PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
James Powell

James Powell

Wednesday, 02 November 2022 19:08

Fisher's 'Folly'

27 November 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sources:

New Civic Development for the Ottawa Hospital, 2021, https://newcivicdevelopment.ca/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Members and guests who attended the October 2022, in-person, HSO presentation at the Auditorium of the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library were treated to a tour de force by Jean-François Lozier, Curator at the Canadian Museum of History. Jean-François told a story that, while familiar to Ottawa’s Francophone community, is mostly unknown in the city’s Anglophone community—the “Battle of the Hatpins” or la battaille des épingles. In this David-Goliath struggle, Francophone parents, in particular mothers, fought the Government of Ontario in 1916 to have their primary-aged children attending the Guigues School taught in French.

Jean-François began his account by providing useful background on the French presence in Ontario, noting that many Francophone families had moved to Ontario during the late 19th century, especially to the eastern part of the province, including Ottawa. While wanting their children to learn the language of the English majority, Francophone also parents desired that French be the language of instruction in “bilingual schools.”

Under the British North American Act of 1867, the provinces were assigned responsibility for education, with the proviso that they provide separate schools for Roman Catholics outside of Quebec, and for Protestants in Quebec. Using its constitutional authority, the Ontario Government, under pressure from those worried about the growing French presence in the Province, introduced Regulation 17 in 1912 which forbade the use of French as the language of instruction beyond Grade 2.

This sparked outrage amongst Ontario’s Francophone community, leading to, among other things, the birth of an Ottawa newspaper Le Droit that committed itself to the struggle for linguistic rights.

Jean-François explained the divisions within Ottawa’s Roman Catholic School Board between its French-speaking and English-speaking members over the issue, and how various schools responded both in Ottawa and in other parts of the Province to Regulation 17—a combination of obedience, non-compliance, and defiance.

The issue came to a head in January 1916 at the Guigues School when parents, mainly mothers, escorted two sisters, Béatrice and Diane Desloges, into the school to teach their children in French. This brought the parents into direct confrontation with the police and the government-appointed school board who were determined to block their entry and their occupation of the school. Jean-François noted that the extent to which the mothers used their hatpins to fend off the police is unclear. News reports said that in the Battle of the Hatpins, one constable had his thumb bitten, while another received a black eye.

In the end, calmer heads prevailed, with the issue going all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London to be settled. While the Privy Council ruled in favour of the Ontario Government in its use of English as the language of instruction in “bilingual schools,” it ruled against the government in its treatment of Ottawa’s French-led, Roman Catholic School Board.

French continued to be used at Guigues School as a language of instruction, with the Ontario Government losing its appetite for this divisive language battle in the midst of World War I. In the late 1920s, Ontario stopped trying to enforce Regulation 17, but it remained on the statute books until 1944.

In 2016, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized to the province’s Francophone community.

Sunday, 02 October 2022 20:11

General Tom Thumb and Countess Magri

4 October 1861

The first, global, celebrity entertainer was the dwarf General Tom Thumb, a.k.a. Charles Stratton. Born in 1838 in Bridgeport Connecticut, Stratton was discovered at age four by Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, the future circus impresario and then owner of Barnum’s American Museum. At only twenty-five inches tall, the child, who reportedly had weighed a hefty 9 ½ pounds at birth, had not grown since he was six months old. Barnum, always on the look-out for the odd and the unusual for display in his museum, which was a mixture of a menagerie, theatre, lecture hall, and sideshow, had stumbled upon a winner. The child was quickly signed to a contract and taught to dance and sing. Little Charles put on his first performance at the American Museum at the age of five though billed as an eleven-year old. His stage name was General Tom Thumb after the fairy tale character of the same name. Precocious and talented, Stratton was an instant hit. Barnum made a fortune as New Yorkers flooded into his museum to see General Tom Thumb.

thumb c1861“General Tom Thumb” dressed as a Scottish clan chieftain, c. 1861, author unknown, Wikipedia.After wowing New York audiences, Barnum took him and his parents to London, the centre of the world in the nineteenth century. His London debut occurred in February 1844 at the Princess Theatre in London. Following a performance of the comic opera Don Pasquale, Stratton came on the stage singing Yankee Doodle Dandy. He later entertained the audience dressed as Napoleon and performed in a number of “tableaux” as Hercules, Ajax and Sampson. But the act loved best by the crowd was his performance as Cupid, complete with little wings.

His reception was not quite up to the adulation received earlier in New York. But that was soon rectified following multiple audiences with Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family, including the three-year old Prince of Wales. It seems Stratton became a hit after he pretended to fend off one of the Queen’s barking spaniels with his miniature sword. Performances throughout Britain were followed by a tour of continental Europe.

General Tom Thumb first ventured northward to Canada in 1861. It was a good time to perform outside of the United States; the U.S. Civil War had begun in April of that year. At the beginning of October, the troupe came to Ottawa, staying at Campbell’s Hotel, which would be purchased by M. Gouin two years later and renamed the Russell House Hotel.

General Tom Thumb was in town for a two-day gig at Her Majesty’s Theatre located on Wellington Street just west of Bank Street. There were two performances on each of the 4th and 5th of October 1861. Ticket prices ranged from 10 cents for children under ten to 25 cents. Reserved seats were 25 cents each. School groups were admitted “on liberal terms.” Along side General Tom Thumb were the English comic actor and baritone, Mr. W. Tomlin, the American tenor, Mr. W. DeVere, and the pianist Mr. P.S. Caswell. On display at the theatre were the gifts Stratton had received from royalty during his European tours. Interestingly, the advertisement in the Ottawa Daily Citizen warned people to beware of a General Tom Thumb impersonator who worked for Robinson & Company’s circus.

thumb odc 1 10 1861Advertisement that appeared in the Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1 October 1861.The spectacle began before the actual theatre performance, with General Tom Thumb driven from Campbell’s Hotel to HM Theatre in a miniature carriage drawn by “Lilliputian” horses. He was also “attended by Elfin coachmen and footmen.” The reporter who covered the event for the Ottawa Daily Citizen described Thumb as multo in parvo—a great deal in a small space. He opined that Stratton had “fully carried out the universal reputation he has acquired.” He praised the performers acting, singing and dancing abilities, and specifically singled out Stratton’s self-possession as an actor and a readiness of wit. He also had “perfect manners and form.”

There still appeared, however, to be some doubt in the reporter’s mind of whether he had watched a performance of the genuine General Tom Thumb. He added that “there was every reason to believe that this one is the ‘original’ Tom Thumb, but whether or not, both he and his ‘aides’ perform a perfect array of rational and attractive entertainment.”

General Tom Thumb returned to Ottawa three more times, in 1864, 1876 and lastly in 1883. On all three occasions he was accompanied by his wife Lavinia who he had married in 1863. The 1864 performance included members of their wedding party—Commodore Nutt, also referred to as the $30,000 Nutt in reference to the value of his three-year contract with P.T. Barnum, and Lavinia’s sister, Minnie Warren. The notice for their show advertised that the “four smallest human beings of mature age” weighed a collective 100 pounds. For part of their 1864 performance, General and Mrs. Thumb wore their wedding costumes. The couple danced and sang. General Thumb also dressed up as Napoleon and a Scottish clan chieftain. Commodore Nutt appeared as a drummer and a sailor with a hornpipe. As with Thumb’s 1861 shows, on exhibit at the HM Theatre were the jewels and other gifts that he had received on his European tours.

thumb wedding matthew brady 1863The Fairy Wedding, Souvenir Photograph, 1863, Commodore Nutt, General Tom Thumb, Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Minnie Warren (left to right). By this point, the General has already grown a bit. Author Mathew Brady, Wikipedia.

 

In 1876, General and Mrs. Tom Thumb performed over two days at Gowan’s Opera House. Their act was much the same as that of their previous trip to Ottawa, but this time they were supported by Major Edward Newell, another dwarf under contract with Barnum. Newell was the husband of Minnie Warren, Mrs. Tom Thumb’s sister. Minnie was sadly to die in childbirth two years later.

General and Mrs. Tom Thumb’s 1883 Ottawa performances took place in May of that year, with shows at the Grand Opera House. By this point, the General had actually grown to a still tiny 2 feet 11 inches. He had also grown stouter. The Ottawa Daily Citizen commented that both he and Lavinia were “getting on in years.” Still, the General’s act was described as very amusing. Mrs. Stratton was described as “as charming as ever.” Along with the General and his wife, other members of their troupe included dancers, a ventriloquist and a lady whose odd act consisted of “highly educated, trained canaries.” What these canaries did was unfortunately not reported.

This was to be the general’s last trip to Canada’s capital, and indeed virtually anywhere. He died two months later of apoplexy (most likely, a stroke) at his country home in Middleborough, Massachusetts. He died a prosperous man, leaving his wife a substantial home and a motor yacht. His estate after expenses was valued at $16,000.

His widow, Lavinia, continued in show business. In 1885, she married “Count” Primo Magri, another dwarf who was actually shorter than General Tom Thumb. The newly-weds went on tour together, along with Magri’s supposed brother, “Baron” Magri. Like all things in show business, especially anything connected to P.T. Barnum, truth and fiction were blurred. The titles of nobility were likely fake.

thumb c1885Count Magri, Countess Magri, and Baron Magri, c. 1885, Swords Brothers, Wikipedia.The Count and Countess Magri made two trips to Ottawa, the first in 1887 and the second in 1896. Both were successes. In the first production, the Count and Countess arrived at the theatre in a tiny carriage pulled by two ponies. The pair sang duets, while the Count and his brother Baron Magri duelled and entertained the audiences with comic sketches. They were accompanied by a magician who put on conjuring and ventriloquist act. Much the same act was repeated in 1896. This time, however, Lavinia, Countess Magri, also gave a lecture on her forty years of travelling. The Citizen journalist reported that the lecture was very interesting and pleasing, and that the Countess had “a wonderful talent as a speaker.”

Countess Magri, a.k.a Mrs. Tom Thumb, a.k.a. Lavinia Stratton, died in 1919.

The life of Charles Stratton clearly has an ugly side. Put on public display at a very tender age, he was exploited by P.T. Barnum. His career was also based on his dwarfism. There was also an element that was almost perverse. In 1879, it was estimated that one million women had kissed him.

However, his life also had many positives. At a time when “freak shows” were popular, General Tom Thumb was always portrayed sympathetically, as was subsequently his wife. He might have been small, but he was a genuine showman and entertainer. Stratton also became a wealthy man, and had a standard of living that relatively few could aspire to during the nineteenth century. When Barnum experienced financial difficulty, Stratton came to his rescue, and became his partner. In the end, it’s not clear who was exploiting whom.

General Tom Thumb was buried in Mount Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His wife, Lavinia, chose to be buried at his side. P.T. Barnum, who died in 1891, is buried just a few yards away.

For a fascinating glimpse into the life and times of General Tom Thumb, see the two-episode BBC documentary “The Real Tom Thumb, History’s Smallest Superstar” to be found on Curiosity Stream.


Sources:

BBC, 2014. “The Real Tom Thumb, History’s Smallest Superstar.”

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1861. “General Tom Thumb,” 1 October.

————————-, 1861. “General Tom Thumb,” 8 October.

————————-, 1864. “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” 17 May.

————————-, 1879. “Kissing,” 13 May.

————————-, 1883. “Opera House,” 9 May.

————————-, 1883. “Grand Opera House, 15 May.

————————-, 1883. “Death of General Tom Thumb,” 16 July.

————————-, 1884. “U.S. Doings,” 11 November.

————————-, 1885. “American Dashes,” 7 April.

————————-, 1887. “Roller Rink Opera House,” 30 September.

————————-, 1887. “Amusements,” 4 October.

————————-, 1896. “Mrs. General Tom Thumb,” 20 October.

————————-, 1896. “Music Hall,” 24 October.

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Saturday, 03 September 2022 14:18

Ottawa: Canada's Oil & Gas Capital?

17 September 1889

The report spread like wild fire through Ottawa. Oil! Black gold was gushing in a powerful stream at a well dug just a couple miles south of Parliament Hill.

Dollar signs must have danced in the heads of Ottawa residents at the rumour. Even in those days before the automobile, the demand for petroleum products, such as kerosene, was strong. Fortunes had been made at Black Creek, subsequently known as Oil Springs, in Lambton county in southwestern Ontario when oil had been discovered in commercial quantities in 1858, and in nearby Petrolia a few years later. Vast amounts of money were also being made in Pennsylvania where oil had been first struck in 1859, followed by copious amounts of natural gas in the 1880s. There was so much gas that it was being piped unmetered to factories and homes in Pittsburgh. In the process, clean-burning gas displaced dirty coal transforming the once grimy and sooty city—at least until the gas wells started to lose pressure. There was no mechanical means of pumping the gas through pipelines; everything relied on natural pressure.

Ottawa’s “oil strike” occurred on 17 September 1889 at a bog on Tom Hickey’s property on the border of Stewarton and the Glebe (roughly today just south of the Queensway, east of Bank Street). Here, a company had been digging an exploratory well for natural gas. A Citizen journalist rushed out to cover the event. He found that “there was more gush about the report than about the well.” Instead of seeing black gold spewing from the 72-foot high drilling derrick which had been installed at the site, he was shown a small bottle of oily liquid by Alderman Askwith, one of the shareholders in the drilling company, who had also excitedly rushed out to the site on hearing the news. It wasn’t much. One skeptical observer remarked that “ten cents worth of kerosene would produce the present appearance.” Excitement quickly turned to disappointment.

The story behind Ottawa’s supposed oil and natural gas boom began to the east of the city some months earlier at La Mer Bleue, a bog situated roughly thirty kilometres east of the Capital, today owned by the National Capital Commission. Reportedly, somebody had discovered natural gas emanating from the Mer Bleue bog. When a match was applied, the gas burnt. Most likely, the person had found methane leaching from rotting plant material.

Investors convinced themselves that the gas was available for tapping in profitable amounts. They purchased 300 acres of land in Gloucester Township out on the Montreal Road, including the Mer Bleue property, for $22,000. If sufficient gas at a satisfactory pressure was found, they envisaged two pipelines being laid to Ottawa to carry gas for heating and lighting at an estimated cost of about $300,000. An expert from the Pittsburgh Natural Gas Company was called in to investigate the prospects of the venture.

In late 1887, the investors formed the Capital Gas Company, and was granted a by-law, No. 805, from Ottawa City Council to allow them to dig up the roads to lay pipes to bring natural gas into the city. They expected the project would be finished within two years.

The principals of the company included Mr. G.B. Pattee of Perley & Patee, the lumber company, Mr. Maclean of Maclean, Roger & Company, Mr. Thomas Wallace and two American entrepreneurs, Charles Cammann, a New York banker, and H.W. Mali, a New York merchant. After travelling through the gas-producing regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, Mr. Wallace was so confident of the natural gas prospects at the Mer Bleue property that he bought the necessary equipment for drilling and made arrangements for skilled drillers to come to Ottawa. He and his fellow investors hoped that the availability of natural gas would make Ottawa the commercial capital of Canada as well as its political capital. It would also make them very rich men if it panned out.

With natural gas still to be discovered in appreciable quantities, another group of investors, led by Henry Bate, George McCullough and William Scott, entered the fray, seeking and receiving similar privileges (By-law No. 809) from City Council for their company, the Ottawa Heating & Lighting Company, to lay down pipes on Ottawa’s streets. It was later called the People’s Gas Company or the Citizens’ Gas Company. This set off a battaille royale. Wallace, the spokesperson for the Capital Gas Company, was outraged, saying that Council had broken faith with his company. He thought that he had received a two-year monopoly with his by-law, and that on this basis he had already invested considerable money into the venture. He contended that Ottawa was too small to support two natural gas companies. He also thought that the second company was just trying to block his Capital Gas Company. This charge was not far-fetched as the Bate family was connected to the Ottawa Gas Company, the city’s manufacturer of coal gas which stood to be the big loser should cheap natural gas be piped in from nearby wells.

The By-Law Committee of City Council threw up its collective hands over the issue, and rescinded both companies’ by-laws on the grounds that neither company had been incorporated. Instead, it offered to grant permission to lay underground pipes to transport natural gas through city streets to the first company to be properly incorporated.

The Capital Gas Company received a Dominion charter mid-March 1888. It thought it had won the incorporation race and deserved its exclusive two-year by-law to bring natural gas into Ottawa. Not so fast said the Bate company, now called the People’s Gas Company. Using legal sleight of hand, Bate and his associates had purchased and resuscitated an existing company established in 1881 called the Rideau Gas Company which they argued already had a city By-law, No. 506, which gave it permission to dig up Ottawa’s streets to lay gas pipes. This forgotten company had actually been established to erect tower lights in Ottawa. But under the Ontario law of the time, it had the right to engage in both the electric and gas businesses, though it had no intention in 1881 of engaging in the latter activity. When the tower lighting concept failed, the company went dormant.

City Council laughed at this corporate manoeuvre. The Ottawa Journal called the proceeding a “gas farce.”

All this corporate and legal scheming occurred against the backdrop of one big hurdle—little gas had actually been discovered in the Ottawa area. But the dream, or the delusion, was enough, encouraged by vague statements by experts who cautiously thought that natural gas might be found in Ottawa. For example, in early February 1888, Dr. Bell of the Geological Survey opined that Ottawa conditions were favourable for the discovery of gas, at least to justify some expenditures to prove it. News of a gas strike in Collingwood also wetted investors’ appetite. Maybe it was Ottawa’s turn next.

By June 1888, the Capital Gas Company appeared to have beaten its rival. But as the Journal commented, “all the energy of the Capital Gas company seems to have been used up by its campaign to get its by-law.” There was no actual boring.

The corporate saga didn’t end there. The principal shareholders of Capital Gas had a falling out. When in late December 1888, the People’s Company again sought permission to bring natural gas into Ottawa, Ottawa City Council looked favourably on the request as it has received news from President Alexander McLean and Secretary Benjamin Batson of Capital Gas that their company would not object. Wrong. Wallace and the two New York shareholders of Capital Gas objected vigorously, and sent a letter under the company’s seal to that effect to Ottawa City council. President McLean retorted that Wallace had left for the United States and had improperly taken the company’s seal and records.

Boring for natural gas did finally begin by December 1888. But who did the drilling was not clearly reported though it was most likely the Capital Gas Company.  However, instead of drilling at La Mer Bleue, test drilling commenced in Stewarton at the Hickey farm just a short distance from Parliament Hill. Later reports said that drillers were drawn to the spot by an oily scum found on the surface of a bog on the Hickey property. Given its proximity to downtown Ottawa relative to the Mer Bleue site, a successful well would have been very attractive commercially as there would be no need for laying expensive pipes across miles of countryside.

The first boring attempt at Stewarton failed when the drill, which was operated by a steam engine run by four men, hit quicksand. The derrick was moved to another site. But by April 1889, drilling at the new location had reached the 70-feet mark. Investors hoped to strike gas at a depth of about 800 feet. Drilling continued. After boring through shale at a rate of 40 feet per day, the drillers hit salt-water impregnated coal and stalled for a time. The team struck “oil” at about 1,200 feet mid-September. But the bore hole filled with water as the bottom portion of the well had not been encased, allowing ground water to leak into the well.

Alderman Askwith thought that there was definitely oil mixed with the water in the sample taken from the bore hole. “But to say that we have ‘struck oil’ in any quantity would be a venturesome statement.” He thought the company would continue to drill down to about 2,000 feet, the limit of the equipment, in its search for natural gas. If nothing was forthcoming, they would investigate further the oil find.

The last report on the Stewarton drilling was in mid-November 1889 when a Citizen article reported that drilling would resume “in a few days” after $6,000 had been spent on the exploratory well. Nothing apparently happened. Ottawa’s oil and gas boom was over before it had really begun.

Roughly forty years later, an account of the drilling activity by an elderly man who had worked on the well was published in the Ottawa Citizen. That article stated that the drilling had ceased after nine months at about the 1,800-foot mark when the well hit sulphur water. The well wasn’t a total failure, however. So strong was the water pressure that the sulphur water apparently came to the surface and continued to flow. A pipe was installed, with people coming far and wide to drink the water. Not only was sulphur water prized for its supposed medicinal value, it must have been of far better quality that the water the city piped in to residents from the grossly polluted Ottawa River.

Sources:

NCC, 2019. Mer Bleue, http://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/mer-bleue.

American Public Gas Association, 2019. A Brief History of Natural Gas, https://www.apga.org/apgamainsite/aboutus/facts/history-of-natural-gas.

Browness, Ian and Cynthia Coristine, 2014. “The Bate Brothers of Ottawa, Booklet 2: Charles “C.T.” Bate Merchant, Mayor & More, Bytown Pamphlet, No. 92, The Historical Society of Ottawa.

The Daily Citizen, 1888. “Mr. Wallace’s Return,” 17 January.

———————, 1888. “The Natural Gas Company,” 2 February.

———————, 1888. “Natural Gas Found in Ottawa,” 6 February.

———————, 1888. “Rival Companies,” 4 February.

———————, 1888. “Boring For The Gas,” 21 December.

———————, 1888. “Cheap Fuel And Light,” 22 December.

———————, 1888. “A Hitch In The Gas Business,” 29 December.

———————, 1889. “The Finishing Touches,” 15 January.

———————, 1889. “The Gas Borers,” 8 April.

———————, 1889. “The Hole Won’t Go Down,” 17 April.

———————, 1889. “The City And Suburbs,” 17 August.

———————, 1889. “An Oily Find,” 18 September.

———————, 1889. “Jottings About Town,” 16 November.

———————, 1889. “The City And Suburbs,” 16 November.

———————, 1926. “Glebe Pioneer Has Fine Recollection Glebe-Hickey Lands,” 9 October.

——————— 1926. “More About The Hickey Well By Man Who Worked It 9 Months,” 30 October.

The Evening Journal, 1887. “Gas Coming To Town,” 6 December.

————————-, 1888. “A Question of Gas,” 3 February.

————————-, 1888. “What Dr. Bell Says?,” 4 February.

————————-, 1888. “The Gas Question,” 16 February.

————————-, 1888. “Hopes To Be Like Findlay, Ohio,” 28 February.

————————-, 1888. “The Gas Question,” 29 February.

————————-, 1888. “Odds And Ends,” 6 March.

————————-, 1888. “Another Deal,” 10 April.

————————-, 1888. “Natural Gas Found in Collingwood,” 21 June.

————————-, 1888. “Civic Notes,” 25 June.

————————-, 1889. “No title,” 21 August 1889.

————————-, 1889. “Natural Gas,” 19 October.

Wylie, Robin, 2019. “A Brief History of Natural Gas,” Eniday, https://www.eniday.com/en/education_en/history-natural-gas/.


This article was written by James Powell, the author of the Ottawa history blog "Today in Ottawa's History".

Monday, 04 July 2022 11:03

Thank You, Karen Lynn! Welcome Emma!

After four years as our President, the Board of Directors and the members of the HSO would like to thank Karen Lynn Ouellette for a job well done. As former Past President George Neville can attest, the president’s job is a tough one—herding cats at the best of time! Doing it while holding down a full-time job made it all the more challenging for Karen Lynn. And let’s not even talk about the difficulties posed by two years of COVID, and running a virtual organization virtually, so to speak. But she did it with great verve and charm, making the herculean task look easy.

klo          Karen Lynn OuelletteThe Ouellette years have been great years for the HSO. Under her leadership, our virtual speakers’ series is drawing large numbers of participants from across the country. Our Facebook page has been a spectacular success with more than 6,000 followers, and has prompted thousands to comment and debate issues, and to share their own stories of Ottawa history. Our website was modernized and expanded, allowing memberships to be purchased and donations made on line, a considerable advantage and convenience given the cancellation of in-person events. Karen Lynn also effectively reached out to younger demographic groups, including university students and young working people, showing that the love of history is not confined to those of more mature years. She also reached out to local Indigenous communities with some success. As a consequence, our membership is growing despite the pandemic …something that few heritage organizations can boast.

Karen Lynn’s influence was also evident behind the scenes. The organization has become more business-like. Job descriptions have been written, organization charts developed, welcome packages for new directors and officers assembled, and policies and procedures put in place. Such things may not be sexy but they sure are helpful in times of transition. No longer do we have to rely on our memory to recall what and how things should be done, something that is increasingly important as government requirements for non-profits like the Historical Society of Ottawa become more complex.

In sum, thank you Karen Lynn for your years of service to the Society. While we are sad to see you step down, we are delighted that you will continue to play an active role as Past President on the Board with a specific interest in working with young people.

We are also delighted to welcome Emma Kent who was elected President at our June 2022 Annual General Meeting. Congratulations Emma! Emma must be the youngest President the Society has ever had. She brings boundless enthusiasm to the job and lots of new ideas. Building on Karen Lynn’s work, she had informed the Board that she plans to focus on diversity, reaching out to groups whose stories may have been overlooked or not shared widely. In this, Emma, you have the Board’s full support and encouragement. We look forward to working with you over the coming years.

James Powell, June 2022.


A Word from our new President

Hello!

emma kent 1                   Emma KentI grew up in Ottawa and have always had a passion for history. In 2016, I completed my BA in History at Carleton University.

Thank you for welcoming me as the new president of the Historical Society of Ottawa. Over the past couple years I have greatly enjoyed my time with the HSO. Attending the speaker series and reading the Bytown pamphlets have made me fall in love with our city again. I can’t wait to listen to more of its stories and as we move forward with in-person events. I’m so excited to meet you in person and or seeing you back on Zoom.

You may know me from the two speaker series talks I gave in 2021; one on my old Girl Guide summer camp, Camp Woolsey, and the other on my Grandpa Jack who was a British Home child. Both were incredibly meaningful projects for me and I’m so thankful to the HSO for giving me an opportunity to share them.

We have an incredibly strong and gifted board of directors and I always look forward to working with them and learning from them. I would love to personally thank our Past President, Karen Lynn, for getting me involved with the HSO and for her many years of leadership. We hope to continue her legacy of emphasizing diversity in our storytelling and activities.

All the best,

Emma Kent (She/Her), June 2022.

Saturday, 02 July 2022 11:22

Operation Fish

2 July 1940

When Sidney Perkins left his house on Euclid Avenue in Ottawa South to go to work on the morning of 2 July 1940, he had no notion that he was about to become part of one of the most secretive and daring operations of the Second World War. An operation that, had it failed, would have meant Britain’s almost certain defeat. Perkins worked for the Foreign Exchange Control Board which had been set up by the Bank of Canada at the outset of the war the previous year to husband Canada’s foreign currency resources. Shortly before noon, Perkins was summoned to the office of David Mansur, the Assistant Chairman of the Board and told that he was to make immediate arrangements to fly to Halifax and meet an important shipment. With the only flight to Halifax leaving in thirty minutes via Montreal, Perkins had no time even to pick up his toothbrush, and had to borrow $100 from two colleagues. After touching down in Montreal, Perkins received an urgent call from Bank headquarters, telling him that plans had changed. Bank staff in Halifax had met the shipment, and that he should wait in Montreal for Mansur who was joining him by car. Mansur arrived in time for the two men to meet a mystery train from Halifax. At Bonaventure Station, a team of five tired Bank of England men led by Alexander Craig disembarked. Craig apologized to Perkins and Mansour for their unexpected visit and said they had brought a “load of fish.”

Roughly two weeks earlier, Craig and his colleagues had received a similar summons from Governor Montagu Norman of the Bank of England who enquired if they were willing to embark on a top secret mission. Agreeing, the men were informed that their task was to shepherd the wealth of Britain to safety in Canada. The mission, code name “Operation Fish,” was a bold, but desperate, gamble by the British Government to protect the gold stored at the Bank of England as well as British-owned, marketable, foreign securities from a threatened Nazi invasion, ensuring that the country had the financial resources to prosecute the war from across the Atlantic, if necessary.

Invasion was a very real possibility that mid-June 1940. German armed forces were on the Channel coast, after having brushed aside the British Expeditionary Force in Europe and crushed the French Army. Although more than 300,000 British and French troops had just been heroically and miraculously evacuated from Dunkirk, they had abandoned enough armaments to equip an army of ten divisions. The British Army was virtually powerless to stop an invasion. Britain’s European Allies were also faltering. Netherland and Belgium had already fallen to the Nazis, while France was on the point of capitulation, the German army having entered Paris on 14 June. To make matters worse, Italy had just entered the war on Germany’s side.

It was not an easy decision to send all of Britain’s foreign assets to Canada. The only way to transport the tons of gold and securities was by ship across the U-boat infested, North Atlantic where 100 Allied and neutral merchant ships had been sunk in May 1940 alone. History was also not reassuring. During World War I, the SS Laurentic, carrying 43 tons of gold from Liverpool to Halifax, had been sunk in 1917 by a German U-boat off of Ireland. The loss of even one treasure ship would have major negative consequences. To buy weapons and other war materiel that it sorely needed from neutral United States, Britain has to pay in gold or U.S. dollars; no credit was permitted under the strict Neutrality Act in effect in the United States at that time.

When storm clouds started to gather in 1938, the Bank of England decided to increase its gold reserves held at the Bank of Canada in Ottawa. In May 1939, fifty tons of gold bars, then worth £14 million (roughly US$2 billion at 2014 prices), was brought over on HMS Southampton and HMS Glasgow. The two cruisers had escorted King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, across the Atlantic on their Royal Tour of Canada and the United States. A few months later after the outbreak of hostilities, a convoy of five ships, led by HMS Emerald captained by Augustus Agar, VC, DSO, each carrying £2 million in bullion, safely made its way to Canada. The Emerald made another “bullion run” in November 1939, as did other ships over the course of the next several months without incident.

With the Emerald and others having successfully tested the waters, and the war situation in Europe turning grave, Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the green light to “Operation Fish.” With speed of an essence, limits on the amount that could be sent on individual ships were discarded. The battleship HMS Revenge, accompanied by two converted liners, together shipped £60 million in gold to Halifax in early June. But the real “show” had yet to get underway. On 24 June, the Emerald, now under the command of Captain Francis Flynn, was sent to Halifax, packed to the gunnels with £30 million in gold bullion and £200 million in negotiable securities. The gold was stored in ammunition lockers, while boxes of securities were stashed in every conceivable nook and cranny of the ship, including covering the floor of the Captain’s day cabin on which Alexander Craig, the leader of the Bank of England team, had to make his bed. The Emerald crossed the Atlantic in a full gale. So bad were the weather conditions that its two accompanying destroyers were forced to return to Britain while the Emerald raced at full speed for Halifax. It arrived battered but safe on the morning of 1 July. It was met by the Halifax Agent of the Bank of Canada, a CN train, and a large armed guard. During the ship’s unloading, the perimeter of the dock was tightly sealed to prevent anyone getting a peek at its cargo. That night, the heavily-guarded train, stuffed with gold and securities, set off for Montreal where it was met by Sidney Perkins and David Mansur late the next day.

In Montreal, the train was split in two, with the portion carrying the gold headed for Union Station in Ottawa to be meet by Bank of Canada personnel and armed guards for the short journey to the Bank’s headquarters on Wellington Street. The portion carrying the negotiable securities was unloaded at a secluded siding. In the wee hours of morning, with the streets closed to traffic, the precious cargo was delivered by truck to the Sun Life Assurance Company in Montreal. The Sun Life building, chosen earlier by Mansur to house the “United Kingdom Security Deposit,” was the only building with a large enough secure space to store the securities. A special, custom-built vault was subsequently built in its basement. To assist the Bank of England officials in checking, filing, and managing the securities, Mansur hired 130 retired bankers, brokers and secretaries and swore them to total secrecy. Although the UKSD remained in operation throughout the war, the 5,000 member staff of the Sun Life never knew what was going, or what was stored in the vault beneath their feet.

bank of canadaThe Bank of Canada, Wellington Street, circa 1940, Bank of Canada Archives.A week after Emerald’s arrival, a convoy left Britain also bound for Halifax, under the command of Admiral Sir Ernest Archer. It consisted of the battleship HMS Revenge, the cruiser HMS Bonaventure, and three converted former passenger liners, the Monarch of Bermuda, the SS Sobieski and the SS Batory. On board these ships was a treasure trove of gold and securities, conservatively valued at £450 million, of which £192 million was in gold ($27 billion at 2014 prices). Again, the trip across the North Atlantic was difficult. The Batory developed engine trouble, forcing it for a time to come to a dead stop while repairs were made. In thick fog, it safely diverted to St John’s under the protection of the Bonaventure while the rest of the convoy raced to Halifax to be met by Sydney Perkins and other Bank of Canada officials. On board the Monarch of Bermuda was another precious cargo—refugee families evacuated to Canada for safety.

Following the routine used previously, the gold and securities were unloaded, weighed and checked before being placed on a special CN train protected by more than 300 police and security guards. This was not an easy task as many of the bullion boxes and bags of gold coins had been damaged in shipment. Perkins later commented that “Seeing those tens of millions in gold piled up gave me a cold chill.” To speed up unloading and minimize the risk of detection, Perkins improvised a metal chute made from scrap metal sheeting to slide crates of gold from the ships’ deck to the quay. Once the train was loaded, and Perkins had officially taken delivery, it set off to deliver the securities to Montreal, and the gold to Ottawa. Again, the shipments were made without anybody outside the operation being the wiser; nothing was reported in the nation’s press. At the Wellington Street head office, bullion boxes came in so fast that Bank staff had difficulty finding places to store them. Crates waiting to be processed piled up in basement corridors and in the incinerator room, used for burning old paper money. Men laboured in twelve-hour shifts to unpack the gold bars and bags of coins and store them in the Bank’s 60 by 100 foot vault. Everything had to be meticulously recorded and accounted for. By the end of it, the Bank of Canada was the home to more gold than anywhere in the world outside of Fort Knox in the United States.

The remainder of Britain’s wealth trickled in over subsequent months, with the redoubtable Emerald making yet another crossing in August 1940. In total, more than £470 million in gold was shipped from the Bank of England in London across the Atlantic to the Bank of Canada in Ottawa. (It value today would be about US$67 billion.) The value of the securities stored in the basement of the Sun Life building in Montreal was then estimated at £1,250 million, their value today, incalculable. Against all the odds, of the dozens of ships used to transport Britain’s wealth to Canada, only one, the merchant ship Niagara carrying £2.5 million in gold from New Zealand, was sunk. Its bullion was subsequently recovered. Despite thousands being involved in the mission, Operation Fish remained a secret until after the war.


Sources:

Bank of England, 194?. Unpublished War History, Chapter V, Gold, Bank of England Archives, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk.

Draper, A., 1979. Operation Fish: The Race to Save Europe’s Wealth 1939-1945, Cassell, London.

McDowall, M., 1997. Due Diligence: A Report on the Bank of Canada’s Handling of Foreign Gold During World War II, Bank of Canada, http://www.bankofcanada.ca/publications/books-and-monographs/due-diligence/.

Naval-History.Net, 1998. Campaign Summaries of World War 2, German U-Boats at War, Part 1 of 6, 1939-40, http://www.naval-history.net/WW2CampaignsUboats.htm.

Stowe, L., 1963. How Britain’s Wealth Went West, http://www.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/SUBM/SUBM.001.0323.pdf.

Images, HMS Emerald, Imperial War Museum.

Image, Bank of Canada, Associated Screen News, Bank of Canada Archives, PC 300-5-61.


Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Tuesday, 03 May 2022 21:37

The Villa St-Louis Tragedy

15 May 1956

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

 

villa st louis cf 100 mk v rcaf cThe CF-100 “Canuck” Mark V, all-weather fighter/interceptor made by Avro Canada, RCAF photo.

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

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

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

villa st louis chapel powellca004409 cInterior of the Villa St-Louis Chapel, Orléans, circa 1956, City of Ottawa Archives, MG393-NP-31447-001.At 10:17pm, the CF-100 fighter, fully armed with rockets and machine guns, and with its two crew members aboard, plunged into the chapel of the Villa St-Louis rest home at a speed approaching 700 mph. In an instant, the three-storey, brick building was shattered by a thunderous explosion that sent debris and flames hundreds of feet into the air. Eyewitnesses said the jet had plummeted to ground in an almost vertical dive, the airplane spinning in tight circles, its wing lights flashing in the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

villa st louis cross cMemorial Cross at the site of the Villa St-Louis disaster, August 2017 by Nicolle Powell.

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

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


Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

One early April afternoon, Karen Lynn Ouellette and myself had the honour of attending the last class of Dr. Sarah Templier’s Canadian Digital History course at the University of Ottawa. This was a big day for Dr. Templier’s students who in groups of two or three presented their digital history projects. All the projects were related to the Historical Society of Ottawa. Besides enjoying the wonderful presentations, our job was to help Dr. Templier and PhD candidate, Celeste Dagiovanni, to judge the students’ work, and to select the top three projects. Celeste is the student coordinator of the Venture Initiative Program working with Fahd Alhattab who is in charge of the program as the entrepreneur in residence at the Faculties of Arts, and of Social Sciences.

Sarah Templier UofOSarah Templier, University of Ottawa.The idea of partnering with the HSO was the brainchild of Professor Templier. Before the start of the semester, she had contacted Karen Lynn with the idea of involving her fourth-year digital history students with the Society in some fashion. A number of ideas were floated, including going through the Society’s archives held by the City of Ottawa to document and digitize key documents. However, with the City Archives closed owing to Covid, an alternate project was selected under which student teams would develop websites that contributed to the HSO’s mission and online presence in a meaningful way.

In teams of two or three students, five website projects were presented—Epidemics in Ottawa by Jessica Barton and Victoria Pope, Ottawa and the Fur Trade by Danny Bengert and Jordan Johnstone, The Rideau Canal by Charles Wickens, Breanna Campbell and Jameson Holdip, The Murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee and the Fenian Brotherhood by Jack Lapalme and Thomas Wagner, and The Galloping Gourmet by Rowan Moore and Brenna Roblin. The projects were judged on the basis of how the project contributed to the Society’s on-line presence and mission, the team’s research and ability to reach the target audience, their innovative use of visuals and digital tools that would enhance a reader’s experience, and the ability of each team to effectively “pitch” their project in the allotted time and answer questions.

All five presentations were excellent, making the choice of the top three very challenging. After more than thirty minutes, judges agreed that the top three presentations in order of preference were The Galloping Gourmet, The Rideau Canal, and Ottawa and the Fur Trade. Rowan and Brenna’s winning entry on the television show filmed in Ottawa from 1968 to 1971, styled their presentation in the form of a TV Guide. Their presentation featured recipes, a map of the locations Graham Kerr, a.k.a. the galloping gourmet, visited to inspire his recipes, an interview with a participant who viewed the filming of an episode at the Merivale Road studio, fashion in the 1960s, as well as a section on Graham Kerr’s life after the series ended. Their lively and fun presentation helped to bring to life the late 1960s as well as a little-known part of Ottawa’s television history. It is sure to delight Ottawa history buffs.

In second place, Charles Wickens, Breanna Campbell and Jameson Holdip’s presentation on The Rideau Canal had several innovative features. It was bilingual and acknowledged that the Canal cuts through Indigenous territory. The “then and now” feature was well done. In addition to the usual history of the Canal, the website featured sections on the financing of the canal and what the life of a labourer would have been like. The team noted the importance of the HSO highlighting the significance of the Canal for Ottawa’s upcoming bicentennial.

The third-placed presentation on Ottawa and the Fur Trade by Danny Bengert and Jordan Johnstone provided a useful reminder that life existed along the Ottawa River before the establishment of Bytown by European settlers. It filled a big gap in the HSO’s coverage of Ottawa’s history and heritage, highlighting the contribution of the area’s original Indigenous inhabitants to the fur trade in an engaging and informative fashion.

While the final two presentations on Ottawa pandemics from the early 1800s to the present by Jessica Barton and Victoria Pope, and on the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee by Jack Lapalme and Thomas Wagner did not make the top three, they too treated their subjects well and provided useful insights. We wish we could have provided prizes to all the presenters.

After the students complete their projects, the HSO intends to link the Society’s website to the five student websites so that all those interested in Ottawa history and heritage can benefit from them. As thanks for their hard work on behalf of the Society, each student was given a copy of Controversy, Compromise and Celebration: The History of Canada’s National Flag by Glenn Wright, as well as a one-year membership in the Historical Society of Ottawa. The University also gave cash prizes to the top three projects.

We hope all those who participated in this digital history project learnt a lot about Ottawa’s rich history and had fun in the process. The Society would like to thank Dr. Templier for an excellent initiative and looks forward to future collaboration in the years to come.

James Powell, April 2022.

Friday, 01 April 2022 14:57

A Free, Public Library

30 April 1906

While libraries have existed since the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt more than four thousand years ago, free, public libraries are a recent phenomenon, dating back only to the nineteenth century. Previously, libraries were the preserve of the Church, kings and wealthy private citizens—the small minority who were literate and had the resources to afford books. Mass education was viewed by elites with suspicion. It might lead people to question their station in life. In a largely agrarian society, knowing how to plough fields, grow crops, and raise livestock were deemed far more important skills for the common person than reading and writing.

Ideas became to shift during the industrial revolution. Social reformers started to advocate in favour of educating workers in order to advance science and reduce superstition. Increasingly, an educated workforce was seen as an economic blessing rather than a social curse. With thousands of men and women pouring into the cities seeking employment in those “dark satanic mills,” the Church and temperance supporters hoped that edifying lectures and libraries would reduce crime, and keep people out of bars and brothels during their (limited) time off. Starting from the early nineteenth century, mechanics’ institutes and literary and philosophical societies, often sponsored by wealthy industrialists, began popping up in the major cities of Britain. These institutions provided lectures on scientific subjects to their members, typically industrial workers and clerks, who could join for a small fee. They also operated libraries and reading rooms for the benefit of their members. In Britain, the Museums Act of 1845 allowed boroughs to raise funds to support museums and libraries for the edification of the general public.

Similar developments took place in Bytown, later Ottawa, albeit with a lag. Calls for a library to be established in Bytown started as early as 1837. Four years later, a small, circulating library opened for subscribers out of the offices of Alexander Gray, a jeweller and bookseller. Unfortunately, it apparently failed after only one year. In 1847, the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute was founded by the town’s leading citizens. In addition to uplifting educational lectures, the Institute provided a library for its members. Drawing principally upon the English-speaking community, the Institute was unable to attract sufficient members, and quickly became inactive. It was, however, revived in 1853 as the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum (BMIA). Area Francophones established their own cultural institution, l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa in 1852 that still exists today.

The new BMIA, which received an annual grant from the provincial government, did better than its antecedent. It too provided lectures, classes, a reading room and a small circulating library for its members initially out of the basement of the Congregational Church located near Sappers’ Bridge. By 1856, BMIA had a library of roughly 1,000 volumes, mostly academic works though there were a few novels as well. It also subscribed to British, French and American newspapers, journals and periodicals. In 1869, the BMIA merged with the Ottawa Natural History Society to form the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS). While the new organization continued to offer classes, held lectures, and maintained a growing library, its membership was drawn largely from the ranks of civil servants and industrialists rather than mill workers and labourers. Although a fine Parliamentary Library also existed in Ottawa, its use was also largely confined to the town’s elite rather than the working poor. A small lending library was also maintained by Battle Brothers at the corner of Rideau and Sussex Streets. In 1876, the store, which sold cards of various descriptions, advertised its books could be loaned at two cents per day, along with a deposit.

In 1882, the Ontario Government passed the Free Libraries Act, allowing municipalities to establish public libraries funded out of local taxes with the assent of the ratepayers. A number of cities across the province, including Toronto, took advantage of this new legislation and established public libraries for their citizens. In these cases, the libraries of local mechanics’ institutions were transferred to the new municipally-run libraries. In Ottawa, however, the new legislation had little impact.

During the early 1890s, the Ottawa Council of Women began to lobby for the establishment of a free library in the Capital. In February 1895, the Council, chaired by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, issued the following statement:

“Whereas the Local Council of Women of Ottawa feel that the establishment of a Free Library would be a benefit to the city, resolved: That this Council recommend that the subject be brought prominently before the public through the medium of the press and that a petition to the city council in accordance with the terms of the Free Libraries Act, be prepared for circulation by the Women’s Council.”

perley building topley LAC 027381The Perley mansion at 415 Wellington St was offered to the City as a home for a public library in 1896. Topley Studio Fonds/Library & Archives Canada, PA-027381.

In March 1895, the Council of Women submitted its petition to the city with 280 signatures (almost triple the number required by law). The city then prepared a draft by-law establishing a free library to be voted on by Ottawa ratepayers at the upcoming municipal elections. Ratepayers consisted of men over 21 years of age who owned property in excess of $400. Single women and widows who met the property requirement could also vote. The Council of Women then launched an advertising campaign in support of a free library. With the support of Philip Ross, the editor of The Evening Journal, the Council of Woman published the “Woman’s Edition” of the newspaper in April 1895, with all profits of the edition going to a fund for the free library. In this edition, all the articles, stories and letters were written and edited by women. Front and centre were articles in support of a free library. The movement got a further boost when the heirs of William Perley, a lumber baron, offered the Perley mansion on Wellington Street as home for the new library.

However, the efforts of the women came up short. In the vote held in January 1896, the city’s eight wards all decisively turned down the idea of a public library, with the popular vote 1,958 for and 3,429 against. It seemed that cost of running a library, estimated at about $10,000 per year, was too steep for ratepayers. Instead of becoming a library, the Perley mansion became “The Perley Home for Incurables” until the land was expropriated by the Dominion government in 1912. (In the long run, the location did become a library; the site is now the home of Library and Archives Canada.)

The Council of Women did not give up, and continued to press the issue at city council. But councilmen, while supporting the idea of a free library, collectively continued to reject the idea as being too costly. In 1899, a draft by-law was defeated on second reading on a vote of 13-11. By the early 1900s, with over 400 public libraries in Ontario, Ottawa was looking decidedly backward.

carnegie theodore c marceaulibraryofcongressAndrew Carnegie, 1835-1919, Theodore C. Moreau, Library of Congress.Salvation came from the United States. In 1901, Otto Klotz, past president of the OLSS and husband of Marie Klotz who was a leading light in the Ottawa Council of Women’s fight for a public library, wrote Andrew Carnegie, the prominent, Scottish-born, American philanthropist for funds to build a free, public library in Ottawa. The day after Klotz sent his letter, Ottawa mayor W. D. Morris also petitioned Carnegie for funds. By this point, Carnegie had funded hundreds of libraries throughout the United States, Canada, and Britain. Within weeks of receiving the letters, Carnegie pledged $100,000 to pay for an Ottawa Public Library, if Ottawa found a site and if it would agree to spend not less than $7,500 per year in upkeep.

It took several years, however, to bring this about. First, the city hoped that the Dominion government would supply land for the library. When that didn’t happen, city council purchased a site at the corner of Laurier Avenue (then called Maria Street) and Metcalfe Street. Second, it took time to select the design by architect E. L. Horwood out of eleven plans submitted. Third, the project was almost derailed following publication of Carnegie’s views that the United States should annex Canada. But work proceeded. In 1905, council approved $15,000 for the purchase of books, of which $3,500 was spent on French books. Lawrence Burpee, former clerk at the Department of Justice, was selected as Librarian. In turn, Burpee hired an assistant librarian, a cataloguer, three assistants for the circulation desk, and a caretaker. To help expedite the huge task of cataloguing books, Burpee purchased ready-made index cards at a penny a card from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Opening day was Monday, 30 April 1906. Carnegie himself was there for the big event. It was the great industrialist and philanthropist’s first visit to Canada. He came the day before via Toronto, where he had given a speech at the Canadian Club. He was met at the train station by Sir Sandford Fleming and the U.S. Consul General who conveyed him to Government House where he stayed on his short trip to Ottawa. The evening before the official opening, Carnegie was the guest of honour at a formal dinner at the Russell House Hotel. With the prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at his side, Carnegie spoke extemporaneously about the union of English-speaking countries, especially the United States and Canada—his favourite hobby horse. Calling himself as a “race imperialist,” he dubbed Canada “the Scotland of America,” and disingenuously envisaged Canada annexing her southern neighbour, just as Scotland had “annexed” England, and “afterwards boss it for its own good, as Scotland did also.” [James VI of Scotland became James I of England at the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.] He also praised Laurier for maintaining Canada’s fiscal independence [from Britain] and for not being swept into the vortex of militarism [a dig at the British who were engaged in an arms’ race with Germany]. Despite Carnegie’s annexationist and racial views, Laurier replied graciously saying that he too was a “race imperialist,” and opined that the separation of England from her American colonies had been a “crime,” and hoped for re-union. He added that had he “not been born of French parentage, there was nothing he would have rather been than a Scot.”

For the official opening the next afternoon, the classical, four-storey library building was clad in Union Jacks, the Stars and Stripes and colourful bunting. Constructed at a cost of slightly less than $100,000, the building was made of Indiana sandstone. The central main entrance was bracketed by four Corinthian columns, two on either side. Above the entrance was a large stained glass window that featured famous authors—William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, Lord Tennyson, and the Canadian Confederation poet Archibald Lampman. Overhead, on the lintel of the building, was inscribed the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters. For the official opening, these words were hidden by bunting to avoid embarrassment as the official name of the building was “The Carnegie Library,” a name used by the Ottawa Public Library into the 1950s.

carnegie library interior topley LAC 009086Interior of The Carnegie Library looking towards the main entrance, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009086.The building’s interior walls were clad in Italian marble with beautiful red oak wooden flooring and wainscoting. In front of the entrance hung a portrait of Carnegie painted by Miss V. Fréchette, the daughter of Achille Fréchette the translator of the House of Commons, and Annie Howells Fréchette who edited the “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal in 1895. The basement held classrooms, a newspaper room, a furnace room and the caretaker’s quarters. The ground floor was devoted to reading rooms to the right and left of the large lobby, the librarian’s offices, the stack room as well as the circulation desks. A marble and bronze staircase led upstairs to boardrooms, a reference department, a lecture room for 125 persons, staff offices, and a cloakroom.

After the customary welcoming speeches, Carnegie thanked the city and praised it for constructing such a fine building. He then reprised his speech on “race imperialism.” On a tour of the facilities, Carnegie was “waylaid” by a delegation of the St Andrew’s Society who gave the philanthropist an honorary membership to the Sons of Scotland of Canada. After the ceremonies, Carnegie left by train for Montreal, where he was granted an honorary degree at McGill University, and gave yet another speech on race imperialism before returning to New York.

The Carnegie Library was a great success. By the end of 1907, almost 20,000 library cards had been handed out, with an annual circulation of 129,000 books. So successful was it that the old Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society closed for good, its members flocking to the free services provided by the city. Before long, strong demand for the Library led to the establishment of branch operations. In 1916, Carnegie donated an additional $15,000 to build a western branch on Rosemount Avenue. It opened in 1919. This donation was the last Carnegie gave to Canada. He died in 1919 at the age of 83.

carnegie columnsColumns salvaged from The Carnegie Library, Rockcliffe Rockeries, 2016, photo by Nicolle Melanson-Powell.

By the 1960s, the downtown Carnegie library was showing signs of age. Serious cracks had opened up in its walls and ceilings under the weight of the books it contained. In a time when little thought was given to heritage considerations, the beautiful, classic structure was demolished in 1971, a year after the gracious Capitol Theatre also succumbed to the wrecking ball. It was replaced by the current, Brutalist style, concrete building that was completed in 1974. The only thing retained from the old building was the stained glass window. The Library’s Corinthian columns were also saved and were reused as a “folly” in the Rockcliffe Rockeries.

Today, things have gone full circle. Plans have been made to replace the current central library at 140 Metcalfe Street. Also, the aging Rosemount Branch, built a century ago using a Carnegie donation, became too small for current needs; it has been been renovated to increase the public floor space.


Sources:

Bytown Gazette & Ottawa Advertiser (The), 1841, “Circulating Library,” 9 December.

Carnegie Library (The), 1908. 3rd Report, Ottawa: The Ottawa Printing Co. (Limited).

Evening Journal (The), 1895, “Women In Council,” 4 February.

—————————, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.

—————————, 1895, “Free Library Law,”19 December.

—————————, 1896. “Just the Place,” 4 January.

—————————, 1896. “All Jumped On,” 7 January.

—————————, 1899. Free Library By-Law Killed, 5 December.

—————————, 1901. “Free Public Library for City of Ottawa, Carnegie to donate $100,000,” 11 March.

—————————, 1906. “The Program In Ottawa,” 28 April.

—————————, 1906. “The Carnegie Library,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Carnegie Library Formally Opened,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Reception of Library King,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Ceremonies at the Opening,” 1 May.

—————————, 1967. “Old Library to Come Down,” 21 November.

—————————, 1969. “Funds, Weather, Moon Shot Blames for Library Woes,” 12 September.

————————–, 1970. “Library Cracks Up,” 8 August.

—————————, 1971. “Old Building Wrecked by Cohen’s, 24 September.

—————————, 1974. “Salute to the New Central Ottawa Public Library,” 8 May.

Gaizauskas, Barbara, 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History of The Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, Carleton University, M.A. Thesis, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.

Ottawa Citizen, 1876. “Valentines!”, 2 February.

Jenkins, Phil, 2002. The Library Book: An Overdue History of the Ottawa Public Library, 1906-2001, Ottawa: Ottawa Public Library.

Rush, Anita, 1981. The Establishment of Ottawa’s Public Library, Carleton University.

Urbsite, 2012. Unforgotten Ottawa, The Carnegie Library, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/09/unforgotten-ottawa-carnegie-library.html?q=Carnegie+library.

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Thursday, 03 February 2022 20:52

The West Block Fire

11 February 1897

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

west block oj9 8 97Call for tenders for repairs to West Block, Ottawa Journal, 9 August, 1897.Rebuilding became highly political. The Conservative opposition accused the government of featherbedding and hiring only Hull workers in order to curry favour with Hull voters ahead a forthcoming federal by-election in Wright Country which encompassed Hull. The Liberal candidate, Mr. Louis Napoléon Champagne, was unapologetic saying Hull wasn’t the only city that had obtained patronage as other places got their share of federal business. He added that the Liberals were prepared to do it again “to those who are really friends of Mr. Laurier.” Champagne won the contest. The day after the by-election, 50 of the 313 workers on the West Block were dismissed, with further dismissals expected in order to reduce the size of the work force to what was appropriate.

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

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

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

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

Over the decades that followed, the West Block was much altered. In 1911, a new wing was built linking the east and west wings to form an enclosed quadrangle. During the mid-1950s, the West Block suffered from extensive renovations which were unsympathetic to the original design. However, this was better than the alternative. In 1954, the Person government almost manage to achieve which the 1897 fire had failed to do—the complete destruction of the beautiful and historic Gothic-revival building. The Federal District Commission, the fore-runner of the National Capital Commission, wanted to replace it with a modern office tower. But after a nation-wide protest, wiser heads prevailed and the building was saved. However, the neighbouring Supreme Court building was not so lucky. It was destroyed to make way for a parking lot.

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

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