Sunday, December 26, 2021

The massive Ottawa Christmas tree bonfires!

Happy Holidays to all local history fans! Here's a fun bit of local history related to Ottawa in general. Enjoy!


Disposal of your Christmas tree is pretty straightforward in the 21st century. You just carry your tree out to the curb on garbage day, and the green bin collecting truck will pick it up. You can put your tree out on Boxing Day or, like some people, you can keep it up until February and put it out then. It will get picked up just the same, and end up at the outdoor composting facility on Barnsale Road. Further out in the valley, trees end up at the Ottawa Valley Waste Recovery Centre where they are turned into woodchips and used in composting by the OVWRC, or sold as mulch (a little bit of Googling could not confirm if that's what happens at Barnsdale Road, but I assume it does?).

Even better, the Nature Conservancy of Canada recommends putting your tree in your backyard to provide habitat for birds in the winter months on cold nights. Alternatively, you can bring your tree to Fisher Park or by the Rideau Canal to decorate along the skateways. 

But these simple solutions weren't always available. In fact in the 1940s and 50s, Ottawa had an interesting way of dealing with Christmas tree disposal - massive public bonfires! These bonfires became major public events akin to a winter carnival, that at its peak brought 15,000 Ottawans out on a cold February night to the city dump! And who knows, maybe part of our annual Christmas tradition in 2022 would still be to drive out to the local dump for the massive spectacle, had it not been for the Mayor of Ottawa being seriously burned during the ignition of the bonfire one year. Here is the story.

* * *

The story begins around 1939, when the newspapers began covering the issues with Christmas trees sticking around once Christmas had concluded. The issue was two-fold. Not just with private citizens, but with the sellers of trees. Apparently it had become an issue (and significant fire hazard) that tree sellers would simply abandon their stock after Christmas, leaving behind large numbers of trees littering more often city-owned lots, but some private ones as well. To combat the issue, the Chief of the Fire Department suggested that tree sellers be obligated to pay a $2 deposit to the City up front, refundable once the lots were checked to ensure they were cleaned up. 

It appears the proposal was never adopted. In February 1944, it was reported to still to be a "shame" that Christmas trees were "still blowing around", with the blame going to tree sellers on vacant lots. A local alderman noted "the number of trees sacrificed last Christmas was a crime."

By December of 1946, the fire chief was fed up with tree sellers and warned that those not following the Fire Marshal's Act would be prosecuted. Works Commissioner Frank Askwith called it an "appalling situation", after a visit to all of the 30-35 tree lots in the city showed that hazards existed at all of them! "In one case we found a frame building completely banked with Christmas trees. A match or dropped cigarette butt would have caused a flash fire that would have enveloped the house in flame in a matter of seconds. A fire like that could jump to nearby houses and cause a real conflagration."

It was proposed to increase the annual licensing fee from $3 to $10, with a $7 refund provided if the lot was emptied and cleaned at season's end. It was noted that in 1945, the city had to "cart away truckloads of trees at no cost to those who left them."

(By the way, in December of 1940, it was reported that trees being sold in the By Ward Market were being sold at 25 cents to a dollar each; turkeys meanwhile were being sold at 25 to 28 cents a pound).

During war times, there were Christmas tree shortages. Trees became a hot export to the States, and the Dominion Forest Service issued a warning in December of 1941 that Canadians typically wait a long time to get their trees, and instead should "get down to business" earlier. "The only way a shortage can be avoided this year is by purchasing trees well before the holiday", they cautioned.

The issue of tree-sellers was a big one, but the bigger issue was what happened to Christmas trees being discarded by residents after Christmas was over. Until 1939, it was not part of the City's garbage collection policy to pick up trees. As a result, trees would be "thrown on to the streets or left to litter yards and vacant lots" (from the Ottawa Journal January 4, 1939).

It appears sometime around the winter of 1943-44, the problem began to be solved by City's sanitation department agreeing to gradually pick up the trees in January as space in the wagons allowed it. 

Ottawa Citizen - January 6, 1944

January of 1946 was the first year I could find where it was reported that a dedicated collection of Christmas trees would be conducted by the sanitation department. Trees were asked to be put out by residents on January 7th, when collection would begin.

Ottawa Journal - December 28, 1945

That winter (1945-46) was also the first time the City's new tree disposal plan was apparently put into place... burning them up! It was reported that in January of 1946, over 30,000 trees were collected by the City and burned. Prior to this 1946, Christmas trees would be buried, but at a high cost of space in the dump. 

Following Christmas of 1946, it was reported that an estimated $45,000 worth of Christmas trees (based on what residents had paid for their trees) would "go up in smoke" at the Ottawa South dump in mid-January. 

Ottawa Citizen - January 2, 1947

Residents were asked to place their trees outside on January 13th, for collection by special trucks dispatched by the City to collect all of the City's trees between the 13th and 25th.

Ottawa Journal - January 4, 1947

In 1947, city workers burned the trees as they arrived, or in small batches.

Ottawa Journal - January 22, 1947

This practice continued into 1949...

Ottawa Citizen, February 4, 1949

...and 1951.

Ottawa Citizen - January 13, 1951

An interesting article from December of 1952 published a list of warnings that Ottawa Fire Chief Gray Burnett issued to the public about Christmas trees. I thought it was worth sharing this list:

Ottawa Citizen - December 9, 1952

Reports from later that month in December 1952 noted that trees in Ottawa cost between $1.50 to $4.00, while the original price paid to the grower was between 40 cents to $1.25 per tree. It was estimated that in 1952, that between 40 and 50 million trees were cut down in Canada for sale within North America, which was at the time a $100 million dollar business.

In January of 1953, the Citizen published photos of a mass the burning of most of the collected trees. IT was observed by one single small boy. That would soon change...

Ottawa Citizen - January 20, 1953

One year later, in January of 1954, City officials decided that a public event would be held to watch the burning of the trees! This event would be dubbed "Burning of the Greens". 

3,500 people watched as officials including Mayor Charlotte Whitton lit the 50 foot high pile of 40,000 trees at the Ottawa South dump on Riverside Drive (about halfway between Smyth and the 417, across from what is today's Lycee Claudel School) on Tuesday January 19th, 1954.

"Newspapers, soaked in kerosene, had been placed around the circumference at the base of the pile. Leading into the trees was a trench soaked with varsol. The three officials touched off the varsol, and in a few minutes the pile was a flaming mass."

Fire and police officials were also on hand to help manage the fire, and the crowds. An hour prior to the lighting, firemen had set up huge spotlights near the tree pile. A sound truck operated by CFRA provided music. 

Mayor Whitton concluded her brief introductory speech by telling the crowd "the night is yours, the city is yours. Enjoy yourself", while Alderman St. Germain led the crowd in a singing of "Alouette" and "My Wild Irish Eyes". Then while the fire raged, additional fireworks were let off by officials. 

Ottawa Citizen - January 20, 1954

The event was considered a huge success, and would continue on in much the same manner the next several years. It was well covered in the newspaper with photos each year, as you'll see from some of the clippings below.

Ottawa Journal - January 28, 1955

In 1956, the event did not go off quite as planned. The pile of 50,000 trees was ignited early by pranksters, who ruined the evening for many attendees, most of whom arrived after the blaze was at its peak.

In January of 1957, the "Burning of the Greens" event actually fell on Robbie Burns Day, giving the event extra PR opportunities. By 1957, the city was arranging for parking for 5,000 cars on site, and even built long, high snow banks to serve as shields from the hot fire, to prevent scorching of cars. The city also put in extra security measures to keep pranksters away, as the Recreation Department had extra men guarding the pile all week. 

The night went off very well with 4,000 people in attendance watching "a 40-foot pyramid of 45,000 Christmas trees turned into a wall of fire" when the trees were lit at 8:30 p.m.

"Dads, mums and small fry formed a giant arc around the flames dancing and twisting up from the piled built on the Riverside dump... Many more watched from a ring of cars. More yet saw the blaze from their homes. And not all realized what the mushroom of black smoke and the orange glow meant. In consequence, the Fire Department and Police were kept busy answering worried telephone calls", reported the Citizen.

Sanitation Superintendent Jack May called the fire "probably the biggest in North America", and "compared its preparation to building the pyramids in Egypt", wrote the Citizen. "To get the thing to burn properly when you have rain and ice to contend with, the trees have to be piled carefully. It's not just a tangled mess" said May. 

"Like a chef unwilling to part with a recipe, the sanitation chief wouldn't say too much about the secrets of building the pile", reported the Citizen, though May did admit that it contained 20 gallons of highly inflammable used dry cleaning fluid, but would not admit to what else.

The photo below shows four kids who had come to watch the burning (and seemingly a couple of them told to look sad at seeing the last vestiges of Christmas go up in flames).

January 25, 1957
(City of Ottawa Archives CA-42952)

The crowd remained in the cold for about an hour and then began to dissipate. The fire continued overnight (under watch of Fire and Sanitation Department staff), and by morning had become "a layer of potash and charcoal only knee high". 

Following the event, Alderman St. Germain commented that he'd like to see the event become a full-scale carnival next year.

In 1958, the bonfire was held on Friday January 31st, a total of 49,589 trees burned in what city officials were claiming was the largest bonfire ever set in North America. There were issues in getting the fire started after a week-long heavy snowfall covered the pile of trees. A large crane was brought in earlier in the day to shake up the top of the pile, and with extra gasoline and varsol added to the top of the pile, the fire eventually got going "with all the fierceness and color expected". 

It certainly attracted a massive crowd, with an estimated 15,000 attendees. There was a first aid tent, a snack bar selling hot dogs and colas, and an "amplified record machine well stocked with hit parade tunes". Promises were made for a dance platform for next year.

Ottawa Citizen - February 1, 1958

However, it was a mishap at the 1959 edition of Burning of the Greens on Thursday January 22nd, 1959 that brought this popular event to an end. 

52,875 trees were lit that night, with Mayor George H. Nelms doing the honours of the lighting. However, as the Journal reported the next morning, Nelms and the Fire Chief Dolman were "enveloped in flames" when they put the torch to the trees. 

The trees had been extra-soaked in varsol and other inflammable liquids prior to the lighting, in an effort to avoid the difficulties they had in lighting the trees the year prior. The liquids had been poured on top of the pile, and had seeped down to form puddles on the ground. Fumes from the liquids exploded and a high wind blew flames around the Chief and Mayor. 

"I was about five feet from the trees with the long-handled torch", recounted the Mayor, "Then all I can remember is a whoosh and a bang and there were flames all around me. It was a close call. I wouldn't want to come any closer."

Mayor George H. Nelms (1956-1960)

Mayor Nelms' overcoat was badly burnt, his gloves "just fell apart" and his hat was also destroyed. By the next morning, his left eye was swollen almost shut, the left side of his face was inflamed and blistered, and he had lost his eyebrows and eyelashes. (The Fire Chief's hair was singed and his face slightly blistered, and his clothes were also scorched.) 

Ottawa Citizen - January 23, 1959

Ottawa Journal - January 23, 1959

Immediately it was announced that the Fire Department would assume control of the tree burning for the next year, taking over from the Sanitation Department. Mayor Nelms stated "We will never come as close to being incinerated as we were last night."

Front Page Top Headline
Ottawa Citizen - January 23, 1959

Tree pick up continued in 1960 (with extra warnings about not leaving your tree by the curb in a standing position!).

Ottawa Journal - January 9, 1960

However, it was announced there would be no tree burning as in previous years. City sanitation trucks would pick up the trees, but they would be burned in small batches privately by the sanitation department. The Burning of the Greens was no longer.

Ottawa Journal - January 10, 1961

In future years, there would be the occasional Christmas tree burning in the City, usually in small suburbs holding their own small event or winter carnival. In the 1964 Ottawa Winter Carnival held a Christmas tree burning evening on the canal by Dow's Lake. But for the most part, Christmas tree burnings became a thing of the past, after a swift rise to popularity in the 1950s! Another interesting piece of Ottawa history!

Friday, December 17, 2021

Christmas in Westboro 1899!

Merry Christmas! In this month's new issue of the Kitchissippi Times, I've done another article similar to what I did last year, in that I've tried to bring back a long ago Christmas of the past, to bring alive an era in early local history. Last year I wrote about what Christmas in Hintonburg in 1880 would have looked like (click here for the article), and I loved researching and writing that column. So much so that I copied the idea to write about Christmas in Westboro in 1899. 

You'll see that the year 1899 isn't just a random year I selected - it was perhaps THE pivotal year when Westboro changed from a little quiet hamlet on Richmond Road to becoming the thriving neighbourhood that it quickly became. And I love to compare all the pieces of an 1899 Christmas that still are relatable today. 

Lots of local tidbits in this piece. I hope you'll have a read. All the best to you and your family.

Read the article here:

(Source: NY Public Library victorian era postcard)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Brews and billiards: The history of the Herb & Spice building

In the November issue, I wrote about the hidden history of the Herb & Spice building on Wellington Street West! The building has a history that you wouldn't have expected!

Check out the full article here:

(Source: City of Ottawa Archives, CA-24328)