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Niagara Falls
Monday, July 15, 2024
Niagara’s History Unveiled: A stroll down Queen St.

Taking a stroll along NOTL’s historic Queen Street can drum up a lot of historical curiosity, and with the many changes the buildings and structures have seen throughout the years, there is plenty to explore.

My son, who has been supporting my endeavour into writing historical columns, suggested I take a look at some of the sites along Queen Street this week, notably the history of the building that now hosts Exchange Brewery, which celebrates its second anniversary this month.

Because there is simply so much history, I picked four places to explore — the Court House, the Clock Tower/Cenotaph, the Customs House and of course, the Bell Telephone Exchange building (now Exchange Brewery).


Court House

The Court House on Queen Street was constructed in 1845 and was the third courthouse in Niagara.

The building, which you can still visit today, was built in the “Classical Revival” style — a three-story stone structure with elaborate court rooms, private offices, a market hall, council chambers, a speaker’s balcony above the front entrance and prisoner cells in the basement.

If you visit the Chamber of Commerce, located in the basement of the building, you can still see one of the jail cells — although I doubt the wine bottles and barrel were included when first used.

The Court House.

The building was designed by Toronto architect William Thomas, who also designed St. Michael’s Cathedral, St. Lawrence Hall and the Don Jail, all located in Toronto.

Two contractors from Niagara, master carpenter John Davidson and mason John Thornton, were in charge of its construction.

The building also hosts a bell which rings on the hour to this day.

The courthouse was the county seat of Lincoln from 1845 to 1861, encompassing the entire northern section of the Niagara peninsula (the southern section was known as Welland County), though by 1861 the location for the seat of the Lincoln County was contested, with many demanding it be moved to a more central location. Politicians were hesitant to make this decision, so a ballot was held and the people voted to move the county seat to St. Catharines — spelt St. Catharine’s at the time.

The courthouse has been retrofitted through the years for many purposes, such as a market hall, a location for meetings, a ballroom, private offices, lodging for the Polish soldiers during World War One, and even a suspender factory.

The Shaw Festival Theatre also used the building as the Courthouse Theatre for years, seeing its final show in 2017.

Today the building continues to house the Chamber of Commerce and a visitor information centre in the basement.

Note: the first courthouse and gaol (jail) was a wooden structure built in 1795 at the corner of Prideaux and King Streets. This building was lost when Niagara was bombarded by cannon fire from Fort Niagara in May of 1813.

In 1817, the town — always concerned that another war with the United States might occur — decided to build a second courthouse and gaol further out of town, away from any cannon fire, and constructed a beautiful two-storey red brick building on the west end of King Street, complete with offices, courtrooms and the gaol. 

This gaol saw its share of action, having its first recorded hanging in the early 1820s, when George Newnes and Mary Lowdon were hung for the poisoning death of Barth Lowden. 

Whipping was also used as a deterrent for petty theft.

This courthouse was sold to Maria Rye in 1869.


Cenotaph/Clock Tower

I have done tours for the museum throughout the summer and am always amazed that the word cenotaph is not understood by many.

The word is derived from the Greek “kenos taphos” meaning empty tomb.

The clock tower cenotaph.

That’s what the clock tower on Queen Street is — an empty tomb in memory of those who have died in three wars and are buried elsewhere.

In 1920, a committee of 27 people decided a memorial was needed to honour ten young men from Niagara-on-the-Lake, who lost their lives in World War One. After many meetings and heated discussions, several ideas were put forward.

The projects to be considered were a new school, a sports park, a new hospital or a cenotaph. The vote was put to the people and the result was in support of a cenotaph to be built in the middle of Queen Street.

The architect, Charles M. Wilmott, was hired for his proposed design, which was very similar to St. Mark’s Campanile (bell tower) in San Marco Square in Venice, Italy. 

After all was said and done, the 42-foot cenotaph, which included a clock and fire alarm, cost of $8,165. 

The unveiling and dedication took place in June of 1921.

In 1947, a rededication ceremony was held in remembrance of 18 young men from NOTL who were killed during World War Two, with their names being added to the cenotaph. In the 1950s there was another commemoration ceremony to the Korean War, though no names were added.

Fun fact: Niagara-on-the-Lake is the only community in Canada to have a cenotaph in the middle of its main street.


Customs House

We had a customs house in our town? Yes — actually two — and the second can be found at 126 Queen Street, south of Hendriks Valu-Mart parking lot.

The building is currently home to Natasha Bradley, a small boutique.

Back when it was a customs house, import and export duties were the principle source of income for Upper Canada, and up until World War One these duties provided 75 per cent of the federal government’s revenue.

Ship manifests would be presented at the customs house, then an inspector would go to the docks and board the ship to confirm what was on the manifest. Taxes were then tallied and the ship’s captain had to pay.

The building, constructed in 1825, is a two-storey brick facade Regency design with a curved roof. Near the roofline on the front of the building is a British coat-of-arms with some interesting details — photographed above.

British coat-of-arms. 
(above Natasha Bradley)

Flanking the shield is a Scottish unicorn on the right and the English lion on the left, while the crown of King Edward II sits at the top of the shield. The shield is divided into four quadrants, two displaying the three passant lions of England, one showing the rampant lion of Scotland and the other the harp of Ireland.

A blue banner reads: “Die Et Mon Droit,” meaning “God and my right,” — this declares that God and the King rule by divine right.  

Another smaller banner within declares “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pence,” meaning “may he be ashamed who thinks badly or evil of it.”

This saying goes back to an old story of chivalry.

In 1348, King Edward III retrieved a light blue garter that had slipped off the leg of his cousin Joan of Kent. The King, after putting the garter back in its rightful place, turned to those who laughed and admonished them for their callous attitude by saying “honi soit qui mal y pince.” 

As a result, the Order of the Garter was established and is still regarded as the most prestigious British order of chivalry in the United Kingdom.

This coat-of-arms is also quite unique as the language used is not in Latin but in French.  

The customs business is no longer in our town but we are fortunate that the building is still standing.

Note: The first customs building, was located close to the Niagara River and — similarly to the first courthouse — was destroyed by American cannon fire in the invasion of May 1813.

The Queen Street customs house was built further away from the river so it would not be destroyed should there be another war.


Bell Telephone Exchange

There is a small building, just beside the Apothecary Museum at the corner of King and Queen Streets, that was once the marvel of modern technology – the Bell Telephone exchange, built in the 1880s.

Today the building is host to the Exchange Brewery.

Exchange Brewery (former Bell Exchange building)

Two years after Alexander Graham Bell developed the phone in 1874, Hugh C. Baker Jr. of Hamilton, Ontario, first saw Bell’s invention demonstrated at the Philadelphia International Exposition.

The following year, Baker leased four telephone lines from Bell and had the phone lines strung along his own telegraph lines. This service cost him $45 for the year.

By 1878, Baker formed his own company, the Hamilton Telephone Company, which later became the Bell Telephone Company of Canada. There were many small telephone companies around the province and at the turn of the century. Bell Canada was formed to amalgamate the system.

Baker expanded from Hamilton to the counties of Wentworth, Halton, Halimand and Lincoln (Niagara area), opening the telephone office on Queen St.

The first operators hired were young men who had worked in telegraph offices, however it was Bell himself who realized these young men were not used to dealing with the public directly — many of them being impatient, playing jokes on customers and sometimes swearing.

Probably in an effort to find more pleasant employees, Bell, in September of 1878, hired the first female telephone operator, Emma Nutt.  

The qualifications to be an operator might seem strange today but they were very important to Bell. They were to be unmarried young women, between the ages of 17 and 26, be prim and proper, have a soothing patient voice and, above all else, a long reach — this would to enable them to reach from the top to the bottom of a switch board , sometimes up to an eight-foot stretch.

NOTL had telephone service to all hotels and to Camp Niagara, two public phones on Queen Street, three long-distance lines (two to Toronto and one to Buffalo) and more than 100 subscribers using the party line system by 1916.

The party line meant you shared your telephone line with another four or five subscribers. When the phone rang, you waited for the number of rings which indicated if the call was for you or someone else on your line. Shame on those who listened in on other peoples conversations.

In the telephone office on Queen Street, there were six daytime operators and two overnight operators all working split shifts. Every two weeks each operator had one day off and then would do a night shift to relieve the night operator. 

Over time, the operators came to know everyone in town and it was not unusual to have a customer call asking where the doctor might be — the operators would know.

When Camp Niagara was about to send fully trained units of Polish soldiers to Europe, the queue outside the telephone office was very long. Most of these young men had come from Buffalo and wanted to talk with someone special before they went overseas.

The soldiers would give the numbers they wanted called at the wicket in the telephone office and then wait outside. When the connection was made, the soldier would hear his name called and then be told which of the four booths in the telephone office he was to use. 

It is said that when a camp was to be shipped out, not one operator went home until every young man had a chance to say goodbye.

Today there are no party lines in town but we still have three public pay phones, one at Military Lane off of King St., one at the post office, and one between the courthouse and the LCBO — that’s progress for you.

The Bell Telephone building is still standing and has a new lease on life — the Exchange Brewery.  

With great consideration for the history of the building, extensive renovations were made to preserve the past and create a space for a modern functional brewery. 

The Toronto-based architecture and design studio, Williamson Chong, were awarded this task.

Their design and work on the building won them the 2016 Canadian Interiors Best of Canada Award and the prestigious Peter J. Stokes Heritage Commendation Certificate.

Where possible, the building was restored back to its origins with decorative trim removed. The facade has been restored and the windows have even been replicated to look exactly as they had in the 1880s. 

Although not much of the original interior remains, items were preserved and reused where possible, such as the hemlock floor joists, which were re-purposed for the bar and tabletops up on the second floor.

This weekend form Feb. 8 to 11, the Exchange is celebrating its second anniversary.

Drop by, imagine where those young men sat saying goodbye to family and raise a glass of beer to the boys.



To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.

Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Denise’s profile can be found here, niagaranow.com/profile.phtml/13

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