Hot Times in the Old Town

A history of ice hockey in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

On January 28th 1898, The Times newspaper (of Niagara-on-the-Lake) published a front-page spread of the Niagara-on-the-Lake hockey team’s victories against Niagara Falls and St. Catharines. Having defeated their rivals (on home ice) NOTL’ers relished their victories.

Citizens were entranced by this innovative, new and fast-paced winter pastime.

Illustrations accompany the article, heaping praise Niagara’s “boys in black and orange” and lampooning their hapless opponents.

I recall seeing photographs of the Niagara Hockey Club while working at the NOTL museum. I began to search for more information; only to find that there was very little written material available about the sport that was front-page news in the 1890’s. Reaching out to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Society for International Hockey Research, as well as to local historians and research repositories, I decided that a cursory examination of how ice hockey developed in Niagara-on-the-Lake would be worthwhile.

In Ontario, NOTL was a cultural, political and economic hub. The first provincial capital, first newspaper, first museum building and first railroad. As far as winter sports goes, Niagara-on-the-Lake also has a strong claim to having been the birthplace of the modern hockey stick, the wide-bladed goal stick, and the first use of the hockey net. An examination of NOTL’s claims will come secondary to a general analysis of the individuals, teams and places that helped develop a community of hockey fans in Niagara from the 1880’s to the 1920’s.

What follows is an examination of the early development and organization of “Canada’s game” in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is not intended to be a comprehensive study of all aspects of ice hockey in the region, instead focusing primarily on NOTL. Hopefully my work can help point others in the direction of where more research is needed. Since hockey was developed in the shadow of the more refined sport of curling, it is necessary to first cover the Niagara Curling Club and trace how organized hockey in this region developed from the success of this club.

The Origin of Ice Hockey in Niagara

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town that has made the most of its proximity to water. Located on a peninsula of land where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, the town has always capitalized on the freshwater resource surrounding the town. Large-scale fishing, shipping and boatbuilding industries have all developed over the town’s long history. In the late 1800’s –much more than today- creeks, rivers and ponds veined the region, maintained with care as they were essential to the livelihood of the community. These water sources helped irrigate the land and provided drinking water. In the days before refrigeration, NOTL’s many icehouses were supplied with ice harvested from ponds that were often purposefully dug in order to supply them.

Sometimes, even the mighty Niagara River froze solid. In 1909, large cataracts of ice froze the entire width of the Niagara and the daring could cross on foot into United States territory below Fort Niagara at Youngstown, New York. These ice jams raised docks and buildings from their foundations and caused thousands of dollars in property damage along Niagara’s wharf.

It was on these many frozen surfaces that people gathered to enjoy a skate, to curl, or to play ‘shinny’, an informal game that would closely resemble a children’s game of “mini-sticks” today. Shinny players wielded short branches as sticks, leaning over as they chased an improvised projectile, just as the mini stick contests begin now (often with a rolled up sock). But a child’s game of Mini sticks at least has a semblance of established rules. Shinny was not yet so encumbered by rules.

Shinny was played on Niagara’s many frozen ponds and creeks long before hockey began to be governed by a set of widely accepted regulations.
It may come as no surprise to the self-styled Town of Many Firsts that the Niagara Region might lay claim the first recorded instance of ice hockey being played on skates, according to the Society of International Hockey Research.

During the 1839 Rebellion, Captain Richard Levine, a British officer with the 43rd Monmouthshire Light Infantry was deployed to Niagara. Stopping with his battalion that winter at Chippewa he stopped to record in his journal,
“During the winter, the skating on the Chippewa Creek was excellent and added not a little to our amusement. Large parties contested games of hockey on ice, some forty or fifty being ranged on each side.”

Levigne continues his description and records a “corps of African skaters”, who had difficulty staying on their feet, attributing this to their race, ignorant of the much simpler explanation that skating is difficult for anybody, especially for the first time.

Though it may be difficult to ascertain what sort of rules applied to a hockey game in the 1830’s, Levigne’s journal demonstrates that the sport has been enjoyed in Niagara for hundreds of years. It is also likely that aboriginal people who populated the Niagara region before the arrival of Europeans enjoyed similar forms of winter recreation.

After the War of 1812, Niagara slowly entered an era of industrial development brought about by the creation of a harbor at the mouth of the river. The Niagara Harbour and Dock Company formed in 1831 and began reclaiming the marshland along the shoreline. They developed a booming industry, so much so that trains were built to accommodate the increasing ship traffic and to carry passengers and goods to Niagara Falls and beyond. The NH&D Co. was contending against the Welland Canal, which was completed a year before and provided access to Lake Erie by completely bypassing the Town of Niagara, as it was then still known. More challenges were to follow. In 1862 NOTL lost it’s political status as regional capital of Lincoln County to St. Catharines. This same year, The Niagara Harbour and Dock Company collapsed.

But the town managed to retain some of it’s clout as a major port on Lake Ontario, enjoying a degree of economic stability from the tender fruit growing industry which still benefits from Niagara’s prime agricultural land. Fishing also helped support NOTL’s economy, and the dock area remained a bustling port.

The reclaimed dock area, and the slip located at the foot of Ricardo Street would soon play a significant role in introducing winter recreation, and ice hockey to the local community.

In 1862, an enterprising ship captain Duncan Milloy moved to Niagara from Toronto. Milloy operated the steamship “Chief Justice Robinson” in Lake Ontario in 1853, and a year later commanded the Zimmerman, which burned in port at Niagara in 1863. After the Zimmerman burned, Milloy proposed a new ship design to Louis Shickluna that would be called “City of Toronto”, 221 feet long weighing 512 tons. The need for passenger carriers had slowed down, and Milloy’s ship was the only one that continued to make journeys from Niagara and Lewiston to Toronto from 1861 on.

The Formation of the Niagara Curling Club

Hockey in Niagara has its roots in Duncan Milloy’s decision to move to Niagara in 1862. Born in Oban, Argyllshire, Scotland, Milloy would have been well aware of his country’s favourite winter pastime. His Scottish heritage and his move to Niagara Dock area where he bought large parcels of land intersected for the benefit of Niagara‘s well-to-do residents in need of ways to pass the cold winter evenings. The slip became a somewhat reliable frozen surface on which to curl, and people were eager to join in the games.

In 1871, Duncan died at Oban House, now the Oban inn and his eldest son William took over the captaincy of The City of Toronto steamship.

In the 1880’s Niagara was experiencing the first wave of it’s tourism industry, which now –along with vineyards- is central to the town’s economy. The majestic Queen’s Royal Hotel (the hotel that lent it’s name to the present-day Queen’s Royal Park) once commanded the townscape and announced to passerby’s that Niagara-on-the-Lake was ideal for summer vacations. Graced with a natural coolness in the summer, people flocked to the Queen’s Royal and many other hotels for vacation and summer residence in Niagara.

The Queen’s Royal was well known for it’s sporting tournaments, which held world-class athletic events on its grounds. Lawn Bowling and Tennis championships brought in thousands of spectators, as did the Chautauqua grounds located to the west of town. But in the cold winter months there was much less recreation and a lot less activity in town, until The Milloy’s curling slip became so well patronized that it was determined to create Niagara’s first Curling Club.

The Niagara Curling Club held their first official meeting on December 5th, 1884 and promised to organize and govern the sport in an official way. Funds were raised through membership dues and would ensure the club had equipment and that the ice surface was maintained. This was a club for the wealthy and the military men that had seemed to control Niagara as far back as any could recall. American officers from Fort Niagara were invited to join free of charge as honorary members, while Niagarans had to cough up the $2.00 fee.

The 1884 roster of the curling club is “who’s who” of Niagara. It contained at least 10 who were or would become city councilors, clerks and reeves, the well known physician Dr. Anderson, steamship Captains the Milloy brothers, Reverend E. Stuart-Jones of St. Mark’s Church, future Mayor T.F. Best and John Carnochan, whose daughter Janet established the town’s Historical Society & the province’s first Museum building to go along with it.

The General Brock Connection

The man who offered to be patron for the Curling Club was retired American Brigadier-General Henry Livingston Lansing. Lansing had served on a State senate committee that formed NY state regiments during the Civil War, and was Brigadier General of the 31st NY Buffalo Militia. In 1863, Lansing provided men to suppress the draft riots in New York City, assisting General John E. Wool in restoring order to the city.

Henry Livingston Lansing

This was the same John Wool who had –fifty years earlier- led a group of American soldiers up a hidden fisherman’s path during The Battle of Queenston Heights. Wool and his men outflanked the British, capturing the redan battery and killing General Brock when he attempted a counterattack to retake it.

How ironic it must have been, if it was known by the other curling club members, the patron of their curling club once served with the man responsible for the death of Niagara’s most significant war hero. Brock’s towering monument at Queenston had already been constructed (twice) by the time Lansing served as patron to the club, and Brock’s status as a Canadian hero –even if he was from Guernsey- was cemented in Queenston limestone not far from the place he fell on that fateful day in 1812.

The Old Tannery Rink

On a cold December day in 1884, due-paying members of the Niagara Curling Club gathered inside the Court House that now serves as the town’s Chamber of Commerce and Shaw Festival Theatre. Foremost on the agenda was the need to secure a permanent sheet of ice on which to curl. The club proposed that they approach the Milloy brothers, who had inherited the docklands around the slip when their father died, to make use of the building known as the “Car Factory” at the dock. There was also a tannery and basket factory in this area, and so the rink is sometimes referred to by these names.

While there was no organized hockey being played at the Old Tannery Rink, it is plausible that shinny was. The surface was open for skating evenings, and where there is ice, hockey players find a way to congregate.
When Joseph Masters, a lifelong resident and NOTL city counciller prepared a piece about the history of Niagara’s Dock Area (presumably in the 1950’s), Mrs. Creen of the Historical Society requested more information about the use of the old Curling Club rink. Asking if it was used for hockey, Masters responded in his own handwriting on top of her typewritten questions, “probably shinny, our Margaret used to come home with bruised shins from the square shaped puck”.

On January 24th, 1885 The Milloys granted the request, refusing to accept any rent from the club for use of their facility next to the slip. Their one condition was that the rink also be used for public skating evenings, the 10 cent admission going towards insurance and maintenance of the facility. Just six days later, the first skating carnival was held and was followed by three more in February bringing in a sum of $45.25 for the club.

By February 2nd 1885, the Curling club was meeting in their office at the Milloy Rink. It was the first indoor rink in Niagara-on-the-Lake if not the entire region, and it was a large, two-story structure housed in the old car factory building that was located next to next to the tender fruit basket factory on Ricardo Street. This building also appears to have been a Tannery, and a basket factory for packaging the region’s fruit products.

One of the first official matches of the club at the new rink took place against the team from St. Catharines in February. On March 4th, the St. Catharines Standard ran a story about the match, complaining that the ice inside the “old tannery” was covered with coal oil, as water for the rink had been transported from the river to the rink inside coal barrels. This posed a serious problem for the St. Catharines team, whose flinty granite curling stones did not slide nearly as well as Niagara’s “Poron” stones.

In spite of St. Kitt’s complaints of a substandard facility, the rink served the club admirably for a number of years. A regular maintenance person named Kent was hired to look after the rink for only $7.00 a month. His offer, being half the amount requested by Mr. J. Abbott ensured that he was given the job. Maintaining the building took regular work, and the club looked into improving the facility with funds from the treasury.

The Curling Club looked into improvements to the rink, such as a large capacity water tank to be placed on the second floor. In October of 1885, the Club made their first proposal to William Milloy that they would shingle the roof if he would allow them to retain use of the building for two more seasons. According to Mr. Milloy, the cost of shingling the roof, extending and excavating the interior, whitewashing, glazing the floor and installing a water tank would cost $225.00. The committee debated this figure considerably at the next meeting on November 12th because there was a concern that Milloy might sell some of his estate at the Dock area and that the club would be out of pocket for the improvements.

Attempting compromise, the club was in favour of shingling one side of the roof and patching the other side, and if the building happened to be sold within the next two seasons, then the club would be paid a $100.00 rebate.
The circumstances perhaps becoming too complicated, Col. Thompson proposed that the club not entertain the Milloy’s offer. Mr. McDougal seconded the decision, and there seems to have been a growing consensus that building a new rink altogether was the right move.

Several years later (1892) Thomas P. Blain, a wealthy merchant wrote to Niagara Mayor Henry Paffard. He was eager to get rid of the old tannery building as back rent was owed to him from the curling club. It is revealed in the letter that the club had not paid rent for 4 years (since 1888).

Constructing a new rink would require a considerable financial commitment, one that was somewhat available considering the club’s well-to-do membership. Moreover, the new facility could accommodate other winter activities like ice skating, and it could be used or rented out in the summer months for a variety of purposes, like a pound for stray livestock – which was a serious problem in Niagara-on-the-Lake of the late 1800’s.

To raise funds for the rink, Thompson, McDougall, Best and Carnochan formed a committee to create a joint stock company “comprised of as many shares and at such a price as shall build and complete a building suitable for a skating and curling rink, and which building shall be eligible for any other purpose, during the summer months, but which shall be offered to the Niagara curling Club as a Curling Rink to be used in such a manner as it sees fit.”

This company was confirmed at the next meeting on November 14, and reported that the club had been offered the use of two curling rinks in a building that the company intended to erect at a rental of $50.00 per curling season (November 15th to April 15th, 1886). The club approved the decision of the company to construct a building and rent it out for the winter months for curling at the stated price.

It was then moved by Dr. Anderson that the club make further enquiry into the three possible locations for the rink: The Town plot, Spring Hill (near the engine house, located on Spring Street, which was renamed Ricardo) and the Queen’s Royal grounds. Dr. Anderson also requested that they start obtaining shareholders for the required amount for erection of rink, and to make all necessary arrangements to proceed with the work immediately after the first meeting of stockholders.

The Club was alarmingly vague in their descriptions of the proposed sites: Which ‘town plot’ under consideration was not specified, Spring Hill is a slope of land at the end of a street that has been renamed, and The Queen’s Royal Grounds was then home to a hotel of the same name that was later demolished. It is no wonder that tracing the locations of where winter sports were played in NOTL is so difficult to pinpoint. In reality, it seems possible that all of these sites were used in some way for different winter games.

Imported to Niagara from the Milloys of Oban Scotland, Curling was an assertion of Scottish heritage. Lacking only in bagpipes, kilts and cabers, the Curling Club held their annual meeting on St. Andrew’s Day –a Scottish national holiday- and their largely Scottish membership elected club offices for the following year. Reverend E. Stewart-Jones of St. Mark’s was elected president, with Mr. McDougall as vice President.

The usual business was conducted and other members were elected. For the 1886 year, the president was Reverend E. Stewart-Jones of St. Mark’s Church; Vice President, Mr D. B. Macdougall; Secretary-treasurer: Mr. R. Wilkinson; Committee of Management, Col. Thompson, Capt Milloy and J. Carnochan. Aside from the election of officers, there was no mention of the rink construction or raising of funds. This unfortunate omission in the minute book makes it harder to pinpoint where the club’s next meeting was held. The minute book simply states that the second meeting occurred “In the office of the Curling and Skating Co’s New Rink”, on February 2nd at 2:30PM.

One month later, (March 4th, 1886) the Niagara Herald reported, “We understand a syndacite is formed for the purpose of erecting a large rink on the cor. Of King and Johnson St’s.”, wishing success to the enterprise, the syndicate was successful in their endeavor, renting out land from the town on the “pound yard” (Lot No. 105). This was where stray animals were placed if they had been found running loose. Their owners could reclaim the lost chattel for a fee. This piece of land is also where fall fairs were held since it was a wide open area.

The rink that was built here was called the “Ice Palace” and it was Niagara’s first four-plex arena. It had removable barricades that accommodated curling as well as hockey. Curling was the priority, having been the favourite sport of mayors and councillors and other prominent citizens.

The Formation of the Southern Ontario Hockey Association (SOHA)

James Street, Hamilton ca. 1890. The St. Nicholas Hotel is the white building on the right.

The newspaper called it “a most enthusiastic meeting”. It was Saturday night in Hamilton after all, and delegates from three Ontario towns; Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Paris gathered inside the St. Nicholas Hotel on James Street. It was December 17th, 1894 and the representatives assembled to discuss the formation of a hockey league with the host city.

The formation of this league, as mentioned, had its origins in the Ontario Hockey Association. St. Catharines had been participating in the OHA the year before, and was forced to play its games in Hamilton, as the OHA rule declared that all games were to be played under a covered rink. This may have caused St. Catharines, its longtime rival Niagara Falls, Paris and Hamilton to start their own league.

With the election of the officers and committee, The Southern Ontario Hockey Association formed. The league’s inaugural season began under the leadership of Hamilton’s William Wyndham, who was elected league president.

On February 15th, 1897, The SOHA’s Executive Committee met at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Hamilton. They decided to disqualify three players (Notman, Hodgetts and Vanzandt) of the St. Catharines Y.M.C.A club “for having played with the St. Catharines Junior Owls in a championship game against the Niagara Juniors.”

This left the Niagara seniors champions of the southern disctrict and the Niagara’s and Niagara Falls juniors rioted for the championship of the Niagara district.

The Hamilton Victoria’s Junior team protested against Paris’ “Shorty” Munro, claiming that he was a senior yet he played with the juniors. As a result, Hamilton was awarded a victory, leaving Hamilton and Paris tied for the championship of the district.

If St. Catharines failed to provide a satisfactory explanation to why

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