The evening of Saturday October 22nd, 1927 was cool and cloudy in Ottawa. Life was still good in the city, with the prosperous roaring twenties still pushing forward, with little hint of the pending stock market crashes and economic depression that were just around the corner. The Rough Riders finished their afternoon game at Lansdowne Park against Hamilton (then known simply as the "Tigers"), a 14-7 loss which was actually their first home loss in three years, ending a successful streak that saw them win the Grey Cup in 1925 and 1926. The movie theatres were packed in downtown Ottawa, the streetcars bustling through all of Ottawa's neighbourhoods, the trains roaring through Hintonburg, Wellington Village and Westboro on their way to distant points east and west.
Hintonburg was extensively developed by this time, but pockets of vacant land still remained in the neighbourhood, as land was still cheap enough that the railroads, and even some private ownership could still afford to keep acres of land for future investment.
A snapshot of the southeast end of Hintonburg from a few months later in April 1928 show one such section of the neighbourhood that was still quite under-developed:
It was in this vacant field not far from where Breezehill intersects with Gladstone today, that a dark moment in Ottawa's history occurred on that chilly October evening.
At 9:24 p.m., the telephone rang at Station Number 11 on Parkdale Avenue. The fireman answering the call was told to rush up Gladstone Avenue to Breezehill Avenue for a live fire. At the same moment, the station alarm sounded, indicating the fire alarm box had been pulled at the J. Oliver & Sons furniture factory on Gladstone Avenue at the corner of Loretta. This was no false alarm, there was something serious happening in Hintonburg.
A large number of firemen from the station climbed aboard their rigs and raced up Gladstone Avenue. Firemen from another station to the east made their way as well. Their eyes would have seen it well before they arrived, as the sight was viewable for quite a distance in all directions. And what they saw was likely almost impossible to believe. Certainly, one wouldn't have wanted to believe it, not in Ottawa, and not in Hintonburg.
There, in the vacant field alongside the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks, set a little ways back from Gladstone Avenue, was an enormous cross, burning in flames with a glare "which lit up the whole district".
The fiery cross was a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan, and typically appeared as a spectacle to announce that a supportive branch of the hateful organization had formed in that locality. It's arrival in Ottawa was a major concern.
These were tense times in eastern Ontario, as the Klan had begun to make advances in Canada, and over the previous year had gained significant popularity in certain districts, most notably in Smiths Falls.
It had only been a month earlier that five huge crosses were burned on the St. Lawrence when 3,500 supporters showed up to a meeting of the KKK at Windmill Point, one mile east of Prescott. Though no evidence of the Klan had been recorded in Ottawa to that point, it was noted that several Ottawa citizens were among those at the meeting in Prescott.
The Prescott meeting came on the heels of the second annual meeting in Smiths Falls, which had occurred on August 28th, where it was reported that thousands attended the full day and evening meeting, which concluded with the burning of five crosses, ranging from thirty to seventy feet in height, "the largest cross presented an impressive scene as it burst into flames and illuminated the field showing the white robed figures of the Klansmen in the red glow." A chilling account by the Citizen.
August 29, 1927
Smiths Falls Klan stories appeared throughout 1926 and 1927, with cross burnings occurring every four to six months. A meeting in September of 1926 brought "between six and seven thousand people...from Kingston, Belleville, Brockville, Perth, Ottawa and the whole countryside", where a speaker, "known as the vice wizard of the Klan movement in Canada, was present from New Brunswick and at the afternoon and evening sessions gave addresses outlining the origin formation and claimed benefits of the Kan movement, which he clearly defined as a Christian, national, gentile, and white man's organization, one hundred per cent Protestant and British", so reported the Citizen.
The development in Smiths Falls had been quick. It was reported only in late April that the first cross burning occurred on the outskirts of town. Originally believed to be most likely a practical joke, a second burning a month later on May 25th confirmed the organization, and the newspaper reported that Klan literature had recently been circulated in the area.
|Ottawa Journal, May 27 1926
A dynamite bombing of a church in Barrie in June of 1926 further heightened fears of the KKK in Ontario, as three Klansman took credit for the explosion which occurred just after a rally in the city. The Attorney-General for Ontario Hon. W. F. Nickle was pushed to investigate how extensive the organization of the Klan had grown in Ontario, but he declined, instead (very oddly) issuing a statement noting that "assurance had been given him by Klan officials that the organization stood for law and order and that they would use every effort to facilitate the capture of law-breakers who used the Klan as a vehicle to further their own ends".
According to a Maclean's article from 2017, "The Canadian expansion of the KKK was buoyed by inter-war anti-immigrant sentiment, the usual white nationalism that had deep roots since Confederation and concerns over vice—alcohol, drugs and non-heterosexual monogamous sex that was often prejudicially associated with ethnic minorities. In the United States, similar concerns were in play, but the biggest reason for the revival of the anachronistic post-Civil War-era “Clansman” group at the start of the 20th century was the concern in the south that black Americans were making real political and economic gains. It was a backlash. And that—nearly 50 years after the end of the Civil War—was when the majority of Confederate statues were erected and the majority of Jim Crow laws (establishing segregation and trashing voting rights, among other things) were established. The KKK’s terror campaign was a way of ensuring that systemic discrimination wouldn’t be challenged." (Full article at: https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/the-kkk-has-a-history-in-canada-and-it-can-return/)
The Klan meanwhile had grown in popularity in western Canada, with membership exceeding 10,000 in the west, where each member contributed $10, providing a kitty of $100,000, a powerful amount of money to organize unfathomable activities and events.
Suffice to say, there would have been a lot worry in Ottawa in 1927 that the Klan might attempt to make a presence in our city. It was reported that in mid-1926, three or four men had come to Ottawa as KKK organizers and had attempted to form a branch, but left town after a brief stay, having achieved nothing. Ottawa police and newspaper editors seemed please to boast that Ottawa essentially had no history with the Klan, yet certainly it was clear that the movement had its local supporters, and those supporters were finding their outlet in the nearby gatherings in Smiths Falls, Prescott and elsewhere.
When firefighters arrived to the vacant field off Gladstone Avenue, they quickly extinguished the burning cross using "three hand chemicals".
The cross was made of planed timber, about four inches square, which had been varnished. It was guessed but not confirmed, that the wood had been taken from the Oliver's factory wood piles. It was approximately 15 feet high, with a cross bar about six feet long. It was reported to have been buried at a depth of two feet or more into the ground, and was reportedly "quite firm". There were also stones placed around the base to help support it. They heavy cross arm had been bound to the upright using picture-hanging wire. The entire cross was wrapped around with clothes which had been soaked in oil (and tied by the same picture wire), to make them burn more readily.
The firemen found an empty five-gallon can, wood covered, which had been used to carry the oil that started the fire.
If this had been a prank, it certainly was well planned, and carefully engineered. Lieut. Langdon of the Parkdale fire station was convinced that the fire was not the work of local boys. "The cross was quite heavy", he said "and it was impossible that young boys could have lifted it into position."
A large crowd had assembled, as the fire could been seen from a long distance, while others had followed the fire trucks to the site.
The emergency crews on scene immediately began to search for witnesses and it was a group of boys who had been playing nearby as the sun set, who reported seeing four men run from the cross, jump into an automobile and drive way hurriedly. It was those boys who then rang the alarm from the fire alarm box at Oliver's.
A female witness, who had walked by just before the fire began, reported that she had seen a car parked close to the lot, which she found odd as there were no houses in the area. She was surprised to see the car, but made no investigation into it.
The location was perfect for such a significant display. It was a large vacant field, in the middle of a populated part of the city, in one of it's highest points, allowing it to be seen "at a great distance".
As word spread of the incident on Sunday, many ventured out to the location to view the charred remains of the cross. "Youngsters of the neighbourhood gathered about it in wonderment, apparently expecting to see a troupe of white hooded riders gallop on the scene at any minute, but they were doomed to disappointment", reported the Journal.
Still scattered about the field on Sunday morning were portions of the rags used in the fire. These included "remnants of clothing, overalls, bags, shirts, coats, etc." Pieces of the Ottawa Citizen were also found nearby, which also perhaps had been used to help start the fire.
|The location of the burning cross (marked with red X)
The lack of Klansmen present at the burning was perhaps the most reassuring part of the incident, as it was apparently typical of the members to remain on guard by the cross, usually on horses, until it had burned itself out. Local police felt this was the first time a burning cross had been extinguished by firemen.
The burning of the cross in the field at the end of Breezehill Avenue was big news when the Monday morning newspapers came out in Ottawa.
Interestingly, Ottawa's two English-language papers appear to have taken different views of the incident. The Journal's slant on their reporting was that it was likely the work of boys or just a prank. The Citizen meanwhile leaned more towards it being tied to the KKK. Their headlines appear below:
|Ottawa Citizen, October 24, 1927
|Ottawa Journal, October 24, 1927
Regardless, on Monday morning the RCMP refused comment on the incident, and also it was noted that "no investigation of the Klan is under way or is even contemplated by the force." Though it would have been outside the jurisdiction of the RCMP apparently, and up to municipal or provincial authorities to investigate, there was still a call for the federal police agency to intervene. However, the burning of a cross was not against the law, and "the act of itself, police officers say, would not justify official action".
On Monday Ottawa Police were insistent that they believed it was "merely the prank of young men seeking a sensation", yet that seems to go against the evidence presented, and fire Lieut. Langdon's comments a day prior. It was noted that Ottawa Police were also "ready to assure the public that should a branch of the organization make its appearance in Ottawa, it will receive short shrift should it attempt to take the law into its own hands in any way. While there is no definite law against the formation of a secret society, acts of lawlessness such as have been attributed to the Klan in various parts of the United States will not be tolerated at all."
The Citizen noted that "some of the authorities incline to the idea that the burning of the cross was largely in the nature of a hoax. But whether it was, or whether it was a token that the Ku Klux Klan has come to Ottawa does not appear to make much difference." Wow.
Why multiple levels of government refused to consider any kind of investigation astounds me in 2020, and it is hard to imagine why they would not have wanted to get to the bottom of the activity, at minimum to calm the concerns of local residents.
The stories which filled the newspapers of Monday October 24th simply stopped right there. No mention of the fire, the KKK or anything related to the incident appeared in the Tuesday newspaper, or in any other following for a full week.
However, just a little over a week later, on Halloween night, a cross was burned in a field in Hog's Back (the field was adjacent to the road linking what was then called Bowesville road with Hog's Back. Bowesville Road is now Riverside Drive, so that would it put it somewhere in the vicinity of Riverside and Hog's Back Road). The description of the cross, its construction, and the same rags and overalls were all the same as the Hintonburg burning from the week prior. The cross apparently burned for an hour until it was put out by local residents, the fire reportedly bringing out "all the Hogsbackers from their homes". Despite this concerning incident, the story drew just two paragraphs in the Citizen, no mention in the Journal, and no comment from the police, nor any further follow-up.
Whether the police and media intentionally (and strategically) avoided covering any Klan topics over the short-term following is unknown. Perhaps the cross burnings were the work of pranksters, and were simply isolated incidents. Perhaps (and probably more likely) it was the work of a very small group of supporters attempting to create a stir, and to their credit, the media buried it.
Regardless, the cross burnings were awful incidents to occur. However, as terrible as they were, especially if they were actually connected to dedicated KKK organizers, we can be thankful that these are seemingly the only two incidents to ever occur in Ottawa related to the Klan. Other Canadian/Ontario cities cannot boast of the same. Yet, it is still shocking to think that an incident like that did once occur here in Kitchissippi.