Many of you reading this blog may likely have heard roughly the story of a park or building built a long time ago, that had a direct tie-in to Thomas Edison and the early days of moving pictures. Honestly, up until a few years ago, that was about the extent of what I knew as well. In fact up until a few weeks ago, I was unsure about where exactly this happened, how it all came about, and what happened to bring it all to a quick end.
To tell the story of how the West End Park came about of course focuses on the early themes of real estate and money. The future Park was built on property that was towards the south end of the long-time Hinton family farm, adjacent to the Stewart family farm. From Parkdale westwards, up until the 1890s (and in some parts, up until the 1940s) was strictly farmland. With no train service to the area, and zillions of acres of suburban land surrounding the growing but still small city of Ottawa, the land was for the most part worthless (except to someone interested in farming, or a very patient real estate prospector). However, by the 1890s, the future was clearer. The streetcars were coming, technology was exploding, and the City of Ottawa was expanding. Land values rose, and old families began to outlive their farms. The Stewarts and Hintons were eager to sell, and on the opposite side of the fence, a group of businessmen who operated the Electric Company and the Electric Railway saw the advantage in buying up the suburban farmland knowing that electricity and streetcars would be on their way soon, with their insider information, so to speak.
Hintonburg saw the benefits of having streetcar service added to the village, but Nepean Township did not agree, and refused to allow the Ottawa Electric Railway (OER) to run a streetcar line into Nepean Township. This chiefly led to Hintonburg's decision to leave Carleton County to become an independent village in December of 1893, opening the door for the village to negotiate on their own with the OER. Track would be laid in Hintonburg less than twenty-four months later, both sides anxious to bring the streetcar west.
Construction on the new line was progressive. The original Somerset Street bridge (then known as Cedar Street) was completed in late September of 1895, and the first cars were able to run to the terminus at the intersection of Cedar and Richmond Road (now of course called Wellington Street West). After lengthy negotiations over where the tracks would run (Hintonburg initially wanted Armstrong Street to be used for the trains), the first tracks were laid west along Richmond Road in mid-October. The tracks were to be installed along Richmond to Holland Avenue (then just a dirt road), then turn south and proceed up Holland towards the Experimental Farm. Though it was called a route to the Farm, indeed the line would initially stop just at the entrance to the Farm at what is now Carling Avenue, still quite a ways from the actual Farm buildings.
The West End Park
In the midst of this new development, an exciting announcement was made on the morning of Tuesday November 5th, 1895. The Ottawa Electric Railway revealed that a new resort park would be opened along the new track in the Spring of 1896 to coincide with the opening of the new line. This was promised to be a major tourist location for Ottawa residents and visitors alike. The site was described as being "a large grove on the Ottawa Land Company's property in Hintonburgh just back of the Experimental Farm...specially adapted for a park, as it includes both a large grove of beech and maple trees suitable for pic-nicing and a piece of level, open ground that will give a chance for all kinds of athletic sports". The OER also planned to move their merry-go-round from the Rockliffe Park (though this never happened), and to organize performances in the evenings for a nominal admission of 5 cents. Return tickets on the streetcar would be 15 cents, including admission to the performance. Admission to the grounds itself was to be free. The Journal noted "the ride to the Farm will be even more attractive than to Rockliffe. It is a very pretty route and will be even longer than to Rockliffe." In fact, the OER was all-in to promote the new Holland park, noting that cars would still run to Rockliffe, but that no attractions would be featured there.
|Part of the front page news article from
November 5, 1895 announcing the
new Park in western Ottawa
Railway Company workers set out right away to clear the underbrush, level the ground and trim the trees, in order to prepare for the Spring opening. They worked on the site through the late fall, until the snow began to fall.
By mid-November, the tracks all the way to the Park were laid, and ballasting had begun. No cars were to run before Spring, but the OER wanted to have the line ready to go before winter. In late October, a tunnel was built underneath the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway (now the site of the Queensway) for the streetcar to run through. An embankment under the OA&PS line was cleared for a distance of 100 feet, and at either side abutments were built for the bridge, on which the OA&PS track crossed. At first the bridge proved to be slightly too short, so a last-minute scramble in late April of 1896 was required to lower the tunnel slightly.
A double electric track was laid along Holland for three-quarters of a mile, with a single line of trolley posts placed between the two, with arms branching out in opposite directions over both tracks, on which the trolley wires were strung. These posts (installed in March and April of 1896) were also designed to hold electric lights and to eventually have telephone, telegraph and other wires strung on them. All of this work was supervised by Frank A. Hibbard of the OER.
It was sometime in early April that the name was chosen for the Park. It was given the rather unexciting and uncreative name of "West End Park" by the OER.
The tracks on Holland Avenue were finally open to the streetcars on Thursday April 30th, 1896. At 2:30 p.m., a large party of OER officials, politicians and dignitaries, led by OER President W. Y. Soper boarded a special car at the corner of Sparks and Elgin, and traveled the length of the line, over the new Somerset bridge, along Richmond to Holland, and up Holland through the new Park to the Farm. The Journal noted that the "line passes through some nice residential country, and in time the avenue through the park is bound to become a beautiful spot." On the return trip, the car stopped in the middle of West End Park, and each passenger was presented with a souvenir bouquet of wild flowers. The car then made the full seven-mile straight run to Rockliffe in thirty minutes including stops (in fact, a main focus of the OER's advertising was that the trip from the Post Office at Elgin and Sparks to the West End Park would be made in just 15 minutes, with a new car coming every seven minutes). The OER in fact had six new streetcars built for the expected increase in traffic on the line.
The Ottawa Land Association began to actively advertise their lots for sale in the immediate neighbourhood (from Carling to Scott, between Parkdale and Harmer). At the time, only a handful of structures existed in this area, and of course the Civic Hospital was still nearly 30 years away. The company even established a temporary office at the corner of Holland and Richmond.
|Ad in the Ottawa Journal, May 30, 1896
One of the highlights of the new track on Holland were the lights on the poles. Wrote the newspaper in late May: "One of the prettiest effects in electric lighting is the arrangements of incandescent lamps between the Richmond road and the Experimental Farm. For a distance of nearly a mile each pole has an incandescent lamp upon its top. The poles are equal distances apart and all of the same height so that the appearance of the long row of lights is most attractive."
The OER continued work preparing West End Park for the public, and adding attractions. In late June, five electric swings were added in the grove. They were operated by an electric motor, which also operated the piano organ which played during the movement of the swings. The OER also added a large number of arc lamps throughout the grove in order to allow for visitors to enjoy the park late into the evening. A refreshment booth was also constructed on the site, and a well dug to provide clear and cool water, and various seats and benches were added throughout the park for picnicers.
An innovation of the park was the establishment of special stands dedicated for bicycle parking. A total of 100 stalls were built for cyclists to park their bikes. A letter to the newspaper later that fall suggested the Central Exhibition organizers might take a cue from the West End Park, where "lots of wheelmen who would not otherwise have done so, rode out, left their wheels in safety and enjoyed the performance."
A police constable was also appointed, dedicated to the West End Park. The first to fill this role was Frank Lafleur.
Just prior to the opening of the entertainment program in mid-July, the Electric Railway Company formally purchased the West End Park from the Ottawa Land Association. Though several individuals were key players in both groups, the OER wanted to permanently acquire the land, which technically was a series of lots in the OLA subdivision.
A band stand, or elevated stage, was built in mid-July to allow for concerts. This venue also included an "enclosure", which was capable of seating 800 to 1,000 people. The ground of the enclosure was covered with crushed tan bark in early August, both for foot comfort, and also to keep the ground dry.
|West End Park bandshell photo from 1895
(Source: LAC PA-027261)
The exact location of this original bandstand and enclosure area is difficult to pinpoint, but was on the west side of Holland, somewhere closer to Ruskin than Kenilworth. It may well have occupied the same location the Auditorium (which came later) was built (see more on this below).
The location of West End Park
So where was the West End Park located exactly, you might ask? This has been a question I have rarely seen answered correctly. Most references to the old Park typically say that it was located on the site of Fisher Park School and playground. While that would seem logical, it isn't really true. The Park was actually on the other side of the Queensway! Below is a look at the original subdivision plan of the Ottawa Land Association's property that comprised in this area, the former Hinton and Stewart family farms, which clearly shows the Park's location:
|Ottawa Land Association subdivision plan (1895).
Note that Faraday continues through roughly to what is now
the western end of Sherwood, while Tyndall also continued
west through Holland a little south of where Byron would run.
Here is a crudely labelled map I put together, showing an aerial map of present day, with the Park details labelled as best as I can:
The Park was predominantly composed of an area which was naturally thickly treed in the north end, which was probably three-quarters of the overall site, referred to often as a 'grove'. There was also a large cleared area at the south end (adjoining Ruskin) which was ideal for sports and games. See the very bottom of this article for photos of the area from the 1920s and 1930s, which more or less still show the state of the property as it would have been in 1896.
The opening events & Edison's Vitascope
The first event ever held at West End Park was on Saturday July 18th, 1896, a concert by the 43rd Ottawa and Carleton Battalion of Rifles Band (which later became the Cameron Highlanders). The programme for this show was published in the newspaper earlier that day:
|Ottawa Journal, July 18, 1896
However the first major event held here was the legendary Edison Vitascope demonstration. This is the one legacy of West End Park, and likely the only reason it is still remembered and talked about 120 years later. The OER had organized a summer full of entertainment, featuring singers and performers, but also to start with, a demonstration of some of the very first movies ever made. The link to Edison and his Vitascope was an important one. Andrew Holland, who was closely involved with the OER and the Ottawa Land Association (owners of the Park property and surrounding lands), had also worked with Edison previously. Andrew and his brother George had opened a parlor on Broadway in New York City in 1894, featuring Edison's marvel invention the Kinetoscope, which showed small film strips in small viewing chambers. They soon after brought the machine to Ottawa for Canada's first demonstration of a moving picture on November 3rd, 1894, in the Perley building downtown on Sparks near Bank.
|Letter from Edison to the Holland Brothers
thanking them for their work in bringing the
Kinetoscope to the public. (Source: LAC)
The Kinetoscope was soon after surpassed by the Lumiere Brothers invention, the cinématographe, which was able to project films onto a screen, beginning in late December 1895.
To keep pace, Edison helped develop a motion picture projector as well, which was the Vitascope. Instead of moving pictures being reproduced in miniature in a cabinet, they were displayed in life size on a large screen, as "lime light views" had previously. However, the improvement on that technology was of course that the pictures actually moved.
The Vitascope had its first public demonstration in New York on April 23rd, 1896, and by June had already appeared in many other major cities in the North-Eastern U.S. Charles Tepperman pointed out in his 2000 graduate thesis for Carleton University that the OER was attempting to "capitalize on Ottawa's cosmopolitan aspirations by reporting that "in New York, Paris and London, where the Vitascope has been on exhibition for several weeks, the interest continues unabated, and the theatres in which it is exhibited are crowded nightly"...an unsubtle challenge to Ottawa theatregoers to prove themselves just as 'up to date' and fashionable as their metropolitan counterparts".
The Holland Brothers had secured exclusive rights to exhibit the Vitascope in Canada, and the OER had arranged with them to have the first demonstration take place at West End Park. It was reported on Monday July 20th that the machinery for the Vitascope had arrived by express that morning, and that all was set for the first presentation on Tuesday evening.
|From larger ad, July 20 1896
The Citizen had seen a sneak preview or viewed a rehearsal the night before the opening and reported on opening day: "With this wonderful invention spectacles in life and occurrences are reproduced in a most vivid and realistic manner, and those who witnessed the views projected last evening were not only pleased with the sight, but were enthused to a high degree over the creative genius which made it possible for life-like movements to be depicted on canvas with such extraordinary effect."
The debut performance of the Vitascope in Canada was on Tuesday July 21st, 1896 at West End Park. The Journal estimated 600 to 800 people were in attendance for this milestone cinematic event in Canadian history (the estimates of other local newspapers were a little higher). Below is a review of the event from the Ottawa Journal:
July 22, 1896
A reporter reviewing this incredible spectacle for another paper put to words the impressive event of viewing a moving picture for the first time: "A corner in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, shows foot passengers, bicyclists and horses passing, with a trueness to life that sound seemed only wanting to make them real. Even the swaying of the trees did not escape the camera. The breakwater at Coney Island was a fine reproduction of waves, and as the huge breakers came tumbling in, the occupants of the front benches involuntarily moved back to prevent a shower."
Another columnist added "If only sound had accompanied the action, one would almost believe the actors alive!"
The films were spliced end-to-end (it's unclear if that meant each individual film, or all the films for that night) and thus were shown 5 or 6 times apiece. Each film was only about 20-30 seconds long.
The seven films shown at the opening are believed to be: Parade of Bicyclists at Brooklyn, New York, Bathing Scene at Coney Island, Railway Smash-up, Firing of Cannon at Peerskill by the Battery of Artillery, May Irwin Kiss, Herald Square, and an unspecified film of Niagara Falls (Edison produced several different ones in 1896). (Thanks to Charles Tepperman's August 2000 Carleton University graduate thesis paper "The Perfect Order of a Canadian Crowd" for filling in some of the film details).
You can click the links below to view three of these original films on Youtube:
May Irwin Kiss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q690-IexNB4
Herald Square (depicting a scene on Broadway): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghX0TfvuLtw
Niagara Falls (likely the film shown, or close to it): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FU6WgfIxdls
It is important to note as well that Edison was not actually the inventor of the Vitascope. The Vitascope was invented by C. Frances Jenkins and Thomas Armat and managed by Raff & Gammon. Edison's company agreed to manufacture the machine and to produce films for it, but on the condition it be advertised as a new Edison invention named the Vitascope. Hence why many sources today continue to credit it's invention to Edison.
The Vitascope show was shown each night of the week, with the size of crowds growing daily as word travelled of the exciting presentation that was being shown. On Friday July 24th, the Park sold out, including all possible standing room tickets. It was announced by late in the week that indeed the Vitascope exhibition would be extended by at least another week, and that new films would be added. By the second week, the 1,000 seat enclosure was full, with another estimated 1,000 patrons viewing from the outside.
In the audience on one of the opening nights was Dr. Wicksteed, in his 94th year and an ex-law clerk of the House of Commons who took a great interest in the scientific inventions and discoveries of the 19th century, to see the realization of a technological advancement he had predicted years earlier, but had never expected to see.
Also appearing that first week was Belzac, a highly-regarded touring magician (also referred to as a 'prestidigitateur') who had been playing across the US and Canada throughout the last few years. His performances at West End Park were very well received.
Belzac, whose real name was John C. Green, wrote later that in June of 1896, "I was with Dr. Bailey's Medicine Show playing along the Ottawa River and I read where Ahearn and Soper of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company were going to bring to Ottawa Edison's marvellous invention - pictures that move, also that only one other machine was in operation at that time, in New York. So I lost no time in writing Ahearn and Soper and got an engagement for two weeks. I did a 30 minute magic show and described the four pictures to be seen on the screen, all 50-foot films, fastened together at the end like a belt so that they just kept repeating as long as the machine was in operation."
The summer 1896 season
The success of 1896 was all built around the Vitascope. What originally may have only been planned to be a one or two week long exhibition saw a third week added, then a fourth, until finally it turned into a full summer showing, which drew packed crowds in endlessly. It was reported that hundreds of people from surrounding towns and districts were coming specifically to see the Vitascope. Interest outgrew even the OER's wildest dreams, and the park was sold out virtually every evening. It also caused the Holland Brothers to seek out as many new films as they could get their hands on, as often as possible.
On Saturday July 25th, six new films were express delivered by the Hollands on behalf of the Vitascope Company, including the first colored Vitascope films. Within this group were films showing famous dancers Annabelle Moore and Amy Muller. Here is a link to a batch of Edison's Annabelle Moore films from the 1894-1896, some or all of which were shown at West End Park: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZ4qMGKOYC0
Five new films arrived August 5th: White Wings (the drill of the New York street cleaning brigade); Passaic Falls, Paterson, N.J.; Little Jake and the tall Dutch girl; The Fire Rescue (a thrilling rescue by a New York fireman); and The Goat Parade. Here is a link to The Fire Rescue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9PIJLWBorY
New films during the week of Aug 10th included: Lee Richardson Fancy Bicycle Riding and Knock Out Round in the Leonard-Cushing Sparring Match, and by the 10th, the park management was showing 18 films in total for a night. One of the last to arrive on the 21st became one of the most popular with the crowd, described by the newspaper as causing "great amusement when the mischievous small boy who turned the hose on the old gardener received the old-fashioned punishment across the knee of the gardener's wife".
The Citizen on August 1st wrote: "It is not surprising that the latest and most wonderful achievement of science - Edison's Vitascope - should prove a drawing card, for it is one of those things a person feels thankful for that he has lived to see. And truly the common consent of man has given the magic invention the foremost place among even the New York wizard's greatest achievements."
Admission for the shows was 10 cents, and for children 5 cents. Reserved seats were 10 cents extra. Round trip tickets, which included street car fare both ways, admission and reserved seats were 25 cents, and could be purchased at the Ahearn and Soper office at 56 Sparks Street (Ahearn and Soper being directors of both the OER and OLA).
Show times were typically around 8:15 or 8:30 p.m. for evening shows, and 3:30 p.m. for matinees.
Though the Park was theoretically accessible to all, by charging admission to the shows, and due to its location in the isolation of Holland Avenue thereby forcing interested citizens to pay to take a streetcar, the Park and it's offerings truly were directed towards the upper-middle class of Ottawans. This was seemingly the intention of the OER, and an article on July 24th made this clear: "The efforts of the Electric Railway Company to provide a high class entertainment is meeting with the appreciative support of Ottawa's best people. Last night all the reserved chairs were taken by an audience comprising the elite of the city. The entertainment is first class in every respect."
|July 22, 1896 ad from the Ottawa Journal listing options for
Ottawans for their entertainment that evening.
Advertising was heavy in the Ottawa newspapers, and the reporters reviewed each show extensively.
The public was excited at the new summer resort, and kept the park very busy in the afternoons and evenings. Lunch picnics were a particular favourite in the earliest days of the park.
The evening entertainment featured a revolving group of entertainers to go along with the Vitascope presentations. One of the most exciting of the summer of 1896 was James E. Hardy, a 24-year old high-wire performer. Poles of great length were erected at the Park a week in advance of his performances (which ran from July 27th to August 1st). The high-wire was installed at 75 feet high, and was 105 feet in length. His act was promoted as being "blood thrilling in the extreme", and he had recently made a name for himself as he crossed Niagara Falls on Dominion Day (Canada Day) before an audience of 25,000. (Incidentally, Hardy was the last person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope for over 100 years - after he did it, such activities were banned by law.)
Hardy's act at West End Park included approximately thirty different feats on the high wire, where it was reported that "it seems impossible for him to lose his balance, as he walks as well blindfolded as with his eyes open". For the evening shows, an electric search light was used to follow his movements on the high wire. Apparently the colored effects on Hardy were "alone worth the charge for admission." A review of his show stated that "He appeared on the rope...dressed in a tramp's garb, and after some cautious work, divested himself of his outer clothing while on the rope and appeared in a suite of blue tights. Then he gave a performance that simply held the audience spell-bound. He walked and ran across the rope backwards and forwards, turned round on it, laid on his back and put his feet in the air, sat on a chair and smoked, walked across the rope with a sack over his head and his feet in one, and crossed and ended his performance, which lasted 45 minutes, by standing on his head in the centre of the rope."
|James E. Hardy, high-wire performer at
West End Park July 27 to August 1 1896
Other performers that summer included the Diantes of Paris (two brothers who were expert violinists, who would play under any condition, be it while performing acrobatic or juggling feats), Alfred Sturrock ("Canada's favorite baritone"), Baldwin and Daly (athletic marvels and Zulu comedians whose highlight act was where "one man, lying upon his back, with the aid of hands and feet elevates the other standing upon his chest, then lifting his hands from the stage supports the weight by the unaided muscular strength of the lower limbs."), and the Pantzer Brothers from Germany (balancers who "capped their climax of their performance by a head-to-head balance during which one of them played a mandolin and the other a guitar, while the pair go up and down a flight of stairs.").
Improvements to the Park continued throughout the opening summer of 1896. By mid-August, it was reported that a company was hired to level the ground under the trees, that all stumps would be drawn and the ground smoothed out. It also noted that other "conveniences are also being built on the grounds".
The Park was scheduled to be closed after Saturday August 29th, due to the coolness of the evenings, but the fact that the shows were still sold out or close to each night of the final week led to management considering extending an extra week. However the second part of the week grew cold, and it was decided to end the season. Reviews in the papers at the conclusion of the season were positive. "A cooling run on the cars to the West End Park, with a capital performance thrown in, was certainly to be appreciated", not to mention the reasonable cost of the evening's amusement.
The Park itself did remain open for an extra week, and saw 77 children from the Orphans' Home on Elgin Street receive a free trip on the streetcar and a picnic lunch at the Park, courtesy of the Ahearn children Lily and Frank.
By the end of the summer, the OER had grown frustrated with the Vitascope. Andrew Holland later wrote that by the end of the summer, he felt little optimism for the success of the Vitascope in Canada, due to the poor quality films being produced, and the physically poor condition many of the films arrived in, or would degrade to after only a few showings. He later felt that it would be impossible to profit from the Vitascope in Canada and ended his business relationship with Raff & Gammon before the end of 1896, stating "The fact of the matter is, there is no money in the Vitascope in a sparsely settled country, with the competition of half a dozen machines" (referring to the other moving picture products which were also emerging at the time). Though the whole operation operated at a loss for the Hollands, the promotion they were receiving in promoting their lands in the western suburbs, and the promotion the OER had in promoting electricity and streetcars made up the difference.
The New Auditorium
In February of 1897, it was announced that the OER Company planned to build a large pavilion at the Park, capable of seating 2,000 people, at a cost of $10,000. Executives from the OER visited Montreal's Sohmer Park in February to obtain some ideas as to the style of structure for the West End Park. Plans for the pavilion were completed by the end of the month, and the final design was for a building 80 feet in width and 115 feet in length, with a stage 50 feet wide, and 35 feet deep, with large dressing rooms on each side with private entrances. (The stage and dressing rooms were further enlarged for the 1898 season). The floor of the auditorium was inclined gradually from the rear to the front so that the stage could be seen well from all parts of the audience. "The roof will be circular and studded on the outside with incandescent lamps, and will also have an illuminated inscription of the name of the park." The centre of the ceiling was to be 80 feet from the ground, lit by 1,000 incandescent lights. It was designed to resemble both the pavilion in Sohmer Park, but also Dey's hockey rink in downtown Ottawa. The architect on the project was Mr. W. A. Baldwin.
|Sohmer Park Pavilion, on which the Victoria Park Auditorium
was based. (Source: http://www.cinemamuetquebec.ca)
A planing mill run by electricity that had been opened on the Park grounds prepared the lumber through the spring of 1897. The seats were furnished by Oliver and Son located near what is now Gladstone and Preston, of the "most modern opera chair style", and the stage was to "be equal to that of the present opera house and will be supplied with the most improved flies, wings and scenery." By early May, the roof was nearly finished, as were each of the sides, except for the wainscotting, which was to be several feet high.
The completed building featured roofs and walls of a semi-circular shape (similar to that of Dey's Rink), with "an over-lapping roof that furnishes abundance of ventilation.". Seating included 458 orchestral chairs (the most modern and comfortable chair that could be obtained), plus 300 chairs in the parquet. These comprised the reserved seating sections. The gallery contained elevated seats in the rear to accommodate 700 people.
The entrance to the gallery was from the rear, so that those coming in first would walk down and occupy the front seats. The entrance was from a stairway on the outside of the building, and was a complete enclosure from the spot where the cars stop on Holland Avenue to the building itself (roughly 40 feet in size by my estimation). Visitors were not required to go outside from the time they entered their streetcar until they occupied their seat in the building.
Walls were white inside, maximizing the effect of the lights, which were placed along the bents, 8 feet apart, with 40 lights on each bent. 70 lights line the sides and 250 more on the stage. The power for the auditorium was furnished by a special plant supplied by Ahearn and Soper. who also connected back-up lighting to the regular city supply, just in case. A huge saucer-shaped soundboard, 20 feet in diameter, added greatly to the acoustic properties of the building ("an ordinary voice can be heard distinctly in the most remote corner of the building.").
The lower part of the building could open to allow the air to circulate, with rolling blinds so that wind or rain could be kept out. Smoking was allowed in 1897 but prohibited in 1898, and gentlemen were requested to remove their hats.
The Victoria Park Auditorium was located on Holland Avenue, I estimate to be on the location where the two semi-detached houses at 384-386 Holland and 388-390 Holland stand today, about 200 feet north of Ruskin Street. The auditorium was set back about 40-50 feet from the street, so roughly in the backyards of these houses on Holland today, and a little into the backyards of the houses on Huron Avenue South (381, 383 and 385 Huron Avenue).
Though I have yet to see a photo of the auditorium at Holland Avenue, photos of it do exist from when it was later moved to Britannia (more on the move below!). Evidence of the structure continued to exist into the 1920s, and so some of the aerial photos (seen at the very bottom of this article) greatly help place it's location, as well piecing together newspaper accounts from the era.
The best I could do is find an illustration of the auditorium, drawn for the Ottawa Journal after the last event held at the park on Labour Day 1904:
|September 6, 1904 Ottawa Journal,
illustration of the Victoria Park Auditorium.
The photo below is at Britannia from approximately 1905-1906, just after it was moved from Holland.
|Taken by the Auditorium at Britannia.
(Source: Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum)
Here is a better view of the building, from the 1920s. Note that you can see some obvious paint-over work that has been done in the middle of the lettering (IDE and GAR in the centre), that could possibly have been done to cover up over "Victoria Park"?
|Former Victoria Park Auditorium in Britannia, 1920s.
Source: Workers History Museum
The similarities are obvious when compared to Dey's Arena and the Sohmer Park pavilion, but I tend to think it looks very much like Aberdeen Pavilion (Cattle Castle) at Lansdowne Park, which was built a year later in 1898 (perhaps the Victoria Park auditorium was of some influence to architect Moses C. Edey?).
Adjoining the auditorium at the rear was a refreshment booth, which was being built as of late May, to be managed by Mr. T. Burns from Sparks Street.
A little further to the south (towards Ruskin, on about the rear of the property of 111 Ruskin today) was a small wood-frame house built by Hintonburg hotel-keeper James Byers around this time. I have no idea how Byers was given approval to build a house in this location, or what it's original intended use was, but by 1900 it had tenants living in it (a Mr. P. Barbeau who had lost everything in the great Ottawa-Hull fire had moved in to it following the fire). The house remained occupied in this location until the early 1920s when it was demolished or burned down.
Victoria Park & the 1897 season
A week after the announcement that the Auditorium would be built, the OER announced on March 9th that it was decided that the West End Park would be renamed to Victoria Park, in honour of the diamond jubilee (many buildings and localities across Canada were renamed in honor of the Queen's 60 years on the throne in 1897).
|Ottawa Journal, March 9, 1897
March of 1897 also saw strong consideration being given to the site for acquisition by the City's Board of Park Commissioners. This committee evidently had power to make acquisitions without approval of council. City Council was concerned and quickly passed a motion requiring the Board to obtain approval of the council first. This proposal would come to light again in 1898.
Opening night for Victoria Park, and for the new Auditorium was held on Monday May 24th, 1897. The ceremonies included the introduction of another new technology, the Biograph, along with entertainment by T. Wilmott Eckert, Miss Emma Berg, the Pantzer Brothers and Billy Payne, the banjo comedian, with music by the G.G.F.G. orchestra.
For the 1897 season, shows were held at 8:15 or 8:30 each evening (the later start times appeared in the middle of summer), plus matinees at 3:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Admission was 25 cents for orchestra searing, 15 cents for parquet and 10 cents general admission. Reserved seats could be acquired in advance at the office of Olmsted & Hurdman's. The general public later complained about the high cost for children to attend performances (apparently they received no discount).
Opening night saw over 2,000 people crowded in the new auditorium, several hundred standing around inside the fences, and many hundreds outside who could not get a ticket. The highlight for the opening was the demonstration of the Biograph from New York, which was similar to the Vitascope, in that moving pictures were projected onto a canvas screen, however the Biograph enabled them to be much larger. One showed a pillow fight between four little girls in bed, and another the incoming of the Empire state express to the accompaniment of the clanging of an engine bell on stage and the hissing of steam made by a member of the orchestra band, which was "intensely realistic".
Reviewers noted the biggest differences seen in the new auditorium was the lighting and sound. Gone was the dim lighting of the open-air enclosure, replaced by the enormous number of lights in the auditorium. Sound-wise, the acoustics were reported to be excellent, "at the back of the stage is a very large and deep sounding bell that throws the sound out to the auditorium. Not a word spoken on stage is lost."
The Biograph remained a feature for the early part of the summer, and was consistently popular due to the new films that would be added to the rotation a couple of times each week. It's final night was on Saturday June 19th, when all 24 films were shown.
|Ottawa Journal, June 19, 1897
The Auditorium was a popular place to be attracting many politicians, including members of parliament, and well-known Ottawa residents. Also in the spring of 1897, the members of the 2nd Ottawa Field Battery set up a camp for 12 days in what is now the Fisher Park grounds (a tradition they would continue over several years), which they called "Camp Victoria". Many of the 102 officers and soldiers would often visit the Park. "The military uniforms give the scene a sort of finishing touch. The Battery boys are quite in love with the camp grounds owing to the attractions so near at hand, and rumor says some of them are in love with some of the pretty girls that go out that way in the afternoons. But that's another story, as the saying is."
The entertainment provided in 1897 was akin to a variety show, with a series of different performers performing skits, acts, musical numbers, and oddball things. Some of the highlight performances included: Akimoto's Royal Japanese troupe of equilibrists, jugglers and balancers; Ray Burton (a well-known touring performer who had played for royalty and nobility in Europe, whose highlight trick was shooting at swinging balls with his rifle while hanging from a swinging slack wire, never missing a shot); Farnum Brothers (acrobatic wonders with a high diving act); T.J. Hefron, a one-legged singer and dancer; Charles Diamond ("The Milanese Minstrel", who played the harp, sang and danced all at the same time); Fialkowski (an imitator, specializing in dogs); Professor Burton's Dog Circus; and many other singers, dancers and performers. Each week the presentations featured the orchestras of either the Governor General's Foot Guards or the 43rd Battalion (one would play at West End Park, the other at Rockliffe Park). They provided music backdrop where required, transition music between performers, and would perform full tunes as well.
The crowd-favorite for the year were the Rossow brothers, a touring family of midgets who performed from July 5th to 17th. The were reported to "drive through the streets of the city every day in a carriage not much larger than a hat box, drawn by their own pony, and accompanied by their coachman, who is only a boy, but whose stature is three times as great as the little fellows whose servant he is." Part of their act included a three-round boxing fight, as well as an exhibition of weight lifting and gymnastics.
|Ottawa Journal, July 3, 1897
The 1897 season ended on a minor sour note, as a debate was waged in the pages over the newspaper over the inclusion of what one spectator felt was an offensive skit, performed by a comedian playing an exaggerated Irish character. The spectator, John D. Grace, wrote "The antics of that beer garden performance...are disgraceful and humiliating. This is not the first time this season that the Irish character has been scandalously misrepresented at that resort." The performer, John F. Patten, an Irish American, replied back in strong defense of his performance stating that "I try to give a fair representation of that best of true souled characters, an honest, large hearted Irishman."
A tree lot was also set up at Victoria Park in 1897. Mr. A. Bruley planted a large series of trees, cedar hedges and evergreens in 1897, and began offering them for sale in 1898, which included planting.
The 1898 season
For the 1898 season, Mr. George W. Jacobs of the Grand Opera House was named manager of entertainment at Victoria Park, and naturally he had an inclination to feature more opera music. He also favoured less variety shows and more plays. The opening of the season was held on May 23rd (two days after the close of the Grand). The staff of the Grand were brought in to operate the Park.
For 1898, James Byers, who operated a hotel and bar in Hintonburg, began operating the refreshment booth at Victoria Park. His wife Jane ran the booth, as she did the bar at the hotel. During the first week of the Park's operation, she reportedly received several offers for the rights to the booth. Mr. J. Watson of Bank Street was also approved by the OER to open a second refreshment booth in 1898.
1898 was also known as a year where a plague of caterpillars took over the park, where "the crawlers covered benches, dropped from trees, invaded picnic baskets and made themselves very generally known."
The opening feature starting May 23rd was "A Trip to Coontown", a three hour performance featuring a touring group of "thirty black comedians", led by Bob Cole as the tramp, and Billy Johnson as the confidence man, and Tom Brown the impersonator (who performed "character sketches including the Jew, Chinese, Italian and Rube (which) are also good and always please"). The short ad for the show ironically noted that it would be "a performance devoid of all indecent features", and that "the whole entertainment is a refined one." Indeed! Opening day featured a matinee and evening show, both were sold out, and many turned away.
|Advertisement in the Ottawa Journal, May 26, 1898
Apparently "cake walking" from what I can gather was a popular dance and activity within the African-American population during this era, where a competition would be held to find the individual who could perform most creative and interesting dance or walk, with a cake being given as a prize. Apparently Ottawa had a competitive group of cake-walkers at the time, and they decided to hold a competition one evening during the run of "A Trip to Coontown", and to have Cole and Johnson decide the winner.
The show ended up being extended for a second week due to its overwhelming popularity. Then, Cole and Johnson and their entire troupe were retained to put on a show for the third week, a new play called 'Georgia 49', which was described as "A laughable comedy depicting life in the South before the war. Old Time Plantation Melodies and Dances."
For 5 weeks in June and July, the Hollis Comedy Company troupe gave the entertainment, featuring it's lead, Miss Lorraine Hollis, who was described as "one of the most beautiful women on the American stage...the embodiment of the warmth and brightness of sunshine, but always delicate, graceful and womanly" The group put on two plays each week, one a farce comedy, and one a light society drama. These shows appear to have been very well received, as Lorraine Hollis was one of the top stars in entertainment of the era.
|Actress/singer/comedienne Lorraine Hollis
The following two weeks featured vaudeville performances, put on by the Metropolitan Vaudeville Company and American Vaudeville Company, both of New York. To an opera house manager, to book a vaudeville show would have been torture. George Jacobs stressed however that it would be "high class vaudeville". The shows where not overly well received, the Journal noted that "some of the jokes were a trifle too suggestive, while others had a very ancient flavor, and a couple of the performers showed evidence of having seen better days."
|Ad from July 18, 1898
It appears that the Park was not as successful in 1898 as it had been the two previous years. Perhaps the novelty of the new park wore off, perhaps it was a tougher economy at the time. Likely it may have been the change in format, that while the upper class, theatre-going public enjoyed operas in the park, what made the Park a hit in 1896 and 1897 was the variety of bizarre acts, singers, and of course, the technology. By late July, the price of all matinees had been reduced to 10 cents for all seats. As well, OER motormen and conductors had previously been given free admission to the auditorium, but now had to pay. This was an unpopular change amongst the railway men, and gave the Park bad publicity. A Fresh Air benefit that would have seen Park management turn over the profits of one Friday evening performance in early August (about $150) to benefit the poor was cancelled one day prior to the event.
In early August, prices were reduced for all shows, down to 15 cents for reserved seats, and 10 cents admission general. The advertising budget, which had always been the Park's bread and butter had been cut to almost nothing, with little in the newspaper promoting the August performances. As the advertising was reduced, so too was the newspaper reviews and coverage of the acts. Towards the end of the season, the managers attempted to put on more variety-like shows, but it was too late, and evidently by mid-August, the shows came to an early end altogether.
There was also this sneaky scam tried by a youth at the Park:
|Ottawa Journal - June 29, 1898
One positive that continued in 1898 was the tradition whereby the OER or the management of the Park would invite the orphans from the various orphan homes of the city for a free matinee show and picnic at the park, including free streetcar transportation. As well, the Park would also host an annual picnic for the 'Home for Friendless Women', which was also given free.
One last story of note from 1898 was that on July 28th, William Scott representing the Ottawa Land Association, went to the Park Commissioners Board of Ottawa and proposed a sale of 175 acres of their land, west of Holland, between Richmond Road and Carling, surrounding the West End Park. Asking price was $550 per acre, total of $96,250. The argument made was that a public park should exist in the west as it did in the east at Rockliffe. The Board had already looked at acquiring the land in 1897, and so a deal was certainly within reason. The OLA argued that the rapid growth of Hintonburg and the area would soon result in the OER likely eventually selling the West End Park property for building lots. The pitch included the point that if the city sold all 2,400 building lots in the 175 acres at $300 per lot, then $720,000 would be realized by the City. The Park Commissioners eventually rejected the offer, and the OLA would hold on to the property for another twenty-plus years. It is curious to imagine what may have happened to this enormous piece of land if the City had acquired the property at the time!
1899 - The last good year for Victoria Park
For the 1899 season, apparently a new dancing pavilion was opened at the park, with the first dance held on Thursday June 1st. Very little can be found on this pavilion, so it was very likely a temporary structure such as a tent.
James Byers of Hintonburg again returned to operate the refreshment stand.
Eugene Redding of the Redding Opera Company of New York was hired as manager, and again a focus on operas was planned.
Opening night was June 5th, and featured many distinguished guests, including the Governor-General Lord and Lady Minto, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid and Lady Laurier, and the previous Prime Minister Sir Charles and Lady Tupper, plus many ministers of the cabinet. (So the owners of 384 to 390 Holland Avenue can boast that all of these important Canadian figures were once in their backyard!)
The Robinson Opera Company put on the first six weeks of shows, which appear to have been fairly well received.
|May 30, 1899
On the evening of Friday June 23rd, 1899, at 6:30 p.m. an auction sale of 300 building lots near Victoria Park was held by the Ottawa Land Association. The auction was likely held outside of the OLA office at the corner of Richmond Road and Holland Avenue. Lots were sold with no reserve, from the area south of Tyndall on Parkdale, Hinton, Hamilton and Holland Avenues. The OLA was looking to capitalize on the popularity of Victoria Park, to grow the neighbourhood and eventually push upwards the value of their thousands of other lots.
|June 22, 1899
In July, perhaps to combat declining interest in the Park and recapture the magic of the first two years, the Biograph made its return, showing moving pictures to the audience. It is likely that this would still have been popular to view, but the novelty was no longer there, as the evolution of cinematic technology was still pushing strongly forward.
Mid-season, weekday matinees were cut, leaving only Saturday afternoon matinees.
On Monday July 31st, Edwina, a dancer caused considerable trouble amongst the crowd due to her inappropriate dancing style, as the reviews read: "One feature of the performance at Victoria Park last night spoiled the pleasure of the evening for a great many ladies in the audience. It was the dancing by Edwina, a gay Parisienne, and while she was on the stage a great many ladies were uncomfortable. The performance caught on with the gallery crowd, however, but it is safe to say that but very few of the ladies who were there last night will go back again this week at least."
The highlight of the summer was the presentation of the Passion Play on August 14th, which "deals with the life of the Saviour as presented by the simple peasants of Oberammergau, and has been reproduced by the Vitascope, the moving picture device of Thomas A. Edison, the wizard electrician. The leading minds in church circles unite in endorsing it as the greatest aid in the cause of Christianity the world has to-day." The presentation moved to Ottawa after its conclusion in Toronto where over a hundred thousand people saw the spectacle. The Journal noted that "for the first time many people saw the physical representation of scenes which to them were sacred." This presentation drew the highest crowds by far of the summer. However, some felt that it was inappropriate that such a presentation be shown in a public resort for amusement, arguing that the Passion Play would be suitable if presented at a church, and moreover that the proceeds of this presentation should go to a better cause, such as the poor and sick.
This presentation, which may well have been one of the first full-length movie showings in Ottawa, had a tremendous affect on the spectators in the crowd, and a second week for the presentation was added. At the show on Wednesday August 23rd, it was reported that "a spectator sobbed audibly when the matchless Passion Play was being presented. After the representation he grasped the hand of the lecturer, the Rev. Smith Warner, and said: "By God's help I'll start out to-night to lead a better life."
Britannia and the decline of Victoria Park
In 1900, the electric railway line was extended to Britannia. A trial run took place on Saturday January 13th, and regular service began that Spring. The OER shifted their entire focus on Britannia Park, and the entertainment venues there. As a result, there was no entertainment program at Victoria Park in 1900. The OER did continue to maintain the property, and some groups were able to come use the facilities (St. Matthias Church held their annual picnic in the park on June 21st, featuring both a band and an orchestra).By July, the OER was using the auditorium as a streetcar storage shed, and the Journal noted on July 30th that "since the Britannia line was opened, the West End Park is about deserted."
In 1901, the city was looking for a site for the proposed Contagious Disease Hospital, and the West End Park was suggested as a possible location. Some group picnics were still held in 1901, but only the old Byers refreshment pavilion was available for events (the St. Matthias group used it for a dance in May which attracted over a thousand people). Late in 1901 during a smallpox outbreak in Mechanicsville, James Byers suggested the house he owned near the park could be used to house patients, suitable due to its isolation.
By 1902, only the Ottawa Field Naturalists' group was visiting the site, for scientific and exploration purposes. Other than a couple of specific events in 1903 and 1904, the park was unused. The OER put in work to clean up the site so that a large party could be held there on Dominion Day (Canada Day) in 1903, and later the Civic Holiday in August. St. Matthias held a big event there on Victoria Day 1904, and a Governor General's Foot Guards concert was held there on the August holiday.
One large event was held on Labour Day September 5th, 1904, which ended up being the final event held there. The Labour Day organizers wished to move from their usual spot at Lansdowne Park to Victoria Park for a different experience. The OER declined to provide a $100 grant to host the event, but did agree to fix up the grounds and auditorium, and offered free use of them. The events included sports (mostly quoits and croquet), competitions and races.
The participants found that the athletic grounds had denigrated into poor condition, and so most events had to be run outside the park grounds on the only space available. "on a quite inadequate extemporized track between the car rails". Crowds lined up on either side of the track for the races to cheer their favourites. The Journal reported that this left the runners a narrow channel three feet wide to run, essentially assuring that runners could not pass others in front of them. The shotput event was also run on the track, a dangerous scenario.
A band concert was also held in the pavilion during the day, and "a fancy drill and skirmishing" by the 16 members of the bayonet squad from the 43rd D.C.O.R. under Sgt. Finlay. An even bigger event was held in the evening, a variety show that was a throwback to the glory days of the Park with performers (sketches, singing, fancy drill by a lady and gentleman cadet corps, trapeze juggling, and of course moving pictures by Mr. J. Kissock, and the illustrated songs by Mr. W. R. Burrell).
The newspaper commented that "the place was and still is an ideal place for picnic parties, as there are large groves of tall, stately trees through which they may wander and lay out the picnic lunch baskets in cool and pretty shaded nooks."
However, the writing was already on the wall. On August 1st, 1904, it had been announced that Britannia Park would be enlarged and expanded after the OER acquired 30 adjacent acres to their existing park from the late Judge Mosgrove estate. Part of the announced plan was to move the Victoria Park auditorium to Britannia. Two weeks after the Labour Day party, the OER made it official - the auditorium would be moved to Britannia. It would have been an unbelievable project at the time; to take the large building down Holland Avenue and out to Britannia by street car. For the week of September 19th, streetcar service up Holland to the Farm was cancelled, and only one car was left running on the Britannia line, to ease the workers in moving the auditorium.
By November, the OER was working hard on completing the installation of the auditorium in the north-east corner of Britannia Park, with a "large gang of men employed on the work, which will not be completed until the spring." The Auditorium re-opened in Britannia for the summer of 1905, where it served as a vaudeville theatre and playhouse for a number of years. It was later converted into a movie theatre, and then a dance hall in the 1920s, when the name was changed to Lakeside Gardens. The original Auditorium building later burned down in July of 1955.
By the winter of 1905, the OER made it no secret that the Victoria Park property, which comprised 114 builder lots, would be put for sale soon. Advertising beginning in early 1906 made this so.
|March 29, 1906
The lots would sell at a trickle pace, and it would not be for many years and the arrival of the Civic Hospital, until lot sales in this area would really take off, and major house-building would occur.
With the auditorium gone and the park abandoned by the OER, the handful of houses in the area began to experience troubles with homeless and transients.
|November 2, 1905 Ottawa Journal
Even by 1908, there were reports of "card playing" going on in Victoria Park which took the notice of the Carleton County police chief.
In 1907 the Island Park Drive route was first being discussed, and one route strongly being considered was to run the Driveway from the Farm down Holland Avenue, past the Victoria Park, and then move in a westward direction somewhere between what is now the Queensway and Byron. Or course years later it would be decided to run the route more to the west.
In the spring of 1907, a location for Ottawa's new sanatorium was being discussed, and Victoria Park was one of the leading contenders. Ultimately Ottawa decided in 1910 to go with the "Bayswater Annex" which was not-so-coincidentally annexed to the City in 1909.
As a summarizing note, despite the brief success held in the late 1890s, the OER was essentially using it as a promotional tool, to promote electricity, the streetcars and most importantly, the suburban area for which they owned so many acres. They simply shifted their focus to Britannia in 1900 and gave up on Victoria Park after only four short years. In 1905, an article profiling the OER for their investment in Britannia (which would prove to be an unabashed success), noted: "It will be remembered that when the Electric Railway Company had an outing place and a pavilion for summer amusements at Victoria Park, just outside of Hintonburg, that the enterprise resulted in a failure; such a failure that it would not naturally be supposed that a company which had been so badly beaten would care to try another venture...The Electric Railway Company sank a very large amount of money into the land and pavilion building at Victoria Park. Though this venture was financially disastrous, the company to their credit be it said made another try. It is therefore very agreeable to be able to point to ultimate success, especially when that success benefits the people of Ottawa suburbs...It was believed that Victoria Park was a failure because it was too near the city, too far from the water, and that there was not sufficient of a ride to entice the average citizens to go out."
120 years later the West End Park/Victoria Park is but a distant memory, but an incredible concept to think that an Ottawa company could come into vast, vacant farmland, create a huge amusement park, invest large amounts of money, capture the interest of most everyone in Ottawa and the outskirts, be the site of some significant events in technology and theatre, and disappear, all in the space of less than ten years. A true story of "Lost Kitchissippi" that I am happy to have brought back to life!
|June 24, 1927 oblique look at the site. looking west.
Ruskin is now a more defined street, Civic Hospital
at left, with Parkdale and Holland going left to right.
|May 1932 oblique look at the site, looking south. Though
this photo shows little evidence of the old West End Park,
it does give a clearer picture of how thickly treed the area was!
|May 1933 aerial view of the site. Ruskin
at the bottom. Holland is the most defined
street. The area is still waiting to be built
up, and some remnants of the Park
are still visible. See close-up below.
|Close-up of the above photo from May 1933, showing
detail of what I believe to be the original auditorium location.
The white dots indicate some kind of old foundation or supports
that match well the size of the auditorium building.