Britannia-on-the-Bay

24 May 1900

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the big new invention that was transforming peoples’ lives. Within a short span of years, electric lights replaced gas lamps in homes, in businesses and on city streets in the major cities of North America. Horse-drawn public transportation was also retired in favour of electric streetcars, also known as trolleys. But while the fast and comfortable trolleys were very popular on weekdays and on Saturday mornings transporting commuters from the suburbs to downtown offices, streetcar companies found their vehicles underused on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. What to do? The answer was to increase weekend ridership by giving people someplace to go and something to do on their time off.  Spurred by the success of Coney Island in New York City, transit companies in many major North American cities built amusement parks, colloquially known as “electric parks.” Constructed at the end of a streetcar line, these parks attracted thousands of working class men, women and children seeking weekend fun and excitement. Of course, people had to buy a streetcar ticket to get there; the days of the automobile were still in the future.

Ottawa-Hull was no exception to these trends. Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper introduced the electric streetcar to the nation’s capital in 1891. Four years later, their Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OERC) opened the West End Park on Holland Avenue in Hintonberg, which was then on the outskirts of the city. Later known as Victoria Park, following the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, the park was the home to many rides and musical entertainments. The West End Park was the location of the showing of the first motion pictures in Ottawa in 1896. Across the Ottawa River two miles west of Alymer, the Hull-Alymer Electric Railway Company opened “Queen’s Park,” in May 1897, again named in honour of Queen Victoria, at the western terminus of its line. Among the attractions at this park, located on Lac Deschênes (a widening in the Ottawa River rather than an actual lake), were a merry-go-round, a water chute and a “mystic maze.”

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People boarding the OERC trolley, Britannia-on-the-Bay, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016974.

To compete with the Queen’s Park development in Quebec, the OERC acquired eighteen acres of land in the little summer cottage community of Britannia Village to the west of Ottawa. There, it established in 1900 an amusement park, with swimming and boating facilities on the Ontario side of Lac Deschênes, with a purpose-built tramline linking the new park to downtown Ottawa. Appropriately, it was called the Britannia line. Thomas Ahearn gave journalists a sneak preview of the new line in mid-January 1900. Although the rails had been laid all the way to Britannia Village, at that date the electric lines only went as far as Richmond Road. But the tramline was completed in time for its official opening at 6am on the Queen’s Birthday holiday on 24 May 1900. From the post office at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets to Britannia-on-the-Bay tram stop took just twenty-eight minutes, much of which was through the city. The trip from Holland Avenue, the previous end of the line, to Britannia-on-the Bay, with stops at Westboro, Barry’s Wharf and Baker’s Bush, took only eight minutes. The cost for the trip from downtown was initially set at 10 cents—the usual 5 cent fare plus another five cents to travel on the newly completed Britannia line. The five-cent supplement was later dropped.

In and of itself, the trip to Britannia-on-the-Bay was an exciting adventure for Ottawa citizens at the dawn of the twentieth century. Carried in specially-made carriages, trolley goers were taken along rails that ran close to the south side of Richmond Road except for the last mile or so where they crossed Richmond Road to head into Britannia. After leaving the city, which essentially ended at Preston Street, people journeyed through fields of grain and cow pastures, past fine homes and shoreline cottages before reaching their destination. A journalist on the initial January test run said there was a number of long grades with several sharp turns that give the route “a rolling appearance” which will “add zest,” since “pleasure-seeking humanity likes a spice of danger with its bit of fun.” He added that between Hintonburg and Britannia, there were a number of lovely spots.

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The footbridge over the CPR tracks at Britannia Park, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016975.

On reaching Britannia-on-the-Bay, riders crossed to the park, its beach and a long pier via a high footbridge, built at a cost of $1,500 by the OERC, which went over the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) tracks that ran north of the tramline. The footbridge allowed visitors to the park to avoid any danger of being hit by passing trains. On the other side were picnic gardens, concession stands as well as bathing and boating facilities on a thirty-foot wide pier that extended 1,050 feet into Lac Deschênes. The pier was built of wood with a stone base, using material excavated by the Metropolitan Power Company in an earlier failed attempt to build a canal and hydroelectric generating station at Britannia. Lit by electric lights at night, the pier was furnished with seating that ran along its length, perfect for visitors to sit and enjoy the sights, listen to band concerts, and to watch the promenading crowds. At the end of the pier was a perpendicular, two hundred foot long breakwater that protected moorings for boats. At the land end, two octagonal pavilions were erected at a cost of $2,500, housing a restaurant, changing rooms and bathrooms, a ladies’ parlour and sitting rooms.

The weather on opening day was bright and fine, attracting thousands of Ottawa picnickers to try out the OERC’s new park and pier at Britannia. Although the pavilions were not quite completed, they “were temporarily fitted up for use” for the estimated crowd of 12,000-15,000 visitors. The band of the 43rd Battalion gave a concert in the afternoon and evening to the multitudes. When darkness fell, the park was brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. Ten large arc lights lit up the pier.

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Britannia Pier, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016976.

The new Britannia Park was a big success, and over the next several years was considerably improved and expanded. With the new waterside park eclipsing the old Victoria Park on Holland Avenue, the OERC cannibalized the latter’s attractions, moving its merry-go-round and auditorium to Britannia. In 1904, the OERC increased the size of the park by buying the 35-acre Mosgrove property close to Carling Avenue. It also extended the pier by four hundred feet, at the end of which a three-story boat house was erected that became the Britannia Boating Club’s clubhouse. In addition to rooms for members and a lower storage area for boats and canoes, which were available for rent by visitors, the clubhouse had a large ballroom and grandstand for spectators. At night, a searchlight on top of the building played over the darkened waters of Lac Deschênes. Other attractions at Britannia Park included excursions on the double-decker, side-wheeler, steamer G.B. Greene, the “Queen” of the Ottawa River which took tourists upstream to Chats Falls two or three times a week. Through the summer, holidaymakers were entertained by the festivities and music of “Venetian Nights.”

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Britannia Boating Clubhouse, c. 1907, William James Topley, Library & Archives Canada, PA-009028.

Britannia Park enjoyed its peak of popularity before World War I. Then things started to sour. In 1916, the G.B. Greene burnt. Though it was rebuilt, with Canada at war sightseeing wasn’t as popular as in the past. The steamer ended up towing logs and was dismantled in 1946. In August 1918, the Clubhouse at the end of the pier was consumed by flames. Some two hundred canoes and boats, along with the personal effects of members as well as trophies, furnishings and other valuables were lost. Although the cause of the $50,000 fire was never accurately determined, it was believed that a lighted cigarette carelessly thrown into the window of a bathroom was to blame.

Through the 1920s, amusement parks everywhere began to lose their allure. With more and more families owning their own automobile, people had the luxury of exploring other entertainment options. No longer were they limited to where the trolley could take them. Queen’s Park outside of Aylmer closed. Britannia limped on. The Park’s Lakeside Gardens Pavilion still managed to pull in the crowds for dances through the 1930s. Sunday band concerts also remained popular. In the early 1930s, the OERC began promoting the Park as a great place for parents to send their children. For youngsters under 51 inches tall, (i.e. roughly 8 years old or less) the trolley company advertised that they could travel to Britannia for only 6 4/7 cents, total fare, if they purchased a book of seven tickets for 25 cents plus an additional 3 cent fare for the Britannia line. Under its policy of “Safety First,” the trolley company said that special attention and care would be given to children by its car men. “It is therefore possible to send children to Britannia-on-the-Bay with the assurance that they will be safe while going, while at the beach and while returning.” Clearly this was a different time with a different level of care expected of parents. Few today would consider sending young children to swim at a public beach on city transit without formal supervision.

By the late 1940s, Britannia Park and Britannia beach were becoming shabby from years of use and limited maintenance. Transit consultants advised the financially weak OERC to close the park. In 1948, the Ottawa Transport Commission, which was owned by the City of Ottawa, took over the transit company, including its Britannia property. Concerned that the park was continuing to deteriorate, the City decided in 1951 to operate it directly. Some improvements were made, including the building of a children’s miniature railway at the park. However, more grandiose plans that include a zoo, stock-car racing and two artificial pools never left the drawing board. Park infrastructure continued to rot. Meanwhile, the beach was becoming fouled by weeds and pollution. By 1954, what had been one of Canada’s top tourist attractions was now considered “Canada’s worst.” That year, the footbridge over the CPR tracks was demolished. (The trains themselves continued to go through the Park until they were re-located out of downtown Ottawa in 1966.) In 1955, the aging Lakeside Gardens burnt to the ground.

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Defunct Trolley Station, Britannia Park, 2015.

New investments were finally made into the park in 1958. The rotting wooden pier, now deemed unsafe, was demolished. The stone base of the original 1,050 foot pier built in 1900 was widened and the beach expanded. Lakeside Gardens was also rebuilt for dances. With these changes, the Park experienced a brief renaissance. However, it was not to last, doomed by changing tastes, and for Lakeside Gardens, the lack of a liquor licence. The beach was also increasingly shunned owing to a persistent weed problem. City efforts to control the weeds using bulldozers, chemicals and tons of rock salt proved fruitless. (This was a time before much consideration was given to the environment.) In any event, pollution closed the beach for extended periods. During the 1960s and 1970s, Britannia Park was threatened by a planned extension of the Ottawa River Parkway (today’s Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway) through the Park using the old CPR right-of-way, now turned into a bike path, as well as the construction of the Deschênes Bridge that would have link Alymer to Ottawa. Both ideas were finally scuppered by opposition from area residents and changing government priorities.

Today, Britannia Village, annexed by Ottawa in 1950, is no longer a remote summer cottage community. Businesses and housing have long filled the open space between the old City of Ottawa and Britannia and beyond. The streetcars that once linked it to downtown are gone; the last trolley to Britannia-on-the-Bay rode into history in 1959. But the magnificent park and beach endure. Owing to the marked improvement to the water quality of the Ottawa River due to the closure of the pulp and paper mills that had polluted it with their effluent, and the treatment of sewage by riverine communities, boaters and swimmers have returned. While Britannia Park and its beach may no longer attract the hordes of day trippers they did every weekend one hundred years ago, they remain a popular summer destination for people trying to escape the heat of the City. The Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, formerly the Lakeside Gardens, also continues to host big band dances as well as education courses ranging from the arts and crafts and dog obedience, to yoga and fitness.

Sources:

Evening Journal, (The), 1897. “Handled The Motor,” 27 May.

—————————-, 1900. “The New Electric Line To Britannia,” 15 January.

—————————-, 1900. “Searchlight on Lake Deschenes,” 2 April.

—————————, 1900. “Ottawans Loyally Observed the 24th,” 25 May.

—————————, 1906. “A Good Show At Britannia,” 22 May.

—————————, 1918. “Britannia Club House Is Destroyed By Fire Loss Nearly $50,000,” 30 August.

—————————, 1931. “The Children’s Beach At Britannia-on-the-Bay.” 13 July.

—————————, 1948, “Battle Of Seaweed Goes On At Britannia,” 1 May.

—————————, 1951. “Britannia Park Is Saved,” 21 June.

—————————, 1954. “Recommend Closing Britannia Park Amusement Centre,” 27 May.

—————————, 1954. “State of Britannia Park,” 28 May.

—————————, 1954, “At Last New Deal Coming For Battered Britannia Park,” 23 July.

Ottawa, (City of), 2016. Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, http://ottawa.ca/en/facility/ron-kolbus-lakeside-centre.

Taylor, Eva & Kennedy, James, 1983. Ottawa’s Britannia, Britannia Historical Association, Ottawa.

 

The 1939 Royal Visit

19 May 1939

In early May 1939, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth sailed from England on the Empress of Australia bound for Canada on a month-tour of North America. It was the first visit by a reigning sovereign to Canada, for that matter to any overseas Dominion. It was also the first time that a British monarch had visited the United States of America. With the clouds of war darkening Europe, the tour had tremendous political significance as Britain sought allies in the expected conflict with Nazi Germany. Lesser known is the constitutional significance of the trip, with the King visiting Canada, not as the King of Great Britain, but as the King of Canada.

Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s Governor General, raised the possibility of a Canadian Royal Tour in early 1937, with Prime Minister Mackenzie King extending the official invitation while he was in London for the King George’s coronation in May of that year. Tweedsmuir, also known as John Buchan, the famous Scottish novelist, was a passionate supporter of Canada. He sought to give substance to the Statute of Westminster. The Statute, passed in Britain in December 1931, effectively gave Canada its autonomy, recognizing that the Canadian government was in no way subordinate to the Imperial government in either domestic or international affairs, although they shared a common allegiance to the Crown. At a time when many Canadians saw their first loyalty as being to the Empire, Tweedsmuir hoped that a Royal Tour of Canada would strengthen a still nascent Canadian nationalism. He believed that it was essential that King George be seen in Canada doing his kingly duties as the King of Canada rather than a symbol of Empire. Earning the ire of Canadian imperialists, Tweedsmuir publicly stated that “A Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” When U.S. President Roosevelt heard that a trip to Canada was being planned for the royal couple, he extended an invitation to the King and Queen to come to the United States as well, writing that a visit would be “an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations.”

Although the British Government was supportive of a North American Royal Tour, the trip was delayed for almost two years owing to the political situation in Europe. When the decision was finally made to proceed in the spring of 1939, the original plan to use a battleship for the transatlantic voyage was scrapped in favour of a civilian ocean liner in case the warship was needed to defend Britain. Even so, the trip was almost stillborn given deteriorating European political conditions. The cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Southampton provided a military escort for the King and Queen. The two vessels also secretly carried fifty tons of British gold destined for the Bank of Canada’s vault on Wellington Street, out of reach of Germany, and ready to be used to buy war material and other supplies, from Canada and the United States.

After taking leave of their daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, at Waterloo Station in London, the royal couple made their way to Portsmouth where they met the 20,000 ton Empress of Australia. Delayed two days by heavy seas and fog, the gleaming white ship received a rapturous welcome on its arrival in Québec City on 17 May. In the days before the Quiet Revolution, the Crown, seen as a guarantor of minority rights, was held in high esteem in French Canada. More than 250,000 people crammed onto the Plains of Abraham and along the heights overlooking the St Lawrence to greet the ocean liner, and for a glimpse of their King and Queen. The crowds roared Vive le Roi and Vive la Reine as the King and Queen alit on Canadian soil for the first time at Wolfe’s Cove. A National Film Board documentary covering the event described King George as the “symbol of the new Canada, a free nation inside a great Commonwealth.”

The royal couple was greeted by federal and provincial dignitaries, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, as well as an honour guard of the francophone Royal 22nd Regiment—colloquially known in English as the Van Doos—that escorted them through the crowded, flag-bedecked streets of old Québec to the provincial legislature building. There, the King and Queen were officially welcomed, with the King replying in both English and French in the slow, deliberate style he used to overcome his stammer.

The King and Queen spent two days in la belle province, also stopping in Trois Rivières, and Montreal before making their way to the nation’s capital. By one estimate, 2 million people were on the streets of Montreal to greet the monarchs. Their luxurious blue and white train, its twelve cars each equipped with a telephone and radio, pulled into Ottawa’s Island Park Station at about 11am on 19 May. Despite the cold, inclement weather—drizzle and what suspiciously looked like snow—tens of thousands had assembled to greet the King and Queen. Many had gone early, either to the train station, or to find a viewing spot along the processional route. At morning rush hour, downtown Ottawa was deserted “as though its entire population had been mysteriously wiped out overnight” according to the Ottawa Citizen. In actual fact, the city’s population had doubled with many coming from outlying areas to see the King and Queen. Thousands of Americans had also come north to witness history in the making.

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King George VI and Queen Elizabeth en route to Parliament, Wellington Street, Ottawa, 19 May 1939.

Descending from the train onto a red-carpeted platform under a canopy draped with bunting, King George and Queen Elizabeth were met by Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, members of cabinet who were not presented at Québec City, and Ottawa’s mayor Stanley Lewis. A 21-gun salute was fired by the 1st Field Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery to honour the sovereigns’ arrival. Church bells began pealing. With the clouds parting, the royal party, accompanied by an escort of the 4th Princess Louise’s Dragoon Guards, rode in an open landau from the Island Park Station through the Experimental Farm, along Highway 16, down the Driveway to Connaught Place, and finally along Mackenzie Avenue and Lady Grey Drive to Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General. Along the route, the royal couple was greeted by a continuous rolling applause by the hundreds of thousands that line the eight-mile route.

With the King now resident in Canada, the Governor General, as the King’s representative in Canada, was essentially out of a job—exactly what Lord Tweedsmuir wanted to achieve with the Royal Visit. According to Gustave Lanctôt, the official historian of the tour, “when Their Majesties walked into their Canadian residence [Rideau Hall], the Statute of Westminster had assumed full reality: the King of Canada had come home.” One of his first acts as King of Canada was accepting the credentials of Daniel Roper as the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, something that the Governor General would normally have done. Later that afternoon in the Senate, after another procession through the streets of Ottawa to Parliament Hill, the King gave Royal Assent to nine bills; again, this typically would have been the job of the Governor General. The King subsequently ratified two treaties with the United States—a trade agreement, and a convention on boundary waters at Rainy Lake, Ontario. For the first time ever, King George appended the Great Seal of Canada. Prior to the Royal Visit, The Seals Act 1939 had been passed specifically to allow the King to append Canada’s Seal rather than the Seal of the United Kingdom. Once again, this underscored Canada’s sovereignty as a distinct nation within the British Commonwealth.

King George in Senate 1939

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada’s Senate. Prime Minister Mackenzie King is to the King’s right, 19 May 1939.

That evening, a State Dinner was held at the Château Laurier hotel for more than 700 guests consisting of clear soup, a mousse of chicken, lamb with asparagus, carrots, peas, and potatoes, followed by a fruit pudding with maple syrup. While a formal affair, the meal was held “in an atmosphere of democratic ease.” After dinner, the King and Queen stepped out on the balcony of the hotel to receive a thunderous applause from the 40,000 people in the Square below.

The following day, 20 May, was declared the King’s official birthday; his actual birthday was 14 December. With great pageantry, a Trooping of the Colours was held on Parliament Hill to mark the event. This was followed by the laying of the cornerstone of Canada’s Supreme Court building on Wellington Street by Queen Elizabeth as her husband looked on. Speaking in English and French, the Queen remarked that “Perhaps it is not inappropriate that this task [laying the cornerstone] should be performed by a woman; for a woman’s position in civilized society has depended upon the growth of law.”

After the laying the Supreme Court’s cornerstone, the royal couple had a quick tour of Hull, with an impromptu stop in front of the Normal School so that the Queen could accept a bouquet of flowers. They then returned to Ottawa via the Alexandra Bridge for a private lunch with the Prime Minister at Laurier House. That afternoon, the King and Queen took a break from their official duties to tour the Quebec countryside near Alymer. On their way back home to Rideau Hall, they stopped at Dow’s Lake where they talked to a small boy who was fishing. When informed that he was talking to the King and Queen, the little boy fled.

On Sunday, 21 May, the King formally unveiled the National War Memorial in front of more than 100,000 spectators and 10,000 veterans of the Great War. Commenting on the allegorical figures of Peace and Freedom at the top of the memorial, the King said that “It is well that we have in one of the world’s capitals a visible reminder of so great a truth that without freedom there can be no enduring peace, and without peace, no enduring freedom.”

After the unveiling, God Save the King and O Canada were played. There was considerable press commentary that the King remained in salute for O Canada, which was until then just a popular patriotic song. It is from this point that the song became Canada’s unofficial national anthem, something which was finally officially recognized in 1980. The King and Queen then strolled into the crowd of veterans to greet and talk to them personally. This was an unprecedented event. Never before had the King and Queen walked unescorted and unprotected through such crowds; an act that delighted the ex-servicemen and terrified the security men.

Mid-afternoon, the King and Queen returned to their train, leaving Ottawa for Toronto, their next stop on their month-long Royal Tour of Canada and the United States. Interestingly, on their short U.S. visit, no British minister accompanied the King and Queen. Instead, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King was the sole minister present to advise the King. This underscored the point that King George was visiting the United States as King of Canada. After four days in the United States, with stops in Washington and New York, including a visit to Canada’s pavilion at the World Fair, the King and Queen resumed their Canadian tour in eastern Canada.

After crisscrossing the continent by train, King George and Queen Elizabeth bade farewell to Canada on 15 June, leaving Halifax on the Empress of Britain, bound for St John’s, capital of Newfoundland, then a separate Dominion. The royal couple left North America two days later, returning to England on 21 June.

The trip was an overwhelming success. The King was seen and widely acclaimed as King of Canada—the objective of the Governor General. It was a political triumph for Prime Minister Mackenzie King who accompanied the royal couple throughout their trip. It was also a huge success for the King and Queen. Later, the Queen remarked that “Canada had made us, the King and I.” The handsome, young couple charmed their Canadian subjects. With the world on the brink of war, they pushed the grim international headlines to the back pages, and reminded Canadians of their democratic institutions, and the freedoms they enjoyed. The King and Queen also enchanted President Roosevelt and the U.S. public. The goodwill they earned was to be of huge importance following the outbreak of war less than three months later. Lastly, the visit was a triumph for the new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). With more than 100 journalists covering the Royal Tour, the event established the broadcaster as the authoritative voice of Canada.

Sources:

Bousfield, Arthur and Toffoli, Garry, 1989. Royal Spring: The Royal Tour of 1939 and the Queen Mother in Canada,” Dundurn Press Ltd: Toronto.

British Pathé, 1939. Royal Banners Over Ottawa, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PFkqjWuUio.

Canadian Crown, 2015. The Royal Tour of King George VI, http://www.canadiancrown.com/uploads/3/8/4/1/3841927/the_royal_visit_of_king_george_vi.pdf.

Galbraith, J. William, 1989. “Fiftieth Anniversary of the 1939 Royal Visit,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?art=820&param=130.

————————-, 2013. John Buchan: Model Governor General, Dundurn Press Ltd: Toronto.

Harris, Carolyn, 2015. “1939 Royal Tour,” Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/1939-royal-tour/.

Lanctôt, Gustave, 1964. The Royal Tour of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada and the United States of America, 1939. E.P. Taylor Foundation: Toronto.

National Film Board, 1939. “The Royal Visit,” https://www.nfb.ca/film/royal_visit.

National Post, 2004. “It made Us, the King and I,” http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=277DDDEB-AF29-433D-A6F3-7FCC99CB6998, November 16.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1939. “Over 10,000 Veterans Ready To Line Route For Royalty,”1 May.

———————–, 1939. “Magnificent Royal Welcome Given By Quebec,” 17 May.

———————-, 1939. “Complete Official Program For Royal Visit To Ottawa Contains Ceremonial Detail,” 18 May.

———————, 1939. “Palace on Wheels Official Residence Of King And Queen,” 18 May.

———————, 1939. “Our King And Queen, God Bless Them!” 19 May.

———————, 1939. “Their Canadian Capital Extends Affectionate, Warm-Hearted, Greeting,”19 May.

ThemeTrains.com, 2015. “The Story of the Canadian: Royal Train of 1939,” http://www.themetrains.com/royal-train-timeline.htm.

Vipond, Mary, 2010. “The Royal Tour of 1939 as a Media Event,” Canadian Journal of Communications, Vol. 35, 149-172.

Images:

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in State Landau, Wellington St, Ottawa, 19 May 1939, British Pathé, 1939. Royal Banners Over Ottawa.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth giving Royal Assent to Bills in Canada’s Senate, 19 May 1939, Imperial War Museum, C-033278.

Fort Culture

31 May 1969

The National Arts Centre (NAC) was born out of a dream of establishing a performance hall in the nation’s capital. For decades, Ottawa made do with the Capitol Theatre, located at the intersection of Queen and Bank Streets. Although the Capitol was an architecturally impressive building and could seat more than 2,000 people in its cavernous auditorium, it had been designed for cinema and vaudeville shows. Constructed in 1920 for the Loew’s theatre chain of movie palaces, the Capitol lacked the facilities of a modern theatre.

In 1962, G. Hamilton Southam, a member of a wealthy Ottawa family that owned the eponymous Southam publishing empire, which included the Ottawa Citizen in its stable of newspapers, was approached by prominent Ottawa residents to spearhead efforts to turn the dream of a proper theatre in Ottawa into reality. The well-connected Southam, a diplomat in the Department of External Affairs, was ideal for the job. Within a year, the National Capital Arts Alliance, with Southam at its head, had put together a feasibility study, and was ready to approach the government for funding. The price tag for the building was $9 million (equivalent to $70 million in today’s money.) Their timing was perfect. The 1960s were years of plenty in Canada. The federal government, with money in its pockets, was seeking worthy projects to celebrate 1967, Canada’s centennial year. A performing arts centre for Ottawa fitted the bill perfectly. Southam presented the proposal to Prime Minister Lester Pearson in November 1963, and by Christmas the project had received the government’s formal approval.

Southam was appointed the co-ordinator of the project; he later becoming the NAC’s first director general. He immediately set up advisory committees composed of the country’s leading arts professionals to establish the requirements for an arts centre which would not only have a national mandate to promote and development Canadian performing arts and artists, but would also be bilingual, the first in the world. A number of sites were considered for the new performing arts centre. Nepean Point overlooking the Ottawa River, was an early favourite. But Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s mayor at the time, dissuaded the group, offering instead a parcel of city-owned land on Elgin Street.

The architectural contract for the Centre was given to ARCOP Associates of Montreal. Polish-born Fred David Lebensold, a founding member of the firm, was assigned the task of designing the complex structure.  Lebensold was a good choice. He had been a professor of architecture at McGill University, and was a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He had designed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and the Place Des Arts in Montreal. Lebensold’s hexagonal design for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, which was based on the shape of the building site, was in the Brutalist style. Poured, reinforced concrete covered with precast panels of Laurentian-granite aggregate in a variety of textures were used for both exterior and interior walls. “Brutalism” which comes from the French words, béton bru, meaning raw concrete, was a popular architectural style during the 1950s and 1960s for governmental and institutional buildings. The design attracted considerable controversy not least of which for the decision to turn the back of the building towards Elgin Street, with its front door facing the Rideau Canal. Charlotte Whitton called the Centre “Fort Culture.” The building was to house a salon, three performance halls of different sizes—the opera, theatre, and studio—in addition to workshops, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, restaurants, and an underground garage.

The approved plan was much larger than the Arts Alliance’s original proposal that Southam presented to Pearson, with the floor area increasing from 175,000 square feet to 474,000 square feet. Substantial funds, $500,000, were also allocated for sculptures, tapestries, and other art works to decorate the building. The budget was accordingly increased from $9 million to $16 million.

Construction began in late 1964. Excavation for the underground parking lot proved challenging owing to the risk of flooding due to the building’s proximity to the Rideau Canal. Costs quickly blew through the Centre’s $16 million budget, and were in excess of $26 million by the middle of 1965. When the building was finally finished in 1969, two years after Canada’s centennial, costs had reached $46.4 million (in excess of $300 million in today’s dollars). Needless to say, there were screams of outrage in Parliament. At a 1968 hearing into the matter, a senior Public Works official admitted that the government had placed more emphasis on quality than economy. A shortage of construction workers owing to building Expo 67 also contributed to cost pressures. But the millions bought a world-class performance centre which put Ottawa on the cultural map of not only Canada but the world.

National Arts Centre

National Arts Centre, May 2015

The decision was made to separate the official opening of the Centre from its first performance. On Saturday, 31 May, 1969, all of Ottawa was invited to an open house and the opening festivities. Nearly 40,000 people toured the facility, giving the new National Arts Centre generally favourable reviews. At the official ceremonies that afternoon, Prime Minister Trudeau presented Lawrence Freiman, the chairman of the Centre’s board of trustees, with the contract between the federal government and the Centre. Embarrassingly, however, the Centre’s state-of-the art sound system misbehaved. After a series of weird sounds and feedback screeches, the system failed, leaving the official speeches inaudible except to those closest to the dais. More successful were the day’s free jazz, folk, and band concerts, as well as the night’s fireworks, and the four searchlights that plied the dark sky.

Two days later, the curtain finally rose at the Centre for the first time. All of Ottawa’s movers, shakers, and arts glitterati attended a gala event in the Opera House. Sending gossip columnists atwitter, Prime Minister Trudeau, then single, was accompanied by Madeleine Gobeil, who had just been appointed to the Arts Centre’s board. Governor General Roland Michener and his wife sat in the royal box.

The evening’s first attraction was the silken, multi-coloured curtain woven by Micheline Beauchemin. Costing $75,000, the curtain was fabricated in Japan since no loom in Canada was large enough. The curtain rose on a specially commissioned, once-only performance of a ballet called “The Queen.” The music was by composer Louis Applebaum, choreography was by Grant Strate, and costumes were by Jean-Claude Rinfret. Eighteen dancers in white baroque outfits danced in front of a large Canadian coat of arms. After the dance, the backdrop was raised to reveal the provincial coats of arms surrounding a Canadian flag which turned gradually into a Union Jack and a blue and white fleur de lys while the orchestra played O Canada.

The pièce de résistance was the world premiere of Kraanerg, a contemporary ballet commissioned for the Centre’s opening, with music composed by Greek-born Iannis Xanakis, dance choreographed by Roland Petit, and sets by the op-artist Victor Vasarely. According to Sarah Jennings, author of the definitive history of the National Arts Centre, the “avant-garde ballet with the discordant electronic-sounding orchestral music” was “hailed by the critics.” Perhaps. For most of the audience, the ballet was impossible to understand, a view seemingly shared by Xanakis and Petit themselves who said that it could not be taken in either a literal or symbolic way. This didn’t leave a lot of room for comprehension. The dancing was highly acrobatic. The Chicago Tribune’s theatre critic wrote that the “company was put through a series of puerile calisthenics which started with Indian wrestling and stopped with push-ups.”  Claude Gingras of La Presse, called the first act “tiresome,” and the second “the effect produced by taking hallucinogenic drugs.”

A few days later, the first play was performed in the theatre. It was Lysistrata, a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes about women trying to end the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex from their husbands. The play was adapted by Michel Tremblay, and performed by Montreal’s Theâtre du Nouveau Monde, directed by André Brassard. The first English-language play was George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a young Aboriginal girl living in a big Canadian city, directed by David Gardener, and performed by the Vancouver Playhouse. The first production in the Studio was Party Day by Jack Winter, performed by The Toronto Workshop Productions. The play was an odd choice for the government-funded NAC. Set against the backdrop of the Nuremburg rallies in Nazi Germany, Party Day spoke of the dangers of government sponsorship of the arts.

After several successful years, the NAC ran afoul of changing social and economic conditions in Canada. With nationalism rising in Quebec, especially within the artistic community, it became difficult to attract French-language players to Ottawa, deemed an Anglo backwater. Growing regionalism in the rest of the country led to calls for government arts subsidies to be distributed equitably across the country rather than centred in Ottawa at the NAC. Canada’s economic woes also cast a long shadow. Caught between rising inflation and successive budget cuts owing to the federal government’s yawning fiscal deficits, the NAC was forced to drastically scale back its activities though the 1980s and 1990s. First to go was the Centre’s English and French, cross-country, touring theatre. The opera then found itself on management’s little list of things it could do without. Next on the cutting-room floor was the “Le Restaurant,” the NAC’s haute cuisine restaurant, and the NAC’s in-house repertory theatre companies. Even the acclaimed NAC orchestra was threatened with conversion into a community-based organization. As a final indignity, there was talk of privatizing the NAC, and turning the building over to the National Capital Commission for use as a rental hall.

A renaissance began in the late 1990s, under the leadership of Elaine Calder, and then Peter Herrndorf, aided by a strong artistic team, including world renowned Pinchas Zukerman as music director. As the federal fiscal situation improved, government funding stabilized. In 2000, the NAC Foundation was established to raise funds from the private sector, helping to reduce the Centre’s reliance on the government. There was also a renewed emphasis on in-house theatre with the establishment of the NAC English Theatre Acting Company in 2006.

NAC Logos

Old (upper) and New (lower) NAC Logos

In February 2014, the NAC unveiled its “Road to 2019,” which detailed upcoming artistic events and festivals in the lead-up to the Centre 50th anniversary. It also launched a new logo and motto, “Canada is our stage, Le Canada en Scène,” to underscore its national identity. In December 2014, the federal government announced that the NAC would be undergoing a $110 million refurbishment that would reorient the front of the Centre towards the Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial, and Elgin Street rather than the Rideau Canal. No longer would the NAC have its back to the city.

Sources:

Grace, Garry, 2010. “Resident Theatre Companies at the NAC,” ArtsAlive.ca, http://www.artsalive.ca/collections/imaginedspaces/index.php/en/history-and-context/residentcompanies.

Jennings, Sarah, 2009. Art And Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre, Dundurn Press: Toronto.

National Arts Centre, 2014. About the National Arts Centre, http://nac-cna.ca/en/about/brand.

————————-, 2014, Annual Report 2013-2014, http://www4.nac-cna.ca/pdf/corporate/AR_13-14.pdf.

Taylor, John, 1986. Ottawa: An Illustrated History, Toronto: J. Lorimer and Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Gazette, 1989. “National Arts Centre facing death sentence,” 3 April.

The Globe and Mail, 1968. “$9 million Arts Centre rises to estimated $46.4 million,” 8 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre bargain at $46.4 million, architect says,” 13 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre target for PC complaint of ‘squandermania,’” 27 November.

————————, 2014. “Feds unveil $110-million reno job for National Arts Centre,” 10 December.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1969. “Love at first sight—for most of 40,000,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “40,000 agog but centre’s debut shaky,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “Curtain Up,” 3 June.

———————, 1969, “One gets tired of acrobatics,” 3 June.

———————, 1969. “The critics have their say,” 3 June.

The Windsor Star, 1989. “National Arts Centre Orchestra Saved,” 4 May.

Image: National Arts Centre, 2015, by Nicolle Powell

Victory in Europe

7 May 1945

For over a week, it was apparent that a German surrender to Allied forces was imminent. On Friday, 27 April, 1945, newspapers reported that the American and Soviet armies had linked up at the Elbe River, cutting Nazi Germany in two. On Tuesday, 1 May, the electrifying news that Hitler was dead came over the wire. Finally, on Monday, 7 May, The Evening Citizen’s headline screamed “It’s All Over In Europe!”

The instrument of surrender was signed by Generaloberst Alfred Johl on behalf of Germany at 2.41 am French time (8.41pm, 6 May, Ottawa time) at Reims in the little school house used by General Dwight Eisenhower as the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, signed on behalf of the Allies. France’s General François Sevez and Russian General Ivan Susloparov witnessed the document. Owing to an Allied news blackout, it took more than twelve hours for word to reach Ottawa. Unofficial reports of the surrender from German sources actually reached the capital ahead of the official Allied announcement. On that Monday morning, Mayor Stanley Lewis received telephone calls from neighbouring municipalities asking why Ottawa hadn’t started to celebrate. The Mayor replied that he took orders from the Canadian government, not German sources.

An Associated Press report of the surrender broke the Allied news embargo when its Paris reporter telephoned the AP London office with the story. After verification, the report was relayed across the Atlantic, and posted on the news wires at 9.34am EDT. The news flash, picked up by The Canadian Press, was immediately posted on the window of the Ottawa Citizen office on Sparks Street. It tersely read: “Allies Officially Announce Germany Has Surrendered Unconditionally.” A young boy yelled out to passersby “It’s all over!” Seconds later, a fashion store across the street replaced the goods in its front window with pictures of Churchill, Truman, and Stalin, with the words “May we remain strong and united to ensure a lasting peace” posted underneath. A nearby electrical supply shop brought a radio out onto the pavement so that everybody could hear the news broadcasts.

Ottawa V-E Day Celebration

Sparks Street Celebration in from the Bank of Commerce building, 7 May 1945

Even anticipated, it took an hour or so for the momentous news to sink in. It was hard to process that after five years, eight months, and six days of hostilities the war in Europe was finally over. The party started slowly, but as the news spread, the celebrations began in earnest. First out of the blocks were the schoolkids from Lisgar Collegiate, Glebe Collegiate, and the Ottawa Technical High School. They poured into the streets at around 11am, having been let out early by their principals. Hundreds paraded down Sparks Street on bicycles, hooting and hollering. By lunchtime, it was pandemonium on Ottawa’s main thoroughfares as tens of thousands of typically reserved civil servants and service people took to the streets. As if by magic, the flags of Allied nations and bunting appeared on every office building and private home in the city as a wave of patriotic fervour and excitement swept the city.

From upstairs office windows along Sparks, Wellington, and Rideau Streets, office workers threw confetti and torn-up government forms that fluttered down to the pavement in a multi-coloured snow storm. Tickertape and rolls of adding machine paper were launched as ready-made streamers. At the Daly building, home of the Department of Veteran Affairs, at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive, girl clerks leaned out of windows, and shouted the news to the crowds below while contributing their wastepaper and government forms to the swirling blizzard of paper. At Parliament Hill, more than ten thousand students, cadets, soldiers, and civilians, all shouting and cheering, converged in front of the Peace Tower. Added to the cacophony was the skirl of bagpipes, firecrackers, and the sound of thousands of tin horns, whistles, and other noisemakers purchased from nearby department stores. Overhead, an RCAF airplane dropped paper over the city. Church bells rang out in celebration of the glad tidings.

The Ottawa Citizen reported that “WRENs, Quacks and WDs,” [Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNs), Women’s Canadian Army Corps (CWACs), and Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force] walked arm-in-arm down Sparks Street kissing uniformed men. Cars were commandeered to form an impromptu parade, with young people perched on their hoods, or clinging to the running boards. Amidst the crowd, a colourful Victory Loan float slowly made its way along Sparks Street to Confederation Square. When it arrived, the crowd gave a spontaneous rendition of “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here.” At the Rideau Canal, fireworks went off, sending dozens of Allied flags high in the sky which subsequently fell to earth under little parachutes to be picked up by school kids on Laurier Bridge. At 324 McLaren Street, an effigy of Hitler was burnt on the front lawn to the cheers of the crowd that chanted “We want Togo.”

The partying went on well into the night; people didn’t want the celebration to end. Bars, taverns and liquor stores did a booming business. Men, women, boys, and girls continued to stroll down the middle of Sparks Street, or sat on the curb eating ice cream or drinking pop. For the first time since the beginning of the war, Parliament Hill was lit up, the official blackout lifted. With Prime Minister Mackenzie King and many of his cabinet ministers in San Francisco for the international meeting that was to launch the United Nations, it was up to Acting Prime Minister James Ilsley to make the official announcement that the next day, Tuesday, 8 May, 1945, had been designated Victory-In-Europe Day, and would be a public holiday. He also announced that the following Sunday, 13 May, would be a national day of prayer, thanksgiving, and remembrance. Virtually simultaneously, there was an official announcement from Labour Minister Humphrey Mitchell that compulsory military service had ended, and that recruitment would begin for volunteers for the Pacific War against Japan. Munitions and Supply Minister Clarence Howe appealed to munitions workers to appear for work promptly on Wednesday, as their job “would not be completed until the last gun has been fired in the Pacific.”

The official programme for the V-E ceremonies began the following afternoon. Following an address by George VI speaking from London to the British Commonwealth and the world, Prime Minister Mackenzie King spoke to the nation via radio link from San Francisco. In his fifteen minutes speech carried live over CBC radio, he thanked God for victory over Nazi Germany, and paid tribute to those who had sacrificed their lives, as well as to those wounded or maimed during the war, and those who had suffered in prison camps. He also underscored his hopes for the future, saying that “out of the fires of war, the San Francisco conference has begun to forge and fashion a might instrument for world security.” His speech was repeated in French by Justice Minister Louis St-Laurent.

At 5pm, the official ceremonies began on Parliament Hill. A massive crowd of 40,000 people watched service men and women and cadets march in the Victory parade, and listen to music played by massed military bands. After the singing O Canada, Mayor Lewis, Acting Prime Minister Ilsley, and representatives of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths gave thanks for the victory at a special Thanksgiving service in front of Peace Tower. Ilsley also read out a statement sent by British Prime Minister Churchill expressing “the heartfelt thanks of the people of the United Kingdom to the government and the people of Canada for the Dominion’s magnificent contribution to our common victory.” To the sound of the Parliamentary carillon, the Canadian Red Ensign, the flag under which tens of thousands of Canadian service men had fought, flew for the first time from atop of the Peace Tower.

In the streets of Ottawa, the partying continued. As reported by the Citizen, “residents of the Capital tore aside what remained of the cloak of staidness and gave full vent to their feelings.” Impromptu dances were held throughout Ottawa and Hull. People jitterbugged and square danced at the intersection of Rochester and Arlington Streets to music provided by two violins and a guitar. The Ottawa Fire Department responded to a number of street bonfires where the “Beast of Berchtesgaden” was burnt in effigy. On Sparks Street, firemen extinguished a fire in front of the Laura Secord candy store, and another at the intersection of Sparks and Bank Streets. The latter was sufficiently serious to ignite the road’s asphalt. A third fire was put out on the Elgin street side of the Toronto General Trust building, located on the corner of Sparks Street.

With a public holiday declared, most of the city’s restaurants closed for the day so that staff could join in the festivities. There was one problem, however. Thousands of service people and civilians who lived in rooming houses depended on them for their meals. Where to eat was a big problem on V-E Day.

V-E Day Cartoon

V-E Day Cartoon, The Evening Citizen, 7 May 1945, author unknown

Amidst the jubilant music, there were discordant notes. The war in the Pacific was yet to be won. Those who had lost loved ones contemplated the high cost of victory. As well, the end of the fighting did not mean a return to normal living. Shortages of staples continued. The same day victory in Europe was announced, the individual sugar ration for the coming six-month period was reduced by more than a third to nine pounds. Gasoline rationing would also continue “for some time.”

As a postscript to history, watching the victory festivities from his suite at the Château Laurier Hotel was General Fulgencio Batista, the president of Cuba from 1940-44. The general and his brother, Mario Batista, were touring Canada. Seven years later, General Batista was to lead a military coup in Cuba and seize back power. His larcenous, corrupt, and repressive regime was toppled in 1961 by Fidel Castro.

Sources:

The Evening Citizen, 1945. “It’s All Over In Europe! Nazi Surrender Complete,” 7 May.

————————, 1945. “Ottawa Warms Up Slowly To Victory But Breaks Out Flags and Bunting,” 7 May.

————————, 1945. “Citizen Bulletin Gives Sparks St. News Of Surrender,” 7 May.

———————–, 1945. “Enemy Asks Mercy As Terms Signed,” 7 May

———————–, 1945. “Ilsley Reads Churchill Message To Thousands On Parliament Hill,” 9 May.

———————–, 1945. “More Abundant Life For Everyone Urged By Mr. King As A Memorial,” 9 May.

———————–, 1945. “V-E Day Winds Up As Crowds Enjoy Street Dancing,” 9 May.

———————-, 1945. “Gen. Batista Enjoys Ottawa Celebrations,” 9 May.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1945. “Joyous Bells Of Victory Ringing Around World As Germany’s Downfall Proclaimed,” 8 May.

———————–, 1945, “Ottawa Continues V-Celebrations Till Late At Night,” 8 May.

———————–, 1945. “Scenes Of Jubilation In Streets As Ottawa Celebrates Victory In Europe.” 8 May.

———————–, 1945. “Red Ensign To Fly Over Peace Tower,” 8 May.

———————–, 1945. “Proclamations For Public Holiday And For A Day Of Prayer, Thanksgiving,” 8 May.

Images: 2015, Ottawa Street Celebration, Library and Archives Canada a114617, Warner, Glenn, “Victory In Europe 3 – The Home Front,” Maple Leaf Up, http://www.mapleleafup.ca/ve3.html.

Editorial Cartoon, The Evening Citizen, 7 May 1945, author unknown.

“Hello Ottawa–Hello Montreal”

20 May 1920

At the turn of the twentieth century, radio was the new, cutting-edge technology. Building on the work of others, including Nikola Tesla, Édouard Branly, and Jagadish Bose, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi established in the early years of the century a wireless telegraph system using a spark-gap transmitter that could send transatlantic radio messages in Morse code. The first such radio transmission, greetings from U.S. President Roosevelt to King Edward VII, was sent in 1903. Subsequently, ships began to be equipped with radio transmitters and receivers; radio distress signals sent by the RMS Titanic using Marconi equipment are credited with saving hundreds of lives in 1912. The Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden demonstrated the feasibility of audio radio using continuous waves by sending a two-way voice message in 1906 between Machrihanish, Scotland and Brant Rock, Massachusetts.  On Christmas Eve of that year, he broadcasted a short programme of music by Handel, his own rendition of some Christmas carols, and a reading from the Bible to ships at sea along the eastern seaboard of the United States from his Brant Rock base of operations. World War I brought further major technological advances, including the invention of the vacuum tube and the transceiver (a unit with both a radio transmitter and receiver), that spurred the development of commercial radio. By 1920, the world stood on the cusp of a new radio age with instantaneous, wireless, audio communication and entertainment.

On 19 May 1920, the Royal Society of Canada convened in Ottawa for its 39th Annual Meeting. The Society had been founded in 1882 with the patronage of the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, to promote scientific research in Canada. Society fellows gathered at the Victoria Memorial Museum for the opening of the conference, chaired by the Society’s president, Dr R. F. Ruttan of McGill University, and for the election of new fellows. They subsequently broke into specialist groups, to hear addresses on a variety of topics, including plant pathology, and the properties of super-conductors. That evening, President Ruttan gave the presidential address in the ballroom of the Château Laurier Hotel. The topic of his speech was “International Co-operation in Science.” The general public was cordially welcomed to attend this presentation, and another to be held the following evening at the same venue by Dr A.S. Eve, also of McGill University.

Dr Eve’s lecture commenced at 8.30pm on 20 May. Its intriguing title was “Some Great War Inventions.” Among the discoveries he discussed was the detection of submarines. Canadians had been on the forefront of this research, starting with Reginald Fessenden who pioneered underwater communications and echo-ranging to detect icebergs following the Titanic disaster. Subsequently, Canadian physicist Robert Boyle developed ASDIC in 1917, the first practical underwater sound detector machine, or sonar, for the Anti-Submarine Division of the Royal Navy. At the evening’s presentation, Dr Eve also demonstrated the advances made in the radio-telephone. At 9.44pm, the Society fellows and members of the public heard the words “Hello Ottawa—Hello Montreal” over a large loudspeaker called a “Magnavox,” set up in the Château Laurier’s ball room. The first public wireless conversation in Canada had begun.

Marconi Radio Station, CFCF, formerly XWA, Montreal, circa 1922

Marconi Radio Station, CFCF, formerly XWA, Montreal, circa 1922

For two days, engineers from the Canadian Marconi Company in Montreal and officers of the Naval Radio Station on Wellington Street in Ottawa had laboured to prepare for the event. The experimental radio station, located on the top floor of the Marconi building on William Street in Montreal, operated under the call letters “XWA” for “Experimental Wireless Apparatus.” It had first gone on the air on 1 December 1919 on an experimental basis. Another transmitting and receiver station was established at the Naval Radio Station, with a secondary receiving station set up at the Château Laurier, with an amplifier to ensure all attending Dr Eve’s presentation could hear the broadcast. At the Montreal end, Mr J. Cann, chief engineer for the Marconi Company, was in charge, while at the Naval Radio Station in Ottawa was Mr Arthur Runciman, also from the Marconi Company. Assisting Runciman were engineers, Mr D. Mason, and Mr J. Arial. Also present were Mr E. Hawken, the commanding officer of the Marine Department, and his wife. Stationed at the receiving station in the Château Laurier were Commander C. Edwards, director of the Canadian Radio Service and Lieutenant J. Thompson, his assistant. Journalists covering the historic radio broadcast were based at the Naval Radio Station.

Following the introductory exchange of words, the notes of “Dear Old Pal of Mine,” a 1918 hit song, sung by the Irish tenor John McCormick and played on a phonograph in Montreal, could be distinctly heard in Ottawa. This was followed by a one-step ballroom dance tune popular at the time. So well could the orchestra be heard, the Ottawa Journal reporter wrote that some of his colleagues listening to the broadcast at the Naval Station actually started an impromptu dance.

After the dance tune, one of the radio operators in Montreal delivered a speech prepared earlier by Dr Ruttan on behalf of the Royal Society of Ottawa in which he congratulated the Marconi Company and the Radio-Telegraph Branch of the Department of Naval Service for “their generous co-operation in this difficult scientific experiment.” Following a short pause, Society follows were treated to a live performance from Montreal of the early nineteenth century Irish folk ballad “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore and sung by vocalist Dorothy Lutton. She sang a second song, “Merrily Shall I Live” as an encore.

It was then Ottawa’s turn to communicate to Montreal. The Ottawa operator first explained the radio experiment to his listeners. This was followed by Mr. E. Hawken singing the first verse of “Annie Laurie,” an old Scottish song that begins “Maxwelton’s braes are bonnie.” Receiving a wild round of applause from his Château Laurier audience, Hawken was persuaded to sing the second verse. Hawken’s performance was followed by the transmission of several dance tunes played on a phonograph. The evening’s programme concluded with hearty congratulations sent in both directions.

Dr Eve’s demonstration of radio telephony was deemed a huge success. The wireless operators in Ottawa and Montreal were elated. Never before had two-way radio communication had been achieved over such a long distance—110 miles (177 kilometres). The broadcast, at least at the Ottawa end, and especially at the Château Laurier where the signal was boosted by an amplifier, was generally clear and distinct. However, listeners at the Marconi station in Montreal had a more difficult time picking up the signal from Ottawa. Marconi officials explained that reception was adversely affected by  interference from Montreal’s large buildings. There were apparently some tense minutes as Montreal listeners wearing headphones tried to decipher the sounds coming from the capital.

The broadcast launched Canada into the radio age. Some radio historians argue that the 20 May radio performance by Marconi’s XWA station to the Royal Society’s meeting in Ottawa was the first scheduled radio broadcast in Canada, and possibly the world. XWA became CFCF in November 1922. Reputedly, the call letters stood for “Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest.” The station’s call letters were changed to CIQC in 1991, and to CINW in 1999. The station went off the air in 2010.

 

Sources:

Broadcaster, 2001, 100 Years of Radio: Celebrating 100 years of radio broadcasting, http://www.broadcastermagazine.com/news/100-years-of-radio-celebrating-100-years-of-radio-broadcasting/1000108605/?&er=NA.

Canadian Communications Foundation, Radio Station History, http://www.broadcasting-history.ca/index3.html?url=http%3A//www.broadcasting-history.ca/listings_and_histories/radio/histories.php%3Fid%3D492%26historyID%3D243.

Historica Canada, Broadcasting, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/broadcasting-emc/.

The Citizen, 1920. “May Meeting of The Royal Society of Canada Opens,” 19 May.

The Gazette, 1920. “Wireless Concert Given For Ottawa,” Montreal, 21 May.

————–, 1920. “Heard In Ottawa.” Montreal, 21 May.

The Ottawa Journal, 1920. “Ottawa Hears Montreal Concert Over the Wireless Telephone, Experiment Complete Success,” 21 May.

Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe, ” http://bilan.usherbrooke.ca/bilan/pages/evenements/20173.html.

Vipond, Mary, 1992. Listening In: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting, 1922-32, Carleton University Press: Ottawa.

Image: CFCF Radio, Montreal, author unknown, Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe,” http://bilan.usherbrooke.ca/bilan/pages/evenements/20173.html.

Bombing of Parliament Hill

18 May 1966

One bright mid-May morning in 1966, a nondescript, middle-aged man walked into a mining supplies store in Newmarket, north of Toronto, and asked to buy some dynamite. The young clerk asked him what he intended to do with the explosives, and whether he knew how to use them. The man replied that he was prospecting, and needed the dynamite to blow up some tree stumps. He reassured her that he knew how to handle explosives. He had worked in mines in the Northwest Territories. Satisfied by his responses, the clerk sold him six sticks of Forcite, a gelatin dynamite composed of sodium nitrate, along with six detonating caps and six feet of fuse with a burn rate of one foot per minute. A background check was not required. After the man had thanked her and left the store, the clerk realized that she had erred; the fuse burnt one third faster than she had told her customer. But it was too late to correct her mistake; the customer had vanished. Little did she realize that her error would have fateful consequences.

Paul Chartier

Paul Chartier, The Bomber of Parliament Hill, The Citizen, 19 May 1966

Wednesday, 18 May 1966 was a cool, cloudy, spring day in Ottawa. The big news in the nation’s capital that morning was the previous night’s vote of non-confidence in Lester B. Pearson’s minority Liberal government. The motion had been put forward by John G. Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative Party over tight money. The vote was unexpectedly close, 118-111. Most of the smaller opposition parties and independent MPs had supported the Conservative motion. That afternoon, the public galleries were packed with spectators, eager to hear the latest opposition salvoes against the government during Question Period which commenced at 2pm.

Among the spectators who had arrived to watch their country’s leaders in action were hundreds of school children. Also present was a middle-aged gentleman wearing an overcoat. It was the same man who had purchased the Forcite in Newmarket five days earlier. Entering the Centre Block of Parliament like any tourist visiting the Hill, he made his way to the Public Gallery on the third floor. But he was turned away; the gallery was full. Trying again, he went to the Ladies’ Gallery at the other end of the Commons chamber where an obliging commissionaire allowed him to enter and take a seat to watch the proceedings. He had an excellent vantage point. Facing him was the Speaker’s Throne.  On his left was the governing Liberal Party, while on his right were the opposition parties. As it was Question Period, the House was full. Both Prime Minister Pearson, and Opposition Leader Diefenbaker were in attendance. At 2.45pm, the man, still wearing his overcoat, left his chair to go to the men’s washroom located just a few steps across the corridor from the Ladies’ Gallery. He asked the guard if his seat could be saved. The guard said no; there was no reserved seating. But it was unlikely that somebody would take his seat as Question Period was almost over. Thanking the commissionaire, the man left. Minutes later, the Centre Block was rocked by a bomb blast emanating from the third-floor men’s washroom. Acrid fumes filled the hallways, seeping into Commons chamber.

On the Commons’ floor, there was confusion. Parliamentary business stuttered to a halt amidst calls for medical assistance. Diefenbaker rose to say “…someone had just passed away within the precincts of the House of Commons.” Prime Minister Pearson announced that “It appears that was an explosion” and “that a man has been killed under circumstances which are not yet quite clear.” The House temporarily adjourned.  Security staff escorted the deputies to safety. In the meantime, three doctor MPs hurried to the scene of the explosion. Groping their way through thick smoke, and stumbling over pieces of wood and masonry shards that littered the floor of the bathroom, they came across the mutilated body of a man stretched out in front of the urinals lying in a pool of blood. There was nothing that the doctors could do. Dr Philip Rynard (PC—Simcoe-East) pronounced the man dead. Dr Hugh Horner (PC—Jasper-Edison) said that it looked like the man had been carrying an explosive device when it went off.

Chartier's body being removedChartier's body being removed

Chartier’s body being removed from Centre Block, Parliament Hill, 18 May 1966, CBC News

The initial assumption that it was a suicide was quickly dispelled. It was something far more malevolent—an attack on Parliament itself, the first since Guy Fawkes had tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. There had been nothing like it in Canadian history. While there had been incidents of incivility, and in 1964 a protester had thrown a bottle of animal blood from the Public Gallery onto the floor of the House of Commons, there had never before been outright violence.

Police quickly put a name to the bomber—Paul Chartier, an emotionally disturbed, unemployed security guard, age 45. They tracked down his recent movements and where he lived—a rooming house in Toronto. At his lodgings, they found several sticks of dynamite, fuses, and two crude bombs. Police also uncovered some writings titled Young Years, which provided details of Chartier’s life, and his growing conviction that the world was against him.

Chartier, born in 1922, had grown up in small-town Alberta, one of nine children, his parents having moved west after World War I from Quebec. While his parents and siblings had made successes of their lives, Chartier drifted from job to job. He worked briefly in the mining industry in Yellowknife before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war. While in the Air Force, he got into some minor trouble before being discharged in 1945. He then went into the hotel business, first with a brother, and later for himself. Married in 1951, both his hotel business and marriage failed within a few years owing to his growing mental instability. Abusive to his wife, his unsocial and erratic behaviour drove customers away. Subsequent careers in the dry-clearing business and as a truck driver also ended in failure. It was never his doing; it was always somebody else’s fault. After going bankrupt in 1961, Chartier left for the United States, where for the next several years he wandered around the country. For a time, he worked as a hotel security guard in New York. By 1966, however, he had returned to Canada. Unemployed, he found a room in a boarding house in Toronto. About a month before the fatal blast, he took a trip to Ottawa to check out Parliament Hill, staying under an assumed name at the YMCA.

Chartier returned to the Ottawa area the day before the explosion, renting a cheap $3 per night room at the Saint Louis Hotel in Hull. There, he assembled a pipe bomb weighing several pounds, and smuggled it into the Centre Block hidden under his overcoat. After viewing Question Period from the Ladies’ Gallery, he went to the bathroom to light the fuse of his homemade explosive device with the intention of throwing it at Canada’s leaders assembled in the House of Commons below. But the bomb exploded prematurely while he was making his way out of the lavatory cubicle towards the washroom door, severing his right arm, and inflicting massive injuries to his torso and face. He died within seconds of the blast. On his body was a speech titled If I was President [sic] of Canada. It was a speech he had wanted to deliver to deputies. Roughly two weeks earlier, Chartier has written a letter to Lucien Lamoureux, the Speaker of the House of Commons, asking for permission to address the House. The clerk of the House of Commons replied that only sitting elected Members of the House had the right to speak in the Chamber. Consequently, “there was no possibility whatsoever of agreeing to your request.” The rejection was the final straw, and set in motion Chartier’s attack on Parliament.

In the rambling, and sometimes incoherent, speech, Chartier made it clear that he had planned the bombing for about a year, and that it was his intention to “kill as many as possible for the rotten way you are running this country.”  He added “as for “Mr Pearson and Mr Diefenbaker, they sound like a couple of kids, jealous of one another as to who is going to get the biggest share of money and scandal…I blame parliament for divorces, separations and suicides and a lot of people are in jail not being able to make a living.”

At the inquest into Chartier’s death held four months later, experts testified that had Chartier managed to throw the bomb into the House of Commons chamber, one could have expected at least a dozen deaths, and many injured. It was only through luck, or Providence, that the mining supplies company clerk had misinformed Chartier of the burn time of the fuse. Added to this was evidence that Chartier himself had made a mathematical error when calculating the length of the fuse. This error reduced the time he had still further.

The blast shattered Canadians happy illusions about themselves, and about Canada as a calm, peace-loving nation. Was Canada so different from its America neighbour whose president had been assassinated three years earlier? If evil was in our midst, how would it affect our way of life? In an editorial, the Citizen newspaper opined that the “easy atmosphere of the Centre Block has always been one of the glories of our parliamentary life. The unguarded secure passage of our leaders through the corridors, made safe only by the good sense of the Canadian people, is surely worth preserving.”

Security on the Hill was reviewed after the blast. The Speaker of the House noted that it was “not easy to reconcile enforcement of strict security regulations with the degree of freedom of access to the building and the galleries that the Canadian people have come to expect when visiting parliament.” He strove to find a “reasonable balance.” Nevertheless, six months after Chartier tried to blow up members of parliament, a group of university students tested Parliament Hill security, by bringing into the Centre Block a tape recorder (a large, bulky machine back in 1966) concealed under a coat. They then went to the same washroom as Chartier had on the third floor, before visiting the Public Gallery to tape the proceedings as proof of their successful entry. They were never stopped. Subsequently interviewed on CJOH-TV, the students were threatened with fines and jail rather than applauded for demonstrating the continued gap in parliamentary security. After a cool meeting with Speaker Lamoureux, the students were let off with a warning, their test of Hill security considered a prank.

 

Sources:

CBC Digital Archives, 1966, “Bomb in Parliament misses its target in 1966,” http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/society/crime-justice/general-3/bomb-in-parliament-misses-its-target-in-1966.html.

Fontana, James, 2005. The Mad Bomber of Parliament, Borealis Press: Ottawa.

Hanlon, John, 2007, “The Day We Broke the Silence of Centre Block,” The Ottawa Citizen, 20 October, http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=c882ed16-7e48-48cd-95c8-b2df5af38ed7.

House of Commons Debates, 1966. 27th Parliament, 1st Session: Vol.5.

Lamoureux, Lucien, 1966. “Statement by Mr Speaker Respecting Security Precautions,” The Citizen, 19 May.

The Citizen, 1966. “Grudge bomb meant for MPs,” 19 May.

—————, 1966. “The Bomb Explosion,” 19 May.

The Gazette, 1966. “Assassinations: no reason to be smug in Canada,” Montreal, 19 May.

—————, 1966. “Explosion In Parliament’s Centre Block Takes Life of 45-Year Old Bomb Carrier,” 19 May.

 

It’s Electrifying!

1 May 1885

During the late nineteenth century, the race was on to develop a practical electric lamp, one that delivered a steady, brilliant, and durable light. It also had to be cheap; the electric light was up against a well-established competitor, the gas lamp. Gasworks were major industries at the time. Well capitalized and employing tens of thousands, they lit city streets, businesses and homes, with gas delivered through underground pipes. There were two electric contenders at that time, the arc lamp, which was first demonstrated by Humphry Davy at the beginning of the century but was not a practical source of light until the invention of efficient generators (dynamos) in the 1870s, and the incandescent lamp, perfected by Thomas Edison in 1879. The arc lamp consisted of an “arch” or arc of light between two carbon electrodes in air. While providing an intense, bright light, arc lamps burnt very hot, often emitting sparks. To protect against fire, arc lamps were often equipped with glass globes, open at the top to release the heat. The globes also helped to diffuse the light, which improved its quality, and to block dangerous ultra-violet emissions, though people were unaware of such radiation at the time. Edison’s incandescent bulb used a carbon filament inside a vacuum tube that produced light and heat when electricity was passed through it. Its light was much less intense that that of the arc lamp. For illuminating large spaces, especially outdoor spaces, the arc lamp initially had the edge over the incandescent bulb. In contrast, the smaller incandescent bulb was much better suited for indoor settings. Arc lamp street lights were installed in Paris in 1878 for the Exposition Universelle. The following year, Charles Bush fitted Cleveland’s Public Square, a four-block downtown plaza, with arc lights. The eponymous Bush Electrical Company, a precursor firm of the General Electric Company, became a supplier of arc lamps throughout North America.

Electric lighting arrived in the Ottawa area in mid-1881 when E.B. Eddy installed Bush arc lights in his huge lumber, match, and woodenware works in Hull, Quebec located at the Chaudière Falls. Forty arc lights, with a generator run by waterpower to provide the electricity, illuminated the yard at a cost of $11,000. The carbon electrodes, or “pencils,” used in the lamps lasted eight hours before needing to be replaced. Eddy’s lights were fifty percent cheaper to run than naphtha or coal gas lamps. A small, five arc-light system was subsequently fitted on the Ottawa side at the Levi Young mill on Victoria Island at a cost of $900. The system was sufficient to light the mill’s interior, the walls of which were painted white to reflect back the light, and the lumber yard outside. So good was the illumination that it was reported that the workmen preferred to work at night under the lights.

While E. B. Eddy was installing electric lights at his lumber works, Henry C. Spalding, a Boston electrical engineer and inventor, came to Ottawa to present City Council with an ambitious plan to light the entire city by placing large, Bush arc lamps on ten high towers, as much as 200-240 feet tall. He had chosen Ottawa as a candidate for his lighting system since it was small city, hence cheaper to light, and, being a capital, would be a conspicuous place for a successful trial. His was a radical, and largely untested, concept at the time, though such towers were later erected in some U.S. cities. In May 1881, City Council approved a trial of Spalding’s tower idea, but the project never got off the ground. No doubt, the huge expense was a factor. Spalding wanted $150,000 per year, though he would provide free lighting for thirty days. Adequate power supplies was likely another factor. Despite this setback, Ottawa City Council was unfazed. A committee struck to look at city lighting concluded in December 1881 that the city had sufficient water power to light lamps of 4,000 candle power suspended from four 200-foot towers at a capital cost of about $20,000, and a running annual cost of $7,000-8,000. The following January, a test tower, 100-200 feet high (accounts vary) was built at the top of Nanny Goat Hill overlooking Lebreton Flats, roughly where Christchurch Cathedral is located today. On 7 April 1882, the tower’s arc lamps were tested. They were a big disappointment. Their brilliance fluctuated, and they provided less volume of light than expected. The idea of lighting the city using towers was dropped.

Arc Lamp, 1884, San Jose

Tower Arc Lamp, installed in San Jose, California, 1884

While the City explored other options of lighting its streets, incandescent lighting came to Ottawa. In early April 1883, Thomas Edison’s patented light bulbs were installed for the first time in Canada at the Canada Cotton Manufacturing Company in Cornwall. Four hundred visitors came to see them switched on. Many were parliamentarians from Ottawa. Duly impressed with what they had seen, a plan to electrify Parliament was swiftly put into motion, equipping the Senate and the House of Commons with 150 Edison lights, each of 16 candle power, in both chambers. Thomas Ahearn, Ottawa’s entrepreneur and inventor par excellence of the nineteenth century, and his partner Warren Soper, supplied the power plant in the House of Commons’ basement. The lights were officially switched on when Parliament opened for the second session of the 5th Parliament on 17 January 1884, though not before Ottawa experienced what was probably its first electrical fire. When the Edison representative switched on the lights in the Senate Speaker’s dining room to give a demonstration to Sir Hector Langevin, the Minister of Public Works, prior to the official launch, the rubber and silk insulation around the wiring caught fire. Fortunately, the fire was quickly extinguished, and repairs made.

Thomas Ahearn

Thomas Ahearn, engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur par excellence

The following year, negotiations began in earnest between the City and Ahearn and Soper to light Ottawa’s streets. The need for new street lights had become pressing. In early 1884, the City’s Fire and Light Committee had complained that Ottawa’s naphtha and gas street lights were in “a dilapidated state.” In March 1885, the City signed a contract with Ahearn and Soper’s Ottawa Electric Light Company (OELC) for the provision of electric street lights.  The OELC would “supply, erect, maintain and keep in repair” 165 arc lamps, each of 2,000 candle power, for three years, as well as additional lamps as may be required. The price tag was less than a tenth of that demanded by Henry Spalding four years earlier. The City would pay $13,000 per annum for the initial 165 lamps, $40 per lamp, per annum, for the next fifteen lamps, and $80 per lamp, per annum, for any additional lamps beyond 180. The City required wires to be kept completely insulated, with all installations of plant and equipment inspected and approved by the City Engineer and the “Superintendent of the Fire Alarm.” The location of lamps and poles were also subject to the approval of the City Engineer. The contract required the OELC to keep the lights on every night from “dark to daylight, excepting when the moon shines bright and clear and the sky is unclouded.” The lamps had to be lit a minimum of 280 nights each year.

Work to put up the necessary poles and install the arc lamps commenced immediately. Six weeks later, at dusk on 1 May 1885, Ottawa’s new electric street lights were officially switched on in the presence of Mayor McDougall and other city fathers. The City celebrated the event with a band and a parade.  The night before, while the streetlight system was being tested, Ottawa’s City Council had given Ahearn and Soper’s company permission to produce and sell electricity throughout the city. By-law No. 600 authorized the OELC to “construct, maintain, complete and operate works for the production, sale and distribution of electricity for purposes of light, heat and power.” The by-law also gave the company permission to string its wires on poles “along Ottawa’s streets, squares and bridges.”

Government and citizens were delighted with their new street lights. The Daily Citizen enthused that the lights placed Ottawa “ahead of any city in America.” In an editorial, the newspaper described the event as “one which should mark another era in the progress of the city.” At year-end, the Fire and Light Committee boasted that Ottawa was the “best lighted” and only city in Canada that was entirely lit by electricity. 199 electric arc lights had been installed covering a larger area that what had been lit previously by naphtha and gas. Costs had also been reduced. Lighting costs for 1885 amounted to $13,651, down from $15,447 in 1884, prior to the introduction of electricity.

In 1887, Thomas Ahearn and his partner Warren Soper established the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company to provide electricity to the OELC, and subsequently to the Ottawa Electric Railway (Ottawa’s streetcars) which the duo established three years later. Ahearn and Soper later acquired other electricity providers in the city, and by the mid-1890s had established a virtual monopoly in electric power production in the area. In 1950, their company, now called the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company, was acquired by Ottawa Hydro.

Sources:

Adamek, Anna, 2014, “Turning On The Lights In Parliament,” Parliament of Canada, http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/House/collections/collection_profiles/CP_electrification-e.htm.

Ahern, Dennis, 2013. “Thomas Ahearn, The Canadian Edison,” Ancestery.com, 2013, http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~aherns/ahedison.htm.

Daily Citizen, 1885, “The Electric Light,” 1 May.

—————, 1885. “Advancement,” 2 May.

Edison Tech Center, 2010: The Electric Light: Arc Lamps, http://www.edisontechcenter.org/ArcLamps.html#works.

Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January, http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/01/moonlight-towers-light-pollution-in-the-1800s.html.

Mayer, Roy, 1997. “Turning Up The Heat,” Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Raincoast Books: Vancouver.

Ottawa City Council, 1885. “Minutes: Memo of understanding between the Ottawa Electric Light Company and the Corporation of the City of Ottawa,” 16 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes: “Consideration of Contract for electric street lighting,” 20 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes, By-law 600: Authority granted to The Ottawa Electric Light Company,” 30 April.

——————–, 1886, “Minutes, Report of the Fire and Light Committee,” 15 January.

The Citizen, 1928. “Electric And Gas Companies Of Ottawa Were Organized In Face Of Numerous Hardships,” 13 March.

The Globe, 1881. “The Electric Light: An Experiment of Lighting the Streets to be Tried at Ottawa,” 24 May.

————-, 1881. “The Electric Light: Proposed Scheme for Illuminating the Capital,” 2 June.

————-, 1881. “New Uses for Gas: The Time for Its Abolition Not Yet Arrived,” 27 August.

————-, 1881. “Notes from the Capital: The Electric Light Again,” 12 December.

————-, 1882. “Trial Of The Electric Light,” 11 January.

————-, 1882. “Notes From The Capital: Electric Light Experiment,” 13 January.

————-, 1882. “From The Capital,” 8 April.

————-, 1882. “The Electric Light: Practical Results of its Working in Ottawa,” 2 August.

————-, 1883. “Electric Light: Edison’s Light in Operation in Canada,” 4 April.

Uren, Janet, 2014. “The Man who lit up Ottawa,” The Citizen, 1 August.

Images: Tower Arc Lamp, Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January, http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/01/moonlight-towers-light-pollution-in-the-1800s.html.

Thomas Ahearn,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Ahearn, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012222.