Eureka! Inventive Moments from our History

Every year, Museum Week provides themes for each day of the week for us to focus our celebrations and interpretation. Today is themed “Eureka Moments” so, we’re counting down the top 5 Eureka Moments in St. Catharines history. Museum Week defines Eureka Moments as “art, science, and history are busting with inventors, techniques, and discoveries that have changed or revolutionized the world. Let the public discover them!”

There are definitely more than 5 eureka moments in St. Catharines history, so if we left one out that you feel MUST be included, add it in the comments below! Here we go:

#5 Early Electricity

Suncroft – the residence of James McSloy, c. 1900. STCM 1972.83.15

James McSloy and his brother Hugh established the Canada Hair Cloth Company here in St. Catharines in 1884. In 1888, they took advantage of the waterpower provided by the old Welland Canal and built the first section of the 3 storey brick building we know today as the Canada Hair Cloth factory building. The company and brothers experienced much success and, as was typical of the period, contributed to charitable causes. They donated land for the construction of the Carnegie Library (demolished in 1977) and volunteered on the boards of the St. Catharines General and Marine Hospital and the St. Catharines Sanitorium. James and Hugh were keen to push the boundaries. In the 1890s, their homes were the first in the city to have electric light. Power was extended to their homes on Church Street and King Street, respectively, from the Canada Hair Cloth building generators, powered by the waters of the Welland Canal.

#4 Girl Guides of Canada

Mary Malcolmson, c. 1910. STCM 10166-N

Mary Helen McKean Malcolmson was born in Ireland in 1864. She immigrated to Ontario with her family where they settled in Almonte. Her father ran a furniture factory.

Eventually Mary resided in St. Catharines where she became highly involved in community endeavors: she was instrumental in founding the St. Catharines branch of the Women’s Canadian Club, the Victorian Order of Nurses and the St. Catharines Council of Women. She was also a well-known officer of the I.O.D.E. (Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire) and convener in the National Council of Women of Canada.

She also took a great interest in the welfare of youth. When, in 1909 Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes Baden-Powell expanded the scouting movement to officially include girls, they created pamphelts explaining how the Girl Guide program was to work. The pamphlets made their way to the St. Catharines scouting leaders, who in turn gave them to Mary Malcolmson who, in turn, registered the first Girl Guide troop in Canada in January 1910. The troop first held their meetings in the basement of the Welland House Hotel.

Malcolmson also worked with Lady Pellatt of Toronto to help organize the national Guiding movement in the early days.

Malcolmson was honoured for her work with the Girl Guides with a Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935.

Read more on the history of the Girl Guides in Canada.

#3 Salt Spring Tourism

Springbank Hotel, c. 1903. STCM 1047-N

After his service in the War of 1812, now formerly Captain William Hamilton Merritt, returned to St. Catharines and civilian life. He quickly entered partnership with his new brother-in-law Charles Ingersoll, bought property along 12 Mile Creek (now Downtown St. Catharines), and established a handful of mills and a new store. In addition, he began drilling for salt.

The War of 1812 was very expensive for the very small population of Upper Canada and the financial implications of the war hung around for years, plaguing most business opportunities. Merritt’s was no exception. He and Ingersoll went into a huge amount of debt to establish themselves, but the economy was too slow to recover and they were insolvent by 1819, at which time they dissolved their partnership, and Merritt’s very wealthy uncle, Nehemiah Merritt of Nova Scotia, rescued his despondent and over-stretched nephew.

Even more unsuccessful than milling and store keeping was drilling for salt. They managed to establish two shafts to bringing up the brine, but unfortunately it was short lived. Rock drilling was difficult to exploit and the lining of the shaft to prevent the entry of fresh water was an unexpected expense. It wasn’t until January 1818 that brine was brought up in a large enough volume to make boiling for salt worth it.

Merritt and Ingersoll gave up, it not being practical in the 1810s and 1820s to establish such labour-intensive manufacturing.

But, that’s not the end of the story. Aside from the presence of the Welland Canal, St. Catharines was put ‘on the map’ by its world-famous Salt-Spring Hotel and Spas, which operated from the 1850s to about the turn of the century. Hundreds of thousands of tourists, including, famously, the recently widowed Mary Todd Lincoln visited one of the hotels that touted rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation thanks to access to the salt spring baths, which were thought to cure a number of ailments.

While Merritt’s salt business wasn’t a success, his eager enterprising led the way for one of St. Catharines most successful and longstanding industries: tourism.

Learn more about the salt spring hotels on our blog: A Walk Around Town – Walk S – The Discovery of Mineral Springs in St. Catharines

#2 A Light Bulb Moment

Isabella Frampton Hawken (at right), c. 1905, STCM 8526-N

Isabella Frampton (1876-1948) came to St. Catharines with her family when her father, Alfred Frampton, was offered a job with the Packard Electric Company. All three Frampton children worked at Packard, but Isabella is especially notable – at only 22 years old, she became the forelady of the lamp department at Packard Electric in St. Catharines, a department which she later managed.

Only a few years later, in 1907, the enterprising Isabella struck out on her own, establishing the Dominion Electric Company, originally located at 5 Queenston Street, with her future husband, James P. Hawken. At Dominion, Isabella managed the rewiring of burnt-out light bulbs, which were sent to her from large cities in Canada and the United States, including New York City. Isabella is believed to have taken out patents on this rewiring process, which allowed the lights of Broadway, among others, to be re-wired or gas filled and sent back to her customers. Her husband, James, worked as a pharmacist and in practice had very little to do with the business – later, Isabella’s daughter asserted that the business was solely her mother’s enterprise.

Isabella and James married in 1908 – and her name is only listed with the company documents separately from her husband because the partnership was struck prior to their marriage. She is identified in the co-partnership agreement as “Isabella Frampton, spinster.” Due to the laws of the day, it is James’ rather than Isabella’s name that appears on company documents following the couples’ marriage. Isabella’s name doesn’t regularly reappear in records until she is made a widow, following James’ death; in the 1923 edition of Vernon’s City Directory, Mrs. I. Hawken is listed as the Proprietor of the Dominion Tungsten Lamp Factory.

An astute business woman, Isabella Frampton Hawken expanded her business to include a New York location, which would cut her profit losses due to import and export taxes assessed on goods travelling between the US and Canada. The Hawk Electric Co. was established in Lockport in 1925. Unfortunately, a legal loophole made her patents on the rewiring of lightbulbs invalid in the U.S. and after a long court battle, the Hawk Electric Co. was forced to shut down.

At its height, The Dominion Tungsten Lamp Factory had about 100 employees and despite the closure of her Lockport facility, Isabella continued to travel regularly between St. Catharines and her offices in Montreal and New York City throughout her career. Isabella Frampton Hawken died in January 1948 and is buried at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

#1 Earth Moving Machine

Phelps’ Earth Moving Machine

The construction of the first Welland Canal was plagued with environmental issues: there wasn’t enough water in some locations, in others, there was too much water. Along the line of the deep cut, workers had been killed and injured by mud slides. Weather, materials, and the digging itself was a constant struggle. Contractors simply abandoned their contracts because it was too expensive to carry out the work.

So, in 1827, the Directors of the Welland Canal Company offered a reward “to the person who would construct a machine that would remove the greatest quantity of each in a given time, at the least expense.”

Several contactors submitted ideas, but in the end Oliver Phelps, an American contractor, who would eventually also become a canal superintendent, won the prize for his invention: an earth moving machine. The new system replaced the constant movement of wagons and carts, each with their own horse teams.

Here’s the contemporary description of the earth moving machine:

“The machine consisted of a wheel revolving around an axle, having one end fixed to the ground, and at such an angle as to bring the rim of the wheel upon the same plane with the slope of the road up the bank; around this wheel a rope is passed, with a hook at each end, to attach the empty cart going down and loaded on coming up…with little labor to the cattle drawing the latter.”

Essentially, Phelps’ machine exploited the oppositional gravity of cattle, cart, and driver to lift soil from the channel.

Despite the machine’s general success, the Deep Cut (between Allanburg and Port Robinson) would continue to prove a dangerous and deadly construction project.

Bonus: Zippers at Lightning Fastener Company

Check out the history of the Lightning Fastener Company, a factory making the world’s supply of zippers for most of the 20th century.

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