Ottawa Stories - Significant technological changes in the city

Lights Out!

 

14 August 2003


It was a typical mid-August summer day in the nation’s capital—hot and muggy. Earlier that Thursday, the thermometer had topped 31 degrees Celsius. By mid-afternoon, the usual early rush hour of public servants was in full swing, with cars pouring out of the city, many heading north towards cottage country in the Gatineau hills to get some relief from the heat and humidity. But the evening was going to be anything but normal. Without warning at 4:11pm, street lights failed, air conditioners stopped, and computers went dark across Ottawa.

It took a while for the enormity of the situation to be fully appreciated. Electric power had failed across eight U.S. states and much of Ontario, reminiscent of the blackout that had plunged much of the U.S. North Eastern seaboard and Ontario into darkness in 1965. In the course of a few minutes, some one hundred electrical generating plants, including 22 nuclear power plants, shut down. More than 50 million people were left without power living in an area of roughly 240,000 square kilometres.

Less than two years following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, people’s first thoughts were of terrorism. While this possibility was quickly ruled out, politicians on both sides of the international border were quick to lay blame on others. Prime Minister Chrétien’s office suggested that a lightening strike at an upstate New York power station was responsible for the cascading failure across the international electrical grid. New York power authorities denied this, claiming that the problem originated outside of the United States, i.e. Canada. New York Governor Pataki also pointed the finger at Canada, while Canadian Defence Minister John McCallum blamed a failure at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plan. None were right.

The following year, the inelegantly named U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force concluded that the cascading failure originated in Ohio. High temperatures and a corresponding high demand for power had caused overloaded transmission wires to heat up and sag, touching unpruned trees. This in turn caused a generating plant in Eastlake, Ohio to shut down, putting an intolerable strain onto other transmission lines, which in turn tripped breakers shutting down power elsewhere as successive plants were overloaded. The outage could have been easily managed and the resulting blackout contained locally had there not been a computer software bug in the alarm system at FirstEnergy Corporation, the responsible Ohio-based power authority, that did not go off in time to warn system operators.

While the immediate cause of the blackout was high tension wires touching trees in Ohio, the Task Force highlighted a number of systemic failures which contributed to the power grid failure. Importantly, the Task Force identified shortcomings at FirstEnergy Corporation. These included a lack of understanding about the deteriorating conditions of its system, and a failure to maintain adequately its transmission right-of-ways. A number of minor violations of existing regulations were also noted. More generally, the Task Force concluded that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the not-for-profit agency tasked with overseeing North American power production, did not have the authority to develop or require compliance of strong reliability standards by member utilities. In the absence of such reliability standards, no financial penalty was levied on FirstEnergy for the power blackout.

Back in Ottawa, life carried on more or less as normal that evening. With street lights dead, all intersections became four-way stops. Rush-hour traffic moved, albeit slowly, with gridlock avoided in some cases by pedestrians who took over traffic control. Despite the muggy heat and fraying tempers, the commute home was described as “surprisingly civil” by a police official. Long delays in OC Transpo service led bus riders to hoof it; many receiving rides from passing private cars. With all flights at the MacDonald-Cartier International airport grounded, stranded passengers either dossed down at the terminal or found rooms in nearby hotels.

There were also some serious problems that night. There were apparently 22 cases of looting in the city, as well as an armed robbery at a Sparks Street jewellery store. There were also three fires, one of which claimed the life of a teenaged boy. Restaurants were also negatively affected by the loss of refrigeration; some gave away melting ice cream to passersby. On the upside, the blackout provided the perfect excuse for impromptu street parties. As well, the clear sky that night was a great opportunity to view the stars, undimmed by light pollution—as long as you looked south. The lights of Hull and Gatineau remained on as Quebec’s power grid was unaffected by the black-out. They provided a surreal backdrop to Mayor Bob Chiarelli’s televised address to the city in offices in front of Parliament Hill to explain why the city was in darkness.

By the next morning, the lights began to slowly come back on. The state of emergency announced the previous night by Ontario’s premier, Ernie Eaves, was eased. Within 24-48 hours, power had been largely restored. But the system remained unstable and unbalanced; you can’t restart power plants with a flip of a switch. Government offices and many businesses remained closed for up to week before the situation returned to normal. Besides holidays for unessential staff, the blackout provided a perfect test of backup systems that had been established following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. In total, it is estimated that the blackout cost Ontario 18.9 million in lost employment hours, with manufacturing shipments falling $2.3 billion.

Could it happen again? On the positive side, there have been major improvements to the reliability of the international grid since 2003. Significant investments have been made on both sides of the border which have made the grid more robust. As well, the NERC has established and now enforces reliability standards with electricity producers, and has the power to levy significant fines in the event of non-compliance. Grid operators also employ simulators to model a wide range of possible scenarios, and how to respond to various catastrophic situations. The development of smart grids and distributed power production by lots of small producers may have also reduced the risk of major blackouts. However, it is impossible to plan for all eventualities. Human error, computer viruses and terrorism remain risks. So, keep that flashlight handy.

Sources:

CBC News, 2013. “Ottawa reflects on decade after massive blackout,” 14 August .

——————, 2013. “Blackout ten years on: How smart grids help blackout-proof the power game,” 14 August 2013.

NERC, 2013. NERC Board Approves 2014 Budget, ESCC Charter and Adopts 3 Reliability Standards, 16 August 2013:.

The Ottawa Citizen, 2013. “In Blacked out Ottawa, life went on (almost) as usual,” 14 August.

The Toronto Star, 2013. “Blackout 2003: How Ontario went Dark,” 14 August.

U.S.-Canada Power System Power Outage Task Force, 2004. Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout in the United States and Canada: Causes and Recommendations, April.

Wikipedia: Northeast Blackout of 2003.

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.

An Electric Banquet

 

29 August 1892

 

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the cutting-edge, new technology, and Ottawa was Canada’s high-tech capital, thanks to two factors—the inventive skills of Thomas Ahearn, the Ottawa-born technological genius and entrepreneur, and the power-generating ability of the Chaudière Falls. Ahearn and his partner, Warren Soper, were responsible for lighting Ottawa’s streets with electric lights years ahead of other Canadian cities, and for providing Canada’s Parliament with indoor, electric lighting long before the U.S. Congress could boast such amenities. Ahearn and Soper also built and operated Ottawa’s electrified urban transit system, the Ottawa Electric Street Railway, whose carriages were electrically heated using one of Ahearn’s patented devices. Confounding the “experts,” Ottawa’s electric trams operated through the winter owing to yet another Ahearn invention, an electric snow plough. Ottawa was a great testing ground for electrical devices due to its proximity to the Chaudière Falls, the source of relatively inexpensive hydro power which was exploited by another Ahearn and Soper company, the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company.

photo

In August 1892, the Canadian Patent Office issued three patents to Thomas Ahearn. Sandwiched between his electric water bottle and his electric flat iron, was patent no. 39,916 for the electric oven. It was described as “An oven having in its hearth inclosed (sic) pits in which electric heaters are placed.” Just like modern ovens, the interior of Ahearn’s oven was lit by incandescent lamps that allowed a person to monitor whatever was being cooked through a glass window.

While some accounts suggest that the Carpenter Electric Heating Company of Philadelphia had invented the electric oven a year before Ahearn was granted his patent in Canada, there is no doubt that the first dinner entirely cooked using electricity took place in Ottawa on 29 August 1892 at the Windsor House hotel. According to a bemused Ottawa Journal journalist, “a complete repast, comprising a number of courses” was cooked “by the agency of chained lightning.” The hotel proudly proclaimed on its menu that “Every item … has been cooked by the electric heating appliance invented and patented by Mr T. Ahearn of Ahearn & Soper of this city and is the first instance in the history of the world of an entire meal being cooked by electricity.” Even the soup, sauces, and after-dinner coffee and tea were prepared using Ahearn’s electric heaters.

The dinner, or more accurately the feast of some thirty different items, consisted of:

Soup

Consommé Royal

Fish

Saginaw Trout with Potatoes, Croquettes, Sauce Tartar

Boiled

Sugar-Cured Ham, Champagne Sauce,

Spring Chickens with Parsley Sauce

Beef Tongue, Sauce Piquant

Roasts

Sirloin of Beef and Horse Radish

Turkey with Cranberry Sauce

Stuffed Loin of Veal, Lemon Sauce

Entrées

Larded Sweetbreads with Mushrooms

Lamb Cutlets with Green Peas, and Strawberry Puffs

Vegetables

Potatoes, Plain and Mashed

Green Corn, Escalloped Tomatoes

Vegetable Marrow

Pudding and Pastry

Apple Soufflés, Wine Sauce

Apple Pie, Black Current Tarts, Chocolate Cake

Coconut Drops, Vanilla Ice Cream, Maraschino Jelly

Fruits

Apples, Raisins, English Walnuts,

Almonds, Watermelon, Grapes

Black Tea, Green Tea, Coffee

Cheese, Biscuits

One hundred guests were invited by the hotel’s proprietor, Mr Daniels, to enjoy the banquet. The guest list included Ottawa’s Mayor Olivier Durocher, Warren Soper, as well as the presidents of the Ottawa Electric Railway and the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Companies. Also in attendance were numerous newspaper reporters that ensured widespread publicity. The meal was prepared at the electric tram sheds owned by Ahearn and Soper, and rushed by a special carriage to the hotel located several blocks away. The meal included a twenty-one pound roast of beef, a thirteen pound roast of veal, and three big turkeys that were cooked simultaneously in the cavernous Ahearn oven; apparently, the oven could accommodate twice that amount.

After the meal, which was acclaimed as a huge success, with everything “cooked to perfection,” the guests boarded another special tram and taken to view the oven at the tram sheds. There, Thomas Ahearn, who had stayed back to supervise his oven’s operation, provided an explanatory lecture. The arched brick oven was six feet wide with two Ahearn electric heaters installed in the bottom, powered by electricity generated by the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company. The “current consumed by the two [heaters] was 43 amperes at 50 volts.” The inside of the oven measured four feet by four feet. Peepholes, covered with heavy plate glass, permitted the chefs to observe the progress of the cooking without having to open the door. A major selling feature was the even cooking of the oven—“no scorching in one part and half-done-ness in another part” said the Evening Journal. As a vote of confidence in the new electric oven, Mr Daniels, the owner of the Windsor House hotel, ordered one of Ahearn’s newly patented ovens to be installed in the hotel’s kitchen.

photo

A few weeks later, there was another, even larger scale, demonstration of Ahearn’s Electric Cooking Oven at the Central Canada Exhibition held in Ottawa. As part of a display of Ahearn electrical products, including electric home heaters, coffee boilers, and special restaurant heaters, a local baker, Mr R.E. Jamieson, used the oven to bake buns, twelve pans at a time, that he sold to the crowds at twenty-five cents each. This was an extraordinary price. A multi-course meal at the Café Parisien on Metcalfe Street could be had for only forty cents. The Electrical Engineer, a New York-based electrical trade journal, quipped that the expression “‘Went off like hot cakes’ now reads in Ottawa ‘went off like electric cakes.’”

The Ahearn oven that the baker used was slightly different from the one used for the Windsor House banquet, having three heating elements instead of two. The extra element was needed to provide additional heat to offset heat loss through the frequent opening of the door in the cooking of multiple rounds of buns. The oven was also equipped with a pyrometer, turn-off switches, interior lights, and a clock. The oven was the hit of the Fair. Thomas Ahearn was awarded a special gold medal for his display of electrical devices.

While Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper were successful entrepreneurs, making fortunes from their electrically-based, business empire, the Ahearn electric oven proved to be a dud. It was too bulky to be easily used as a household appliance. As well, few homes or businesses were wired for electricity. Even where electricity was available, electric ovens, being energy gluttons, were expensive to operate, and were not initially competitive with the more familiar wood, coal, or gas ovens. It wasn’t until the 1930s that electric ovens became widely accepted.

Sources:

Canadian Patent Office Record and Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, 1893. No, 39,916, Electric Oven, Four Électrique. Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.

Daily (The) Citizen, 1892. “Café Parisien,” 8 October.

Electricity, 1893. An Electric Banquet, 14 September, 1892, Volume 3, July 20, 1892 to January 11, 1893.

Electrical (The) Engineer, 1892. Electric Cooking At Ottawa, Can., Volume 14, July-December.

Electrical Review, 1893. A Course Dinner Cooked By Electricity, Volume 21-23, August 27, 1892 to February 18, 1893.

Evening (The) Journal, 1892. “An Electric Banquet,” 30 August.

Innovateus, 2013. Electric Stove.

Library and Archives Canada, 2006. Made in Canada, Patents of Invention and the Story of Canadian Innovation, Thomas Ahearn.

Mayer, Roy. 1997. Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Vancouver: Raincoast Books.

National Academy of Engineering, 2015. Great Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century.

Images:

Patent No. 39,916, Ahearn Electric Oven, The Canadian Patent Office Record And Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1893.

Thomas Ahearn’s Oven in Operation, Canada Central Fair, Ottawa, October 1892, The Electrical Engineer, “Electric Cooking at Ottawa, Can.,” Volume 14, July-December, author unknown

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.

Asphalt Paving Comes to Ottawa

 

30 July 1895

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

graphic

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

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

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

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

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

graphic

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mackintosh, Philip G., 2005. “Asphalt Modernism on the Streets of Toronto, 1890-1900,” Material Cultural Review, Volume 62, Fall.

National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), 2017. “The History of Asphalt,”.

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

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

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.

Bob, the Fire Horse: The End of an Era

25 September 1929

On 25 September 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal reported the death of old “Bob,” a twenty-five year old horse. It was front page news as Bob wasn’t just any horse but was Ottawa’s last fire horse. The red ribbon and cup winner at the Ottawa Horse Parade passed away in pasture, honourably retired for more than a year. He had been purchased by the Ottawa Fire Department (O.F.D.) in 1908 at the age of four from Hugh Coon. Standing 16 hands, 2 inches tall (66 inches) from the ground to the top of his withers, the jet black, 1,300 pound horse served four fire stations during his lifetime, retiring from the No. 11 station at 424 Parkdale Avenue. Old Bob wasn’t the last horse in active service, but was the last owned by the O.F.D. In late 1928, the last two-horse team, also at service at No. 11 station, was displaced when the O.F.D. purchased three motorized combination ladder and hose trucks. When the team was sold, only Bob was left, pensioned off in recognition of his many years of noble service to the City. His retirement to greener pastures was controversial. Ottawa City Controller Tulley opposed Bob’s pensioning. A delegate to the Allied Trades and Labour Association meeting held in Ottawa in the fall of 1928 wanted to know if Tulley thought the old horse deserved to be shot, and whether the councillor favoured the same treatment be given to other old employees.

photo

Bob’s passing marked the end of an era dating back to 1874 when the City purchased the first horses for its fire department. Prior to then, firemen had to pull their fire engines manually to the scene of a fire. The first fire engine in the city dated back to 1830 when the British regiment stationed on Barracks Hills, now called Parliament Hill, acquired the Dominion, a small manually operated machine. A volunteer fire department was formed in 1838. Later, the first fire hall was established on the ground floor of Bytown’s (later Ottawa’s) City Hall on Elgin Street. During these early years, insurance companies played a major role in fire-fighting, even providing the fire equipment. The first fire stations date from 1853 when the Bytown Town Council established three “engine” houses in West, Central and East Wards, each equipped with hand-pulled engines. In 1860, the now City of Ottawa purchased two hook and ladder trucks. As each weighed more than a ton, they were supposed to have been drawn by horses. But the City was too cheap or too poor to provide the funds for horses so the engines had to be manually pulled to fires.

The volunteer fire department was neither well managed, nor very professional in its operations. According to David Fitzsimons and Bernard Matheson who wrote the definitive history of the Ottawa Fire Department, there were complaints in the 1850s of volunteers who were quick to show off their sky-blue and silver laced uniforms in parades, but were no-shows when there was an actual fire. To “secure the utmost promptitude in the attendance of the different [fire] companies and water carriers at fires,” the City began to offer in the mid-1860s significant financial premiums to first responders. “The first engine to arrive in good working order” received $12, the second $8. The first water carrier received $2 and the second $1. Although such financial incentives did indeed encourage prompt service, they also led to fisticuffs between competing firemen with fires sometimes left unattended. Even when fire fighters managed to arrive at a fire without delay, there was the occasional problem. In 1914, Mr. J. Latimer, a fire department veteran, recalled a major fire in the Desbarats building located on the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets that occurred in February 1869. When the fire threatened to spread to the neighbouring International Hotel, barrels of liquor were rolled out into the street to keep them safe from the flames. In the process, some were broken open and at least two detachments of firefighters went home “wobbly” and had to be replaced before the fire was extinguished.

The first fire horses arrived in 1874 when the City acquired the Conqueror steam engine with a vertical boiler from the Merryweather Company of Clapham, England for the huge sum at the time of $5,953. Considerably heavier than other fire equipment, Ottawa was obliged to buy horses to pull it—anywhere from three to six depending on weather and road conditions. That same year, Ottawa’s volunteer fire department was replaced by a professional, full time force under the leadership of Chief William Young and Deputy Chief Paul Favreau.

The first motorized fire engines were introduced in North America during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1906, the Waterous Engine Works Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota and Brantford, Ontario produced the Waterous Steam Pumper. That same year, the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts produced its motorized fire engine. Such machines quickly became popular with fire departments everywhere. Compared with horse-drawn engines, the new motorized engines were faster and cheaper to operate. Horses needed to be fed 365 days of the year, and required stabling, shoeing, harnesses, and veterinary care. Fire horses also needed to be well trained. They had to be strong, obedient, and willing to stand patiently regardless of weather conditions, noise, and swirling hot embers, flames and smoke. Motorized fire engines didn’t need to be trained, were impervious to weather, and consumed gasoline only when used.

Ottawa purchased its first motorized fire engine in 1911 following pressure from insurance companies that threatened to raise their rates if the City didn’t get into the twentieth century and acquire modern fire-fighting equipment. Chief John Graham was also insistent that the City buy motorized fire equipment for efficiency and effectiveness reasons. Although the initial outlay for a motorized fire truck was higher than that of a traditional horse-drawn vehicle, the operating costs were lower.

photoChief Graham had recommended buying a motor fire truck costing $10,450 from the Webb Motor Fire Apparatus Company of St Louis, Missouri. However, City Council chose a vehicle produced by the W.E. Seagrave Fire Apparatus Company of Walkerville, Ontario (now part of Windsor), the Canadian subsidiary of a company of the same name that had been established in Ohio in 1881. The company had previously sold three of its motorized fire engines to Vancouver in 1907 and one to Windsor in 1910. The four-ton, 80 h.p. Seagrave vehicle purchased by Ottawa carried a price tag of $7,850. It was a combination chemical and hose truck capable of carrying ten firemen, two 35 gallon tanks of fire-suppressing chemicals, 1,000 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a twelve-foot ladder plus extension, door openers, and three fire extinguishers. Fully loaded, the vehicle could attain a speed of up to 50 miles per hour on flat terrain (typically 35 mph), or 20 mph on a 5-10 per cent incline. The City had initially sought a combination automobile pumper truck with a pumping capacity of 700-800 gallons per minute. However, it opted instead for the chemical and hose truck on the grounds that a pumper truck had not yet been adequately proven though tests were underway in New York City on such vehicles.

The new Seagrave truck was shown off to Ottawa residents at the end of May 1911 when it was run out on the road with its siren shrieking for the first time. Chief Graham invited reporters to witness the truck take him, two deputy chiefs and several firemen on a tour of Ottawa along Rideau, Sparks, Bank, Elgin, Laurier and Albert Streets. It visited No. 3, 7, and 2 fire stations before parking at its new home at No. 8 station located to the rear of the Ottawa City Hall on Elgin Street. In town for the event was Mr W.E. Seagrave himself and an instructor, Mr C.E. Fern, who drove the vehicle that first time. Fern taught Fireman James Donaldson of No. 9 station how to drive the newfangled machine.

photo

The Ottawa Evening Journal hoped that the purchase of the Seagrave vehicle marked the start of a complete replacement by Ottawa of its horse-drawn vehicles by motorized fire trucks. (The second motorized vehicle purchased by the O.F.D. was a flash car for Chief Graham who could then retire his horse and buggy.) At that time in 1911, Ottawa’s fire department owned 46 horses, for which the cost of feed alone amounted to $4,600 per year. This was the department’s second largest budgetary item after paying the firemen’s salaries. On top of this were the ancillary costs associated with owning and taking care of horses that needed to be regularly replaced. The newspaper thought that by 1931, the whole O.F.D. might be equipped with motorized vehicles. This was a pretty accurate guess, with the motorization process taking twenty-seven years.

photo

The last major event that saw horse-drawn engines in action was the fire that consumed the old Russell Hotel in the middle of April 1928. By the end of that year, the entire Ottawa Fire Department had been motorized, leaving only old “Bob” to live out his days in green pastures far from the smoke and flames of his fire-fighting days.

Today, the Ottawa Fire Department has forty-five fire stations strategically positioned to protect close to one million people living in an area of 2,796 square kilometres. Among its equipment are pumper trucks, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, and brush trucks as well as boats, ATVs and other rescue equipment.

Sources:

Fire-Dex, 2011. The Switch from Horsepower to Motorized Fire Apparatus, September.

Fitzsimons, David R. & Matheson, J. Bernard, 1988. History of the Ottawa Fire Department, 150 Years of Firefighting, 1838-1988, Kanata: J. B. Matheson and D. R. Fitzsimons, publishers.

Morgan, Carl, 2015. “Seagrave: Birthplace of the Modern Firetruck,” Walkerville Times Magazine.

Ottawa, City of, 2017. About Ottawa Fire Services.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1911. “Fire Chief Wants A Motor Engine,” 26 January.

——————————, 1911. “City Will Purchase An Auto Fire Engine,” 10 February.

——————————, 1911. “Read Tenders For Furniture,” 7 April.

——————————, 1911. “Deputy Chief At Eganville,” 12 May.

——————————, 1911. “Using Automobiles For Fire Purposes,” 29 April.

——————————, 1911. “Shriek of New Engine Was Heard,” 1 June.

——————————, 1914. “With the Ottawa Fire Fighters In Bygone Days,” 7 March.

——————————, 1928. “Labor To Take Keen Interest In Coming Vote,” 22 September.

——————————, 1928. “Only Two Horse In Fire Service,” 9 November 1928.

——————————, 1929. “Last Fire Horse Dies In Pasture,” 25 September.

——————————, 1930. “Chief Burnett Dies At Home Was Long Ill,” 3 November.

Saskatoon, City of, 2000. History of Webb Motor Fire Apparatus.

Wildfire Today, 2016. Horse-drawn fire engines.

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.


Water Woes

23 August 1912

Pure, sparkling clean, tap water. We tend to take it for granted. Occasionally our complacency is shaken, as it was in 2000 when seven people died in Walkerton, Ontario when e. coli contaminated the town’s drinking water. But, thankfully, that was a rare event. Ottawa’s tap water consistently gets top grades for quality. Raw water from the Ottawa River is filtered and chemically treated in several steps to remove bacteria, viruses, algae, and suspended particles. More than 100,000 tests are conducted each year to ensure that crystal clear, odourless, and, above all, safe water is supplied to Ottawa’s households and businesses.

But this was not always the case. One hundred years ago, two old, poorly maintained intake pipes that drew untreated water from mid-river were the source of the city’s water supply. But the Ottawa River was dangerously polluted. The region’s many lumber mills routinely dumped tons of waste each year into the river. Decomposing sawdust was actually responsible for the death of a man from Montebello in 1897 when he was thrown from his boat by a methane explosion. Meanwhile, raw sewage from Ottawa’s burgeoning population, as well as from Hull and other riverside communities, was simply flushed into the river. Sewage from inadequately maintained outdoor privies also leaked into the region’s many creeks and streams that fed the Ottawa River. It was a recipe for typhoid fever.

While typhoid stalked all major Canadian cities during the first years of the twentieth century, Ottawa was among the worst affected. The disease annually claimed on average twenty lives, a shockingly high number for a community of perhaps 75,000 souls. Most of the deaths were recorded in the poor, squalid districts of Lower Town and LeBreton Flats. Civic officials, at best complaisant, at worse criminally negligent, did nothing. It was perhaps easier, and cheaper, to blame the poor’s unhygienic living conditions than to do something about the water supply. But even the death in 1907 of the eldest daughter of Lord Grey, the Governor General, who had been visiting her parents from London, didn’t prompt action.

Ignorance wasn’t a viable defence for civic leaders’ lack of action. By 1900, health officials were very familiar with Samonella enterica typhi, the bacteria that caused typhoid, and how to combat it. They were fully aware that the most common form of transmission was drinking water polluted by human sewage. They also knew that chlorine could be used as a disinfectant, rendering the water safe for consumption. Typhoid was a fully preventable disease.

In 1910, an American expert was finally called in to look at ways of improving Ottawa’s water supply. He recommended the immediate addition of hypochlorite of lime, a bactericide, as an interim remedy until a mechanical filtration plant could be constructed. Alternatively, he proposed that cleaner, albeit much more expensive, water be piped in from Lake McGregor in the Gatineau Hills. His report was shelved.

Disaster struck in early January 1911. In the space of weeks, there were hundreds of typhoid cases in the city. By the end of March, sixty people had died. By year-end, the death toll had reached eighty seven. Even before the epidemic had run its course, the first investigation by the chief medical health officer of Ontario concluded that it was due to contaminated city water. Owing to low pressure, an emergency intake valve in Nepean Bay had been opened to raise water pressure in case of fire. The intake had sucked in raw sewage into the water mains. The source of pollution was traced to Cave Creek (now a sewer) that ran through Hintonburg, a heavily populated area which relied on outdoor privies that emptied into the creek. Blame for the epidemic was placed squarely on civic officials who had done nothing to ensure a safe water supply for Ottawa citizens. A second study concluded that had hypochlorite of lime been added to the city’s water as recommended in the 1910 study, the outbreak could have been averted.

Some modest steps were taken to address the situation. Hypochlorite of lime was finally added to the water, but various technical problems prevented the full amount of the chemical from being used. A new intake pipe was also put down in 1911 and was in use by the following April. But the water remained contaminated as a significant portion of the city’s water continued to be sourced through the old, leaky intake pipes. Although Ottawa’s engineer warned city officials that the water supply remained in a dangerous condition, nothing further was done.

photo


In June 1912, typhoid returned to Ottawa with a vengeance. So bad were conditions that MPs were reluctant to return to Ottawa for the autumn1912 parliamentary session, and lobbied for Parliament to be shifted at least temporarily to Toronto, or even Winnipeg. More radical voices wanted Canada’s capital to be moved permanently if Ottawa could not provide government workers with clean water. The Toronto World thundered that the city was advertising itself “from Vancouver to Halifax as a pest hole of diseases.”

With the disease striking during the prime tourist season, civic and business leaders were keen to play down the extent of the problem and the underlying causes. In mid-August, a secret meeting was held between business leaders, Mayor Charles Hopewell and the city’s medical officer of health to discuss the impact of the epidemic on commerce. On 23 August, the medical officer of health announced that the “typhoid epidemic had run its course” and that the water was now safe to drink; bacteriological tests for the previous five weeks having showed “conclusively” that the water was free from contaminants and was “fit for consumption without boiling or otherwise treating it.” It was a barefaced lie. Cases of typhoid continued to occur. Tragically, there were twelve additional deaths in September and a further nineteen in October, weeks after the epidemic had supposedly ended. In total, roughly 1,400 cases of typhoid were recorded in 1912 with 98 fatalities. In November 1912, City Council self-servingly declared that it was “not legally responsible to the [typhoid] sufferers, but only morally so.” It voted a mere $3,000 to cover urgent relief needs.

This time a judicial inquiry was held into the two epidemics. An investigation by provincial authorities indicated continued gross contamination of the water notwithstanding what the medical officer of health had said. It was also shown that contamination occurred due to leaks in both old and new pipes. The city engineer was suspended and Ottawa’s medical officer of health resigned. Although there was insufficient evidence to indict Mayor Hopewell, his reputation was ruined. He declined to run again as mayor in the 1912 election. In 1914, the provincial board of health concluded that “after careful investigations” the outbreaks of typhoid fever were “caused by the use of sewage-polluted water from the Ottawa River.” It added that it was “a disgraceful fact that up to the present date no satisfactory plan for a pure supply for that city has been adopted.”

While repairs were made to the intake pipes and the water was treated with ammonia and chlorine, it was only a temporary fix to Ottawa’s water woes. A permanent solution had to wait almost twenty years as debate raged on city council and in the courts between those that supported the purification of Ottawa River water and the “Lakers” who wanted to pipe in clean water from 31-Mile Lake or Lake Pemichangan north of the city in the Gatineau Hills. Construction on the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant finally began in 1928. When the plant opened three years later, Ottawa finally had safe tap water.

Sources:

Bourque, André, 2013. City of Ottawa Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant (82 Years Young and Going Strong), Atlantic Canada Water & Wastewater Association.

City of Ottawa, 2014. Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant.

H2O Urban, 2008. Ottawa Report, 22 November.

Jacangelo, Joseph G. and Trussell, R. Rhodes, 2009. “International Report: Water and Wastewater Disinfection: Trends, Issues and Practices,.

Lloyd, Sheila, 1979. “The Ottawa Typhoid Epidemics of 1911 and 1912: A Case Study of Disease as a Catalyst for Urban Reform,” Urban History Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 66-89.

Murray, Mathew, 2012. Dealing with Wastewater and Water Purification from the Age of Early Modernity to the Present: An Inquiry Into the Management of the Ottawa River, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Ottawa.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2007. Notes on a Water Quality and Pollution History of the Ottawa River.

Provincial Board of Health, 1914. 1913 Annual Report.

The Citizen, 1912. “City’s Responsible for Typhoid Claims,” 12 November.

—————–, 1913. “Harsh Condemnation of Ottawa’s Civic Government by Members of Commons in Discussing Pollution of Streams Bill,” 26 April.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953. “History of Ottawa’s Water System Long and Bloody One,” 28 April.

The Evening Telegram, 1907. “Earl Grey’s Daughter Dead,” 4 February.

The Toronto World, 1912. “M.P.’s Afraid To Go To Ottawa,” 5 August.

——————-, 1912, “Typhoid Epidemic in Ottawa Nearly Over,” 24 August.


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.

Ottawa's Street Railways
- Clifford Scott

With all the growth in our City in the past fifty years, I wonder how many people remember the days when you could take a streetcar from, among other routes, from the old train station out to Rideau and Charlotte? Thanks to Professor Don Davis of the University of Ottawa we have a detailed history of the streetcar system and how it grew and how it was eventually done away with! (see Keshen and St. Onge eds, Ottawa—Making a Capital.).

Ottawa's street railway system died in 1959 after a life of 68 years. Did citizens love or hate the system? Davis notes that the love of the system was like some marriages—initial great enthusiasm followed by many years of declining interest in our rapidly changing technological world. Perhaps the streetcar era has lessons to teach in the consideration of expanded light rail?

The new streetcar system was opened on June 29, 1891—largely as a result of the work of two local entrepreneurs, Thomas Aherne and William Soper. Everyone thought that such a project would fail because of Ottawa's winters. However, at the time, unless you could afford a horse and buggy plus sleigh in the winter, there was no way to get around the growing city except by walking. The system proved to be an immediate success, even in the winter. The system had the first electrically heated cars in Canada, maybe even the world. The Ottawa Car Manufacturing Company made streetcars that were exported to other parts of Canada. In the early days of the system, “ridership” rose seven times faster than the population. In 1921 at the peak of the system. Each citizen took an average of 336 rides per year. The fares were low—about three tickets for ten cents Despite attempts at updating and revival, Ottawa's Street Railway went steadily downhill from this point....

Public love for the automobile was probably a contributing factor, as was the rising costs of maintenance, expanding the roadbed and new streetcar technology The investors also played a part as they took an increasing amount of dividends out of the system and did not develop a good reserve fund for necessary expansion and repairs. By 1924, the automobile was using up the space needed for transit cars.. They blocked the progress of streetcars by parking on city streets, forcing other cars to drive on the track allowance and stopping to pick up passengers and make left turns. Streetcar trips became longer. Davis points out that “trains in 1956 were slower than they had been in 1901. Downtown it was faster to walk”

Having made money for years, the owners of the OER now wanted to sell the system to the city. While the City Council was willing to buy, assuming they would have a monopoly on inner city transit. But, over a five year period to 1929, plebiscites were rejected four times. The taxpayers did not want to pay. In January, 1924, the City and the OER reached an agreement to extend the service and monopoly for five years, subject to renewal in 1929. This agreement created more problems than it solved. First, the carfare was frozen at five cents per ride, lower than nearly all other North American systems, and the five year term was not conducive to the kind of capital investment that was becoming increasingly necessary. Thanks to the increasing competition from the automobile, streets became even more clogged and streetcar trips ever longer. In 1929, it was apparent that new equipment was necessary, and the five year contract emboldened the owners to buy new equipment with borrowed money. Contracts were let and then came October 1929. Pressure for loan payment became intense but the fare was still frozen at five cents. When authority was finally obtained to raise the fare to seven cents, “ridership” dropped by 16%, despite a revenue increase of 10%. The OER staggered on until the end of World War 2, but the handwriting was on the wall revenues could never match increasing costs of new equipment, track extensions, competition from the auto and pressures from various interest groups. For example, Glebe residents would not permit streetcar routes along residential streets, The forerunners of the NCC did not want unsightly power lines overhead and riders demanded more comfortable and frequent service The federal government increased business taxes enormously during the War. Trams were crowded and noisy—people preferred buses before the environmental effects of buses were discovered. Despite the eventual creation of the Ottawa Transit Commission in. 1947/48 these questions continued and new ones arose. It was obvious—too many groups wanted the tram lines to disappear. By 1958/59 the pressures became too much and the old streetcar lines were removed. The only mourners at the time were the older population who had fond memories of the great days before and during the First World War.

 

Cliff Scott, an Ottawa resident since 1954 and a former history lecturer at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa), he also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Public Service of Canada.

Since 1992, he has been active in the volunteer sector and has held executive positions with The Historical Society of Ottawa, the Friends of the Farm and the Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa. He also inaugurated the Historica Heritage Fair in Ottawa and still serves on its organizing committee.

THE NABU NETWORK
26 October 1983


~ James Powell

By the early 1980s, Ottawa was a hot-bed of high tech activity. Surrounding established companies, such as Bell Northern Research and Mitel, a cluster of small, ambitious telecommunications and computer-related firms with exotic names had emerged. These included Gandalf Data, Norpak, Xicom, and Orcatech, to name but a few. Many fizzed for a while, only to quickly disappear due to competition, rapidly changing technology, weak consumer demand, and inadequate funding. One that for a time stood out from the pack was NABU. Named for the Babylonian god of wisdom and writing, NABU was an acronym for “Natural Access to Bidirectional Utilities.” In its initial incarnation, the start-up was formally known as NABU Manufacturing Corporation. It was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in December 1982, raising $26 million in its initial public offering. The Ottawa-area company was itself the product of a number of mergers and acquisitions, including Bruce Instruments of Almonte, a manufacturer of remote television converters, Computer Innovations, a seller of computer hardware and software, Mobius Software, Andicon Technical Products of Toronto, a producer of small business computers, Volker-Craig of Kitchener, a manufacturer of video-display terminals, and Consolidated Computer Inc.(CCI), a relatively large, but troubled, government-owned, Canadian computer manufacturer and distributor. NABU bought CCI for one dollar from the federal government after the company had burned through $118 million of taxpayers’ money.

With close to 900 employees, half of whom were based in the Ottawa area, NABU had a multi-faceted business strategy. First, it planned to take on the business market, selling desk-top computers for word processing and data management. Initially producing the NABU 1100 in its Almonte plant, it released the 16-bit NABU 1600 in 1983. The 1600 version had 256 kilobytes of random-access memory (RAM), expandable to 512K, and a 10-megabyte hard drive, and used Intel’s 8086 processor. (Today’s laptop computers have eight to sixteen gigabytes of RAM, with up to 4 terabytes of hard drive, though with cloud computing, the sky is the limit for data storage.) It also came with a high density mini-floppy disk drive with storage for 800K of formatted data. Three people could use the NABU computer simultaneously doing different tasks. The price for the NABU 1600 was a breathtaking $9,800, equivalent to more than $21,000 in today’s money.

Second, NABU aimed to produce the first Canadian microcomputer for home use, taking on the likes of Commodore, IBM, Xerox, and a fledgling company that had gone public in December 1980 called Apple Computer. Third, the company envisaged selling on-line services to households. After buying or renting a NABU home microcomputer, and using its television as a monitor, a familiy could access programmes and data stored in NABU’s central server (a DEC mainframe) through a cable company’s broadband network. As the transmission of television signals only used a portion of the information-carrying capacity of cable networks, there was ample space for the transmission of other data-carrying services without degrading the television signals. The speed that the data could be transmitted on the coaxial cables employed by the cable companies (6.5 megabits per second) was also hundreds of times faster than what could be achieved over telephone lines.

By joining what was advertised as the NABU Network, cable company subscribers who bought the NABU package of services would have access to a wide range of educational and financial programmes, video games, news, weather, sports, and financial data including stock market quotations. In addition to consulting the Ottawa Citizen’s “Dining Out” guide, subscribers could read their daily horoscope, learn to type, balance household budgets, and improve their maths skills. A number of video games were also developed specifically for NABU with the help of another talented Ottawa firm, Atkinson Film Arts, featuring the comic strip characters, the Wizard of Id and B.C. In one game, called The Spook, billed to be superior to the popular arcade game Pac-Man, a player could guide a character through the dungeons of the kingdom of Id to freedom. Subscribers also had access to the space games Demotrons and Astrolander, a tennis game, and a downhill skiing game.

An even more outstanding feature of the NABU Network was two-way communication made possible by Telidon, a videotext/teletext service developed by the Canadian Communications Research Centre. NABU envisaged subscribers doing their banking and shopping from the comfort of their home. Also possible were electronic mail and remote data storage—an early form of cloud computing. In essence, NABU had foreshadowed today’s wired world, a decade before the launch of the Internet.

After rolling out their home computers at the end of May 1983, NABU launched its Network services in Ottawa on 26 October 1983. Initially, the service was only available to Ottawa Cablevision subscribers, i.e. people who resided west of Bank Street. One could purchase the NABU home computer for $950, or rent the unit for $19.95 per month, plus an addition $9.95 for NABU’s “lifestyle software.” For this price, one received the NABU 80K personal computer, a cable adaptor, a keyboard, a games controller, and thirty lifestyle games and programmes; the inventory of games and programmes later rose to roughly one hundred. For an extra $4.95 per month, subscribers had access to LOGO, an educational-based programming language, and LOGO-based programmes. NABU executives hoped to receive orders from at least five per cent of Ottawa Cablevision’s 90,000 customers within six months. In early 1984, the service was made available to subscribers of Skyline Cablevision, i.e. people who resided east of Bank Street. The plan was to introduce the NABU Network to forty cities across North American by the end of 1985. NABU’s first foray into the U.S. market took place in Alexandria, Virginia, close to Washington D.C., in the spring of 1984. To lead the U.S. charge, NABU hired Thomas Wheeler, former president of the US National Cable Television Association.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. When NABU’s line of business computers failed to meet expectations, the company hunkered down to focus on its more promising NABU Network. A corporate restructuring at the end of October 1983 led to the NABU Manufacturing Corporation being split into two companies, the NABU Network Corporation and Computer Innovations. The latter company quickly disappeared into oblivion. NABU Network struggled on for a time. By late 1984, it had about 1,500 customers in the Ottawa region, and a further 700 in Alexandria. This was not enough to make the enterprise viable. With the home computer market seen as being too competitive, the company de-emphasized its proprietary hardware to focus on the delivery of its software. In in a last ditch effort to attract subscribers, adaptors were offered so that owners of Commodore and other home computers could access the NABU Network.

It was not enough. In November 1984, the Campeau Corporation, NABU’s principal shareholder and largest creditor, pulled the plug on the failing enterprise. Having already invested more than $25 million, and, with little indication that NABU could attract sufficient subscribers to break even, let alone turn a profit, Campeau was unwilling to pour more money into the venture. NABU’s remaining 200 employees were laid off. John Kelly resigned as CEO and chairman of the NABU Network Corporation. Trading in NABU Network shares were suspended, with the company delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange in January 1985. When it finally provided financial statements as of September 1984, the company had assets of only $4 million, with liabilities of $30 million. NABU shares, which were sold for $12.75 each at the company’s IPO two years earlier, were worthless.

Still confident about the concept of linking home computers to a central server using cable networks, Kelly formed a new, private company called the NABU Network (1984) to continue providing programmes and video games under licence to NABU subscribers in Ottawa; the U.S. service in Alexandria was discontinued. The new successor company hired back roughly 30 of the staff previously laid off. Subscriptions were sold door-to-door by Amway. Forever the optimist, Kelly hoped to have 6,000-8,000 subscribers by the summer of 1986. It was not to be. Limping along for eighteen months, the company ceased operations at the end of August 1986. The NABU Network dream was no more.

Why did NABU Network fail? In 1986, Kelly attributed its failure to the network concept being “ahead of its time,” and a slump in the home computer industry that killed the NABU personal computer. Part of the problem was that home computers themselves were not widely accepted; relatively few homes had them in the mid-80s. Many saw them as expensive toys rather than an indispensable part of everyday life. Content on the NABU Network was also an issue. Thomas Wheeler, who headed the company’s U.S. operations, and who is currently the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, attributed the company’s failure to its dependence on cable company operators for its subscribers. In contrast, America Online (AOL) in the United States, which launched a similar, but far inferior, dial-up service in 1989, was wildly successful, at least for a time. Wheeler credits AOL’s success to it being available to anyone with a telephone and a modem. Ironically, cable companies later became important internet service providers.

In 2005, the York University Computer Museum began a programme to reconstruct the NABU Network, and develop an on-line collection documenting the NABU technology. It called the NABU Network “a technologically and culturally significant achievement.” Four years later, the Museum’s version of the NABU network was officially demonstrated. There for the event was John Kelly, NABU’s president and chief executive officer.

Sources:

IEEE Canada, 200? (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), The Internet Before Its Time: NABU Network in the Nation’s Capital.

McCracken, Harry, 2010. “A History of AOL, as Told in its Own Old Press Releases,” Technologizer, 24 May.

Montreal Gazette (The), 1983. “Nabu banking on its ‘network.’” 18 November.

———————–, 1985. “Amway to sell Nabu software,” 29 January.

———————–, 1985. “Nabu files statement,” 1 March.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1982. “Nabu goal: To make first Canadian microcomputers,” 23 March.

——————-, 1982. “Nabu adds videogames to service, 31 May.

——————-, 1982. “Nabu teaches computer ‘albatross” how to fly again,” 8 December.

——————-, 1983. “Nabu 1600 hits market across U.S., 27 May.

——————-, 1983. “Nabu 16-Bit Micro Features Intel 8086, 8087 Co-Processors,” 26 October.

——————-, 1983. “World’s first cable-TV computer on line,” 26 October.

——————-, 1983. “The Magic of The Nabu Network, 28 October.

——————-, 1984. “Skyline cable custmoers to get Nabu Network,” 25 April.

——————-, 1984. “Nabu Network reports $2.5 million loss,” 29 May.

——————-, 1984. “Role of Nabu’s own computer played down,” 19 June.

——————-, 1984. “Nabu proving technology before any expansion,” 19 June.

——————-, 1984. “Nabu chief forms new company,” 23 November.

——————-, 1985. “Trading stopped on Nabu shares by Ontario Securities Commission,” 24 January.

——————-, 1986. “Plug finally pulled on failing Nabu Network,” 19 July.

Reyes, Julian, 2014. “How Tom Wheeler Almost Invested The Internet,” Fusion, 27 May.

Wheeler, Tom, 2015, “This is how we will ensure net neutrality,” Wired, 4 February.

York University, 2009. NABU Network Reconstruction Project at YUCoM, (York University Computer Museum).

 

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.

Britannia-on-the-Bay

- James Powell


24 May 1900


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ottawa, (City of), 2016. Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre,

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

 

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.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE IRON HORSE

- James Powell

 

25 December 1854

An iconic image of the Industrial Revolution is the train, powering across the countryside, with clouds of smoke and steam billowing from its locomotive’s smokestack. Not only a new, rapid form of communication, the train embodied the scientific and technological discoveries of the age, the heavy industries needed to make and power it, and the innovative manufacturing techniques required to turn out the miles of iron rails on which it ran. Within twenty years of the inauguration of the world’s first steam-powered, interurban rail line between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830, Europe and the Americas were in the grip of a railway mania, similar to the “dot com” bubble of the 1990s. Hundreds of railway companies were formed; many went bust, though not before leaving behind a massive railway infrastructure legacy. The railway transformed the economies of the world, linking distant communities and opening new markets. In the Americas, the railway provided European settlers with access to virgin territory to exploit (and native communities to despoil), and, in the case of Canada, gave birth to a nation that spanned a continent.

The first Canadian railway was constructed in 1836 in Lower Canada, now Quebec. The Champlain and St Lawrence Railroad ran between La Prairie on the St Lawrence to St Jean on the Richelieu River, a navigable waterway that debouches into Lake Champlain. The railway cut hours off the long journey between Montreal and New York City. Railway building began in earnest in Canada following the Guarantee Act of 1849 under which the Province of Canada government offered cheap financing to companies building railways of at least 75 miles in length. Additional government financing was forthcoming after the 1852 Municipal Loan Act. In 1850 there was less than 110 kilometres of railroad laid down in Canada. Ten years later, there was more than 3,200 kilometres.

photo

Discussions to bring the “iron horse” to the Ottawa valley began in 1848. In May of that year, The Packet, the precursor of The Ottawa Citizen, began to enthusiastically promote the building of a railway between Bytown, later to become Ottawa, and Prescott, a small community on the St Lawrence River. Prescott was immediately opposite Ogdensburg, New York which was to be the terminus of a railway linking the St Lawrence River to New York City and Boston. As the only way in or out of Bytown during winter was by sleigh, a rail link from Bytown to Prescott offered the tantalizing possibility of an all-season transportation route for exporting lumber cut from Ottawa valley forests to the important U.S. markets, one that was much speedier and less costly than using the Rideau Canal or the Ottawa River that were locked in ice for four months of the year.

Prescott’s leading citizens held an exploratory meeting with engineers and surveyors in June 1848. A similar meeting took place at the Court House in Bytown the following month. Receiving wide support from both communities, the Bytown and Prescott Railway was incorporated by an act of the Provincial government on 10 May 1850. A prospectus was issued describing the length of the line, its likely location, and its construction and outfitting costs, estimated at £150,000-200,000 (£1=C$4.87). To make it pay, annual revenues of £21,000-30,000 were needed. The possibility of extending the line eastward to link up with the Lachine to Montreal railway was also mooted. The line’s chairman was John McKinnon, the son-in-law of Thomas McKay, whose company helped to build the Rideau Canal, and who was a major lumber mill owner in New Edinburgh, a village he started.

Through the winter of 1850-51, the surveyor, Walter Shanley, with two assistants, mapped out four possible routes from Prescott to Bytown, covering more than 300 miles on snowshoe. On 7 April 1851, Shanley gave his report to the president and directors of the railway company. While stressing the preliminary nature of his survey, he favoured a route to the east of the Rideau River that took the tracks from Prescott through Spencerville, Oxford, Kemptville, Osgoode, Manotick, and Gloucester, before arriving in Bytown. While the terminus at Prescott on the St Lawrence was not controversial, the location of the Bytown terminus was. Some shareholders favoured a spot beside the Rideau Canal Basin (roughly where Confederation Park and the Shaw Centre is located today), while others wanted to build the station on land originally set aside for the military between Nepean Point and the Rideau Falls. The latter option was chosen. It was perhaps not entirely coincidental that the train would conveniently pass in front of Thomas MacKay’s lumber mills. With hindsight, Lebreton Flats, which later was to become the centre of Ottawa’s lumber industry, would have been a much better location, but at the time the area was largely undeveloped.

Funds to build the railway were raised partly by subscription from private shareholders, partly from municipalities, and partly through loans raised in England and Canada. Unfortunately for the railway’s backers, the line, only 52 miles long, was too short to qualify for the provincial subsidy. However, Bytown kicked in £15,000 in equity, and, after the 1852 Municipal Loan Act was passed, provided a massive loan guarantee of £50,000. Tiny Prescott, with a population of only 2,000, provided another £8,000 in capital and £25,000 in loan guarantees. The township of Gloucester chipped in a further £5,000 in equity financing. The links between the towns that provided support, the railway’s largest shareholders, and the railway’s most prominent advocate were unhealthily close, at least by today’s standards. Robert Bell, editor and later owner of the Ottawa Citizen, was the railway’s secretary, as well as a Bytown councilman. John McKinnon, the company’s president, was the reeve of Gloucester.

Workers started to clear land for the railway in early September 1851, with the official ground-breaking ceremony held on 9 October, 1851. A celebratory parade started in front of the railway office on Rideau Street and made its way down Sussex Street. On hand for the big event, were Bytown’s mayor, members of the Town Corporation, the directors and officers of the Bytown and Prescott Railway, a senior magistrate, the area’s member of parliament, the county sheriff, and the “Sons and Cadets of Temperance” in full regalia. That evening, McKinnon and the directors hosted a self-congratulatory dinner at “Doran’s,” a top Bytown hotel. Notwithstanding the presence of temperance followers in the afternoon parade, copious amounts of champagne and wine was consumed, leading to a “number of jovial songs…sung in the course of the evening.”

Construction was initially slow but for the most part straightforward; Shanley had done a good job siting the tracks. The most difficult part was crossing a swamp north of Prescott. Here, engineers laid down a wooden causeway as a bed for the train tracks. Once the rails arrived from England from the Ebbw Vale Iron Company in late 1853 and early 1854, the pace of construction picked up. The railway company laid down a narrow 4 ft 8 1/2 in. gauge track, commonly used in the United States and elsewhere, rather than the broad 5 ft 6 in. “provincial” gauge typically used in Canada at that time. The carriages and locomotives were sourced in the United States, with the first locomotive, the “Oxford” delivered by barge in May 1854. Two more, the “St Lawrence and the “Ottawa,” arrived in July. Immediately, the locomotives and carriages were put into service, servicing Kemptville by August, and Gloucester, just three and a half miles from Bytown, by 11 November.

photo

When the first train arrived in Bytown is a bit controversial. An advertisement placed by the railway in the Ottawa Citizen, dated 14 December 1854, informed its Bytown customers that “trains will start from the Montreal Road near the Rideau Bridge, at the East end of Bytown, at 7 o’clock, A.M. (Railway time).” Simultaneously, the railway discontinued its temporary stage coach service from Bytown to the Gloucester train station. The place of embarkation was just outside Bytown’s city limits. Most authorities place the date of the first train as Christmas Day, 1854, based in part on a later newspaper advertisement which said the train would leave Bytown at 6am, Railway time, staring on 25 December (see above). However, in a speech given eleven years after the event, President Bell of the Railway said the date of the first train was 29 December. Differences in timing may relate to when the Rideau Bridge was finally ready for rail traffic, whether the train carried freight or passengers, or the fog of memory. The official opening of the line occurred on 10 May 1855, exactly five years after the railway company was incorporated. Its name was also changed from the Bytown and Prescott Railway to the Ottawa and Prescott Railway to reflect the city’s new name.

Like many similar ventures of the period, the railway never lived up to the hopes of its shareholders and creditors, and was quickly in financial difficulty. An economic depression in the late 1850s cut into the revenues of the heavily-indebted line. The railway’s Ottawa station was also inconvenient for much of the city’s growing lumber industry located in Lebreton Flats. The building of other rail lines meant more competition and lower prices. At the Ottawa & Prescott’s annual general meeting in May 1863, a faction of shareholders tried to seize control of the failing company; an unseemly brawl ensued. Subsequently, with the railway bankrupt, the company’s senior creditors, most importantly, the Ebbw Vale Iron Company, assumed control. Shareholders and junior creditors, including the municipalities, got nothing. Following a corporate re-organization, the line re-emerged in 1867 as the St Lawrence and Ottawa Railway. In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway took over the line, and began using it as a feeder link to its main east-west route. Declining traffic during the 1950s led to the closure of the line, and its rails pulled up. Much of the route was converted into a recreational path. In downtown Ottawa, the Vanier Parkway was constructed where the old Bytown & Prescott Railway used to run. A portion of the old line’s route is still used today by Ottawa’s “O” train.

Sources:

Churcher, Colin, 2005. The First Railway in Ottawa, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Articles/Article2005_1.html.

——————, 2005. First Trips and Early Excursions in the Ottawa Area, http://www.railways.incanada.net/circle/excursions.htm#B&Psod.

Elliot. S. R., 1979. Bytown & Prescott Railway, Bytown Railway Society.

Pilon, Henri, 1972. “Robert Bell (1821-73),” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bell_robert_1821_73_10E.html.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1851. “Report, Bytown and Prescott Railway Office, Prescott,” 26 April.

———————-, 1851, “no title,” [official opening of the Bytown and Prescott Railroad], 11 October.

———————-, 1854, “Bytown & Prescott Railway,” 16 December.

———————-, 1854, “Bytown & Prescott Railway,” 23 December.

———————-, 1862. “Railway Celebration,” 23 August.

———————-, 1863, “The Railway Meeting, Disgraceful Scenes!” 22 May.

The Packet, 1848, “The Ogdensburg Railway,” Bytown, 13 May.

————-, 1848. “Proceeding of a Meeting of the Inhabitants of the town of Prescott,” 19 June.

————–, 1848. “Most Important Intelligence – Prescott & Bytown Railroad,” 24 June.

————–, 1848. “Prescott and Bytown Railroad from Prescott Telegraph,” 24 June.

————–, 1848, “Bytown & Prescott Railroad,” 7 July.

————–, 1850. “Prospectus of the Bytown & Prescott Railroad, 30 November.

————–, 1851. “Public Meeting in Gloucester.” 19 April.

————–, 1854, “Bytown & Prescott Railroad, 6 May.

Vanier Now, 2013. The History of the Vanier Parkway-Part One: Bytown and Prescott Railway Company, http://vaniernow.blogspot.ca/2013/02/the-history-of-vanier-parkway-part-one.html.

Images: Churcher, Colin, “All Change at Prescott,” picture of the Ottawa & Prescott Railway’s locomotive “Ottawa,” circa 1861, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Articles/Article2008_01.html.

Bytown & Prescott Railway Advertisement, The Ottawa Citizen, 23 December 1854.

 

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.

Parking Meters Arrive in Ottawa

25 April 1958

By the time of the Great Depression the automobile had replaced the horse-drawn carriage. In 1929, five million cars were produced in the United States, with another quarter million made in Canada. City streets were becoming clogged with vehicles, and parking was becoming a serious problem everywhere. Through the working week, people drove their vehicles to downtown offices, and parked them on neighbouring streets for eight hours or longer. This left little room for shoppers. Although the Depression drastically slowed the production and sale of cars, it didn’t solve the parking problem. Carl C. Magee, a noted American publisher, came up with a solution–the coin-operated parking meter. (Magee had become prominent during the 1920s for publicizing the Teapot Dome Scandal, the biggest U.S. political scandal prior to Watergate, that led to the Secretary of the Interior being jailed for corruption.) Magee, in cono-operation with University of Oklahoma engineers Holger Thuesen and Gerald Hale, developed a working prototype. In May 1935, Magee filed a patent in the United States for a coin-controlled device, receiving U.S. patent 2,118,318 three years later for his invention. American cities took to the new invention like proverbial ducks to water as a way of encouraging motorists to vacate parking spaces. The fact that parking meters were a real money spinner certainly helped too. Meters paid for themselves in four or five months.

PhotoOklahoma City installed Magee’s “park-o-meter” its streets in July 1935, just weeks after Magee filed his patent application. Reporting on the event, The Ottawa Journal called the new device the “automat of the curbstone,” describing it as “a metal hitching post with meter attached” that promised “to solve the pest of the streets – ‘the parking hog.’” It opined that people will be watching the experiment with great interest.

Ottawa wasted little time in exploring the possibility of introducing parking meters to the streets of the nation’s capital. In 1936, City Council received an offer from one O. G. O’Regan to install parking meters in downtown Ottawa. In a letter, O’Regan explained that the cost of the meters would be paid by parking fees, and that after the costs were met, the revenue would accrue to the city. Ottawa’s Board of Control said that O’Regan should speak to the Automobile Club, the Board of Trade and other groups to educate the public about such a drastic change in parking regulations. In an editorial the Journal said that the parking meter was “so new that probably many people are unfamiliar with it.” Assessing the pros and cons of a trial, the newspaper argued that if free street parking is not a “right,” then Ottawa might as well make some revenue from it “if the privilege is to be extended.” Also, if meters reduced casual parking, merchants might benefit. However, the newspaper was uncertain whether Ottawa citizens would take kindly to the idea, and wasn’t sure if meters could be used with parallel parking.

Ottawa did not take kindly to the idea. It took three attempts and twenty years before City Hall got the votes to install meters. On the first attempt in 1938, the Traffic Committee and the Board of Control recommended the installation of 903 meters in downtown Ottawa for a six-month trial period. Supporters of the measure hoped that meters would be more effective than existing parking regulations in curbing lengthy parking stays. In 1937, 14,000 parking tickets were handed out to motorists who had overstayed the 30-minute parking limit, but only 900 fines were issued. Opponents argued that instead of unsightly meters, parking problems could be addressed through the enforcement of existing rules. Mayor Stanley Lewis opposed meters as did merchants who feared losing business if free parking was eliminated. A concession on the part of meter supporters to reduce the charge for the first twelve minutes to only one cent was not sufficient to change minds. With Toronto and Montreal having turned down metered parking, Council rejected meters on an 18-8 vote. The measure was put onto the backburner for a decade.

Photo

In 1947, the issue resurfaced. By this time, meters had apparently been installed in 1,200 U.S. cities and 49 Canadian communities, including Kingston, Oshawa and Windsor. Once again, the Traffic Committee and the Board of Control favoured their introduction. But Stanley Lewis, who still occupied the mayor’s chair, remained a steadfast opponent. At Council, the debate was fierce. Supporters argued that metered parking would allow for a more equitable distribution of limited parking spaces, would speed up business, reduce congestion, and increase municipal revenues. The anti-meter faction argued that meters would ruin the look of Ottawa, would clutter sidewalks, and that shoppers would avoid areas that had metered parking. Some also contended that metered street parking was a “nuisance” tax on motorists, and that their advantages were unproven. One alderman suggested that to reduce congestion, he would ban all parking on Bank and Sparks Streets, and convert part of Major Hill’s Park into a parking lot. “The park is only frequented by tramps, and the public do not go there.”

In December 1947, Council narrowly voted (12-10) in favour of installing parking meters for a one-year trial, and issued a request for tenders. One would think that this would have been the end of the matter—far from it. Two firms, the Mi-Co Meter Company of Montreal and the Mark Time Meter Company of Ottawa, submitted bids for the contract. Early the following year, the Board of Control selected Mi-Co on the basis that it offered the lowest price. However, City Council subsequently rejected the Mi-Co bid in favour of Mark Time meters. While Council did not have to select the lowest bid, the rationale for overturning the Mi-Co bid was murky. The Mi-Co Meter Company, whose meters were actually made in Ottawa by a company called Instruments, Ltd, indicated that it would seek an injunction to stop the city from signing a contract with Mark Time on the grounds that it had won the tender since its meters were cheaper and conformed to City specifications whereas Mark Time meters did not. Among other things, the City had specified that the dial indicating the amount of time available was to be visible on both sides of the meter. This requirement that was not met by Mark Time meters. After another stormy Council session, Council voted 17-7 to rescind the awarding of the contract to Mark Time. It was a pyrrhic victory for Mi-Co. Ten days later City Council overturned the parking meter trial on an 18-2 vote. According to the Ottawa Journal, this decision “positively, definitively, officially and finally” meant that parking meters would not be installed on Ottawa streets.

With the parking debate in abeyance in Ottawa, Eastview (Vanier), which was a separate municipality, got a jump on its municipal big sister by introducing parking meters in May 1951 along Montreal Road. The charge was one cent for the first twelve minutes and five cents for an hour of parking time from 8am to 8pm Monday to Saturday. The experiment was a great success with congestion along Montreal Road substantially reduced. The fine for a parking violation was $1 if paid within 48 hours at the police station, or $3 if the infraction went to court.

Shortly afterwards, despite the “definitive” decision not to install parking meters in neighbouring Ottawa, the City Council’s Traffic Committee again recommended the installation of meters on certain Lowertown streets and well as on Lyon, Sparks and Queen Streets. But with Charlotte Whitton assuming the mayor’s chair in 1951, the recommendation went nowhere. The pugnacious and irascible Whitton was dead set against parking meters. “[If] we want space on our streets for moving traffic, we surely don’t want to rent out public streets and give people the right to store their cars there,” she said. She favoured more off-street parking instead.

It wasn’t until after Whitton had been dethroned in 1956 that the parking meter issue resurfaced in any significant manner at Ottawa City Council. By this time, meters had become a familiar part of the urban landscape in most North American towns and cities. Toronto had succumbed in 1952 and Montreal two years later. The Journal newspaper had also for several years run a series of favourable articles on the success of meters in other towns in curbing traffic congestion and, incidentally, raising huge sums for municipal coffers. These articles were helpful in preparing the ground for parking meters. In mid-December 1957, Ottawa’s Civic Traffic Committee unanimously recommended the installation of parking meters, the last outspoken critic of the machines on the Committee having thrown in the towel. A few days later, City Council passed the measure virtually without debate, agreeing to install meters in central Ottawa in the area bounded by Laurier, Kent, Wellington and Elgin as well as in Lowertown along Rideau from Mosgrove (located where Rideau Centre is today) to King Edward and along bordering side streets for one block.

PhotoTo help avoid the contract problems that the City had ten years earlier, precise specifications were issued in the call for tenders. Four companies—Sperry Gyroscope Ottawa Ltd with its Mark Time meter, the Duncan Parking Meter Company of Montreal with its Duncan “50” and Duncan “60” models, The Red Ball Parking Meter Company of Toronto, and the Park-o-Meter Company also of Toronto—submitted bids to install 925 meters. Nettleton Jewellers examined the clockwork mechanism of all test machines submitted with the tenders. The winner was the Duncan Parking Meter Company of Montreal for its economy Duncan “50” model at $55 each.

Within weeks of the tender being accepted in February 1958, meter poles began to sprout on Ottawa streets. After testing, the first meters went “live” on Rideau Street on Friday, 25 April 1958. Traffic Inspector Callahan said that the meters were effective immediately and “must be fed” wherever they had been installed. Motorists were also given instruction on how to park—with front wheels opposite the machines. If a car occupied more than one space, both meters would have to be fed, five cents for 30 minutes, 10 cents for an hour. It was also illegal for motorists to stay longer than one hour; topping up the meter was not permitted. A parking infraction led to a $2 ticket. The meters were a great success, especially financially. The meters began pulling in $3,500 per week, considerably more than had been expected, with annual maintenance and collection expenses placed at only $20,000.

Over the next half century, the ubiquitous parking meter ruled downtown curbsides, standing every car length or two depending on whether single-headed or double-headed machines were being used. But in the 2000s, single-space curbside meters began to give way in Ottawa to multi-space machines (Pay and Display) that gave motorists a slip of paper that indicated the expiry time to be placed on the dashboard. This innovation permitted more cars to be parked on a given street, and eliminated “free” parking when a motorist parked in a spot with unused time on a standard meter. It also helped to reduce the clutter of unsightly meters on city sidewalks.

Photo

Other technological advances are also reducing the number of parking meters. Some communities have adopted in-vehicle parking meters—an electronic device that motorists can charged up and display on a car window. Others have embraced pay-by-phone parking with licence plate enforcement. In 2012, pay by telephone parking arrived in Ottawa through a system called “PaybyPhone” that is available in major cities around the world. After registering, a motorist enters a location number and selects the desired length of parking time up the permitted maximum. The parking charge is automatically debited to a credit card. Parking enforcement officers have a hand-held device that has real-time access to licence plate numbers and paid vehicles.

Looking forward, one can envisage further technological changes that could accelerate the demise of the parking meter, including in-car sensors and shared, autonomous vehicles that people call when needed. The parking meter, even the modern, multi-space machines now found on Ottawa streets, may soon become as rare as a telephone call box.

Sources:

Everett, Diana, 2009. “Parking Meter,” Oklahoma Historical Society.

Google Patents, 2017. Coin Controlled Parking Meter, US2118318 A, Inventor: Carl c Magee, May 24, 1938.

Grush, Ben, 2014, “Smart Attrition: As the parking meter follows the pay phone,” Canadian Parking Associatio.

Ottawa, (City of), 2017. How to pay for parking, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/transportation-and-parking/parking/how-pay-parking.

Ottawa Sun, 2012. “Pay by phone parking arrives,” 5 April.

Ottawa Citizen, 1958. “Something Has Been Added,” 19 April.

Ottawa Journal, 1935. “The Automat of the Curbstone,” 29 July.

——————-, 1936. “Parkometer Proposal Is Referred To Board,” 22 September.

——————-, 1936. “Parking By Meter,” 23 September.

——————-, 1936. “Consider Parkometer Plan,” 23 September.

——————-, 1938. “No Harm In Trying The Parking Meters,” 16 April.

——————-, 1938. “Council Rejects Parking Meter Plan,” 21 June.

——————-, 1948. “Ottawa Firm Seeks Injunction to Restrain Meter Negotiations,” 10 June.

——————-, 1948. ‘“In Again, Out Again Meters’ Voted Out at Council Caucus,” 12 June.

——————-, 1948. “Right Decision on Parking Meters.” 19 June.

——————-, 1948. “And Now Let’s Forget Them!” 23 June.

——————-, 1950. “Parking Meters Approved For Eastview,” 26 October.

——————-, 1951. “134 Parking Meters Go In At Eastview,” 7 May.

——————-, 1951. “Eastview Find Parking meters Clear Montreal Road,” 16 June.

——————-, 1953. “Down With Meters Says Mayor,” 23 December.

——————-, 1957. “Board of Control,” 13 December.

——————-, 1957. “Parking Meters,” 17 December.

——————-, 1958. “Six companies Tender On Meters,” 29 January.

——————-, Parking Meter Proposal Submitted,” 31 January.

——————-, 1958. “Ottawa Buys 1,000 Parking Meters,” 18 February.

——————-, 1958. “Rideau Street Parking Meters In Operation,” 25 April.

——————-, 1958. “Meters Earn $3,500 A Week,” 14 August.

PaybyPhone, 2017. Welcome to PaybyPhone, Ottawa.

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.

 

“Hello Ottawa–Hello Montreal”

 

20 May 1920

 

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

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

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

photo


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Broadcaster, 2001, 100 Years of Radio: Celebrating 100 years of radio broadcasting.

Historica Canada, Broadcasting.

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

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

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

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

Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe, ”.

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

Image: CFCF Radio, Montreal, author unknown, Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe,”.


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.