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Image: Library and Archives Canada.

Capital History: When the circus came to town, Ottawa 1907

By Ashley Newall on March 15, 2021

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Ashley Newall’s “Capital History Ottawa” (#colourized) has been chronicling outstanding scenes in the city through his newly colourized photos and accompanying factoids. The project’s home is on Twitter, but once a month, a more in-depth piece delving into the stories behind these pics will be published here on Apartment613. 


Original image via Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.

Above is a colourized photo of the Great Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus parading up Sparks St. and over Sappers’ Bridge on June 29, 1907. It was customary back then for circuses to mount such a parade to extravagantly announce their arrival in a town as a stupendous way to promote their show.

In the lead-up to the roving spectacle, it was written, “The new parade is the biggest surprise that has been sprung by a circus in the past decade,” (The Evening Citizen – June 15, 1907) and “Forepaugh and Sells Bros.’ circus parade is twice as long as any other and every feature in it is new to street pageantry.” (The Evening Citizen – June 22, 1907)

“Costumes, flags and standards are of the finest broadcloth and silk, and pure gold leaf has been used in the decorating of the hand-carved vans, chariots, and band-wagons. Considering the fact that one million dollars has been spent in equipping this parade, its superiority will be readily understood.” (The Evening Citizen – June 29, 1907) For what it’s worth, $1 million in 1907 would be over $23 million in today’s money.

The original black and white version of this photo has appeared in several places before, but the exact date and details around the event have never before been unearthed and presented (online) in the history of the world!

Much more on the circus in a minute, but first… The top photo is possibly the best pic of this downtown scene in that era that I’ve found. (And it’s got elephants!)

The most prominent building in the photo, in the centre, was the Post Office and Customs House, standing where the War Memorial now sits. Opened in 1877, and in its original form especially, it was one of the most stunning buildings in Ottawa. Following a fire in 1904, a fourth story was added during the repairs.

Ottawa Post Office and Customs House, between 1900-1904. Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.

To the left of the Post Office was the Russell House hotel. Beside Russell House, on the southwest corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets, was the Canadian Pacific Railway Office, built in 1883, a building which still stands and is now known as the Scottish Ontario Chambers.

The odd structure in the very top photo, coming up from beside the Rideau Canal to Sappers’ Bridge, was a covered stairwell leading from the Central Railway Depot, now the site of Union Station. It was used by rail passengers arriving and departing downtown. The stairwell was removed when Union Station was built, with construction beginning in 1909 and the new station opening in 1912.

Central Railway Station and Corry Block, Ottawa, between 1905-09. Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.

Alright, without further ado, back to that circus!

Naturally, after initially stumbling across the circus parade photo, I went down a rabbit-hole of circus posters, starting (but not stopping) with Forepaugh & Sells posters. Here’s just a select few, all from 1899-1902 [via Wikipedia].

The Great Forepaugh & Sells Bros. Circus, which folded in 1911, had come to Ottawa previously in 1899, 1902, and 1904.

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for, the actual advert for that 1907 Ottawa show! …

The circus was held “on the Bank St. grounds near Clemow Avenue” (in the Glebe), which could only mean Central Park. And in case anyone was worried about the weather, it was helpfully reported, “the tents are all waterproof, so rain need not be feared.” (The Evening Citizen – June 29, 1907)

Ahead of the show, in an article subtitled, “This Big Show Is a Veritable City On Wheels,” it was catalogued that “the circus has its own post office, hospital, laundry, general store, bakery, gas plant, and shoe, barber, paint, carpenter and blacksmith shops. Besides these are a lawyer, two doctors, a dentist, and three detectives.” As for those detectives: “There is not one catch-penny device or one objectionable character tolerated on the grounds, and a corps of detectives is carried to see that absolute order prevails.” (The Evening Citizen – June 22, 1907)


Follow @CapHistOttawa on Twitter. Ashley Newall is a local musician, writer, and researcher of Canadian history. Check out songs and stories on his blog at www.ashleynewall.ca.
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