The Past Around Us

“The play’s the thing”

Prescott residents have taken Shakespeare and community involvement in theatre seriously for more than 150 years!

The idea that volunteers or “amateurs” as they were called might join the players on stage to help create a larger spectacle or that plays involving community members might be presented as fundraisers (and crowd-pleasers) are local traditions that can be traced back to the 1870s.

Even before Prescott’s Victoria Hall opened in 1876, actors visited our town regularly – many touring through New York state and taking advantage of the short ferry ride between Ogdensburg and Prescott. They presented plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ten Nights in a Bar Room.

Town Hall_Prescott

Edward (Ned) Miller and his Maple Leaf Minstrels were frequent visitors to Prescott, and were often joined by local musicians and elocutionists. Miller’s collection of theatre memorabilia (now housed at the Toronto Public Library) includes references to Victoria Hall and various Amateur Dramatic Society of Prescott plays of the mid-1870s, including Black-Eyed Susan, and the collection suggests that the Hall was well used by the community for benefit concerts (Odd-Fellows entertainment for benefit of the poor) and school productions (entertainment by students of Prescott Model School).

Minstrel shows remained popular until the 1920s, but I discovered an early reference to Shakespeare in Prescott thanks to a circa 1880 libretto kept by the Toronto Public Library. A Modern Romeo and Juliet: An Operetta in Two Acts was written by Ernest Longley and performed by the Prescott Dramatic Club. The Brock Bibliography of Published Canadian Plays describes the work as an “operetta in Gilbert and Sullivan style. Upper-class Mrs. Montague Smith refuses to let Juliet marry Romeo Robinson because he is poor. But all ends happily when Romeo receives an inheritance and Paris Brown decides he’d rather marry a more docile woman.

The Longley family name is well-known in Grenville County, but Ernest Longley’s accomplishments as a young pianist and composer are almost forgotten. He was born in Maitland in 1866, the fourth child of George Canning and Sarah Longley and probably wasn’t much older than 15 when he wrote A Modern Romeo & Juliet. The involvement of Brockville’s ACJ Kaufman suggests he may have taken his first piano lessons from the infamous professor, and a short report in the PRESCOTT MESSENGER (August 1883) tells us he then departed for Germany to pursue studies in Stuttgart, on the advice of the American Consul in Prescott, Col. Slaght.

International music journals of the mid-1880s describe Ernest Longley as a teen prodigy who, unfortunately, suffered from a disease of the throat and lungs—probably tuberculosis. After a year of touring in North America and a winter on doctor’s orders in Davos, Switzerland, he succumbed to his illness in late 1889.

MayBell Marks

Another entertainer that Fort Towners particularly enjoyed was May Bell Marks and her performances of Kathleen Mavourneen. Early 20th century newspapers tell us she was “certainly an outstanding feature”. She was an established New York actress when she married Robert W. Marks, a member of Perth’s fabulous Marks Brothers who were known to many Canadians as a “most remarkable theatrical family…the dazzling Marks Brothers were the greatest impresario performers of our small town stage in the era before the nickelodeon.” (MACLEAN’s, 1958)

When the Ogdensburg Town Hall and Opera House were completed in the early 1880s, some of the first plays presented were Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and As You Like It. The OGDENSBURG JOURNAL reported as follows:

Tonight Mr. Thos. W. Keene will make his second appearance in this city, producing on this occasion Shakespeare’s great tragedy of ‘Macbeth’. Mr. Keene will be welcomed by a good house, quite a party we understand are coming from Prescott (February 25, 1884).”

Thos W. Keene_Rose Coghlan

No student and lover of Shakespeare can afford to miss the opportunity to witness this splendid production of ‘As You Like It’ (starring Rose Coghlan). It is the first presentation of the comedy at the new Opera House, and will be staged and costumed in the same elegant manner as when presented in New York and Boston (October 13, 1886).”



A Little More on the ROTHESAY

Our plaques describe ROTHESAY’s years on the St. Lawrence River and her demise on September 12, 1889 – just west of downtown Prescott – but her full story includes service on the Saint John River, as well as a number of seasons on the Toronto-Niagara run.

Rothesay_1988 Plaque

Back in 1980, ROTHESAY was featured by the Toronto Marine Historical Society as Ship of the Month no. 94. The Scanner described her as “the largest steamer ever built for service on the Saint John River. Her beam engine, which drove non-feathering sidewheels, was built by Fleming and Humbert of Saint John, NB…she was originally fitted to burn wood and was later adapted for coal fuel…she had three principal decks, the main, saloon and hurricane.”


ROTHESAY‘s light construction was ideally suited for river service, and she could easily manage 20 knots without being pushed. She was registered at Prescott on July 20, 1877, and her Saint John owners – the Lunts – hoped to place her in service in the Thousand Islands area. This proved unacceptable to the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company, which already had various vessels running on the upper St. Lawrence River. For $10,000, the Lunts agreed to withdraw the ROTHESAY and the PRINCE ARTHUR from all routes – for 10 years – serviced by the R & O.

Reuben Lunt’s brother-in-law, Donald MacDonald of Toronto, arranged for her removal to Toronto for service there in 1878. During her first season on Lake Ontario, she served the route from Toronto to the Niagara River. Her manager was Donald Milloy, who operated under the banner of the Toronto, Niagara and Buffalo Steamboat Company, and her companion on the route was the CITY OF TORONTO.

“She proved to be quite an impressive looking boat, about 180 feet in length, good beam, very roomy decks and central cabin; a more commodious boat than the CITY”, wrote Barlow Cumberland, in 1913. “She was particularly well-arranged as a ‘day’ boat and was reputed to have a high rate of speed, as she soon proved she had.”

Chicora_Octagonal Pilothouse

In a chapter dedicated to Niagara Steamers (1874-78), Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto mentioned her service in the Toronto area: “CITY was in this season joined by the ROTHESAY, a sidewheel steamer of 528 tons burthen, built by Olive of Saint John, New Brunswick, at the same place, These two steamers ran in opposition to the CHICORA and continued to do so until the close of the season of 1880. In the year 1882 the CITY was destroyed by fire at Port Dalhousie. The ROTHESAY went upon another route and the CHICORA had the traffic, or rather the daily traffic, all to herself.”

With her light construction, ROTHESAY had no problem in calm weather, but she was ill-equipped to handle some of Lake Ontario’s rougher waters. According to a report in the Toronto Globe of April 20, 1881, she received extensive re-construction with a view to renewing her lake service. ROTHESAY was refused a lake licence, however, and the Lunts sent her back to the Thousand Islands. Even though a new company was set up, the R & O claimed that the terms of the 1877 agreement had been violated and a court battle ensued.

Sometime during the 1881 navigation year, ROTHESAY was sold, and she seems to have had several owners over a period of four years. In June 1883, while downbound from Clayton, NY to Dickinson’s Landing, she sustained damage near Thousand Islands Park. She received significant repairs in Ogdensburg in 1886 and from that time onwards, was operated by the St. Lawrence Steamboat Company.

ROTHESAY met her fate on September 12, 1889 by colliding with the American tug MYRA. Here are the highlights from a September 14th report in the Daily Journal (Ogdensburg):

  • There is a big hole in ROTHESAY‘s bow, so that one can see clear through her from side to side
  • Mother Barnes, the well-known wizard of Plum Hollow, prophesied that the ROTHESAY would go down this summer. The old lady prophesied correctly for once
  • Will Finucan, son of the manager of the ROTHESAY, was on board and deserves credit for his coolness and bravery in assisting passengers from the wrecked boat. He stood at his post like a hero and supplied everyone who came along with life preservers
  • When the accident occurred the tug TRAVELLER was just landing a tow at Prescott. She immediately steamed to the scene and threw a line to those on the tug, but before it could be made fast the tug sunk. By this time the ROTHESAY had been beached, so the tug picked up the crew of the MYRA and the barge MARY and returned to Prescott
  • Samuel Jardine, engineer, drowned from the tug MYRA in the collision above Prescott, leaves a wife and three children living in Waddington. William Sullivan (Ogdensburg), the fireman drowned, was a young man, 19 years old…a diver will attempt to find the bodies of the unfortunate men
  • John Martin, captain of the tug MYRA, remained cool and deserves credit for sticking to his post and doing what he could for his crew
  • There was one woman on whom a life preserver had to be placed half a dozen times before she would allow it to remain. In another case, an enormous bustle seriously interfered with the putting of the life preserver in position

Rothesay_Coat Check Tag

In 2003, one of the four divers who first discovered ROTHESAY in the early 1960s, contacted Save Ontario Shipwrecks. He had two items he wanted to return, including a brass coat check tag numbered #130 with the St.L.S.B.Co logo. While SOS could not accept the gifts directly, they contacted Prescott’s Forwarders’ Museum and acted as a go-between.

Sources & Photos:;;;;;;

Mild Winters of the Past & Ice Harvesting

Lots of activity on the River today, as the Seaway gets ready for its March 20th opening.

With so little ice on the St. Lawrence this winter, I started wondering if, in the 19th century, there were winters like the one we’ve just had. A warm winter could result in no ice harvest at all, or thin ice that formed smaller blocks that could not be harvested safely. These winters were called “open winters”, and often resulted in shortages of ice called “ice famines”.

The winters of 1890 and 1906 were unseasonably warm in North America, and resulted in major ice famines. Over time, these ice famines promoted greater investment in plant ice production, ultimately undermining the natural ice trade by the early 20th century.

In Prescott, it was never too early, or even too late – even into the 1940s – to be thinking about the availability of good ice on the St. Lawrence, especially if your company required refrigeration or you hadn’t invested in one of the ever-improving home refrigerators sold by Frigidaire and others.

Ice Harvest

The business of ice harvesting was also known – especially in its early days – as the frozen water trade. It involved specialized ice-harvesting tools, a network of ice houses, and a reliable supply of jobs for off-season farmers.

On January 31, 1946 the Prescott Journal reported: “Harvesting of the 1946 ice crop on the river by Prescott ice dealers is expected to get underway during the latter part of the week. Despite the unusual mild spell which was experienced in early January, the ice is said to be from 11 to 12 inches deep and as clear as crystal throughout. Bartons and Wards will again be cutting west of the Town while Paul Curry will be harvesting in the channels to the east.”

With a marking saw, an oblong grid was etched on the snow-dusted surface of the river. Then came the task of sawing the first raft. When the large, rectangular raft floated free, long-handled breaker bars were dropped on the scored lines to break the blocks. Each individual cake was steered using a pike pole to direct the slow-moving white cubes through narrow bands of black water. The ice cakes – weighing more than 300 pounds – were loaded on a horse-drawn sled (or truck, in later years) and taken to a nearby ice house for storage.

Before mechanical refrigeration, snow and ice, cool streams, springs, caves and cellars were used to refrigerate food. During the latter half of the 19th century, ice boxes became all the rage in Europe and North America. Wooden boxes lined with tin or zinc and insulated with various materials including cork, sawdust, and seaweed were used to hold blocks of ice in an upper chamber and “refrigerate” food. A drip pan collected the melt water, and was emptied daily.

Natural ice was harvested, distributed and used both commercially and at home. It was packed in salt or buried in sawdust, and could stay frozen well into the Fall. The St. Lawrence River became a huge provider of the “purest ice”, and the Railway, the Port, the Dominion Lighthouse Depot, and Eastern Ontario’s many cheese factories became some of the largest clients of ice businesses such as I.W. Plumb & Son, in Prescott.

Jamie Fortier_Prescott_Ontario

Located on the northeast corner of King and George streets, Plumb was known for the quality of its ice:

“The shades of dawn were rising fast – When through the streets of Prescott past – Many sleighs laden with ice – But not good ice, like Plumb’s pure ice.”

Breweries were some of the earliest factories to capitalize on the availability of water and ice from the St Lawrence River. In the 1860s, when the Labatt family took over the Prescott Brewing and Malting Co., it was said that “the brewery was fitted up with all the latest and most improved machinery and appliances…underneath the main floor of the brewery (was) excavated from the solid rock a large and roomy cold cellar in which an even temperature is maintained by many ice chambers…”

Often a dairy, meat or ice business offered customers a frozen food locker service, and this was available to Prescottonians well into the 1950s, thanks to The Prescott Frozen Food Lockers. Meats, poultry, fish, fruits, berries and vegetables could be prepared on site or at home, for freezing in rented lockers. Different coloured tapes were sometimes used to help distinguish similar products such as beef, pork or lamb. By the mid-1940s, most consumers agreed that freezing vegetables and berries was an attractive alternative to the “hot work” of canning.


A Look Back at Christmas 1867

With Canada 150 around the corner, I’d like to travel back to December 1867 and share a few thoughts about what life was like in Prescott…50 years or so after our Town was first settled.

In 1867, Prescottonians

  • worked on the railroads, in shipbuilding and forwarding, in hotels and inns, in one of 3 breweries and 2 distilleries, and operated small businesses
  • attended meetings, talks and performances on the waterfront at Brady’s Hall, and crossed the St. Lawrence River by ferry (or by sleigh, in the winter) to attend weddings and large-scale theatrical productions in Ogdensburg
  • borrowed books and magazines from the Mechanics Institute, located on King Street (a forerunner of the Prescott Public Library)
  • might travel to Montreal or Toronto on the Grand Trunk Railway, or travelled with ease to Canada’s new capital, Ottawa, using the Ottawa and Prescott Railway
  • continued to use stagecoach service for local travel
  • collected mail daily from Prescott’s second postmaster, Dr. William Henry Brouse (Grenville South’s MP from 1872-78, and Senator from 1878 until his death in 1881)
  • and worshipped at St. Andrew’s, St. John’s, St. Mark’s, and St. Paul’s

At the time, the great railway man Walter Shanly, Esq., represented our area in the provincial legislature. He supported Confederation and by extension, we can say that the majority of citizens in Grenville County supported union but along with Shanly, voters may have had concerns about colonization or felt that commercial relations should be cultivated first among the provinces before a political alliance.

After Confederation, Walter Shanly was persuaded to run federally in Grenville South. He served 3 terms, winning elections in 1867, ‘85 and ’87. He was reserved as a political figure, but there is little doubt that Sir John A. Macdonald considered Shanly’s railway expertise a great asset and frequently sought his advice as both friend and ally.

In 1867, Prescottonians and Ogdensburgians carefully followed the news about Fenianism especially following the uprisings and executions in England and Ireland. Some wondered if there wouldn’t be another Fenian gathering in Ogdensburg and there was talk of a possible Fenian uprising in Montreal on Christmas Day, but observances in 1867 passed off quietly.


Another political issue on the minds of Canadians during the nation’s first years, was the fear of annexation to the United States. An anti-annexation cartoon from 1869 published in Grinchuckle – an offspring of Punch Canada – depicted “Uncle Sam” receiving the “boot” from the occupants of “Dominion House”, but Prescottonians crossed the St. Lawrence in great numbers in November and December 1867 taking in some fine holiday entertainment and/or participating in a friend’s or family member’s wedding.


“On Saturday night”, The Daily Journal (Ogdensburg) reported, “a large party came over from Prescott, and were well repaid for their time and trouble.” The ads for the production in question – BLACK CROOK – promised “a great, magical, spectacular drama…a palace of dew drops…and a corps de ballet performing the wonderful demon dance and a beautiful scarf dance”. One is reminded of the Chinese, Spanish, and Arabian dances of The Nutcracker ballet – a holiday favourite, but The Nutcracker we know today had yet to be composed by Tchaikovsky and the ballet had yet to be premiered in Russia.

In 1867, Prescottonians had access to all the fixings they needed to prepare the fashionable Christmas treats of the day, including fresh oysters, smoked fish, cured hams, pickles, chow chow, piccallily, jellied salads, cranberry sauce, fresh oranges, and Christmas desserts with all the nuts, candied peel, raisins, rum and brandy that such Victorian sweets required. This made the Holiday Season a particularly appealing time, as well, for weddings.

Genealogists have noted the frequency of Christmas weddings in Upper Canada, and there are several explanations, I think: availability of family to visit, particularly from rural areas with farms readied for the winter; less importance placed on Christmas celebrations and, therefore, better availability of churches and halls than today; and perhaps also the strong belief, especially among Methodists, that Christmas represented the beginning of the church calendar and new beginnings.


The 1855 year was a banner year for Prescottonians with 2 unions on Christmas Day and 3 between Christmas and New Year’s (one of these on New Year’s Eve). There may have been other weddings, but these were the ones announced in the Ogdensburg Sentinel and the St. Lawrence Republican. They involved Canadian families crossing the St. Lawrence River by ferry and celebrating at one of Ogdensburg’s fine hotels, including Baldwin House, Johnson’s Hotel, Oswegatchie House, St. Lawrence Hotel and the Washington Hotel. Incidentally, the UK made Christmas a legal holiday, in 1834, Canada West followed in 1849, but our American friends took a little longer, declaring Christmas a legal holiday in 1870.

A Do You Recall column in the Ogdensburg Advance (October 8, 1933) describes a colourful scene:

“…every hotel in Ogdensburg….had a gaily decorated painted bus with a pair of evenly matched high-stepping horses…at the O & LCRR depot a space was assigned for each bus and the name of the hotel displayed on a wooden sign.”

Popular gifts – for Christmas and for New Year’s – included watches, work boxes, backgammon boards, and checker and chess pieces for adults. Fur collars, muffs, gauntlets, silverware, Bohemian glass, and Parian marble vases were also promoted as possible gifts. Wax dolls, doll heads and bodies, puzzles, games of jacks, and tin and wooden toys of all kinds were among the top choices for children. Many continued to hang their gifts on the Christmas tree so for most shoppers, the smaller the gift the better!

The Prescott Twelve_1869.jpg

In December 1867, winter was well advanced, but the “ice bridge” across the St. Lawrence River was not quite ready for horse racing or sleigh riding. The Prescott Twelve played a couple of lacrosse matches, people of all ages skated and curled along the river banks, rinks selling season tickets were being newly developed advertising “fancy skating”, and there were “amusements” – as they were called –  including balls and quadrille parties (square dances).

Photos: &

One of Several Dominion Government Elevators

At the time it was built in 1929-31, our area’s “Dominion Government Elevator” was one of a series of projects commissioned by Canada’s Dominion Public Works Department and built by Port Arthur’s C.D. Howe and Company, the same C.D. who became known to Canadians as “Minister of Everything”.


The Rt. Hon. Clarence Decatur Howe (1886-1960) was a highly successful Engineer, Architect and Cabinet Minister who made a major contribution to the design of Canada’s iconic grain elevator and, as a politician, almost single-handedly raised Canada’s economy to a level in keeping with the world’s leading industrial nations.


Born in Waltham, Mass. on January 15, 1886, Howe worked as a draftsman and designer for J.R. Worcester & Co. in Boston in 1905-09 and attended MIT, graduating with a degree in engineering, in 1913. He moved to The Lakehead, taking a position as chief engineer for the Board of Grain Commissioners for Canada, before starting his own engineering company, in 1916. Howe and associates designed and supervised the construction of grain elevators, pulp mills, coal docks, and other large structures. In 1935, Howe entered politics and parliament as a Liberal, and he represented Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) for more than 20 years.

As with any mega government project, politics played a great role in the early building of Johnstown’s grain elevator, and a look at the discussions and decisions of the day can help us appreciate what we have today.

Western farmers were frustrated, and they accused private grain-handling companies of manipulating deliveries and suppressing grain prices. Many believed a solution was possible if grain elevators were made public utilities. As a result, under the new Canada Grain Act of 1912, government elevators were built in a number of places, including Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Churchill, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Johnstown.

In his 1928 masterpiece, Toward an Architecture, the great visionary Le Corbusier celebrated the stark beauty and form of grain elevators. The photo he included of Calgary’s Dominion Government Elevator soon became a symbol for the world, and for Canada, of progressive industrial design and architecture.


On November 27, 1929, The Ogdensburg Republican-Journal reprinted an article from Canadian Railway and Marine World, and it helps us understand the magnitude of the Johnstown project:

  • The Board of Railway Commissioners passed order 43,319, on Sept. 21, authorizing the Dominion Public Works Department, under the Railway Act, secs. 181, 182, and 252, to construct certain trackage, between the Canadian National Railways and the Canadian Pacific Railway, main lines, and the grain elevator to be built near Prescott…Altogether, there will be 4 miles of track and 8 turnouts.
  • The provincial highway in the vicinity formerly ran near the river front, occupying a position coinciding closely with that of the double track…The highway is being diverted so as to provide a more direct route…This diversion is approximately a mile long, the work involving the moving of 18,000 cu. yd. earth and 6,000 cu. yd. rock.
  • The contract for grading for the new highway, the grading for the new track, and for the construction of the subway, was given to Curran and Briggs, Toronto, by the Dominion Public Works Department…A contract for the paving of the diverted highway has been given to Harvey Construction Co, Kingston, by the Ontario Highways Department.
  • The first was the driving of piles at the elevator site by Thunder Bay Harbor Improvement Co.; the second was the provision of a hydraulic fill by Canadian Dredging Co.; the next will be construction of the elevator (by Atlas Construction Company of Montreal).
  • The elevator will have a capacity of about 5,500,000 bushels and will be a long narrow structure with unloading, facilities on one side, and loading facilities to ships on the other side. Car loading facilities will be located at the inshore end. At the outshore end, a dock and marine leg will be provided for lightering canal-size ships thus allowing ships of that size to take on a full cargo at lake ports, and discharge cargo, down to canal draft.
  • The elevator will have a capacity for unloading from boats of 1,000,000 bushels a day, capacity for loading to ships of 1,500,000 bushels in 10 hours, and a capacity for loading to cars of 1,000,000 bushels a day.
  • A large building will be provided to house the elevator substation, elevator administration offices, and millwright shop. The building will also contain lunch rooms for the elevator staff.

As with most of C.D.’s projects, construction was on budget and on time. When the grain elevator was completed in 1931, newspapers described the structure as follows: “rising 200 feet into the air and extending 2,340 on shore, it is visible for miles up and down the river“.


Over the years, the grain elevator was operated by various government departments and private companies. On October 12, 2000, Joe Jordan, MP (Leeds-Grenville), on behalf of the Transport Minister, David Collenette, announced the official transfer of the port, its facilities and property to the Corporation of the Township of Edwardsburgh (now the Township of Edwardsburgh/Cardinal). A re-launching of the Port of Johnstown took place in June 2015 to mark the completion of an impressive $35 million update.

William J. Brown adds a little perspective in American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1942: “To further encourage all-Canadian routes for Canadian grain, the Dominion government built a colossal lake-to-ocean transhipping terminal near Port Prescott, just across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg. Built in the long, tall and narrow style of Buffalo’s Concrete-Central Elevator, this massive terminal bested its predecessor by having a larger storage capacity (5 million bushels) and a total of four loose legs.”


The Prescott Cenotaph

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”

These were the words that came first to Laurence Binyon in mid-September 1914, as he sat on a cliff top looking out to sea in North Cornwall (UK) composing his best known poem, For the Fallen. The now famous phrase was adopted by the Royal British Legion (and our own Legion, in Prescott) to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice.


Prescott’s Cenotaph wasn’t always in the great spot it currently occupies – overlooking the St. Lawrence River, next to Fort Wellington and highly visible from King Street, one of two main thoroughfares in town. It was moved in 2001, as a joint project of Prescott’s Royal Canadian Legion Branch #97 and Fort Wellington. A poppy garden was added in 2015.

For their service in WW I, Prescott remembers “Arthur E. Baker, Howard Baker, Philip V. Blacklock, Cecil Bovaird, Ward W. Burke, John H. Davy, Jacob S. Doyle, G. Harvey Ewart, Ira H. Glasgow, Albert Hurlbert, Royal W. Kingston, E. William Lane, Roy Lindsay, John A. MacDonald, Harold P. MacGregor, Charles H. O’Leary, Guy C. O’Shea, George Patterson, Edward Patterson, James Peterson, William Robinson, William F. Sharpe, Harry J. Smith, John R.W. Tyner, Stanley W. Ward, Wilfred L. White.”

Who were these men? How old were they when they enlisted? How did they serve? By examining the online records of the Library and Archives Canada and the Canadian Virtual War Memorial, we can begin to put some faces and stories to the names.

A little more than 100 men and women from Prescott and area volunteered for active service in World War I. For the most part, the men served in the QUEBEC REGIMENT (14th and 73rd Battalions), the EASTERN ONTARIO REGIMENT (2nd, 21st, and 38th Battalions), and the CENTRAL CANADA REGIMENT (54th and 75th Battalions). Some belonged to special units such as the Canadian Machine Gun Corps (Private Howard Baker), the Canadian Railway Troops (Sapper Jacob Doyle), and the Royal Air Force (Cadet Roy Lindsay and Lieutenant William Sharpe).

While some of the men actually lived in Domville or Maynard or worked in Winnipeg, for example, their families were associated with the Legion in Prescott, and many were classmates at Prescott High School.


Many of us know a little about Lieutenant Sharpe because of a special plaque unveiled on Water Street, in 2015. Attracted at an early age to aviation, which was then in its infancy, Sharpe went to California to train as a pilot. When war broke out in August 1914, he returned to Canada to offer his services as an airman. Given the rank of lieutenant, Sharpe was one of three appointed to the newly established Canadian Aviation Corps. This was Canada’s first attempt to organize an air force to serve in Europe. He trained in England with the Royal Flying Corps and saw action in France. Returning to England to receive further training on a new aircraft, he was killed in a crash on February 4, 1915. Sharpe’s body was repatriated to Canada and he was laid to rest in Prescott’s Sandy Hill Cemetery.


Another prominent figure was Lieutenant Ira Glasgow, who served with the MANITOBA REGIMENT, 78th Battalion. At the time of his enlistment, Glasgow was working as a clerk in the Railway Mail Service and living in Winnipeg. His family was well-known to Prescottonians because his father and uncle operated a dry goods business in town known as “The London House”. He was killed in action at Vimy Ridge, and is buried at Givenchy-en-Goelle. It was reported in the Prescott Journal that he and his brother, William, had enjoyed a short reunion in the trenches a few weeks before his death. Glasgow’s memorial service was held on May 6, 1917 at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.

The youngest to enlist was Stanley Ward (Bank Teller), born in 1898. Listed on RBC’s First World War Roll of Honour, Gunner Ward contracted pneumonia on his way to England and was seriously ill for many months at the Shorncliffe Hospital, in England. He returned home ill, died in April 1919, and was buried at the Blue Church Cemetery.


Not much older, were Privates Arthur Baker (Fireman), Ward Burke (Clerk), Harvey Ewart (Farmer), and George Patterson (Teamster), who were all born in 1897. At the time of their deaths, each of these young men was barely in his twenties.

Most of Prescott’s fallen from the First World War are buried in the many cemeteries that dot the countryside of northern France: Aubigny Communal, Boulogne Eastern, Bruay Communal, Cabaret Rouge British, Canadian Cemetery No. 2, Crucifix Corner, Drummond, Faubourg-d’Amiens, Givenchy-en-Gohelle Canadian, Maroc British, Ste-Marie, and Villiers Station.

A few are buried in the UK and locally, and some were among the 20,474 Canadians who have no known graves. The names of Privates Ewart, Harry Smith and John Tyner, and Lieutenant Harold MacGregor are inscribed on the Vimy Memorial, in France.


On April 8, 1917, the day before the big drive at Vimy Ridge, Private Smith wrote to his mother to tell her that it would probably be the last time she’d hear from him. Private Wilfred White was also killed in action at Vimy, and buried at Canadian Cemetery No. 2, near the French town of Neuville-Saint-Vaast.  John 15:13 was the text chosen for his memorial service at Prescott’s Methodist Church: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.

Photo of Lieutenant Sharpe: Hometown Heroes (Fort Wellington National Historic Site – Parks Canada)

The Coates of Prescott: a Family Portrait in Envelopes

A short while ago, I discovered on The Postal History Corner a series of letters and postcards addressed to the Coates family in Prescott, with postmarks dating from 1885 to 1935. They tell an intriguing story about a prosperous turn-of-the century family running a family business, ordering some of the latest products and inventions, and participating in some of the key debates and causes of the time.


We begin with a simply addressed envelope sent by the WCTU (Ottawa), on December 18, 1885 to Mrs. Thos. Coates. It may have contained Christmas wishes, but probably it was a note of thanks or an invitation from the Ottawa Chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Not only was Prescott known, at the time, as the place of “Scott Refreshments”, being the birthplace of the Hon. Richard Scott who had drafted the Canada Temperance Act, it was also in the midst of a Methodist revival, and Mrs. Coates was a well-known Sunday School teacher.

In Canadian Methodist Women, 1766-1925: Marys, Marthas, Mothers in Israel, Marilyn Färdig Whiteley writes: “Leaders were faithful to their trust, and some showed dedication and affection toward their class members that extended far beyond the call of duty…in 1878, Mrs. Thomas Coates took charge of a new class of boys who continued to meet with her “until they were nearly grown to manhood”…”

Many members of the Ontario WCTU were Sunday School teachers, and many chapters distributed temperance materials through members who were also associated with a denominational Sunday School.

At a time when women took more of a back seat, the business affairs of the Sunday School were recorded as follows: “Moses McPherson and Thomas Coates of the Methodist Sabbath School were allowed free use of the new town hall in December 1875 for a one-night benefit concert with the proceeds to be devoted exclusively to the poor” (John Morris, Prescott Journal, May 12, 2004).


This 1902 letter is fun. Addressed to J.B. Coates, Esq. “Town”, it was mailed locally. More than likely, J.B. was John Barnett, the Coates’ eldest son, whose shipping and handling company P.T. S & H was listed in the 1901 Canada Census. Perhaps it was a bill or a notice of shipment. The “P” was probably Prescott…was the “T” Toronto?


Our next envelope – postmarked 1907 – advertises the New Williams Sewing Machine made by the Williams Manufacturing Company of Montreal. The company began in 1863, and was in direct competition with Singer. Addressed to Mr. Coates, the envelope suggests this was a line of sewing machines carried by Thomas Coates & Son.

As early as 1866, directory listings described Thomas Coates as a “manufacturer of tinware, dealer in cooking and box stoves, coal oil, coal oil lamps…cash paid for old copper, brass, rags, sheep pelts, and calf skins”. His shop was located in The Mechanic’s Block on King Street West, home today to Young’s of Prescott, A Craft Boutique, and others. In the 1886 edition of Industries of Canada, Thomas Coates & Son was listed as selling “Pianos and Organs, Sewing Machines, etc.” Having “laid the foundation of his present, prosperous business about twenty years ago”, the directory notes, Thomas Coates (& Son) “have shown themselves thoroughly alive to the business activity of the times, and contribute to the town one of its best, soundest and most reliable mercantile industries”.


Mrs. Coates was the recipient of this letter sent by The Christian Herald, New York City, in 1908. Even though the WCTU was not as successful as it had hoped, it provided a forum for women to meet together in a cause that eventually led them to support women’s suffrage. Working for a cause had been central to Mrs. Coates’ life in Prescott and a nephew, Rev. Harper Havelock Coates and his wife, Agnes, served as Methodist missionaries in Japan at the time.


We jump to 1914. This envelope may have been from an insurance agent with offices at one of Toronto’s most prestigious early 20th addresses, the Confederation Life Building. It is significant for its postmark advertising the CNE and its message of “Peace” in contrast to the War in Europe.

Our last 2 envelopes – dated 1928 and 1935 – are addressed to Mr. Coates, after the deaths of Thomas, Sr. (1832-1920) and his wife, Frances “Fanny” (1831-1926). The “Thomas” who received these letters was perhaps the youngest member of the family, Thomas H…Prescott’s Postmaster at the time, William Henry Dowsley, would have known for sure!


In The Fabulous Phonograph, Roland Gelatt states that by the end of the 1910s, many new companies entered the lucrative field of phonograph manufacturing because the basic phonograph patents held by Victor, Columbia, and Edison were expiring. The demand for phonographs and records far exceeded the supply, and Montreal’s Berlind Phonograph Co., Limited joined a group of more than 200 North American companies when they received a patent in 1916 to “manufacture, buy, sell, import, export, repair, deal and trade in the art-o-phone gramophones”.


Postmarked 1935, this Walter Woods advertising piece reminds us of the frequent use of postcards in late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hunt on the web for another example of this card revealed that the reverse side listed close to 200 products sold by this firm operating from Hamilton and Winnipeg until the 1980s.


Labour Day in Prescott Has Hamilton Connections

We were treated to a substantial display of fireworks in Prescott this Labour Day weekend. It was a warm, clear night with little activity except for some boaters on the St. Lawrence River and the sound of Ogdensburg’s own festivities.

In a time when workers’ rights, and even workers’ benefits, are almost taken for granted, it’s little wonder that the 1872 origins of Labour Day and the story of the Nine-Hour Movement have become obscure.

But first, a quick look at Prescott’s own Hands Fireworks, now HFI Pryrotechnics, who continue to light our skies for special occasions.

Hands Fireworks_1873

Who would have known the company’s history goes back more than 140 years, well before their arrival in the Prescott area, in 1982?

1886-87_Ontario Gazetter and Business Directory

As early as 1875, Professor William Hand (1839-1901) acquired substantial property in Hamilton, on both sides of King Street West, for a fireworks company originally established in Thorold. At first, there were just two small huts used for the mixing of high explosives.

1868 Winslow Homer_Harper's Weekly_Fireworks_Fourth of July

While the use of fireworks was common in the celebration of special events in Victorian times, North America’s fair going audiences hungered, by the end of the century, for more and more spectacular re-enactments. These involved elaborate sets, live music, and the integration of fireworks into the drama.

1886 Toronto_Last Days of Pompeii

At least one gun powder firm, Professor Hand & Co., emerged in Canada to take on the work started by James Pain, a prominent pyrotechnist and retailer of explosives, with a shop on “Firecracker Lane”, in New York City.  Today the Pain name lives on in a UK fireworks company.

1899 Industrial Fair_Toronto

Trained by his father — the Professor — T.W. Hand started touring Ontario as young as 14, setting off displays at a variety of occasions, including Belleville’s 1878 celebration of its new status as a city.

Unfortunately, Professor Hand died in 1901, of severe burns sustained in an accident at his Hamilton plant, and a year before, business partner Walter Teale and another worker were mixing explosives, when an explosion occurred that shattered the windows of Hamilton over a mile away. Both men were instantly killed. In spite of these turn-of-the-century tragedies, T.W. carried on the business, eventually making Hands the biggest fireworks company in Canada.


In the early 19th century, most Canadians worked as farmers, fishers, and craft workers. Often, there was little differentiation between one’s work and home life. Most people lived on farms or in small villages, and family members all contributed to the family livelihood.

During the second half of the 19th century, Canada experienced its industrial revolution. Immigration was increasing, cities were growing, and machines were automating or replacing work processes. Employees no longer had special skills, and often chose not to speak out against low wages, long work days, and harsh working conditions, for fear of losing their jobs.

Nine-Hour Movement_Ontario Plaque

The Canadian Nine-Hour Movement was born in Hamilton’s Mechanics’ Institute (a forerunner to our public libraries today) on January 27, 1872. The Institute’s hall on that night had never held so many of the class that it had been intended for!

Printers Strike of 1872_Ontario Plaque

Inspired by their colleagues in Hamilton, Toronto’s printers threatened to strike if their demands weren’t met. After repeatedly being ignored by their employers, the workers took action on March 25, 1872, and went on strike.

Toronto’s publishing industry came to a standstill, and the workers soon had the support of others. On April 15, a group of 2,000 workers marched through the streets and by the time they had reached Queen’s Park, the parade had 10,000 participants – one tenth of Toronto’s population, at the time.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald quickly saw the political benefit of siding with the workers. He spoke out against Toronto’s employers at a public demonstration, and gained the support of the workers. In June 1872, Macdonald passed the Trade Union Act, which repealed the outdated British laws and decriminalized unions.

The parades of 1872, held in support of the strikers, carried over into an annual celebration. Adopted in cities throughout Canada, the parades demonstrated solidarity, with different unions carrying different colorful banners. In 1894, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday.

Photos:; &

Art & Local History Appreciation

As we approach another Fall in our Fort Town, I can’t help thinking of those who came before and how they might have viewed the mighty St. Lawrence as they painted – or photographed – her shores, her skies, and her stories.

By exploring the development of painting and photography in Upper Canada and into the early 20th century, one can better appreciate the visual record we have of the St. Lawrence River, near Prescott.

The earliest painters in our region were British Army Officers. Many of these men were trained in landscape watercolour painting. They were topographers, surveyors and chroniclers of engineering feats, such as the building of the Rideau Canal.

James Peachey_1784 Encampment of the Loyalists

Records of James Peachey, an officer of the British army, begin with the first of his three visits to North America, when he worked in the Boston office of Samuel Holland, surveyor-general of Québec. His earliest dated artwork depicts various scenes in Québec which he produced on his second trip, but he is best known for his watercolour sketches of contemporary events, such as the arrival of the Loyalists along the St. Lawrence River. He also illustrated The Book of Common Prayer, translated into the Mohawk language by Joseph Brant, in 1787.

Thomas Burrowes_1830s_Ogdensburgh from the Canadian shore of the St. Lawrence, above Prescott

One of the most prolific painters in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa areas was Thomas Burrowes. As the Rideau Canal was being constructed, he travelled its length and recorded each lock along the way. A large collection is retained by the Archives of Ontario.

W.H. Bartlett_1842_Prescott From Ogdensburg Harbour

In 1842, N.P. Willis’ Canadian Scenery Illustrated, From Drawings by W.H. Bartlett and Coke Smyth’s Sketches in the Canadas were both published in England. These must have helped increase interest in travelling to the Canadas.

George Harlow White_1876_Prescott

Our knowledge of George Harlow White’s six years in Canada (1871-77) is based almost entirely on hundreds of small pencil drawings and some watercolours. They are catalogued in the John Ross Robertson Collection, at the Toronto Public Library. His studies of forests, lakes, trees, and pioneer life in the bush, as well as street and waterfront scenes are an interesting contribution to our knowledge of 19th century Canada.

With the advent of photography in the late 1840s, a new medium became available for capturing landscapes, although most who opened studios at the time were portrait photographers like A.W. Ferguson, who operated in Prescott from 1862-90.

Alexander Henderson_1884_Crossing St. Lawrence

Born in Scotland, Alexander Henderson learned photography in Montreal about 1857. His artistic and technical progress were rapid and in 1865, he published his first major collection of landscape photographs. Encouraged by the reception of his book, he opened a studio in Montreal, advertising himself as a portrait and landscape photographer. Although his favourite subject was landscape, he usually composed his scenes around human pursuits, such as cutting ice on a river. He travelled widely throughout Québec and Ontario, documenting cities and resort areas, and the building of the railway. In 1892, Henderson accepted a full-time photography position with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Marsden Kemp_c 1900s_Grain elevators by St. Lawrence River at Prescott

Active from the late 1890s to about 1931, Marsden Kemp took scenic photos of many eastern Ontario communities, including Prescott. He was known to have travelled through these communities by bicycle, camping along the way. Many of his photos are preserved at Queen’s Archives, and many are available online through the Archives of Ontario.

Prudence Heward_1933_The Blue Church, Prescott

There is no early artist, however, who better captures the landscapes we see every day – today – living in Prescott, than Prudence Heward (1896-1947).

“I think that of all the arts in Canada painting shows more vitality and has a stronger Canadian feeling…” (Prudence Heward, 1942)

Prudence Heward_c 1933_Farmhouse and Car

Heward was one of a small group of women artists who were active in Montreal between the First and Second world wars, and was associated with The Beaver Hall Group. She was the daughter of Arthur R.G. Heward, a railway executive, and Sarah Efa Jones, whose mother, Eliza Maria Harvey Jones, was known throughout Leeds and Grenville counties, and beyond, for the dairy cattle and the horses she bred.

She, like other members of the short-lived Beaver Hall Group, learned from the well-known Montreal teacher, William Brymner, whose father had served in Ottawa as the Dominion’s first archivist. Heward and her colleagues were encouraged to explore new (modernist) approaches to painting, and Brymner, and later A.Y. Jackson, were instrumental in bringing the work of The Beaver Hall Group to the forefront of the professional art scene, at a time when women artists were viewed as little more than hobbyists.

Prudence Heward_1930s_A Summer Day

Heward grew up in a large house in Montreal, summering at Fernbank, near Brockville. Later in her life, Fernbank would serve as a gathering place for sketching picnics that included friends such as A.Y. Jackson, Isabel McLaughlin, and Sarah Robertson.

Prudence Heward, and her colleagues, are the subjects of an exhibition produced, in 2015, by The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group), that is touring North America and Europe.

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