The Grand Vice-Regal Fancy Dress Ball

23 February 1876

It was hard times. In late 1875, Canada, indeed all of North America, was mired in what today is known as the “Long Depression” which began with the Panic of 1873 and lasted, according to some economic historians, for more than twenty years. To encourage business, Canada’s Governor General, Lord Dufferin, came up with an ingenious idea: Let’s host a gala fancy dress ball! This was a nineteenth-century version of the “trickle down theory” of aiding the poor. Invitations were sent out at the end of November for the event to be held at Rideau Hall on 23 February 1876.

There was precedent for such an event. Twenty-five years earlier in 1851, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert held a grand costume ball at Buckingham Palace “as an impetus to the trade of the British metropolis” according to the Ottawa Daily Citizen. At that event, the Queen wore le grand habit de court of Louis XIV. Her entire costume was made of material of British manufacture. In the depressed financial climate of late 1875, Lord and Lady Dufferin aimed to emulate Her Majesty and give a boost to the local economy.

Illustration of Lord and Lady Dufferin’s Fancy Dress Ball, Canadian Illustrated News, 16 March 1876

Others weren’t so sure about the idea. The Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, René-Édouard Caron, decided against holding his annual ball that year, instead donating $1,000 to a fund for the relief of the poor. Pierre Garneau, the recently-retired mayor of Quebec City, donated $500 to the same fund. The Ottawa Evening Citizen opined that it would be well for the Governor General and private citizens to follow their example. The newspaper added that it believed that a majority of people who received invitations to the ball could not “with justice to themselves and their creditors accept the invitation.” It advised a postponement of the event, or that the ball be abandoned altogether. Given the prevailing financial distress, “the strictest economy is necessary in pleasure as well as in business” the newspaper argued.

Despite such reservations, the Dufferins’ fancy dress ball proceeded as planned. In the three months leading up to the big night, dressmakers, tailors, and costumers worked flat out to dress the 1,500 guests. The Canadian Illustrated News said that “one long golden harvest was reaped by tradesmen” and that “in the present ‘tightness’ of things monetary, the Ball [had] been a perfect godsend.” Maybe Lord Dufferin was right.

Lord Dufferin as King James, 1876, Topley, LAC 3819846.

There were costume mishaps. A Mr. Baird, who purported to be the agent for Miss Jennie Kimball, a well-known Boston-based costumier, announced that he could be found in room 52 at the Russell House Hotel and was taking orders for any costume desired, either for sale or lease. However, a short time later, Miss Kimball wrote to the Citizen denouncing Baird, calling him a “speculator and a very dangerous one.” He was not her agent. However, should somebody wish to procure a gown or costume for the Ball, they should contact Mr. St. Jacques, the manager of the Russell House, who would forward the request to her. She had costumes available for rent, including “Sir Rupert” in silver armour ($20), a Spanish matador ($20), the “Duke of Buckingham ($12) and “King Charles,” a snip at only $10.

The vice-regal Fancy Dress Ball began at 9:00pm. Getting to it must have presented challenges given that Rideau Hall was located on the outskirts of Ottawa and it was mid-winter. Indeed, it was bitterly cold on 23 February with a high of only -19 degrees Celsius that day. It was unlikely that many carriages could be “parked” at Rideau Hall, which, given the temperature, would have been brutal for the horses unless they could be accommodated in the Hall’s stables. Some people may have come by private sleigh, with servants dropping them off and picking them up at an appointed time. For those without private conveyance, there was hired sleighs, and Ottawa’s “mass transit” system of the day, ran by the Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company. The Company offered rides on its sleighs to and from Rideau Hall by arrangement.

Lady Dufferin, 1876, Topley, LAC 2315138.

The Ottawa Citizen called the Ball, “the crowing triumph of social life in Canada.” The attendees read like a “who’s who” list of Canadian political, legal and commercial heavyweights. Top of the list was Alexander Mackenzie, the prime minister, and his wife. The frugal Mackenzie, perhaps in sympathy with the hard economic times, wore his official court uniform which featured a lot of gold braid, rather than a more fanciful outfit.

Lord Dufferin and his family and staff were dressed in the style of the Court of King James of Scotland. Dufferin wore a doublet, with trunk hose, pearl-grey bas-de-chausses (stockings that covered the lower part of his legs), a short coat of black velvet trimmed with gold thread, topped off with a black velvet cap with a white feather fastened with a diamond aigrette. Apparently, his costume was considered quite sombre compared to those of his guests, and was the high of good taste.

Lady Dufferin was clad in a crimson petticoat with a satin train with two rows of gold embroidery. Her gown had closed sleeves of white satin puffed with crimson. Over this was a crimson velvet robe lined with white satin, with ermine trim. On her head was a crimson velvet hat decorated with white feathers. She also wore a girdle of jewels and necklace of diamond stars. The three eldest Dufferin children, Helen, Archibald and Terrence, also attended the ball in costume.

The Dufferin children, Terrence, Archie, and Helen, Topley, LAC 5107175.

On arrival, guests were shown into the ballroom which was lit by hundreds of wax candles as well as gas chandeliers. Floor-to-ceiling festoons of roses covered the pilasters than lined the room. At the far end was a dais raised up on three crimson steps on which were two state chairs. A passage through the middle of the room to the dais was cordoned off. Two bands provided the music—the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Gruenwald band from Montreal. The guests were dressed in all sort of costumes—gods and goddesses, cavaliers, roundheads, Britannia, Father Christmas, Quebec guardsmen from 1759, Lady Liberty, and Jacques Cartier were all represented, as were more humbler Campagna peasant women, fishwives and shepherdesses. William Topley, the famed Ottawa photographer, took scores of pictures for posterity that now form part of the collection at Library and Archives Canada.

At 9:30pm, Their Excellencies, accompanied by their attendants, which included two pages, their son Terrence and his friend, Master A. Littleton, who was the son of the Governor General’s secretary, entered the ballroom at the head of a procession of the cream of Ottawa’s society. After the opening bars of “God Save the Queen” were played, the ball began.

The opening dance was a state quadrille, the first of two such dances, the second one being held mid-evening. Eight couples performed the intricate dance, including Lord and Lady Dufferin. The stately dance was almost eclipsed by young Terrence and Master Littleton. Dressed in fancy costumes and equipped with toy swords, the two did what any self-respecting youngster their age would do. While lounging in the two state chairs, the two boys began duelling. The Canadian Illustrated News reported that the clash of steel was covered by the music. No fingers were lost in the affray.

A novel feature of the Ball was its “singing quadrilles” where the dancers provided the vocals to the accompaniment of a piano. The songs were in the form of nursery rhymes “very ingeniously and sweetly harmonized” by Mr. F.W. Mills, who had composed the previous year a one act operetta called “The Mayor of St.-Brieux” for Lady Dufferin’s theatricals.

His Excellency had a busy night. Partnering his wife in at least two dances, Lord Dufferin also danced with fifteen other women.

The dance floor was packed, especially at the beginning. But things opened up as guests drifted through other parts of Rideau Hall, including its drawing rooms and corridors, which were decorated with banks of flowers, card-rooms, and the conservatories lit by Chinese lanterns. Quiet lounges were set aside for those who wished to take a breather from the dances and engage in a quiet tête-à-tête, or whatever.

The indoor tennis court at Rideau Hall decorated as a supper room for the Fancy Dress Ball, February 1876, Topley Studio, LAC 3325566.

At midnight, the Governor General escorting Mrs. Mackenzie, the prime minister’s wife, led the way to the new indoor tennis court which was richly decorated and converted into a supper room. The upper part of the court was festooned with rose and white bunting. Along its sides were placed twelve large shields on banners, including those of the United Kingdom, the Royal Arms, the Dominion Arms, the Arms of Canada, and the Arms of each Province. Each were surmounted by a Royal Crown. The Arms of Blackwood, Hamilton and Temple, which were the quarterings of the Governor General, were each surmounted by an earl’s coronet. At the other end of the room was a display of gold plate, heavy golden spurs and roses.

Three long tables ran the length of the room set with gold and silver services. There was a large candelabrum and a massive golden centrepiece which apparently had at one time graced imperial banquets in France in the court of Napoleon III.

At a “late” hour the next morning, the opening bars of “God Save the Queen,” brought the festivities to a close. According to the Canadian Illustrated News, the patriotic strains “sent a tired but delighted crowd from the charms of the unreal world back into the daily monotony of this very real and grimy, practical nineteenth century.”

A few days later, another ball was held in Rideau Hall. This one was for the servants who laboured so hard at the Fancy Dress Ball. A supper was also laid out for them in the still decorated tennis court.

If you were wondering about all those expensive costumes, many were reused less than a week after the event at Rideau Hall at the Quebec Members’ Ball, held in the newly finished Parliamentary Library. Such were the financially straitened times.

While the Fancy Dress Ball may have given a temporary financial boost to tradesmen as suggested by the Canadian Illustrated News, hard times continued in Ottawa and throughout Canada. The following year, unemployed labourers in search of work stormed Parliament Hill looking for the prime minister. Mackenzie said there was little he could do beyond public works that were already underway. He advised the men to seek their fortune out west.

His advice did not go over well. In 1878, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives sweep Mackenzie and his Liberals from power.


Canadian Illustrated News, 1876. “The Governor General’s Fancy Dress Ball,” 18 March.

Hamilton-Hobbs, Emma, 2019. “Dressing Up at Ottawa’s Fancy Dress Balls and Skating Carnivals (1876-1896),” Library and Archives Canada Blog, 9 May.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1875. “No title,” 30 November.

————————–, 1876. “The Fancy Dress Ball,” 22 January.

————————–, 1876. “A Letter from Jeannie Kimball, 4 February.

————————–, 1876. “Grand Vice-Regal Fete,” 24 February.

————————–, 1876. “The Servants Ball,” 26 February.

————————–, 1876. “Quebec Members’ Ball, 29 February.

Instant Mashed Potatoes…

7 February 1961

The post-war years saw a revolution in the kitchen, both in terms of what we ate and how our food was prepared. With growing affluence and improving technology, out went the icebox and in came the modern electric refrigerator. Electric stoves became commonplace. In 1955, early adopters bought their first microwave ovens. Processed foods were rapidly filling up the new suburban supermarkets. Swanson’s TV dinners, the first successful frozen meal, hit groceries’ freezer shelves in 1954, allowing the entire family to enjoy the dinner of their choice in front of that new household necessity, the television. For 98 cents, one could choose among Salisbury steak, meatloaf, fried chicken, or turkey, accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas. Later, a dessert was added. Technological improvements also made canned and frozen foods more palatable. Processed foods were a hit with harried women who did the grocery shopping and prepared the meals along with raising a family and, in increasing numbers, entering the paid workforce.

One of the earliest convenience foods was dehydrated potatoes. In 1905, Ernest W. Cooke applied for a US patent for “Dehydrated Potatoes and Process of Preparing the Same.” It was granted in 1912 (No. 1,025,373). Under Cooke’s process, potatoes were cut up into small pieces, shredded, cooked slightly, then dried. They could be reconstituted by simply adding water. Cooke claimed that his process preserved the majority of the cell walls of the potato, making a palatable product. Previously, the hydration of dried potatoes whose cell walls had been crushed resulted in a “mucilaginous starchy mess, which is entirely inedible,” he said.

Advertisement for French’s instant mashed potatoes, Ottawa Citizen, 19 December 1959.

The demand for dehydrated potatoes was not strong, however. After rising somewhat during World War I, demand for the product cratered during the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t until the United States entered World War II that the product found a major buyer in the US military looking for ways of feeding its troops. Military demand for other types of dehydrated vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots also rose though potatoes was by far the number one dehydrated vegetable.

Following the war, demand for dehydrated potatoes remained strong with the US government purchasing large amounts to support potato prices and to send overseas as foreign aid. The product, while nourishing, wasn’t very good. American GIs who were forced to eat the potato mush during the war hated it.

It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that RT French Company, then a subsidiary of the British firm Reckitt & Colman, successfully launched instant mashed potatoes onto the retail market. Its process for making the instant spuds was based on a British patent for the product developed during the war by Theodore Rendle. The patent was for “improvements in and relating to the preparation of cooked starchy vegetables in powdered form,” such as mashed potatoes. This product was available on Ottawa’s supermarket shelves by the late 1950s.

At this point, enter Dr. Edward A.M. Asselbergs, a senior researcher at the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Research Centre at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa. On 7 February 1961, he and two colleagues, Hugh Hamilton and Patricia Saidak, filed a Canadian patent application for a new process for preparing dehydrated cooked mashed potatoes. The patent (CA 620541) was granted the following May. A US patent was granted in 1966 (No. 3,260,607). Asselbergs had immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1950. He held a BSc from the University of Wageningen, an MA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Cornell University.

Dr. Asselbergs showing his thin film of processed potatoes, Ottawa Journal, Dominion Wide, 30 November 1961.

Asselbergs’ team had invented a new form of instant mashed potato, one that was neither in the form of granules nor flakes, which were already available, but rather took the form of “crystal-like particles” with an average thickness of three to four potato cells. The new production process consisted of cooking cut-up potatoes for roughly six minutes in boiling water, “fluffing” them to facilitate the removal of moisture, then mashing them between two rollers to form a continuous, perforated layer. This potato layer was then dried on a heated surface to produce the crystal-like particles. The physical structure of the new instant mashed potatoes was different from both granular and flaked instant mashed potatoes. Experiments were carried out on Idaho Russet potatoes as well as potatoes grown in Canada, including the Sebago potato grown in Prince Edward Island.

The impetus for the invention came from the Canadian potato industry. They hoped that a new product would revive demand for potatoes that had been weakening for some years. As well, it was hoped that the establishment of instant mashed potato factories close to potato fields would allow for the economical use of fresh potatoes that could not be profitably transported long distance. Instant mashed potatoes could also be stored indefinitely.

The new recipe for instant mashed potatoes was big news in Canada. Alvin Hamilton, the federal minister of agriculture personally congratulated Asselbergs for his invention.

Asselbergs and his research team didn’t rest on their laurels. Success with instant mashed potatoes led them to experiment with other vegetables and mixtures. Less than a year later, they came up with a number of dehydrated products including, fish and potatoes, lamb and potatoes, beef and potatoes, pork and potatoes, chicken and potatoes, cheese and potatoes, as well as dehydrated turnips and pumpkins. For the fish and meat dishes, the bones were first removed, the meat was then cut up and mixed with various amounts of mashed potatoes with the mixtures subsequently fed into a drum dryer at a pressure of 90 pounds per square inch and at a temperature of 280°F. The product was then rolled out into a tissue thin layer that crumbled into flacks.

Asselbergs said that these meals could be stockpiled for emergency use and would keep indefinitely in the kitchen. He added that both the instant and reconstituted mixtures had excellent flavour and colour. Spices were already added. As well, the loss in nutritional value was no greater than that involved in an ordinary cooking process.

The dehydrated mixtures could be converted into hot meals within minutes, or even eaten dry without any preparation. The fish and potato mixture was produced at an experimental fish processing plant in Valleyfield, Newfoundland. An Ottawa women’s auxiliary church group tested the new product on their families and reported back to the Asselbergs team and the Test Kitchen at the Experimental Farm on its reception. The Ottawa Journal reported that “By merely adding water or milk to the fine crystalline mixture, and warming it up, the housewife can prepare tasty fillings for fish cakes, meat pies, casseroles, croquettes and even pumpkin pies in a matter of minutes.” The newspaper offensively added “If she is too lazy to do even this, the basic mixture can be eaten in its instant form.”

The inventions earned Asselbergs more congratulations from Alvin Hamilton, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture.

Not everybody was enthusiastic. The Kingston Whig Standard, in another journalistic “Leave it to Beaver-June Cleaver” moment, wrote that the “only reward or thanks [for the new instant foods] came from the bride with no cooking talents at all.” Instant food might be “a boon to the camper or the all-thumbs bachelor-for-a-weekend, but there is something in this note of progress which makes for some dismal contemplation of the future.”

Advertisement, c. 1965, for Shirriff’s Instant Mashed Potatoes, source unknown.

What was the upshot of these culinary innovations? Well, the food industry didn’t rush to license Asselbergs’ patents. His instant mashed potatoes patent was, however, assigned to Salada-Shirriff-Horsey which had a potato processing plant in Alliston, Ontario, and produced instant mashed potatoes, possibly using Asselbergs’ patented process in Canada. The other patents for meat and potato flakes didn’t catch on. Apparently, they were a little too “instant” for most people.

Dr. Edward Asselbergs did not profit from his inventions. Being a public servant, his inventions belonged to the Crown. In 1962, Asselbergs was elected president of the Canadian Institute of Food Technology, which had roughly 700 members from the Canadian food industry. He subsequently left the Department of Agriculture to take up a senior position at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy.

He retired and returned to Canada in 1985. He died in 1996 in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Instant mashed potatoes continue to be sold in North American grocery stores as a quick and easy replacement for fresh spuds. Major producers include Idahoan Foods and Betty Crocker.


Canadian Patent Data Base, 1961. “Preparation of Dehydrated Cooked Mashed Potato,” inventor: Asselbergs, Edward A.M., Hamilton, Hugh A. and Saidak, Patricia, Patent # 620541, 23 May.

Kingston Whig-Standard, 1961. “Instant Everything,” 6 December.

Ottawa Citizen, 1961. “If You Like Them Mashed,” 3 March.

——————, 1961. “Yet Another Instant Dish,” 7 December.

——————, 1996. “Edward Asselbergs,” obituary, 5 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1961. “Revolution in ‘Instant’ Food, Ottawa Scientists’ Project,” 30 November.

——————-, 1963. “Eight New Dried Food Mixes Developed,” 6 July.

——————-, 1965. “Fish Potatoes May Be Added To Instant Food Varieties,” 21 January.

Sault Star, 1962. “Instant Foods,” 19 January.

Rasmussen, Clyde L. and Shaw, W. Lawrence, 1953. Preliminary Planning for Vegetable Dehydration, US Department of Agriculture, Western Regional Research Laboratory, Bureau pf Agriculture and Industrial Chemistry, Albany, California.

UK Patents, 1944. “Improvements in and relating to the preparation of cooked starchy vegetables in powder form,” inventor: Rendle, Theodore, Patent # GB566167A, 18 December.

United States Patent Office, 1912. “Dehydrated Potatoes and Process for Processing the Same,” Ernest William Cooke, inventor, Patent # 1,025,373, 7 May.

———————————, 1966. “Preparation of Dehydrated Cooked Mashed Potato,” inventors: Asselbergs, Edward A.M., Hamilton, Hugh A. and Saidak, Patricia, Patent # US3,260,607, 12 July.

Fisher’s “Folly”

13 February 1919 and 27 November 1924

The Civic Hospital, Department of the Interior, Library and Archives Canada, 3319465.

By 1918, it had become apparent that the three principal hospitals serving Ottawa—the Water Street Hospital, established by Élisabeth Bruyère in 1845 as the Hotel-Dieu Hospital, the Carleton County Protestant General Hospital located on Rideau Street that opened in 1851, and St. Luke’s Hospital on Frank Street established in 1890—had become overstretched. The city’s population had grown considerably and continued rapid growth was expected. As well, its health facilities were increasingly being used by suburban communities. In May 1918, the Boards of the Protestant and St. Luke’s hospitals agreed at a joint meeting that they should send a “memorial” to Ottawa City Council noting the inadequacy of the city’ current hospital facilities and recommending the construction a new, large and modern 500-bed hospital.

The inadequacy of Ottawa’s health care system was dramatically revealed just a few months later with the arrival of the Spanish influenza epidemic in September 1918. Area hospitals were overwhelmed. Health officials were forced to open emergency hospitals, often in schools, in an attempt to deal with the overflow of cases. Before the epidemic petered out, there were roughly 10,000 flu cases and close to 600 deaths in Ottawa out of a population of less than 110,000.

The influenza pandemic had hardly ebbed when on 13 February 1919 more than 100 leading Ottawa citizens, supported by prominent community organizations, presented the two hospitals’ petition. Among a new hospital’s advocates were Mr. J.R. Booth, the lumberman, Sir George Burn, the head of the Bank of Ottawa, Mr. A.J. Freiman, the owner of Freiman’s department store on Rideau St, Warren Soper, one of Ottawa’s electrical barons, and Senator Belcourt, a noted francophone Liberal senator. Organizational support came from the Ottawa Board of Trade, the Rotary Club, the Retail Merchants’ Association, the Trade and Labour Council, the Ottawa Chapter of the Council of Women, the May Court Club, and the Women’s Canadian Club. The proposal called for the construction of a new 500-bed hospital at a cost of $1.5 million. The directors of the Protestant General and St. Luke’s indicated their willingness to merge and turn over all of their assets and properties to the city if the new municipal hospital was built.

Given such high-powered supporters, City Council, led by Mayor Harold Fisher who was a strong advocate for a new hospital, moved swiftly.  Less than two weeks later, Council asked the province for authority to raise $1.5 million in debentures to pay for the new hospital. Over time, the authorized amount increased to $2.75 million as the initial estimates proved to be too low. Another $750,000 was needed for equipment. Prominent residents also provided additional funding. R.M. Cox, a lumberman, left almost $500,000 in his will to the new hospital. Hiram Robinson bequested $100,000 to fund a 70-bed children’s wing, while ex-alderman W.G. Black left $100,000 for the maintenance of the hospital grounds.

As one would expect, the site for the new hospital was contentious. Three successive reports through 1919 looked at potential locations which included Regan’s Hill in Sandy Hill, the Slattery-Bower property in Ottawa East, and Dow’s Lake at the corner of Bronson Street and Carling Avenue. In the end, the final report narrowed the choices down to two—the Protestant Hospital site on Rideau Street and Reid Farm out on the fringes of the city across from the Experimental Farm. The Boards of both the Protestant General and St. Luke’s Hospital unanimously supported the Reid Farm location. While somewhat distant from downtown, though only twelve minutes by car from the Post Office on Sparks Street (now the site of the War Memorial), it offered fresh, country air—a major consideration in these years before air conditioning. As well, the population of the western part of the city was growing rapidly, something that was expected to continue over the coming decades.

After considerable debate, City Council voted 16-4 in early November 1919 to purchase a 23.5-acre portion of Reid Farm for the new Civic Hospital. The price tag was $77,850. The minority on Council who voted against the site were primarily concerned about the distance of the hospital from the bulk of the city’s population, as both the Protestant General and St. Luke’s would close when the new Civic Hospital opened its doors. Alderman Pinard, the leader of the minority, said that while he accepted the point that Reid Farm might be the right site in fifty to one hundred years, one had to also consider the present.

Interestingly, there is no contemporaneous reference in either the Ottawa Citizen or the Ottawa Journal newspaper to “Fisher’s Folly,” the moniker later widely given to the Civic Hospital. While Mayor Fisher was indeed in favour of locating the hospital in Reid Farm, so was most of City Council as well as the hospitals. While there was some community opposition, there was no widespread skepticism as the name suggests. The first reference in the press to “Fisher’s Folly” didn’t seemingly occur until 1959. Subsequent retellings of the Civic Hospital story picked up on this catchy though likely misleading name.

Reid Farm, located in Hintonburg, was bounded by the train tracks to the north (now the Queensway), Fairmont Avenue in the east, Parkdale Avenue in the west and Carling in the south. Reportedly some 200 acres of land was purchased from the Crown in 1829 by one John Anderson who offered to sell 100 acres to John Reid. They tossed a coin to decide who would take the southern or the northern portion. Anderson won the toss and opted for the northern half leaving Reid with the southern portion. Reid and his wife came to settle on the land in 1832, having bought farm implements and oxen. The couple initially lived in a log house before constructing a stone building. At that time, the farm was located in a virtual wilderness, with only a rough trail leading through the woods to Richmond Road. Robert Reid lived on the farm until his death in 1889 when it passed to his son, Robert Jr. and his daughter Agnes, who in turn sold the land to the city and developers. Robert Junior died in 1923 and his sister Agnes, the last of the Reid family, in 1925.

Excavation work on the new Civic Hospital began in July 1920. The architects for the project were Stevens & Lee of Toronto, a firm that had built a number of hospitals across Canada, including Halifax’s Children’s Hospital, the General Hospital in Kingston, and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. General contractors were Ross-Meagher Co. and Alex I. Garvock.

While the hospital was initially expected to open its doors by the end of 1921, there were a number of delays, caused in part by labour issues and supply problems, which pushed the deadline out until the end of 1924. The enterprise was also massive, employing more than 300 workers. Two million bricks were used along with 250,000 terra cotta blocks. It was calculated that there were seven miles of walls.

The new Civic Hospital opened on 27 November 1924 with the Hon. Lincoln Goldie, the Provincial Secretary and Registrar of Ontario, officiating. Also present for the big day was Ottawa Mayor Champagne and former mayor Harold Fisher who was now the Liberal MLA for Ottawa West. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees for the new hospital. Fisher said that it was the greatest day of his life. More than 1,000 guests attended the opening ceremonies. Over the following three days, the general public came to view the new, state-of-the-art hospital facilities.

The Civic Hospital campus comprised of five buildings. The main building was designed in the shape of an “H” with open courts facing both north and south. On the ground floor was the admitting department, the entrance for ambulances, the X-ray department, the isolation unit, as well as the psychiatric and hydro-therapy departments. There was a special admitting department for maternity cases as well as a dedicated elevator to take expectant mothers to the 80-bed maternity ward. There was also a children’s department with playrooms.

The 550-bed hospital had public, semi-private and private wards, with the largest ward having 16 beds. Each bed was equipped with a washstand with hot and cold running water and a mirror. Screens provided privacy. Private patients had private lavatories, with a bath shared between every two rooms. Private patients could also have a telephone for an additional fee. There were two sunshine rooms and three large airing balconies for patients. The top (sixth) floor was the location of the operating and surgical departments with four major operating rooms, an eye-operating room, a plaster room and rooms for other ancillary activities, including sterilization, workrooms and service. Natural lighting was provided for the operating rooms by means of high, vertical, sash windows. The floors in the building were covered in jasmine-coloured “Battleship” linoleum. Western and southern facing walls were painted in tints of French grey while northern and eastern walls were painted a buff colour. 

Four other buildings were linked by underground tunnels to the main building. To the north was a service building which housed the principal kitchen, hospital stores, and staff dining rooms. Its upper floors were used as accommodation for resident staff. North of the service building was the power house that provided electricity and refrigeration. There were also boilers for central heating and laundries. A nurses’ home faced Parkdale Avenue, providing single rooms for all nurses along with parlours, entertainment and living rooms. Finally, there were a building for servants, quarters for carpenters and painters, as well as an incinerator.

 Shortly after the Civic Hospital opened for business, the old Protestant General and St. Luke’s hospitals were closed as was the old Ottawa Maternity Hospital located at the end of Rideau St. near the Cummings Bridge and the adjacent Lady Stanley Institute nursing school. Beginning at 9:30am on 17 December 1924, forty-four patients from the Protestant General were ferried over to the Civic. Those bedridden arrived by ambulance, while ambulatory public ward patients were transported by bus. Private and semi-private patients came by taxi. The first patient to be admitted to the Civic was Donald MacIvor from Niagara Falls, a veteran patient of the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment. Patients from St. Luke’s were transferred several days later.

Fast forward a hundred years, work is underway to replace the now aging Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital with a new hospital that will meet the needs of Ottawa residents into the 22nd century. As was the case in 1919, there has been considerable controversy about the location of the new hospital. A proposal to site it on the other side of Carling Avenue across from the existing hospital met with widespread opposition since it meant carving out land from the Central Experimental Farm—a National Historic Site and a treasured part of the greenbelt. A new site close to Dow’s Lake, which had been the previous location of Agriculture Canada’s Sir John Carling building imploded in 2014, was subsequently chosen with The Ottawa Hospital signing a 99-year lease with the federal government. The principal access to the new hospital complex will be via Carling Avenue.

Fittingly, construction of the $2.8 billion dollar, 641-bed hospital is expected to begin in 2024, one hundred years after the first Civic Hospital opened its doors. The new hospital is expected to be operational in 2028.


New Civic Development for the Ottawa Hospital, 2021,

Ottawa Citizen, 1919. “Three Reports Made. Final Choice Narrowed Down To Farm And Protestant Hospital.

——————, 1919. “Hospital Board Favor Reid Farm,” 3 November.

——————, 1919. “Council Decides On Reid Farm As Site Of Hospital,” 4 November.

——————, 1923. “Death Of Robt. Reid, An Ottawa Pioneer,” 9 October.

——————, 1924, “Gives An Idea Of Its Immense Size,” 28 November.

——————, 1924. “Group Of Five Buildings Is Comprised In Civic Hospital,” 28 November.

——————, 1924. “Capital City’s Facilities For Care Of The Sick Unsurpassed As Result Of Its Construction,” 28 November.

——————, 1924. “Patients In Comfort To Civic Hospital,” 17 December.

——————, 1925. “Was Last Survivor Of Pioneer Family,” 11 March.

——————, 1985. “Ottawa Civic Hospital,” 25 April.

——————, 1989. “Civic turns 65 today,” 17 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1919. “Leading Citizens Ask For Modern Municipal Hospital,” 14 February.

—————–, 1924. “Civic Hospital Movement Initiated Six Years Ago Has Interesting History,” 28 November.

—————–, 1924. “Easy To Operate Civic Hospital Up To Capacity,” 28 November.

The West Block Fire

11 February 1897

When people think of a fire on Parliament Hill, their thoughts likely go to the huge conflagration that destroyed the Centre Block in February 1916. To this day, the cause of that blaze remains unknown; a Royal Commission that investigated it did not come to a conclusion. Some people were convinced, and many still are, that it was an act of war-time German sabotage. Others believed that it was caused by careless smoking in the reading room.

Incredibly, however, the Centre Block fire wasn’t the first major blaze on Parliament Hill. Nineteen years earlier, the West Block, then being used as offices for the federal civil service, was almost consumed by fire.

West Block Fire, 11 February 1897, Library and Archives Canada, c-017502

At approximately 4:15 pm on Thursday, 11 February 1897, when most civil servants had already left for the day, a fire was detected in a small tower room used for storage close to an elevator in the attic storey. An elevator operator tried to extinguish it using a hand-held Babcock fire extinguisher. At the same time, three other men pulled out a fire hose that was installed in the corridor, but when they turned it on the stream of water barely extended three feet owing to low water pressure. Another Babcock extinguisher was brought into play, again without much impact. By this time, the fire was well established in the floor and wall.

At 4:35pm, an alarm was sent in the Central Station of the Ottawa Fire Department located off of Elgin Street. Within minutes, the horse-drawn hose reels arrived and were hooked up to hydrants. Meanwhile, the fire burst through the West Block’s wooden roof about 40 feet south of the Mackenzie Tower. An extension ladder was run up against the western wall of the building where a fireman tried to send a stream of water through an attic window. Unfortunately, only a meager stream came out of the big hose. The city’s low water pressure, made worse by several hoses running from the same Wellington Street water main, was responsible. Flames began to shoot out of a skylight located above the elevator shaft as the fire worked its way southward down the corridor.

In desperation, Fire Chief Young called out the steam-driven fire engines which used coal to heat a boiler to provide water pressure. The Union was stationed at the corner of O’Connor and Wellington Streets, while the Conqueror hooked up to the hydrant located on Parliament Hill at the nearest corner of the West Block. Both engines experienced what a journalist called “exasperating delays” to get water onto the fire. It took the Union almost thirty minutes to get its hose, which extended through the main entrance and up the stairs to the attic, into action owing to valve problems and other malfunctions. Meanwhile, the Conqueror, after failing to get sufficient water from hydrants on the Hill, possibly due to ice, had to be moved to a hydrant at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets. A third fire engine from the E.B. Eddy Company was also brought in to help but to no effect as firemen discovered that its hoses were of a different calibre from that used by the city and couldn’t be coupled to city mains.

Through the evening, fire roared through the upper attic story of the building, fuelled by tinder-dry timbers, a warren of wooden panelled offices and piles of paper—government documents, briefing notes, and memoranda. Flames tore through the roof to the south-west of the Mackenzie Tower and then moved eastward reaching the middle of the Wellington Street side of the building, feeding on flammable materials found in a photographic studio and later in the draughting room of the Marine and Fisheries Department.

By 9:00pm, the whole top storey of the western wing of the building was gone. Shortly afterwards, the top storey of the eastern wing was ablaze. Two hours later, the northern and eastern wings were roofless.

Thousands of spectators, including the Governor General, Lord Aberdeen, and his wife, the Countess of Aberdeen, watched in horror despite the bitter cold; the temperature that evening had dropped to -18 degrees Celsius. It was quite a spectacle. The West Block’s turrets and chimneys were highlighted by the flames with the Mackenzie Tower rearing above the chaos.

While firemen battled the blaze, an army of civil servants and Dominion police worked frantically to empty offices of their documents and other valuables. Even if not immediately threatened with fire, offices on the lower floors were inundated by the water being hosed onto the attic level above. Sleighs of all sorts were pressed into service to evacuate things to the safety of the Langevin Block on the other side of Wellington Street. In the Department of Public Works alone, the Minister and his officials managed to save several tons of books and papers. In the Customs Department, rubber sheets requisitioned from Militia stores were used to protect precious books and papers from water damage.

At 11:00pm, at the height of the fire, Ottawa’s mayor called Montreal for emergency back-up. A detachment of fifteen men from the Montreal Fire Department, equipped with a fire engine and two hose reels answered the call. They immediately set off for Ottawa by train, arriving at 3:00am the next morning. But by this time, the worst was over. The fire had been largely subdued, leaving only glowing embers and smoke.

The next day, Ottawa residents could see for themselves the extent of the damage. Virtually the entire building had lost its top attic floor. The only part of the West Block that was spared was the new wing north of the Mackenzie Tower. This wing, being of more modern construction than the rest of the building, had a metal roof.

The fire continued to smolder despite the deluge of water that had been sprayed onto the building. One fire engine, the Conqueror, was kept pumping water onto the West Block through Friday. However, by 3:00pm, it had to cease operations, having exhausted its stock of hard Welsh coal used to fire its boiler. A switch to ordinary bituminous coal proved unsuccessful in maintaining sufficient pressure to drive the water the long distance from the hydrant at Sparks and O’Connor Streets to the top of the West Block on Wellington Street. The fire revived. An alarm was sounded bringing Chief Young, who had just returned to the station for supper, back on the scene along with another hose reel and two ladder trucks. It wasn’t until 8:00pm that the West Block fire was finally subdued by Ottawa firemen after almost 30 hours of continuous gruelling work in sub-zero temperatures.

The clean-up afterwards was also demanding. Owing to the cold temperatures, hoses were buried under as much as a foot of ice. Even if uncovered, the hoses were frozen stiff, requiring them to be thawed out before being moved. The concrete floor immediately under the attic level was also buried deep in debris.

Even before the fire was out, Cabinet met to discuss rebuilding and to find temporary quarters for affected departments. Only the offices of two departments, Inland Revenue and Railways and Canals remained usable. Space was found in the Nagle building opposite the main entrance to Parliament on Wellington Street for Public Works, Trade and Commerce, Customs and the Public Works departments. The Marine and Fisheries Department moved to offices in the Slater Building on Sparks Street. With more than a foot of water sloshing about in the basement of the West Block where the Dominion Archives were kept, it was imperative to move irreplaceable documents to safety in the Langevin Block. A unit of the Governor General’s Foot Guards stood guard while the papers were transferred.

Amazingly, there were few injuries in the disaster. A fireman suffered a seriously cut finger when a glass skylight fell on him. Another man was hit on the head by a piece of slate thrown from the top of the building during the clean-up; his injury, while painful, was not serious. There were some close calls, however. Four firemen who were fighting the fire in the attic felt the wooden floor beneath them begin to give way. They rushed to a ladder at the window. The first three men made it to safety but the fourth, Harry Walters from the Central Fire Station, had just reached the window when the floor disappeared from under him. He was saved from by William Thompson who managed to grab him.

The official report of the disaster didn’t reach a conclusion about the cause of the fire, though newspaper reports speculated on the possibility of a carelessly discarded cigar or cigarette. Later, a consensus opinion blamed the fire on a “heating apparatus.”

The report did conclude that a doorway cut into a fire wall to permit movement from one office to another helped to spread the blaze. As well, valuable time in fighting the fire was lost owing to firemen being unfamiliar with the layout of office rooms and being unwilling to accept direction from departmental officials. Overall, the report found that officials and workmen had exerted themselves “to the utmost” to prevent the fire from spreading and to save valuable papers and documents. “Nothing which could be done was left undone.”

The cost of the blaze was approximately $200,000. This amount did not, however, include the loss of valuable papers and documents. As the West Block was not insured, the government had to bear the entire cost of reconstruction. The Premier, Wilfrid Laurier, immediately requested a “Governor General’s warrant” to raise $25,000 to cover the initial costs associated with the fire, including the rental of new office accommodations for displaced government offices. The warrant was approved General Alexander Montgomery Moore, Commander of Canada’s Militia, who was acting as the Administrator of Canada on behalf of Lord Aberdeen.

Work on re-building commenced quickly. As a stop gap, a temporary roof, 29,000 square feet in size, was erected at a cost of $4,500. This was later replaced by a fire-proof roof covered with copper. Work also began on the clean-up, the re-building of new offices and the re-furbishing of those offices that managed to survive the blaze but were water damaged. Labourers were paid $1.00 to $1.25 per day. Carpenters and painters received $2.00 per day.

Call for tenders for repairs to West Block, Ottawa Journal, 9 August, 1897.

Rebuilding became highly political. The Conservative opposition accused the government of featherbedding and hiring only Hull workers in order to curry favour with Hull voters ahead a forthcoming federal by-election in Wright Country which encompassed Hull.  The Liberal candidate, Mr. Louis Napoléon Champagne, was unapologetic saying Hull wasn’t the only city that had obtained patronage as other places got their share of federal business. He added that the Liberals were prepared to do it again “to those who are really friends of Mr. Laurier.” Champagne won the contest. The day after the by-election, 50 of the 313 workers on the West Block were dismissed, with further dismissals expected in order to reduce the size of the work force to what was appropriate.

Repairs were sufficiently advanced within a year to permit public servants to re-occupy their offices. But work on the West Block was not completed until 1899, more than two years after the fire.

The West Block fire led to considerable reflection on the size of the Ottawa Fire Department and its equipment, and the extent of the fire hazard posed by public buildings, particularly those on Parliament Hill. The Citizen opined that Ottawa was “comparatively helpless in the presence of a major conflagration.” The “noble government structures,” which cost $5-6 million to build, were the “crowing beauty of the Capital of the Dominion.” Yet, the buildings, constructed using wooden beams and partitions and filled with irreplaceable records, papers and documents, were fire traps. The newspaper contended that should fire break out in either the Central Block or the East Block, “the result would be equally bad” as what had just occurred.

It added that the House of Commons was particularly at risk since the Centre Block was built on a higher elevation that the West or East Blocks which meant that water pressure would be even more of a problem. The Library of Parliament was “the most serious case of anxiety,” as it held more than $1 million in books, and contained no dividing walls. Given these risks, the newspaper was appalled that smoking was permitted and argued that smoking should be banned in all public buildings.

These were prophetic words. Virtually nineteen years to the day later, on 3 February 1916, the Centre Block was destroyed by fire. The precious Library of Parliament was the only part of the building saved, owing to the quick thinking of a librarian who had the presence of mind to close an iron fire door that separated the structure from the main part of the building.

Over the decades that followed, the West Block was much altered. In 1911, a new wing was built linking the east and west wings to form an enclosed quadrangle. During the mid-1950s, the West Block suffered from extensive renovations which were unsympathetic to the original design. However, this was better than the alternative. In 1956, the St. Laurent government almost manage to achieve which the 1897 fire had failed to do—the complete destruction of the beautiful and historic Gothic-revival building. The Federal District Commission, the fore-runner of the National Capital Commission, wanted to replace it with a modern office tower. But after a nation-wide protest, wiser heads prevailed and the building was saved. However, the neighbouring Supreme Court building was not so lucky. It was destroyed to make way for a parking lot.

Today, the enclosed quadrangle in the middle of the West Block, now covered by a glass ceiling, is the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block undergoes much needed restoration and renovation.


Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1897. “The Western Block in a Blaze,” 12 February.

————————-, 1897. “The Second Alarm,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “A Present Danger,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “After The Fire,” 15 February.

————————-, 1897. “Their Usefulness Done,” 25 March.

————————-, 1897. “West Block Blaze,” 24 June.

————————-, 1898. “West Block Fire,” 24 March.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1897. “The Talk of Today,” 13 February.

——————————, 1897. “The Official Report,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1897. “The Wright Campaign,” 17 March.

—————————–, 1897.  “An Insult To Hull,” 18 March.

—————————–, 1897. “One Million Dollars,” 27 March.

—————————–, 1899. “West Block Repairs,” 9 August.

Privy Council Office, 1897, “Special Warrant $56,000 [sic] [$25,000], Fire, Western Departmental Buildings – Minister of Public Works,” 17 February, Library and Archives Canada.

The End of Road Tolls

9 February 1920

We’ve all heard the adage that there’s no certainty in life except for death and taxes. But, back in nineteenth-century Ottawa, it was more accurate to say there was no certainty in life except for death and tolls. People paid tolls, essentially user fees, on virtually everything. Commuters paid tolls to cross the Ottawa River on the Suspension Bridge. Boaters paid tolls to use the Rideau Canal. Lumbermen paid tolls to use the government timber slide. Farmers paid tolls to sell their produce at the Byward market. And, last but not least, everybody entering or leaving Ottawa paid a road toll.

The reason for this was simple. Governments had very few revenue sources in the nineteenth century. There was no income or sales taxes.  The federal government relied principally on custom duties and excise taxes for its revenues. Provincial governments relied on licences and permits, stumpage fees on timber, as well as grants from the federal government, while municipal governments depended on property taxes. Fortunately for governments, though not necessarily for their citizens, the problem of limited revenues was to a large extent mitigated by limited expenditures. There was no welfare state.

Habitants running the Toll Gate, 1867, watercolour copy of painting by Cornelius Krieghoff, artist unknown, Library and Archives Canada, 2837897.

Tolls were used to raise much needed cash to pay for necessary infrastructure, built either by the government or the private sector. Needless to say, there were lots of abuses and complaints.

The high cost of the tolls to use the Rideau Canal reportedly had a significant negative impact on trade. In 1850, the Ottawa Daily Citizen claimed that only a fifth of the wheat sold in Bytown was shipped there from points in Upper Canada via the canal owing to its high toll. It was cheaper to take freight the much longer route down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and then ship it back west on the Ottawa River to the town. Farmers also complained continually about the tolls that they were required to pay to sell grain and other produce at the Byward and Wellington Markets.

But, by far, the biggest gripe people had was with road tolls.

During the nineteenth century, roads, particularly inter-urban “highways” (a misnomer if there ever was one), throughout Canada were terrible. Indeed, the way to travel long distance was by water or railway. In the early years, rural roads were typically maintained by legislated labour. In Upper Canada, a 1793 Act of Parliament obliged settlers to work for up to twelve days each year on maintaining the roads that went by their property, or pay a fine. When that proved insufficient, cash-strapped provincial and county governments encouraged private companies to construct turnpikes, i.e., toll roads, to meet the growing demand for road transportation by settlers. The only requirement was for investors to set up a company for that purpose, and file with the government a statement of what they proposed to do. There was no regulation on where the road was to be built, how it was to be built, or the amount to be charged for using it.

Advertisement in the Ottawa Daily Citizen, seeking tenders for construction of a toll house and two gates by the Bytown and Nepean Road Company, 5 June 1852.

As a consequence, toll roads proliferated. In the Ottawa area, turnpikes were constructed from the outskirts of the city, to farming communities in the Carleton Country hinterland and beyond. In 1852, the Bytown and Nepean Road Company took over a rough, narrow and ill-maintained road (Richmond Road) that extended five miles west from the outskirts of Bytown.[1] The road was only fourteen feet wide for the first mile and a mere nine feet wide for the remaining four miles. The company undertook to widen the road to a standard fourteen feet width for its entire length and to build toll-houses and gates at a cost of £500 per mile. The company later extended the road to Bell’s Corners. In the five months from when the company assumed control of the road in July 1852, it collected £300 in toll charges, out of which the company maintained the road, paid the salary of a toll-keeper, and declared two dividends to its shareholders.

Initially, the toll roads provided a useful service, opening up rural areas and linking communities. However, road maintenance was often poor. Macadamized roads, which were made of graduated layers of stone, frequently washed out and required constant upkeep; something that toll-road operators were often slow to provide. It was said that the road companies exacted the most from, and returned the least to, the general public.

While the toll charges were typically small, they added up. In 1897, it was reported that a farmer driving a team of horses ten to fifteen miles into Ottawa with a load of produce destined for the Byward market would have to pay no less than 50-60 cents in road tolls, and another 30 cents in market tolls, on each round trip. Adding in other expenses, including 25 cents for the farmer’s lunch and 25 cents to feed the horses, there wasn’t much profit left out of the $8 to $10 dollars made at the market.

Mr. Sparrow, a farmer from Cumberland, told the Ottawa Journal in 1892 that his tolls amounted to between $5 and $7 per month. “That money would go a long way towards buying boots for the child, or clothes for my wife or myself.” Mr. Richard Spratt who lived twelve miles out on the Gloucester Road, echoed Mr. Sparrow’s sentiments saying “The different tolls often mount up to a sum which greatly runs away with the profits, and keeps me from coming into the city as regularly as we might.”

Tariff of tolls leaving from Hintonburg heading west on the Richmond Road issued by the Bytown and Nepean Road Company, 1895. It cost 25 cents to drive a two-horse vehicle the length of the road.

One irate person said in an 1889 letter to the editor of the Ottawa Daily Citizen that country people didn’t object to paying “liberally” for road maintenance, as good roads increased the value of their property, and protected horses from harm and vehicles from damage. However, Ottawa-area highways were badly rutted or muddy in summer, and almost impassible in winter owing to long delays in clearing snow drifts. Added to this was the annoyance of having to stop at the toll-gates to pay the tolls. One could expect lengthy delays if there was a line-up to get through the gate, or if the gate-keeper had to make change. Woe betide anybody short of cash. Then, travellers were at the mercy of the toll-gate keeper who may or may let them through. A case in point was a country family whose supply of coal ordered from the city for delivery on a mid-winter Saturday was stopped at a toll-gate because the deliveryman only had five cents instead of the required seven cents for the toll. The deliveryman had to return to the city and remake the journey on the following Monday, leaving the family cold over the weekend.

There were many similar complaints. One person was incensed by a toll-gate operator demanding a toll on a Sunday in an apparent breach of the Lord’s Day Act. Another complained that the woman keeping the toll-gate at Osgoode forced a party returning from a funeral in Metcalfe to pay a toll. The County Crown Attorney, who was a member of the funeral party, paid it under protest after a pole was “neatly dropped between the dashboard of the cutter and the horse” when the rig attempted to run the gate.

Described as “medieval obstructions to traffic,” pressure to eliminate toll-gates mounted towards the end of the nineteenth century throughout Ontario. In 1897, the City of Ottawa proposed to the County Councils of Carleton and Russell that it would discontinue market tolls paid by farmers if the counties would buy out the private road companies and abolish road tolls in their jurisdictions. Ottawa also indicated that it would support the counties in securing legislation under which the province would provide funds for every mile of macadamized road constructed by the counties. It was to no avail. The Ottawa Journal remarked that “country men have never shown any disposition to meet the city halfway in the matter.”

Still, the writing was on the wall for toll roads. Owing in part to changes in provincial legislation, by 1914 only sixteen toll roads remained in Ontario, half of which were in Carleton County. These were: the Bytown and Nepean Road (8 5/8 miles); the Richmond Road (7 miles); the Nepean and North Gower Road (5 1/8 miles); the River branch of the Nepean and North Gower Road (2 miles); the Gloucester and Metcalfe Road (9 5/8 miles); the Hunt Club branch of the Gloucester and Metcalfe Road (3 5/8 miles); the Russell Road (4 ¾ miles); and the Montreal Road (8 ¼ miles). But this meant that virtually all access roads into Ottawa were subject to tolls. The only exception was Nicholas Street. In 1912, the new Nicolas Street subdivision at Bannermount, was advertised as being located “just the other side of the Hurdsman’s Bridge” on “the only road free from tolls into the city.”

In 1920, the Carleton County Council finally gave in, enticed by provincial legislation under which the Ontario government would pay 40 per cent of the cost of expropriating the remaining toll roads. This was sweetened by a deal with the City of Ottawa under which Ottawa would pay a further 30 per cent of the cost. Many old county councillors who had previously rejected the elimination of tolls became enthusiastic supporters of toll-free roads. In the end, only one councillor, the representative of Osgoode, dissented.

On the order of the court, the toll roads operated by the Bytown and Nepean Company, the Nepean and North Gower Consolidated Road Company, the Ottawa and Gloucester Road Company and the Ottawa, Montreal and Russell Road Company passed into the control of Carleton County. Starting Monday, 9 February 1920, the nine remaining toll gates—two gates on Montreal Road, one on Russell Road, two on Metcalfe Road (Bank Street), two on Richmond Road, and two on Merivale Road—were lifted for good. (There was another toll-gate on Hunt Club/Bowesville Road but it was not in operation at that time due to the poor condition of the road.)

To the joy of car owners and the sadness of now unemployed toll-gate keepers, ownership of the roads was transferred to the Ottawa Suburban Roads Commission whose first chairman, Mr. John Bingham, was a director of the Ottawa Motor Club. This was no coincidence. The Club, indeed all motorists, had been a major force behind the elimination of toll gates.

The Commission immediately set engineers to work to assess the state of the unpaved roads and the cost of bringing them up to a satisfactory standard. Richmond and Montreal Roads were deemed to be in fairly good shape. Merivale and Bowesville Roads were assessed as being in poor shape with their road surfaces irregular and in need of grading. Stretches of Metcalfe Road (Bank Street) were also in very poor shape. All the roads needed proper drainage. The engineers provided two estimates, $80,000 for essential improvements and $182,000 for paving them with asphalt.

Most of the old toll-gate houses—toll-gate keepers lost their homes as well as their jobs—were sold off to the highest bidder with the proviso that the houses had to be moved. The Russell Road toll-house was sold to a Mr. William Gorman for $377. The shack at the Ottawa West gate went to Mr. M.P. Merryfield for the munificent amount of $20. The Ottawa West’s toll-keeper’s house, which was situated a short distance away from the toll-gate, was put up for rent.

The final contentious issue was the compensation to be paid to the shareholders of the four road companies. Naturally, the four companies set high estimates of their roads’ value. But if the owners had expected to receive these amounts, they were sorely disappointed. In December 2020, a judge awarded the four companies a total of $159,000 in compensation compared to the $202,000 the companies had submitted in claims.

Toll roads in Ontario passed into history for more than seventy years. But they re-emerged in the 1990s with the construction of Highway 407 which bypasses Toronto north of Highway 401. The “407” is owned by a consortium of Canadian and Spanish investors. Another toll road, Highway 412, which links the 401 to the 407, opened in 2016.


Allston Dave, 2015. “Expanding on the old Richmond Road tollhouse & O’Neil house,” The Kitchissippi Museum,

Bytown and Nepean Road Company. 1895. Tariff of Tolls.

Gilchrist, C.W., 2015. “Roads and Highways,” The Canadian Encyclopedia,

Ontario, Government of, 1914. Report of the Public Roads and Highways Commission, L.K. Cameron, Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen, 1850. “Bytown and Prescott Railroad,” 16 November.

——————, 1852. “Slides,” 8 May.

——————, 1853, “Bytown and Nepean Macadamized Road,” 5 February.

——————, 1864. “Collection of Turnpike Tolls On Sunday, 9 February.

——————, 1873. “The Toll Gate,” 8 October.

——————, 1879. “The Market Grievance,” 7 February.

——————, 1887. “Our Municipal Free Lance,” 22 October.

——————, 1889, “Public Road,” 26 November.

——————, 1892. “The Abolition of Tolls,” 2 June.

——————, 1920. “Toll Roads Passing Hailed With Approval By Motorists,” 31 January.

——————, 1920. “Will Be Delay In Serving Notice On Toll Road Owners,” 2 February.

——————, 1920. “Suburban Road Commission Has Received Estimates From Engineers,” 13 February.

——————, 1920. “Carleton Sells Off Several Toll Houses,” 19 April.

——————, 1920. “Toll Road Award Has Been Agreed On By The Board,” 23 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1893. “Away With Tolls,” 22 February.

——————-, 1897. “Market Fees And Road Tolls,” 15 May.

——————-, 1897. “Favor A Free Market,” 21 May.

——————-, 1912. “This Is The House,” 23 May.

——————-, 1920. “Couty Council Is Out Against The Toll Roads,” 28 January.

——————-, 1920. “Can’t Charge Toll When County Acts,” 31 January.

——————-, 1920. “Toll Road Owners Get Notice Today,” 7 February.

——————-, 1920. “The Toll Roads A Thing Of The Past After Monday,” 6 February.

——————-, 1920. “The Toll Roads Gone,” 12 February.

——————-, 1920. “Sell Old Toll Gates To Highest Bidder,” 19 April.

[1] For a more detailed account of toll gates and toll houses on the Richmond Road, see Dave Allston’s excellent blog, The Kichissippi Museum.

Radio Station CKCH Opens

27 February 1924

At the beginning of the 1920s, radio was the new technology that was sweeping the world. And Ottawa was on the forefront. In May 1920, a live two-way broadcast was transmitted between the experimental naval radio station at 279 Wellington Street and the experimental station XWA in the Marconi Building in Montreal. A secondary receiver with an amplifier and loudspeaker was set up in the ball room of the Château Laurier Hotel where members of the Royal Society of Ottawa listened intently to music and a speech from the President of the Society over the exciting new medium. At the beginning of 1921, the Ottawa Amateur Radio Association was formed. A few months later, the Association listened to a short musical concert put on by the naval radio station. Members also tuned into a time signal from Washington D.C.

This was cutting edge stuff. In an interview, the chairman of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) said that in November 1921 there were only a few radio receivers in the United States, most of which were experimental and in the hands of the military. Six months later, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that there were 700,000 receiving sets in the United States, 40,000 in New York City along, with a daily listening audience of more than one million. Sixty-seven broadcasting studios were in operation, covering musical concerts, news, sports, religious services, business highlights and politics.

Canada followed a similar trajectory. In 1921, Ottawa’s experimental naval station with the call letters OA and the Marconi Station in Montreal, which became known as CFCF, were the only radio transmitters in Canada. But by early 1924, there were roughly forty radio stations across the country.

Station OA gave its first public concert in late April 1921, though few people in Ottawa had radio receivers. The few that were around were unpowered crystal sets. Listeners had to use sensitive earphones to pick up the weak signal. OA later transmitted a live concert performed by the Ottawa South Community Centre under the direction of Professor George Berry.

Advertisement for radios, Ottawa Citizen, 26 February 1924. A $9 crystal set would cost roughly $136 in 2021 money. A four-tube radio set cost the equivalent of $3,650 in today’s money!

In 1922, OA began making regular musical broadcasts every Tuesday and Friday night at 8:00 pm for the benefit of local amateur radio operators. A broadcast in late October 1922 included a live performance of Ave Maria, along with a number of popular songs. Additional features included a comic recital, a news bulletin from the Intelligence Branch of the Department of the Interior, and a riveting address titled Safety First provided by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company. The broadcasts were initially transmitted on a wavelength of 2,100 metres, equivalent to a frequency of 143 kilohertz. This later changed to a wavelength of 500 metres, or 599.5 kilohertz. Listeners were asked to write to the department on how the concerts were heard and the quality of the signal. Station OA stopped broadcasting in early 1924.

In 1922, J.R. Booth Jr. began a private radio broadcasting station that operated under the call letters CHXC, and transmitted at a wavelength of 400 metres, or a frequency of 749.5 kilohertz. The station operated out of various locales, including 247 Flora Street, the home of the president of the Ottawa Amateur Radio Association, the Roxborough Apartments in downtown Ottawa, and the offices of the Great War Veterans’ Association, the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Legion, on Cartier Street.

For a time, the station provided a varied musical performance using local talent three evenings per week. Again, listeners were asked to mail in information regarding the range and quality of the station’s broadcast. When asked by francophone listeners if announcements could be made in French as well as English, the station complied, thereby becoming the first radio station to offer a bilingual service. The station later became know for its broadcasts of the card game bridge which was all the rage at that time.  

The broadcasting room for CNRO (CKCH) radio, roof of the Jackson Building, Ottawa, 1926, Canadian National Railway Collection, CN000300.

Ottawa entered radio’s major leagues with the opening of CKCH on 27 February 1924. The station was owned by Canadian National Railway. The state-owned railway network had been established a few years earlier when the federal government took over a number of near-bankrupt railway companies, including the Grand Truck Railway that operated in Ottawa and owned the Château Laurier Hotel. The station broadcasted out of the Jackson building on Bank Street. At the time it was the tallest commercial building in Ottawa. The station’s two 75-foot transmission aerial towers, placed on the corners of the 190-foot building, had an overall height of 265 feet. The CKCH studio was on the first floor in room 168, with its operating room located on the roof. The station, which transmitted at a wavelength of 435 metres, or a frequency of 689 kilohertz, was at the time the most powerful station in Canada. It was the flagship of a network of CNR radio stations across the country, built so that the train’s customers could listen to radio programmes during long, tedious, transcontinental trips across Canada in a special radio car where each listener was equipped with his or her own earphones.

On that first day, the station was opened during the afternoon for viewing by the general public. Thousands of visitors flocked to see the state-of-the art radio facilities, built at a cost of $18,000. The studio was described as being exceedingly artistic, with nothing omitted for the comfort of performing artists. Its walls and ceiling were covered in heavy, pleated blue fabric to dampen any potential echo or reverberation. Similarly, the floor was covered with a heavy carpet. In the studio were a microphone on an adjustable stand, a telephone, and a microphone control panel linked to the roof-level operating room. The panel had three lights. A red light indicated that the transmitting set on the roof was in operation. A blue light indicated that broadcasting was in progress, while a white light summoned the announcer. The station had four employees: an operator, an assistant operator, an announcer, and a musical director.

Performers at CNRO, 1926, Jackson Building, Ottawa, Canadian National Railway Collection, CN000301.

That evening, CKCH went on the air for its first official broadcast. It opened with a rendition of O Canada, followed by a number of tunes played by the Château Laurier orchestra, including the William Tell Overture. There were also a number of vocal and other solos. The highlight of the inaugural programme was an address by Sir Henry Thornton, the CNR president, to company employees. Thousands listened in, as did thousands of Canadian and U.S. radio listeners. In his speech, he called the opening of the station the most important event in the development of radio in Canada. He also spoke directly to American listeners, extending “a hearty hand to them.” He stressed the merits of Canada as a tourist destination and expressed his hope that they would come and visit, and, of course, ride the railway. To the company’s employees, he noted with pride that CNR’s net earnings for 1923 had been $20 million, and the company was aiming for $30 million in 1924. He added that the year had got off to a great start, with profits of $500,000 in January 1924 compared with a deficit in January the previous year.

The station promised to broadcast musical concerts each Wednesday and Sunday evening with the occasional church service on Sundays. The Wednesday programmes would be of a serious nature, consisting of “music of the highest type,” addresses, and possibly speeches from Parliament. Saturday evening performances would be “of a lighter vein.” News would also be regularly transmitted. CKCH would be placed at the disposal of the Canadian government at any time desired.

Travellers listening to radio in the Maple Leaf Lounge on a CN train, circa 1929, Canadian National Railway Collection, CN000299.

The response to that inaugural broadcast was enthusiastic. Congratulatory telegrams poured into the station. The Ottawa Journal said the radio would “bring Canadians to the capital of Canada with all the comforts of home.” The newspaper fantasized of the farmer sitting with his pipe in hand listening to a debate in the House of Commons. It added that the station could “make Canada real to thousands of benighted Americans who do not travel this way and who have delusions that the Dominion consists of an ice-bound north.”

The station began broadcasting many of the types of programming familiar to us today. It offered a time signal at 9:00pm supplied directly from the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa. The signal was intended for the use of everybody, but was aimed particularly at scientists, mariners and courts of law. The station also offered a report given by the secretary of the Automobile Club of Ottawa on road conditions leading into the capital. Given the horrible conditions of most highways at this time, this was an important service. And for sports fans, the station was the first to broadcast live the Stanley Cup playoffs, providing play-by-play coverage of a playoff game between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. Ottawa, the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1924, lost 4-2 in the second game of a two-game, total score match. Montreal went on to play the Western champions. CKCH subsequently broadcast the Canadiens-Vancouver match live from the Mount Royal Arena. Between periods, music was provided by the Château Laurier orchestra.

Paradoxically, the opening of such a powerful station—its signal was picked up as far away as California and Panama—elicited some mixed emotions among Ottawa’s amateur radio enthusiasts. Some were concerned that if the station’s broadcasts were too frequent, they would have less opportunity to receive radio signals from elsewhere. They thought the stations’ twice-weekly broadcast gave the right balance.

With the growing success of radio, local musicians who had been providing their services for free, began in April 1924 to charge commercial stations, such as CKCH, for their services. The fee was $2 per hour per artist and $3.50 per hour for the orchestra leader. In 2020 terms, this is equivalent to roughly $30 and $53 per hour, respectively.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian National Railway coveted the “CNR” radio call letters for its new station. However, under international agreement the “CN” appellation was assigned to Morocco. After a year of negotiation involving the British Secretary of State for the Colonies and the foreign telegraph section of the British Post Office on behalf of the Canadian National Railway, the government of Morocco and the French colonial office agreed to cede the CN letters to the railway. The Department of Marine and Fisheries also agreed that the railway could use the letter “R”. Thus, CNRO was born with the “O” indicating Ottawa. The railway’s other radio stations adopted similar identification letters, with the last indicating the city, for example, CNRM became the railway’s Montreal station, and CNRE its Edmonton station. The CNR’s Moncton station became CNRA since the “M” was already used for Montreal.

CNRO continued to broadcast from the Jackson Building until mid-1929 when it moved to new quarters on the eighth floor of the newly completed east wing of the Château Laurier Hotel.

In 1933, the station was taken over by the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the forerunner of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). With the change in ownership, the station’s call letters were changed from CNRO to CRCO. In 1937, when the CBC assumed control of the station it became known as CBO.

CBO radio continued to broadcast from the Château Laurier Hotel until 2004 when it moved to the new CBC Ottawa broadcast centre on Sparks Street.


Gazette, 1924. “To Broadcast Results,” 18 March.

Nanaimo Daily News, 1924. “Radio Stations Are To Have Busy Week,” 26 April.

Ottawa Citizen, 1924. “Successful Test of Radio Station CKCH,” 26 February.

——————, 1924. “Station CKCH Opens,” 27 February.

——————, 1924. “Sir Henry Thornton Officiates At Opening of C.N. Radio Station,” 27 February.

——————, 1924. “Watching the Game Through Eyes of Station CKCH,” 12 March.

——————, 1924. “Game Broadcast by Station CKCH,” 19 March.

——————, 1924. “Radio Time Signals,” 27 March.

——————, 1924. “Pro Musicians Will Charge For Radioing,” 1 April.

——————, 1924. “Reports on Roads About the Capital,” 24 April.

——————, 1924. “Record Reception of Station CKCH,” 26 April.

——————, 1924. “Canadian National Radio System Has New Call Letters,” 16 July.

——————, 1924. “Many Pages in Radio History Have Been Written by Ottawa,” 8 October.

——————, 1929. “Broadcasting Public Address System Provides Unique Kind of Accommodation for Guests,” 5 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1921. “Will Broadcast Local Concert,” 10 August.

——————-, 1922. “Quotations For Babson’s Statistical Organization,” 1 May.

——————-, 1922. “Ottawa Radio Concerts,” 4 October.

——————-. 1922. “Radio Concert Was Rare Treat,” 30 October.

——————-. 1922. “Delightful Concert By Radio Telephony,” 16 November.

——————-, 1924. “Ottawa’s Radio Station,” 27 February.

——————-, 1924. “Thousands View New Radio Station Where Sound Can Be Magnified Just Million Times Greater To The Ear,” 28 February.

——————-, 1924. “Cost About $18,000 To Erect CKCH,” 14 April.

——————-, 1924. “Road Information Over The Wireless,” 25 April.

Radio Age, 1924. Corrected List of Broadcasting Stations, April.

Urbsite, 2015. The Jackson Building’s Many Lives, 8 September,

Windsor Star, 1924. “C.N. Employees Are Inspired By Thornton,” 28 February.

Valentine’s Day in Old Ottawa

14 February 1848

In this increasingly secular world, few keep track of the liturgical calendar of the Church that determines when feast days, including the celebration of saints, are to be observed. If asked, other than Christmas and maybe Easter, people will likely remember just two dates—St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th and St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th, though the latter is typically shortened to just Valentine’s Day. But if you look up February 14th in the Catholic Church calendar, you won’t find a celebration in honour of St. Valentine but rather a celebration of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius who converted the Danube Slavs to Christianity in the 9th century, becoming known as the “Apostles of the Slavs.” (The Cyrillic alphabet is named after Saint Cyril.) St. Valentine used to be celebrated on that date, but, while he is still considered to be a saint by the Catholic Church, he was relegated to the minor leagues in 1969 owing to the lack of information about him.  

Icon of St. Valentine, author unknown.

While it’s possible that Valentine’s execution occurred on February 14th, some Valentine experts believe the Church co-opted an existing Roman pagan festival, the Lupercalia, a three-day event that ended on the ides of February (February 15th). The festival featured animal sacrifices and men and women cavorting in their birthday suits. As you might imagine, the Church wanted to snuff out this much-loved annual rite. St. Valentine’s Day was its response.

Celebration of St. Valentine’s Day is also linked to Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous 14th century author of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote a poem called Parlement of Foules [Fowls]. The seven-hundred-line poem, which refers to Dame Nature overseeing birds that have gathered to choose their mates, contains the first known reference to St. Valentine’s Day as a special day for lovers. For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, When every foul cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate]…” [lines 309-310].

The first known Valentine’s Day greeting was apparently sent in 1415 by the Duc d’Orléans to his wife. The Duke, captured by the English at the Battle of Agincourt, was being held for ransom in the Tower of London.

Shakespeare gets into the act at the beginning of the 17th century with Ophelia in Hamlet saying To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All is in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine [Act 4, Scene 5].

Advertisment, The Packet, 2 January 1848.

The first reference to Valentine’s Day that I could find in Ottawa papers, dates back to the end of January 1848 when Ottawa was still known as Bytown. Henry Bishoprick, who sold writing desks, plateware and china, advertised in The Packet, the forerunner of the Ottawa Citizen, that he had an assortment of “Valentines for sale by the dozen or single.” Two years later, The Packet published on its front page a lengthy Valentine poem about Cupid written by Mrs. J. Y. Foster. The first verse ran:

Young maiden! Fair maiden! I bid you beware!

There is a sly spirit aloft in the air!

Though veiled by a mist from the bodily eye,

He glides in a fairy-formed chariot bye;

Two ring-doves yoked lovingly bear him along—

He is laden with poetry, blossoms and song;

Flames kindling and darting, his chariot illume,

But rose-hued and harmless, they fail to consume,

Though helpless he looks, yet all bow to his sway,

And he wounds who he pleased on Valentine’s Day.

By the mid-1860s, the exchange of Valentine cards was in full swing. At the time, one could send letters and cards through the mail without affixing postage. This required the recipient to pay the one cent fee for local delivery. In 1870, an article in the Ottawa Citizen advised senders of Valentine cards to pay the postage upfront. If the postage was not paid “even the most tender of Valentines, instead of fulfilling its high mission of kindling a mutual flame in the adored one’s breast, will only eventually promote combustion in the stoves of the Dead Letter Office.”

Cards and other Valentine gifts began to appear in stationery shop windows along Sparks and Rideau Streets in late January. They ranged from the sentimental to the comic, costing as low as one cent up to more than seven dollars. Consequently, there was something for every budget. 

Example of a 19th century Valentine, Source: Say It With A Camera On

Reportedly, the cheapest cards typically depicted a white or a pale-tinted tablet bearing some appropriate sentimental or romantic inscription. The tablet was surrounded by bouquets of violets or roses. Cards made in England often featured verses by the Irish poet, William Allingham, the author of The Fairies, a poem still popular today with children. Another favoured author was Jean Ingelow. She burst on the literary scene in the 1860s with a book of poems. One of her most famous called Divided tells the tale of two lovers walking hand-in-hand on opposite sides of a little brook which gradually broadens to become a major river—very appropriate material for Valentine cards! English cards might also feature paper lace and silver foil. For a time, they were also decorated with feathers. In 1872, London newspapers protested this frivolity which had led to the demise of thousands of songbirds, including chaffinches, wrens, sparrows, linnets, and robins.

American Valentine cards, which were produced in the millions in a factory in Brooklyn, NY, apparently used verses of anonymous writers. A typical sentiment might be: Tho’ this heart but plasterboard be, There is a warmer one for thee. The American cards were often brilliantly coloured and featured hearts, blossoms and leaves with bevelled edges. Some depicted girls reading letters or plucking daisy petals.

Vinegar Valentine, 1910, public domain,
Atlas Obscura

However, not all Valentine cards were sweet and loving. Comic cards, sometimes called vinegar valentines, could be hurtful to the receiver. Their principal feature were ugly caricatures of men and women with unkind messages. Comic cards actually outsold the traditional, sentimental cards during the 1870s. At one point, three-quarters of the cards made by the Brooklyn factory were comic cards.

In 1872, the Ottawa Citizen ranted that Valentine’s Day was not being honoured with as much “love lettering as in the days of yore,” due to the baleful influence of “those cheap abominations called comic valentines by which mean and cruel people vent their envy and spleen.” That same year, a carter on Sussex Street sent a rival carter on the same street a vinegar Valentine card. This led to considerable hard feelings. The card’s recipient took the matter to court. Unfortunately, the outcome of the case was not reported.

Like today, picking and choosing the right Valentine to send to one’s love, could be a difficult and even traumatic event. Back in the 19th century, there was an additional hurdle for the shy or bashful to overcome. Purchasers couldn’t simply go into a store and look through a rack of cards. Instead, the buyer would tell a salesclerk what he or she wanted. The clerk would then bring out the requested type of Valentine cards for examination. A story appeared in the Citizen in 1877 describing the plight of a young man who, after peering at the display of cards in the shop’s window, anxiously looked up and down the street before entering, fearful of being recognized. Then, once inside, the poor youth blushed when he stammered out the requested article. Leaving the store, he hid his newly purchased Valentine’s card in his ulster (a long winter coat), his heart “beating fast at the thought of the dear bright eyes that will scan the glowing words.” This was clearly a more innocent age.

Another story described the predicament of a “young gentleman” under ten years of age. He preferred the cheaper kind of Valentine card owing to the number he had to send. He said: “A fellow has to send a Valentine to his girl, another to his chum’s girl, and one to the prettiest girl in his class because he likes her, and one to the ugliest girl because she’ll feel bad if she has none, and one to his teacher, and one to each of his cousins.”

The one person who did not appreciate Valentine’s Day was the postman. Having just recovered from picking up and delivering thousands of Christmas cards, he had to do the same with thousands of Valentine’s Day cards.

Valentine’s Day poem and suggestion from E.B. Eddy Company, Ottawa Journal, 14 February, 1893.

While the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards was the standard way of celebrating the festival during the 19th century, there were other possibilities. In 1894, the Ottawa Journal described how to host a St. Valentine party. The paper advised writing invitations on note paper decorated with hearts and ribbons. The event would consist of playing the card game Hearts for two hours with prizes. First prize would be a heart-shaped photograph frame and a heart-shaped pin cushion for the winning man and woman, respectively. The booby prize for a man would be a whisk broom decorated with a heart-shaped card illustrated with cupids and hearts and inscribed with the motto You need a broom, tis very plain, To sweep the cobwebs from your brain. For the losing lady would be heart-shaped candles, with the inscription By all wise things the wisest men do say, She wins most hearts who has the least luck to play.  The card game would then be followed by a supper featuring dainty, heart-shaped sandwiches, heart-shaped cakes, and ices and biscuits in, of course, the shape of hearts.

Finally, for the man who didn’t want to say it with a Valentine card or with flowers, the Ottawa man could take the E.B. Eddy Company’s advice and give the love of his life, fibre ware goods (pails, wash tubs and butter tubs) manufactured by the company. There is no report on whether any man dared to act upon Eddy’s recommendation or what happen to any who did.


Chaucer, Geoffrey, 1381-82. The Parlement of Foules,

Gavin, Ian. 2021. “History of Valentine’s Day,” History, 29 January,

Ponti, Crystal. 2020. “Victorian-Era ‘Vinegar’ Valentines Could Be Mean and Hostile,” History, 10 February,

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1866. “The True Story of St. Valentine,” 17 February.

————————–, 1870. “The Voice Of Love And The Dead Letter Box,” 8 February.

————————-, 1872. “St Valentine’s Day,” 14 February.

————————-, 1872. “From Different Places,” 13 March.

————————-, 1972. “A Valentine,” 19 February.

————————-, 1875. “St. Valentine’s Day,” 15 February.

————————–, 1876. “Valentine’s,” 10 February.

————————-, 1877. “How Valentines Are Bought,” 14 February.

————————-, 1879. “Valentines,” 14 February.

————————-, 1881. “St. Valentine’s Day,” 14 February.

————————-, 1881. “Local News,” 24 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “How Valentines Are Made,” 29 January.

——————-, 1894. “St. Valentine Party,” 21 February.

Packet, 1848. “Valentines! Valentines!” 29 January.

——–, 1850. “Valentine Time,” 23 February.

The Winter Trots

9 February 1921

A sport that flourished in central Canada and in the northern United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was winter harness racing. In 1907, the Ottawa Citizen reported that there were few places of any importance with cold weather and access to a river or lake big enough to accommodate a quarter or half-mile track that did not indulge in the sport. In addition to major centres such as Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, ice racing was enjoyed in small Ontario communities, such as Napanee, Belleville and Port Perry.

Ice racing on the Ottawa River, 1902, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, 3387722.

Initially, horse owners were skeptical of the new sport, owing to the heightened risk of injury to their valuable horses from running on ice. Part of the risk came from the type of shoes the horses wore. According to a report in an 1893 edition of the Canadian Sportsman,[1] horses ran on five-calk (caulkin), all-steel horseshoes. These calks gave the horses grip on the ice. They were also sharp, and could cause serious injury. To help fortify the horses against the cold, horses were reportedly given very strong black coffee between heats. Apparently, for one aristocratic mare called Lady Mary Tudor the coffee was replaced with a bottle of champagne!

Racing on ice also had its particular challenges for drivers. In the early days of the sport, cutters (a single-person sleigh) were used. These cutters had a propensity of swinging wide in the turns leading to trouble on crowded tracks. Consequently, they were equipped with a “knife” on the cutter’s runner which could be deployed by the driver depressing a foot-controlled lever. The knife would be thrust into the surface of the ice track, thereby giving the cutter great stability on turns and lessening the swing. In later years of the sport, cutters were replaced by the same bike sulky used in dirt track races.

Despite the risks, the sport took off. With substantial money to be had, the reservations of horse owners quickly disappeared. Times on ice tracks were slower than on the usual dirt tracks—roughly ten seconds for a mile circuit.

When ice racing started in the Ottawa area is a bit murky. A newspaper report from the 1920s claimed that sometime about 1860 horse racing was held on the Rideau Canal. As the Canal was not drained at this time, the surface was wide enough to make a wide racing surface. The track apparently went from a point east of the Bank Street Bridge to a spot near the “Deep Cut,” close to where the University of Ottawa is today.

Certainly, by the mid-1870s, the sport was well established across the Ottawa River in Hull at an ice track at Leamy Lake. According to the Democrat of Rochester, New York, the Leamy Lake course was “the most perfect ice track in America.” Racing was held under the auspices of the Winter Trotting Club at Crystal Park. It was a popular, annual, mid-winter event. The first day of racing in February, 1877, drew more than 3,500 spectators. The Citizen marvelled that given the amount of “cordial” consumed, it was remarkable that the day passed without a single fight. Prize money for the races was often provided by local hotels. In 1887, gold and silver championship medals were offered by the Winter Trotting Club. The medals were designed and manufactured by Mr. C. Addison of Sparks Street with the inscription “Crystal Park – 1887 Champion.”

In 1900, ice racing commenced on the Ottawa River under the auspices of the Central Canada Ice Racing Association. The half-mile course was located on cleared ice near Queen’s Wharf, located roughly a quarter mile to the east of the Queen Alexandra (Interprovincial) Bridge then under construction. The meet, which was held in the middle of February, was the talk of the sporting world. It was widely advertised throughout Canada and the United States, and attracted hundreds of racing fans to Ottawa, some from as far away as New York City. Naturally, betting was a key attraction. F.H. Hoskins of Hamilton, Ontario did the bookkeeping while Fitch & Company, also of Hamilton, was in charge of the pools.

This is an interesting view of the ice track from the Hull side. In the background are the Parliament Buildings and the Queen Alexandra (Interprovincial) Bridge. Source: Lost Ottawa.

To ensure the success of the meet, no expense was spared. The half-mile oval track was prepared two weeks in advance on ice that was as much as three feet thick. Local horsemen were encouraged to try out the new track in the days leading up to the big event. Stands and stalls were erected for the anticipated thousands of racing fans, punters and horses. A perimeter fence was also erected around the track. To raise the tone of the meet, ladies were admitted free. The opening ceremonies were performed by Ottawa’s Mayor Payment, with the guests of honour being Lord and Lady Grey, the Governor General and his wife. The first day’s races featured the 2.50 class and the 2.10 class; the fields for both were very large.

The three-day meet was a huge success and was repeated annually for more than a decade, with racing extended to a full week. The facilities for spectators and horses also improved over time. By 1909, the large, wooden club house, provided for the comfort for spectators, was heated and lit by electricity.  Heated sheds were also constructed for the horses and their riders. As well, there was a separate club house for ladies.

The races attracted all segments of society, including the city’s upper crust.  The Buffalo Sunday Courier said that on the ice of the Ottawa River one could see “belles and beaux galore, clad in seal, otter, black fox and Persian lamb.”  Draped over the backs of Russian sleighs and English hacks were wraps of fox, musk-ox and wolf, representing “quite a bank account.”

Not all the racing was above board. In 1908, a grey horse oddly named The Eel, owned by a Mrs O’Keefe of Buffalo, New York, had escaped the attention of bookmakers and horse enthusiasts. With few horses of any merit apparently coming out of Buffalo, people ignored it and instead focused on the top-heavy favourite, Anita. Punters began to take note when The Eel came out onto the ice driven by noted reinsman Danny McEwen who had driven a similar grey horse called Silver Joe through the 1907 Grand Circuit with considerable success. The Eel, a.k.a. Silver Joe, beat Anita, and in the process earned a fortune in bets for Silver Joe’s true owner, Frank Entricken. Mrs O’Keefe of Buffalo was none other than Frank Entricken’s sister.

The Central Canada Ice Racing Association hosted the annual event until 1911. It had expected to continue to do so. But something went wrong late in 1911 that disrupted plans for the coming 1912 winter racing season. What exactly occurred is unclear, though a newspaper account suggested organizational problems within the association. There was also competition from both the Ottawa and Hull Driving Clubs which were both hosting ice harness racing meets during the upcoming 1912 winter season.

In mid-January, 1912, just a few days after the Ottawa Driving Club had sponsored harness racing on a flooded ice track at Lansdowne Park, the Hull Driving Club opened its inaugural meet on the ice of the Ottawa River. The stands the club erected could accommodate three thousand spectators. As in past years under the previous organizers, special stands were built for ladies who were admitted to the races for free. There were also cooling stands for the horses and refreshment booths for spectators.

Each year, the annual meet became bigger and better. The 1917 meet, which was held over the first week of February, turned out to be the most lavish ever with purses totalling $23,000 (over $380,000 in today’s money). But there was a cloud hanging over the event, indeed every horse racing event in Canada. While the slogan for the races that year on the Ottawa River was “business as usual,” the curtain was about to come down on the racing season in Canada. Starting the beginning of May 1917, gambling, deemed “incommensurate with the war effort,” was suspended. Winter harness racing on the Ottawa River was over until at least the end of the war.

Advertisement for the last day of harness racing on the Ottawa River, Ottawa Citizen, 9 February 1921.

Ice harness racing resumed in 1920 when the law was amended to once again allow betting. That year, the races were held at Lansdowne Park. The following year, ice racing on the Ottawa River re-commenced under the auspices of the River View Park Racing Association of Hull. The Association, whose membership consisted of Ottawa and Hull sportsmen, was established for the sole purpose of reviving winter ice racing on the Ottawa River. The president of the Association was Hull’s mayor, Louis Cousineau.

Fourteen races were organized with a total purse of $7,000 (later increased to about $9,000 with the addition of new races)—substantially smaller than the $23,000 purse of the previous 1917 meet on the Ottawa River before racing was halted owing to the wartime ban on gambling. Betting was via auction-pools, bookmaking, and pari-mutuels. Fitch & Company of Hamilton, Ontario was awarded the auction-pool and bookmaking privileges for the meet.

The seven-day meet, which ran from 3 February to 9 February 1921, was held on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Press reports don’t give the precise location, but access to the circuit was likely from what is now Jacques Cartier Park. Like in earlier years prior to the war-time interruption of ice racing, there were stands on the ice for 3,000 spectators along with a heated wooden pavilion 380 feet long by 140 feet wide. A separate stand for ladies was also built. The judges’ and timers’ stands were enclosed by glass. The track, 60 feet wide in the stretches, was described as the best ever. In addition to local horses, many horses came in from the United States—some had just competed in the Mt. Clemens, Michigan ice races held a few days before the Hull event.

Each day of racing featured two or three races (with heats), each with a purse of $300-$500, with half going to the first-place horse, 25 percent to the second, 15 percent to third place, and 10 per cent to the fourth-place finisher. In addition, $6 and $4 were given to the fifth and six-place finishers, respectively. The 1921 races were held under the rules of the Canadian National Trotting and Pacing Harness Horse Association.

The week-long event was a huge success. The crowds were large and the races were well received. Mayor Cousineau was the guest of honour on opening day, and said the word “Go” for the start of the first heat of the opening race, the 2.35 class for horses born within 100 miles of Hull.

The last day of racing, 9 February 1921, featured two classified one mile-races—the classified trot and the classified pace—each with a purse of $300. Franklin B., a chestnut gelding, won the trot in a time of 2 minutes 25 ¾ seconds. King Zip, a black gelding, took the pace in a time of 2 minutes, 21 ¼ seconds.

Despite the resounding success of the meet, which the Citizen described as “the cleanest and best race meeting seen on ice in many years,” the last day of the River View meet was also the last time ice racing was held on the Ottawa River. In 1922, the ice races were held at Lansdowne Park in the context of the Canadian National Winter Carnival. Despite the popularity of the sport, ice harness racing then disappeared from Ottawa’s winter scene.

Winter harness racing was resuscitated in 1979 for the first Ottawa Winterlude and was held annually on the Rideau Canal until 1985.


CBC, 2018. Horse Racing on the Rideau Canal kickstarted first Winterlude, 4 February,

Buffalo Sunday Courier, 1902. “Winter Racing,” in Ottawa Journal, 28 January.

Democrat (Rochester, NY), 1878. “Sporting,” in Ottawa Citizen, 26 January.

Elder, Ken, 2014. “Ice Race Meetings on the Ottawa River, — a forgotten tradition?”, Heritage Ottawa Newsletter, January, Volume 41, No. 1.

Ottawa Citizen, 1877. “The First Day’s Racing at Leamy’s Lake,” 16 February.

——————, 1886. “Championship Medals,” 8 December.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,”5 February.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,” 6 February.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,” 16 February.

——————, 1900. “World of Sport,” 19 February.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,” 20 February.

——————, 1900. “The Ice Record Was Recorded,” 21 February.

——————, 1907. “Winter Sports in Canada,” 12 January.

——————, 1911. “Another Meet,” 7 December.

——————, 1911. “Success Is Already Assured Ottawa Driving Club’s Meet,” 27 December.

——————, 1912. “Many Horsemen In Town For Ice Races, All Roads Lead Today To Ottawa River,” 18 January.

——————, 1916. “Ice Racing as Usual,” 22 December.

——————, 1917. “Slow Music Please For Canadian Racing,” 1 August.

——————, 1921. “River View Park Racing Ass’n (Limited),” 25 January.

——————, 1921. “Ice Racing Meet Opened Thursday on Ottawa River,” 4 February.

——————, 1921. “Ice Racing Meet Closed Yesterday,” 10 February.

——————, 1925. “First Ice Racing Was On The Canal,” 10 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1920. “River View Park Racing Ass’n Complete Plans For Ice Races,” 18 December.

——————-, 1925. “Racing on Ice,” 12 January.

——————-, 1925. “Always Gave Horse Bottle Of Wine Between Races,” 26 March.

Wilenius, Ian, 2018. “A Safe Bet: Regulating Online Gambling and Lotteries Through the Criminal Code,” 27 Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies 1. 

[1] The Canadian Sportsman was established in 1870, and was the oldest harness racing magazine in North America. It ceased publication in December 2013.

Poulin’s: Ottawa’s Store of Satisfaction

2 February 1929

L. N. Poulin, Ltd, known to all as simply Poulin’s, ranked among the finest retail stores in Ottawa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was known for excellent service, fair dealing, innovative advertising methods, and low prices. During its early years it billed itself as “Ottawa’s most progressive store.” Later, it styled itself as “Ottawa’s store of satisfaction.”

For forty years, the store stood at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets in the heart of the capital’s business district. Then, out of the blue, L. N. Poulin, its founder, announced in late 1928 that he was retiring and that the store would close. Within two months, the grand retailer was gone, shutting its doors for the last time on 2 February 1929 after a month-long “Retiring from Business Sale.” Other than his retirement—L. N. Poulin was 70 years of age at the time—no other reason was cited for the closure. Poulin rented his building on a long-term lease to Schulte-United Corporation of 485 Fifth Avenue New York, a thrusting, new firm that was opening “five and dime” stores across North America.

L. N. Poulin Department Store, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3318392.

Poulin’s was started in 1889 by Louis Napoleon Poulin and his wife Mary Poulin (née McEvoy). Mme Poulin is given little credit for starting the firm in contemporaneous accounts (not surprisingly given the times) but her obituary noted that she was a considerable businessperson in her own right. L. N. Poulin was born in 1858 in a log home in Addison, Ontario, near Brockville. At age thirteen, he got a taste of retail selling by doing chores and odd jobs at Messrs. Nichols and Parker in the nearby town of Toledo. At sixteen, he took a train to Ottawa to make his fortune. Apparently, he had a return ticket to Brockville in his pocket should things go wrong. He didn’t need it.

In Ottawa, he found employment with Russell, Gardiner & Legatt, one of the largest merchant firms in the capital. He worked there, and at another firm, Stitt & Company, for eleven years before he and his wife struck out on their own in 1889; the couple had married in 1884. Most accounts of Poulin’s early years place his store in a small frame building at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets, a location that he occupied in bigger and bigger establishments for the next 40 years.  However, there are newspaper references to a L.N. Poulin dry goods store at 99 Bank Street through the 1889-90 period. The company ran an advertisement for a “removals sale” in the Ottawa Evening Journal in early April 1890. This suggests that it was about then that the Poulins made the move to their permanent home at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets.

Mr. L. N. Poulin, Ottawa Citizen, 18 June 1923.

Poulin, aided by two assistants, rented 600 square feet on the ground floor of the building from John A. Brouse for $50 per month. The budding dry goods firm only had $4,000 worth of stock. One of his first customers was reportedly Lady Macdonald, the wife of Sir John A. Macdonald.

The firm was a success. In 1892, Poulin bought the Brouse property which also housed the Dymond shirt factory and the YMCA. Two years later, he took over two buildings to the west on Spark Street (the Bush-Bonbright store and National Manufacturing Company) and purchased a milk factory at the rear on O’Connor Street.  In 1902, Poulin bought more property on Spark Street giving him 132 feet of frontage. In 1906, he expanded further, buying the Mills Hotel from the Misses Piggott to the rear of his property which gave him a uniform depth of almost 100 feet. Two years later he acquired the J.M. Garland property on O’Connor Street with a view to future expansion. In 1915, this became the store’s house furnishings annex.

By 1923, the store had more than 73,000 square feet of floor space, with stock valued at close to $500,000. It employed 245 people. That year, the enterprise expanded for the last time, demolishing the old annex and erecting a four-storey extension which added an additional 18,000 square feet of floor space. This new structure was integrated with the original main building. Looking to the future, it was constructed in a fashion that allowed for six more storeys to be added at a later date.

The store was noted for its innovative approach to advertising. One spectacular example of this occurred during the summer of 1904. Poulin’s announced its “Lucky Money Back Sale.” A date during a six-week period was selected at random by Mayor Ellis and place in a sealed envelope in the vault of the Bank of Ottawa. Neither the Mayor, the bank manager, or Mr. Poulin knew the selected date. All sales on that date would be refunded in full. Poulin advised customers to shop at his store every day of the sale to ensure being a winner. At the end of the sale, the sealed enveloped was open and the lucky date revealed—23 August, 1904. All customers on that date were given three days to return to the store with their sales receipts to “receive “the full amount of your checks in NEW, CRISP MONEY.”

Poulin’s Sale, Ottawa Citizen, 9 July 1924.

It was innovations like this, along with every-day good value and courteous service, that made the store an Ottawa landmark. So, imagine the feelings when Poulin announced that he was retiring and the store would close. The Ottawa Citizen described it as the passing of an institution. “It did not seem right nor did it seem natural.” It was not as if the store was unprofitable, or there were no heirs to carry on the family name. Indeed, the Poulins’ four sons, Edmond, Gidias, Fabien and Clement, all worked in the family firm. The closure also meant that almost three hundred employees lost their jobs. At a farewell dinner dance held for his workers a few days after the store’s shut its doors for good, Poulin said that his employees would be able to find new careers if they did their best.

If the rationale for the closure appears somewhat mystifying, Poulin’s timing was impeccable. Less than nine months after the store went out of business, the Great Depression began. The Schulte-United Corporation, which had moved into the former premises of Poulin’s department store, failed two years later, a casualty of the economic catastrophe.

Closing out sale, Ottawa Citizen, 30 January 1929.

Another person who had impeccable timing was Walter P. Zeller of Kitchener, Ontario. In 1928, he had sold his small chain of Zeller’s department stores located mostly in southern Ontario to the Schulte-United Corporation which wanted to expand into Canada. When Schulte-United failed three years later, Walter Zeller bought the Canadian wing of the operations. These comprised his original Zeller’s stores and ten other outlets that Schulte-United had established in the interim, including the former Poulin’s department store location on Sparks Street.

Zeller’s became a fixture on Spark Street for more than seventy years. The very profitable chain of bargain stores was bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1978. Growing to roughly 350 stores by the year 2000, the Zeller’s chain began to lose ground to competitors. Profitability declined. In 2011, the U.S. department store chain Target bought the leases of most Zellers stores for $1.825 billion in its ill-fated effort to break into the Canadian retail market. It promised to run them under the Zeller’s brand for a “period of time.” The larger Zeller’s branches were eventually remodelled and converted into Target outlets. Smaller ones, like the elderly store on Spark Street, did not fit the Target style. It closed its doors in 2013. Two years later, Target closed all of its 133 Canadian stores after a disastrous foray into Canada.

The distinctive building once owned by L. N. Poulin was almost demolished in the early 1980s as part of a high-rise development plan. Notwithstanding a demolition permit granted by Ottawa’s City Council, the building was saved at the last minute, in part by a campaign orchestrated by Heritage Ottawa. It was sympathetically renovated by its then owners, the Hudson Bay Company.  Consistent with its long heritage as a discount retail store, the edifice that was once Poulin’s Department Store, and later Zeller’s, now houses a Winners outlet.

As for the Poulins, after their retirement, the couple moved to a home at cottage community of Britannia. Louis Napoleon Poulin stayed active in Ottawa’s commercial life as a director of the electric and gas companies. He died at the age of 85 in 1941. His wife, Mary Poulin, died in 1949.


Heritage Ottawa, 2017. Poulin’s Dry Good Store| Zellers Department Store,

Ottawa Citizen, 1904. “Thousands of Dollars in Cash Refunded to Our Customers,” 11 July.

——————, 1904. “Your Money Back,” 2 September.

——————-, 1923. “Rebuilding of L.N. Poulin, Limited, Store To Add Another Chapter To Fascinating Story of Expansion Of An Ottawa Firm,” 19 June.

——————, 1928. “L.N. Poulin Is Retiring After Splendid Career,” 29 December.

——————, 1929. “Schulte-United Will Have a Fine Store in Capital,” 2 March.

——————, 1931. “Walter P. Zeller Heads Zellers Ltd, Formerly Schulte-United,” 7 November.

—————–, 1941. “Late L. N. Poulin, Noted Figure In Commercial Life,” 9 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1890. “No Bankrupt Stock,” 3 April.

——————-, 1924. “Mr. L.N. Poulin Host to His Employes (sic),” 10 January.

——————-, 1928. “Retiring after Forty Years of Business Here,” 29 December.

——————-, 1939. “7,000 Members of Poulin Families Join in Unique Celebration,” 19 August.

——————-, 1949. ‘Mrs. L.N. Poulin Dies,” 4 June.

Reuters, 2011. Target to enter Canada with Zellers deal, own plans, 13 January,

The Funeral of Sir Wilfrid Laurier

22 February 1919

It was the opening of the second session of the thirteenth parliament of Canada. With traditional solemnity, the Governor General, the Duke of Devonshire, gave the speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber in front of the combined Houses of Parliament. He laid out the upcoming agenda of the government, which included giving women the right to vote and sit in the House of Commons. Afterwards, members of the Commons returned to the Commons chamber. There, Sir Thomas White, the acting prime minister—Sir Robert Borden was in Paris attending the peace talks—rose and stated:

Mr. Speaker, we meet today under the shadow of a great loss and a deep and widespread personal sorrow. The Right Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, senior member of this House, has passed away, and an entire nation mourns his death.”

Laurier portrait LAC 3441447
Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3441447

He announced that with the consent of the family a State funeral would take place on Saturday, 22 February 1919, and that Laurier’s remains would lie is state in the Commons chamber from that evening (Thursday, 20 February) to the Saturday morning, and that Parliament would adjourn until the following Tuesday “out of respect to and in honour of his memory.”

There had been no foreshadowing of the great man’s demise. While Sir Wilfrid was 77 years of age, he was in apparent good health, and was looking forward to retirement. Less that a month earlier, at the Eastern Ontario Liberal Convention, he remarked that he was beginning to feel the “weight of years,” and that it was time to “pass the reins to a younger general and fight in the ranks.” To a journalist, he said that he was looking forward to “the serenity of his study,” working on his memoirs, and writing a constitutional history of Canada.

On Saturday, 16 February, he attended a luncheon at the Canadian Club where he listened with interest to a speech on competing territorial claims of Serbia and Italy. After lunch, he took a streetcar to his office in the Victoria Museum on Metcalfe Street, Parliament’s temporary home since the disastrous fire that gutted the centre block on Parliament Hill three years earlier. There, he dictated some letters dealing with the upcoming new session of Parliament. As Leader of the Opposition, he would be taking a leading role in the upcoming debates.

While accounts vary, it appears that in the afternoon, after he had dismissed his secretary, Laurier experienced a fainting spell while he was alone in his office. He fell and hit his head, leaving a bruise. However, he quickly recovered and was well enough to take a street car to his home (now called Laurier House at the corner of Laurier Avenue and Chapel Street). When his doctor, who had come calling that evening, noticed the mark, Sir Wilfrid made light of it, though he added that his left leg felt weaker than his right.

The following day, at about noon, Laurier was struck by a serious stroke that affected his entire left side. For a time, he rallied, and his doctors became cautiously optimistic that he might pull through. However, at midnight, he was struck by another cerebral hemorrhage and fell into a deep coma. Last rights were administered by Father Laflamme of the Church of the Sacred Heart. Through the following morning he got progressively weaker. His wife, Zoé Laurier, maintained a vigil at his bedside. Shortly before noon, the Governor General came to his residence, followed by Sir Thomas White, the acting prime minister. Meanwhile, messenger boys brought telegrams from across the country and from around the world expressing the hope for a speedy recovery.

It was not to be. Doctors informed family and friends that there was no hope. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had been in public service for half a century and had been prime minister for fifteen years, died that Monday afternoon (17 February) without regaining consciousness.

After Sir Wilfrid’s body was embalmed, he was laid in his home’s drawing room for family and close friends to pay their last respects. Laurier was dressed in his official Windsor uniform and on his breast was the insignia of a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George. His casket was made of bronze with little ornamentation other than decorated corners and pallbearers’ rails. The interior was lined with white quilted satin with a white satin pillow for his head.

Laurier lying in state LAC 3365409
Sir Wilfrid Laurier lying in state in the temporary House of Commons Chamber. His desk is to the right. Victoria Museum, 1919, Library and Archives Canada 3365409.

On the Thursday after the speech from the Throne, Laurier’s remains were taken without ceremony to the Victoria Museum where he was laid in state in front of the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons. A guard of honour comprised of members of the House of Commons stood watch. The chamber was decorated in mourning colours of purple and black. On Laurier’s desk, which was also draped with black and purple cloth, was a large wreath, a tribute from members of the House. A black carpet marked the path for the mourners to file past Laurier’s bier.

The Commons chamber was filled with floral wreaths, crosses and pillows from provinces, cities and private citizens. The Syrian community of Montreal sent a large urn with white and purple ribbons, the premier and government of Saskatchewan a basket of sweet peas. The Ottawa Press Club’s wreath bore the number “30” signifying in newspapermen’s jargon that Laurier’s “story” was over. The Montreal City Council sent a floral tribute seven feet high and five feet wide. So many flowers were sent that Ottawa florists were hard pressed to fill all the orders.

Laurier CBC
Grainy image taken from archival footage of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s remains dressed in his official Windsor uniform with the sash and insignia of a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George. CBC Archives.

It was estimated that between 45,000-50,000 people filed past Laurier’s bier during the 36 hours he laid in state in the Commons chamber. At times as many as 2,000 persons per hour said their adieux to the fallen leader. People of all ages and all stations paid their respects, including soldiers on crutches, and mothers who held their children high so that they might be able to say in the future that they saw Laurier. When the time came for the doors to the Commons chamber to close, thousands were still outside of the Museum.

Laurier’s funeral was held in Notre Dame Basilica. The original plan was for a requiem mass to be celebrated at the Church of the Sacred Heart, the church were Sir Wilfrid and Lady Laurier attended just a short walk from their home. But owing to the numbers wishing to attend, the service was moved to the much larger Basilica. Even so, two days before the funeral more than 5,000 people had applied for tickets to the 2,000 available seats.

Thousands of people poured into Ottawa to get a glimpse of the funeral procession and to be a part of history. Special trains and extra carriages were laid on from Toronto and Montreal by the CPR and the CNR. Scarcely a room could be found in Ottawa’s hotels that weekend. Public buildings, including the Post Office and the East Block on Parliament Hill, were decorated in the colours of mourning. The window of the Ottawa Electric Company near the corner of Sparks and Elgin Street displayed a portrait of Sir Wilfrid, “heroic in size,” which was illuminated at night.

The funeral procession left the Victoria Museum for the Basilica at 10am on Saturday, 22 February via Metcalfe Street, Wellington and Major Hill’s Park. Despite strong wind and snow, thousands of men, women and children lined the route to pay their last respects. The Ottawa Evening Journal opined that “no funeral in Canadian history, and few, we believe at any time in any country, has presented such a spectacle of national affection and grief.” A civic half day holiday was declared, and all government offices were closed. Shops, stores and industry stopped to allow people to honour the memory of Canada’s dead statesman. Two-thirds of Ottawa’s police force were on duty just to control the crowds and keep the street clear.

Laurier’s coffin was borne to the Basilica in a black and silver hearse drawn by four black horses. ( Click here to view archival footage of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s funeral.) The cortege consisted of officiating clergy, eight Dominion Police pallbearers, ten sleighs of floral tributes, honorary pallbearers, who included Sr Thomas White, the Governor General, Lieutenant Governors General, senators, members of Parliament, judges, civic officials, service organizations and the general public.

The funeral service began at 11am. The interior of the Basilica was draped in black, purple and gold. His Excellency, Monsignor Di Maria, the papal delegate, was the celebrant. Archbishop Mathieu of Regina, a friend of Sir Wilfrid, delivered an oration in French while Rev. Father John Burke of the Paulist Order spoke in English.

Laurier tomb, by SimonP, Wikipedia, Notre Dame Cemetery
Tomb of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa, taken by SimonP, Wikipedia.

After the service, the funeral cortege made its way to Notre Dame Cemetery for the interment. After a brief ceremony, Laurier’s bronze casket was placed in a steel box and lowered into the ground. His grave site was later marked by a stone sarcophagus with nine mourning women, representing the nine provinces of Canada at the time.

Today, Sir Wilfrid Laurier is widely recognized as one of Canada’s greatest statesmen. His image appears on Canada’s $5 bill. Wilfrid Laurier University is named in his honour. In a 2016 survey of scholars conducted by Maclean’s magazine, Laurier placed second after Mackenzie King and above Sir John A. Macdonald as Canada’s greatest prime minister. During his premiership, the first by a francophone Canadian, Canada experienced rapid economic and population growth, and saw the creation of two new provinces—Alberta and Saskatchewan. Sir Wilfrid is, however, best known for bringing together English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians—his main desire throughout his political life.

It was his speech in 1895 that the expression “sunny ways” first came into the Canadian political lexicon. In the context of the vexed political problem of the Manitoba Schools Question, Laurier proposed to deal with the issue through the “sunny way” of negotiation and compromise. Today, the expression “sunny ways” has become associated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who often invokes the spirit of Laurier in his public appearances.

Despite Laurier’s sunny ways, his admirable efforts to unite English and French Canadians, and his economic and political successes, Laurier’s career has its dark side. It was during his tenure as prime minister that the Chinese poll tax was increased from $50 to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903—an amount far out of reach of most Chinese immigrants. Black immigration, notably from the United States, was essentially banned on the ostensible grounds that Canada’s weather was too severe for black immigrants. The rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples were also trampled in the rush of white settlers to “open” Canada’s west. While such racist behaviour was standard fare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is much harder to overlook today. Laurier’s reputation, like that of his illustrious predecessor, Sir John A. Macdonald, has suffered as a consequence.


Azzi, Stephen & Hillmer, Norman, 2016. “Ranking Canada’s best and worst prime ministers,” Maclean’s, 7 October.

Canadian Encyclopedia 2017. Wilfrid Laurier: “The Sunny Way” Speech, 1895,

House of Commons Debates, 1919. 13th Parliament, 2nd Session, Death of Right Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, G.C.M.G. 20 February.

Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1919. “Condition of Sir Wilfrid Laurier Suddenly Stricken On Sunday Is Critical Rapidly Sinking This Afternoon,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Civic Half Holiday For Laurier State Funeral,” 18 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Sir Wilfrid Had First Attack On Saturday Night,” 19 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Lying-In State OF Sir Wilfrid Is Attended By Great Crowds Today,” 21 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Nation’s Final Honors To Sir Wilfrid Laurier; Great State Funeral Of Her Distinguished Son,” 22 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1919. “Rt. Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Death Is Expected At Any Hour,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1919. “Toronto Press Refers Feelingly To sir Wilfrid And Still Hopes For The Best,” 17 February.

—————————-, 1919. “State Will Crown Former Premier’s Career With Every Honor,” 18 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Main Desire of Sir Wilfrid Was Harmony Between The Two Races,” 18 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Sir Wilfrid Laurier,” 18 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Laurier’s Funeral Will Be Largest Ever Seen Here,” 19 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Papal Delegate To Be Celebrant,” 19 February.

—————————-, 1919. “Thousands OF Applications For Tickets From Persons Who Would Go to Service, 20 February.

—————————-, 1919. “The Official Programme For Funeral Of Former Premier,” 20 February.

—————————-, 1919. Visitors Pouring In By Every Train To State Funeral,” 21 February.

—————————, 1919. “People Throng Route Early To See Funeral,” 22 February.

————————–, 1919. “Protestants and Catholics Kneel Together In Church Before The Bier Of Laurier,” 24 February.

————————–, 1919. “Distinguished Men Follow Remains Of Laurier To Grave,” 24 February.