Ottawa’s Royal Swans

28 June 1967

In Britain, there has been an association between the monarchy and mute swans (Cygnus Olor) that dates back to the twelfth century. Traditionally, the Crown claims ownership of all mute swans in open water in England and Wales. The monarch can, however, give the privilege of owning swans to others. In 1483, King Edward IV ruled that only the gentry owing land worth more than five marks (£3. 7s. 6d.) could own “swannes.” Today, other than the Crown, only three groups hold the privilege of owning the waterfowl—the Company of Vintners and the Company of Dyers, who received the right in the 1460s, and the Ilchester family of Abbotsbury, Dorset. The Ilchester family gained the privilege when it acquired property previously owned by Benedictine monks following the dissolution of the monasteries during the sixteenth century by King Henry VIII. Today, the Queen’s swan rights are only enforced over part of the Thames River. Each year, at the ceremonial “Swan Upping,” held during the third week in July, young swans, called cygnets, are rounded up on the river between the towns of Sunbury and Abingdon and distributed among the Crown and the two Companies. In the old days, the beaks of the swans going to the Companies were marked, one nick for Dyers’ birds and two nicks for Vintners’ birds. Birds owned by the Crown were left unmarked. Today, instead of nicking the beaks, the birds are banded.

Swans

Royal swans, 1987. City of Ottawa Archives/CA024408.

You might wonder why all the bother. The purpose of the modern “Upping” is not so much about ownership but rather about monitoring the health of the mute swan population on the Thames. It’s also about having fun, dressing up in fancy uniforms and getting out on the water in traditional wooden skiffs on a warm, summer’s day. Back in medieval times, however, it was very serious business. Swans were a valuable commodity, and were eaten as poultry, much like chickens, ducks and geese are today. Swan was the fowl of choice of the aristocracy at feasts. But for some reason, swan flesh went out of fashion. The taste might have been a factor. While Master Chef Mario Batali claims swan meat is “delicious—deep red, lean, lightly gamey, moist, and succulent”—others have called it “gristly” and “mud flavoured.”  If you happen to come across swan at your neighbourhood butcher (most unlikely), and wish to give it a try, here is a link to a fourteenth-century recipe for roasted swan with chaudon (a.k.a. giblet) sauce. Roasted swan.

Royal mute swans came to Ottawa in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, as a gift to the nation’s capital from Queen Elizabeth who also doubles as Seigneur of Swans. It was not the first time that Canada has received Royal swans. In 1912, George V gave a pair of Royal mute swans from his flock at Hampton Court to St Thomas, Ontario. The birds were settled on Pinafore Lake. They didn’t flourish. More mute swans were imported in the early 1950s from the United States, Scotland and from Stratford, Ontario which itself received mute swans in 1918 from Mr J. C. Garden. Today, St Thomas’s imported mute swans have been replaced by native trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) in a programme to re-introduce the breed into southern Ontario. King Edward VIII also presented two Royal swans to North Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1936.

The gift of swans has not always been unidirectional. In 1951, the Federal and British Columbian governments gave six Canadian trumpeter swans to the then Princess Elizabeth. The swans were put into the care of the Severn Wild Fowl Trust.

Ottawa’s Royal mute swans arrived in the city in late May 1967, the culmination of careful planning on the part of Buckingham Place, Rideau Hall, the City of Ottawa, the Federal government and two airlines. Arriving by airplane at Uplands Airport, the birds, which had been specially selected by the Keeper of the Queen’s Swans from the Thames River, were placed into precautionary quarantine. At 4pm on 28 June 1967, following speeches by the Governor General and Ottawa’s Mayor Donald Reid in front of hundreds of guests, eight Royal swans were released into the Rideau River just above the Rideau Falls on the grounds of the old city hall (now the Federal government’s John G. Diefenbaker building) on Green Island. Two other pairs of swans remained at the “swan house” at the City’s Leitrum tree nursery for breeding purposes. Noting that swans mated for life, Governor General Roland Mitchener joked that in light of the prospective liberalization of Canada’s divorce laws, the birds might have to face “some previously unknown temptations.” The birds’ ability to fly was disabled to stop them from straying, physically if not maritially.

The swans were in place on July 1, 1967, Canada’s centennial day, ready for the Queen’s inspection when she and Prince Philip arrived at City Hall on their Royal Tour of Canada. The Ottawa Journal wrote that the swans, paddling from shore to shore on the Rideau River “enhanced a scene of calm and beauty.” Their “regal beauty complemented every natural and man-made fixture in sight.”

The graceful, long-necked, white birds were an instant sensation as they cruised the Rideau River, stopping along the way to eat aquatic vegetation, as well as the odd tadpole, snail or insect. Couples quickly established territories along the river bank. When the cold weather came in late October, the birds were moved to their winter quarters at Ottawa’s tree nursery in Leitrim. There, they were housed in less than regal surroundings in a greenhouse made of heavy-duty plastic and chicken wire with an earthen floor and an artificial pond. In 1971, a wooden swan house was built with pens for each couple and an outside exercise yard. The birds were cared by Ottawa’s first swanmaster, Mr Gerry Strik, who was also the manager of the Leitrim tree nursery. Mr Strik had previous experience caring for swans in his native Holland. That same year, the Royal swans made their theatrical debut, appearing in the National Arts Centre production of the Marriage of Figaro. Swanmaster Strik, dressed appropriately, was in the wings in case the birds misbehaved. Appearing on stage for the entire final act, the swans performed admirably.

Swans2

Swanmaster-Gerry Strik with Royal swans at their indoor winter quarters, March 9, 1978, City of Ottawa Archives/CA025513/Peter Earle.

There were, however, some reservations about the new Rideau River inhabitants. One City Councillor worried that the honking of swans might be a violation of the city’s anti-noise by-law. His concern was allied by Margaret Farr, the deputy commissioner of Ottawa’s Parks and Recreation Department. She said the birds were relatively quiet, though they sometimes “grunted like pigs.” Another councillor worried about the swans’ reproductive capacity. As mute swans lay clutches of up to five eggs, he figured that within five years Ottawa could be the proud owner of 72 pairs of birds. Mute swans are also long-lived, with a lifespan of thirty years or more.

This later concern turned out to be prophetic. Quickly, the swan population rose despite losses due to disease and misfortune. Sadly, there were also a number of cases of cruelty towards the birds and their nestlings. Eggs were also destroyed. One adult bird was shot while another was clubbed to death with a baseball bat. Yet another was found dead with a fish hook in its mouth. Two disappeared without a trace, presumably taken by somebody with a taste for swan flesh. Despite such losses, by the early 1970s, there were forty birds, and the City was looking around for solutions to limit their numbers; forty birds was deemed to be the maximum the Rideau River could accommodate. This gave rise to an interesting problem. Would it be a case of lèse majesté to dispose of some swans? After consulting the British High Commissioner and the Governor General, both of whom didn’t have an answer, the question was resolved by the Lord Chamberlain of England. His answer was there was no problem if the City gave swans away to good homes. However, such birds could not be designated as royal gifts. The Queen herself suggested that only two eggs be left in each nest.

Despite concerns about swan numbers, Ottawa acquired a pair of black Australian swans (Cygnus atratus) in July 1974. The source of the birds and the rationale for acquiring them are a bit murky. According to the City of Ottawa’s website, the birds came from the Montreal Zoo in an exchange. However, contemporary newspaper reports say they came to Ottawa in a trade with Wallaceburg, Ontario. These birds do not carry the “Royal” designation as they were not a gift from the Crown.

By the early 1990s, City Council, looking for cutbacks in an age of austerity, considered eliminating the city’s swans, and in the process saving some $37,500 or more per year in winter maintenance, a cost that had increased ten-fold since 1967 due partly to inflation and partly to the increase in the swan population. One city official jokingly suggested that Ottawa host a big barbecue. After receiving hundreds of letters in support of the birds, City Council instead agreed to reduce their numbers to save money. A few years later, City Council again tried to eliminate the swans. Jim Watson, a city alderman at the time, called the swans “a frill.” Fortunately for swan lovers, the high-tech. company Cognos stepped up in early 1996, providing $26,300 to cover that year the maintenance costs of twenty-two white Royal swans and 5 black Australian swans. The company continued to pay for the swans’ maintenance until 2007. The following year, IBM, which had taken over Cognos, stepped in and contributed $300,000 in a lump sum for the maintenance of the birds.

About the same time, concerns were raised about deteriorating conditions at the swan house at the Leitrim Tree Sanctuary. Although called “Swantanamo Bay” by some wags after the notorious U.S. military and prison camp in Cuba, the Ottawa Humane Society said the unsightly facility did not pose a “significant health or safety risk” to the birds. With IBM funds devoted to the annual maintenance of the birds, the city looked into building replacement quarters for the birds. With the estimated cost approaching $500,000 (!), the idea of building a new swan house was quickly shelved. When the Leitrim facility finally closed in 2015, the birds were sent to winter quarters at Parc Safari in Hemingford, Quebec under a two-year arrangement costing roughly $30,000 per year.

Typically, the swans are released back into the Rideau River in late May. However, in 2017, the swans, now a much reduced group of eight, six Royal mute swans and two black Australian swans, were released in late June owing to high water conditions prevailing earlier in the spring. Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Diane Deans officiated at the event held at Brantwood Park at the end of Clegg Street.

How many more years this annual event will take place remains an open question. While the Royal mute swans are attractive and have many admirers, they are considered an invasive species in North America that competes with native trumpeter swans. Although Ottawa’s swans on the Rideau are pinioned, a requirement of the Federal Wildlife Act in order to stop them flying away and going feral, pinioning is a controversial procedure. Liken to the cropping of the tail and ears of certain breeds of dogs or removing the claws of cats, pinioning involves the surgical removal of the pinion joint of the wing. This procedure permanently stops a bird’s flight feathers from growing thereby disabling its ability to fly. It’s typically done without anesthesia, and is banned in some countries under animal protection laws. While the swans are safe in 2017, Canada’s sesquicentennial year (and the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s gift), we shall have to see what happens once the celebrations are over. Unless another sponsor steps forward, the future of the Royal Swans of Ottawa remains uncertain.

Sources:

Answer Fella, 2011. “Why Not Eat a (Black) Swan on Oscar Night?” Esquire, 23 February, http://www.esquire.com/food-drink/food/a9453/black-swan-recipe-0311/.

Barger, Brittani, 2016, “Does the Queen really own all the swans?” Royal Central, http://royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/does-the-queen-really-own-all-the-swans-57621.

CBC, News, 2008. “IBM bails out Ottawa’s royal swans,” 20 November.

Cornell, Lab of Ornithology (The), 2017. “Mute Swan,” https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mute_Swan/lifehistory.

Duhaime.org. 2007. Crazy Laws—English Style (1482-1541), http://www.duhaime.org/LawFun/LawArticle-359/Crazy-Laws–English-Style-1482-1541.aspx.

Field, Mrs Marshall (Dolly), 1951. History of the St. Thomas Filed Naturalist Club, 1950-67), http://inmagic.elgin-county.on.ca/ElginImages/archives/ImagesArchive/pdfs/ECVF_B99_F30.pdf.

Globe and Mail, The, 1951. “To Send Royal Pair Gift Of 6 Swans,” 10 November.

————————–, 1955. “The Swans of St. Thomas,” 10 December.

————————–, 1992. “Squaking Squelches Notion Of Swan Song,” 23 April.

————————-, 1996. “With Her Swans Looked After,” 10 January.

————————-, 1996. “Cognos Picking Up Tab For Swans, $26,300 per year.” 10 October.

Gode Cookery Presents, 2017. “For to dihyte a swan,” Medieval recipes, http://www.godecookery.com/mtrans/mtrans52.html.

Ottawa, City of, 2016. “Royal swans to be released along the Rideau River,” 20 May.

——————, 2016. “Royal swans make annual return to the Rideau River,” 24 May.

——————, 2017. “Royal Swan FAQs,” http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/animals-and-pets/other-animals#royal-swan-faqs.

Ottawa Humane Society, 2013. Royal Swan FAQs, https://web.archive.org/web/20091203010345/http://www.ottawahumane.ca/protection/swan.cfm

Ottawa, Journal (The), 1967.”Swans Fly Atlantic – By Plane,” 31 May.

—————————, 1967. “Royal Swan Song Worries Council,” 20 June.

—————————, 1967. “Mitchener To Present,” 21 June.

—————————, 1967. “Letter to Citizens of Ottawa from Mayor Don Reid,” 27 June.

—————————, 1967. “City’s Royal Swans ‘Launched,’” 29 June.

—————————, 1967. “Those Royal Swans,” 8 July.

—————————, 1967. “The Royal Swans,” 15 July.

—————————, 1967. “Swans To Winter In Leitrim,” 21 October.

—————————, 1971. “Royal Swan Upkeep Set At $3,500 in 1971.” 20 May.

—————————, 1971. “Royal Swans Have Part In NAC Opera,” 6 July.

—————————, 1971. “Royal Swan Clubbed to Death,” 21 October.

—————————, 1972. “Yes—Swans Can Be Given Away,” 20 March.

—————————, 1973. “Royal Swans….” 24 March.

—————————, 1973. “Queen Finds Answer To City’s Swan Dilemma,” 2 August.

—————————, 1978. “It’s Your Royal Flock,” 19 May.

—————————, 1979. “Swan Song,” 13 September.

—————————, 1979. “Attempt To Cut Numbers by 8 To 20 Defeated.” 13 October.

Ottawa Sun, 2016. “City Still Trying To Find A Permanent Winter Facility,” 24 November.

Queen’s Swan Marker, 2012. Royal Swan Upping, The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Edition, http://www.royalswan.co.uk/sources/indexPop.htm.

Shaw, Hank, 2015. On Eating Swans, http://honest-food.net/on-eating-swans/.

Stratford, City of, 2007. “The Swans of Stratford,” http://www.visitstratford.ca/uploads/brochure2007c.pdf.

St. Thomas Times Journal, 2013. “Nature takes toll on St. Thomas swan cygnets,” 21 August.

Toronto, City of, 2011, “Birds of Toronto,” https://www1.toronto.ca/City%20Of%20Toronto/City%20Planning/Environment/Files/pdf/B/Biodiversity_Birds_of_TO_dec9.pdf.

 

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The Canal Basin: Going, Going, Gone

14 November  1927

Readers may be surprised to learn that the Rideau Canal of the twenty-first century is considerably different from the Rideau Canal of the nineteenth century. In the old days, the Canal was very much a gritty, working canal. While it had its share of pleasure boats that plied its length, commerce was its main function. At its Ottawa end, barges, pulled by horses and men along canal-side tow paths, were drawn to warehouses that stretched from the Plaza at Wellington Street to the Maria Street Bridge (the predecessor of the Laurier Avenue Bridge). Lumber, coal and other materials were piled high along its banks awaiting delivery. Consequently, the Rideau Canal was anything but a scenic port of entry into the nation’s capital. Later, railroads and train sheds replaced the warehouses on the eastern side when the Central Depot, the forerunner of Union Station (currently the Ottawa Conference Centre and soon to be the temporary home of the Senate), opened in 1896. While practical, this was not an aesthetic improvement.

The quality of the Canal’s water during the late nineteenth century was also considerably different than that of today. While we sometimes complain about the turbid nature of the water and the summertime weeds that choke stretches of the waterway and parts of Dow’s Lake, this is nothing compared to the complaints of residents of the 1880s. Then the Canal literally stank. The sewer that drained the southern portion of Wellington Ward, the neighbourhood located between Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) and Bank Street flowed into the Canal at Lewis Street. The smell was particularly bad in spring when the effluent that had entered the Canal through the winter thawed. Reportedly, the stench of festering sewage was overpowering. So bad were the conditions, the federal government forced the municipal authorities to fix things. After considerable delay, a proper sewer was constructed.

The other not so delightful feature of the waterway was its flotsam and jetsam. Stray logs—a hazard to navigation—was the least of the problem. Prior to the first annual Central Canada Exhibition held in Ottawa in 1888, one concerned citizen pointed out the many nuisances to be found by boaters on the Canal. These included several carcasses of dead dogs floating in the Deep Cut (that portion of the Canal between Waverely Street and today’s city hall) and a bloated body of a horse bobbing in the water opposite the Exhibition grounds. The citizen also groused about the “vulgar habit” of people swimming in the Canal without “bathing tights.” He didn’t comment on the advisability of canal swimming given the horrific water quality.

The physical geography of the Rideau Canal was also different back then. Patterson’s Creek was much longer in the nineteenth century than it is today; its western end became Central Park in the early twentieth century. There was also Neville’s Creek that flowed through today’s Golden Triangle neighbourhood and entered the Canal close to Lewis Street. The Creek, which was described as a cesspool in the 1880s, was filled in during the early twentieth century.

But the biggest difference was the existence of a large canal basin located roughly where the Shaw Centre and National Defence are today on the eastern side of the Canal and the National Arts Centre and Confederation Park are on the western side.  This basin, which was lined with wooden docks, was used for mooring boats, turning barges, and picking up and delivering cargo and passengers.

Canal Basin 1842 (2)

Map of Bytown, 1842, Bytown or Bust. Note the Lay-By (Canal Basin) in the lower centre of the map on the Rideau Canal. The By-Wash can be seen running north east from the Lay-By to the Rideau River. Barracks Hill will become Parliament Hill in the 1860s.

Before the Canal was constructed, the canal basin was originally a beaver meadow from which a swamp extended as far west as today’s Bank Street. Following the Canal’s completion in 1832, which included digging out the basin, a small outlet or creek called the By-Wash extended from the north east side of the basin. It was used to drain excess water from the Canal. Controlled by a sluice gate, the By-Wash flowed down Mosgrove Street (now the location of the Rideau Centre), went through a culvert under Rideau Street, re-emerged above ground on the northern portion of Mosgrove Street, before heading down George Street, crossing Dalhousie Street on an angle to York Street, and then running along what is now King Edward Street to the Rideau River. In addition to controlling the Canal’s water level, the By-Wash was used by Lower Town residents for washing and fishing. In 1872, the City successfully petitioned the federal authorities who controlled the Rideau Canal to cover the By-Wash. It was converted into a sewer with only a small rump remaining close to the canal basin that was used as a dry dock.

Canal Basin 1888

Detail of 1888 Map of Ottawa, City of Ottawa Archives. Note the Canal Basin. By now, only a rump of the By-Wash remained.

Big changes to the canal basin started during the last decade of the nineteenth century. John Rudolphus Booth, Ottawa’s lumber baron and owner of three railways, the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway (the O.A. & P.S.), the Montreal & City of Ottawa Junction Railway, and the Coteau & Province Line Railway & Bridge Company (subsequently merged to form the Canadian Atlantic Railway–CAR), received permission from the Dominion government to bring trains into the heart of Ottawa. Hitherto, his railways provided service to the Bridge Street Station in LeBreton Flats and to the Elgin Street Station, both a fair distance from the city’s centre. In early March 1896, Booth, through his O.A. & P.S. Railway, acquired from the government a twenty-one year lease for the

Canal Basin Evening Journal 30-10-1897

Diagram of the Rideau Canal and the covered eastern Canal Basin, 1897, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 30 October 1897.

east bank of the Rideau Canal from Sapper’s Bridge (roughly the location of today’s Plaza Bridge) to the beginning of the Deep Cut for $1,100 per year “for the purpose of a canal station and approaches thereto.” Lease-holders of properties between Theodore Street (today’s Laurier Avenue East) and the canal basin were told to vacate. After building a temporary Central Depot at the Maria Street Bridge on the Theodore Street side, Booth subsequently extended the line across the canal basin to a new temporary Central Depot at the Military Stores building at Sappers’ Bridge.

Canal Basin c. 1900

Detail of Map of Ottawa, circa 1900, City of Ottawa Archives. Note that the eastern Canal Basin has disappeared.

Initially, the railway crossed the basin on trestles, leaving the basin underneath intact while Booth dredged the western side of the canal basin and built replacement docks—the quid pro quo with the government for removing the eastern basin’s docks. It seems that the government was reluctant to allow Booth to fill in the eastern portion of the basin until the western portion had been deepened, fearing that any unexpected rush of water might be larger than the locks could handle leading to flooding. By mid-March 1896, 75 men and 25-35 horses were hard at work excavating the site. The Central Depot at Sappers’ Bridge was completed in 1896, and was promptly the subject of dispute between Booth and his railway competitors who also wished to use a downtown station. There was rumours that if the Canadian Pacific Railway could not come to terms with Booth, it would build a railroad on the western side of the Canal with a terminus on the other side of Sappers’ Bridge across from the Central Depot. Fortunately, with government prodding an accommodation was made. Initially covered over with planks, the western portion of the Canal Basin was subsequently filled in. The Central Depot was replaced by Union Station in 1912.

Canal Basin Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys LACanadaPA-023229

Rideau Canal, circa 1911. The western Canal Basin is on the left. Union Station and the Château Laurier are under construction. Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, Library and Archives Canada, PA-023229.

If the eastern Canal Basin was sacrificed to the railway, the western Canal Basin was the victim of the automobile. This time, the Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, was responsible. Consistent with its plan to beautify the nation’s capital, the FDC in cooperation with the municipal authorities decided to extend the Driveway from the Drill Hall to Connaught Plaza (now Confederation Plaza) at a cost of $150,000. These funds also covered the construction of two connections with Slater Street, a subway at Laurier Avenue, new light standards, landscaping, and a new retaining wall for the Rideau Canal. Again, firms with warehouses at the Canal Basin, including the wholesale grocers L.N. Bate & Sons and the wholesale hardware merchant Thomas Birkett & Son, were forced to relocate. By the end of April 1927, workmen using steam shovels and teams of horses were hard at work filling in the western Canal Basin. Huge piles of earth were piled up near the Laurier Street Bridge ready to be shifted into the basin. On 14 November 1927, the last renovations to the Rideau Canal commenced with the construction of the new retaining wall from Connaught Plaza to the Laurier Street Bridge. With that, the old Canal Basin, which had served Ottawa for almost 100 years, vanished into history.

Sources:

Colin Churcher’s Railway Pages, 2017. The Railways of Ottawa, http://churcher.crcml.org/circle/Central_Depot_stations.htm#CARCentralDepot.

Daily Citizen (The), 1895. “Central Station Site,” 1 August.

Evening Citizen (The), 1898. “The New Line.” 11 June.

Evening Journal (The), 1888.” The City Sewerage,” 19 April.

—————————, 1888, “The By-Law,” 27 April.

—————————, 1888. “Canal Nuisances,” 28 May.

—————————, 1895. “Notice to Quit,” 3 October.

—————————, 1895. “Now For The New Basin,” 9 November.

—————————, 1896. “Now For The Depot,” 4 February.

—————————, 1896. “Basin Widening Begun,” 4 March.

—————————, 1896. “Pushing It Ahead,” 11 November.

—————————, 1896. “For The New Station,” 23 May.

—————————, 1897, “Picked From Reporter’s Notes,” 20 October.

————————–, 1897, “Special C.P.R. Depot All Talk,’ 30 October.

————————–, 1898, “The Central Station,” 7 November.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1925. “History of Early Ottawa,” 10 October.

————————–, 1927, “Start Filling Basin Of Rideau Canal,” 26 April.

————————–, 1927. “Artist’s Conception of Park Scheme Proposed by The Prime Minister,” 11 June.

————————–, 1927, “The Railways And he Central Station,” 1 November.

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

————————–, 1935. “Ottawa’s Beauty Developed On Broad Lines,” 10 December.

————————-, 1949. “Ottawa’s Vanished Water Traffic,” 15 September.

Ottawa, Past & Present, 2014. “Aerial View of the Rideau Canal 1927 and 2014,” http://www.pastottawa.com/comparison/aerial-view-of-the-rideau-canal/474/.

 

Asphalt Paving Comes to Ottawa

30 July 1895

North American roads in the nineteenth century were bad…very bad. Inter-urban “highways” typically consisted of little more than dirt paths carved through the wilderness. In boggy areas, so-called corduroy roads made of logs placed across the direction of travel were sometimes constructed. (They were called corduroy because their texture was reminiscent of corduroy fabric.) If you were very lucky, your highway might be planked, consisting of four-inch thick wooden planks attached to longitudinal stringers.  While relatively comfortable on which to drive, planked highways quickly deteriorated. Regardless of road surface, a journey by stagecoach must have been a slow, jolting and painful experience. Coach passengers were also expected to get out and push if their carriage got mired in mud. Needless to say, few travelled by road unless they had to. The true highways of the age were rivers, canals, and later the railway.

Things weren’t a whole lot better in towns. Urban streets, often made of dirt or gravel, were thick with mud when wet, rutted and dusty when dry, and virtually impassable except by sled in winter. In some well-to-do areas, roads were expensively laid with granite blocks known as sett paving. (This type of paving is sometimes called cobblestone paving, though true cobblestone roads were laid with naturally rounded stones set in mortar.) Another more common road surface in North American cities was cedar block paving, consisting of six-inch logs or squared wood set end down on a gravel base. This type of road was cheap but was subject to wear and rot, and lasted for only a few years before needing to be replaced. Cedar block roads were also extremely slippery when wet.

Roads, c. 1877 Sparks st between Elginand Metcalf, City of Ottawa Archives-CA-001504 unknown

Sparks Street between Metcalfe and Elgin Streets, c. 1877, photographer unknown.  Notice the wooden sidewalk set lower than the roadway. City of Ottawa Archives, CA-001504.

Relief came in the early nineteenth century with the introduction of roadways made by crushed stone developed by two Scottish engineers, Thomas Telford and John McAdam. Telford roads had a base of large rocks with an upper layer of smaller stones. They were also slightly convex to facilitate drainage. McAdam roads eschewed the expensive rock base recommended by Telford, relying instead on a native soil foundation. The roadway was then built up of stones of graduated sizes, the smallest size on top. Typically, no binding agent other than water was applied. Instead the weight of traffic packed down the stone into a durable roadway. McAdam roads became very popular in Europe and North America through the nineteenth century. (When tar was later added as a binding agent, tarmacadam was invented—“tarmac” for short.)

York Street, from Sussex Street to Dalhousie Street, was the first Ottawa roadway to be “macadamized” in June 1851. Forty years later, the Evening Journal described the capital’s streets as consisting of mostly mud or macadam, with a small amount of stone block paving on Bridge Street in LeBreton Flats and cedar block paving on Wellington Street.

Although macadam roadways were effective, they were also costly to maintain. By one estimate, the annual maintenance cost of a macadam road ran to as much as twenty percent of its original cost. This included daily repairs and patches, frequent sprinkling of water as often as three or four times a day to keep down dust, and the regular use of a heavy roller to pack the road down if traffic was insufficient to do so. Not surprisingly, this was not always done, leading to the deterioration of roadways, and complaints from citizens, especially pedestrians, for better roads.

In the late 1800s, the invention of the modern “safety” bicycle (a safe alternative to the preceding high wheeling, penny-farthing bicycle), led to a biking craze. In cities throughout North America and Europe, men and women adopted this new, invigorating and liberating mode of transportation. Not surprisingly, municipal authorities found themselves under heightened pressure to provide smooth road surfaces.

What cities turned to was asphalt. First used in road construction by the ancient Babylonians in around 600 BC, modern asphalt roads date to about the early 1850s in France. Asphalt roads made their way to the United States roughly twenty years later, and to Canada in the mid-1880s. In 1886, a stretch of St James Street (rue Saint Jacques) in Montreal was laid with asphalt paving using asphalt imported from Trinidad. It was a great success. So much so that traffic on parallel streets diverted to use it. The Journal reported that people preferred the “smoothness of asphalt to the vicious wrenchings of the granite or cedar block pavements.”  While far more expensive than other forms of paving, asphalt held the promise of durability with an expected life expectancy of fifteen to twenty years, with much less annual maintenance. Asphalt was also viewed as more hygienic, modern, and aesthetically pleasing. As well, horses and carriages were much quieter on asphalt surfaces, reducing the din of urban life.

In 1889, Mr George Perley and Mr William F. Powell submitted a petition to Ottawa’s city council to have Metcalfe Street from Gloucester Street to Gilmour Street paved in asphalt. Apparently, nine of ten landowners on that stretch of road supported the initiative. However, it never came about as city council baulked at their request that an American contractor be brought in to do the paving without putting the job out to tender.

Asphalt ad 9-2-95 TEJ

Call for Tender of Bids for the Asphalting of Sparks and Bank Streets by the City’s Engineer’s Office, Ottawa, 7 January 1895, The Evening Journal, 9 February 1895.

The accolade of being the first asphalted road in Ottawa goes to Sparks Street. This time, a petition of landowners was successful though a vocal minority complained about the cost. In support of conversion, R.J. Devlin, a large retailer on Sparks Street, published a satirical article in the Journal entitled Aye Or No For The Pavement. It read:

No most decidedly! What do we want with a clean, solid and enduring pavement on Sparks street. Haven’t we got on without it in the past? Haven’t we a pretty good street as it is? With the exception of two months in the spring—And six weeks in the fall—And a week now and then every time it rains, Sparks Street is all that could be desired. That is if you wear long boots, Or are handy on stilts. No, gentlemen, we do not want Sparks street paved. What was good enough for our fathers is good enough for us…No, gentlemen, good, plain, everyday mud is good enough for us. It has stuck to us in the past and we will stick to it in the future.

In the end, just over 80% of the landowners by assessed value were in favour, including the Russell House Company, the largest property owner on the block, and W.J. Topley, the noted photographer. The asphalting petition received the City’s Board of Works support and was subsequently approved by City Council in October 1894.

In early 1895, eight bids were received on the contract to pave Sparks and Bank Streets with asphalt. Henry & Smith of Ottawa won with the lowest bid. However, the contract was later cancelled when the company objected to certain terms that the City required. In May 1895, the contract was re-tendered. This time, the Canada Granite Company of Ottawa won with its bid to pave the two streets with rock asphalt from France at a cost of $30,395 and $24,668, respectively. Although another company had provided a slightly lower bid using Trinidad asphalt, the city’s Chief Engineer Robert Surtees rejected it on the grounds that rock asphalt was superior to Trinidad asphalt. (While the original contract called for either grade of asphalt, the second contract specified rock asphalt.) Canada Granite was required to provide a 15-year guarantee, backed up with a blocked deposit worth 30% of the value of the contract. Until the guarantee expired, the company would receive 5 per cent interest from the city on its deposit.

asphalt 37-7-95 in OJ 31-3-51

This grainy photograph by Samuel Jarvis, reproduced from The Evening Journal, 31 March 1951, is the only known image of the laying of the first asphalt on Sparks Street by Mayor Borthwick on 30 July 1895.

Work on pulling up the old macadam surface of Sparks Street from the corner of Canal Street (now gone but was located roughly where the National Arts Centre is today) to Bank Street began the first week of July 1895 by a team of 60 men and a half a dozen carts. The old stones were re-used to repair the macadam on Somerset Street. The Ottawa Electric Train Company took this opportunity to upgrade its rails on Sparks Street, re-routing its trams onto a temporary track on Wellington Street. Following the laying of a foot-deep foundation, the roadway was ready for paving. On 30 July 1895, Mayor William Borthwick threw onto the road the first shovelful of asphalt at the Sparks and Canal Street corner using a shovel made of polished oak and nickel plate. On one side of the shovel was an engraving of the Parliament Buildings and Ottawa’s City Hall, with a picture of the Granite Company works on the other. There was also a silver inscription that read: “On laying the first asphalt pavement on the streets of Ottawa, junction of Sparks and Canal streets by his Worship William Borthwick, Mayor, July 30, 1895.”

The ceremony was followed by the customary congratulatory speeches with the Mayor saying that Ottawa citizens “would enjoy first class city streets.” Mr C. Strubbe, the Montreal agent for La Compagnie Generale des Asphaltes de France, the supplier of the imported asphalt used in the paving, congratulated City Council and said that the paving shows “the progressive spirit of the people of the capital,” and that it marked an “improvement towards the cleanliness and health of the city.” Afterwards, civic and industry officials repaired to the Russell House Hotel for a light luncheon supplied by the contractor.

It took more than three weeks to complete the Sparks Street paving job, far longer than anticipated leading to grumbles from area merchants who were losing money while the street was under construction. In part, the delays were due to an inexperienced work force. While a number of experienced labourers were brought in from Montreal, many of the workers were inexperienced local men. There was also some labour strife.  Local workers were paid only $1.40 per day compared to $2.00 per day being paid to the Montrealers.  Ottawa workers briefly went on strike for pay equity, but returned to work when they were promised the Montreal wage rate once they were experienced. To help speed up the work, men laboured at night. However, this proved to be counterproductive as the night work was poorly done. One portion of the street had to be redone three times.

It didn’t help that the work was performed under a microscope, with city councillors and regular citizens alike kibitzing all aspects of the paving job, including whether the asphalt being applied was hot enough, whether the scoria stones used to line the tram rails were being installed correctly, and whether there were sufficient drains. The Journal commented that “every free and independent elector and a large number of embryo members of that class of humanity who passed along Sparks street…appointed himself a special committee of one to inspect and test the small patch of asphalt laid,” by poking it with umbrellas, and walking on it to see how it felt and whether they left heel prints in the dark surface.

Sparks street was finally opened for traffic during the third week of August, though the new paving had already been “initiated” by Moses Inkerman who had driven his rag cart over the unfinished roadway just three days after the Mayor had thrown the first shovelful of asphalt. To celebrate the arrival of asphalt paving, the City sponsored bicycle races on Spark Street from Bank Street to the Russell House Hotel during the evening of Monday, 27 August. Thousands of people watched. The festivities didn’t impress everyone, however. The Journal sniffed that “closing such an important public thoroughfare that four young men might disport themselves on bicycles was in some cases much questioned.”

P1060248 (2)

Detail of February 1903 Plan of the Permanent Roadways of Ottawa, City Engineer’s Office, City of Ottawa Archives. Yellow indicates asphalt, blue indicates tar macadam, and grey indicates scoria block, City of Ottawa Archives. Most roads, even Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings, had not yet received a permanent road surface by this date.

Criticism of the newly asphalted roadway continued. There was a rash of accidents with horses slipping on the new road surface, which was slippery when wet. One horse died after falling in front of the Russell House Hotel. The Journal opined that drivers were being careless and needed to slow down, but also suggested that horses be taught “the asphalt step.” There were also complaints about cleanliness. Unlike porous macadam surfaces, asphalt roads are impermeable. Consequently, horse waste, of which there was a lot, had no place to go. The Journal thought this factor alone would do much to hasten the arrival of motor vehicles. It stated “To have the streets occupied only by silent, rubber-tired carriages and carts, with little mud and no manure will be an extremely pleasant improvement in city life.” The first automobiles arrived on Ottawa streets four years later.

Despite the many complaints, once Sparks Street was completed, work immediately began on asphalting Bank Street. This was quickly followed by Rideau Street. The asphalt era had arrived. Cyclists, and subsequently cars, had the smooth road surfaces that we now take for granted.

Sources:

Bradford, Robert, 2015. Keeping Ontario Moving: The History of Roads and Road building in Ontario, Dundurn: Toronto.

Evening Journal (The), 1887, “Our Future Streets,” 19 March.

—————————, 1887. “Street Paving,” 1 August.

—————————, 1889. “Board of Works,” 29 July.

—————————, 1891. “The Paving Of The Streets,” 21 October.

—————————, 1894. “Asphalt In Sight,” 27 September.

—————————, 1894. “The Battle of the Asphalt,” 2 October.

—————————, 1894. “A Foreman For Each Ward,” 29 November.

—————————, 1895. “Is The Asphalting OK?” 26 July.

—————————, 1895. “They All Tested It.” 31 July.

—————————, 1895. “The Mayor Pleased,” 31 July.

—————————, 1895. “Jottings About Town,” 5 August.

—————————, 1895. “Must go Faster.” 5 August.

—————————, 1895. “Points Of Complaint,” 6 August.

—————————, 1895. “Asphalt Pounders Strike,” 6 August.

—————————, 1898. “The Sparks St. Paving,” 9 August.

—————————, 1895. “Passing Of The Horse,” 22 August.

—————————, 1895. “Bike Races On The Asphalt,” 24 August.

—————————, 1895. “The Town Was Out,” 27 August.

—————————, 1895. “The Asphalt Dust,” 27 August.

—————————, 1895. “On Sparks Street,” 31 August.

—————————, 1895. “Died From A Fall,” 7 November.

—————————, 1951. “First Asphalt On Ottawa Streets,” 31 March.

Haig, Robert, 1975, Ottawa: City of the Big Ears, Haig& Haig Publishing Company: Ottawa.

Longfellow, Rickie, 2015. “Back in Time, Building Roads,” Federal Highway Administration.

Mackintosh, Philip G., 2005. “Asphalt Modernism on the Streets of Toronto, 1890-1900,” Material Cultural Review, Volume 62, Fall, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/18058/21931.

National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), 2017. “The History of Asphalt,” http://www.asphaltpavement.org/.

Ottawa, City of, 1894. By-laws 1557, “To Provide for a Local Improvement, Asphalt Roadway on Sparks Street”

Rebel Metropolis.org, 2005. “Cedar Blocks and Devil Strips: Cycling the Streets of 1898,” http://rebelmetropolis.org/cedar-blocks-and-devil-strips-cycling-streets-of-1898/.

The Central Canada Exhibition

24 September 1888

For more than one hundred and twenty years, a feature of Ottawa life during the late summer or early fall was the Central Canada Exhibition. Now sadly defunct, the fair started as an agricultural and industrial exhibition, providing a venue for the farmers of eastern Ontario and western Quebec to display their products, share knowledge, and compete for prizes. It was also an opportunity for manufacturers to exhibit not only the latest agricultural equipment to potential buyers, but also other types of wares.  Arts and crafts were additionally featured. It wasn’t all work, however. There was also entertainment, including circus acts, rides, games, and, of course, copious amounts of food and drink.

exhibition-15-august-1888-tej

Advertisement for the first annual Central Canada Exhibition, The Evening Journal, 15 August 1888

The Central Canada Exhibition began out of civic dissatisfaction with the annual Provincial Exhibition that was organized by the Agricultural and Arts Association of Ontario. The Provincial Exhibition, which was founded in 1845, moved from city to city in Ontario. However, local or civic fairs, including the Toronto Industrial Fair established in 1879 (to become the Canadian National Exhibition in 1912), began to compete with the more staid Provincial Exhibition. Although Ottawa hosted the Provincial Exhibition in 1887, it was not a great success. Many charged that the fair had been mismanaged, and that it had not been adequately promoted. As well, it appears that the Exhibition’s management irritated the wrong people. Ottawa’s Mayor Stewart was not amused when he was forced to pay a small fee for his horse when he arrived at Lansdowne Park, the venue that the city had provided rent-free to the Provincial Exhibition’s organizers.

Almost immediately after the Provincial Exhibition closed that year, a meeting was organized at Ottawa City’s Hall to discuss the merits of establishing Ottawa’s own annual agricultural fair. Chaired by Mayor Stewart, a long list of Ottawa’s great and worthy attended to voice their support, including Erskine Henry Bronson, a prominent Ottawa businessman and the member of the provincial assembly for Ottawa. (Bronson Avenue is named in his honour.) The Mayor also obtained the backing of the Premier, Sir John A. Macdonald.

In March 1888, the Province of Ontario incorporated the Central Canada Exhibition Association for the promotion of “industries, arts and sciences generally,” and gave it “full power and authority to hold permanent or periodical exhibitions.” Ottawa’s mayor and three members of city council were appointed to the Association, along with representatives from eastern Ontario as far west as Kingston, and from western Quebec as far east as the Island of Montreal. In addition to agricultural groups, a long list of scientific and artistic groups were also to be represented, including the Ontario College of Pharmacy, the Ottawa School of Arts and Sciences, the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, the Geological Survey of Canada, and the Art Association of Ottawa.

In support of the new agricultural exhibition, the City provided $10,000 to upgrade the Exhibition Grounds at Lansdowne Park. These included the relocation of a number of buildings, the erection of a grandstand for two thousand people, and the construction of new floral and machinery halls. Opposite the grandstand, a temporary stage was also built for performances. The cattle sheds, horse boxes and the poultry sheds were freshly white-washed. The fairgrounds were also wired for electricity to permit the fun to continue after dusk; electric streetlights had come to Ottawa three years earlier. The City also made improvements to Elgin and Bank Streets that led to the Exhibition Grounds. The admission fee to the Exhibition was 25 cents. A single carriage with a driver got in for 50 cents, with 25 cents charged for each additional passenger.

All was ready when Exhibition’s doors opened on 24 September 1888; the official inaugural ceremonies took place the following day in the presence of the Governor General, Lord Stanley of Preston. Ottawa was dressed to the nines for the event, with its store windows decorated and flags and bunting everywhere. There were close to 5,000 entries to the Exhibition, twice the number of the previous year’s Provincial Exhibition. Over three hundred horses were on show, including standard horses, blood horses, carriage horses, roadsters, and saddle horses, hunters and heavy draught horses. In the cattle shed could be found Durhams, Ayrshires, Galloways, Herefords, Holsteins, and Polled Angus. In the poultry shed, there were 110 entries in twenty varieties of chicken, including Plymouth Rooks, Cochin Chinas, White and Black Polands, and White Leghorns, as well as turkeys, geese, and pigeons.

The main building housed miscellaneous manufactures, ranging from hardware and harrows, to home furnishings, including the latest in labour-saving devices such as mangles, washing machines, and sewing machines. There were displays of “fancy work,” embroidery, paintings in watercolours and oils, and an “endless display of tidy and kindergarten work.” Two hundred entries were devoted to textile goods alone made from Canadian wool. In the carriage department, one hundred vehicles were on display—coaches, landaus, coupes, phaetons, tea carts, sulkies, 2-horse teams, market wagons, and sleighs. In an annex to the main building, R.J. Devlin, a large Ottawa department store, put on a massive display of furs with everything from musk ox to Persian lamb. Visitors were wowed by two stuffed polar bears and a Bengal tiger skin that stretched twenty feet from nose to tip of its tail.

The newly constructed machinery hall housed steam and horse-powered threshers and separators, ploughs, reaping and mowing machines, combines, windmills and stump extractors—everything a farmer could wish for. A “waterous engine” driving “hundreds of busy wheels,” transfixed visitors. A massive collection of minerals was also on display. All categories of machines, animals, plants, and crafts were judged with monetary prizes ranging from $25 to $5 in addition to gold, silver and bronze medals for first, second and third places, respectively. Diplomas were also awarded.

After the opening ceremonies, described as a “very recherché affair,” by the Ottawa Evening Journal,” there was a luncheon for the dignitaries, hosted by President Charles Magee of the Exhibition Association. The guests of honour were Lord Stanley and Acting Mayor Joseph Erratt; Mayor Stewart was in England and missed the Exhibition. He did, however, supply a number of cases of champagne to toast his health. Unsurprisingly, the mayor’s tent was very popular that afternoon, something that couldn’t have gone over well with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who had been grudgingly allowed to have a booth at the Exhibition. Music for the day was provided by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards.

That evening, with the electric lights illuminating the Exhibition grounds, the games began over the objections of clergymen who objected “most strongly” about turning an agricultural fair, aimed at improving and instructing people, into anything that resembled fun. Roman chariot races were held on the race track with teams of eight horses. This was followed by a series of circus acts. The Zanfretta family of New York performed a high-wire act with Mr Zanfretta carrying Miss Zanfretta across a rope suspended fifty feet in the air. Levanian and McCormick performed on the trapeze, while Professor Chiton juggled, and the Rice Brothers performed acrobatics. Other performers included Val Vina, a comic juggler, and Philion, the French Necromancer. Mr Topley, Ottawa’s premier photographer, also provided stereopticon views of old and new Ottawa. To cap the evening’s festivities was a brilliant fireworks display.

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Advertisement for the parachute jump, 1st Annual Central Canada Exhibition, The Evening Journal, 19 September 1888.

The next day, the highlight of the Exhibition, was the ascension of a hot-air balloon to 6,000 feet, from which a Professor Williams would make a parachute jump. The event was described as “the greatest out-door wonder the world has ever witnessed.” Ballooning and parachuting in the 1880s was not for the faint at heart. Balloonists were frequently injured or killed. One contemporary observer commented that “we are no more masters of the balloon than they [the Montgolfier brothers] were a century ago.” To jump from a balloon was an order of magnitude even more dangerous given the primitive parachutes of the time.

Late in the day, Professor Williams was ready to make his ascent. In front of an excited crowd of 20,000 people, he began to inflate his balloon over a fire. A dozen or so men volunteered to shake out the canvas as the bag inflated and hold onto the balloon to steady it. When the balloon was inflated, Williams got into the basket, and the rope securing the balloon over the top was released, leaving the men alone restraining it. Williams gave the command to release. Eleven men did so, but one held on, and was quickly carried into the air. Williams shouted up to the man “For God’s Sake, Drop!”  But, the man ignored the plea, and within seconds, the balloon had carried him hundreds of feet into the air. Silently, he held on for dear life. At one point, the man tried to catch his foot onto one of the ropes that suspended the basket. But he failed and became motionless again.  When his strength gave out, he plunged to his death, striking the ground in the backyard of a house near Bank Street close to the Mutchmor race track (now the site of Mutchmor Public School). Throughout his ordeal, the man never said a word. Powerless to do anything, Professor Williams jumped shortly afterwards, his parachute carrying him safely to the ground near the St Louis dam at Dow’s Lake as his balloon slowly sank as the air inside it cooled.

Below, the spectators first thought that the drama being played out high in the sky was part of the show. But cheers turned to moans as the man’s desperate plight became apparent. When the man’s grasp finally failed, hundreds of people rushed to the place where he hit the ground. A doctor, who happened to have his medical satchel with him, attempted to revive the young man, but it was hopeless. His body was carried inside a nearby home and laid out on the floor of the front room. As he carried no identification, it took police some time to identify him. He was 24-year old Tom Wensley of 107 Chapel Street. His father was an engineer for the Public Works Department. Having occurred in front of thousands of witnesses, Wensley’s death was ruled an accident by the police. There was no inquest. The Central Canada Exhibition paid the funeral expenses for the unfortunate man. Despite this horrific event, Professor Williams took to the air once again later in the week. This time, everybody let go on his command. He landed by parachute without incident.

aberdeen-pavilion-1903-william-james-topley-lac-pa-008938

The Aberdeen Pavilion, 1903. William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008938. Also known as the “Cattle Castle,” the Pavilion was expressly built for the Central Canada Exhibition in 1898. It was named after Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General at that time. Derelict by the late 1980s, Ottawa’s City Council voted to demolish the building but later changed its mind.It was restored and reopened in 1994.

The first Central Canada Exhibition was judged a great success. More than 50,000 people attended the six-day event. (Ottawa’s population was only about 40,000 at the time.) Most came by horse-drawn cab or bus, or by boat along the Rideau Canal. Schools closed for a day to allow students to attend. Civil servants and Chaudière mill workers were given a half-day holiday to permit them to see the sights. Thousands also came from outlying towns and villages. Ottawa hotels were all reported to be full during Exhibition week, except for the upscale Russell House. Merchants did a roaring trade both at the fair and outside. Financially, the Exhibition ended in the black, with revenues of roughly $12,000, slightly in excess of expenditures. The Ottawa Evening Journal commended all who participated in making the Exhibition a success, saying that the fair was a “splendid promise for the future.”

And indeed it was. It was the start of an event that was held annually, except during World War II, until well into the twenty-first century. Over time, however, with farming playing an ever diminishing role in Canadian life, the balance of activities at the Exhibition shifted. Agriculture, the raison d’être of the fair, was increasingly relegated to the sidelines in favour of midway entertainments and musical performances. But amidst the dazzling array of twenty-first century amusements and the temporary loss of its home at Lansdowne Park to redevelopment, the Exhibition could not compete. It died of ennui, with the last Ottawa SuperEx, as it became known, held in 2010. Its last Board of Directors disbanded in 2015.

 

Sources:

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1887. “The Value of the Provincial Exhibition,” 22 September.

——————————–, 1887. “Ottawa Is Willin’,” 6 October.

——————————–, 1888, “Central Canada Exhibition Association, 31 March.

——————————–, 1888. “The $210,000 By-Law,” 4 April.

——————————–, 1888. “Exhibition Notes,” 4 August.

——————————–, 1888. “Exhibition Matters,” 25 August.

——————————–, 1888. “The Light Side-Dishes To The Solid Central Fair,” 15 September.

——————————–, 1888, “Ministers Object,” 17 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Ottawa’s Great Fair,” 24 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Ottawa’s Great Fair,” 26 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Ottawa’s Great Fair,” 27 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Wensley’s Death,” 27 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Notes,” 28 September.

——————————–, 1888. “The Parachute Drop,” 29 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Good-By Central,” 29 September.

——————————–, 1888. “The Exhibition,” 29 September.

——————————–, 1888. “Adventures In The Air,” 4 October.

The Arrival of Traffic Lights

5 March 1928

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

traffic-signal-28-11-28

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ottawa the Beautiful — The Gréber Report

18 November 1949

Ottawa is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Blessed by geography, the city borders the mighty Ottawa River, and is bisected by the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal, one of only eight UNESCO world heritage sites in Canada.  Reputedly, Ottawa has 8 hectares (20 acres) of parklands for every 1,000 residents, compared to only 3.2 hectares (8 acres) of green space for every 1,000 Toronto residents, and a miniscule 1.2 hectares (3 acres) for every 1,000 Montréalais. And that’s not counting Gatineau Park that encompasses 361 square kilometres (139 square miles) of rolling hills and pristine lakes, and extends close to the centre of Gatineau, Quebec, just a few minutes’ drive from Parliament Hill.

Befitting a capital city, Ottawa can also boast magnificent governmental, cultural, and historic buildings and monuments. The National Capital Commission’s “Confederation Boulevard,” which is bordered with broad, tree-line sidewalks, runs along Sussex Drive and down Wellington Street before looping across the Ottawa River and along rue Laurier in Gatineau before returning to Ottawa. On this ceremonial route, one can find the stately homes of the Governor General and the Prime Minister, Canada’s National Gallery, the War Memorial, the storied Château Laurier Hotel, and the Canadian Museum of History. Of course, the crown jewels of the route are Canada’s iconic Gothic Revival Parliament buildings on Wellington Street, perched on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River.

While a beautiful and extremely livable city, Ottawa is not without blemish. Sparks Street, once the commercial heart of the city, hardly beats these days, while parts of Bank and Rideau Streets are tired and shop-worn. And let’s not talk about LeBreton Flats. But Ottawa is redeemed by its parks and gardens, flourishing neighbourhood communities, thriving markets, and leafy parkways that border its waterways.

Not that long ago, however, Ottawa was a grim, dirty, industrial town; crumbling buildings and blighted neighbourhoods were but a short distance of the Parliament buildings. During World War II, most of the downtown green spaces was filled with “temporary” wooden office buildings hastily constructed to house the Capital’s burgeoning civil service. The city’s natural beauty was also threatened with unplanned urban sprawl, while its waterways were fouled by the detritus of the area’s extensive wood-products industry and the untreated sewage of its mushrooming population.

Efforts to improve the city began shortly after Confederation with the creation of Major’s Hill Park in 1874. In 1899, three years after Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier voiced his desire for Ottawa to become the “Washington of the North,” the first city improvement committee called the Federal District Committee initiated a number of landscaping projects. A series of urban planning studies were subsequently commissioned, including the Todd Report in 1903, the Holt Commission in 1915, and the Cauchon Report in 1922. Their recommendations included an expansion of Ottawa parklands, the rationalization of the city’s tangle of railway lines, and the enforcement of building regulations. Broadly speaking, however, little was achieved owing to changing government priorities, war, and the Great Depression. One idea that initially found traction but ultimately also failed was the suggestion of forming a National Capital District, akin to the District of Columbia in the United States, that would encompass the cities of Ottawa in Ontario and Hull in Quebec, along with their hinterlands. Political opposition, notably from Quebec, and concerns about the linguistic future of the area’s francophone residents scuppered the idea.

Another effort at rejuvenating Ottawa’s downtown core close to the Parliament buildings began in 1937 under the guidance of Jacques Gréber, a noted French urban planner whom Prime Minister Mackenzie King had met at the Paris Exhibition (Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne) held that same year. Gréber had been the Chief Architect of the Exhibition. When the two men hit it off, King asked Gréber to come to Ottawa to help prepare long-term plans for the development of government buildings along Wellington Street and in adjacent areas. However, war broke out before much could be achieved beyond the construction of the National War Memorial at the intersection of Wellington and Elgin Streets.

Wellington and Lyon Streets

Ottawa the Ugly – Intersection of Wellington and Lyon Streets, looking South in 1938

Immediately following the end of World War II, Mackenzie King invited Gréber back to Ottawa to head a far larger urban planning project—devising a long-term development plan for the entire 2,300 square kilometre (900 square miles) National Capital Region. Gréber was a controversial choice. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada objected, writing a letter to Mackenzie King saying that the National Capital development project should have been entrusted to a group of Canadian specialists rather than to a foreigner. Officially, responsibility for the project rested with the 17-member National Capital Planning Committee composed of representatives of the cities of Ottawa and Hull and area counties, the chairman of the Federal District Committee (FDC), the Federal Minister of Public Works, Canadian professional institutes, including the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and others. While Gréber was clearly the lead consultant, he was supported by the FDC and a staff of Canadian architects and engineers.

The final 300-page report, along with the accompanying volume of maps, watercolours, and scale model of the city, was released on 18 November 1949 after more than four years of work. Mackenzie King, who had retired as prime minister the previous year, wrote the foreword to the report. In many ways, Gréber’s plan for the National Capital was King’s legacy to the country. The plan was also dedicated as a memorial to Canadian service people who died in World War II.

Before discussing its recommendations and their justification, the Report provided an in-depth survey of the National Capital Region, covering its physical characteristics, history, demographics, land use, housing, public buildings, transportation systems, with a special section on the railways, and recreational/touristic facilities. Sometimes the Report is more poetry than prose, referring, for example, to the “broad bosomed” Ottawa River and the “boisterous leaping Chaudière.” At one point it strays into conjecture, uncritically accepting the unsubstantiated claim that the 1916 fire that demolished the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was “set by a German hand.” Despite such quibbles, the Report is exhaustive, and makes a compelling case for its sweeping urban renewal plans for downtown Ottawa-Hull, and the preservation of rural greenspaces.

The key recommendation was the relocation of the railways and associated rail yards and warehouses out of the downtown core. Gréber argued that the tracks had been laid to serve the interest of their operators and the lumber barons rather than those of the broader community. Originally on the outskirts of the city, the railways had been constructed without regard for future urban expansion. In addition to beautifying the city, their removal would return the city to its citizens by eliminating rail barriers that divided neighbourhoods, improve safety, and speed traffic circulation. Replacing the railways would be a network of highways, urban arteries, and tree-line parkways. Gréber recommended the construction of two new bridges across the Ottawa River on the outskirts of the city that would link the Ontario and Quebec highway systems, one in the west over Nepean Bay at Lemieux Island, and another in the east over Upper Duck Island. Gréber also sought the elimination of Ottawa’s trolleys as their overhead wires and related infrastructure in the downtown core detracted from the beauty and monumental nature of the area.

Jacques Gréber

Jacques Gréber shows off the model of his plan for the National Capital to Members of Parliament, 30 April, 1949

Other important recommendations included urban renewal for blighted neighbourhoods close to Parliament Hill, such as LeBreton Flats, the elimination of the war-time “temporary” buildings that littered the city, the imposition of strict building regulations to preserve the view of Parliament Hill, and the decentralization of government operations. To address urban sprawl, Gréber recommended that the Government acquire land to build a greenbelt around the city. He also favoured the expansion of Gatineau Park and the preservation of neighbouring forests and rural areas for recreational and touristic purposes. In downtown Ottawa, he recommended the construction of a number of large monumental buildings, including an Auditorium and Convention Centre on Lyon Street between Sparks and Albert Streets, the establishment of a National Theatre on Elgin Street, a National Gallery on Cartier Square, and a National Library on Sussex Street, north of Boteler Street. Noting that, a “capital without a dignified City Hall is a paradox,” Gréber proposed the construction of a new Ottawa City Hall to replace the one destroyed by fire in 1931 but never rebuilt. His proposed building fronted on Nicholas Street with a new bridge across the Rideau Canal at that point. He also recommended relocating Carleton College (the forerunner of Carleton University) to the fields of the Experimental Farm along Fisher Avenue. Finally, in keeping with the idea that the redesigned National Capital Region would be a memorial to Canada’s war heroes, Gréber planned a giant memorial terrace at the southernmost point of the Gatineau Hills with “an imposing panoramic view” of Ottawa.

As one might expect with any such sweeping plan, there was opposition; many of Gréber’s recommendations were rejected or ignored. But the French urban planner got his way on two key recommendations—the relocation of the railways out of downtown Ottawa, and the establishment of a greenbelt. Through land swaps between the FDC and the railways companies, downtown Union Station, which was across the street from the Château Laurier Hotel, was replaced with a new passenger station built south of the city on Tremblay Road. The unsightly, 600 foot long, train shed at Union Station was demolished, and the tracks that ran alongside the Rideau Canal were removed, making way for Colonel By Drive. Similarly, the Ottawa West freight station and tracks at LeBreton Flats were expropriated. Ottawa’s rattling trams with their unsightly overhead wires were also retired in favour of more economical buses. Earning the gratitude of future residents, the Federal Government was also able to push through Gréber’s greenbelt proposal south of the Capital, despite opposition from suburban townships—Nepean politicians called the greenbelt the “weed belt.”

On other issues, Gréber was less successful. His idea of a huge war memorial in Gatineau was dropped owing to opposition from veterans who wished to commemorate World War II dead at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa. Most of the monumental buildings he planned for the downtown core were never built, or were located elsewhere, though his call for the demolition of the “temporary” war-time office buildings was heeded, albeit over a very long time, with the last one—the Justice Annex to the east of the Supreme Court building—only succumbing to the wrecking ball in 2012. His attempt to preserve the view of Parliament Hill from the south through height restrictions on commercial buildings also failed as high-rise office buildings, constructed to house federal civil servants, blocked the view. Similarly, his attempt to rejuvenate the LeBreton Flats took more than a generation to get underway owing in part to changing government priorities and inertia. Fifty years after the blighted neighbourhood was demolished, it remains a work in progress.

With hindsight, Gréber’s preference for the automobile over trains and trams, also had its downside, in part because he grossly under-estimated the expected future population of the National Capital Region. He had anticipated a population on the order of 500,000-600,000 by 2020, compared to 1.4 million today. Like the railways that preceded them, highways and major urban arteries came to divide neighbourhoods. A case in point is the Queensway which replaced the east-west CN rail line; Gréber had envisaged a tree-lined boulevard. Many mourn the loss of a downtown train station, and the passing of the city’s tram lines. The failure to build two new bridges across the Ottawa River at the city’s periphery linking the Ontario and Quebec highway systems has meant that interprovincial traffic continues to be routed across downtown bridges, aggravating traffic woes. Finally, the development of the greenbelt did little to stop urban sprawl as Gréber had hoped. Instead of the greenbelt promoting the development of self-contained satellite communities as he had envisaged, the automobile permitted them to become bedroom communities for Ottawa, and in the process further contributed to traffic congestion.

In sum, the Gréber Plan was marred by faulty assumptions and inadequate follow-through. But, despite all, Ottawa was transformed from a grimy, industrial city to a capital Canadians can be proud of. For that, we must give a big hand to the vision of Jacques Gréber.

Sources:

Butler, Don, 2012. “Putting things back on track for Ottawa’s train station,” 27 May, The Ottawa Citizen, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Putting+things+back+track+Ottawa+train+station/6690940/story.html.

City of Ottawa, 2010-15. Relocating the Rail Lines, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/witness-change-visions-andrews-newton-6.

Gordon, David. 2000. Weaving a Modern Plan for Canada’s Capital: Jacques Gréber and the 1950 Plan for the National Capital Region, https://qshare.queensu.ca/Users01/gordond/planningcanadascapital/greber1950/Greber_review.htm.

Théoret, Huger, 2013. “Le plan Gréber dévoilé aux Communes,” Le Droit, 8 mars.

NCC Watch, 2003(?). NCC Blunders: Ottawa’s Union Station, http://nccwatch.org/blunders/unionstation.htm.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1945. “Canadian Architectural Institute Protest Hiring of Jacques Greber,” 2 October.

———————-, 1945. “Jacques Greber Arrives to Plan National Capital,” 2 October.

National Capital Planning Committee, 1950. “Plan for the National Capital,” (The Gréber Report), https://qshare.queensu.ca/Users01/gordond/planningcanadascapital/greber1950/index.htm.

Macleod, Ian, 2014. “The lost train of nowhere,” The Ottawa Citizen, 18 December, http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/from-the-archives-the-lost-train-of-nowhere.

Images:

Intersection of Wellington Street and Lyon Street, looking south, 1936, the Gréber Report, Illustration #153.

Jacques Gréber shows off the model of his plan for the National Capital to Members of Parliament, 30 April, 1949,National Capital Commission, 172-5, http://www.lapresse.ca/le-droit/dossiers/100-evenements-historiques/201303/08/01-4629049-16-le-plan-greber-devoile-aux-communes.php.

Jewelled Plague

25 July 2008

Something was wrong with the ash trees in the east end of Ottawa. Trees lining St Laurent Boulevard and Ogilvy Road near the Queensway were under stress, their upper canopies thinning, with wild growth appearing lower down their trunks. Sent out to investigate, the city’s Forestry Services discovered small “D” shaped holes on their trunks and branches along with strange serpentine tunnels that scored the wood immediately under the bark. On 25 July 2008, Ottawa City Council received the Forestry Services’ grim report—the emerald ash borer had arrived in the city.

Agrilus planipennis, a.k.a. the emerald ash borer, is a small, metallic-looking member of the beetle family.  Measuring only about 8.5 to 14 millimetres in length and 3 to 4 millimetres in width, this attractive insect, sometimes referred to as a “jewel” beetle, is native to north-east Asia, including parts of China, Japan and Russia. Its larvae feed on the cambium of ash trees (genus fraxinus); the mountain ash (genus sorbus) is not affected.   The cambium is the thin layer of cells found between the wood of a tree and its protective bark.  On its inward side, the cambium produces sapwood which carries water and other nutrients up to the tree’s leaves, while on its outward side it produces the phloem which carries nutrients produced by the leaves through photosynthesis down to the roots. It’s this cambium layer that makes the annual growth rings in a cross-section of a tree truck.

Emerald Ash Borer

Agrilus planipennis: the emerald ash borer

In the spring, the adult female ash borers deposit their eggs on the bark or in cracks in the bark of infected trees. Up to as many as 90 eggs can be deposited by each female. After about a week, the larvae emerge and make their way to the cambium layer on which they feed. In the process, they make serpentine “galleries” through the cambium and sapwood. A serious infestation can girdle a tree, effectively disrupting the tree’s ability to draw nutrients and water up to its leaves, killing it in the process. The mature larvae pupate over winter with the adults emerging in mid-May or June from exit holes of about 4 millimetres in diameter.  The adult males live for about two weeks, while the females survive a week or so longer. Adult ash borers are good flyers and can travel for up to one kilometre. The insects can also be disbursed through the movement of infected wood and wood products.

Trees attacked by the emerald ash borer typically die within a few years of being infected. In their natural range in Asia, the insect is considered a minor and episodic pest, with recent research showing that it is biologically controlled by at least three species of tiny, stingless wasps, Oobius agrili, Spathius agrili, and Tetrastichus planipennisi. These wasps, measuring only slightly more than one millimetre in length, parasitize ash borer larvae by laying their eggs on them. When the wasp larvae emerge, they eat the ash borer host larvae, killing them.

In the summer of 2002, the emerald ash borer was identified in several south-eastern counties of the U.S. state of Michigan as well as one county in bordering Ontario. It is believed that the insect was introduced, possibly as long as five years earlier, into North America through the port of Detroit in wooden packing used to protect goods transported by ship from China.  Since then, the invasive and destructive insect has quickly spread, affecting countless ash trees throughout central United States, Ontario and into Quebec, apparently unimpeded by our cold winters.

The arrival of the emerald ash borer in Ottawa represented a major threat to the city’s urban forest as ash account for more than 25 per cent of trees in the Ottawa area, and up to as much as 40 per cent in parts of eastern Ontario. Ironically, many of the city’s threatened ash trees, fast growing and tolerant to air pollution, were planted during the 1960s and 1970s to replace dying elm trees, felled by Dutch elm disease. That arboreal epidemic was caused by a different alien invader, a fungus that also originated in Asia which was subsequently spread by host beetles throughout North America. A still-earlier imported blight killed off 99 per cent of eastern North America’s chestnut trees, once a mainstay of southern Ontario forests, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Dying Ash

Dying Ash Tree on Ash Lane at the Central Experimental Farm, July 2014

Since the summer of 2008, the emerald ash borer has spread throughout the city despite municipal, provincial and federal efforts to control the pest through regulations that strictly control the movement of firewood from the affected areas, and encourage the removal of infected trees, and their replacement with different species. In some cases, systemic insecticides injected into a tree’s bark have also been applied to save trees. Despite these efforts, the emerald plague has continued its advance. Less than two years after being first identified in Ottawa, ash trees at the Central Experimental Farm came under attack leading to the felling of eighty-year old ash trees on Ash Lane to be replaced by maples, ginko bilobas, and oaks; Ash Lane was gone in all but name. In 2012, Andrew Haydon Park lost close to 1,000 of its ash trees. By 2013, dead and dying trees were everywhere, along streets, in neighbourhood playgrounds and schoolyards, and in city parks.

In June 2013, there was finally a small bit of positive news. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency gave its approval for the introduction of a biological control, enlisting the help of Spathius agrili, and Tetrastichus planipennis, two of the three parasitic wasps, in the battle to contain the ash borer beetle. While the wasps would not be able to eliminate the beetle, it is hoped that over the long run some kind of ecological balance could be restored. It remains to be seen whether this new approach will be able to save our remaining ash trees. Regardless, Ottawa’s landscape has been radically altered.

Sources:

Ash Trees & Emerald Ash Borer: http://www.manotick.net/docs/emeraldashborer.html.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Central Experimental Farm Advisory Council: http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/central-experimental-farm/about-the-farm/central-experimental-farm-advisory-council/central-experimental-farm-advisory-council-meeting-dates/central-experimental-farm-advisory-council/?id=1355771625561.

Ottawa City Council, Report to Committee(s) of Council Internal Routing

http://www.shadqadri.com/document/ACS2008-PWS-SOP-0012.pdf

European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization, Data sheets on quarantine pests, Agrilus planipennis: http://www.eppo.int/QUARANTINE/insects/Agrilus_planipennis/DS_Agrilus_planipennis.pdf?utm_source=www.eppo.org&utm_medium=int_redirect.

The Manotick Directory, 2013. “Emerald Ash Borer, Two Choices: Treat or Cut,” http://www.manotick.net/docs/emeraldashborer.html.

 The Ottawa Citizen, 2008. “Invasive Beetle Threatens Ash Trees,” 26 July.

———————-, 2013. “Approved: Tiny Wasps that Kill Emerald Ash Borer,” 5 June.

Image: Emerald Ash Borer,Anthrophysis,  http://anthrophysis.blogspot.ca/2011/09/invasive-forest-insects-damage-budgets.html.

Image: Dying Ash Tree on Ash Lane, Central Experimental Farm, July 2014, by Nicolle Powell