Innovation

Ahearn and Soper - Innovative Thinkers who shaped Transit in Ottawa


Opposite: OER Streetcar #10 opened electric car service in Ottawa, June 29, 1891.


Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper were two Ottawa entrepreneurs who introduced the first all-electric streetcar system to Ottawa.

Ahearn and Soper's early involvement with transportation in Ottawa was innovative and 'electrifying'. This information has been culled from a number of sources, including an address to members of the Canadian Railroad Historical Association in Montreal, on March 1, 1960, by A. Seymour Rathbone, who then at 82, was Chairman of the Board, of the Ahearn and Soper Company Limited, Ottawa and who as a young man had started working for the company in the late nineteenth century.

Thomas Ahearn was one of Ottawa's true local heroes. As a boy, he went from his Lebreton Flats home to the J. R. Booth company to offer his services free in exchange for a chance to learn the exciting new technology of telegraphy.

Warren Y. Soper was born in Maine but came to Ottawa as a small child. They were both expert telegraph operators in Ottawa while still in their teens. Ahearn spent some time with the Western Union Telegraph Company in New York City, then while still very young, was appointed local manager of the Bell Telephone Company in Ottawa. Soper became manager of the Ottawa office of the Dominion Telegraph Company.

Their occupations brought them together and in 1881 they resigned their positions and formed a partnership as Ahearn and Soper, Electrical Contractors. They continued to form one innovative company after another in the field of heat, light, power (they became representatives of the Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing company) and, close to their hearts, the electric street railway.

Prior to 1891, the Ottawa transportation system consisted of ten small horse-drawn streetcars, 15 sleighs and 12 omnibuses. While the company was established a year before Confederation in 1866,  the cars officially took to the streets in 1870. In the winter the floors of the sleighs were covered with straw and a tiny coal stove in the centre of the car provided heat.

In 1890, a group of American interests negotiated with the Corporation of Ottawa to build an electric railroad. The offer fell through and on October 20, 1890, Ahearn and Soper sent a letter to the city offering to form a local company to construct and operate the railway. They included a cheque for $5,000.

After considerable hesitation the offer was accepted. The company was formed with Thomas Ahearn as President and Warren Y. Soper, Vice-President. Eight months later, on June 29, 1891, the first small electric cars appeared on Ottawa's streets. Ahearn's son Frank, then a boy of five, closed the switch to start the service. He was later to become the President of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company on the passing of his father in 1938.

Thousands of spectators gathered along a route that led from the car barns in the Albert Street industrial district near the base of Parliament Hill, along Bank Street in central Ottawa, to the exhibition grounds at Lansdowne Park. Four single-truck open cars - numbers 10, 11, 12 and 13 - heavily laden with guests, made their way at a leisurely pace to the enthusiastic cheers of onlookers. At the terminus, a luncheon was served amid lavish decorations.

The first streetcars were purchased in St. Catharines, Ontario but within a few years Ahearn and Soper started to design, build and repair streetcars and associated equipment at their small company plant called the Ottawa Car Company.

The existing horse-drawn cars operated by the Ottawa City Passenger Railway competed for two years with the Ottawa Electric Railway, then the company was absorbed by OER.

The problem of snow threatened to prevent the winter use of streetcars,  but the company solved the dilemma by manufacturing a specially-designed electric sweeper in the form of an enormous cylindrical broom which rotated at a high speed. It created a cloud of snow and ice as it cleared the track. The company was obliged to remove the snow from any street on which there were car lines. This was done by loading and drawing the snow away on the company's horse-drawn snow boxes.

On June 22, 1895, two days after the company's fourth anniversary, the Ottawa Journal wrote: "...the street railway serves the district in all the 29 miles of track in Ottawa. If your friends who will come to the growing Capital this summer want to know how many cars are in service here, tell them there are 68 cars and that nowhere are cars kept in better repair and cleaned and dusted for the comfort of the public."

In 1894, the Ottawa Electric Railway contracted with the Federal Government to carry the mail from the Post Office to the Broad Street CPR Railway station and the old Canada Atlantic Railway Station on Catherine Street.

In 1897, when Canada's Capital city was celebrating the 60th jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria, Ahearn and Soper were entrusted by the federal government to illuminate the entire face of the Parliament Buildings with thousands of electric lights. During this same celebration, Thomas Ahearn was instrumental in organizing the first coast-to-coast communication network, which, through the medium of the recently completed telegraph circuits, was able to carry news of the Capital's participation in the celebration to all the major centres in Canada.

In 1901, the company built a handsome specially equipped car to convey the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (Later King George V and Queen Mary) for a tour of the car lines.

The operations of the company were largely directed from the offices of Ahearn and Soper on Sparks Street by means of notes and phone calls by Messrs. Ahearn and Soper to Mr. James E. Hutchison, the first superintendent of the company who worked at the Ottawa Electric Railway office on Albert Street. Soper would hear a car pass the Sparks Street office with a flat wheel. He would call "Seymour, get the number of that car". Rathbone would run and come back with "No. 26, sir". An immediate call to Hutchison would follow... "Jim, car 26 just passed here with a flat wheel - take it off".

The electric cars Ahearn and Soper made were highly regarded and orders came from many outside sources including: Quebec Electric Railway, Three Rivers Traction Company, Oshawa Electric Railway, Port Arthur and Fort William, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Halifax, and St. Johns, Newfoundland (narrow gauge).

In the early days before motor cars came into being, the company built a summer playhouse in the west end of the city "which at that time was very suburban and necessitated transportation by streetcar". Ottawa people flocked out in large numbers in the old open cars to be entertained by an interesting theatre company.

Another popular venture of the Ottawa Electric Railway was the opening of a pavilion at Britannia Bay where band concerts on summer evenings brought very large crowds of passengers in the cars.

The electric heaters installed in the first electric cars in Ottawa were invented and patented by Thomas Ahearn and manufactured in the Ahearn and Soper Albert Street factory. Ahearn also invented and patented cooking heaters which were hailed in an early menu at the old Ottawa Windsor Hotel as the appliances that had cooked an "electric dinner".

In 1924, the Ottawa Electric Railway introduced buses on one of its routes. They ran for a short period, and then the streetcars again took over. In 1939, buses were again introduced and continued to spread over new routes.

The company was privately run for 58 years, then in 1947 heated objection by some city councillors to a fare increase proposed by the OER led to a proposal that the city should purchase the company. After negotiations established an acceptable purchase price, the citizens of Ottawa were asked in a referendum to approve or reject the deal.

On February 16, 1948, the vote was taken. The result: resounding approval for the takeover. This led to the creation of the Ottawa Transportation Commission with an initial fleet of 130 streetcars and 61 buses purchased from the OER. The long and colourful association with Ahearn and Soper had ended.

Ahearn and Soper Incorporated are still in business today, selling computer hardware and peripheral devices. 

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