Saturday, March 18, 2017

The fading history of the Hintonburg Pumphouse


Many of the comforts of life we take for granted today were nothing more than a dream a little over 100 years ago. In the late 1800s, while Hintonburg and Mechanicsville were prospering and growing rapidly, the infrastructure had not grown along with it. Water service to the neighbourhood was non-existent, and sewage was primitive at best. Both were seem as impossible, owing to the bedrock on which most of the area sat. I'm sure many citizens in the 1890s cursed the village planners who had established this busy residential and commercial section on top of what was then an impenetrable platform of rock.

Water service eventually became an absolute necessity, as fires were constant in the area, any of which could threaten the entire neighbourhood at any time, depending on the wind. Adding to that, no industrial companies could be compelled to move to the area without water, and perhaps most concerning of all, the ongoing use of outhouses at every home spilled into the small network of creeks that traversed Hintonburg, leading to the regular spread of illness and occasionally, death.

The establishment of water works was finally a success in 1899, and this is the story of that system, and the pumphouse which enabled water to finally flow to the homes of Hintonburg that year.

It came at a heavy cost, however. Hintonburg spend over their heads on the project, leaving themselves unable to afford sewers that they needed as well, and in heavy debt. The independent village had no choice but to join to Ottawa to help in the matter, and within a few years, they joined the city water system, rendering the little pumphouse redundant. However, it took on a new identity as a unique little waterside house, which was inhabited until 1980. The house later was given heritage status, and would today be a really cool structure that could have had a million different community uses. Unfortunately, kids or transients burned the house down in an intentionally set fire in 1989 while it sat vacant and awaiting a decision on its use. The ruins were still substantial in 1989 (as you can see in one of the photos in the link below) and more could have been done to rebuild or preserve, but instead the house was left to rot over the last 30 years. Now there is little left to save, and any preservation would come at a hefty cost, which no one seems to want to pay, in order to preserve a small bit of the building on a site they aren't even sure how to use. I'm sure we are still many years away from a decision being made on what to do, meanwhile the ruins continue to sit idle.

Here's the full story of the building below, along with a bunch of photos not available in the print edition:

https://kitchissippi.com/2017/03/16/hintonburg-pumphouse/

Friday, March 3, 2017

A special night for Hintonburg in 1898 - the Klondike Gold Rush

Life in Hintonburg in 1898 of course cannot be compared to 2017. Whereas today Wellington Street West offers an abundance of restaurants and pubs, shopping and entertainment options, 119 years ago the options would have been very minimal. Aside from the odd tavern or two, the local post office and a few shops selling the necessities of life, it was a pretty quiet village. The West End Park on Holland Avenue added a little life to the area in summer evenings, but for the majority of the year, entertainment in Hintonburg would have been hard to come by. In fact, if not for the relatively newly-installed streetcar tracks connecting Hintonburg to Ottawa, life probably was quite isolated. 

Thus, when the occasional event would be held in the village, the residents would come out in droves. This was especially true on a cold February night in 1898, when the Hintonburg Town Hall on Parkdale Avenue played host to a prominent explorer and lecturer for one rare evening. 

The Town Hall was located just south of where the old fire station now stands, and was the Nepean Township Town Hall until Hintonburg severed itself from Nepean in 1893. A lack of large gathering spaces essentially meant the Town Hall was the place for popular events in Hintonburg during this era. 

On February 15th 1898, the residents of Hintonburg were likely joined by many from the surrounding area who traveled through a particularly windy and snowy evening to take advantage of a rare opportunity to hear famed Canadian explorer William Ogilvie present stories of the Yukon Gold Rush.

William Ogilvie

The Yukon Gold Rush was just entering its peak in popularity, and Ogilvie had been at the center of it all. Gold had been discovered in August of 1896, creating a mad rush of people from all over North America to the northwest corner of the continent, in the mad dash for riches. Ottawa was not immune to gold rush fever; many citizens left the city in 1897 and 1898 to stake a land claim and try their luck.


A little biographical info on Ogilvie from Wikipedia: Ogilvie was born on a farm in Gloucester Township, in an area now known as Glen Ogilvie. He articled as a surveyor with Robert Sparks, qualifying to practice as a Provincial Land Surveyor in 1869. He married Sparks' daughter Mary, a school teacher, in 1872. He worked locally as a land surveyor, qualified as a Dominion Land Surveyor in 1872 and was first hired by the Dominion government in 1875. He was responsible for numerous surveys from the 1870s to the 1890s, mainly in the Prairie Provinces. From 1887 to 1889, Ogilvie was involved in George Mercer Dawson's exploration and survey expedition in what later became the Yukon Territory. He surveyed the Chilkoot Pass, the Yukon and Porcupine rivers. Ogilvie established the location of the boundary between the Yukon and Alaska on the 141st meridian west. During the Klondike Gold Rush, he surveyed the townsite of Dawson City and was responsible for settling many disputes between miners. Ogilvie became the Yukon's second Commissioner in 1898 at the height of the gold rush, and resigned because of ill-health in 1901. He was the author of Early Days on the Yukon (1913), which is still available in facsimile reprints. The Ogilvie Mountains, Ogilvie River and Ogilvie Aerodrome in the Northern Yukon Territory along with Ogilvie Valley in the Southern Yukon Territory are named after him.

Back to 1898, Ogilvie was on a book tour of sorts, promoting his recent publication "The Klondike", a detailed book for those who were travelling (or considering travelling) to the Yukon, with advice on what prospectors could expect, tips for survival, maps and other gold-hunting advice! (The book, which is actually quite an interesting read from the exciting period of time during the gold rush craze, can be read in its entirety at https://archive.org/details/klondikeofficial00ogiluoft). 

Ottawa Journal, February 10, 1898

The Gold Rush had not hit its zenith yet in early 1898, but its allure was strong, even in Ottawa. Many newspaper ads of this brief era targeted those travelling to the Yukon. Apparently there was quite a local commercial industry for it. Here are just a couple I quickly snipped from the old paper from the same week Ogilvie visited Hintonburg. These are true actual ads run by companies in downtown Ottawa!

Ottawa Journal, February 14, 1898

Ottawa Journal, February 16, 1898

Ogilvie had made a presentation in Ottawa a week prior, to a large crowd at the Russell Theatre. His audience there included Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier who introduced Ogilvie, as well as the Governor-General. Other attendees included many Ministers, Senators and members of the House of Commons, as well as a large crowd of the general public. Laurier introduced Ogilvie as "a man who had not only served the government and the people, but had served the nation and the empire, and had made Canada known from one end of the world to the other." Hintonburg was certainly fortunate to host Ogilvie the following week. It was well advertised, and I am sure much anticipated by the locals.

Ottawa Journal, February 14, 1898

The presentation in Hintonburg was organized by the Bethany Church, and the large audience ensured a successful evening for the Church that night. Rev. Eadie from Bethany Church hosted the lecture, which Mr. Ogilvie  titled "Klondike Reminisences". 

In his speech, Ogilvie warned local citizens against going to the Yukon. "You had better not go to the Klondike this year. There will be gold found there for years to come yet, but this year will be a bad year in that country because too many people are going and they will not be able to endure the hardships" he stated.

He opened his talk in describing the Yukon geographically, illustrating with the use of a map the location of the Yukon River, its tributaries and the gold fields. He then detailed his experiences in the Yukon. "Men cease to be like themselves in that country", he said. "As the result of the lust for gold and the hardships endured, they forget they are friends and will even curse each other and part". He spoke of groups of friends who started out together but "in a short time the altered circumstances and surroundings have so changed them that they will separate one by one until each man is parted from his friends."

He also related his experience with real estate agents in the Yukon: "The country is exceedingly rich. Many claims will return millions of dollars. There are 30 of them in a row that will do it. Some 3,800 claims are now recorded and a good many of these are staked simply to take advantage of ignorant people. You should be very cautious about investing. I give you fair warning, for I anticipate some nasty work next year."

Another highlight of the presentation was the display of photographs from the Yukon. Keep in mind in 1898, photographs were still a rare thing, and for most in the crowd, viewing images of far away Yukon would have been an exciting event all on its own. It was reported that Ogilvie at the close of his speech, "exhibited some very fine views of scenes in the mountains, on the rivers, at the mining camps, and in the towns of the far of land. His descriptions were clear and very brief as he had some 60 pictures to present." He afterwards also unfurled the first Union Jack flag ever flown in Dawson City, which he had made himself. The paper reported it would soon be placed in the museum in Ottawa.

Ottawa Journal, February 16, 1898

What is also interesting about the descriptions of the evening, is the technology involved. The photographs exhibited were known as "limelight views", projected onto a canvas by a stereopticon. 

Example of a "Stereopticon", an early version of a
slide projector.

The article also makes mention that the projectionist Woodruff played music during the intermission on the autoharp, which appears to be this popular 19th-century instrument below:



An interesting and significant night in early Hintonburg for sure, and very likely one the highlights of the year for many. I wonder how many local residents Ogilvie managed to talk out of (or into) taking their chances and chasing the Klondike gold rush?

William Ogilvie and his party in the Yukon in 1895
(Ogilvie is bottom row, second from right)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The fires of Skead's Mills & how Westboro was born

Back in the early part of the winter, I spent a bit of time digging more deeply into the history of Westboro Beach. I had the great pleasure of being asked to present at the Westboro Beach Community Association AGM in December. For this, I put together as many interesting photos and stories as I could on the area in the 1800s, when it was not exactly a beach. What is great about this topic is that many present-day residents are shocked to learn that the area and land had a much different use back in this era, which indeed gave Westboro its auspicious birth.

Prior to 1870, there was very little development west of Hintonburg. There were farms off of Richmond Road, but no trains had arrived yet, and any attempts to sell land or promote new subdivisions were losing battles.

However in 1869, the Canada Central Railway announced they would be opening a rail line from Lebreton Flats west to Carleton Place. The line would run more or less alongside the Ottawa River until past Britannia, and then cut south through Nepean Township to Carleton Place. This meant that trains would begin to appear steaming through the farmlands of Kitchissippi. Deals were struck with farm owners to acquire tracts of land for the tracks to run through. Or, in the case of one lumberer and investor with a little inside information, shrewd deals were struck to acquire the land surrounding the forthcoming track.

James Skead in 1869 was a Canadian Senator, and had been one of Ottawa's most prominent and successful businessmen and citizens over the past twenty years. He was born in England in 1817, and came to Canada at the age of 10, not long after his Mom had passed away. The family settled in Montreal first, then Bytown a few years later. In his 20s, he started in the lumbering trade, and invested in business along the Madawaska River. He took in his first haul, a swath of red pine, in 1843. He became an expert in river works, and constructed innovative slides at various locations including Bytown. He was prosperous from the beginning, and held an incredible number of titles over the years.

He sat on the first Ottawa Board of Trade elected in 1857, was President of the Dominion Board of Trade, President of the Ottawa Agricultural Insurance Society, President of the Ottawa Iron and Steel Manufacturing Company, President of the Ottawa Agricultural Society, President of the Upper Ottawa Steamboat Company, and a director of various groups including the Ottawa Association of Lumber Manufacturers, Madawaska River Improvement Association, Ontario Fruit Growers Association, the Ottawa Immigrant Aid Society, the Ottawa Rifle Association, the Rideau Club, and various shipping and rail companies. That isn't even the complete list, I omitted many others. His heart was with agriculture, and he was known for his imported rare Ayrshire cattle, which he exhibited at fairs.

Hon. James Skead in November 1872
(Source; LAC, PA-025365)

Politically, he was involved on Ottawa City Council in 1861, then represented Rideau in the Legislative Council of the Province of Canada from 1862-1867 (pre-Confederation). In 1867, he lost his election for his seat in the first Parliament, but was appointed to the Senate by Sir John A. MacDonald, as a reward for his contributions politically and in the lumber business.

His real estate holdings were significant. At one time he owned approximately 450 acres of land west of what is now Holland Avenue (which he had begun accumulating in 1859), not to mention much land in Ottawa and elsewhere. One of the more interesting buildings that was once his is the stone building at 541 Sussex (corner of George), which has a history dating back to 1837 as a log tavern operated by Donald McArthur. Skead acquired this in 1862, and over the years it has existed as the British Hotel, the Imperial Garrison Barracks the Clarendon Hotel, and as the birthplace of the Royal Academy of Arts and the National Gallery of Canada. It is probably best known as the home of Geological Surveys of Canada for many years, and remains today as a prominent heritage building in the Byward Market.

For more on Skead, check out his biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biographies website at: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/skead_james_11E.html

Back to Kitchissippi, the Thomson family (they of Maplelawn on Richmond Road) began to experience financial issues in the 1860s. By the mid-1860s, they had begun selling off their excess farm land, even offering up Maplelawn in 1867. William Thomson died just after Christmas of 1867, and his sons took over the estate and property. They would attempt to sell builder lots in a subdivision they called "Baytown", and did what they could to keep up the farm, but ultimately the Thomsons lost everything a few years later in 1878 (more on them at a piece I wrote in the fall: https://kitchissippi.com/2016/11/24/westboro-pioneers-founding-family-thomson/).

So in 1869, the Thomsons were probably quite glad to find a buyer interested in part of their farm. James Skead purchased just under 75 acres of land from the Thomsons on December 15th, 1869 for the oddly specific sum of $6,351. This was all of the land in "concession A" of lots 29 and 30 in Nepean Township, essentially everything north of what we now know as the Transitway, from Churchill west to about where Golden/Dominion now run.

That same month, Skead also purchased two nearby pieces of land in the east half of lot 31 from lumberers Merrill and Currier, totaling 79 more acres. Skead was obviously buying up as much land in the vicinity as he could, smitten with the real estate prospects of this rural vacant land.

1879 map of Nepean Township, showing the area from
present-day McKellar Park at the top, to Parkdale Avenue
at the bottom. Carling, Richmond and Scott are the three
roads (double-lines) running from top to bottom. Most
land is still in farm-sized properties, with the land-owners
name and number of acres listed. As you can see, Skead
owns a large percentage of the land in the area.

However, what Skead also knew (since he was Vice-President of the Canada Central Railway) was that the new rail line would be coming through this property; the first rail line running west, and the first line running through Nepean and Kitchissippi. The opportunities to build around the line, run spurs off the main line for shipping, etc. were infinite. Skead with his extensive background in the lumber trade fancied the Westboro Beach area as an ideal spot to erect a mill, and immediately set about its construction.

By mid-1870, Skead's first mill opened, at a cost of approximately $50,000, and was "fitted with all the most recent improvements". The mill building measured 152 feet long by 46 feet wide, erected right on the shore of the bay (then known as "Thomson's Bay"), close to the water. The mill employed about 40 men, and could saw 15 million feet of board in a season. It was used primarily for the cutting of wood for lumber, lathes for home construction, and shingles.

One of the biggest concerns of the era for anyone, home-owner or business-owner alike, was of course the threat of fire. One small spark and an entire operation could be turned into ashes. Skead took all the precautions he could against fire: he had a night watchman under his employment each and every night; a powerful steam pump ready at all times to deploy water; the engine house and boiler house were constructed as separate stone buildings; and Skead also enacted strict policies against smoking on the property.

The mill instantly created a small community in the area, and gave the Thomsons a little life in their Baytown subdivision, though more so to the Birch's 1860s subdivision east of what is now Churchill, which they had called Birchton.

September 16th, 1870 was the first official train of the Canada Central Railway from Lebreton Flats to Carleton Place, and instantaneously, the future Westboro was born, beginning life as an industrial hamlet along the River.

Newspaper ad for the Canada Central
Railway from 1874

The first fire

On Halloween night of 1871, Skead's mill closed at the usual time of 6 p.m. The workers left, and the night watchman came on duty. There was nothing out of the ordinary on what was likely a quiet, cool evening.

At approximately 3 a.m., the watchman discovered a small fire which had begun suddenly in the "refuse and saw dust" under the main shaft of the year-old large wooden mill. He threw water on the flames using nearby buckets, then ran to the boarding house where the workers were sleeping. By the time he and the groggy mill employees arrived back to the fire, the flames were burning through the mill. The night was very dark, with a strong wind blowing north. The men tried very hard to save the engine house and boiler house, in order to keep the water pumps going. They succeeded by blocking the windows with wet blankets to keep the flames out, while also pouring a continuous stream of water onto the building. Others tried to enter the mill to save the tools and parts of the machinery, but were unable to do so, driven back by smoke and heat.  By the vicinity of the mill were piles of cut lumber/lathes/singles; these caught fire as well. A large amount of sawn timber that had been prepared for construction of railroad bridges and some "superior long square timber" for the English market was destroyed. Eventually, the workers had to abandon saving the mills, and put their efforts in to saving the piling grounds.

Thankfully, the strong northerly wind saved the majority of the lumber, as well as the office and some of the adjacent buildings.

By daylight, the mill was a "smouldering heap of blackened cinders". The workers continued all day on November 1st to keep the smouldering ashes from re-igniting and spreading to the piles. In the end, 230,000 feet of lumber was destroyed, plus many more rendered worthless by being charred at the ends. 60,000 laths, and 40,000 shingles were also consumed, a total of over half a million board feet. The loss was estimated at $40,000.

Skead had insurance, but it was minimal. He had $20,000 in insurance from four carriers ($4,000 from Etna, $4,000 Hartford, $4,000 Provincial, and $8,000 Royal), plus $15,000 of insurance on the lumber itself. However, the insurance was distributed over the various buildings and machinery, some of which was saved, so the insurance was to only cover about a quarter of the loss, not to mention the loss of business.

Skead had been improving the mill over the year it had been open, and estimated that more than that insured amount had already been invested into it. Skead told the Ottawa Free Press that he would not have sold the day prior for $80,000.

The morning after the fire brought many visitors to the scene. "Yesterday the ring and scream of its great circular saws were heard far up and down the water and the Richmond Road", reported the newspaper, but the area was silent on November 1st. The origin of the fire was rapt in mystery. Skead believed the cause to be the overly liberal use of oil around machinery, with the oil mixing with saw dust, causing spontaneous combustion. However, others thought that the fire was the work of an incendiary "evilly disposed towards Mr. Skead or some of his people". The fire was reported on throughout Canada and the United States, and no official cause was ever noted in the media.

In further evidence of his dedication to the people city of Ottawa, the Globe and Mail reported that later that day, Skead had an important meeting in Ottawa which he still attended. Skead, along with other key businessmen, were to organize an independent group (society) to procure immigrant labourers and servants for Ottawa and the area (the society had $15,000 available to pay travel money to bring workers here from Great Britain). Skead was appointed as part of a committee to draft a constitution that afternoon, mere hours after he suffered his devastating financial loss.

The new mill

Skead decided to rebuilt right away, and records show that it may have been up and running by late 1872 or early 1873. Very early reports indicated that Skead intended to be up and ready "in days", but clearly that was overly optimistic.

A rare 1873 photo of the vicinity of the new mill, within the first year of its construction has survived, and can be seen below. The log booms in the Ottawa River are visible, and some mill buildings can be seen in the distant background.

September 1873 view of the log booms by the new mill.
(Source: LAC MIKAN 3507060)

The name "Skead's Mills" would be selected in 1874 as the name of the new hamlet that had sprung up around the mill property. The locals applied for, and received a post office up on Richmond Road. When the first post office opened there on May 1st, 1874 in Rebecca Pratt's shop, it opened under the name of "Skead's Mills", honouring the Senator. A telegraph station was opened soon after.

Hon James Skead in April 1875
(Source: LAC, PA-025608)

Unfortunately for Skead, the economy was poor, and the timing of the fire and the expensive rebuild was very unlucky. An international trade depression began in 1873 and lasted for five years. Skead fell victim yet again, though to a different foe.

By 1877, Skead had run up a real estate mortgage to the Merchants Bank of Canada of over $243,000. A year later, he had to surrender ownership and walk away. In July of 1878, the Bank took over the property, and it appears the mill stopped running for a brief period.

The loss of the mill didn't destroy Skead financially, but it certainly left him severely wounded. He retained his social status, but had lost much of his empire. However, he still owned an impressive fur coat as of January 1879!:

James Skead, January 1879
(Source: LAC, PA-025500)

In November of 1880, Skead and his wife Rosina purchased the impressive stone house on Richmond Road, which is now better known as the Convent, just west of Island Park Drive. The house had been built 15 years prior, and Skead became its third owner. Though he had suffered significant losses at the mill site just to the northwest, he clearly had an affinity for the area, moving in to the Convent house on the small 6-acre property then known as "The Elms".

Skead resigned from the Senate in January 1881, as he did not feel confident continuing in his role after suffering from years of extensive financial difficulties. However, he was called again to the Senate later that same year by Sir John A. MacDonald, where he served until his death. In 1882 his lungs were seriously injured when he was thrown from a moving carriage. He was forced to largely retire from business, though in May of 1884 it was announced that Skead was to be appointed Post Master (I do not believe he ever took on the role). A few months later, Skead died at home on Richmond Road from his lung ailment, July 5th, 1884. His financial state at the time of his death was poor, and within a couple of years, his widow Rosina watched as most of the elements of his estate were foreclosed on or sold to pay back debts. This included The Elms (the Convent house), which transferred back in 1886 to the executors of George Washington Eaton, who had sold the house to the Skeads in 1880. (The Hollands would purchase from the executors a year later, though this story is best left for a focused article on the convent property itself someday soon).

On May 2nd, 1888, the final shreds of Skead’s great financial empire was sold off via a Judicial Sale. The Sun Life Assurance Company had foreclosed in a judgment in March, and so 5 parcels of Skead's land transferred to them: the east half of lot 31 south of Scott (77.25 acres); the east half 31 north of Scott (46 acres); the south half of lot 32 south of Scott (100 acres); and the north half of lot 32 south of Scott (18 acres).

Meanwhile, back at the old Skead's Mills site, the mill itself had been purchased at sale by the E. B. Eddy Company in September of 1880. It then changed hands a few times over a short period. Eddy sold it to Allan Grant in 1882, who mortgaged from the same Merchants Bank, then Grant sold to the British and Canadian Lumbering & Timber Co. Ltd in 1883, before Eddy repurchased in May of 1884 from Merchants Bank again for $100,000 after they foreclosed on the BCL&T Company. It is difficult to say if the mill had been out of operation at any point during this period. However, it is certain that by the summer 1884, the mill was running full bore under the direction of E.B. Eddy.

The mill ran successfully during the 1880s, with 250-300 workers, and the vast majority of the available space on the 40-acre property in use by the mill in some regard. It was known at this time as the “Eddy’s South Shore Mill”. Luckily, there are some great documents from this period which show in spectacular detail the layout and buildings of the mill property. After Eddy purchased the mill in 1880, fire insurance plan drawings were taken of the property, giving a three-dimensional view of the site and its many buildings. These plans can be seen below:

Goad Fire Insurance Map survey of the former Skead mill,
from December 1880.

Overhead plan of the entire site, with all details of the railway
tracks and siding, and the road to Richmond Road (which
would be roughly the location of Kirchhoffer today).

Overhead drawing of the north half of the property

Overhead drawing of the south half of the property

You'll notice on the survey each building is numbered. The legend for those buildings is as follows:
1 - Main sawmill building
2 - Engine house
3 - Boiler house with attached brick chimney 150' high
4 - Building for storage of hardwood
5 - Carpentry shop
6 - Ice house
7 - Watch house
8 - Main office
9 - Storehouse
10 - Boarding house
11 - Hay scales
12 - Blacksmith shop
13 - Stable
14 - Dwelling
15 - General shed
16 - General shed
Plus along the water is an unmarked building labelled "WC" (water closet, aka the outhouse)

These plans were the inspiration for two local artists who brought the mill to life through their modern-day illustrations.


Skead's Mill by Robert Prescott
(Source: "Early Days in Westboro Beach" by Bob Grainger)

Skead's Mill by Andrew King

The second fire

The evening of July 31st, 1888, a small fire had broken out at Booth's mill at the Chaudiere. Catastrophe had been avoided there, but Eddy's mill at Westboro would not be so fortunate the following day.

At 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon of August 1st, a spark hit the sawdust and shingles under the platform of the mill. Everything then happened quickly, “the flames leaping like a loosened giant and paralyzing the best efforts of the workmen”. "The whole mill became alight in one instant” said one worker.

Nelson Lascelle, a young boy working at the mill, had backed his cart up to the gangway on the south side of the mill to load up, when he discovered the fire, which he stated was only the size of his hand. He jumped off his cart and gave the alarm.

By a terrible stroke of bad luck, the fire had started exactly by where the hand-engine for use at fires was situated, and thus the hand-engine and its shed were the first to burn.

Frantic calls of “Fire, Fire!” went up, and all hands were on deck to fight the blaze. The emergency steam whistle began to blow (the engineer spread the valve wide, tied a string to a post and fled), and ran its shrill warning for half an hour until it was consumed by the flames.

A stiff breeze came in off the river “fanning the fire by a thousand different breaths”. Buckets of water from workers could do nothing. Within seconds, the largest and fiercest fire ever in the Ottawa area to that point had begun.

The office adjoining soon went up, then the storehouse (with blankets/provisions), followed by the stables and blacksmith shop. Efforts were then turned to protecting the boarding house (as men made frantic attempts to remove bedding and miscellaneous personal items), however “one gigantic wave of flame from the mill struck it, and in five minutes the boarding house was reduced to a pit of ashes as well as a large shed adjoining”.

Flames and smoke could be seen by all Ottawa and Hull residents. Hundreds from the city and area came, many offering help, but many there as "sightseers".

The fire began to move south and east, threatening the enormous lumber piles and the CPR freight cars on the track nearby.

The E.B. Eddy steam-powered fire engine arrived early via a special train on the CPR. It was quickly brought down to the edge of the river, fifty yards from the mill. Its hoses were stretched, it was steamed up, but by that point the fire was too large and had moved further away to the lumber piles. The 300 feet of leather hose attached were useless.

Then after 5 p.m. the Union engine came out. It had been called for just after mill caught, but it was over two and a half hours until it arrived, when the full property was already doomed. The Union set up 20 yards further into the bay, further up the lines of piles. It had 2 reels of hose, and briefly helped contain the fire within the yard.

Then the City-owned steamer engine Conqueror arrived afterwards (brought out by Ottawa Alderman Askwith), and placed by the water's edge. Askwith quickly commandeered an arrangement of six horses (four were not enough) to bring the engine over the rough ground on the banks of the bay. The engine was set up within 12 yards of Union, and featured 1,000 feet of hose. However, two lengths of its hose burst, delaying things even further. (It was later determined that the river was very shallow, and suction drew in chips, gravel, etc. creating air cushions in the hose, which, when pressure built, burst the hose. The air, not the water burst it. It was also later noted that the hoses had previously been burnt in a fire, and should never have been in use. After the mill fire, the City of Ottawa Fire and Light Committee agreed to buy all new hoses 2,000 feet total, for the Conqueror; too late for Eddy's mill however.)

Meanwhile the fire spread 800 yards to the lower end of the site; at one time 1,600 piles of cut lumber were on fire, with smoke pouring 300 feet into the air. Fire moved across the CPR track, burning the ties and curling the rails into odd shapes. In all, half a mile of track burned. At its peak at 5:30 p.m., the fire had a circumference of 3 miles.

The media would report the fire the following day in descriptive terms, such as: “Occasionally a gust of wind would blow from the lake, causing the flames to roar and bellow as if taunting the puny efforts of the firemen to make a break in the torrent of flame”, and “The smoke was dense and rolling off in heavy impenetrable black clouds, with the background of fiery flames rising majestically, reminding more than one of Dante’s description of the infernal regions”.

Soon the brush on the south side of the track caught fire (equivalent of where Scott Street runs today), and suddenly the houses along Richmond Road were in serious danger. Many made efforts to stop the fires progress by creating gaps, but the strong winds would carry it south. Eventually the full 40-acre property north of the CPR tracks was burnt out, and the fire was raging on the south side. By 7:30 p.m., the fire had jumped Richmond Road, opposite the Temperance Hotel (by the corner of Churchill Avenue), and caught a firm hold in Cole’s farm/bush (the current area west of Churchill, south of Richmond Road). It began to spread quickly, jumping tree to tree, and suddenly a second large fire was raging.

The residents of early Westboro began frantically moving their household possessions and furniture into the street and carrying them to a safe locality. John McKellar sent his wagons and horses up Richmond Road to collect and move people's items to his farm for safe-keeping, and Mr. McCormack the postmaster of the village also was using the wagons at his disposal to move personal effects. As occupants lost their houses, they began to help others try to save theirs. The newspapers reported that women and children were seen crying, holding on to the few meager possessions they could grab. The resident's stacked-up items would be saved in the end, but the following day, the residents had to go sort through the piles of items to find their possessions, most of which were badly damaged during the panic.

George Holland and his wife (who were now living in the Convent) were also early on scene and helped the villagers in their efforts. It was noted George was especially active in saving the old school house on Richmond. His wife Alison provided shelter, water and other necessities to the villagers.

Thankfully, the the winds began to died down at sunset, which helped tremendously, though several houses were eventually damaged or burnt entirely. The foreman's house closer to Richmond Road was saved, as well as most of the houses on or past Richmond Road. Virtually all of the dozen houses north of Richmond Road were destroyed, and 30 people left homeless. Some were still camping out days later; the newspapers reported that some were living on the site of the road, without even a tent or any necessities of life. “In some cases a counterpane placed over a ridge pole is all the shelter they have”.

When the fire was through, hardly any of the 7 million feet of lumber survived. All had been pre-sold (at sellers risk until shipped) to the Oswego Lumber Co, Shepherd & Morse of Burlington, and the Canada Lumber Company of Burlington. In the end, it was said that just four partly-burned piles of lumber were all that remained on site, while 19 carloads had been loaded on the tracks and sent to Britannia.

Estimates of the damage for the Eddy Company included the following calculation: $40,000 purchase price, over $20,000 in new machinery added, new office valued at $200, boarding house accommodating over 100 men valued at $3,000, store house/supplies at $3,000, blacksmith shop of $300, and stables at $400. Thus a total loss of real property of $66,900, plus 7 million feet of lumber valued at $120,000, for a total of $186,900. It was said that $1,000 worth of lumber had been burnt per minute that the fire raged.

Some reports in the States put it at a loss of anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000, though those reports were greatly exaggerated. The Canadian Journal of Commerce confirmed later in August that the final loss was $175,000. Insurance on the mill and buildings was $50,000, and on the lumber at $60,000. Therefore the net loss to Eddy was $65,000.

Ottawa Citizen headline - August 2, 1888

Ottawa Daily Free Press headline - August 2, 1888

Incredibly, there was no loss of life in the fire. There were many reports across North American newspapers of deaths (including one major newspaper which reported that three men and two boys had been lost in the shingle mill), but all workers and residents were accounted for. There were a few injuries. A young worker, Joe Berry, was badly burned on his neck, face, and hands, while six or seven other men were "scorched". One boy (William Stewart) had to jump from the upper window with his clothing on fire and was badly burned. He was reported as having been taken home “insensible”. Andrew Hobbs could not locate his son William Hobbs (an 18-year old slab-cutter) during the fire and went to look for him. He was overcome by the heat and fainted, and was taken away in a cart. William Stewart was reported dead in many US and Canadian newspapers, but had actually survived. I wonder if he ever got ahold of a copy of any of the distant newspapers which reported his being burnt to death?

The Ottawa newspapers attempted to describe the incredible scene the following day. "The smoke was fearful in its density and rose in great volumes, making people believe that the whole Richmond Road section was on fire.”, said the Citizen. The Ottawa Free Press noted: “Where yesterday the busy hum of industry was heard, and three hundred brawny men had earned a living, is this morning a wilderness of ashes." and also “To see huge piles of lumber for a length of some 100 yards one solid sheet of flame is a sight never to be forgotten, and one which has never before been seen in this section of the country.”

The cause of the fire was confirmed by E.B. Eddy to the Ottawa Free Press a few days later to be a spark flying from the furnace, despite all the precautions taken. Others who worked at the mill believed it was more likely someone who had lit a pipe and carelessly discarded the match which caused the fire, though this was never substantiated. Smoking was of course strictly prohibited, the penalty for which was immediate dismissal. Two months earlier, a spark had ignited the saw dust in the same area, but was discovered and put out quickly. The roof of the storehouse had also become alight at one point that summer, but was also put out. It seemed a major fire was practically inevitable. The cause potentially also may have been sparks from nearby bush fires. The week had been particularly warm and dry, and bush fires were raging in nearly every point around the city (Aylmer, Billings, Montreal Road, Orleans, and even one on the Stewart estate south of McLeod between Lyon and Bay).

All side tracks for the CPR were ruined, and the main line of was also damaged. All train travel was suspended. The morning train from Toronto was delayed at Stittsville, and had to wait two days to get through. CPR telegraph poles were destroyed, and the CPR sent out a special car which had field telegraph equipment, to connect with the portion of the line unbroken, and wire dispatches from that temporary location.

The workers of the mill were an upset bunch throughout and especially after the fire, as they realized their work and home and few possessions were all lost. Even their paycheque owed was up in the air; the day after the fire was to have been pay day.

The citizenry of Ottawa also felt the effects, as the significant loss of wood created a major shortage in Ottawa, leading to price increase in town.

At the end of it all, only the tall and blackened chimney remained, which “stood out as a sentinel” over the wide area of desolation that was once Skead's grand mill.

Life after the mill

The fire prompted an editorial that weekend in the Journal, which noted that Ottawa had an efficient and near flawless fire protection system, and was not as susceptible to a major fire as a Montreal newspaper had predicted, that Montreal “will be aroused from its fools paradise by a big conflagration”. The editorial noted that Ottawa (the city limits) rarely had fires, and had a smart chief and faithful group of high-quality firemen who always ensure that "the fire gets no chance". The paper took exceptional issue with the reporting of some of the suburban/rural fires, including the Skead's Mill fire as "Ottawa fires", “strengthening the erroneous impression that there is an extraordinary risk in carrying on business or living in Ottawa”. This false confidence would of course be proven wrong just a few years later when the major Ottawa-Hull fire of 1900 nearly wiped the city off the map.

Meanwhile, a month later on September 5th, 1888, the mill site and property was offered for sale at an auction at the Russell House hotel. Eddy put up for sale the blackened land, as well as the bits and pieces that had survived: the brick chimney, the refuse burner, the foreman’s house and stable, and the walls and foundations and equipment/machinery that were “more or less damaged”. No bids were made, and the sale was postponed.

Ottawa Journal, August 29, 1888
promoting the auction of the
former mill site.

Eddy would eventually find a buyer for the mill property on July 17th 1890, when he sold to the Ottawa real estate firm of Mutchmor-Gordon. The agents flipped the site a year later to the CPR for a tidy profit. (Mutchmor-Gordon used their profits on the flip on an agreement to purchase Maplelawn on Richmond Road and some of the adjoining Highland Park Dairy Farm, however changed their minds and invested in the Glebe instead).

The CPR announced it was considering building “extensive car and machine shops and workmen’s dwelling houses” on the site of the mill, the intention to build a model town on a small scale similar to Pullman near Chicago.

Ottawa Journal - July 14, 1892

The CPR did not go through with this plan, and also refused to sell the land for many years. It would not be until 1909, that the CPR agreed to sell the old mill site. Senator John N. Kirchhoffer in November 1909, purchased the full 70-acre site for $42,500.

Ottawa Journal
November 17, 1909

Kirchhoffer immediately subdivided the land and created the "Clarella Park" subdivision, which laid out the Westboro Beach community that we know today (aside from the obvious changes due to the establishment of the River Parkway in the 1960s).


The modern day history of the Westboro Beach community deserves an article all its own, and I'm sure someday I'll cover more of the 20th century history. In the meantime, if you don't already own it and/or haven't read it, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Bob Grainger's "Early Days of Westboro Beach" book, which tells the full story of the community (and the beach) with lots of photos and first-hand interview accounts.

The remnants of Skead's Mills

If you have been a regular visitor to Westboro Beach over the years, then you have likely seen the ruins which still exist to the east of the beach, in front of the Kitchissippi Lookout parking area. The ruins were much more prominent in the early 1900s, but over time have disappeared as the area has grown and changes so much.

Ruins of the boiler house and brick chimney, circa 1900.
(Source: Early Days of Westboro Beach, Bob Grainger, p.40)

An early photo of Westboro Beach, May 13 1911.

The banks just east of Westboro Beach, May 13, 1911

Aerial photo of Westboro Beach in 1920. The ruins can be
seen just near the top of the photo, in the centre.

Westboro Beach in the spring of 1928, suffering through
flooding season. The ruins are quite visible where the shoreline
turns. Very primitive versions of Kirchhoffer, Atlantis, Royal
and Churchill Avenues can be seen in behind.

Aerial photo from 1933. West is at the top, the ruins can
be seen in the centre, towards the bottom. The boom house
has been constructed, located 50 feet from the shore in the
River, going towards the log booms.

The ruins in 2005 (source: Bytown.net)

The ruins in 2016 (source: quietfish.com)

I hope you've enjoyed the history of the mill which is so long gone 129 years now, but can absolutely be credited with creating Westboro, and bringing its first residents here. It's interesting to think how the area may have developed without it, certainly it would be different! It's great we still have some ruins from that massive fire from so long ago, a landmark to such a distant era in our area's past. What may be most tragic, however, is the lost link to the man responsible for all of this - the Hon. James Skead. After Skead passed away, all his land holdings in Westboro dispersed, and the mill burned and gone, the residents of the area in 1899 decided to change the name of the village too. Skead's Mills became Westboro, and the name was nearly forgotten. A few years later the Ottawa Land Association named its western-most street in their Wellington Village subdivision for Skead, the present day Western Avenue, which was then the western border of Ottawa, separating it from the Township of Nepean (the east side of Western was in Ottawa, the west side in Nepean). However even this name was later lost before annexation in 1950, when the name was changed to Western. The last link to Skead is in the name of the tiny street connecting the north ends of Fraser, Mansfield and Westminster; one of Ottawa's smallest streets, with no houses actually fronting on to it, a fair distance from the old mill site, and oddly enough on land which Skead never owned, surprising considering the quantity of land he did own. It is unfortunate that Skead is not acknowledged in Ottawa, let alone the community, in a grander way, considering all of his significant contributions during the 19th century. If we can look to him as being essentially the founder of Westboro, surely we should be doing more to recognize his importance to our community. In my eyes, it is long overdue!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The most unexpected sports club in Westboro's history

Civic, fraternal and sporting clubs have long been a significant part of Westboro's social fabric. Somewhat sadly, modern society has seen a drastic decline in the prevalence of many of these organizations that were the centre of social life in the first half of the twentieth century. Recreation and entertainment options have morphed substantially over the past 100 years.


Recently, I was told about a sporting club which existed for only a few years during the Great Depression, but surely can be considered one of the most surprising, unique and intriguing stories in Westboro's history. Would you believe that Westboro once was home to a rifle shooting club? That held its practices inside All Saints Church on Richmond Road? And which was made up entirely of teen-aged girls? It's true!

Check out the article in this week's Kitchissippi Times: https://kitchissippi.com/2017/02/16/ready-aim-fire-youll-get-a-bang-out-of-this-story/

Friday, January 20, 2017

The history of Westboro's impressive heritage home: Maplelawn - Part 2

Maplelawn, circa 1913


The new issue of the Kitchissippi Times is out, and within it you'll find a pretty exciting article I wrote about the history of Maplelawn on Richmond Road (aka Keg Manor). This is the follow-up article to the one that appeared in November, which was a focus on the Thomson family who built the house and farmed the land. My thinking on that article was that there is a lot of info out there (well, a decent amount anyways) on Maplelawn, but not so much on the Thomsons themselves. So while my article I think accomplished that goal, it did bring in a few letters and emails to the paper from people who were curious to hear more about the Coles and Rochesters, and the more recent history of the building. So I put together the full story of the building from the 1870s to present, taking it through residential, then a period where the entire property nearly became industrial warehouse space, the story of how it was saved by a unique land transfer deal, and finally up to the present where it is NCC-owned, with commercial space, and volunteer-led management of the gardens.


Please check out the article on the Kitchissippi Times website (which includes additional photos not seen in the actual printed paper):


https://kitchissippi.com/2017/01/19/the-early-days-of-maplelawn-part-two-plus-bonus-photos/

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Paul's Barber Shop: Iconic Hintonburg Personality


Paul Brisebois - Just as many of us will remember him.
This fantastic photo is courtesy of Mike Laflamme,
which inspired this article today.

There is a group on Facebook called "Mechanicsville of Ottawa" that is like an ongoing family reunion for long-time (and former long-time) residents of Mechanicsville and Hintonburg. Spend an hour or two reading through the photos and memories of these great people whose hearts are firmly at home in our little west-end neighbourhood, and you'll feel almost like you experienced the 50s, 60s and 70s all over again. About a year ago, one single photo posted by someone on the page sparked a buzz within the group that has yet to subside. Mike Laflamme posted a photograph of Paul the Barber closing up shop at his familiar location on Wellington Street, near the corner of Stirling. It was a simple photograph, but one that has clearly grabbed the emotions of many who view it, for Paul was a cornerstone of Wellington Street West for 45 years. Many of the boys and men of the area (and even some women) grew up in this shop; it was a part of their lives for so many years.

I consider myself fortunate to be in this group. My Dad was a loyal customer and I had all of my childhood cuts in the 1980s and 90s at Paul's. When Paul closed in 2004, we all found somewhere else to go, but he was missed. Though not forgotten by any stretch, seeing his photo brought back a lot of memories for so many; to be reminded of years past, and a great man of the neighbourhood. The popularity of that photograph inspired me to seek Paul out, and tell his story, and share more photos of this iconic Hintonburg personality.

* * *

The building at the east corner of Wellington and Stirling has a history as colourful as any building in the city of Ottawa, and is well worth its own "Museum" post someday. Quickly, the block of stores that now appears as one contiguous building on the outside is actually three separate parts that have morphed over time. The western part of the building (Uproar and 4Cats Studio) was built in 1902 by F. W. Mahon as a grocery store. The portion to the east (Aljazeera and the Record Centre) was built in 1912 originally as a Baptist Mission. However in between the two was a little triangle of space, that in 1912 was constructed to essentially connect the two buildings together, and from the curb make it appear as one large building. That little triangle is the focus of this article today.

Appropriately the first tenant of the triangle at 1105 Wellington Street was a barber. Napoleon Paquette opened his shop in this space between 1913-1914, where he remained for a couple of years. It later became a confectionery, and then a shoemaker/shoe repair shop from 1924 to 1951. It served briefly as the amazingly-named "Zunder's Wellington Biscuiteria", and the equally-impressive "Farmer's Pride Kut-Up Chicken Store", before coming full circle and re-opening as a barber shop in 1956, operated by Mr. J. Alfred Denis.

Meanwhile, in 1958, a young Paul Brisebois graduated from Barber School in the Byward Market (called Bondy's Barber School, at 62 George Street). His brother Gaetan had attended six months prior, and was the barber for the family business that was attached to their family home in the east end near the National Research Council at 2036 Montreal Road (named the "Brisebois Barber Shop", it was a small "Smokeshop" with one barber chair).

Ottawa Journal April 8, 1967 (the only decent ad I could
find for the school, which had changed names since 1958
but was still in the same location). 

One day in 1959, Paul was getting a drive around town from his father, dropping in on barber shops and looking for a job. He visited Alfred Denis's shop, and according to Paul's wife Denise "made such a good impression that he was hired on the spot, and started work the next day from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.".

Sadly Alfred Denis fell ill about a year later and could no longer work. He offered Paul the opportunity to take it over which he did. Paul's Dad financed him to buy the equipment from Alfred Denis, and thus in 1960, at age 19, he became the owner of the two-chair shop. He met his wife-to-be Denise soon after. Her brother introduced her to Paul, who lived in the same neighbourhood and attended the same Church, though she didn't know him or what he looked like. She cheerfully remembers thinking "Hey, 19 years old, has his own business, his own car... Jackpot!". Their first date was for her high school graduation that year. Sadly, Paul lost his father soon after of a heart attack, at the young age of 51. He had gone to the hospital believing he was suffering indigestion, but passed away during the night.

In the beginning, business in the shop was great, so Paul hired a barber for the second chair. At that time, Paul recalls the price of a haircut to be $1.25 or $1.50.

Denise recalls that Paul worked tirelessly during that period, 5 days a week, 10 hours a day, attempting to further build his clientele, and then doing the accounting in the evenings. He broke away long enough for them to get married on the Monday of the May long week-end in 1966. He took a few days off but had to get back to work.

Denise also shared how Paul had to adapt to the trends, including one which almost cost him his business in the 1970s: "Business was dropping in the mid 70s during the hippie generation with the long hair style.  His other barber left and Paul was also thinking of a career change." (She mentioned that he had applied for the contract for the shop at National Defence headquarters, and even at one time was considering becoming a bus driver). "However, business picked up again when brush cuts became the next style.  He was considered a very good barber for brush cuts.  To keep himself up to date,  he took men's hairdressing courses on his days off and attended several Styling events." She added that his clientele was a mix of young and old, and also occasionally females as well.

One of the most memorable moments in Paul's career came in the summer of 1974 when an Ottawa police officer (Harry Leonard, according to one source) was having a beer at the Elmdale Hotel across the street and as a joke to Paul, brought his horse Caballero Hanover into the barber shop for a trim before he was to sell him (apparently for $10,000). A photo of this hung in Paul's shop for years afterward. (A copy of that photo was one of the first things I asked about when I first called. What a great memory to see it again!). Anyhow, apparently the police chief came the following day to apologize to Paul, but Paul laughed it off and said he didn't mind at all, and according to Denise "cost him a brush and a pair of scissors as a souvenir."

The famous photo of Paul with Caballero Hanover.
(Photo courtesy of Denise Brisebois)

The horse coming out of the shop; also a great
shot of the original "Paul's Barber Shop" sign!
(Apologies for the reflective glare)
(Photo courtesy of Denise Brisebois)

Even if Hintonburg was a bit of a rough neighbourhood during portions of this era, Paul always felt safe, between the large number of police he had as customers, and having legendary Ottawa tough-guy Jerry Barber next door helped too (Barber owned Danny's Used Furniture next door at 1107 Wellington for many years). Paul did have a break-in once, where the thief took the little bit of cash that was on site, but also all of his equipment. Customers arriving to the shop that day must have been surprised to find the shop closed mid-day. Paul had to put up a sign and let his customers know that he would be back in two hours as he was out buying new clippers and scissors!

From a poster made for Paul by a local
Hintonburg photographer circa-1980

Denise also recalls the time when she was at home with their young children, and put a pineapple plant in the large sunny window. This plant would attract classrooms of children from the nearby school, whose teachers would bring the classes by to follow its growth!

Back then businesses in the west end were closed on Wednesdays.  Denise convinced him one summer to close on Mondays to have two days at the cottage. "It worked out well, his customers respected his wishes." adds Denise.

Paul never had a phone in the store until he had a cell phone during the final years (he never took appointments). Prior to that, in order to reach him you had to call Morris Clothing (then located at 1099 Wellington).

Mike Laflamme shared a great, funny story on Facebook: "I was at Paul's shop one day and realized I had no money on me. He said don't worry about it and pay me later. At the time I was driving the #2 bus in front of his shop every day. One of the regular passengers was a young lady that worked at Scotia bank and I would let her off in front of Paul's and would give her a quarter to give to him till it was payed off. He would shake his fist at me every time I drove by."

More classic photos of Paul in the shop:





One morning in April of 1999, Paul was opening his barber shop early as he did everyday, when he noticed and smelled smoke coming from the roof of the building across the street. He phoned 911 from his cell phone, and fire fighters arrived minutes later to find the century-old building at the corner of Wellington and Sherbrooke (Lt. Pooley's Pub, among other shops) ablaze. "Then I saw flames and I thought the worst" he later told reporters. The first responder was a fire Captain en route to the nearby Station to begin his shift. The fireman yelled at two people in an upstairs window to stay where they were, then ran upstairs to investigate and alert other residents. Paul waited alone outside, and when a police officer arrived soon after, Paul alerted him to the fireman inside. Two other tenants escaped by climbing out onto the Lt. Pooley's sign, and a bystander backed a cube van under the sign, allowing the tenants to jump on the roof to climb down. The other two tenants were soon rescued by firefighters with a ladder, while three more tenants escaped through a rear exit. The fire left 10 people homeless and destroyed 6 businesses. Arson was suspected, and the fire had started in the basement hours before Paul had noticed the smoke. Paul's actions that morning may well have saved the lives of those tenants in that building.

In his spare time, summer week-ends were spent building or landscaping on the cottage property in the Gatineau, while winters were spent snowmobiling and ballroom dancing

After 45 years in the shop, in April of 2004, Paul decided to retire. Legendary storyteller Earl McRae, then of the Ottawa Sun made sure not miss a chance to profile a man he called "Paul the legend". Paul was reluctant at first, but eventually relented, and thankfully so. The entirety of that column is included below:

"The Last Cut is the Deepest" (Ottawa Sun, April 14, 2004), by Earl McRae

Sorrow in Hintonburg.

After 45 years snipping and clipping in the same location, Paul the legend is packing it in, so I ask him to tell me the owners of some of the more famous fibres that have landed at his feet which, as always, are ensconced in his special soft, black, leather shoes with the extra-thick sponge sole to ease the pressure on legs that are perpendicular nine hours a day, six days a week.

"Well, there was Gerry Barber."

What? GERRY BARBER? The Gerry Barber? The toughest guy in the history of Ottawa, the most feared bouncer in all of Canada, the notorious manager of the Chaudiere Club whose punks-pounding reign ended only when he suffered a fatal heart attack dancing with his wife; that Gerry Barber?

That Gerry Barber. Owned the used furniture store next to Paul's joint on Wellington St. Just around the corner from the Stirling, the bucket of blood that even the cops backed away from on the nights the booze was flowing and the fists were throwing, which was every night.

With the head of Gerry Barber the size of a medicine ball, Paul had lots of time to get to know him cutting his hair -- "wiry, curly, good texture" -- and it was Gerry himself who recommended the legs-saving shoes to Paul, Gerry figuring that strong and healthy legs were just as necessary to Paul having to stand cutting hair as they were to Gerry in the effective bouncing of bodies.

IN STITCHES

"He was a nice guy, a nice guy," says Paul. "He asked me to remove his stitches."

Stitches? "He had stitches on his forehead." No doubt from one of the many crowbars, tire irons, and baseball bats Gerry's forehead entertained over his career. "I cut them off with my scissors." Very delicately, otherwise Paul might not be around today to tell the story.

It was always comforting knowing Gerry was working right next door, which is probably why Paul showed great guts beyond the normal call of common sense one day.

"This drunk came in for a haircut. He'd been at the Stirling. Another guy came in from the Stirling wanting to fight him, and they were screaming and yelling. I told them to get out, and they did."

Paul of Paul's Barber Shop is Paul Brisebois and he's been cutting hair alone -- no fancy stuff, he's an old-fashioned barber -- in the same small, bright space of white walls, big mirrors, fluorescent lights, and two red leather swivel chairs since he was 18, but now he's giving in his notice to the landlord at the end of the month.

Like with all athletes, the legs are the first to go, and Paul's 63-year-old legs ("You want to sit down, but you can't") are sending him messages. His special shoes help, and so does the special rubber mat around the base of the chair he uses 15 to 20 times a day at $8 (for seniors) and $9.50 a pop, but there's his wife Denise and sons Daniel and Martin and grandchildren Louis and Emilie and his golf game and his cottage and he thinks the time has come to spend more time with them all.

NOSTALGIC BANTERING

What Paul will miss most is not the barbering, but the bantering; bantering seldom changes, barbering has. Hair cream (Brylcreem, Vitalis, Wildroot) and those tall bottles of sweet-smelling, multi-hued liquids are long gone ("People didn't like their hair smelling anymore"), and shaves, too ("AIDS -- concern about nicks and the transfer of blood with the straight razor."). The long-haired hippy era was the worst for Paul ("Lots of barbers quit; I almost did, too, but I waited it out").

Denny Barch, new customer, smiles. He's 37. He walked into Paul's Barber Shop with hair below his shoulders. Now it's short back and sides for the first time since 1991. Paul is brush-dusting Pinaud Finest Talc -- World Famous Since 1810 on the neck of Denny Barch, who says: "Great haircut. A feeling of refreshment. Like a cold beer on a hot day. I looked like a disrespectable member of society, now I look respectable. All I needed was a haircut."

They say a dog is man's best friend? No. It's his barber. Find a good one and you hold onto him for dear life. There's sorrow in Hintonburg today, but Paul the Barber offers a glimmer of hope. "For some of my older customers, I might still go to their homes if they want."

They will want, Paul.


Photo from the Ottawa Sun April 14, 2004

****

Paul was 63 when he retired, and had simply become tired (how can you blame him after 45 years of working on his feet?). He also had become a little disenchanted with the changes happening to the Hintonburg neighbourhood, in particularly the prevalence of biker gangs. His wife Denise had retired in 2001 after the city amalgamated, and had taken up badminton (she convinced Paul to join her one evening per week; they later switched over to pickleball). Later while on a trip, Paul just one day announced he wanted to retire. At the same time, the owner of the building had died in a car accident, and his widow offered for Paul to go on a monthly lease. But Paul refused; his mind was made up. 

On his final day, he had made arrangements with a buyer to come and buy all of his equipment, including those amazing, comfy red barber chairs. However the buyer never showed, and Paul had to move all the furniture out by himself. Disappointed, he had rented a trailer and was in the process of moving everything, when a friend came by, saw what happened, and got in touch with someone he knew. By the time Paul had everything back at his house, a new buyer came and bought it all up (Denise remembered that the buyer's son wanted the chairs for his rec room, so it's good to know that those chairs likely still live on somewhere in Ottawa). 

Paul was happy to be retired, and particularly enjoyed being able to experience cottage life. He continued to do haircuts for some of his dedicated customers in his home (my Dad was one of those fortunate customers), while also performing house calls for some of his older clients or those with medical problems (as he did even when he had his shop open). According to Denise, after a few years, he began suffering vertigo attacks and could no longer cut hair, "though with medication he was able to play some golf." Unfortunately, he was later diagnosed with prostate cancer, but recovered with radiation. Now at age 75 he enjoys his leisure time but suffers memory loss. When I called the Brisebois household, Denise (as you can see) was as helpful as you could wish for, and patiently replied to all my questions and provided me with any photos I asked about. 

Even when I was a teenager, and grew my hair long (I don't think I had a haircut for about 3-4 years at one point) I could still count on getting a friendly wave from Paul every time I walked by the shop on Wellington. And it appears many others had the same experience, and more than anything, that is Paul's lasting legacy, his friendliness to so many. Just a small sampling: Dennis Morgan wrote "Paul Brisebois! What a great friendly man! Cut my hair when I was a little guy, up until I shaved my head. He got a kick out of that!!", while Sue Rock commented "Paul was always friendly, we lived on Sherbrooke St. And anytime we passed his store he always had a smile and a wave if he wasn't cutting someone's hair", and Paul Leblanc added "I'd wave to him every time I walked by. Nice guy. Great story teller." 

When Paul's Barber Shop closed, it remained a hair salon, the relatively short-lived "Scissor & Comb". It later became an e-Scooter shop, before becoming "Wellington Wholesale Seafood" by 2012, which it remains today. But it still seems funny seeing something else in that little shop. I think there are many like me who walk by today still and wish they could still see the familiar sight of Paul in the window, working his trade, and give him a wave.


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A closing note of thanks to Mike Laflamme helping make the arrangements, and also for providing some personal anecdotes; to Denise Brisebois and the Brisebois family for their time and help in putting this together; and of course to Paul the Barber for his many years of hard work and dedication to the people of Hintonburg.