MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 3 - The Courthouse

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Nestor Prisco - historian, researcher and former Sheriff of Nipissing. Prisco details the 1895 election and how it led to North Bay being chosen as the 'County Town' over other nearby towns which is the basis of the story of how North Bay's first courthouse came to be. Handley and Prisco go on to discuss how the City quickly outgrew the aforementioned courthouse and Prisco shares a rare story about the well-known champion who ensured that a new courthouse would come to fruition in North Bay.

MHC Heritage Diary – Episode 3: Courthouse

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day. Welcome to ‘Heritage Diary.’ Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee Podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. This time we open the diary of our shared past and take a look at the infamous old courthouse and of course the new courthouse. The Heritage Site Plaque for the old courthouse was installed in 2010 and was one of the first five put in. It was built in 1888; just six years after the first settlers arrived here and was demolished in 1990.

Our guest is Nester Prisco – historian, researcher, former Sheriff of Nipissing for something like thirty years. Now, 1888, that's awfully soon to build a courthouse isn't?

Nester Prisco:
It is. When they first started the court trials were held in the log school house which was the community center.

Peter Handley:
Okay all right.

Nester Prisco:
That was located at the corner of Main and Cassells street. They built a log schoolhouse from the trees around the property actually. They were there for a while. Around 1886, they had a court room and a small detention room that held about ten people at the corner of Main and Wyld - just about where the Melrose Theater was, if people remember where that was.

Peter Handley:
I remember the Melrose Joke Shop?
.
Nester Prisco:
Yes, that's where it was
.
Peter Handley:
That was right next to the Odeon Theatre wasn’t it?

Nester Prisco:
Exactly! So, that was unsatisfactory and Thomas Murray, who was the member of the Ontario legislature for Renfrew North, had jurisdiction over any surveyed township in Nipissing because anyone that lived in a surveyed township in Nipissing could vote in Renfrew North. Thomas Murray, I remember, spoke to all over moment who was there here Kay and said Let's build a courthouse in North Bay.

Peter Handley:
And he got his way?

Nester Prisco:
And he got his way. He actually got more than his way because it was his land too.

Peter Handley:
It was a unique building for the time and wasn't? I mean I've got a description here of that our architect compiled. I’ll just read it off the plaque: the courthouse was a two story brick building classically ordered with segmented arched windows on the main floor and larger semicircular windows on the upper floor. It was entered through a central tower on the front facade which was designated by a missionary arched entrance a larger semicircular window and an open government supported by brick pilasters. The brick pilasters continued in regular segments from the building, capped with decorative wooden braces supporting the hip roof eaves. So was a sort of a fancy building?

Nester Prisco:
It was.

Peter Handley:
Our plaque has some nice art depictions of it. That's a beautiful window front!

Nester Prisco:
Yes, it was the first brick building in North Bay.

Peter Handley:
Was it? That I didn't know.

Nester Prisco:
And it was described, in its time, as a pretentious building.

Peter Handley:
We have one of the bricks here because when the courthouse was eventually destroyed, the North Bay Museum grabbed some of the bricks and sold them for ten bucks piece as a fundraiser. This brick is labelled ‘T&WM’ whatever that means. I have no idea but that's one of the original bricks from the courthouse.

Nester Prisco:
Now that’s sort of a historic doorstop.

Peter Handley:
Okay, so you worked in that building?

Nester Prisco:
I did.

Peter Handley:
For about 15 years?

Nester Prisco:
For the last fifteen years.

Peter Handley:
So from about 1970 on then?

Nester Prisco:
Exactly yes.

Peter Handley:
When did it become too small for North?

Nester Prisco:
1915.

Peter Handley:
That soon? Oh boy!

Nester Prisco:
Yeah.

Peter Handley:
And it took a good what? 70 years almost to get a new courthouse?

Nester Prisco:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
How many juries would you think over the years recommended a new courthouse?

Nester Prisco:
I would say every Grand Jury. The grand jury was a group of thirteen people – they were always made up of men at that time up until the fifties. The Grand Jury had a couple of responsibilities; one was to determine whether there was enough evidence for a matter to proceed to trial and the second thing that the Grand Jury had to do was to visit the jail. They had to visit the jail and, after that, any other public building was open to them to inspect.

What happened is that they would traditionally visit the jail which at that time was right in the courthouse and then as they walk through the courthouse they would be encouraged by whoever was leading the tour to not forget about saying something about the courthouse and that went on even in my time. We used to we used to tell people “no this building is too old, it's dysfunctional and we need a new courthouse.” Overall, every Grand Jury had something to say - some more vociferous than others but yes it was what it was.

Peter Handley:
So it happened all the time? I know I was one on one of those grand juries and I remember being very emphatic about that and we thought we'd maybe make something happen… Anyway, what was wrong with the building as it as it developed?

Nester Prisco:
It was too small – that was the main deficiency because it was the District Courthouse. Now, as you well know it was the District of Nipissing at the time that that building was built and it became the District Courthouse in 1895 and we can get into that later. But the Courthouse served the area that included Sudbury, Sturgeon Falls, Mattawa and east of Mattawa all the way up to the Albany River. It was huge, so the main deficiency is that there was only one courtroom and that deficiency became more important as time went on.

Peter Handley:
And the building deteriorated too?

Nester Prisco:
Yes it did.

Peter Handley:
You mention this 1895 election when Nipissing became…

Nester Prisco:
A Judicial District.

Peter Handley:
Could you tell us the story about the election because if it had gone the other way who would it have been? Sturgeon Falls or Mattawa?

Nester Prisco:
You're right. There was a campaign that was actually started in Mattawa in about 1891 to have Nipissing designated as a Judicial District. John Logran from Mattawa was the Member of the Legislature at that time and course his jurisdiction was pretty wide including Sudbury and, as I mentioned, Sturgeon Falls. So he decided that the best way to avoid ruffling feathers was to have a referendum. So they had a referendum. The first referendum was on March 15 and this was to decide who would be sort of the Capital of the District. It was referred to as the County Town because everybody here used to live in a county so they didn't really use that nomenclature District Town - many did but most people in ordinary conversation referred to it as the County Town. That was important because you would become, as you say, the capital. They had an election in March of 1895 and there were three contestants: sturgeon falls Mattawa and North Bay. There were significant irregularities in that election, so the government appointed a commissioner to hold an inquiry.

Peter Handley:
What sort of irregularities would there have been? Each town would have voted for themselves?

Nester Prisco:
In the main, however, if you look closely you’ll see that there were a number of people from Sturgeon Falls that voted for Mattawa, there were also people from North Bay that voted for Mattawa and people from Kiosk, east of Mattawa, who were voting for North Bay. Sudbury was pretty well for North Bay because J.A. Orr, who was the publisher of the Sudbury Journal was supporting North Bay. That election was set aside and there was an enquiry. They decided to have a second election in July and in that election there was only Mattawa and North Bay as Sturgeon Falls had pulled out. This turned out to be a highly contested election. Usually, citizens of the respective towns were friendly and did business with each other, but during this election every person was pulling for their hometown.

Peter Handley:
You mention irregularities. We all know the stories of political irregularities from the time, even as recently as Merle Dickerson. The names from the cemetary, the odd dollar, the odd brew… was it that sort of thing?

Nester Prisco:
Yes. People from the grave were voting. That was the first problem. The second problem was that people who owned property who had moved out and were no longer around were on the voters list. That really showed up in Widdifield Township. Widdifield Township voted in North Bay as there were only three polling stations: one in the Murray ward, one in the Ferguson ward and one in the east end. A lot of people who lived in North Bay owned property in the periphery around Trout Lake and unauthorized people were voting for those property owners. The interesting thing about that was that the Poll Clerk for Widdifield Township was the Assessment Officer who had visited all these people and knew who they really were.

Peter Handley:
So North Bay eventually won that election.

Nester Prisco:
They won by five votes. Originally, they had won by eight votes, but then there was a recount and they won by five.

Peter Handley:
That close? Oh boy!

Nester Prisco:
Now, you ask what the importance of this election was to North Bay. First of all, Mattawa would have gotten the District Courthouse, District Jail, Registry Office and any other advantages that accrue to the so-called capital of the district.

Peter Handley:
That over the years has been important right?

Nester Prisco:
Absolutely, we’ve had a lot of benefits from the government. There is no doubt about it. The other thing that struck me was that there was a competition of sorts to determine where the start of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway was going to be in 1902. A railway was incorporated called the Mattawa-Haliburton Railway that was supposed to come up through that area right up to Mattawa. If that had happened, who knows if the railway to Temiskaming would have just followed the CPR line or what they call the Mogasin line over to Kipawa and then up north. People from Ottawa were really pishing for that. Especially a man named Lumsdon who owned the boats up there at Lake Temiskaming.

Peter Handley:
So we could have been bypassed?

Nester Prisco:
We could have been.

Peter Handley:
The rivalry you’re speaking about between the towns reminds me of the hockey rivalry between North Bay and Mattawa that Mike Rodden had told me about. There was also rivalry over a game called Hookstag and it was vicious.

Nester Prisco:
It started over lacrosse. They had big lacrosse games in both communities and Pembroke and Barrie. North Bay and Mattawa had very good teams.

Peter Handley:
Okay, we got our courthouse, but why did it take seventy years?

Nester Prisco:
The reason is partly political. A project like that requires a champion and that champion didn’t come along until Mike Harris.

Peter Handley:
I was going to ask you if it had anything to do with him because it happened during his first term as premier right?

Nester Prisco:
No, he was just a member of the legislature. He came in in 1995, so it happened just before that. I’ll just tell you a quick story. When Mike was first elected in 1980, shortly after, people around him said that it would be beneficial for him to do something that would show and that would benefit North Bay. So, Harris went to see Bill Davis and said that North Bay needed a new courthouse. Bill Davis said that if he could find the money in other people’s budgets then it was a go. So, Mike Harris phoned me at the courthouse and we met in the parking lot, he didn’t come into the courthouse. He told me that story and that North Bay was going to get a new courthouse but not to tell anyone. I never mentioned a word to anyone and when a couple years had passed I assumed that nothing would ever happen. Then, there was an announcement that Bill Davis was coming to North Bay to make an announcement. He announced it in the dining room of the Empire Hotel in front of a huge crowd that North Bay was going to get a courthouse. We have a courthouse because of Mike Harris.

Peter Handley:
That’s great, I didn’t know that story. Just as an aside, what were your duties as a Sheriff?

Nester Prisco:
I was appointed as Sheriff, but I was also the Local Register of the Supreme Court, the Taxing Officer and the manager. I had about eight jobs. I became the manager of the District of Nipissing and the District of Parry Sound and when I retired, I had about 75 employees. Some of those are part time, but the majority were full time. I oversaw the Sheriff’s responsibilities; but there were those actually doing the work like enforcement, seizures, and landlord & tenant evictions. I never did those things and I never served documents except in the very beginning. In the early days, when a document came in for someone who I respected, I didn’t want that person to be embarrassed by a process server coming in, so I would go and discretely serve that person.

Peter Handley:
Could you do that today?

Nester Prisco:
I could, but I probably wouldn’t. That kind of thing fell by the wayside.

Peter Handley:
So, when the new courthouse was built in 1989, were you happy with it?

Nester Prisco:
Yes, we were looking forward to it. I was the Chairman of the User’s Committee and we had periodic meetings with the Bar, Crown Attorney, Provincial Court people and Family Court people. We were all looking forward to it.

Peter Handley:
And how many courtrooms are in it?

Nester Prisco:
There are 6 or 8 depending.

Peter Handley:
That’s quite a change.

Nester Prisco:
A big change. We specificially put the First Appearance Courtroom, the big one used for provincial offenses right by the door so that we wouldn’t have to take hundreds of people up and down in the elevator. So, the big activity courtroom is Courtroom 101 on the main floor.

Peter Handley:
When they were planning this new courthouse, did they consult staff for suggestions, such as putting the big activity court room on the main floor?

Nester Prisco:
That was my idea, and yes everyone had input. In fact, the reason that I was made Chairman of the User’s Committee was because the original Chairperson was from Toronto, and for about a year and a half wasn’t communicating with the Bar or anyone. There were a lot of complaints from people. George Wallace, who was head of the Bar at the time had some clout and also had some great ideas, so they thought that there must be somebody local to replace this person.

Peter Handley:
So, we get a new courthouse, now what do we do with the old building?

Nester Prisco:
The original plan was to connect it to the new courthouse and make it a library. That was the original plan of the Government Architect as a sop to the local individuals who wanted to retain this structure. There was a big meeting in the old courthouse. The lawyers, players, government architects from Toronto, public works employees were all there. Nipissing Law Association didn’t want this – they wanted the new building. So, the government architects proposed their library idea and George Wallace asked whether the public would be allowed into the library. The architects said that the public would not be allowed in and George Wallace asked what the point of keeping the building was if the public wasn’t going to be allowed inside. At that point, the conversation turned and the library idea was scrapped. The law library was now going to be put into the new building and the old building was going to be demolished.

Peter Handley:
It’s a shame that we lost that building, but it was one of so many old buildings in the city.

Nester Prisco:
I feel badly about that too, but what do you do with it? The cost of upkeep and restoration was high. As you know, they tore it down, but they couldn’t tear it down before getting rid of all the asbestos.

Peter Handley:
So the new building served its purpose and still serves its purpose?

Nester Prisco:
It does. It’s a good building and we should be proud of it. It has lots of room, facilities, courtrooms and a jail downstairs. It has a large cell that can hold ten or fifteen and individual cells. It also has a women’s section. In fact, if anything was to go wrong at the current jail, everyone would be moved to the courthouse – that’s the backup plan.

Peter Handley:
The old courthouse had jail cells too, didn’t it?

Nester Prisco:
The main floor of the old courthouse had 18 jail cells. The second floor was the auditorium/courtroom. This room held dances, community hall, public meetings, election meetings – it was the place to go.

Peter Handley:
It sounds strange that the courthouse was the place to go but back then there wouldn’t have been that many places for groups of folks to meet.

Nester Prisco:
You’re absolutely correct. Not only that, the first council meeting was held there on January 21, 1981 and subsequent meetings were held there.

Peter Handley:
You’re a fount of knowledge sir. You’ve made a study of this haven’t you?

Nester Prisco:
It comes from having an interest. I used to see all these documents at work and I knew there was a lot of history in there.

Peter Handley:
We thank Nester Prisco, historian, researcher, former Sheriff of Nipissing. We’ve been talking about the old courthouse and Heritage Site Plaque that was erected in 2010.

We thank you for spending some time with us today. Our productions are put together not only to retell old tales but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community and we shouldn’t let it go unremarked or unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at peter.carello@cityofnorthbay.ca

Pete Handley speaking.