History of the OEV Part III: The Town of London East

From “The People Came. The People Stayed. From Lilley’s Corner to Old East Village.”  By Benjamin A. Vazquez, U. E.

London East legally became a town on the 26th of December, 1881, with a population of 3,651. Its municipal government expanded accordingly, with the addition of a mayor (the title “reeve” was retained for the mayor’s immediate subordinate), and the expansion of the three-member village council into a nine-member town council. At the same time the town’s boundaries were extended north to Oxford Street and its two wards were made into three.

By this point, the lack of a fire department had become worrying both within and without London East. The question was what to do about it. Fire protection meant fire hydrants, which, in turn mean water mains and piped water. Up until this point the population of London East had produced water from backyard wells. The changeover to city water was generally agreed to be a necessity, but the cost of constructing an entire water system was daunting. London East,  unlike London, wasn’t on the Thames. A pump-house could, presumably, be built on the south branch of the Thames and piped north, but it would have to be pumped uphill all the way, and the pump-house itself wouldn’t be cheap.

To nearly everyone an alternate solution seemed obvious: cut a deal with the city. London already had an excellent water facility at Springbank. Water pipes extended east all the way to Adelaide Street, and surplus capacity was plentiful. Tapping into the existing water supply meant that all that would have be constructed were pipes under London East’s streets – a considerable enough expense on its own.

Among the first by-laws of the Town of London East was to authorize a new water system, pending a referendum on the kind of system to be constructed. the polls opened on the 24th of June, 1882, and closed again with reasonably decisive results. Eleven people voted for an entirely London East water system. One hundred and sixty-seven voted to connect to London’s pipes. It seemed the issue was settled, and the laying of water pipes proceeded quickly, almost every street in the city being supplied with pipes for city water by the end of the year. Pipes, yes – the water itself, no. That would take a while. The fires wouldn’t.

The first disaster was at Imperial Oil. I’ve been bypassing the neighbourhood’s industrial history, but the fact remains that by the dawn of the 1880’s the dozens of oil companies in London East had gone through an extensive process of consolidation, leaving a single vast facility – Imperial Oil. And, on the 11th of July, 1883, Imperial Oil burnt to the ground. Probably nothing could have been done to save the place. The fire had been started by lightning. It’s questionable whether extra water would have helped. The skies were pouring down quite as much water as any fire department could plausibly have done. And any would-be heroes were quite busy being heroic elsewhere.

The fact is that the flood of ’83 is universally recalled as among London’s absolute worst disasters. Prior to the mid-twentieth century the land where Harris Park and Gibbons Park currently lie were occupied by mostly low-income housing, poorly constructed and flooded out annually in the spring even in the best of years. This wasn’t the best of years. The waters rose suddenly, unexpectedly, and with a vengeance. Houses splintered and slid into the river under the weight of the current. Entire streets disappeared. When Thursday morning dawned dozens were dead and hundreds homeless. Schools had been transformed into temporary shelters. Transportation was doubly frustrated by the washing out of most of London’s bridges and the washing out of large sections of railway track in London and Ingersoll.

Amid the chaos in London the burnt ruins of Imperial Oil barely registered as a blip. But Imperial Oil had two facilities – one in London East, and the other in Petrolia. Given the opportunity to centralize, the Petrolia facility was expanded, with the company’s head offices following two years later. London’s place in the oil industry was over. London East lost seventy-five jobs and plunged into the beginnings of a local depression.

Three things happened next.

First, a group of people from London East led by Reeve John Bartlett attempted to convince the town to construct an entirely separate water system. Second, an extraordinarily impressive town hall was built. And, third, yet another fire struck, this time at the Grand Trunk car shops.

The first item is usually discussed with an attitude of incredulity. But the incredulity comes with the benefit of hindsight, and particularly with the knowledge of the disastrous Grand Trunk fire that was to come. Yes, connecting with London’s system made financial sense. And there was even that overwhelming public vote to contend with. But as I mentioned earlier, municipal pride is a force to be underestimated in nineteenth-century Ontario. And waterworks were, in fact, among the chief objects of that pride. The pump-houses that supplied them were still the products of relatively new technology, and the possession of such a facility was tantamount to a declaration of belonging in the modern world. Far from being shunted out of view – as most of our infrastructure is today – the buildings that housed the machinery were often lavished with architectural ornamentation and surrounded by acres of landscaping. Thus are the origins of London’s Springbank Park and St. Thomas’ Waterworks Park, to name only the nearest two among their thousands of cousins across North America and Western Europe. Bartlett no doubt imagined a similar facility spreading out from Adelaide and the Thames.

Frankly, I see the strongest evidence for this view of the waterworks question standing today on the southwest corner of Dundas and Rectory. Today’s Aeolian Hall was initially built as London East’s town hall. I see no justification for the building beyond civic pride. To begin with it was unnecessary. Up until the construction of the new town hall, London East’s town council had met in rented quarters above the stables of the London Street Railway. Not terribly prestigious quarters, but they served their purpose, and there is no evidence to suggest that they were either inadequate or unduly crowded in 1882. For another thing the architect retained to design the structure – George Durrand – was the most prominent architect between Toronto and Detroit. And, lastly, the building’s size was utterly out of proportion to the actual use it was to be put to.

As it happens, the new town hall was also utterly out of proportion to London East’s capacity to pay for i. $40,000 had been spent laying pipes in the streets – pipes that were still empty of water. Another $14,000 had been laid out to construct a new town hall, double the initial estimate. More was proposed to construct a new waterworks. Add two zeros to get some sense of these numbers in 2013 terms, and reflect that the town expected to pay the bill was scarcely over five thousand inhabitants. The proposition would have been tight even if there had been fire protection. Tight, but probably doable. But on the 20th of September, 1884, the car shops burnt.

This is part three of a multi-part series. To obtain your own copy of “The People Came. The People Stayed.”, please email: jo@palacetheatre.ca or look for the author, Benjamin Vazquez, at the OEV Block Party on Saturday July 19th to purchase a copy!

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