Sunday 21 June 2015

Riverside Park's 110th anniversary

On 24 May 1905 (Victoria Day), thousands of Guelphites headed up Woolwich St. to their new playground, a park by the side of the river Speed. Many took the handy streetcar, which stopped by the entrance to the park. Only a year before, the place had been a private farm belonging to Alfred Lace. However, the city had managed to purchase the property with a view to turning it into a park. The citizens of Guelph were on their way to experience it and render their verdict.

According to the Mercury the next day, Guelphites were impressed by what they found. The park was not complete. Trees and undergrowth had been cleared but many of the planned amenities were not yet in place. However, the beauty and potential of the site were widely appreciated:

The promise is that when in shape it will prove a very popular resort for citizens, will aid in increasing the number of excursionists who visit Guelph, and will prove profitable to the city, aside from the additional earnings it will make for the street railway. Invariably yesterday’s visitors expressed themselves as pleased with the park and its promise as a pleasure resort.
The people were happy and receipts for the street railway were up. Indeed, the Mercury reported, the street railway carried 1109 more passengers than on Victoria Day the previous year.

What led the Royal City to buy the grounds and construct the park? Why had it bought land in that location, then north of the city limits, and not elsewhere? The answer is complex but centers on the prominent Guelph businessman J. W. Lyon.

According to the The Canadian Album (1891, p. 230), James Walter Lyon was born in Uniondale, Susquehanna Co., Pa., in 1848. He found his calling in business early on:

At age nineteen he left home to canvass for books in Michigan, and at twenty-two he had made and saved ten thousand dollars. He was then taken into partnership by his employer, O. A. Browning, of Toledo, Ohio, and in 1872 they opened a branch of the business in Canada, which proved a great success.
The Canadian office was sited in Guelph. According to the Historical Atlas of the County of Wellington (1906), Lyon liked what he saw in Canada and in the Royal City. In 1874, he sold off his interest in the US company and bought out his partner's interest in the Canadian branch, renaming it the "World Publishing Company". The new name was well chosen: The World Publishing Company became a global success with branches in Australia, South Africa, East and West Indies, and South America. Although book printing was carried out in Toronto, the head office, and J. W. Lyon, as he was always known, stayed in Guelph.

(J. W. Lyon, Historical Atlas of the County of Wellington, 1906)

Besides his publishing empire, Lyon became a highly successful real estate developer. He bought and sold land throughout the US and Canada. Partridge (1992) notes that Lyon bought about 400 acres in the area of York and Victoria roads in Guelph and donated the sites to manufacturers for development. He bought and upgraded John Hogg's old pile at 67 Queen Street, which he named "Wyoming" after the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania where he grew up. All his enterprises were blessed with success and he became Guelph's first millionaire. The stretch of Queen Street where he lived was sometimes known as "Millionaires' Row".

Lyon was also Commissioner of the Guelph Radial Railway Company (the streetcar) and keen on its development. Built originally by the brewer George Sleeman, the streetcar system was running well but had not yet become a money-maker. Lyon realized that part of the problem was the limitation of its clientele. The streetcars helped Guelphites commute to work and got students up College hill to the O.A.C. and back. To make money, the streetcar needed to attract new ridership and also to increase business on its northern route, which ended at the Woodlawn Cemetery, hardly a big draw although, of course, people were dying to go there. Besides, it needed more ridership during down times like evenings and weekends.

Lyon saw an opportunity and announced it in a letter to the editor of the Mercury (14 Oct. 1904):

New Park
Scheme for obtaining one proposed by Mr. Lyon

To the editor of the Mercury:
Dear Sir, —Myself and my Directors are extremely anxious to make the Guelph Radial Railway a success, financially as well as the means to recreation for the people of Guelph. ... The trouble with our line, however, is that it starts nowhere and goes nowhere, or, as it is said with a smile, “from the brewery to the cemetery.” The College end is satisfactory, and we desire to make the opposite end, up the Elora Road, equally satisfactory and profitable. With that in view, we have obtained an option on the Alfred Lace property—two properties, five acres and nine and a half acres. By acquiring this we would have a splendid outside park, excellently adapted for Sunday school and other picnics, well timbered, fronting about a quarter of a mile on the river Speed, and the dam for Pipe’s Mill furnishing boating and bathing, an ideal ground for all sports, games, amusements and band stand, an added attraction being an excellent spring of water.
A park would address both issues at once: It would create an attraction on an underperforming route and lure picnickers, especially Sunday school children, as passengers into the system. The new park could help put the streetcar in the black.

The problem, as Lyon realized, was that the development would cost a fair amount of money. The option obtained by the directors put the price of the land at $3,200. That would be a large sum for the city and would be seen as extravagant by some ratepayers. He raised a number of arguments to make his case.

  • The first point, of course, was that it would make the streetcar profitable. In 1903, the city had bought the streetcar system from investors for $30,000 and assumed liability for its debt of $48,000 (Mills 2010, p. 185). So, the sooner it made money, the better it would be for the taxpayers.
  • Lyon noted that the city was losing its park land downtown. Guelph had recently sold part of the Market grounds to the Canadian government for the construction of the Armory. Also, the Grand Trunk Railway was in the process of expropriating Jubilee Park, a public park where the VIA station now stands. There was a need for new park land and it seemed only fair, argued Lyon, that the money from these sales should go to the establishment of a new park.
In a second letter to the editor of the Mercury (30 Dec. 1904), Lyon made further points in answer to his critics.
  • For example, he argued that the new park would put Guelph ahead of its regional rivals, especially Berlin (now Kitchener):
    In my opinion the natural features are superior to those of the celebrated park in Berlin. The Berlin people talk of the money they make out of the Guelph people. Let us make some money out of Berlin and other towns, and get a double fare out of the June excursionists; when they have seen the College, then take them to the park.
    The park that he does not dignify with a name is likely Riverside Park in Bridgeport, built in 1902 as an attraction for patrons of the Berlin and Bridgeport Street Railway.
  • Lyon also noted that the park would be serviced by the existing streetcar system. This would save the city the thousands of dollars it would cost to build a new route to some other destination and provide more cars and employees to run it.
  • He also rejected the argument that the city should wait until it could buy build a park at Puslinch Lake. The city of Guelph was very interested in developing a recreational park at the Lake, and businessmen like Lyon and George Sleeman had bought property there. However, Lyon noted that it would take a great deal more money, and many more years, for such a project to materialize. (It never did.) The new park on the Lace property could be opened in a few months.
Besides, Lyon reiterated the beauty and allure of the site.

In the end, Lyon took matters into his own hands. With the option to buy the Lace property nearing its end, and the City council waiting to hold a referendum on the matter, Lyon simply bought it (21 Nov. 1904). If the city supported its purchase, they could have it at cost. Otherwise, he could sell it to other interested parties, of whom there were several by then. The bylaw to purchase the property was passed and the city bought it from Lyon. Lyon was made the Chairman of the parks board and put in charge of the park's development.

On Victoria Day, 1905, the park opened and was another success for Lyon. The postcard below, published shortly after the opening of the Park for A. B. Petrie, shows its main entrance off the Elora Road (now the northern section of Woolwich St.).

Note the small signs on either side of the main "Riverside Park" marquee. They say, "No driving allowed." It was decided that people could not drive their own vehicles (horse- or motor-powered) into the park (Mercury, 13 June 1905). Perhaps Lyon wanted to spare patrons the need to dodge horses or their droppings. Or, perhaps this was his way of encouraging them to take the streetcar.

Lyon proceeded with the planned improvements. The first improvement was a box of monkeys. That was evidently Mayor Sleeman's idea (Mercury, 13 June 1905):

Swings and other facilities will be pushed forward and, as a special treat for the children, Chairman Lyon was empowered to purchase a cage of monkeys. No restrictions as to color, breed, or behavior were laid upon the chairman. The Mayor spoke of his experience when he had a monkey: it was a trade winner from the word go.
Six monkeys—four ringtails and two rhesus monkeys—arrived from New York on 22 June. They were to be fed bread, fruits and nuts but no meat. They were kept in their shipping box until their cage was completed. The monkeys were the beginning of the zoo that featured in the park for many years.

In an early instance of crowdsourcing, the board decided to hold a contest to find an official name for the new park. The Mercury had been calling it the "New Park", the "Street Railway Park" and "Riverside Park" but nothing had been made official. The Mercury announced the contest on 23 June, soliciting entries especially from school children and offering a book of streetcar tickets as a prize. The contest drew an enthusiastic response and the Mercury printed many of the suggestions received by Mr. Hackney, the manager of the streetcar system (16, 17, 19, & 22 June). The suggestions revealed many ideas about how to name the place:

  • Honor (or flattery): Lyon Park, Lyon's Park, Lyondale, Lyonhead, Lyonville, Lyon Valley, Lyon Hurst, Lyon Lane, Lyoneese, Lyon's Cliff, Car Lyon, and Hackneydale.
  • Scenery: Speedview Park, Speedvale Park, Speedside, Speed River, Ferndale, River View, Lakeview, Cedar, Elmdale, Forest Nook, Woodlawn, Woodview, Woodland, Springdale, Cedarvale, Pipe's Dam, Edgewater, Bush, and, of course, Riverside.
  • Loyalty: King Edward Park, Royal City Park, The King's Park, Alexandra, Hanover, Park Royal, Commonwealth, Gotha, Princess, Balmoral, Sandringham, Kensington, and Maple Leaf.
  • Romance: Inverlea Park, Saltaire Park, Wausakasene ("by the side of the river"), Kill Kare, Gretna Green, Lover's Rest, and Restormal.
  • Whimsical: Eureka Park, Ideal Park, Madeline Square Garden, Sans Souci, Mikado, Spurliner's, Line Rhine, Uneeda Rest, Minnetonka, and Togo.
The selection was announced in the Mercury (11 July) with a brief note: "'Riverside Park' is the name selected for the street railway park." With so many other Ontario cities like Berlin establishing a "Riverside Park", it seems that Guelph would not be left out.

(The date 11 July is sometimes given as the official opening of the Park. The Mercury contains only a brief mention of the naming and nothing else. Perhaps we could say that this date was its christening.)

The Park proved quite popular. On 6 July, "practically" the first concert was given by the Guelph Musical Society in the new bandstand (Mercury, 7 July 1905). Over 2,000 people were on hand, and the streetcars were packed. Mr. Hackney estimated that one-third more people wanted to use the streetcars but could not due to limited capacity. Lyon and the other directors must have been smiling.

Riverside Park was meant not only for the comfort of Guelphites but also to impress out-of-towners. This it seemed to do. The Mercury (25 Aug. 1905) printed an except from a letter by Rev. J. B. Mullan of Fergus to the Fergus News-Record giving his assessment in a suitably ministerial tenor. The account tells us about the Park's facilities, both present and lacking, as people of the time saw them:

The Riverside Park will yet be an ideal one. The Radial Company, who own it, are determined to make it the most attractive of all the parks in neighboring towns and villages, such as Stanley at Erin, or Idlewyld in Hespeler, or the still more famous one in Berlin. There are fifteen acres in it, and the Company are about to add as many more to it, most of which is composed of rock and hill, and dell and stream and river, and wood and spring—features of natural scenery which will yet make it, with the help of taste and money, an ideal park. Already there is a large refreshment of ice-cream building, a splendid band stand, a never failing spring, a museum, a number of swings, and many fine rustic seats. Bathers, too, of both sexes, who have their suits, find good bathing there. The caretaker also gives lessons in swimming. There is a large stretch of water, too, above the dam, for boating, but the Company have not yet supplied the boats. There are one or two features of the Park which I do not care about. The merry-go-round and the shooting gallery should not be there, as the children and young people are tempted to spend too much of their money. One of the attractions of Idlwyld, Hespeler, is that they have all the dishes you need for a large picnic, and you can have the use of them for a few cents; but at Riverside there are no dishes, and no place round where you can borrow any. We had all the trouble of bringing them from the city. These defects will be supplied through time. Rome was not built in a day, neither can you make a Park in a year. It is a slow growth like the oak. We met, however, with such kindness and consideration at the hands of all the officials of the G.T.R., the trolley, and the Park, that we feel that if spared, we would like to go back with all the Sabbath schools—a big union picnic next year. In conclusion, permit me in kindness to any who are about to visit the Park, to utter this warning—Beware of the wasps.
Note that the Reverend also declines to name the park in Berlin! Did non-Berliners have to spit on the ground if they said it?

Below is a postcard published ca. 1910 by the Valentine & Sons Publishing company. It shows several youngsters enjoying a swim in the Speed at the park. (Or, are they fleeing the wasps?) The photo may have been taken from on top of the dam of the Speedvale Mill.

It looks very refreshing, an impression helped by the watery palate chosen by the colourizer.

Besides the facilities of 1905, we gain an insight into the activities of well-heeled picnickers in Riverside Park from a detailed article in the Mercury (28 Aug. 1905) describing the First Annual Picnic of the Commercial Travellers' Association, that is, men who travelled frequently in pursuit of their business. The group was well connected, as Mayor Sleeman, M.P.P. J. P. Downey, and M.P. Hugh Guthrie were all in attendance.

The picnic was highly organized by the Association's picnic committees, and nearly every member and his family attended, making nearly three hundred in all. The affair began with a series of games and athletic contests:

The proceedings commenced shortly after three o’clock, when the married men essayed to down the single men at baseball, but the job was too much for them and they gave it up after three innings. The score resulted 6-4 in favor of the single men.
In defense of married men, I should point out that single men tend to be younger.

Next came the foot races, with separate events for boys under 10, girls under 10, boys under 16, girls under 16, young women, single men, married men, and fat men. The victory of "Jock" Smith in the fat men's race is described in some detail.

After a men's and a ladies' egg race, the events became more gender specific. The men ran a backward race and a sack race. The ladies ran a "soap race" and a "tack and hammer race". A soap race at a Toronto Retail Grocers' picnic in 1896 is described as follows:

There were 22 entries for the soap race, ranging in age from girls of 17 to women of 50. The conditions of the race were that each woman was to run 100 yards, picking up a bar of soap every 10 yards, and carrying all her soap in an apron to the finish. The stumbling and falling of the women in their attempts to pick up the soap as they ran, was indeed funny "for the spectators."
In the tack and hammer race, the women had to hammer sixteen nails into a box.

Then came the "thread and needle race". This race was mixed gender and probably similar to the following event held on a British steamship in 1902:

... the thread & needle is good fun. The gentlemen race from one end of the ship with a needle in one hand to a lady with thread & she must thread the needle for him with one hand before he can start back again - they get so excited they cannot hold the needle still & the lady keeps missing the eye & all scream & laugh together.
To make it more interesting, the Association appears to have reversed the gender roles with the ladies running and the men trying to thread the needles.

At six o'clock, everyone sat down in the Pavilion for a "sumptuous tea" provided by the Kandy Kitchen, followed by several speeches. The speakers praised the Association, its members, their families, and the British Empire for furnishing them with so many possibilities for travel and business. Some remarks made by Hugh Guthrie, the M.P., would sound a little peculiar today:

They were the great channel of distribution of home and foreign made goods, and Mr. Guthrie paid high tribute to the colonizing power of Great Britain, whose trade followed the flag. Especially in newer Canada did the commercial men make trade bound forward; they were all proud of the commercial standing of Canada. To a marked degree, the commercial travellers were “the men behind the gun.” The present age would hardly permit of the simple, quiet life; it was more nearly a case of the survival of the fittest, and Canada and Canada’s travellers, employers, and capitalists were no laggards.
He wished them all "health, happiness, and contentment—and higher emoluments", which they met with applause. After more teasing and eulogizing, the evening wrapped up with an auction of wheelbarrows and boxes from the wheelbarrow race ("in which the contestants had to wheel home a box which persisted in slipping off"). Each box contained "some useful article", including an "all day sucker", from the Kandy Kitchen, I assume. Exhausted and amused, the picnickers then headed for the streetcars.

The next day, 29 August, a fireworks display was held (Mercury, 30 Aug. 1905). Somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 people attended. It lasted from 8 o'clock to past nine and brought the summer park season to a close with a bang.

As J. W. Lyon had predicted, the park helped the streetcar finally to turn a profit. The net take for the 1905 financial year was $1,915.71, much better than the net loss of $2,378.80 the previous year (Mercury, 7 Nov. 1905). Receipts were up 30% over the previous year, which Mr. Hackney put down to the opening of the park. Lyon's gamble, if that's what it was, had paid off.

Riverside Park continues to be a fixture in the social life of Guelph. Its continued popularity is a legacy of several aspects of the Edwardian city. First, it is a monument of sorts to the long-vanished streetcar system. Streetcar technology had made it possible to move large enough numbers of people to and from this location outside of town cheaply and efficiently. Second, it testifies to the prosperity and growth of the city. Guelph now had enough citizens with sufficient income and leisure time to support a park built especially for their amusement. Third, Riverside Park is the legacy of J. W. Lyon, whose business acumen and civic boosterism made it possible.

I have yet to find a map of the interior of Riverside Park in its early days. However, its initial boundaries are included in the Historical Atlas of the County of Wellington (1906). See the detail below.

The entrance was evidently in about the same location as today, at the south end of the lot on Woolwich. The solid black square above the word "Riverside" is the location of the Lace house, which remains in that place today as a park office.

Compare the detail above with the satellite image below, from Google Earth, with the original park boundaries marked by white lines.

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