed that she was the last to get out alive.

On being awakened by the explosion, neighbours of Villa St-Louis in Hiawatha Park courageously ran across farmers’ fields to the stricken rest home to help. Many were regular attendees at Mass in the convent’s chapel and knew the resident nuns by name. Rhéal (Ray) Rainville, whose home was less than a mile from the Villa, helped a number of sisters escape from the burning convent. He broke the fall of one elderly resident who leapt from the third floor. He also witnessed the death of Father Richard Ward, the chaplain of the Grey Nuns, who had been blown 150 feet from the Villa by the force of the blast. The priest died in the arms of Joseph Potvin, another neighbour. Lorne Barber, who managed to enter the building, tried to force his way into bedrooms but flames turned him back. He could hear the screams of nuns pounding on the walls for help. Meanwhile, others tried to enter the burning building through its ground floor doors.

Rescued nuns, many burnt or with broken bones, huddled together in the nightclothes on the lawn outside of the burning building. The distraught sisters were taken in neighbours’ cars or by ambulance to the hospital or to their motherhouse in downtown Ottawa. The first survivors arrived at about midnight. Many of the injured were sent to the Ottawa General Hospital where they were cared for by the student nurses who were to have begun their holiday that evening at the destroyed home.

Three fire departments, Orléans, Gloucester and the Rockcliffe Air Station, responded to the blaze. But there was little that they could do. RCAF personnel set up road blocks in a vain attempt to stop thousands of spectators from approaching the area. People simply climbed over fences and walked through ploughed fields to get a good look. Cars were parked alongside roads for miles before police began turning vehicles away. People stayed until the early hours of the morning before returning home when the blaze was finally extinguished, aided by a light rain. Many were back at first light.

The next day, the grim task of recovering and identifying the bodies began. Of the thirty-five residents of Villa St-Louis, there were thirteen deaths, eleven Grey Nuns, a lay-woman cook, and Father Ward. Also dying in the crash and explosion were the two young flying officers. Many others were injured by the fire or suffered broken bones. As well as looking for human remains, RCAF specialists combed through the debris to recover the unexploded rockets that the CF-100 carried. Within hours, all but one had been safely found. Souvenir hunters were warned that the missing rocket was dangerous in the wrong hands.

The improbability of the disaster shook Ottawa and neighbouring communities. How could an airplane on a routine interception mission fall out of the sky and strike an isolated convent?  Even a slight deviation in the airplane’s flight path would have spared the Villa. Why was such pain and suffering inflicted on a religious order devoted to the care of the sick and injured? What was God thinking? There were no answers to these questions.

Despite subsequent inquiries, the cause of the fatal crash was never ascertained. The two flying officers never sent a distress signal, nor did they use their ejector seats that were standard equipment on CF-100 airplanes. The most likely explanation for the crash was a malfunction in their oxygen system that caused the two men to lose consciousness. This would explain the radio silence in the seconds prior to the crash. The accident report also raised two other possibilities. It was conceivable that the pilot had tried to descend through a gap in the cloud cover and experienced a “tuck under” at supersonic speeds. A “tuck under” can occur when the nose of an airplane continues to rotate downward (i.e. tuck under) at an increasing speed during a high-speed dive. This phenomenon has been known to be fatal if the pilot cannot control the descent owing to high stick forces. Alternatively, Schmidt might have lost control of his aircraft in heavy turbulence caused by the wash of the two other CF-100 fighters that were in the area.

The funeral for Father Ward, who in addition to being the chaplain to the Grey Nuns was also assistant Roman Catholic chaplain to the Fleet, was held the Friday after the disaster at St Patrick’s Church. Archbishop Roy of Quebec, the Bishop Ordinary of the Canadian Armed Forces, officiated. Along with the Grey Nuns, representatives of every congregation of nuns in Ottawa attended. He was buried in Toronto. The following day, a joint funeral service was held for the eleven nuns at Notre Dame Basilica. Thousands of Ottawa citizens lined Sussex Street to witness the funeral cortege—eleven coffins covered by simple grey cloths followed by seven hundred mourning Grey Nuns. Archbishop J.M. Lemieux officiated at the funeral Mass. The deceased were buried in Notre Dame Cemetery.

Villa St-Louis cross

Memorial Cross at the site of the Villa St-Louis disaster, August 2017 by Nicolle Powell

The following week a memorial service was held for FO William Schmidt and FO Kenneth Thomas, the two flying officers who died in the crash, as well as for a third airman, Flight Lieutenant Al Marshall, who had been killed in the crash of another CF-100 Mark V at a U.S. Armed Forces airshow at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan on the weekend after the Villa St-Louis tragedy.

Today, not far from Residence St-Louis, a francophone seniors’ home that replaced the ill-fated Villa St-Louis, a twenty-foot cross embellished with a jet fighter pointing downwards, marks the spot of the tragedy. At its base are fifteen stones, one for each victim, taken from the convent’s rubble. Plaques list the names of the nuns, the priest, the lay cook, and the two flying officers who lost their lives.

In 2016, sixty years after the disaster, sixty veterans and RCAF members, along with friends and family of those who perished, gathered at the site to remember the lives that were lost that dreadful night in 1956. A bagpiper played the Piper’s Lament.

Sources:

Baillie-David, Alexandra, 2016. “RCAF marks 60th anniversary of Canuck 18367 crash,” Royal Canadian Air Force, 15 May, http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/news-template-standard.page?doc=rcaf-marks-60th-anniversary-of-canuck-18367-crash/iophk1cm.

CBC News, 2016. Archives of the 1956 plane crash at the Villa St-Louis, http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/ottawa/archives-of-the-1956-plane-crash-at-the-villa-st-louis-1.3581477.

Disasters of the Century, 20? CF 100 Convent Crash, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7O89MgA0HDY.

Egan, Kelly, 2015.  “Ceremony to mark deadly 1956 jet crash that killed 11 nuns in Orléans,” The Ottawa Citizen, 15 May.

King, Andrew, 2016. “When hell fell from the sky: Fighter jet slammed into convent 60 years ago,” Ottawa Rewind, https://ottawarewind.com/2016/05/14/when-hell-fell-from-the-sky/.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1956. “Crashing Jet Kills 15,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Will Conduct Mass Funeral For Eleven Nuns on Saturday,” 17 May.

————————-, 1956. “Thousands In Streets To Witness Funeral Of 11 Nuns Burned In Fire,” 22 May.

Ottawa, City of, 2017, Disasters, Jet Crash at Villa St. Louis, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-heritage-and-culture/city-ottawa-archives/exhibitions/witness-change-visions-5.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1956. “Jet Explodes Convent. Struck at 10.15 pm,” 16 May.

————————–, 1956. “Thousands Clog Roads Near Fire,” 16 May.

————————–, 1956. “Villa Suddenly Enveloped By Great Cloud of Flames,” 16 May.

————————–, 1956. “Orleans Scene Of Jet Inferno,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Helped Nuns To Safety And Saw Priest Die On Grass,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “I Was the Last Out of the Building,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Two Jet Chasing Unknown Aircraft,” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “TCA Pilot 10 Miles Away Saw ‘Orange Ball of Fire,’” 16 May.

————————-, 1956. “Hunt Unexploded Rocket Warhead,” 18 May.

————————-, 1956. “Memorial Service Held For Air Victims,” 23 May.

Schmidt, Louis V. 1998. Introduction to Aircraft Flight Dynamics, AIAA Education Series, Reston, Virginia.

Sherwin, Fred, 2006. “Ceremony marks 50th anniversary of Villa St-Louis disaster, Orléans Online, http://www.orleansonline.ca/pages/N2006051501.htm.

Skaarup, Harold A. 2009. “1 Canadian Air Group, Canadian Forces Europe,” Military History Books, http://silverhawkauthor.com/1-canadian-air-group-canadian-forces-europe_367.html.

 

 

 

Exercise Tocsin B-1961

13 November 1961

Tensions had been mounting between the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact partners and the United States and its NATO allies. In April 1961, some twelve hundred Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA and supplied with American arms and landing craft, had made a failed attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and topple Fidel Castro. The Cuban Communist leader had come to power two years earlier after having deposed Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt and repressive, American-supported dictator.

The following month, Canada tested its civil defence plans in the event of a nuclear war. In cities across the country, the wailing of more than two hundred sirens warned Canadians to take cover. The Canadian Emergency Measures Organization issued a booklet to households indicating what they could do in the event of a nuclear attack. Called The Eleven Steps To Survival, Canadians were told:

Step 1: Know the effects of nuclear explosions

Step 2: Know the facts about radioactive fallout

Step 3: Know the warning signal and have a battery-powered radio

Step 4: Know how to take shelter

Step 5: Have fourteen days emergency supplies

Step 6: Know how to prevent and fight fires

Step 7: Know first aid and home nursing

Step 8: Know emergency cleanliness

Step 9: Know how to get rid of radioactive dust

Step 10: Know your municipal plans

Step 11: Have a plan for your family and yourself

In the introduction to the booklet, Prime Minister Diefenbaker stated: Your personal survival can depend on you following the advice that is given and the survival of many others may depend on how well you have heeded the advice contained therein. The government also provided plans on how to build a backyard bomb shelter.

Mid-August, East Germany began the construction of the Berlin Wall cutting off West Berlin by land, and denying an escape route to the West by East Germans seeking freedom. In early September, the U.S. military detected four, above-ground Soviet nuclear explosions. Subsequently, radioactive fallout, 320 times higher than background radiation levels, was detected in Ottawa. Federal Health Minister Jay Monteith warned that should such high levels of radiation be maintained, they “could well be a hazard to health.” At a state banquet in Moscow, Indian Prime Minister Nehru told Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that it would be stupid to start a war. Khrushchev replied that the Soviet people did not want war but “could not look on calmly while Western powers make military preparations on a hitherto unparalleled scale.” With war rhetoric rising, Prime Minister Diefenbaker warned Canadians in early November that “war is not as improbable as we hope,” and that if comes, Canada will be a battleground. Earlier he had told the House of Commons that should there be an attack on Canada, he and his wife would not leave Ottawa for safety but would rather take cover in the bomb shelter at 24 Sussex Drive.

bomb, Nagasaki, 9 sept 45, Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack

Atomic bomb explosion over Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945, taken by Charles Levy

During the morning of Monday, 13 November 1961, unidentified but presumed hostile submarines were detected in large numbers in the North Atlantic and in the Hudson Bay. Soviet tanker aircraft were also detected near the Aleutians. The Canadian armed forces increased it level of military alertness at 8.30am EST. This was stepped up to the next level at 10.30am and yet again at 12.30pm, sending staff to emergency centres across the country. Troops left possible target areas. At 2.30pm, key government officials and senior defence officers, including Defence Minister Douglas Harkness, Health Minister Monteith, Defence Production Minister Raymond O’Hurley, and Justice Minister Davie Fulton, were dispatched to Camp Petawawa, 150 kilometres north-west of Ottawa that was to become the government back-up centre in the event of war. (The underground, bomb-proof base in Carp now known as the Diefenbunker, which was designed to shelter the Governor General, the Prime Minister, and other senior government and military leaders in the event of nuclear war, was still under construction.)

At 6pm, the Canadian military was placed on maximum alert. Shortly afterwards, NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) radar spotted 36 hostile airplanes heading towards Canada between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Another 20 were detected off the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific. At 6.50pm, Prime Minister Diefenbaker and six Cabinet colleagues went underground at 24 Sussex Drive where they issued an Order-In-Council invoking the War Measures Act. Defence Minister Harkness was appointed Acting Prime Minister and given almost dictatorial powers to respond if necessary. Diefenbaker also approved the signal to alert unsuspecting Canadians to the deteriorating military situation and to take shelter. He also prepared to address the nation across all radio and television stations in a special broadcast of the Emergency Measures Organization.

At precisely 7pm, more than 500 sirens from coast to coast, 45 in Ottawa alone, began a steady three-minute wail, their strident call telling citizens that a nuclear attack was expected. By that point, more than 110 “penetrations” of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in Canada’s far north had been detected as Soviet bombers streaked across Canadian territory at 600 knots per hour. At 7.10pm, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) gave Diefenbaker a fifteen-minute warning that a missile attack was underway. Air raid sirens across the country gave the “take shelter” warning, a three-minute rising and falling sound that announced a nuclear strike was imminent.

It total, two waves of Soviet bombers, the first of 150 aircraft, the second of 110 as well as two waves of missiles, mostly heading for U.S. targets, were detected. Fourteen Canadian cities were destroyed by five-megaton nuclear bombs, including Vancouver and Courtney in British Columbia, Edmonton and Cold Lake in Alberta, Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Frobisher, NWT, North Bay, Sault Ste Marie, and Welland in Ontario, Chatham, New Brunswick, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Goose Bay in Labrador, and Stephenville on the Island of Newfoundland. Ottawa was destroyed at 10.10pm, with the epicentre of the blast situated just north of Uplands Airport. Toronto and Montreal were hit at 10.45pm and 10.51pm, respectively. The Soviet attack on North America lasted until 4am the next morning. Some 30 U.S. cities were destroyed, including Detroit, hit by a ten-megaton bomb that also killed tens of thousands in neighbouring Windsor.

 

Bomb, Canada emergency Measures Organization, Govt of Canada, Mikan 4717891

Bomb, Canada emergency Measures Organization, Govt of Canada, Mikan 4717352

The corner of Sparks Street and Elgin Street, Central Post Office, c. 1961, before and after a nuclear attack on Ottawa, Canada Emergency Measures Organization, Government of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4717891 and 4717352.

The death toll was staggering. The Army Operations Centre at Camp Petawawa estimated Canadian dead at roughly 2.6 million, including Prime Minister Diefenbaker, with an additional 1.6 million injured, many critically. Fire, radiation sickness, and exposure was expected to claims hundreds of thousands of additional lives in coming days and weeks. In the Ottawa region, the death toll was placed at 142,000 dead, 61,000 injured and 30,000 experiencing radiation sickness. On the upside, 90,000 people had been rescued though many thousands remained trapped in burning buildings and debris. Emergency teams of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of volunteers fanned out across the country to help the survivors. Jack Wallace, the Deputy Director of the Emergency Measures Organization noted that while the Saint Laurence Seaway system had been knocked out at Montreal, Welland, and Sault Ste Marie, the railway service could be quickly restored. While casualties were high, over 14 million Canadians had survived the multiple attacks. He also estimated that one half to two-thirds of industry could be quickly made operational and one-half of hydro power was still in commission. There was also sufficient food to feed all Canadians. Canada had come through the nuclear attack severely damaged but intact, with a nucleus of a national government still functioning at Camp Petawawa where fallout was considered light.

Thankfully, this horrific scenario was just that…a scenario called Exercise Tocsin B-1961 that played out on 13 November 1961 as part of Canada’s test of its emergency civil defences. However, all the events described leading up to the test are factual. While the test may seem fanciful to today’s Gen. “Xers” and Millennials, for those who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, it was very real. The Cold War was a time of great worry and stress. Exercise Tocsin B-1961 was held exactly one year before the Cuban missile crisis when the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union played a high-stakes game of “chicken,” where one false movement by either side could have led to a global nuclear holocaust.

Sources:

Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association, “Steps to Survival,” http://civildefencemuseum.ca/.

Emergency Measures Organization, 1961. Eleven Steps to Survival, Ottawa: Queen’s Printer.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1961. “Tocsin B Alarm Goes Off Accidentally In Ottawa,” 13 November.

————————-, 1961. “Nuclear War Test: PM Among ‘Casualties’ As Toll Tops 3-Million,” 14 November.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1961. “Stupid To Start War Nehru Tells Khrushchev,” 7 September.

————————–, 1961. “Don’t Want War,” 7 September.

————————–, 1961. “War Not Impossible, PM Warns,” 10 November.

————————–, 1961. “Attack Warning Study Alarms Inside Buildings,” 13 November.

————————–, 1961. “Exercise Tocsin, Ottawa ‘Destroyed,’ 175,000 Toll.

————————–, 1961. “Cabinet Met Underground,” 15 November.

————————–, 1961. “Government Counts Tocsin Toll,”

 

The Ottawa Sewer Explosions

29 May 1929 and 28 January 1931

Almost ninety years ago, the City of Ottawa was rocked by two series of sewer explosions that occurred twenty months apart. The first happened on 29 May 1929, and the second on 28 January 1931. Both hit the same areas of town—Sandy Hill, Vanier (then called Eastview) and New Edinburgh—and caused extensive damage. There was also one fatality in the first set of blasts; many were injured. Despite three inquiries, the exact cause of the explosions was never conclusively determined though leaking illuminating gas used for lighting was believed to have been the culprit. However, a lengthy law suit launched by the City against the Ottawa Gas Company to cover the costs of the second explosions failed.

Sewer 1929 29 May OEJournal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 May 1929

 

The 1929 explosions began shortly before noon on 29 May in the block bounded by Cartier, Frank, Waverely and Elgin Streets in the Golden Triangle neighbourhood of Centre Town, blowing out manhole covers in the area.  The resulting fire ignited gas inside the main sewer line running eastward under the Rideau Canal, causing shaking, rumbling and venting through manholes on Templeton Avenue, Henderson Avenue and Nelson Streets in Sandy Hill, before travelling down St Patrick Street and into New Edinburgh on the other side of the Rideau River along Crichton, MacKay and John Streets to the sewage outlet into the Ottawa River. There were also a number of smaller blasts in the Eastview and Clarkstown areas (Vanier) between Montreal Road and Beechwood Avenue.

At least twenty-eight manhole covers were blown in the air, some thirty to forty feet, before crashing to the ground. Clouds of smoke and vivid tongues of flame were reported emanating from the manholes. Mrs Hannah Henderson, age 73, of 37 Templeton Avenue was killed when flames shot out of her kitchen sinkhole and ignited her clothes. Although she managed to flee her home, she later succumbed to her injuries in hospital. Around the corner at 192 Henderson Avenue, Miss Lilian Pettapiece, age 20, escaped a similar house fire with serious burns. She had been in her cellar choosing potatoes for lunch when she was enveloped by flames that shot out of a sewer connection. Despite choking fumes, she managed to stumble up the stairs to the outside where she was rescued. Many others were injured by flying glass blown from windows. The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Avenue was rocked from its foundations by the force of a blast and was gutted by fire. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Mrs Blackler suffered a narrow escape, however. She had just walked out of the kitchen a minute before it was wrecked. An apartment building at the corner of Somerset Street East and Chapel Street, which housed a grocery on the ground floor, also suffered serious structural damage. In New Edinburgh, St Martin’s Anglican Chapel on John Street was destroyed. In total, the sewer explosion caused roughly $40,000 in property damage.

Sewer explosion 30-5-1929 TOJ

The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the  Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Street after the sewer explosion, 29 May 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 30 May 1929.

Ottawa’s mayor Arthur Ellis was convinced that the explosions were not due either “to defects in the city sewer,” or to sewer gas (a mixture of hydrogen sulphide and other gases). Municipal leaders commissioned John Campbell from the Edison Illuminating Company of Boston to conduct an inquiry into the disaster. Campbell concluded that the exact nature of the gases that exploded might never be known as no tests were performed on gas in the sewers prior to the explosion. However, he pointed to two possibilities: i) gasoline vapours due to the improper disposal of gasoline by homeowners, leakages from the growing number of service stations in the area, and waste from dry-cleaners, or ii) a leak from a gas main. He noted that the Ottawa Gas Company had been digging for leaks prior to and during the day of the explosion. He added that the sewer explosion need not have been the result of a single big leak but could have been due to a number of small ones. While not specifically pointing the finger at illuminating gas, he added that the lack of soot deposits and the nature of the fire suggested a gas lighter than air was responsible; gasoline vapours are three times heavier than air whereas illuminating gas is half as heavy as air. Campbell was of the view that the exact point of ignition was in the Frank-Cartier Streets area. However, what caused the ignition would never be known. He postulated it could have been a lighted match, the backfire of an automobile, or a spark from a trolley wheel.

Rather than lay blame, which he argued was outside of the remit of his report, Campbell made a number of recommendations. These included the prompt investigation of complaints about gas smells (complaints prior to the explosion were apparently not investigate with any degree of diligence), the regulation of the sale of gasoline to homeowners, a prohibition on disposing of volatile fluids in the sewers, and the inspection of gasoline service stations. He also recommended the construction of ventilation stacks with fans to help dissipate volatile vapours in the sewers, and the hiring of additional staff by the City to keep up to date in the matter of inspecting, testing and the keeping of records.

The second series of sewer explosions began at roughly 4.30 pm on 29 January 1931 just two days after the City had made its last payment for damages from the previous explosion to St Martin’s Chapel. As was the case in 1929, it started in the Golden Triangle area of Centre Town, this time at the corner of Lewis and Robert Streets. The explosion was accidently ignited by a plumber’s assistant who was investigating the source of a foul odour in the basement of a home.  Apparently, a spark from a trowel he was using ignited gas emanating from the sewer.

Sewer, 29 May 1931 Journal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 January 1931

Replicating in many ways the 1929 disaster, the blast rumbled down the main sewer line blowing up manhole covers in Sandy Hill along Templeton Street, Nelson Street and Somerset Street East, through Strathcona Park, before travelling along the east bank of the Rideau River to John Street in New Edinburgh. As in 1929, twenty-eight manholes covers were sent flying, sixteen of which featured in the earlier disaster. The damage sustained to the sewer system was severe. There were at least four breaks. The 78-inch main sewer on the Eastview (Vanier) side of the Cummings Bridge, which carried much of the sewage from the eastern portions of the city to the outfall at John Street into the Ottawa River, was fractured. Another 54-inch sewer running from Ottawa South along the west bank of the Rideau River was also ruptured near the Strathcona Hospital. With these breaks, sewage backed up into Sandy Hill. To prevent the flooding of homes, the City excavated at two points, one on Somerset Street and the other near the Isolation Hospital, and pumped the sewer water into the Rideau River. In total, more than a mile of sewer was wrecked with damage placed at almost $400,000, roughly ten times that of the earlier 1929 sewer explosion.

Fortuitously, this time no lives were lost. There were, however, a number of close calls. Twelve-year old Munroe Dingwall of 138 Goulburn Avenue was skiing on Somerset Street East with friends when a manhole cover blew up beside him. The lad was lifted into the air, skis and all, and deposited stunned but unhurt into a snowbank. Poor Miss Pettapiece, who suffered grievous injuries in the 1929 explosions, was on a bus near home when a manhole exploded. She collapsed and had to be treated for shock. A number of children were skating on the Sandy Hill rink on Nelson Street between Somerset East and Templeton Street when gaping holes appeared in the streets around the rink. The children were unharmed and taken to safety.

The City launched two inquiries. The first by consulting engineers Gore, Naismith and Storrie of Toronto concluded that gasoline and illuminating gas were “reasonably probable” causes. Of the two possibilities, the engineers favoured illuminating gas on the grounds that there was little evidence of flames or black smoke emanating from the explosions that would have been characteristic of a gasoline fire. Also, they viewed it as improbable for a perfect mix of gasoline vapour and air to have occurred. But, in the absence of all data and an analysis of sewer air before the explosions, they refrained from given an opinion regarding the source of the responsible gas.

They did, however, make a number of recommendations. First, they recommended that there be a judicial inquiry under oath so that all relevant records and other information pertinent to an inquiry could be obtained. Second, they argued that Ottawa’s method of ventilating sewers was dangerous and obsolete. They recommended the construction of more ventilating shafts, the opening of manhole covers, and the checking of home drains attached to the sewers. Apparently, many were not properly trapped. Other recommendations included the regulation and supervision of establishments using flammable gases or liquids, a regular inspection of sewers every six months, and the construction of sewage treatment plants.

A second committee chaired by Dr Alfred E. MacIntyre, a retired former chief of the Explosives Branch of the Dominion Government, focused on the causes of the blasts. MacIntyre had also consulted on the Campbell Report into the earlier 1929 explosion. He was of the opinion that illuminating gas had been the cause of both explosions. His report concluded that “gas had adventitiously entered the soil, drainpipes, sewer, etc. from defects within the gas distributing system of the Ottawa Gas Company.” Needless to say, the Gas Company came up with the opposite conclusion averring “that gas is the last thing that could be considered in connection with the recent sewer explosions.”

MacIntyre was pretty damming of the City as well. His report said the City had made no attempt to investigate the 1929 explosion, and that the investigations of complaints about fouls smells from residents were “neither informative nor satisfactory.” He contended that members of the inspectorial staff “had neither developed their powers of observation nor acquired sufficient qualifications and knowledge to discriminate or determine the actual condition of hazards, nor a conception of fitting methods of relief, conditions largely attributable to lack of instruction and direction.” MacIntyre also criticized the City for improper ventilation of the sewers, a charge to which the City responded by saying that it was not responsible for keeping sewers free of volatile gases that enter the sewers through the negligence of another company.

On release of MacIntyre’s report, the Board of Control suspended Mr W. F. M. Bryce, the engineer responsible for Ottawa’s sewers for negligence in not taking adequate measures to ensure that the sewers were kept free from dangerous gases. Bryce subsequently resigned. Earlier in the year, Mr A.F. Macallum, the Commissioner of Works, had also resigned, having been held responsible for not taking sufficient precautionary measures to avoid a repetition of the 1929 blasts.

At City Hall, the two investigations into the 1931 explosions set the proverbial cat among the municipal pigeons. Amidst a rancorous debate, City Council defeated on a split 11-11 decision a motion supported by Mayor Allen for a judicial inquiry into the explosion as recommended by the consulting engineers from Toronto. A motion for an independent inquiry into the conduct of Mr Bryce, the sewer engineer, was also defeated on a close 11-10 decision. Subsequently, however, the City launched a law suit against the Ottawa Gas Company in the amount of $376,000 for damages resulting from the 1931 blasts. Despite the testimony of roughly 100 witnesses, the evidence provided by the two inquiries into the sewer explosions, and an admission of the Ottawa Gas Company that its pipes and gas mains had not been inspected since they were installed, the Court ruled in favour of the gas company owing to lack of evidence. After losing an appeal, the City paid the court cost of both parties.

Following the inquiries, the City took steps to improve ventilation in the sewers, including the establishment of another ventilation shaft in Strathcona Park. Measures were also taken to improve the investigation of complaints of sewer smells by residents through the establishment of a complaints bureau. In the end, only Mr Macallum, the former Commissioner of Works, took the fall for the sewer disaster. Roughly eighteen months after the explosion, the Board of Control unanimously re-appointed Mr W. F. M. Bryce to his old job as sewer engineer on the curious and vague grounds that the Board had earlier requested his resignation not because members felt that he “was not fully competent, but because of the nature of the report dealing with the investigation.”

Sources:

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1931, “May Call Further Expert Advice On Sewer Blasts,” 29 January.

————————————-, 1931. “Experts Differ Upon Cause Of Sewer Blasts,” 10 June.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1929. “City Denies Blame For Explosions, Continues Inquiry,” 30 May 1929.

————————————–, 1929. “Advises Ventilation Of Sewers, Restrictions Of Gasoline Sales And More Vigorous Inspections,” 4 October.

————————————–, 1931. “Discover Sewer Explosion Damage Much Greater,” 29 January.

————————————–, 1931, “Fourth Stack Will Be Built To Air Sewers,” 17 April.

————————————–, 1931. “Judicial Probe Under Oath Is Only Way To Learn cause Of Explosions, Says Report,” 20 April.

————————————–, 1931. “MacIntyre Report Sets It Theory Of Big Explosion,” 4 June.

————————————–, 1931. “Says Lighting Gas The Cause Of Explosions,” 10 June.

————————————–, 1931. “After Long Stormy Debate City Council Rejects More For Probe Of Sewer Blasts,” 18 August.

————————————–, 1931, “Board of Control Endorses Damage Suit For Big Sum Against Ottawa Gas Co.” 30 September.

—————————————, 1931. “Declares Pipes Only Inspected During Repairs,” 1 December.

—————————————, 1932. “Mayor States All Favorable To W.F. M. Bryce,” 17 September.

————————————–, 1932. “Open Type Tops Would Have Cleared Gases,” 25 November.

The Russell House Hotel

8 June 1863

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the centre of Ottawa’s social life was the Russell House Hotel that stood on the southeast corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. It was a grand and stately hostelry that dated back to about 1845. Originally, the hotel was a three-storey structure with an attic and tin roof known as Campbell’s House after its first owner. Located in Upper Town close to the Rideau Canal, it was the main stopping point for people vising Bytown, later known as Ottawa. Its food and other supplies came from Montreal by river in the summer and overland by sled in the winter.

russell-hotel-1864-library-and-archives-canada-c-002567b

The original Russell House Hotel, formerly Campbell’s Hotel, c. 1864, Library and Archives Canada, C-002567B

When Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, the future of the small community was secured. Its population soared after the Parliamentary and Governmental buildings were completed in the early 1860s, and civil servants and Members of Parliament decamped from Quebec City to Ottawa. Thinking ahead to the business opportunities that this influx of people would bring, Mr James A. Gouin from Quebec City bought Campbell’s Hotel. He renamed it the Russell House after the Russell Hotel in Quebec City where he had worked.

russell-hotel-1-12-1863-oc

Advertisement, The Ottawa Citizen, 17 July 1863

Advertisements dated 8 June 1863 appeared regularly in the Ottawa Citizen through the latter part of that year announcing that Gouin, the new proprietor of the Russell House, had completely repainted and refurnished “this commodious Establishment,” and that “on the 10th instant” would be ready to receive visitors. The hotel could accept twenty five to thirty boarders “at reasonable rates.”  The advertisement added that Gouin had been “connected for many years with Russell’s Hotel, Palace Street [Côte du Palais], Quebec.” This hotel, located just a few blocks from the provincial parliament buildings (now the site of Parc Montmorency), had been owned by the Russell family, Americans who had apparently settled in Quebec when it had been the centre of the lumber industry. Gouin later built the Caledonia Springs Hotel, a famous spa in eastern Ontario, and was appointed Ottawa Postmaster by Sir John A. Macdonald.

russell-hotel-james-grouin-1895-the-canadian-album

Mr James A. Gouin, First Proprietor and Manager of the Russell House Hotel, The Canadian Album, 1895.

Like its namesake at Quebec, the new Russell House Hotel was conveniently located at short stroll from Parliament Hill. It immediately attracted the great and powerful, becoming the home for many Members of Parliament, including Sir John A. Macdonald, in need of a place to live while the House of Commons and Senate were in session.  On Confederation Day, 1 July 1867, the Russell House was full, hosting prominent Canadians from across the country who had come to Ottawa to bear witness to that first Dominion Day, now known as Canada Day. Other prominent early guests included George Brown, the fiery Liberal MP. He was apparently staying at the Russell when he penned a complaint to Macdonald regarding the cost of building the Parliament buildings saying: Never mind expenses. Go ahead. Ruin the Country. Stop at nothing. Why not fountains and parks and gardens? It is also believed D’Arcy McGee, the Canadian nationalist and Father of Confederation who was assassinated in 1868 penned some of his poems at the Russell House Hotel.

russell-hotel-topley-studio-fonds-lac-pa008436

The Russell House Hotel, July 1893, Topley Studio Fonds/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008436.

The hotel was enlarged during the 1870s, with the “New Wing” erected on the Elgin Street side across from the Central Chambers (which still stand today). The hotel’s dining room was located in this wing. In 1880, the original Campbell’s Hotel building was torn down and was replaced by a new, larger, five-storey building on Sparks Street, built in the French Second Empire style, with shops located at ground level. Shortly afterwards, a final extension was made on the east side of the building towards what was then known as Canal Street. (Canal Street disappeared with the building of Confederation Plaza and the extension of the Driveway in 1928.) In the end, the hotel boasted more than 250 rooms.

The hotel reached its peak of popularity during the 1880s and 1890s, and was famous across the country as the place to stay while visiting the nation’s capital. The hotel’s manager, François Xavier St Jacques, who succeeded Gouin, was a living legend. Known as “the Count,” St Jacques was a great eccentric who greeted guests wearing high heel shoes that gave him an odd gait. Visiting Victorian luminaries, such as Oscar Wilde, Lilly Langtry, Lillian Russell, and the boxer “Gentleman” Jim Corbett were Russell House guests. Sir Mackenzie Bowell lived there for seventeen years, including when he was prime minister from 1894 to 1896. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was another long-term tenant, staying at the Russell for ten years before moving to Laurier House in 1897. The hostelry with its long bar and leather chairs was also the site of many political intrigues and debates over the decades, second only to the Parliament buildings themselves.

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Russell House Hotel Dining Room, May 1884, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027059.

The Russell House Hotel, synonymous with Ottawa and renowned across the country for elegance and fine dining, was eclipsed by the Château Laurier Hotel when that hotel opened for business a short distance away in 1912. By then, the grand old lady had become worn and shabby. In 1923, several thousand dollars was spent upgrading the main entrance and the rotunda, but it was too little too late. By that point, the hotel was rat and cockroach infested.

At noon on 1 October 1925, the hotel closed for good, a victim of rising costs and declining occupancy rates. Paradoxically, bookings during the hotel’s last summer had been strong, with the hotel attracting both tourist and convention business; the Russell was the headquarters of the Dominion Trades & Labour Congress that year. But that was not enough to keep the venerable hotel from closing. On its last night, more than 150 guests were booked into the hotel. They had to take “pot luck” for supper in the cafeteria as food supplies were limited. In the rotunda, a number of old timers sat on battered chairs reminiscing about happier times. One hotel veteran was moved by the occasion to pen a poem entitled “Old Russell Farewell.” Its first verse went:

Adieu, adieu old rendezvous

With saddened hearts we’re leaving you;

‘Twas here friends were wont to meet;

Here argued we affairs of state,

How oft’ we talked long and late,

To make the other fellow know.

Ah! Life is but a passing show.

The next morning, with guests forced to seek their breakfast outside of the hotel, the place was virtually deserted. By shortly after noon, the only employee left out of a staff of 150 was a desk clerk tallying up the last day’s receipts. Gone also were the hotel’s “permanent” residents who had called the hotel home. One had been living at the Russell for thirty-three years.

Initially, its then owner, Russell L. Blackburn, planned to tear down the old hotel and replace it with a modern $1 million hostelry. However, Ottawa City Council balked at his demand to fix his property tax at $7,400 for twenty years. The empty building went into limbo, though the many ground-floor stores continued to operate until the Federal Capital District (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell block of buildings and torn them down as part of its efforts to beautify the capital. In its place, the FDC built Confederation Plaza in commemoration of the diamond anniversary of Confederation in 1927.

The FDC bought the hotel property and the adjacent Russell Theatre property for $1,270,379.15 (equivalent to roughly $17.7 million in today’s money). The deal was still incomplete when just before midnight on 14 April 1928, the hotel went up in flames in a massive fire. Virtually all of Ottawa’s available fire equipment, which at the time was still being pulled by horses, were called in to tackle the blaze. Five firemen were injured by falling debris and flying glass. The cause of the fire was never ascertained. There was a suspicion of arson as first responders found fires in various places on different floors. However, the fire marshal speculated that had the fire been due to an electrical fault, the fire could have easily spread through the walls and floors before the alarm was called in. Alternatively, the evening’s high winds could have carried embers from floor to floor through the hotel’s many broken and open windows.

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Russell House Hotel after the fire, 1928, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025085.

Thousands of Ottawa citizens watched the firemen fight the blaze. Many were in evening clothes having just left parties and dances. Guests at the Château Laurier Hotel located across Connaught Plaza from the Russell watched the fire from the windows of their rooms. Other spectators arrived by car, with the best parking spots on Parliament Hill near the East Block. There, people watched in the comfort of their heated automobiles. Knowing that the building was slated for demolition, people cheered as the fire progressed. It reached its height at about 2.30am when the flag pole over the central entrance succumbed to the flames. At 4am, more than a thousand hardy spectators were still on hand despite the cold. The firemen were able to contain the blaze, and stop the conflagration from spreading to other structures. At one point Ottawa’s City Hall further down on Elgin Street was threatened. Ironically, the City Hall was to be destroyed by fire three years later.

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The Premier Hat Company before the fire, 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4821789.

Losses from the Russell Hotel fire were relatively modest given the scale of the blaze. The Hotel was insured for only $30,000, the low amount reflecting the fact that it was almost derelict and had been emptied of its contents. Some of the small, street-levels shops were not so lucky. “The Treasure House” owned by Herbert Grierson, which sold jewellery, pottery, paintings, china and leather goods, suffered losses of $15,000-$20,000, of which only $8,000 was covered by insurance. The Premier Hat Company lost $10,000 in stock but carried only $2,500 in insurance. Looters also walked off with dozens of hats; one was seen carrying seventeen. Although the owner, Mr Samuel Gluck, was on hand, he was unable to rescue his stock in time owning to difficulty in obtaining a moving truck. Eighteen crates of Persian and Chinese carpets worth $90,000 were also stored in the former cafeteria of the Russell on Elgin Street awaiting auction. Fortunately, the carpets escaped with only minor water damage. They were disposed of in a “fire sale” held a few days later.

With the hotel ruined, the authorities moved to clear the rubble. It took longer than expected with the city threatening legal action against the wrecking company if it didn’t hurry up. But at precisely 1.06 pm on Saturday 10 November 1928 the grand old Russell House Hotel, which had been the focal point of Ottawa social and political life for over sixty years, entered history. The last remnant to go was its 80-foot chimney. Recognizing the historic nature of the event, A. Brahinsky, a representative of City Iron & Bottle Company, announced the time of the pending demolition to allow citizens to come and watch the spectacle. Hundreds cheered as the chimney crash to the ground, brought down by heavy cables and a horse truck. There must have been a few tears, however. The Ottawa Journal commented that “there must be many among us who, as one by one the old landmarks go, feel little but loss of happy reminders of a brave and gracious past.”

Today, no trace of the old Russell House Hotel remains. The site of the hotel is now occupied by the War Memorial.

 

Sources:

Cockrane, William, Rev., 1895. The Canadian Album. Men of Canada; or Success by Example in Religion, Patriotism, Business, Law, Medicine, Education and Agriculture, Bradley Garretson & Co: Brantford,

Evening Journal (The), 1924. “Fixed Hotel Assessments,” 2 October.-

—————————, 1925. “Reached No Decision Over Hotel Request,    23 January.

—————————, 1925. “New Russell House Is Going Out Of Business After Being In Operation Over 50 Years,” 1 September.

—————————, 1925.  “Russell Hotel Comes To An End Of Long Career,” 1 October.

—————————, 1928. “Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey To Flames,” 16 April.

—————————, 1928. “Russell Hotel For 60 Years Past An Intimate Part Of City Life,” 16 April.

—————————, 1928. “Demolish Russell,” 9 November.

—————————, 1928. “Hundreds Watch Demolition of Big Chimney At Russell,” 12 November.

—————————, 1928. “The Old Russell House: Some Memories,” 13 November.

—————————, 1934. “Understanding Shown In Letters Between King, Ministry and Ottawa Concerning Beautification of City, 6 January.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1863. “Russell House,” 17 July.

————————-, 1925. “Russell Hotel Closes Doors: Passing of Historic Hotel Is Devoid Of Any Ceremony,” 1 October.

————————-, 1928. “Fire Will Help Park Scheme To Pass Commons,” 16 April.

 

The Funeral of J. Thad Johnson

3 July 1927

The fiftieth anniversary of Canada’s Confederation in 1917 came and went with only a token official acknowledgement. The horror of World War I was at its height and Canadians had more important things on their mind. But by the time of the Diamond Jubilee ten years later, Canada was feeling its oats. The country was at peace, the economy was booming, and, with the 1926 Balfour Declaration just a few months earlier, Canada had been recognized as being the equal of and in no way subordinate to the United Kingdom. It was time for a party. Three consecutive days of celebrations, festivities and parades were organized across the country, starting on Dominion Day, Friday, 1 July.

With Ottawa festooned with flags and bunting, Day I featured the Governor General, the Viscount Willingdon (later the Marquess of Willingdon), laying the cornerstone of the Confederation Building on Wellington Street, followed by the inauguration of the 53-bell carillon in the newly completed Peace Tower, and official speeches on Parliament Hill. Later that day, a huge parade of floats wended its way through downtown Ottawa. The floats featured exhibits depicting Canadian history, industry, and economic progress. A guest of honour at the festivities was Hortence Cartier, the only surviving daughter of Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier, one of Canada’s leading “fathers” of Confederation.

The highlight of Day II of the Jubilee celebrations was a visit by the hero of the hour American Colonel Charles Lindbergh, the “Eagle of the Atlantic.” Just weeks early, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic travelling from New York City to Paris in his single-engine, monoplane The Spirit of St. Louis, specially built by Ryan Airlines and custom designed by the aeronautical engineer Donald Hall. Although this was not the first transatlantic flight, it was almost double the length of that initial 1919 flight from Newfoundland to Ireland by British aviation pioneers John Alcott and Arthur Brown. By successfully making the first New York to Paris flight, Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize. It took the 25-year old Lindbergh 33 ½ hours to make the solo flight. To lighten the airplane to allow it to carry more fuel, Lindbergh had stripped it of “unessential” equipment such as a sextant, radio, and a parachute. Lindbergh arrived in Paris to a hero’s welcome. Returning home by a U.S. naval ship, Lindbergh received a rapturous reception from American fans, and was feted to a tickertape parade through New York City. He followed this by a three-month, celebratory tour of 92 American cities.

Lindbergh landing 1927

Charles Lindbergh arriving in Ottawa flying The Spirit of St. Louis, 2 July 1927, Library and Archives Canada, PA-027647.

Lindbergh was also invited to Canada to help celebrate the Dominion’s Diamond Jubilee. Accompanying the intrepid aviator on his journey north were twelve airmen of the 1st Pursuit Group of the United States Army Air Service. Based at Selfridge airfield, north of Detroit, Michigan, the Group flew Curtis P-1 Hawk biplanes. Leaving early in the morning of 2 July, the airmen flew directly from their aerodrome, travelling across Lake St. Clair and southern Ontario before heading to Ottawa. They arrived over a temporary airfield located about a quarter mile from the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club on the Bowesville Road, roughly the location of the Ottawa Airport today, at 1pm, one hour late from their scheduled arrival time. Nobody had informed the flyers that Ottawa was on daylight savings time. (Prior to World War II, the decision to adopt daylight savings time was left up to cities not the province.) A huge crowd, kept back from the landing strip by police and 500 militia members, had assembled to greet the flyers.

After making a tour over Ottawa, Lindbergh safely landed his famous silver-grey airplane, and taxied to the side to make way for the accompanying squadron that was wowing the crowd by swooping low over the fields in its famous “V” formation. The twelve airplanes were divided into four sets of three. Only 25 to 50 feet separated one airplane from

Curtis P1 Hawk

The U. S. Air Force Curtis P-1 Hawk, Wikipedia.

another. To land, the biplanes went into a “Laffberg circle,” the formation typically used for landing on a small airfield, with each machine touching ground in turn. The first seven airplanes landed without incident. With five still in the air, the leader of the final fourth set, Lieutenant John Thad Johnson, aged 34, unexpectedly side-skipped to the left, the typical indication that for some reason he wished to land out of sequence. As customary in such situations, the next pilot in line, Lieutenant H. A. Woodring, moved ahead into the position vacated by Johnson. Suddenly, Woodring’s aircraft was struck as Johnson’s airplane reared up, its tail hitting Woodring’s propeller. With its “elevator” sheared off, Johnson’s airplane spun out of control from a height of only three hundred feet. Johnson initially tried to ride his aircraft down, but at an altitude of only 100 feet, he jumped. Although his parachute functioned properly, there was insufficient time for it to fully deploy. Johnson struck the ground with horrific force, leaving an eighteen-inch depression in the ground. Although doctors and an ambulance had been stationed at the field in the event of an accident, there was nothing that could be done. Death was instantaneous. Johnson’s crippled biplane crashed nose-down 100 yards away. The aviator’s broken wristwatch indicated precisely the time of death: 12.21, or 1.21 Ottawa time.

Johnson Thad

Lieut. J. Thad Johnson, 1893-1927, Born: Johnson City, Texas, Died: Ottawa, Canada. Collection of Troy Benear, Grandnephew of J. Thad Johnson.

The tragedy occurred in front of thousands of stunned onlookers, as well as Col. Lindbergh and the other members of the pursuit squadron. Immediately, soldiers surrounded Lieutenant Johnson’s crushed body and his downed airplane, holding back the crowds and stopping souvenir hunters. Lindbergh, ashen-faced, was driven to the site of Lieut. Johnson’s body where he paid his respects before being driven away in an open limousine for the official greeting ceremonies on Parliament Hill.

On the Hill, the packed crowds had been waiting for hours in the hot July sun for a glimpse of the famous aviator. Finally, delayed more than two hours, the shaken Lindbergh arrived on Parliament Hill in the limousine. Few in the cheering multitude were aware of the tragedy that had just occurred. Despite the strain he was under, Lindbergh, dressed in a double-breasted, blue, serge suit was greeted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and William Phillips, the American Minister to Canada (equivalent to ambassador). Phillips called Lindbergh the United States’ “unofficial ambassador,” and noted that the aviator, who was born in Detroit, had Canadian blood in his veins; Lindbergh’s grandfather on his mother’s side had been born in Canada.

Lindbergh speaking 1927

Charles Lindbergh speaking on Parliament Hill, 2 July 1927, Library and Archives Canada, C-006257.

The Prime Minister greeted Lindbergh in the name of the government and the people of Canada. He called the aviator “the embodiment of the spirit of the Happy Warrior,” a gentleman unafraid.” The visibly stricken Lindbergh spoke for less than ten minutes, pausing between words. After saying, how much he had appreciated the welcome he had received from Canadians, he added that in flying from Detroit he was struck by the need for air transportation in Canada and the United States.  Airlines would eliminate distance and would bring Americans and Canadians even closer that they already were. Nobody mentioned the death of Thad Johnson.

After his short speech, Lindbergh was whisked away to perform his other official duties: meeting the Governor General, going to Lansdowne Park for a series of sporting events, and then back to Mackenzie King’s home, Laurier House, before attending the government dinner on Parliament Hill in honour of William Phillips, the American representative in Canada. While these events were going on, a coroner’s inquest was hastily held into the death of Thad Johnson. Evidence given by the U.S. airmen suggested that the most likely reason for Johnson’s airplane to go out of control was “propeller wash,” a frequent hazard when planes are flying close to each other. No blame was ascribed to Lieutenant Woodring whose airplane was in collision with Johnson’s. The Crown Attorney conclude that the “most lamentable accident was due to mischance.”

Johnson funeral

Funeral of Lieut. J. Thad Johnson in from of the old Ottawa Post Office, Wellington Street, Ottawa, 3 July 1927, Library and Archives Canada, PA-0279950.

The Canadian government quickly organized a state funeral for Lieutenant Johnson to be held the following day, 3 July, Day III of the Jubilee celebration. His body was placed in a bronze casket, and conveyed to the East Block of the Parliament Buildings. There, he laid in state through the morning and early afternoon. Members of the RCAF stood with bowed heads at each corner of the casket which was draped with the American Stars and Stripes. Thousands passed by the flower-bedecked bier. After a curtailed Jubilee Thanksgiving Service held at the Auditorium presided over by the Governor General, Canadian officials and other dignitaries hurried over to Parliament Hill to pay their respects to the fallen airman and to attend his funeral. Reverend (Major) H. I. Horsey of the 38th Royal Ottawa Highlanders read the service. More than 25,000 people watched the proceedings and the imposing military funeral cortege. Camille Lefebvre, assistant carillonneur of the cathedral at Malines, Belgium, played Chopin’s Death March followed by Handel’s Death March from Saul, on the newly-inaugurated carillon in the Peace Tower. The Union Jack above Parliament was lowered out of respect for the fallen aviator.

After the funeral, the flag-draped casket was carefully placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage, and, to muffled drums, was drawn slowly to the train station, escorted by RCMP officers in their scarlet dress uniforms. On either side were three RCAF flying officers acting as honorary pallbearers. Leading the cortege was the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, followed by a firing party and buglers. Official mourners included the Prime Minister, the U.S. Minister to Canada, and Vincent Massey, the Canadian Envoy to the United States who had hurried up to Ottawa from Washington, as well as the Chairman of the Jubilee Committee, Cabinet members, senior militia officers, civil servants, and the Boy Scouts. More than 100 officers and 1,000 other ranks, from almost every military unit in the region, were represented. When the funeral cortege halted in front of the Chateau Laurier Hotel, seven members of the U.S. Pursuit team swooped down low before climbing high again to salute Lieutenant Johnson.

At Union Station, its cheery Jubilee bunting removed in favour of funereal black and purple, the casket was transferred into the care of a U.S. army official, and conveyed to a special funeral train organized by Canadian National Railway for Lieutenant Johnson’s last trip back to Selfridge Field, Michigan. After the train left the station, Colonel Lindbergh, flying The Spirit of St. Louis, threw peonies over the carriage as a final tribute to the fallen airman. Railwaymen collected the blossoms so that they could be delivered to Johnson’s young widow; the couple had been married only a year.

Lieutenant Johnson’s remains were buried the following day in Fenton, Michigan.  Today, a small road called Thad Johnson Private, located near the Ottawa airport not far from where the pilot fell to his death, honours the memory of the American Pursuit pilot.

 

Sources:

Ottawa Journal (The), 1927. “Ottawa Jubilee Celebrations Will Surpass In Its Scope Anything Hitherto Planned,” 1 July.

—————————, 1927. “Col. Lindbergh With ‘Spirt of St. Louis’ Leads Squadron of U.S. Planes.” 2 July.

—————————, 1927. “Plane Flowers on the Casket of Dead Pilot,” 4 July.

————————–, 1927. “Capital Bows Head In Sorrow As Body OF U.S. Flyer Is Borne Slowly To Funeral Train,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Greets ‘Lindy’ As Gentleman Without Fear,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Lieut. J.T. Johnson Is Killed As He Leaps From Airplane Disabled In Air Collision,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Flier’s Parachute Opens But Distance Too Short To Break Rapid Fall Towards The Field,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Impressive National Thanksgiving Service Held in the Auditorium,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Assured Safety Visiting Airmen and Spectators,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Greatly Enjoyed His Stay While In The Capital City Says Lindbergh On Landing, 5 July.

Spirit of St. Louis 2 Project, 2014. Charles Lindbergh, An American Aviator, The Story of the Land Family, http://www.charleslindbergh.com/.

The Early Birds of Aviation, Inc. 2000. John Thad Johnson, http://earlyaviators.com/ejthadjo.htm.