The Ottawa Journal had the scoop, and it appeared on page seven of the evening newspaper on September 11, 1899. The story read:
“The automobile has made its first appearance in Ottawa. This morning hundreds of people gazed at the horseless carriage speeding silently along Sparks Street, requiring apparently very little trouble to steer it. Mr. Thomas Ahearn was in charge of the carriage and the way he steered it about the streets would do credit to any enthusiast on automobiles.
The ride apparently also represents Ottawa’s first commute, for as the Journal continued:”
“Mr. Alex. Burritt, City Registrar, had the pleasure of being carried to his office on the automobile, and the trip was made swiftly and silently. The carriage can be run at five different speeds from two to fifteen miles an hour and its motive power is electric.”
The Ottawa Citizen caught up to the story the next day, also noting that it was the first time a “horseless carriage” had appeared and that it was driven with ease by Thomas Ahearn, adding the news that the car was expected to be on view at the Central Canada Exhibition.
So there you have it. Ottawa’s first car made its debut on September 11, 1899, and it was a battery powered electric car.
Like all stories of the firsts, this one can be contested, and we will look into the other possibilities over the next few weeks. Today we wanted to start with something solid, something unquestionable, incontrovertible, attested by two newspapers and therefore a rock in the timeline of Ottawa’s automobile history. Ahearn, 1899.
It turns out we have a fairly detailed description of Ahearn’s car. It appeared in the Journal for September 7, 1899. According to the story, the car had arrived from Chicago and was being assembled for its first run by the Ottawa Car Company. Ahearn was president of the company, located at Slater and Kent, which built streetcars for the Ottawa Electric Railway, of which Ahearn was also president and a majority owner.
The newspaper reported that Ahearn’s horseless carriage was built in the style of a Stanhope — originally a fancy type of two-wheel, horse-drawn carriage with a spring suspension (see above). As an automobile, a Stanhope usually had four wheels with hard rubber tires, a spring suspension, a dashboard up front, a single bench mounted in the middle for two people, and a light cloth top that could be folded up in inclement weather.
Ahearn’s car looked very much like a buggy, the Journal reporter noted, except for the control and steering levers sticking up through the floor (early cars and especially early electric cars often had tillers for steering). Ahearn’s car apparently also had pneumatic tires that could be pumped up with an ordinary bicycle pump. Unfortunately, both the batteries and the gearing were enclosed so the Journal article didn’t have much to say about that. The Journal reporter did describe an “electric bullseye” on the dash. Whatever that means, there was also a meter on the dash that said how much power was left in the battery. Two buttons beneath the seat allowed the driver to turn the current on or off. There was also a key the operator turned one way to go forward and the other way to go backwards. When removed, the car was effectively locked and could only be stolen by carrying it away, which was not a likely occurrence. The car weighed 1000 pounds, according to the reporter, and the truth was likely twice that.
The automobile’s motor generated a mighty three horsepower, but had five settings for speeds between two and fifteen miles an hour. Range was thought to be 50 miles on a single charge. The cost of the car was given as $1600, which in U.S. dollars (since the car was bought in the U.S.) would be about $54,000 today. At a time when many people earned three dollars a week — maybe the car was worth stealing after all!
What kind of car was it? That’s a long story we will go into next week. What else do we know? That answer is, not much.
According to a report in the Citizen, W.W. Wylie drove the car around town on September 12. Wylie was the manager of the Ottawa Car Company, which had grown in part out of Wylie’s original carriage company. You can see that he would be interested. He, too, operated the car with apparent ease and attracted a lot of attention from people on the street who had never seen anything like it before.
The Electric Car at the Exhibition
The following day, the car made its expected appearance at the Exhibition grounds, apparently scaring police chief Graham’s horse, a high strung stepper that “took a decided objection to the company of the automobile and made things interesting.” Fortunately, the chief was able to keep the horse under control.
On September 18, the Citizen reported that the car was attracting a great deal of attention at the Exhibition, where it was displayed together with several horse-drawn carriages, wagons and delivery-vehicles made by Ottawa Car. September 19th was the Journal’s turn to note the excellence of the Ottawa Car carriage display at the Ex and the attention the horseless carriage was getting. “Those who see it daily traveling around the grounds appreciate the fact that it is the vehicle of the future,” the Journal said, adding that, “Mr. T. Ahearn, the energetic president of the company, may be seen every day taking enthusiastic visitors for their first ride on the automobile.”
Now that’s an interesting detail!
It is also one of the last mentions of the Ahearn car. Monday, September 25, the Journal noted that Ahearn used the car to ride out to Britannia and back, checking on the new streetcar line to Britannia Bay being built by the OER.
So far I have found only one other “eyewitness” reference to the car in the reminiscences of Harry Walker published in the Journal on April 10, 1948. Walker’s recollection was of a day way back in 1904, when he was walking up Metcalfe Street in the rain towards Parliament, where he was being taken by his MP for South Renfrew, A.A. Wright. And then, wrote Walker:
“A strange object glided down the glistening street and four people sat in it, or on it, under umbrellas. The ensemble effect was like a lump of mushrooms on wheels.”
The apparition was all the more unsettling because electrics were almost silent, Walker remembered, so the car appeared out of nowhere.
And to nowhere it has gone, or at least that’s all I have been able to find out so far. Do, however, remember — this is the start of an evolving history of the automobile in Ottawa. If you know or find something more, please comment on the Facebook post or let me know by writing to me at email@example.com.
Next week, we’ll go into the question of what car Ahearn purchased.