Monday 30 November 2015

St. George's Square centre gets split in half

On 28 March 1922, the citizens of Guelph voted to make a significant change at the centre of town. The garden (or "island") that had stood in the middle of St. George's Square was to be split in half. The Blacksmith Fountain had stood in the centre of the Square, surrounded by a small patch of grass and flowers, since 1885. The people of Guelph had been keen to make a splashy gesture in the heart of town, and the fountain filled the bill. The original streetcar tracks diverted to either side of it when they were first installed in 1895. The garden area had even been enlarged for the Old Home Week celebration held in 1908.

Here is a postcard view of St. George's Square as seen from the south, from a photo taken around 1913. It was printed by The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co., Ltd. Montreal and Toronto. Note the new, larger "Prairie" cars on either side the Fountain, with the older open car in the back. It must have been a nice day since the open cars were then used only during good weather.

Amid the bustle of downtown Guelph, the fountain and its garden had been a fixed point, a focus around which all business of the central city revolved. Now that was set to change. What happened?

Impetus for the change in the centre of the Royal City came from Hydro. The City sold the Guelph Radial Railway (the streetcar) to the Ontario Hydro Commission in 1921 for $150,000 and kicked in a debenture of $300,000 for its repair ("Streetcars in Guelph", Thorning 1982). For most of its history, the streetcar had run at a loss. Inflation during the Great War had put upward pressure on salaries while fares were kept low to facilitate ridership. In addition, the system suffered from many years of deferred maintenance. The rails and rail beds were too light for new models of streetcars, and its electrical system was not organized efficiently. Breakdowns and even minor derailments were becoming problematic. Although the service was popular, it was becoming a political albatross for City Council. Selling it off became a political necessity.

Two suitors came calling. The Canadian Pacific Railway offered to purchase and upgrade the lines as an addition to its own holdings. The Ontario Hydro Commission also wanted to purchase the system and add it to a proposed network of intercity trains (rather like the later GO Transit system) in Southern Ontario. In the end, the citizens of Guelph voted down a sale to the C.P.R., leaving Hydro in possession of the prize.

As soon as the sale was complete, Hydro officials and engineers came to the Royal City to plan a total overhaul of the network. One of their recommendations was to have the tracks run straight through the centre of St. George's Square. This measure would simplify reconstruction of the system downtown, making it cheaper to build and run.

Guelphites seemed generally happy to let Hydro revamp the system and improve service. Yet, digging up the garden in St. George's Square proved to be a sticking point. Initially, the Railways and Manufacturers Committee of City Council recommended the change. However, resistance appeared when the matter was raised in a full Council meeting on 16 January 1922 (Evening Mercury, 17 Jan. 1922). For one thing, legal eagles differed over whether or not the city had the power to allow such a usage for the land. The issue was laid out in a letter to Council written by Mr. Patrick Kerwin (of the law firm Guthrie and Kerwin, and future Chief of the Supreme Court of Canada). In the letter, published in the Evening Mercury, Kerwin notes that the City bought the land in question from Dr. William Clarke in 1873. One condition of sale went as follows:

Whereas the said William Clarke has agreed to sell and the said Corporation of the Town of Guelph to purchase, the lands and premises hereinafter described for the purpose of a public garden in the said Town of Guelph, and for the improvement of Wyndham and Quebec streets in the said Town.
The bylaw (No. 230) by which the City officially acquired the land also stipulated a garden in its first clause:
That a freehold estate be acquired for the Corporation of the Town of Guelph in the County of Wellington in the said lands for the purpose of a public garden and for the improvement of Wyndham and Quebec streets in the Town of Guelph.
Few would consider a set of streetcar tracks a public garden, so Hydro's proposal would seem to be in violation of the bylaw and the City's undertaking when it bought the land.

However, Kerwin pointed out, the City's agreement with Hydro gave the Power Commission the right to run tracks through any city property on streets already serviced by the streetcar system. Kerwin argued that the City could simply pass a bylaw that closed the garden and added it to the roadway, thus making it fall under the agreement with Hydro.

Mr. Charles Dunbar, a local barrister and solicitor, wrote a letter to Council, also published in the Mercury, giving a different view. He simply warned that the City had no power to allow a different use for the garden and that unnamed citizens had instructed him to sue the City in the event that it should try to do so.

Naturally, a spirited debate ensued in the Council Chamber. Alderman Mahoney suggested that the City take no action. Then, if Hydro chose to tear down the garden and install trackage, they would face the legal consequences instead of the City facing them.

Opponents of the change pointed out that the citizens of Guelph had just voted against installing a war memorial in the middle of St. George's Square, preferring Exhibition Park for its location. (It was finally built in 1927 in Trafalgar Square.) Alderman Drew interpreted this vote to mean that the citizenry would also oppose running the streetcar through the middle of the Square. Aldermen Oakes and Yeates argued that the Square would remain a "beauty spot" only if it retained the garden in the middle.

Alderman McElroy, a proponent of the Hydro plan, raised the estimate from the Hydro engineers that laying tracks through the centre of the Square instead of around it would save $25,000, a substantial amount. Alderman Barlow added that he thought that the aesthetics of the Square would be enhanced if the streetcar ran through its centre. (The Hydro plan included green space on either side of the tracks.) He also said that voters had rejected the site for the war memorial precisely in order to give Hydro the opportunity to use it for the railway. Alderman Penfold reported a figure from the Hydro engineers saying that running the streetcar through the middle of the Square instead of around it would save $500 per month in operating costs. Alderman Baldwin replied that, since the report of the Railways and Manufacturers Committee lacked specific figures and calculations, the financial aspects of the scheme were rather indefinite.

In the end, the Council voted to send the report back to the Railways and Manufacturers Committee for reconsideration. On 2 February, the Committee met and made the same recommendation as before, namely that Hydro should run its tracks through the middle of the Square, with the City's blessing (3 Feb. 1922; Evening Mercury). The matter therefore returned to Council on 6 February. There followed a spirited discussion covering essentially the same ground and proving equally conclusive (7 Feb. 1922; Evening Mercury). In the end, the Council voted 9 to 7 to send the matter to a plebiscite.

On 28 March 1922, the plebiscite was held on the following question (28 March 1922; Evening Mercury):

Are you in favor of the Council permitting the Hydro Power Commission of Ontario to construct the tracks of the Guelph Radial Railway Company through St. George’s Square, and to re-arrange the said Square in accordance with Hydro Plan 502-71?
The vote went "Yes...873" and "No...484", a decisive majority (though a low turnout for an electorate of 5,035). Mayor Howard declared himself pleased with the result, saying that it was "a step in the right direction" for Guelph. Ex-Mayor Carter said that, although he was opposed to the plan, he was satisfied that the electorate had spoken and so the plan should go ahead.

The work began on 5 September with the removal of the electric lighting from the Square's centre (6 Sep. 1922; Evening Mercury). A few days later, the Blacksmith Fountain was removed and set aside with the intention of placing it in one of the grass plots to be installed on either side of the new tracks (9 Sep. 1922; Evening Mercury). Then, the Parks and Buildings Committee of City Council recommended that the Fountain be moved to a new location, preferably Priory Park (28 Sep. 1922; Evening Mercury). The reason for this recommendation was not noted but it was reported the next day that the Hydro crew had suggested that the grass plots in the Square be made smaller than planned. Perhaps removal of the Fountain was intended to support this suggestion. In any event, City Council agreed to the relocation of the Fountain but insisted that the grass plots in the Square remain at the size specified in plan 502-71 (4 Oct. 1922; Evening Mercury). The next evening, the streetcars began to move over the new tracks in the middle of the Square.

The unexpected removal of the Blacksmith Fountain occasioned some regret (5 Oct. 1922; Acton Free Press):

In a rather pathetic editorial the Guelph Herald referred in feeling terms last Saturday to the removal of the iron figure of the sturdy blacksmith which surmounted the fountain on St. George’s Square. This splendid figure, presented to the city by the Armstrong Carriage Company in their palmy days, has occupied the prominent site in the centre of St. George’s Square nearly ever since the old church was removed—forty years or more ago. The demand for a straight street car line through the Square necessitated the removal of this landmark. It will be missed by many who are not residents of the Royal City.
In place of the symbol of industry, Guelph had a central transit station.

The transformation of the Square did not end without a little more drama. Some local motorists evidently objected to the extent of the gardens planned for either side of the central tracks. Hydro workers, who had ripped up the area under the gardens in order to lay concrete beds for them downed tools until the matter was resolved (1 Nov. 1922; Evening Mercury). The next Council meeting featured a long and passionate argument among Aldermen as to whether or not the garden plots should be shrunk according to Hydro's wishes. The Council debated the following resolution:

That this Council approve of the Hydro-Electric Commission reducing the open space now existing at St. George’s Square by ten feet on each side.
On the "no" side, Alderman Burgess said that the Council would look like "a lot of school boys" if they reversed their earlier decision in spite of the situation not having changed. He also maintained that the Council had no right to alter the plan since it had been approved in a plebiscite. Alderman Drew argued that Council should leave the situation alone since it could be easily changed later if that seemed advisable. If no alteration were needed, then the Council would have saved itself the difference in construction costs.

On the "yes" side, Alderman Jaffray argued that the large gardens would be an undue danger to traffic. The argument is not spelled out but the idea seems to have been that the large gardens would squeeze traffic into smaller space in the Square, thus increasing congestion. Assuming that congestion is dangerous, then large gardens would increase risk of collisions for drivers. On the matter of cost, Alderman Evans said that the extra construction cost arising from reducing the gardens would be well worth the saving of danger to life and limb.

The resolution finally came to a vote. The Alderman tied 8–8, so Mayor Howard cast the deciding vote in favor: The gardens would each be 10 feet (3m) narrower. Interestingly, Alderman Wing later told the Council that he had been confused during the vote: voting for the resolution when he meant to vote against it (11 Nov. 1922; Evening Mercury). He wanted to revisit the resolution during the next Council meeting. Hydro officials did not wait for another possible reversal of policy. On 11 November, workmen began tearing out the old curbs and pouring cement for the new ones for the smaller design (13 Nov. 1922; Evening Mercury). The new layout became a cement accompli and was not revisited by Council.

Sod was laid for the new, smaller gardens and flower bulbs planted to rise the next year (1 Dec. 1922; Evening Mercury). Work was completed by 7 December, all but for paving of the bare roadbed left by removal of the surface torn up to shrink the gardens. After much debate, Guelph had its new island in the Square.

The new setup can be seen the postcard below, printed by The Valentine & Sons United Publishing Co., Ltd., Toronto, from a photo taken around 1925. Note that, in spite of the increased presence of cars on the street, Guelphites still walked and sat in the roadway.

Despite missing the Blacksmith Fountain, Guelphites seemed pleased with new setup. The new, rationalized street railway represented progress although it did not, in the end, save the city from the cost of running it at a loss. Portentously, a number of motor busses were hired to "help out" with the people-moving duties while the street car system was under renovation (1 Apr. 1922; Evening Mercury):

Two of three busses owned by Messrs. McElroy and Daly, were very kindly loaned to Manager House of the local street railway this morning, when it became known that the suspension of Hydro power would be indefinite. The busses were immediately put into commission as “Street Cars”, and are being operated today on the Elora Road–York Road and O.A.C.–Suffolk street lines.
Busses were run as "street cars" on each line as it was rebuilt. Even as the day of the new street railway system dawned, its eclipse began.

The redesign of the centre of St. George's Square suggests a number of things about how Guelphites of the day viewed their city. Sale of the streetcar to Hydro over the C.P.R. suggests that citizens viewed the service more like a utility than a private enterprise. Its sale to a public utility may also explain the broad willingness to let Hydro lay tracks through middle of the Square. Although some people saw the move as an abuse of a public space, many evidently saw the new use as compatible with the established understanding of it.

The change in St. George's Square also illustrates how Guelph faced challenges brought on by the increasing presence of automobiles on the streets of the Royal City. Although only a minority of Guelph families had cars at the time, owning a car was becoming a common aspiration. Many residents looked forward to the day when they could breeze through the city in their cars and wanted a streetscape that reflected that aspiration. This may explain the successful pressure that some citizens brought to bear on Council to shrink the garden plots in the new layout.

Besides the redesign of the Square, there was a proposal to turn the middle of Macdonnell Street into a parking lot in order to augment curbside parking (8 Nov. 1922; Evening Mercury). The scheme was not adopted but it suggests the enthusiasm for cars among Guelphites and a brewing conflict over how best to use the downtown streets.

The time is fast approaching when St. George's Square may be redesigned again. A new proposal includes a traffic circle, reminiscent of its old configuration. It will be interesting to see how the process and results today compare with those of the past.

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