Golden Country: The Ashcroft Public Building part 2

Golden Country: The Ashcroft Public Building part 2

It took two major events — a war and a fire — to finally prompt the Dominion Government to act.

In July 1914, Ashcroftonians got the news they had been longing to hear: the Dominion Government was finally going to begin construction of a Public Building that had been promised since 1912, and which would house the post office, telegraph office, customs office, and telephone exchange. In the July 25, 1914 issue of The Journal, editor R.D. Cumming reported that the plans and specifications for the building were on display at the post office.

It was to be a two-storey building with a basement, fitted with steam heating, measuring approximately 40 feet by 100 feet, which would “practically cover the lot”. The post office entrance was to be on Fourth Street, while the telegraph and customs offices would be entered from Brink Street, with the customs office occupying the second floor. As the telephone exchange was not open to the public, it did not have a separate entrance.

Cumming lauded the proposed site, which would, in his view, “eliminate the ‘front-street-for-business-or-nothing’ idea which has been one of the great stumbling blocks in the way of progress and development in this town. The rudiments of a business section for Fourth Street will be established. The lots across from the new building will be eligible for offices of all kinds… . All property in the environs of this new building should be valuable as possible business sites; and this will relieve the front street congestion which has obtained ever since Ashcroft made any pretence of importance.”

Cumming noted that tenders for the construction of the building were due in Ottawa by August 4, 1914, which he felt was not long enough, and added that the building would be a brick and stone structure, not a frame one. Brick and stone buildings were not then (and are not now) common in the region, and in Cumming’s view this choice of material would “render impossible the tendering of any of our local contractors and will necessitate the importing of practically all the labour”. The successful contractor would have 14 months in which to complete the building, “so that at least one year and a half must pass before we will be able to enjoy the pleasures of the accommodation”.

However, the best-laid plans oft go astray, often for reasons beyond anyone’s control. In the August 8, 1914 issue of The Journal there were reports about the opening salvos in what would first be known as The Great War, and then World War I; and Ottawa found itself needing all available resources for the war effort. The Public Building in Ashcroft would have to wait.

Even then, however, the situation might not have looked too bad, for in the early days of the conflict it was widely believed (among the Allied nations, at least) that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. However, that was not the case; in July 1916 the war was still raging, with no end in sight.

Ashcroftonians seem to have understood the reason for the delay in the construction of the public building, and taken it in stride; there are no reports in The Journal of impatience or an outcry. Presumably the residents were just waiting for the war to be over, at which time construction would start.

Once again, however, an unforeseen event played a part in the building’s history. On the evening of July 6, 1914, a fire started in the Ashcroft Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the site that had been chosen for the Public Building. (It is worth noting, not without sadness, that the Elephant Hill wildfire of 2017 also started on July 6). The 1914 fire—like its 2017 counterpart—was fanned by strong winds from the south, and within hours almost the entire business district of Ashcroft had been destroyed, including the post office and telegraph office (the locations of the customs office and the telephone exchange at that time have not been ascertained; either or both might have survived or been destroyed).

The same issue of The Journal that reported on the fire—July 8, 1914—contained a story headlined “May Get Public Building”. The Hon. Martin Burrell, member for Yale-Cariboo, had been sent a wire (telegram) regarding the fire, and he replied with a wire of his own, which was forwarded to Ashcroft postmaster J. Richards, with a request that he “ask editor of Journal to express, through his paper, Mr. Burrell’s regrets at the serious loss to the people of Ashcroft.”

Burrell’s telegram read “Your wire, greatly regret misfortune to Ashcroft. Will submit your wire to Minister of Public Works immediately.” Cumming was then able to add that a “Mr. Phelan” had received a wire “this morning” from the Deputy Minister of Public Works, stating that “construction on Ashcroft Public Building would begin at once”.

(Let us pause here for a moment and consider how quickly all of this happened. The fire broke out at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 6. The paper reporting that all these wires had been sent back and forth, and a decision made to proceed with construction of the Public Building, came out on Saturday, July 8, less than 48 hours after the fire. Did I say, in the first part of this series, that government is not the fastest-moving entity on the face of the planet? I take it back.)

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, many businesses began reconstruction almost at once; but knowing that a Public Building was imminent, the affected government offices would presumably have found what space they could in surviving buildings, and carried on as best as they were able. It is also not known if the original (1914) plans for the building were hauled out of storage, or if new ones were drawn up (either Cumming misread the 40 by 100 feet dimensions, or the plan was changed, since the building as it exists does fill most of the lot, but is not 40 by 100 feet).

To be continued