Wednesday 6 March 2013

The Priory

Here is a postcard of what is arguably Guelph's most historic structure, namely "The Priory".  Also, it seems to have been Guelph's most popular early postcard subject, to judge from the number of different printers that used this photo and colourized it in different ways (more on that topic another time).

The back of the card has the title "Private Post Card" but no maker is listed.  The text in the lower, left-hand corner says, "First house in Guelph (now C.P.R. station), Guelph, Ontario."

The Priory was the first permanent structure built in Guelph, after its founding on St. George's Day, April 23rd, 1827.  The structure got its name from its builder, Charles Prior, who was one of the party that accompanied John Galt, the founder, to the site where the city was to be located.  It was intended to be the residence of the Canada Company officers in the district, and so had to be of a dignified appearance.  Thus, Galt saw to its design and construction himself, as noted by Charles Burrows in Annals of the town of Guelph, 1827-1877 (p. 6):
The house, which is beautifully situated on the south bank of the river Speed, was built of squared logs, was large and commodious, and with the rustic porch, presents a very fine appearance, though somewhat rough, imitation of Ionic architecture, and stands to this day as a witness of the practical skill and artistic taste of Mr. Galt, who drew the plans and superintended the work.
Given the lack of buildings in Guelph's early days, it is not surprising to learn that the Priory served a number of purposes.  For example, the south wing, the lean-to structure on the closest side of the building in the picture, served as a tavern and a post office, even as it was being finished.

The Priory also had a variety of owners.  In 1838, for example, it was bought by William Allan, builder of Allan's Mill nearby on the Speed river.  On his retirement in 1847, the building passed in to the possession of his son, David Allan, until 1876 (Allan 1939, p. 29).  David Allan was the architect of some of noteworthy local structures, such as the distinctive Court House and St. Andrew's Church (Coulman, n. 10).  The Priory was then owned by David Spence until 1887, after which it became the  local Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) station, which it remained until 1911 (Coulman 1976, n. 11).

As you can see from this picture, the Priory initially had a beautiful view of the Speed river.  It was also conveniently located next to Allan's Mill (far left in the picture) and Allan's bridge over the Speed.  When it became the CPR station, that connection seems to have remained palpable, according to message written on the back of the postcard:
This is the first place we came to in Guelph and the first house that was was [sic] built in Guelph; it was so pretty it was all green and the river is on the other side of the line.
The postcard is not addressed or postmarked, suggesting that it was used not as a message to someone else but as a kind of aide memoire for the author when passing through the city.

According to Stewart (Vol. 1, p. 48), the photo in this postcard shows the station as it appeared around 1910.  (You can view the original photo here.)  Note the two ladders that appear in the scene.  On the far left is a short ladder placed up against a lamp stand.  I would guess that the lamp ran on coal gas and needed to be lit by a lamplighter each evening.  (I should have more to say about lighting in a later blog.)

Near the middle of the picture is a taller ladder leaning against the roof of the Priory.  Like the smaller ladder, this one is not present by chance.  Note that the ladder rests on a special pad in front of the railing and is secured to the roof by a bar.  Beside the top of the ladder is a pole that projects past the eve of the roof.  From the end of the pole is suspended a metal disk with two holes through it.  It appears to be a railway switch (or signal?)!  That is, it must be rotated in one direction to connect track A with track B, and in the opposite direction to connect track A with track C.

Have a look at the photo below.  It shows the Priory with a train in front of it but with no switch on the roof.  Instead, the switch is at the south end of the platform, in front of the camera, where the three tracks meet (courtesy of the Guelph Historical Railway Association).

It appears that the original switch (note: also accessed by a ladder) was later moved to the roof of the Priory.  Why would anyone move a switch to the roof of the building?  It seems horribly inconvenient to have to climb a tall ladder to change a switch!  The only reason that I can think of is that the location on the roof is easier for the train engineer to see than the location further away and lower down at the crossing in front of Allan's bridge.  Was there an accident that prompted the change?  (A search of the city newspapers might turn that up at some point.)

The new switch installation appears to have evolved over time.  This photo in the Guelph Public Library collection (ca. 1905) shows a ladder that is secured by simply being stuck on the ground and then having its top wedged under the eves.  (Also, the vines have been trimmed back, the gas lamp is present, and the railing in front of the station is of a simpler design.)  Hardly a robust setup!  Even though the ladder bottom appears to be painted, being wooden, it would eventually rot from moisture absorbed from the ground, and the whole thing would probably topple from time to time.  No wonder it was later shortened, placed on a stone pad and clamped to the roof.

You may be curious to know what the Priory looks like today.  Here is a Google Streetview picture, taken from roughly the same perspective as the photo in the postcard.

View Larger Map

The Priory would be on the other side of the railway tracks, in the vicinity of the tall utility pole that stands beside Woolwich St. in the middle background.  What happened?

Sadly, after 1911, the Priory fell into ruin and its carcass was dispersed.  Johnson (1977, pp. 317-321) relates the story in some detail, which I will summarize here.  At the urging of the City Council and Board of Trade, the CPR decided to construct a new railway station in the city.  This was completed and then opened in November of 1911.  After that, the Priory stood vacant.

George Sleeman, the brewer and former Mayor of Guelph, purchased the building and had it moved further away from the river to a vacant lot while trying to muster support for a preservation scheme.  However, there was not enough support from the community and the building deteriorated and was condemned by the City building inspector in 1926.

Sleeman moved the two lean-to sections to his own property.  (Why not the whole thing?) They were apparently donated to the Doon Heritage Village in Kitchener in 1957 (Stewart 1976, p. 48), a move that was described in the Guelph Mercury as "high-handed" and a "disappearance".  For all I know, they remain there still, like the Avro Arrow, crated up and waiting for the time of their return.  The logs of the main section were stored for a time and then dumped in Riverside Park in the 1930s, where they were cut up and used for firewood.

The final blow fell in the late 1970s, when Woolwich St. was moved east toward the river, so as to connect with Wellington St.  In the process, the site of the Priory was partially regraded and paved.

However, not all memory of the Priory has been lost.  Two models of the structure were made by Mr. W. A. Cowan from measurements of the original (Allan 1939, p. 32, n. 5).  A large one was stationed in Riverside Park, where it can still be seen (suitably restored).   A smaller model was given to the Guelph Civic Museum, where it still resides.  If you are in the neighbourhood sometime, you can drop in and have a look.

It is too bad that the Priory did not survive longer but 99 years is a long time for most structures.  If it were around today, it would likely be a central part of the Civic Museum, perhaps a National Historic Site and interpretive center.  In any event, its history serves as a reminder of how Guelph got its start, and how it adapted to changes in times and technology over the years.

Update (12 March 2013): In looking through my collection, I see that I have a postcard featuring the same picture of the Priory above with a post mark of 9 Oct. 1905.  Thus, the dating of the picture to ca. 1910 is too late.  The photo probably dates to ca. 1900.  In that case, this photo dated to ca. 1905 should probably also be dated back, to ca. 1895.

Update (20 March 2013): Ron Brown's book "The train doesn't stop here anymore" clarifies the nature of the disk hanging from the pole on the Priory roof.  It is an "order board"!  Here is how it worked (pp. 11-12):
They gave the locomotive engineer his instructions on whether to stop or to proceed without stopping.

Originally, there were no train order boards. Engineers were required to stop at each station and sign for their orders. ...

Oval in shape, the boards pivoted on a spindle and were controlled by a chain that was attached to a lever inside the agent's office.  When the board was parallel to the track, it was a "clear board" and the engineer could proceed without stopping.  When the board was perpendicular to the track, the engineer must stop. ...

With the introduction of the order board, the engineer no longer had to stop the train and enter the station to receive his orders.  Instead, he simply slowed the engine while the agent handed them up on the end of a long hoop or fork.
It would appear that the mechanism on the Priory roof is a (crude) version of this device.

1 comment:

  1. In regard to the CP station; the ladder to the roof was to access the train order board which was a signal that indicated to approaching trains whether there were train orders from the dispatcher to be picked up by the crew. This is an early design tha was replaced by the semaphore type although a few of this early style lasted into the 1970's. The early styles had kerosene lamps and these had to be filled and lit, hence the ladder.
    The 3 way stub switch stand was operated from the ground. The ladder was again for lamp maintenance.