MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 8 - Golf Street Crossing & George W. Lee

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Bill Church about the conception of the LACAC (now known as the MHC as well as the evolution of the Pinewood area. Handley and Church discuss the demolition of the houses around Ecole Secondaire Catholique Algonquin and the construction of the football field, parking lot and building addition. Handley and Church recall the Golf Street Crossing and how North Bay's infrastructure has evolved. Church also discusses growing up with his grandfather George W. Lee and Lee's contribution to North Bay. 

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day! Welcome to North Bay's 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 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 Golf Street Crossing, the Toronto Highway, Lee Park and George W. Lee - the subjects of the Municipal Heritage Committee’s 2019 Heritage Site Plaque. We have with us North Bay native and former teacher Bill Church. Bill is one of the reasons a Municipal Heritage Committee exists.I'm now pulling out here: “Received by the City of North Bay, August 1994” - it's a package prepared by City staff and it is a letter “Attention: Councillor Jack Smiley Chairman of the Planning and Development Committee” its signed “A. Bill Church.” Do you remember that letter?

Bill Church:
I certainly do.

Peter Handley:
Jane Street.

Bill Church:
Right across the street from my house.

Peter Handley:
What's the story?

Bill Church:
Well the school board. Public and the separate they bought and I guess you would call blockbusted. They took down two major homes that were further up in the block and they use it for parking and turning around and I think their intention was to take the rest of the houses down and some of them were quite significant houses they had already taken near the school side to down earlier in the 50s and what remained were quite nice.

Peter Handley:
I actually drove down there not too long ago and there's only one house left.

Bill Church:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
And that was the house of the lady who originally made the complaint which was a couple years before 1994.

Bill Church:
That's right.

Peter Handley:
And it was ignored by the City and then you folks got it and started a petition and came to council. The end of it and the result of it was the creation of the LACAC which is now the Municipal Heritage Committee. So you had a hand in that with your letter of 1994.

Bill Church:
Well we were concerned about, well really we knew that eventually the houses there would have to go, but we were concerned as to how they would fix it up or whether it would be just an ordinary parking lot. They’ve done a fabulous job though. They actually changed it once In between the time but it's it couldn't be nicer with gorgeous trees there. And they came right on board as a result I think of our protest.

Peter Handley:
Yeah. First they created a small playing field in there.

Bill Church:
Yes and now they've got this wonderful field that’s sat back and a parking lot, but there's barriers between that and the street they put curbing and wonderful pavement and we're just really thrilled with way turned out.

Peter Handley:
Can you - you're born here and grew up here? The city has changed a lot in the sixty-seventy odd years right?

Bill Church:
It has.

Peter Handley:
What's the biggest change that you can think of.

Bill Church:
Well the answer comes to my mind is the way kids are today. I may be branching off on this too early, but children of our era we would you know come home from school, report home and then go out and play. And there was some organized sports but not as many as there are today.

Peter Handley:
Was there a playground in your neighbourhood?

Bill Church:
There certainly was - Bourke Street playground at the end of the street.

Peter Handley:
Yeah.

Bill Church:
Yeah I lived on Bourke Street and the fathers they built that playground. Not themselves though, they raised money and neighbors and it's now part of the football field for Ecole Algonquin and there are houses on Durrill Street now. It was a wonderful place! It had two supervisors every summer and we'd go down there for crafts and play activities. An interesting part was that the swings were all tied up on Sunday.

Peter Handley:
Really?

Bill Church:
They were. And they would be tied up at night to once the supervisors went home there. But there was no Sundays although they couldn’t tie up the merry-go-round or teeter totter but that this is right and we had a great time. We spent a lot of the summer there.

Peter Handley:
What do you remember, Bill, about Main Street? Did you venture as far as Main Street.

Bill Church:
Well, yeah with my mother. My dad was a traveler so he was away all week. She was downtown two or three times a week over at the library and downtown lots. I can I can remember almost all the stores not just as a young kid but as a teenager too. You wanted to be down there. That’s where all the menswear stores where I used to sort of say to myself, “gee, I hope I don’t see anything I really like tonight” when I was a teenager because they had so many great stores.

Peter Handley:
Yes yes.

Bill Church:
Kizzel’s, McCubbins’ Adams’, Rosenberg’s. These were all men’s stores. and stores now.

Peter Handley:
What do you think about Main Street now?

Bill Church:
Main Street, now. I still love going down. And I try to support it and. I think the type of store down there is good and I think we have a lot maybe too many government organizations downtown – obviously, they have to be somewhere but not all downtown.

Peter Handley:
Do you remember any movies you went to or anything like that?

Bill Church:
Yeah well that's the something is really changed - Saturday afternoon at the movies. The Capitol Theatre and The Odeon and The Bay were full. Especially the Capitol because they had a movie starting off. I remember my brother singing with four bodies a song and then they rated you and then most of the time there was a double bill. I didn't spend every Saturday there but we would go quite frequently.

Peter Handley:
How much was it? A quarter or less than a quarter?

Bill Church:
I think it was fifteen cents actually. You got these little passes and they said “10 cents for a drink.” But we were not encouraged to buy much food and to this day I still I love going to the movies but I never buy anything.

Peter Handley:
The Dionne's - now when you when you were young the phenomenon would have been in full swing right? Or was it?

Bill Church:
Well I was born in 1944 and they were 10 so I think they were starting to wane at that time. But certainly in the early forties in the late thirties everybody knows the story about them. I just remember. One of my earlier memories was when Emily died. It was huge. She died in Montreal in 1953 I think.

Peter Handley:
And then there were four.

Bill Church:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
Okay. Is there music that comes to your mind at all when you were growing up?

Bill Church:
Well I was a young rock and roll fan. My brother is five years older so Bill Haley & His Comets and their ‘Rock Around the Clock’. I remember going to my first grade nine dance and thinking that’s the greatest piece in the world.

Peter Handley:
And of course Elvis Presley came out.

Bill Church:
Yeah that's right. The famous show where they, in his second performance, they only cut him off at the waist.

Peter Handley:
Yes yes. Okay. Now part of what we're talking about today is the Golf Street Crossing that was at the end of basically Main and Oak joined and they crossed over the railroad tracks and it was called the Golf Street Crossing. I guess the city got upset and said, ‘why don’t you just call it Memorial Drive? Forget about Golf Street.’ But anyways, it was called Golf Street and that's where the traffic was held up because of two sets of tracks.

Bill Church:
It certainly was. I mean they took their time but they had their job to do and the railways were pretty keen even in the late fifties and early sixties.

Peter Handley:
And they were sending back and forth and the driverd got tied up. I've got a picture taken very in the early sixties. Or in the sixties just before they opened the overpass. And there's a traffic tie up at the railway tracks and there's a building in between for signaling and all that sort of stuff it's an amazing picture and it's going to be it's on the plaque.

Bill Church:
It certainly is. My, it brings back memories.

Peter Handley:
Down here in the corner will get to this later as you can see that little triangle in the corner that's the George W. Lee cairn and it's still there today in exactly the same place.

Bill Church:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
Did your parents have a car?

Bill Church:
Yes. My dad being commercial traveler I guess we had to. When I was young we always went for Sunday drives to the cemetery where my uncle was who had died early in his life and took my grandparents up to the airport I remember seeing all the houses they were building up there as a young boy at six or seven years old and they built the school that I eventually taught at – Paul deVous.

Peter Handley:
Where you do you ever remember getting caught up in the Golf Street business?

Bill Church:
Well living in North Bay, it would only be when you go down and there wasn't any real reason other than maybe in the summertime we all went down to Champlain Park to swim because there was no swimming right in North Bay proper.

Peter Handley:
There wasn't?

Bill Church:
Well there was no beach and the and the sewage until the sewage plant there was raw sewage so you didnt want to swim too close. Amelia Park you wouldn’t swim at for sure at least I don’t think so.

Peter Handley:
You're right because and even up until relatively recent times if you had a heavy rain storm, there would be runoff and there would be some unlikely material washing up.

Bill Church:
We’d swim at, we’d go down originally our parents would take us down but
I remember being about twelve and hopping on the bus and going to Champlain Park. In those days they had a diving board in the Lavase River.

Peter Handley:
That's a long way for a kid to go isn’t it?

Bill Church:
But that's getting back to how things have changed. As long as you reported home and my parents didn’t have a laissez fare attitude, but that’s just how it was. You were old enough to go on the bus so off you go. They didn’t send us, we wanted to go. But as long as we let them know where we were. It was a lovely time to grow up. I call it the Norman Rockwell era just sort of a very easy life.

Peter Handley:
Yeah and some people treat that as a pejorative term, but I don't.

Bill Church:
I don't either.

Peter Handley:
They were too old for the day. Today. I don't know.

Bill Church:
Well you know when you look back the past looks a bit rosier than it was, but I think it was a wonderful time to grow up. I think being a retired teacher I think maybe some children today are too well planned. They have lots of opportunities, but you know just to have the whole day to yourself. You know, my dad would say “what are you going to do today? Are you going to the ski club? Going to the golf club? Going swimming?”

Peter Handley:
Now, let’s talk about Lee Park because the Golf Street Crossing was right beside basically beside what turned out to be Lee Park. Now you’re related to George W. Lee right?

Bill Church:
He's my grandfather.

Peter Handley:
On which side?

Bill Church:
On my mother.

Bill Church:
My dad's name is Hubert Church and my mother was Isabel Lee Church.

Peter Handley:
Okay what do you do you remember George W. Lee. Tell us something about him because you again you've been an instigator with this Committee you were on the Committee for a couple of terms and you set us up a massive piece of work in connection with George W. Lee and we've incorporated that into the 2019 Heritage Site Plaque. Tell us about George W. Lee from what you remember.

Bill Church:
Well, I was 10 when he died but growing up my mother would go down every day for having tea and it happened about 3:30 or 4:00 and I can even remember the special cookies that were there. At the Lee’s home at 750 Main West. It’s a large six bedroom house and it was great place to explore so when I got a little tired of listening to the adults talk I would go upstairs and investigate specially in the attic where they had two finished rooms.

Peter Handley:
He was a go getter wasn’t he?

Bill Church:
He was. Now, I just knew him in his senior days. When I was six years old he turned eighty.

Peter Handley:
When you're six and a gentleman is eighty it’s hard to relate isn’t it?

Bill Church:
Well yes and I think grandparents, they were wonderful to me and they gave lovely Christmas presents and birthday presents but they didn't play the part that grandparents today take part in. They’re very much more involved you know now I mean there were other grandchildren and he was eighty.

Peter Handley:
Now you did some research on George W. Lee. because of your relationship and and he came up basically from nothing.

Bill Church:
Was born Calibogie to a family of about six children. Very poor. The father, I don't think, was able to provide that well and I believe around the time he was eleven or twelve he had to quit school and he went and he was a water boy in lumber camps near Calibogie. He must have been a very clever man and he showed interest in books and financial books and so on. I had seen that book years ago and I gave it to somebody who had been at that camp and I never got it back but anyway. He left the lumber yard and lumber camps and went to Renfrew where he was hired by the CPR in the offices there.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Bill Church:
And when they opened up the railway to North Bay it already been here, but there was a lot of opportunity. He came with the CPR around 1901 and really was working with the CPR at a desk job and he was getting promoted and I believe in his first year or second, he transferred and left his job and went with the ONR.

Peter Handley:
Which would have been the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Line at the time.

Bill Church:
Yes. T&NO Rail.

Peter Handley:
And he wound up running the place?

Bill Church:
He went right to the top. He had different jobs and one of the jobs was a promoter and the whole job was to promote northern Ontario especially as the chairman of the board. But he had two roles in that he was the General Manager so he ran the ONR over here on Regina Street and he also brought up the head offices from Toronto in the early twenties. They were all down on Bay Street and he said “no railway should be run out of Toronto, it should be run in North Bay” and you may remember that large yellow brick building in the back, he put that on when they brought the headquarters so all the head the head men underneath him were here. He was acting General Manager and he was acting Chairman when Jack Englehart was sick which he took over in 1919. He was chairman of the board or as they call them, Chairman of the Commission. Now there's a chairman of the commission and there were two other members that were political ones. It was unique because he also ran the railway so he knew everybody on the rail and if you read up on him or I had over the years talked to some people they said “your grandfather knew everybody”. He just had that facility that he was able to do that. The section in the in the editorial when he died he said “he knew everybody from section men to the Governor General of Canada.

Peter Handley:
It was a provincially run railroad too, it wasn’t privately owned or anything right?

Bill Church:
Yes it was provincially run totally. It’s an interesting thing but when my mother was in her first year university and she was living in Toronto he said would you come over I'm going to show you something you're probably never going to see again and he wrote a cheque for one million dollars for the profits for the railway now doesn't seem like much today but it was a big thing in those days.

Peter Handley:
Now did your mother say what the cheque was for?

Bill Church:
It was the profits of the Ontario Northland Railway for the year and he's though that he’d probably never see this again. It was in the fall of 1929. Yeah the days when they made profits. They had made profits before too but they had no competition.

Peter Handley:
And he got involved with opening up parts of the north to rail traffic also?

Bill Church:
Well the rails used to only go as far as Cochrane and then two things: when they discovered gold in Rwanda, they were in Quebec, but they wanted to go into Ontario and get it. This is a really interesting story, the T&NO had a charter for a little dayliner that went from Cobalt to New Liskeard three or four times a day like a street car and it was a dominion charter but they couldn’t go in, they tried but weren’t allowed. Then they found this charter for the dayliner and used it with the government and my grandfather met with the Premier and showed them this charter and they had no choice but to let them come into Ontario and take all the gold out. I mean, they didn’t take the profits, but they built the railroad to Rouyn-Noranda in those days and so the Quebec government said “we’re not going to build a railroad to there, we already have one.” The second thing was that there was a great spirit of going to the ocean and that Ontario would have a portion on the ocean or Hudson’s Bay. So in the 20s during the good times, there was this notion of moving on. So, in 1923 there was a feasibility study about going from Cochrane to James Bay and we have the pictures of two war canoes and some natives, a lieutenant, a governor, members of the board and my grandfather. They left Cochrane on the water and weren’t heard from for two weeks until they got to Moose Factory which was of course already inhabited. They got there and phoned home to say they got there, but they went for two weeks down the river and of course, the watershed goes into James Bay.

Peter Handley:
And they wound up with the tracks going there.

Bill Church:
Well they finished it in 1932, the opening. Of course right in the middle of the depression.

Peter Handley:
Your grandfather was…

Bill Church:
Oh he was a great to talk to. He would play tons of games with you. He would play games like ‘guess the number of’ – well I couldn’t do it very well, but my brother was pretty good at it – looking at the serial numbers on things and seeing what they totaled. We spent time together, but not the time that grandfathers spend with kids today.

Peter Handley:
He was quite a sportsman too. Golf, curling – both sports that he really loved.

Bill Church:
Yes and he actually started the Northern Ontario Golf Association – the men’s, and the trophy was given through the T&NO. I believe it was retired in the early 70s. Of course they were the biggest employer in Northern Ontario. Then he also started the women’s – the Northern Ontario Women’s Golf Association and he gave the trophy and it was retired in the 80s. Brett Jessup helped me and we had a little ceremony and he was not pleased about the trophy being retired. Now, it’s changed every several years with the sponsor.

Peter Handley:
He was involved in curling as well?

Bill Church:
The Northern Ontario Men’s Curling – he set that up.

Peter Handley:
Was he an avid golfer or curler himself?

Bill Church:
Oh yeah, the story goes that he would always say “it’s Saturday afternoon (because they worked Saturday morning at the ONR) I’ll be home at 12:30, the car is going out to the golf club, whoever is in it is going to be playing golf. He was a charter member of the golf club and also a charter member of the Rotary Club.

Peter Handley:
Lee Park itself came about as a gift of land from the province to the ONR?

Bill Church:
This land was sitting there. It wasn’t used and you can see in this picture that the second tracks over are the ONR tracks. I was always under the impression and was taught that he was instrumental in making this happen with the ONR and he was able to get some financing from the T&NO to create the park and the City also contributed. We had no other parks in the City except for Memorial Park.

Peter Handley:
And they named it Lee Park. It was a huge swath of land.

Bill Church:
Huge. It did as it does today go onto the other side of the overpass as well.

Peter Handley:
Now you remember that park right? This is the early 1940s when they placed that cairn.

Bill Church:
Well it was created in 1926, but they didn’t do the cairn until 1942. I was reading the article and I always knew about the cairn, but for years there was nothing there. As you said it was the George Lee Park and Ferguson came up and opened it. Ferguson is not the North Bay Ferguson, but rather the Premier of Ontario.

Peter Handley:
Okay, tell me about the Victory Gardens.

Bill Church:
Well for those who don’t know, every city provided land that you could grow vegetables and help the cause. My father decided that he was getting one and my mother; she never gave it up and said “you remember your garden - the one that grew nothing?” He was over there every week or every other week. He was a good gardener, but he was out of town a lot. Actually, during the war years, he made a mistake. He sold his car in 1942 and he said, “I’m getting a fantastic deal so I’m going to get this new one.” They called a week later and said “we’ve switched to war production, there won’t be any cars.” So for four years, my dad had to hitchhike with friends or take the train as a traveler in Northern Ontario going up to Hearst, Timmins, Sudbury etc.

Peter Handley:
That’s an era when there were a lot of travelers in Northern Ontario working out of North Bay.

Bill Church:
It was the hub. ACT - they were the ones that gave the archway. He was a bit later though.

Peter Handley:
Okay so we have Victory Gardens in part of Lee Park during WWII.

Bill Church:
We just drove by it. It wasn’t a very active park, not like it is now. It was sort of outside the center of the city, but of course I was schooled in “there’s your grandfather’s park”.

Peter Handley:
The cairn was created in the early 1940s. It was renovated in the late 1990s and it is still there today, right around the corner from our Heritage Site Plaque. Now, you fell into teaching or is fell the right word?

Bill Church:
Well, I went to teacher’s college in 1963 and in those days you could go right from grade twelve and I never looked back. I struggled a little bit in high school, but I just loved teacher’s college and did very very well. I couldn’t decide whether I was going to go to Toronto or stay here. I ended up staying and teaching at Vincent Massey which is now the headquarters of the Near North School Board.

Peter Handley:
What did you teach?

Bill Church:
I taught Grade 5. I was mostly in the junior division – grades 4, 5 and 6. I spent a number of years in grade 4 and five and then down into three and I even had a year down in grade two. I taught everything except French and I had some assistance later on in music. But you taught social studies, science, reading, math, physical education – you did it all. I was very lucky and I got to go up to the air base and they had a school up there called DeVous School and I taught there for a few years. I had always wanted to be an overseas teacher with the Department of National Defense and I ended up having three different tours. I went to Holland in 1970 for four years and taught at an international school, then I came home for a couple years and then went to the Botan Body Air Base and taught there for three years and then came home. I was never figuring to go back. I kept putting my application in and they hired me and I went from 1987 to 1990 and I taught in Lard.

Peter Handley:
When did you buy your magnificent house?

Bill Church:
In 1980. I went by it for a year and a I saw a “For Sale” sign. I had delivered papers at that house.

Peter Handley:
Yeah, you grew up in there!

Bill Church:
Yeah, one street above. Many people think the house was my house but we had a much smaller house on Bourke Street. I was out campaigning for the federal election and we went back to Jane Morton’s place and the owners were selling their house and I ended up buying it about three months later.

Peter Handley:
And you’ve kept it up. It’s got a glass plaque and it’s a recognized building. It’s a marvelous home.

Bill Church:
It is. It’s a lovely home to live in. It looks lovely outside and it’s just as nice inside. The Coleman’s – she was part of the Milne family built it.

Peter Handley:
Oh really?

Bill Church:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
But you have to maintain that sort of stuff?

Bill Church:
I do. And I’m away from North Bay a lot now, but the main thing is that you do a little bit every year. Some people will say “Just leave it for a while, it will be fine” but you can’t. It’s a labour of love. I paint the lower parts but I get the higher parts done now – I’m too old.


Peter Handley:
Let’s go back a little bit now. Do you remember ever driving from North Bay to Toronto?

Bill Church:
I do. We went when my dad had to go to sales meetings. When I was very young we would go down to Gravenhurst right after school and stay there in cabins because I never wanted to be in the hotels, I wanted to be in the cabins. When I was about four or five we would stay at the Royal York Hotel where my brother and I could go up and down on the elevators. The poor elevators must have been frustrated by us saying “take us up to the top, take us to the bottom, take us to the mezzanine.” But yes, I certainly do remember. It used to be a six hour drive, but in those days we split it.

Peter Handley:
And you had to go through every town. And it was basically a two lane highway.

Bill Church:
My father took us down. My mother was in the hospital at the time, but he said “she’ll be fine” so we went down. I was in grade three at the time and had never seen a three lane highway, but the 400 had just been opened and I remember seeing it while we were driving into the city. They are vague memories but the 400 only went to Barrie back then. They carved it right out. It didn’t go down to Younge Street back then.

Peter Handley:
I’ve heard back in the 30s and 40s it would take 13 or 14 hours to get down there.

Bill Church:
Well yeah maybe with all the flat tires and everything, but in the 50s it took about six hours. Some towns were bypassed back then. But by the 70s only Hunstville was bypassed.

Peter Handley:
Bill thank you so much for coming and calling out some old memories and talking about the Golf Street Crossing and George W. Lee and all that sort of stuff.

Bill Church:
Oh, it was a pleasure.

Peter Handley:
We’ve been talking with Bill Church as part of this series Heritage Diary. 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.