This winter, with the help of a co-op student, the Ottawa Street BIA has been taking the time to archive many old stories and photos that were serving no purpose sitting in the basement of the BIA office. We feel it is important to share with the community, some of the history of Ottawa Street. This is the first of many posts that highlight some of the interesting stories we have discovered along our historical journey.
As I looked through the old photos, it occurred to me that the BIA streetscape looks quite different than it used to. In my 17 years here, I have seen lots of changes but the photo below baffled me. I didn’t even recognize the building! Evidently, this building used to sit on the northeast corner of Ottawa and Argyle – now the home of a used car parking lot. Some of our current store owners can still remember the fire more than 20 years ago.
At 256 Ottawa Street North, the story is more tragic. As the long time home of Kent’s Hardware and more recently Indigo Decorating, an electrical fire began in the wee hours of the morning. Soon, the building was engulfed in flames and very quickly we knew that there was no hope for this corner building. Not only was it the coldest day of the year, it’s a very humbling experience to stand and watch a building burn to the ground. I know because I did it. To the very end, the building was so reminiscent of days gone by with its signature wooden squeekly floors that gave it its charm and appeal. We are sad to report that our colleague and friend Armand who owned this building, and this empty lot, recently passed away. While the building has changed our streetscape forever, his memory is more engrained on our hearts than the building ever was.
As many of you may know, this park is called East Kiwanis Place. We are proud of our association with the Kiwanis Club of Greater Hamilton. Did you know that their first ever office was on Ottawa Street? They made a financial commitment to this space and we’re so happy for their contribution to the urban culture on Ottawa Street. This space however, is the most tragic of the stories. This building too was destroyed by fire and, like the others, sits on a corner – this time on the north east corner of Ottawa and Edinburgh. While it is now the home of our homage to the textile history of Ottawa Street, a woman lost her life in the fire that destroyed the building here. I still occassionally see Tony who used to own Tony’s Auto Garage across the Street. He always reminds me of the heartbreak of the fire that day. While the incident predates my history here, it is forever tattooed on his memory. He re-tells the story of hearing the explosion and watching the front door, contents and a tenant get blasted across the street from the sheer force. He then tells of spotting the fire and running to help only to realize that he could hear the voice of a young boy calling for help. He tells me that he yelled to the boy to get to the top stairwell, that the fire trucks were there and could help. He also cries when he tells me that he spoke with that same boy’s mother, trapped under the stairwell. He was unable to get through the heat and flames to help her and eventually she stopped speaking with him. That boy survived. The mother didn’t. Tony doesn’t feel like a hero but he is in my eyes.
It’s strange to think that all three major Ottawa Street fires all destroyed corner buildings. I’m sure that’s a coincidence but a strange one at that. As we look to see the opportunity in the tragedy, we now have a beautiful urban space in East Kiwanis Place and soon, a new building at the corner of Campbell – that property has been sold and site plan applications are on their way. All commercial areas have ways of changing their Streetscapes, we just changed ours in an unusual way. But then again, we don’t always do things here that are ‘usual’. Maybe that’s the key to our success!!