Sunday, March 20, 2016

Spencer Street problems now ~ and in 1955!

Some local residents may be aware that Spencer Street is currently in the news as it will undergo some significant work during the summer 2016, as aged sewers are replaced and some (limited) traffic calming measures are implemented. Spencer runs east-west about half-way between Wellington and Scott, and has become a major cut-through for vehicles looking to access the Champlain Bridge, Tunney's, Island Park Drive, etc. Similarly, the streets running north-south off Spencer have also become cut-through streets for mostly non-local traffic, changing these streets from what they were not too long ago. I grew up (and still live) on one of these streets, Gilchrist Avenue, and the traffic when I was a kid in the 1980s is so different that how it is now. We spent hours on the street playing road hockey, baseball and football, but I can't imagine my kids doing that now (nor could I even allow it), what with the cars ripping down the street at all hours of the day. So some steps will be taken this summer on Spencer Street (here is a good summary of the information at our community association website here:, but arguably it may not be nearly enough.

So all the recent talk of Spencer Street reminded me of an accident which occurred on the street in 1955, which I thought would make an interesting and quick blog post today (haven't had any time to put into history stuff this week, as I was curling in the City of Ottawa bonspiel all week.

On the afternoon of Friday September 30th, 1955, a significant collision occurred between a bus and a truck at the intersection of Holland Avenue and Spencer. It is important to note that at the time, Spencer was actually the through-street. Traffic coming down Holland Avenue had a stop sign at Spencer. Here is a photo below of the intersection from a year earlier, in 1954. The houses on the west side are both still there, while the old Beach Foundry can be seen at the north-east corner (now Holland Cross), and Reiss Motors is on the south-east corner (now Canvas, and the Car Clinic). If you look closely at the photo (click on it to enlarge it) you can see the stop signs facing the Holland traffic, but no signs for Spencer drivers.

Spencer Street looking east, approaching the intersection of
Holland Avenue. February 12th, 1954.
(Source: City of Ottawa Archives, CA-3195)

By 1955, the intersection was a noted concern for Ottawa's traffic planning committee. A series of accidents had occurred at the intersection regularly, including three fairly serious ones in 1954 (in January, a veterinarian was injured when his car collided with a bus at that intersection; in March, another car was damaged significantly when it collided with a fully loaded brick truck; and in May, two women were injured in a two-car crash). So it was on the watch-list, and in fact Traffic Committee in July of 1955 published a series of recommendations for Ottawa traffic concerns, including the recommendation that the stop sign at Holland and Spencer be reversed, so that traffic stopped on Spencer, and flowed through at Holland.

Nothing had changed by late September, and it appears it was going to take a serious incident for the city to finally act (which is an approach that has not changed all too much in 60 years).

On the afternoon of Friday September 30, 1955, the serious incident finally occurred. An OTC bus was travelling west on Spencer (a primary neighbourhood bus route used to run down Parkdale from Carling, west on Spencer, then north on Carleton), driven by 46-year old Alban Binda. Unfortunately, it was T-boned in the middle of Holland Avenue by a loaded gravel dump truck heading north on Holland, driven by 20-year old Fernand Leclerc. After impact, the bus went out of control along Spencer, swerving up on the sidewalk and crashed into the house at 85 Spencer Street. The house was more than 100 feet from the actual crash scene.

85 Spencer Street (at left) from Google Streetview 2015

The crash had destroyed the buses brakes, making it impossible for the driver to bring it to a stop. The bus plowed through the brick wall of the house doing extensive damage to both the interior and exterior of the home, which was owned by Daniel and Anne Palombo. The total damage was estimated at over $4,000. Though Mrs. Palombo was home at the time, she was upstairs and was not injured. The majority of the damage occurred in the front vestibule and kitchen of the house.

Photo of 85 Spencer Street,
from the Ottawa Journal, October 1, 1955

Photo of 85 Spencer after the bus was removed
from the corner. From the Citizen October 1, 1955.

The damaged dump truck.
From the Ottawa Citizen October 1, 1955

The damaged OTC bus after it was pulled out from the house.
(Source: City of Ottawa Archives, CA-34533)

Daniel Palombo showing some of the damage to the inside of
his house. From the Citizen, October 1, 1955.

For several minutes after the crash, Binda, the bus driver, was pinned inside the bus which had embedded itself four feet into the house. Gas and oil had poured all over the intersection.

Thankfully, there were no fatalities in the crash. Three people were hurt, however, including most seriously the bus driver Binda, who had shock, scalp lacerations, cuts to his legs, and "other minor injuries". He was taken to the hospital in the Fire Department's emergency car. Several passengers were also taken to hospital, including 75-year old Mrs. Annie Maunsell of 1842 Scott Street, who suffered a broken left leg, and 52-year old Mrs. Mabel Fortier of 68 Northwestern Avenue, who also had some minor injuries to her legs. The driver of the truck Fernand Leclerc was uninjured (sadly however, he would die just 8 years later, at the young age of 28, while working as a garbage collector. The early death was surprising, and required an inquest. Though medicine was able to explain why he died, it couldn't explain how he had been alive. The doctor at his autopsy noted he had a seriously enlarged heart, and a valve that was working at one-seventh of what it should have been. "The most reasonable opinion I can give" the doctor said, "is that he should have been dead long before he was.")

The damage to the bus was estimated at $7,000, and to the truck for $1,000.

The Journal reported that "truck driver Leclerc told police he was unfamiliar with that part of the city. He said he did not see the stop sign at the intersection because of another OTC bus which was stopped at the corner discharging passengers." Investigators later pointed out that if the traffic committee recommendations from earlier in the year had been implemented, the crash would have been avoided. They felt that since the truck driver's view of the stop sign on Holland was obscured, and since he was unfamiliar with the area, that he understandably believed Holland to be the logical through-street.

The Board of Control for Ottawa, which had a reputation of ignoring the civic traffic committee's recommendations, began to act to remedy some of the obvious issues within Ottawa. This crash was likely a key factor in pushing this problem. It appears the City soon after switched the stop signs so that traffic stopped on Spencer, not Holland. However, City Council took it a step further in 1956, when it announced that the intersection would be one of the first four in Ottawa to feature the "new Four-Way Stop Control" system, a new strategy in traffic control. What we now see everywhere as a normal (and necessary) part of our road system, did not exist in Ottawa in 1956.

Six intersections were chosen by council to pilot the concept of a four-way stop, though only four would initially receive it: King Edward at Stewart; Chapel at Stewart; St. Laurent at Hemlock; and of course, Holland at Spencer. The city Traffic Director Woodrow Rankin noted that "four-way-stops are to be used at intersections where control is needed, but not quite to the extend of a traffic light". Rankin called them "courtesy intersections". The Journal went on to detail to readers for whom all of this was new, that "application of the new control requires the erection of stop-signs facing in all four directions. Motorists come to a stop, and proceed when the way is clear." They added that the "rule-of-the-road applies giving right-of-way to the motorist on the right."

The new four-way stop, the first in Ottawa, was installed at Holland and Spencer on Friday April 5th, 1957. Again, it was prompted by a series of accidents culminating in a serious one that led city officials to finally take action. Luckily it was not a fatal accident that led to the change, and we can only hope for similar luck as Spencer Street continues to be an issue 60+ years later!


  1. Neat! I know that corner very well. My daughter was a traffic counter there for the City one summer, and feels the traffic light that's there now is her doing!
    I wonder what the people who were recently renovating that house would think about the accident...

  2. Wow - this does provide some interesting context! I recently moved back to the neighbourhood right near this intersection (hi Barb!)

  3. That was my grandparents house that got hit in that accident.

  4. The house that got hit is now my house! What a wonderful bit of history to find.