The Arrival of Traffic Lights

5 March 1928

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maxwell Challenge

22 February 1912

By the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, the automobile was no longer the delicate, temperamental curiosity that it was just a decade earlier. In ten years, the internal combustion engine used in most automobiles had been largely perfected. The one-cylinder vehicle, common at the turn of the century, which was noisy, slow and rough to drive, had evolved into a multi-cylinder machine that was, according to the Ottawa Evening Journal, not only a “thing of beauty” but “whisks by you on the street to the tune of a quiet purr, suggesting the passing of a contented cat.” Luxuriously appointed, such cars could go 50 miles per hour compared to less than 20 miles per hour achieved by vehicles a decade earlier, assuming of course drivers could find roads that were not potholed and heavily trafficked by pedestrians and horses.

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Cartoon, The Evening Journal, 10 February 1912, artist unknown

For the majority of people, however, owing an automobile was a dream rather than a reality. Prices were high relative to incomes, especially during the years prior to the introduction of the assembly line that lowered production costs. In 1912, there were only 500 automobiles cruising the streets of the capital, up from a dozen ten years earlier. Demand was growing rapidly, spurred by the motor car’s many advantages over a horse-drawn vehicle. While the initial outlay for a car or truck was substantial, motor vehicles were more convenient, faster, and could carry heavier loads over longer distances, though winter motoring was problematic. Macdonald & Co., the concessionaire for Albion vans, advertised that the van “could do the work of six horses.” But the automobile’s appeal went far beyond the practical or the economic.  In 1912, the Journal summed up the automobile’s almost irresistible appeal. “To own a motor car and enjoy the numerous pleasures that such affords is to own a kingdom. The driver’s seat is a throne, the steering wheel a sceptre, miles are your minions and distance your slave.”

Hundreds of small automobile companies sprang up across North America and Europe to meet the burgeoning demand for cars and trucks. Even Ottawa sported its own automobile manufacturer—the Diamond Arrow Motor Car Company. At its peak, the firm employed as many as twenty mechanics at its plant located at the corner of Lyon and Wellington Streets, just a short walk from Parliament Hill, with a showroom at 26 Sparks Street. Sadly, the firm only produced cars from 1910 to 1912, and disappeared without a trace like so many of the small, craft-style producers, a victim of strong competition, high costs, and the inability to take advantage of economies of scale.

In mid-February 1912, Ottawa held its first automobile show, hosted by the Ottawa Valley Motor Car Association founded five years earlier. The show, which attracted thousands, was held in Howlick Pavilion at the Exhibition Grounds. (The Howlick Pavilion, also known as Howlick Hall or the Coliseum was knocked down in 2012 to make way for the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park.) Some 37 different automobile marques from Canada, the United States, and Europe were on display, ranging in price from an economical $495 to a princely $10,000. Some brands, such as Rolls-Royce, Ford, Oldsmobile and Cadillac, remain household names today. But most, like Jackson, Russell, Tudhope, and Hupp, are long forgotten except by auto historians and antique-car enthusiasts. Show goers were wowed by the latest advance in automobile technology, the self-starter. No longer did a car owner have to get out and manually crank the vehicle to get it started. The 1912 Cadillac also boasted electric headlights—a first in the motoring world. Up until then, car headlamps were filled with oil and acetylene, and had to be manually lit.

With a crowded field, dealers sought ways of standing out among their competitors. Messrs Wylie Ltd of Albert Street advertised that by buying a Tudhope, a Canadian-built vehicle, purchasers avoided the 35 per cent duty levied on the imported cars. Their advertisement argued that the $1,625 Tudhope should be compared “point to point” to imported cars selling for $2,300. The American-made Cutting, selling for $1,725, boasted of its “big, husky power plant;” the Cutting had participated in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

CityHallOttawa

Old Ottawa City Hall, Elgin Street, date unknown, site of the first leg of the Maxwell Challenge, William James Topley/Library & Archives Canada, Mikan No. 3325359.

Mr F.D. Stockwell, the eastern Canadian distributor of Maxwell motor cars, manufactured by the United States Motor Company, believed action spoke louder than words. To prove the superiority of his automobile, he loaded his Maxwell touring car with twenty boys and drove it up the steps of Ottawa’s City Hall—a considerable feat given the number of steps and the sharp incline. He then drove the car through the deep snow surrounding the building, and pulled a standard car, allegedly twice the weight of his Maxwell, out of a hole. Leaving City Hall, he repeated his stunt on Parliament Hill, driving up the main walkway and up the steps leading to the front of the Centre Block. He again demonstrated the Maxwell’s ability to plough through deep snowdrifts—an important selling feature for cars at the time since few streets and highways were cleared of snow.

After a copycat repeated the stair trick within a half hour of Stockwell’s stunt, and another competitor called the Stockwell’s actions “cheap advertising,” Stockwell retorted that both had ignored “the snow tests.” He then issued the following challenge.

If there is a man in Ottawa selling a touring car from $1,000 to $10,000 (any standard stock touring car, 5 to 7 passengers, not a stripped chassis or runabout), who will drive his machine up the terrace at the City Hall through the snow bank (not doing the path cut through by the Maxwell) we will immediately deposit $100 against one or more cars depositing a like amount for a contest to take place immediately at the Parliament grounds, or anywhere there is a field of good, deep snow.

The proceeds of the bet would got to the charity of the winner’s choice.

Stockwell invited all of Ottawa to come and see who would “meet the Maxwell at the snow plow game.” While he conceded that there were other good cars, he noted that the Maxwell was the only car that for two consecutive years had completed the Glidden tour with a perfect score. The Glidden tour was an American long-distance, automobile, endurance event that began in 1905. The 1911 tour, held in October of that year, was 1,476 miles long from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. It was the most gruelling event up to that time, with the course running along treacherous roads and across streams. Recall this was long before the United States had constructed its inter-state highway system.

Maxwellad

Maxwell Car Advertisement, 1912 (U.S. market), History of Early American Automobile Industry, 1891-1929.

The gauntlet was thrown down at 12.30pm on Thursday, 22 February in front of the Ottawa City Hall. Only the Peerless Garage Company, located at 344-348 Queen Street, the distributor of Cadillac, arrived to pick it up. The judges of the challenge were: Mr R. King Farrow, Mr E. H. Code and Alderman Dr Chevrier. What transpired was not exactly what Stockwell, the Maxwell distributor, had in mind.

At City Hall, the Cadillac went first, easily going up and over the building’s terrace without stopping. Stockwell, the driver of the Maxwell, refused to do likewise, but instead shouted out to the other participant “Come up where we will find some real snow at the Parliament Buildings.” The challenge was immediately accepted. On Parliament Hill, the Maxwell went first, having the choice of where to drive. Unfortunately, the automobile had gone only a few yards before it got stuck in a snowbank. Then, it was the Cadillac’s turn. Starting approximately fifteen feet from where the Maxwell had began, the Caddy drove five to seven times further across the snow-covered lawn in from the Centre Block, thereby winning the $100 wager. The Peerless Garage Company donated its winnings in equal amounts of $25 to four Ottawa charities—the “Protestant Home for the Aged” on Bank Street, the “Protestant Orphans’ Home” on Elgin Street, the “St Patrick’s Orphans’ Home” on Laurier Avenue West, and the “Perely Home for Incurables” located on Wellington Street.

1912 cadillac

Advertisement, 1912 Cadillac, winner of the first Maxwell challenge, 22 February 1912, The Evening Journal, 23 February 1912.

Maxwell’s Stockwell immediately issued a second “Maxwell Challenge.” In a letter to the Evening Journal, he admitted that the Cadillac was a good car, and that “it proved a good snow plow, and was cleverly driven.” After adding that the Cadillac cost $600 more than the Maxwell, and that its wheels were two inches higher, Stockwell attributed the Maxwell’s loss to the “misfortune” of having run into a snowbank deposited by a plough before the car got to the open field. After being pulled off the snowbank, he said that the Maxwell had been able to pass the Cadillac that had foundered in deep snow, “its wheels suspended and running freely in the air.” Consequently, Stockwell claimed that the Maxwell was still the champion. He then sent a letter to the Peerless Garage asking for a rematch “on a course which will permit both cars to enter freely the open field, then let the best car win.” He then handed a $100 wager to the sporting editor of the Citizen newspaper, asking him as well as representatives of the Evening Journal and the Ottawa Free Press to act as judges. When the Cadillac representative refused the challenge, Stockwell upped the wager to $150 from him, against $125 from Cadillac, and set the date of the second challenge to the following Saturday afternoon, 25 February, to take place on the snow-covered lawns of Parliament Hill.

There was no sign of Cadillac that Saturday afternoon. With the field to himself, Stockwell demonstrated the proficiency of the Maxwell motor car in front of a large crowd of spectators. The Journal reported that the automobile entered the field near the foot of the main steps and slowly circled the field, ploughing gracefully through every ice and snow obstacle. “The Maxwell cut through the biggest drifts on Parliament Hill with consummate ease and was only forced to stop through a broken chain grip.” Stockwell then drove the car down the main walkway “amidst enthusiastic applause” from an appreciative audience.

So, who won the Maxwell Challenge? Clearly, the Cadillac won the first challenge. But, Maxwell achieved at least a moral victory through its subsequent, uncontested challenge match. However, in the highly competitive world of the automobile, Cadillac was the ultimate victor, becoming a North American synonym for luxury and success. The Maxwell, on the other hand, disappeared shortly after the First World War, a victim of the post war depression and large debts. The Maxwell Motor Car Company was purchased by Chrysler in 1921. The last Maxwell was produced in 1925 and was replaced by the Chrysler Four.

Sources:

71st Revival AAA Glidden Tour, 2016. History, 1904-1913, http://www.gliddentour.org/.

Bowman, Richard, 2016. Maxwell: First Builders of Chrysler Cars, http://www.allpar.com/history/maxwell.html.

Evening Journal (The), 1910. “First Made In This City,” 29 August.

—————————, 1912. “Ottawa, A Popular Motor Car Centre,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. Cutting Cars, 1912. “Gather ’round—Come Close—Listen!,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Motor Car Driving A Recreation In Ottawa,” 10 February.

—————————-, 1912. “A Maxwell Challenge, $100,” 21 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Stockwell Motor Company of Montreal Issued Challenge,” 23 February.

—————————-, 1912. “Cadillac Easily Defeats Maxwell,” 23 February.

—————————–, 1912. “Re that Automobile Competition, Maxwell Challenge No. 2, 23 February.

—————————–, 1912. “The Maxwell Challenge Was Not Accepted,” 26 February.

Macdonald & Company, 1912. “The Albion,” The Evening Journal, 10 February.

Messrs Wylie Ltd, 1912. “What does 35% duty add to the value of a Car?” The Evening Journal, 10 February.

 

 

 

The End of Winter Driving Woes

16 April 1928

Ottawa is known for its long, snowy winters. Notwithstanding this, driving conditions are typically good throughout the season. Even through the worst blizzards, the snow ploughs, salters and sanders are out promptly, keeping Ottawa’s thoroughfares open, and the traffic moving. While minor, neighbourhood streets may not get the same attention, they too are cleared within hours of a major snowfall; sidewalks are also quickly ploughed. And when snowbanks begin to obstruct sightlines and impede traffic, city crews are out to reduce or eliminate them. Specialized equipment, which can eat through the iciest snowbank like a hot knife through butter, throws the snow into the open boxes of awaiting trucks that cart it away to dump sites throughout the city.

So accustomed have we become to good winter driving conditions, there was widespread criticism of a recent City staff recommendation to Council that snow-plough operators wait until ten centimetres of snow had fallen before they start clearing roads instead of seven centimetres. Apparently, the City could save $1 million by so doing—a considerable sum, but only a drop out of its snow-clearing budget.

SparksStSnow1885April6LACMikan3623959

Sparks Street, 6 April 1885, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, C-002186

Our forebears would be amazed by the state of Ottawa’s winter roads. Until the late nineteenth century, no roads were ploughed. While sidewalks were cleared, typically by store-owners, the snow was simply thrown into the middle of the street. Over time, the road bed could rise four feet or more above the sidewalk level. Wheeled traffic became impossible, and many businesses were forced to suspend operations until the return of warm weather. People got around on foot or by horse-drawn sleigh. The latter might sound romantic, but city roads quickly became rutted and icy. “Cow holes”—potholes, only larger—became a significant nuisance. Public transit, provided by Ottawa’s street passenger railway, was to be avoided. In summer, its horse-drawn carriages were pulled smoothly along railway tracks from New Edinburgh to LeBreton Flats. Its winter sleigh service was not so comfortable. The Ottawa Journal described progress down Ottawa’s streets as being “painfully slow.” This was not just a figure of speech. Customers were bumped, jostled and jolted as sleighs were dragged in and out of the cow holes. The coming of spring only made things worse. Roads became virtually impassable. Pedestrians were knee-deep in slush. Flooding was a serious risk if clogged drains and ditches were not opened in time.

Things began to improve in 1892 with the arrival of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER) that operated a railed, electric tram service on the main streets of the city. Initially, City Council permitted the company to run sleighs through the winter months; nobody thought trams could operate once the snow arrived. However, Thomas Ahearn, the owner of the OER, invented an electric, rotary snow plough that was fixed to the front of the tram, thereby assuring year-round service.

Sleigh Dept. of Interior - Library and Archives Canada - PA-043776.PNG

Sleigh on Wellington Street in front of the East Block, Parliament Hill, date unknown, Interior Ministry/Library and Archives Canada, PA-043776.

By the 1920s, a variety of agencies were responsible for snow ploughing in Ottawa. Under the terms of its service contract with the City, the OER ploughed the snow off the 60 miles of streets on which its trams ran, roughly one-third of Ottawa’s 168 miles of roadways. This did not mean, however, that these streets were cleared to the pavement. The OER was required to leave sufficient snow on the roads for sleighs. The Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, also ploughed the Driveways for which it was responsible, while the Federal Department of Public Works cleared snow from the roadways on Parliament Hill and on parts of Wellington Street. However, all other Ottawa arteries and side streets, roughly 100 miles, remained unploughed, and quickly became impassable to wheeled traffic.

Fortunately for pedestrians, Ottawa’s Public Works Department took responsibility for clearing 250 miles of city sidewalks using horse-drawn, walkway ploughs at a cost of roughly $30,000 per season. City workers were paid 50 cents an hour, time and a half at night. Ottawa was divided into nine districts, each with a foreman in charge of snow-ploughing operations. Ploughing teams were sent out as soon as 4-5 inches of snow had fallen. After a heavy snow fall, or two or more light falls, amounting to 12-15 inches, the walkway ploughs were used to push the snow into the centre of the streets where it was flattened by heavy rollers. Heated sand was sometimes used on slippery walks.

As the Roaring Twenties progressed, and the number of automobile owners rose dramatically, Ottawa City Council came under growing pressure to improve winter driving conditions throughout the city. Snow-covered roads increasingly became an economic issue. Retailers worried that customers couldn’t reach them. Grocers complained that their profit margins were too slim for them to own a truck for summer deliveries as well as a horse and sleigh for winter deliveries. City staff also discovered the main arteries along which the OER ran were deteriorating faster than expected, owing to automobile traffic being funnelled along those few ploughed roads. Tire chains installed by car owners to improve traction in snow were chewing up the pavement. City Council considered a ban on chains but rejected it as chains were widely used throughout the province. An alternative was to plough the side streets, thereby spreading the automobile traffic, and hence road wear, over more roadways.

In late 1926, City Council ordered the Public Works Department to try “various measures” to keep Ottawa’s principal streets open. Poor Works Commissioner Macallum was reported to have been “quite at a loss” to know what he should do. He had only eighteen, old, horse-drawn walkway ploughs at his disposal. In early 1927, the Council acquired mechanized help in the form three tractors and ploughs: two Fordson crawler-type tractors, furnished with V-type Sargent ploughs from Campbell Motor Sales for $2,295, and one 1.5 ton Holt Caterpillar tractor with a Walsh V-type plough from E. N. & W. E. Soper for $5,970. Unfortunately, the vehicles didn’t arrive in time to avoid “violent attacks” at City Council over the quality of Ottawa’s streets when warmer weather arrived in March. Councilmen complained that Carling Avenue was in a “disgraceful condition” owing to ruts. Meanwhile, downtown pedestrians were said to be wallowing around in slush up to their knees.

The following winter (1927-28), the City’s newly equipped Public Works Department started to plough twenty-four miles of Ottawa streets adjacent to those cleared by the OER. This still wasn’t adequate. In February 1928, Frank Askwith, the City’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Works submitted a report to the City’s Board of Control, recommending the ploughing of all streets, some 100 miles of roadway, that were not cleared by the OER or the FDC. (As a point of comparison, Ontario ploughed 800 miles of provincial highways during the 1928-29 winter season.) Askwith also recommended the purchase of two high-powered tractor ploughs capable of clearing streets at a speed of 12 miles per hour at a cost of $15,000. He additionally suggested that more “scarifiers” be used to break down ice ridges and reduce uneven road surfaces. The estimated additional annual cost to the City of his proposal was $25,000. Askwith recommended against removing snowbanks from the streets owing to cost considerations. The Board of Control welcomed the recommendations, and on 16 April 1928, City Council adopted Askwith’s plan to commence that following winter season. The cost of the endeavour was to be borne by property owners at a charge of 30 cents per foot of frontage.

Unfortunately, you can’t please all the people all the time. Sleigh owners complained about insufficient snow being left on the roads. Some property owners also objected to the cost of snow ploughing, preferring their streets to remain unploughed. But most citizens wanted the City to do even more. Retail merchants argued persuasively about the dangers, especially to the elderly, of people trying to alight from parked cars that were perched dangerously on roadside snowbanks. The City consequently began to remove the snowbanks from in front of stores. Permission to dump the snow into the Rideau Canal at a site south of the Laurier Street Bridge was granted by the Superintendent of Canals. The City later began to clear snow in front of all churches as well as in front of residences from which funerals were to take place; district foremen were required to monitor funeral notices.

Ruts too were a perennial source of complaint, as they made winter motoring hazardous. Once a driver got stuck in one, it was almost impossible to get out until the car came to an intersecting channel. For several years, the City and the OER fought over whether the tram company was doing an adequate job of maintaining the roads its carriages used. The tramline company claimed that while it was responsible for the ploughing of snow from the streets on which it operated, it was not responsible for the removal of ruts that might subsequently develop. After a battle of words, the City threatened in 1929 to send a $1,025 bill to the tramline company for rut removal. It desisted when the City’s solicitor said that the contract was sufficiently vague that it was uncertain that the City would win a legal case. Fortunately, harmony was restored when the OER took steps to cut down the ruts to a depth the City considered acceptable.

Ottawa’s first year of cleared streets was deemed a great success. At the end of February 1930, in an editorial titled “The Ruts of Yesteryear,” The Ottawa Journal opined that the nuisance of spring ruts had been finally overcome. “For the first time, motoring has been practicable in all parts of the city for the whole winter.”

In 2015, the City of Ottawa cleared 5,938 kilometres of highways, road and bike paths, and a further 2,233 kilometres of sidewalks at a cost of $67.5 million.

Sources:

CBC News, 2016. “Ottawa $7.6 million over budget for snow clearing in 2015,” 1 March.

City Of Ottawa, 1927. “Borrowing of $15,000 for the purchase of snow-ploughing apparatus,” By-Law # 6269, 16 May.

——————, 1927. Minutes of Board of Control, 3 March.

——————, 1928. Minutes of Board of Control, 16 April.

——————, 1928. Minutes of Council, 20 February.

——————, 1928. “Snow plowing,” By-law 6554, 10 December.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1929. “City Gets Permission To Dump Snow Into The Canal, Ruts On Road A Major Problem, 6 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1922. “With Six Horse Cars Running And “Toonerville” Equipment Ottawa Hops Into City Class,” 21 October.

——————–, 1924. “Criticize System Of Plowing Snow,” 11 January.

——————–, 1926. “City Is Buying Three Tractors To Move Snow,” 26 November.

——————–, 1928. “More Roadways May Be Plowed With Tractors, 1 February.

——————–, 1928. “Violent Attacks In Council on ‘Disgraceful Conditions” Existing On Roads,” 8 March.

——————–, 1928. “Keeping Up Roads,” 27 March.

——————–, 1928. “Suggest Plowing 100 Miles Of Streets At Cost Of $25,000,” 4 April.

——————–, 1928. “Preparing for Next Winter,” 5 April.

——————–, 1928. “Council Approves Of Plan To Plow 100 Miles Streets, 17 April.

——————–, 1928. “Planning To Keep 1,200 Miles Open.” 22 September.

——————–, 1928. “Dr. McElhinney Endorses Plan of Controller, 7 December.

——————–, 1929. “City Gives Up Hope Of Collecting Cost Cutting Down Ruts,” 24 April.

——————–, 1929. “City Accepts OER Efforts To Clear Snow,” 21 December.

——————–, 1930. “The Ruts Of Yesteryear,” 25 February.

——————–, 1932. “Snow Removal Policy Passed, Cost is $20,000,” 8 January.

Quebec Telegraph (The), 1921. “Question Of Snow Removal From The Streets Of Quebec Important One For Citizens,” 26 November.

 

 

The Aeronauts Come To Ottawa

11 September 1911

Like today, the dawn of the twentieth century was a time of fast-paced, technological change that was dramatically transforming people’s lives. Within a lifetime, people went from oil lamps to electricity, from the pony express to the telephone, and from the horse and buggy to the automobile. In December 1903, on a beach a few miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, mankind took the next transformative, technological leap. Two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, made the first, heavier-than-air, powered flight. That first flight, with Orville at the controls, lasted but a few seconds, and it only covered some 120 feet at an altitude of roughly 10 feet over the wind-swept, sand dunes. But it was a stunning achievement. Two years later, the brothers developed their first practical flying machine called the Flyer III that could stay aloft half an hour and travel a distance of more than 20 miles.

Within a few years of the Wrights’ initial flight, aviation literally took off, notwithstanding countless crashes that claimed the lives of many early flight pioneers.  In 1906, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont made the first powered flight in Europe, wowing Parisians in his Oiseau de proie (bird of prey). John McCurdy made the first Canadian powered, heavier-than-air flight in February 1909 near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. His airplane, the Silver Dart, was developed by the Aerial Experiment Association organized by Alexander Graham Bell and financed by his wife Mabel who was an aviation enthusiast. In July 1909, Louis Blériot of France, flying his Type XI monoplane, became an instant celebrity when he made the first successful flight across the English Channel. The following month, Charles Willard flew his Curtis biplane, the Golden Flyer, over the Scarborough beaches to the delight of Toronto residents. Unfortunately, Willard was forced to ditch into Lake Ontario. Flying in the late afternoon, he blamed approaching darkness for the crash but he had only taken one flying lesson, and had been flying for just two weeks.

Air shows, where aviation enthusiasts could meet, share notes, and compete also became popular, attracting thousands of fans. The first was held in Paris in September 1909. The first North American show, held in Los Angeles in January 1910, drew more than a quarter million spectators.  Canada hosted its first aviation meet outside of Montreal in July that same year. Many of the great aviation pioneers attended including Count Jacques de Lesseps flying a Blériot monoplane, four members of the newly established Wright Brothers exhibition team in their Wright Model A airplanes, as well as John McCurdy flying a Baddeck machine.  To great excitement, De Lesseps flew over downtown Montreal on a 50-minute round trip from the Lakeside (now Pointe-Claire) field where the meet was held.

In Ottawa, interest was high in this new technological marvel. In September 1910, Professor McKergow of McGill University gave a lecture to the Royal Society at the Normal School (now part of Ottawa City Hall) at the corner of Elgin and Lisgar Streets. Despite the great advances that had been made in aviation, the good professor opined that “the aeroplane will never be used for anything but sport or war.” He did concede, however, that if we could come to understand air currents, the problem of transatlantic air travel might be solved. By taking advantage of the trade winds, he believed an airplane might be able to travel from France to someplace in the southern United States in 50-60 hours.

Ottawa residents had to wait until September 1911 for their first glimpse of the magnificent men in their flying machines. In the spring of that year, a spokesman for the Central Canada Exhibition said that they were looking to hire an aviator for $1,500 (roughly $32,000 in today’s money) to make ten flights, two per day, of not less than five miles in distance. The flights were to be the highlight of the 1911 Exhibition. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Belgian aviator and dare-devil Charles Morok had signed a contract to give demonstrations in his Curtis biplane. Morok was famous for the aerial stunt called the “Dip of Death.” The newspaper also claimed that his airplane would race an automobile—a favourite event at aviation shows and fairgrounds at that time. It was not to be. Either the newspaper was misinformed, or the aviator got a better offer. That September, Morok performed at the Sandusky Fairgrounds in Fremont, Ohio.

In early September, virtually on the eve of the opening of the Exhibition, it still wasn’t clear which aviator would have the honour of being the first to fly over Ottawa. One press report claimed that Charles Willard, who had made the inaugural Toronto flight, had been engaged on the same terms as offered to Morok. However, Willard was out of the running as he had been injured a couple of weeks earlier at a fair in St Louis. John McCurdy’s name was also mentioned, but he too was a no-show. Speculation was that he had commitments elsewhere.  With everything “up in the air,” so to speak, advertisements for the Ex only promised an un-named “Famous Aviator” would perform two flights per day.

In the event, two competing companies of aviators showed up, each claiming to have a contract to perform at the Exhibition. Jean Wilmer, a French-American pilot, along with Georges Mestich of Belgium and Gressier of France arrived in Ottawa with their Morane monoplane. Virtually simultaneously, another troupe, led by Captain Thomas Baldwin, also arrived ready to perform in one of Baldwin’s “Red Devils,” a Curtiss “pusher-type” biplane. Apparently, both companies had been engaged by a booking office in New York City.

To settle matters, the organizers of the Exhibition suggested that both troupes provide demonstrations. Instead, the two competing companies agreed between themselves that Baldwin’s troupe would fly. Twenty-one year old Lee Hammond, “the noted and daring aeronaut,” who worked for Capt. Baldwin got the nod.

Hammond arrived in Ottawa with his airplane by train at noon on 11 September, 1911. He had just enough time to get to Lansdowne Park in time to make his first demonstration flight. Indicative of how dangerous flying was at that time, Hammond was still shaking off the effects of two airplane crashes, both into water. Three weeks earlier, he had broken an ankle after his aircraft stalled and fell into Lake Michigan. He was fished out by a U.S. Revenue Cutter. Just the day prior to his arrival in Ottawa, he had had a second watery crash while performing with Tom Sopwith, later of Sopwith Camel fame, at Coney Island, New York. Fortunately, he sustained only minor cuts and bruises.

To the delight of thousands in Exhibition attendees, Hammond’s first Ottawa flight went off without mishap sometime after 1pm. Although a makeshift runway, fifty feet wide and five hundred feet long, had been laid out in front of the grandstand at Lansdowne Park, he took off from Slattery’s Field located across the Rideau Canal from the Exhibition grounds. Slattery’s Field, which today encompasses the Riverdale Avenue and Main Street area, was at the time used for pasturing cows. Captain Baldwin explained that the Exhibition grounds were too congested for Hammond to safely take off and land. In a short, five-minute flight, Hammond circled the Exhibition grounds several times before returning to land back at Slattery’s Field. He performed his second show of the day at roughly 4pm.

Lee Hammond at Cass Fair, 19-9-11

Lee Hammond (left) with Captain Thomas Baldwin with Hammond’s “Red Devil” airplane at the Cassopolis Fair, Michigan, Septmeber 1911. Hammond performed at the “Cass Co.” Fair immediately after his Ottawa shows.

 

Problems seemed to dog Hammond. On the second day of the Exhibition, a storm collapsed the tent that sheltered his biplane, breaking the propeller. Later in the week, his engine conked out when he encountered dense fog at 1,000 feet. He landed heavily near the Rideau Canal, only missing another watery crash by a few feet. Undeterred by the experience, Hammond made his second flight of the day. That flight too ended badly, with Hammond crash-landing on Slattery’s Field, scattering the cows and damaging the tail of his biplane.

Despite his problems, Hammond’s aerial displays were the talk of the Exhibition. The Journal waxed lyrically about the flights saying that Hammond was “at times almost touching the blue and mottled sky, circling like a big bird in front of the grand stand, then darting off as if he was heading to fly over the entire city. Then soaring upwards, now swooping gracefully towards the earth.”

Described by the newspaper as handsome, blue-eyed and square-chinned, with an attractive personality, the daring, young aeronaut was also a big hit with the ladies. The Journal called him the “blue ribboned” boy” of the Exhibition. “Any man who would go up in an aeroplane the height he did yesterday when there was a thirty to forty mile and hour zephyr, shimmering around fifteen hundred feet up, can make himself a lion in the eyes of the ladies.”

On the last day of the Exhibition, before he left for Cassopolis, Michigan, the next stop on his exhibition tour, Hammond was thanked warmly by Earl Grey, the Governor General for his aerial displays.

A plaque commemorating Lee Hammond’s flights from Slattery’s Field, Ottawa’s first impromptu airfield, is mounted on the wall of the Hydro Ottawa substation located at 39 Riverdale Avenue. Lee Hammond died in 1932. Also commemorated on the substation wall is the landing of the first flight from Montreal to Ottawa made by William Robinson on 8 October 1913. Robinson was forced to use Slattery’s Field when, owing to his late arrival into Ottawa, the sports field at Lansdowne Park was being used by the Ottawa Rough Riders for football practice. Robinson delivered copies of the Montreal Daily Mail to senior federal and municipal leaders, including Prime Minister Borden and Ottawa Mayor Ellis as a publicity stunt to advertise the new newspaper.

 

Sources:

Citizen (The), 1911. “Ottawa May See First Aviator,” 11 September.

—————-, 1911. “Opening Day Of Exhibition Broke Records Of All Years,” 12 September.

—————-, 1911. “Ottawa Saw Real Aeroplanes,” 12 September.

Ellis, Frank H., 1954. Canada’s Flying Heritage, University of Toronto Press: Toronto.

Ficke, George, 2005, “Lee Hammond,” The Early Birds Of Aviation, http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19500094000.

Fortier, R. 2009, “Canada’s First Aviation Meet – 1910,” Wings, https://www.wingsmagazine.com/, 26 June.

Globe, (The), 1910. “Count de Lesseps’ Flight Feature At Montreal,” 27 June.

Orléans Star, 2011. “Slattery’s Field Street marks 100 years of aviation in Ottawa,” 9 November, http://www.orleansstar.ca/News/Local/2011-11-09/article-2800460/Slatterys-Field-Street-marks-100-years-of-aviation-in-Ottawa/1.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1910. “Prof. McKergow On Aviation,” 29 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Have An Aeroplane,” 10 April.

————————————-, 1911. “Ten Flights Cost $1,500,” 12 April.

————————————-, 1911. “Big Ottawa Celebration Opens On Monday For Annual Ottawa Fair,” 9 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Central Canada Fair Opens In Ideal Weather,” 11 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Daring Aviator Arrives,” 11 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Airship Mishap May Prevent Flight Today,” 12 September.

————————————-, 1911, “Lee Hammond: Daring Aviator Ready For flight At Exhibition Grounds,” 13 September.

————————————–, 1911. “Wold Fly Over Ottawa And Hull In Monplane, 15 September.

————————————–, 1911. “Thirty-Six Thousand At Fair Yesterday, 15 September.

————————————–, 1911. “Exhibition Figures Now Show Decrease,” 16 September.

————————————–, 1913. “Delivers Papers With Aeroplane,” 9 October.

Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, 2016. “Baldwin Red Devil,” http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19500094000.

Von Baeyer, C. & Krywicki, K. 2013. “Slattery’s Field In Old Ottawa South–Ottawa’s First Accidental Airfield,” Old Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA), 2011, http://www.oldottawasouth.ca/oos/history-project/history-project/555-slatterys-field-in-old-ottawa-south-ottawas-first-accidental-airfield.

Image: Lee Hammond and Thomas Baldwin at the Cass. Co. Fair, September 1911, JAC-382, http://www.postcardgallery.com/page14%20avaition.htm.

Ottawa Enters the Automobile Age

11 September 1899

At the end of the nineteenth century, the world stood at the cusp of the automobile age. For decades, inventors, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs in Europe and North America had been working hard on developing a vehicle that could be driven on streets and highways without the aid of horses or other draught animals. In 1875, l’Obéissante, a steam-driven vehicle invented by Amédée-Ernest Bollée of France, which could carry twelve passengers, travelled from Le Mans to Paris in eighteen hours. Ten years later, Karl Benz invented the Motorwagen, the first automobile with a gasoline-powered engine. The first International Motor Show was held in Berlin in 1897. Also that year, battery-powered, electric automobiles, nicknamed “hummingbirds,” were introduced as taxis in London. According to the Annuaire Generale de l’Automobile, there were about 10,000 vehicles in Europe in 1899, of which roughly two-thirds were in France.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Duryea Brothers built their first internal combustion car in 1893. Three years later, Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds started production of gasoline-driven automobiles. In June 1899, there were only 72 automobiles in New York City, most of which were electric hansom cabs. In 1900, total U.S. vehicle production topped 4,000, with some 8,000 automobiles on American roads. By 1910, U.S. car production, led by the Ford and Buick companies, had ramped up to almost 130,000 units.

Canadians too were busy. Henry Seth Taylor, born in Stanstead, Quebec in 1833, is credited with building the first car in Canada, a four-wheeled steam buggy that he demonstrated at the Stanstead Fair in 1867. Sadly, it was not successful, and Taylor turned his attention to other inventions. In 1893, William Still and Frederick Featherstonehaugh built an electric automobile in Toronto that had a top speed of 15 miles per hour, and was showcased at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition of that year. Three years later, George Foot Foss of Sherbrooke, Quebec built a four-horsepower, one-cylinder, gasoline-powered vehicle, later dubbed the “Fossmobile.”

Warren Y. Soper, the partner of Thomas Ahearn in Ottawa’s electricity business that owned the Ottawa Electric Company and Ottawa’s tram system among other things, was an early automobile investor. He was one of a group that bought out Canada’s leading bicycle companies in 1899 to create the Canadian Cycle and Motor Company (CCM) that operated out of Toronto. While primarily a bicycle company, the new firm under President Walter Massey also began to produce automobiles, including the electric Ivanhoe from 1901-1904 and the Russell, an electric, two-passenger runabout produced from 1903 to 1916 by a CCM subsidiary, the Russell Motor Car Company. The Russell is considered Canada’s first, successful, production automobile.

At the turn of the century, the automobile was still a rich man’s toy. Cars were custom-made in very small workshops, and could easily cost $2,000-2,500, many times the average worker’s annual income. Assembly-line production, which was to lower the price of an automobile to within the grasp of the middle class, was still a decade or more in the future. But for the wealthy seeking a mode of transportation, an automobile was competitive with a traditional two-horse carriage. It also had the allure of a status symbol. In 1899, the Ottawa Journal noted that to own and operate a two-horse carriage in New York would cost $120 per month or more, excluding the cost of purchasing a “flash carriage.” This monthly bill, included $30 for the upkeep of each horse plus an additional $5-15 for shoeing and veterinarian bills, and a further $40 to pay the wages of a full-time coachman. By comparison, one could lease an automobile, complete with driver, for $180 per month, including the cost of repairs. In fine aristocratic style, the chauffeur could wear private livery while the lessee’s crest or monogram could be painted on the doors of the vehicle. Automobiles were also more spacious that horse-drawn carriages, and could go for longer distances.

When Ottawa got its first glimpse of the horseless carriage is a bit murky. A 1912 Ottawa Evening Journal article stated that first first automobile to grace Ottawa’s streets was a De Dion in 1898, driven by Harry Ketchum, the owner of an Ottawa bicycle company, who had imported it from France. The  one-cylinder vehicle, which had four spoke wheels, was described as a cross between a bicycle and an automobile, with something like a bicycle seat for the driver and a passenger seat “located dangerously near the front wheels.” However, there was no mention of the vehicle in the 1898 press. Moreover, the following year, when Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street on 11 September 1899 in an electric automobile, the Journal described the car as Ottawa’s first.

Ahearn had imported the electric vehicle from Chicago. Earlier that year, he and W.W. Wylie, the manager and chief mechanic of the Ottawa Car Company, another firm owned by Ahearn and Soper that manufactured electric streetcars on Slater Street, had gone to an automobile show at Madison Square Gardens in New York. The two men were captivated by what they saw. The automobile they ordered was a two-seater, electric buggy with pneumatic tires that could run at five speeds, ranging from 2 to 15 miles per hour. It had a range of 50 miles on a single charge. The make of the vehicle was not reported.

The Journal said that the vehicle looked like an ordinary carriage except for the fact that there was a steering lever in front of the seat, and a brake rising through the floor in front of the dashboard. The storage battery was hidden within the body of the vehicle, with a meter in front of the driver showing the amount of charge available. Two buttons under the seat allowed the driver to turn on and off the current “at will.” The vehicle was also key-controlled to prevent it from being operated if left unattended. The keyhole was located under the seat. The automobile’s gearing, covered and dust-proof, was attached to the bottom of the carriage at the real axle. The vehicle weighed 1,000 pounds, and cost $1,600.

On that Monday morning, Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street in front of hundreds of people who admired the passage of the swift and silent automobile. Seated beside Ahearn was Alexander Burritt, Ottawa’s City Registrar, who Ahearn chauffeured to his office—Ottawa’s first commute by car. Later that day, Ahearn and his son Franklin took a spin out to Britannia to witness work on the streetcar line that was under construction.  Afterwards, the vehicle was put on display at the 1899 Central Canada Exhibition.

Automobile 12-5-04

Automobile Advertisment, Wilson & Co., Ottawa, 12 May, 1904, The Ottawa Journal

While it may be uncertain whether it was Harry Ketchum or Thomas Ahearn who drove the first car on Ottawa’s streets, it appears that Ketchum sold the first car in Ottawa in 1902 to Dr Mark  McElhinney, later secretary of the Ottawa Valley Motor Car Association,  for $900. The make of the automobile is unknown. Ketchum also opened one of the first car dealerships in Ottawa. In early 1903, Ketchum & Company, which sold are repaired bicycles out of their premises in the Grant Building on the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Streets, offered for sale the “pick of the American market,” including the “celebrated Winton Touring Car, the Stanhope, and a full line of Ramblers.” At roughly the same time, Wilson & Company marketed the Pierce Motorette, a single cylinder, gas powered vehicle made by the Pierce Arrow Automobile Company of Buffalo, New York, out of its offices at 142-146 Bank Street. It later added to its range the Pierce Stanhope and the top of the line Pierce Grand Arrow, as well as a Ford touring car, an Olds runabout, an Oriental Buckboard and the “made in Canada” electric Ivanhoe.

Despite eye-popping prices that started at roughly $600, orders for automobiles came pouring in. By August 1903, there were fourteen cars on Ottawa streets, eighty by mid-1905. Colonel Hurdman was the talk of the town when he purchase a $3,000 Pierce Arrow from Wilson & Company in May 1904. The two-cylinder, 18-horsepower vehicle was the first of its kind in Ottawa. It could carry five passengers comfortably, two in front and three in the “tonneau.”  The automobile was furnished with two burnished headlamps, and was painted blue and gold. It could travel 150 miles on one tank of gas.

Complaints about reckless drivers scaring horses and pedestrians alike also started to pour in. Recall that during these early years of motoring, people didn’t need to pass a government driving test in get behind a steering wheel. In August 1903, the Ontario government passed legislation restricting the speed of automobiles on any public highway within a town or city to 10 miles per hour. Racing was also forbidden, and when approaching a horse, the driver of an automobile had to exercise every reasonable precaution to prevent frightening the animal. The fine for the first offence was $25; subsequent offences could lead to one month in prison.

Motoring bodies also provided guidance to new drivers who were instructed to obey the rules of the road, keep to the right and pass only on the left, and to respect the 10 miles per hour speed limit. Motorists were also cautioned that vehicles did not have right-of-way at street crossings (this was before street lights), and not to drink and drive. Apparently, nine-tenths of automobile accidents at that time involved intoxicated drivers.

Byward Market William James Topley  Library and Archives Canada  PA-009842

Byward Market, Upper photo taken circa 1895, William James Topley/Library Canada, C-005647. Lower photo taken circa 1920, Library & Archives Canda, C-006254. In roughly twenty-five years, horses all but vanished.

Byward Market, c.1920-30, LAC, C-006254

Of course accidents happened. The first automobile accident on Ottawa streets occurred at 10.30pm on 9 November 1903 when Joseph O’Grady of Britannia was run down by a car driven by Harry Ketchum at the corner of Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue) and Bank Street. After receiving immediate care from Allen’s Drugstore located at that corner, O’Grady was taken to the Water (Bruyère) Street Hospital to be treated for a broken leg. Ketchum said he was going “fairly slowly” when O’Grady, who had been waiting for a tram, walked onto the street in front of his automobile after failing to hear his horn. O’Grady did not blame Ketchum for the accident.

Needless to say, Harry Ketchum also received the first speeding ticket issued in Ottawa. In early June 1905, Constable Ethier charged him and Mr E.G. Shepherd with speeding and racing on Wellington Street. At their trial, the officer estimated that the two men were driving their vehicles in excess of 25 miles per hour, taking only seconds to traverse the distance between Kent and Bay Streets. Ketchum argued that the two cars could not have possibly been going faster than 10 miles per hour since Shepherd’s car was in poor condition. He brought in a professional chauffeur, Joseph Gentile, who had driven Shepherd’s car that same day to testify that the vehicle could not have exceeded the speed limit. Ketchum also testified that the two men had only pretended to have been racing. The judge, unable to arrive at any idea of the speed of the automobiles, dismissed the case.

While the introduction of the automobile and the demise of the horse and buggy had their drawbacks, including accidents, smells, and loud noises that disturbed the serenity of town and countryside, there were many positives, in addition, of course, to greater ease of travel and communication. Prior to the automobile, vast tracks of arable land were devoted solely to the production of fodder and grain to feed horses and other draught animals. It’s also often forgotten that animal waste posed serious pollution and disposal problems for cities. The spread of disease was another issue. As early as 1900, the Ottawa Journal reported the hope of the medical profession that “when automobiles glide through Ottawa streets and the horse is only used for pleasure,” that tetanus will almost completely disappear. The same article also hope that the arrival of the automobile would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It noted that in Paris where the automobile was already widely used, the proportion of accidents causing death involving automobiles was significantly lower than those involving horse-drawn vehicles.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the automobile, its allure proved irresistible. Within a few short years, the face of Ottawa was irrevocably changed. In 2011, there were 515,784 registered vehicles in Ottawa and 653,324 licensed drivers. Sadly that same year 3,690 people were injured in collisions with 25 fatalities.

Sources:

Bonikowsky, Laura, 2006, “Automobile,” Historica Canada, 2 February, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/automobile/.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, 2016, In Search of the Canadian Car, http://www.canadiancar.technomuses.ca/eng/frise_chronologique-timeline/1800/.

Farfan, Matthew, 2014, “Henry Seth Taylor (1833-1887) And Canada’s First Car,” Townships Heritage Web Magazine, http://townshipsheritage.com/article/henry-seth-taylor-1833-1887-and-canadas-first-car.

General Motors Heritage Center, Olds, Ranson Eli, https://history.gmheritagecenter.com/wiki/index.php/Olds,_Ransom_Eli.

German National Tourist Board, 2016. Home of the Car, Milestones in the German automotive industry, http://www.germany.travel/en/specials/home-of-the-car/history/history.html.

History, 1991. “Automobiles,” http://www.history.com/topics/automobiles.

Kichissippi Times, 2014. “This 101-year old company began with one great idea,” http://kitchissippi.com/2014/09/18/history-of-ketchum-manufacturing-westboro/.

McGenty, George, 2014, “CCM – The Best Bikes In Town,” Presentation, 25 October 2013, Historical Society of Ottawa, January 2014, http://hsottawa.ncf.ca/Dnlds/HSONewsJan14.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1899. “Sunday at the Fair,” 18 September.

Ottawa, City of, 2015. 2011 Ottawa Road Safety Report, http://ottawa.ca/en/2011-ottawa-road-safety-report.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1899. “Cost Of An Automobile,” 10 June.

————————–, 1899. “A $6,000,000 Company,” 22 August.

————————–, 1899. “The First Automobile,” 7 September.

————————–, 1899. “A Trip In An Automobile,” 11 September 1899.

————————–, 1899. “Annuaire Generale de l’Automobile,” 23 November.

————————–, 1903. “Lockjaw And Automobiles,” 25 January.

————————–, 1903. “Local Automobilists Say Objecting Cabmen Are Jealous,” 18 August.

————————–, 1903. “First Automobile Accident,” 10 November.

————————–, 1904. “A New Automobile Store For Ottawa,” 26 April.

————————–, 1904. “Col. Hurdman Buys $3,000 Pierce Arrow,” 10 May.

————————–, 1905. “Automobile Road Rules,” 17 March.

————————–, 1905. “Dangerous Automobiles,” 8 June.

————————–, 1905, “Fast Ride In Automobile,” 15 June.

————————–, 1912. “Change In Motor Cars.” 10 February.

The Early Electric Car Site, 2016. Car Companies, http://www.earlyelectric.com/carcompanies.html.

The Old Motor, 2014. The Pierce-Arrow — the Pride of Buffalo, New York, 7 March, http://theoldmotor.com/?p=116215.

Ottawa the Beautiful — The Gréber Report

18 November 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wellington and Lyon Streets

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

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

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

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

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

Jacques Gréber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images:

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

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

End of the Line

1 May 1959

At 3.25am on the morning of Friday, 1 May 1959, the last of Ottawa’s red electric streetcars, #837 driven by operator Gordon Anderson, pulled into the Cobourg Barn after having completed its final run from Britannia. Despite the early hour, on board as witnesses to history were management and union officials of the Ottawa Transit Commission (OTC). The following day, the OTC organized a parade in honour of the streetcars. Thousands of Ottawa citizens lined the parade route from George Street to Holland Junction to bid adieu. The old streetcars, decorated with “Goodbye” signs, were accompanied by the 40-piece O’Keefe marching band, 30 majorettes, and a host of city officials, retired employees, and members of railway organizations.

The festivities marked the end of an era dating back seventy years.  During the late 1880s, Ottawa had advertised in major papers for offers to build and operate an electric streetcar system. Negotiations were initially opened with a firm headed by Mr. Henry N. Bate, a prominent Ottawa merchant, but went nowhere. In 1890, a Toronto syndicate led by Mr. William H. Howland, a businessman and former mayor of Toronto, entered into talks with Ottawa officials. After months of negotiations, a detailed proposal was finally hammered out. However, Howland’s solicitor was unable or unwilling to provide a required $5,000 performance bond in a form acceptable to the City. When a deadline extension ran out during the afternoon of 20 November 1890, it looked like Ottawa’s efforts to obtain an electric transit system had failed again. But that evening, as discussions at City Council continued, an alderman announced that the city clerk had just received a letter from two local men, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, indicating their willingness to build and operate an electric streetcar system on the same terms as negotiated by Howland. The duo had brought electricity to the city some years earlier and had an excellent reputation. Unlike their competitor, they enclosed a $5,000 cheque made out to the City as security for the proper completion of the contract. A heated debate followed over the legalities of accepting the Ahearn-Soper offer. Howland’s solicitor, under protest, offered to provide a similar cheque. But it was too late. Council awarded the Ottawa electric streetcar franchise to the home-town boys on a close 12-10 vote.

The Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company, with capital of $500,000, was quickly up and running. Just two and a half months after breaking ground in early April 1890, the tracks and overhead electrical lines were installed, with a test run made on 24 June. The following day, the streetcars were opened to the public, with hundreds turning out to enjoy free rides. Four routes were promised: Main Line which ran down Rideau and Sparks Streets, Bank Street Branch, Elgin Street Branch, and the New Edinburgh Branch. A ticket on the new transit system cost five cents, a price that remained unchanged until 1928. The official launch of the service took place on Monday, 29 June, 1891. Four closed cars, festooned with bunting and carrying 140 invited guests including Mayor Thomas Birkett, made the inaugural trip from the Albert Street Barn (garage) to the exhibition grounds at Landsdowne Park. It’s said that Thomas Ahearn’s five-year old son, Frank, threw the switch which started the flow of electricity.

Thomas Keefer, the combative president and majority shareholder of the Ottawa City Passenger Railway (OCPR), which had a charter to provide a horse-drawn railway service in the city, objected to the new electric streetcars. However, his complaints were silenced when Ahearn and Soper bought his company in October 1891. With the merger, the new company was called the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER). The horse service ceased operations by 1893.

As Ottawa was the first city in Canada to have an electric traction public transit system, other cities were watching closely, especially how the service would operate during the winter months. Under their contract with the City, Ahearn and Soper were permitted to run sleighs during the winter season. But, undaunted by the snow, the pioneering duo invented an electric rotary brush to clear the rails. Streetcar service ran unimpeded that first winter. Ottawa’s mayor had been so certain that winter service was impossible that he had offered to host a banquet in their honour should they succeed. In late February 1892, Ahearn, Soper and the directors of the OESR were feted at a special dinner; streetcars bore the guests home after the event.

Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895

Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895

The rotary snow brushes proved to be a sensation among Ottawa citizens. While store merchants objected to snow being sprayed all over freshly cleared entrance ways, as did pedestrians caught on the street as the sweepers went by, there was no doubt of their effectiveness. During that first winter, the stretch of Bank Street between Slater and Cooper Streets became the site of an impromptu contest between brawn and technology. As crowds cheered and jeered, men shovelled snow on the track in front of the streetcar sweepers. As fast as they could shovel, the sweepers brushed the snow aside. As dusk fell, victory was accorded to the newfangled machines.

The electric streetcars were part of what economists today would call a vertically integrated system. Ahearn and Soper also owned the company that provided the electricity that ran the streetcars, having built a powerhouse at the Chaudière Falls. They also purchased the Ottawa Car Company which built the streetcars. Conveniently, the rear entrance of Ottawa Car was right across the street from the Albert Street garage of the Ottawa Electric Railway. Ottawa Car made streetcars for the OER, as well as other urban transit systems, until it went out of business in1948.

Early OER streetcars were luxurious for the time. Called “Toonervilles,” they were electrically heated for the comfort of their passengers, and were equipped with clocks. Coco mats were laid down on their floors in winter to absorb melting snow. The exterior of the cars were painted red and green and sported gold scrollwork. Distinctive insignia on their roofs allowed customers to tell the route of the car from a distance. Cars were staffed by a driver and conductor, both of whom wore blue uniforms with silver buttons. Later, larger, roomier vehicles were introduced. In 1924, “pay-as-you-enter streetcars,” manned by only a driver, were brought into service.

Things began to sour for the streetcars in the late 1920s. Ridership slumped during the Depression, reducing revenues despite a ticket price increase to seven cents. Employees’ pay was cut by 10 per cent in 1931. Although ridership improved markedly during World War II, net income remained weak owing to rising costs and the wartime “Excess Profits Tax” levied by the Federal Government. Necessary infrastructure investment was deferred, and second-hand cars purchased from the Toronto Transit Commission were put into service. After the war, following a dispute over ticket prices, public sentiment began to favour public ownership of the company. A plebiscite in November 1947 overwhelming supported a government buy-out. On 12 August 1948, at a cost of $6.2 million, the OER passed out of private hands, and the Ottawa Transit Commission was born.

Ottawa Streetcar

Ottawa Streetcar in front of Union Station, Corner of Elgin and Rideau Streets, circa 1950

But the future continued to darken for Ottawa’s streetcars. With private ownership of cars rapidly rising as wartime austerity faded, transit ridership declined by a third by 1955 from its 1946 peak. In an effort to halt the rot, the OTC introduced trolleybuses, i.e., wheeled vehicles powered by overhead electrical lines, in 1951. While far cheaper than streetcars to purchase, trolleybuses could not compete with buses which were also competitively priced and didn’t require the costly electrical infrastructure. Buses were seen as modern and flexible, and already serviced Ottawa’s outlying areas following the annexation of portions of Nepean and Gloucester Townships. Internal and external reports commissioned by the OTC on the future of the transit system all called for the streetcars to be retired. To sustain an electric traction transit system would have required major capital investments to replace aging streetcars and to upgrade antiquated track and electrical systems, money the OTC did not have. Streetcars seemed to have few fans in official circles either. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, disliked them. A conversion to bus transit would allow for the elimination of unsightly electrical wires that marred views of Parliament Hill. Amidst Cold War fears, Mayor Charlotte Whitton claimed in 1955 that electric streetcars and trolleys were vulnerable to a sneak attack on the power grid; one blow could knock out Ottawa’s transport system. The coup de grace came on 5 August 1958 when Ottawa City Council under Mayor George Nelms voted to phase out the 96 streetcars and 10 trolleybuses and to replace them with 107 buses. By early 1959, streetcar lines were disappearing in rapid succession, until only the Britannia line remained when the last streetcar clattered into history that early May morning.

 

Sources:

Angus, F. 1983. “Seven Hundred Days, The Story of Ahearn & Soper and the Beginning of Electric Traction in Ottawa,” Canadian Rail, November/December.

Burghardt, E., 2013. “Horses, streetcars, and light rail: A look at Ottawa’s transit systems,” Gazette, University of Ottawa, http://www.gazette.uottawa.ca/en/2013/05/horses-streetcars-and-light-rail-a-look-at-ottawas-transit-systems/.

Langlois, R. 2009. Ottawa Streetcars Removed Fifty Years Ago, Youtube Video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbqoBnhiak4.

McKeown, B., 2006. Ottawa’s Streetcars, Railfare, DC Books, Pickering.

The Citizen, 1910. “Ottawa Electric Railway Has Reached Its Twentieth Birthday,” 22 October.

————–, 1986. “OC Transpo,” 25 April.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953, “The Tracks of Time—From Toonervilles to Trolley Buses,” 28 April.

Image: Streetcar with rotary sweeper, circa 1900, Library and Archives Canada

Image: Streetcars in front of Union Station, circa 1950, http://www.reddit.com/r/ottawa/comments/1105c8/old_ottawa_streetcars_at_elgin_and_rideau/.