Yearbook Flip: Tourism and The Great Depression

While the 1930s is certainly characterized by The Great Depression, it also marked a move toward historical site reconstruction and the growth of heritage tourism. As historian Shannon Ricketts claims, it was the economic downturn that provided public works funding for serious conservation works. Depression relief funds granted by provincial agencies led to the restoration of various historic sites in Ontario; including Niagara.

Interestingly, a lot of the 1930 edition of the Vox Collegiensis focuses on local history and tourism. This was a student magazine/yearbook written for students, by students, so it sparked my interest to see that the Vox was promoting the history and beauty of Niagara and all of the things to see. This was likely a way to attempt to keep people in the region and stimulate the local economy. When reading through the “yearbook”, you could almost mistake it for a tourism magazine from the way that they push local sites. The 1930 Vox offers a unique look at Niagara nearly 90 years ago.

Two years before the grand opening of the Fourth Welland Canal, the Vox included an article about the history of the previous three Welland Canals and the significance and process of building the fourth canal.

In the Vox, student John Chorlton wrote a feature entitled “The Welland Ship Canal: The Greatest Engineering Feat in the World.” The article begins by proclaiming “For sixteen years within almost a stone’s throw of St. Catharines’ city limits there has been under way one of the greatest and most spectacular engineering enterprises ever attempted in the Dominion and for that matter in the whole world. The enterprise is the construction of the Welland Ship Canal, the fourth of a series of waterways that have served for the past century to link Lake Erie with Lake Ontario”.  The clear pride and excitement in Chorlton’s writing offers a contemporary look at the lead up to the opening of the fourth Welland Canal.  

Images highlighting the construction of the fourth Welland Canal as published in the 1930 Vox Collegiensis. STCM 2003.100.8

The 1930 Vox also offers articles about St. Catharines generally including: “Our City” by Dora Brighty and “Some Interesting Facts about St. Catharines” by Dorothy Bowman.

Brighty’s piece offers the history of the city from the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists to the city’s ranking as “one of the most progressive cities in the Dominion.” She also  highlights some of St. Catharines’ most recognizable males – William Hamilton Merritt, Theophilius Mack, Oliver Phelps, Paul Shipman, and Governor John Graves Simcoe. By exemplifying the city’s past and the exciting histories and characters that have come before them, Brighty seemingly is attempting to elicit local pride and encourage people to learn more about their own backyards.

Bowman’s piece, as the name suggests, offers interesting facts about the city. She begins by expressing her surprise at how little one knows about their native city. She discusses the beautiful gardens and greenery that gained St. Catharines’ title as the “Garden City”, the city’s burgeoning industry, the accomplishments of having the first electric street-car, the Y.M.C.A., and more. Bowman seems to be trying to entice the student audience to stay in St. Catharines and to contribute to the growth of the city by eliciting feelings of local pride.

Both Brighty and Bowman’s pieces seek to instill local pride amongst readers to encourage them to explore their local sites and histories. This would have kept people’s money within the Niagara region to help stimulate the local economy in the midst of a nationwide economic depression.  

The Vox does not just focus on St. Catharines’ history and accomplishments. Rather, they focus on other tourism highlights in the Niagara region, including, of course, the Niagara Falls. The two-page pictorial and write-up discusses the impressiveness and grandeur of the Niagara Falls. A particularly interesting tidbit mentioned is the new lights that illuminate the Falls at night; so much light that it used “one billion, three-hundred million candle power […] enough power to light the city of Rochester”. Apparently adding the lights to the Falls introduced “the only instance of man successfully adding the beauty of Nature’s work by artificial means”.  

Dora Brighty writes another piece in the Vox called “An Historical Ramble Through the Garden of Canada” takes readers on a journey from St. Davids to Niagara-on-the-Lake highlighting the historical spots along the way. She highlights the “ruins of the stone house where William Lyon Mackenzie printed his first newspaper in 1824” and “old Fort George near the river bank … [was built] in 1784. Here resided Sir Isaac Brock in 1804-1811-1812. The old powder magazine may still be seen as well as the Americans’ headquarters after taking of the town”. These two highlights are particularly interesting in retrospect as they were restored later in the 1930s by the Niagara Parks Commission as part of the serious conservation and reconstruction work. The addition of these historic sites and the subsequent reconstruction speaks to the desperation to stimulate local economies by keeping local residents in the region and creating jobs later in the decade by funding reconstruction of these sites.

The Mackenzie House, where William Lyon Mackenzie published his newspaper, was entirely restored by the Niagara Parks Commission during the Great Depression. The building was formally opened by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1938. STCM S1938.65.2.1

I went into the 1930 publication of the Vox unsure about what I would find. Given my background in Canadian history, I was familiar with the Great Depression, but it was really interesting to see how a student publication like the Vox responded to it. They stressed city pride, promotion, and tourism which was meant to inspire readers to take a trip in their own backyard. The economy needed to be stimulated, and keeping people local was a great way to do this.

Further Reading

Ricketts, Shannon. “Cultural Selection and National Identity: Establishing Historic Sites in a National Framework, 1920-1939,” The Public Historian 18, no. 3 (1996): 23-41.

Amanda Balyk was the 2019 Program Assistant at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre. She is currently completing her M.A. in History at Brock University.

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