The streets of Canada: Sandwich

Eric Hutton January 17 1959

The streets of Canada: Sandwich

Eric Hutton January 17 1959

The streets of Canada: Sandwich

Eric Hutton

Today the signs that say “Sandwich Street” mark a dozen blocks of small shops, weathered buildings and abandoned parkland in a backwater of Windsor, Ont. Fifteen miles downriver Sandwich Street comes briefly into existence again as the tree-shaded main street of Amherstburg, Ont. That is all men have spared of the identity of the teeming “front street of Upper Canada” that girdled the frontier from Lake Erie to Lake St. Clair and bore on its rutted face the people and events of two hundred turbulent years.

In its old age, heedless humans have mistreated the thoroughfare that was the continuous main street of Sandwich, Windsor, Walkerville and Ford City, now merged as the metropolis of Windsor. They have banished the very name of Sandwich Street from its prosperous end, have surrendered its most scenic miles to the weeds of a weird unborn ghost town named Ojibway, have abandoned its playgrounds to which multitudes once flocked, have diverted the swarming traffic that was its life's blood. And nowadays they even joke about Sandwich Street’s one recent moment of borrowed glory.

That happened in 1952 when the Queen, as Princess Elizabeth, visited Windsor, just ninety-two years after her great-grandfather Edward, then the 19-year-old Prince of Wales, who got a big send-off at the Sandwich Street ferry dock when he crossed to Detroit.

As Elizabeth drove through Windsor toward the waterfront and Sandwich Street, she exclaimed in admiration. “What magnificent buildings it has!” She was seeing a familiar optical illusion that brings Detroit’s towering skyline to the Canadian side. Moments later she said in disappointment, “Why. they're not on the street—not even in Canada.” And she had scarcely a glance for drab old Sandwich Street.

But, say those who love it still. Sandwich Street remains the most storied in the land. Other cities may boast a street on which an explorer set foot or a battle was fought, a street of fine homes or fabulous stores. Sandwich Street takes such single claims to fame in stride. The greatest dramas of North America have played at least one act on Sandwich Street, from the American Revolution to the emancipation of the slaves to the gangster era of prohibition. And what other Canadian street can claim to have been bombed by the enemy in World War I?

Even without its past Sandwich Street and the various aliases that have been imposed on it — Riverside Drive East, Riverside Drive West, Highway 18 — is a street of considerable stature and unusual versatility. For a foundation it has one of the world’s largest deposits of pure salt, and at its edge are busy salt mines whose product goes nicely with its adjacent industry, radishes. A visitor who pauses in the village of La Salle is likely to be invited, with a boast that is also a warning, to sample “the world’s finest, juiciest—and hottest— radishes.” The English - speaking French gardeners of La Salle have specialized in radishes for a century, and sell them as far away as California and Florida.

At both ends, twenty-five miles apart, Sandwich is a street of pleasant homes. In fact Riverside has one of Canada’s great concentrations of hundred-thousand-dollar

mansions, the social counterpart of fashionable Grosse Point across the river in Michigan. Windsor’s well-to-do, plus a sprinkling of Detroiters, live in unique luxury: at their front door, a street that takes them downtown in minutes; at their back door, boat docks and swimming beaches on clear water from Lake St. Clair; from their patios, a vista of endlessly passing tankers, tugs and freighters against an extravagant backdrop of Detroit’s skyscrapers.

Driving down Sandwich Street the wise traveler picks his time because twice a day Ford workers by the hundreds pour onto the street. The first Canadian Fords were built in a little wagon factory on Sandwich Street in 1904 and, four years later, number one of nearly a million Model Ts rolled off a primitive assembly line and chugged along the street to try its stiff-legged springs on the immemorial potholes.

The mile-long ranks of buildings next in view are Hiram Walker’s distillery and warehouses which at times waft a heady aroma to the street, a fragrance that once led an elderly lady driving by to observe that “someone must be baking an enormous Christmas plum pudding.”

In downtown Windsor Sandwich Street, alias Riverside Drive West, is waterfront on one side and rows of prim late-Victorian buildings on the other. Most of the town’s business r houses moved from the riverfront years ago, but enough remain to lend the street an air of solid respectability, notably the large department store of Bartlet, Macdonald and Gow, which contrives to combine modern merchandising with the smell of a traditional emporium — bolt cloth and leather and polished wood. One of its owners is scholarly George F. Macdonald, whose hobby is Windsor’s historic past.

Under the high arch of the Ambassador Bridge, Sandwich Street runs through the lower campus of Assumption University. Assumption is one of Canada’s newest universities, but it grew from the first building erected on the street. Amid its quadrangle of mingled ancient and ultra-modern buildings, a familiar figure is the brisk, genial president, Very Rev. Carlisle LeBel, who knows by name most of his thousand students. They come from twenty-five countries, speak a dozen languages, and half of them are Protestants. Father LeBel has the distinction, unique in North America, of being the head of a Roman Catholic university which includes a divinity school for Anglican ministers, Canterbury College.

“Windsor was awakened by a shattering explosion. German guerillas had attacked”

Down-street from Assumption is the century - old Sandwich courthouse and jail, where public hangings once drew large crowds, and where criminals still are tried. Separation of past and present on Sandwich Street is difficult. One of Ontario's largest power-generating stations stands close to where Sir Isaac Brock’s raw Canadian militiamen, wearing the scarlet of British regulars to awe the enemy, won the skirmish that led to the capture of Detroit and nearly ended the war of 1812. A year later a future American president, William Henry Harrison, marched up Sandwich Street to win a victory that cost the life of Tecumseh, Canada’s peerless Indian ally, and stalemated the war.

On Sandwich Street (albeit fictionally) the beautiful slave girl Eliza of Uncle Tom’s cabin knelt with her child at the end of a harrowing flight to freedom that started on the Ohio River ice floes and gave thanks that

Mercy's hand hath turned the golden key

And Mercy’s voice hath said, rejoice, thy soul is free.

On Sandwich Street was located the Peabody overall factory which in 1915 had switched to making army uniforms and became the scene of one of the strangest episodes in the street’s varied history—an attack by German guerrillas.

Franz Von Papen, later Chancellor of Germany and a Hitler cabinet minister, was the Kaiser’s espionage chief in North America. One of his projects was the invasion of Canada by a force of 165,000 German-American Bundists. First, he ordered his Detroit agents to “soften up” the Border Cities by blowing up key buildings. The Peabody uniform factory was the first target.

Before dawn on June 21, 1915, the sleeping Border Cities were awakened by a shattering explosion. In the glare of fire-engine headlights the area looked like a bloodless battlefield. Tattered khaki uniforms lay scattered on the ground or hung grotesquely from trees and telephone wires. Actually there were no casualties in the “battle of Sandwich Street” but thereafter Canadian home guards kept watch at ferry landings and at the mouth of the railway tunnel from Detroit to Windsor.

The postwar decade brought Sandwich Street its busiest era. Fifteen thousand Canadians crossed the street, morning and afternoon, to and from jobs in Detroit. Traffic from the Detroit side reached the chaotic peak of one hundred thousand people and twenty thousand cars on summer Sundays, which made Sandwich Street by far the busiest in Canada.

The first man to set foot on the site of Sandwich Street was a Jesuit missionary, Father Pierre Potier, who landed in 1748, raised a cross, built a mission he named L’Assomption de la Pointe de Montréal du Détroit, and thus planted the seed of Assumption University. The people who built the street, two years later, were members of forty French families with

names that fill columns in the Windsor telephone book two centuries after— Reaume, Parent, Drouillard, Marentette, Labadie, Ouellette, Langlois. They moved across the Detroit River in 1750 because the Detroit that Cadillac had founded

was becoming uncomfortably crowded with seven hundred and fifty inhabitants. They founded a suburb of Detroit that ever since has resented being called a suburb of Detroit.

The next migrants across Sandwich

Street were United Empire Loyalists, unusual ones since they included many French families who preferred to live under their British conquerors than to become citizens of the new republic.

The War of 1812, the Civil War and the Fenian Raids all brought marching men, skirmishes and alarms to Sandwich Street, with invasion and threat of invasion, spies and refugees. The greatest influx of new people to the street were the thousands of fugitive slaves who came, first in a trickle, and then in a flood that reached its height in the decade before the Civil War. On Sandwich Street stood an unobtrusive frame building that was the terminal of the mysterious “Underground Railway” of Canadian and United States sympathizers who organized perilous flights from captivity for thousands of slaves. The Sandwich Street frontier was the goal of most, since it was the most southerly in Canada, less than three hundred miles from Kentucky and West Virginia, the most northerly slave states.

In spite of their gratitude for sanctuary in Canada, most of the former slaves were loyal Americans and returned after the war. Enough remained, however, to give the area a two-percent Negro population. Negroes have found unusual opportunities in Windsor. James Watson is the first Negro city solicitor in Canada; Dr. H. D. Taylor has twice been chairman of the board of education. Dr. Roy Perry, a rotund, genial ex-athlete of renown who lives in a twelve-room mansion on the Riverside Drive reincarnation of Sandwich Street, was elected nine successive times as alderman and controller. On Dec. I he ran for mayor and suffered his first defeat.

By far the most fateful man to come to Sandwich Street was Hiram Walker, a Massachusetts farm boy who failed in several small businesses, made forty thousand dollars in the Detroit grain trade, and bought land on Sandwich Street. In 1857 he erected a distillery and built the town of Walkerville around it.

For forty years Walker had a hand in almost everything that happened on Sandwich Street and environs. He built barns two miles from his distillery, laid a connecting rail line, and fattened four thousand cattle a year on whisky mash. Soon he extended his two miles of rail into the two-hundred-and-fifty-mile Fake Erie, Essex and Detroit River Railway which later became the Canadian section of the Chesapeake and Ohio.

He leased a small steamboat to ferry him from Detroit, where he lived, to Walkerville, and expanded it into the Detroit-Walkerville Ferry Company. But Walker lost a hundred thousand dollars in an attempt to grow cranberries in the marshes bordering Sandwich Street. He dabbled with varying success in a dozen projects, including gas and oil exploration ventures.

Walker brought many firsts to Sandwich Street. The first electric tramway in Canada ran on power generated at the distillery. He built the world’s first “electric spectacular,” a one-hundred-andsixty-foot billboard that faced across the river and advertised Canadian Club. It became so familiar a landmark that it appears on official Detroit River navigation charts.

Walker was credited with being the first distiller to trade-mark whisky. His “Club Brand” became popular in the U. S. and southern distillers lobbied through Congress an act requiring Canadian whisky to be labeled Canadian, in the belief that Americans would spurn it.

Instead the trade mark “Canadian Club,” forced on Walker, became even more valuable than the distillery that made it. In 1926 the Walker family sold out to Harry Hatch, of Toronto. The price of the entire distillery was five million dollars—and the price of the good-

will in the name Canadian Club was nine million. (In 1958 Walkers sold $348,()()(),()()() worth of assorted liquors.)

Strangely enough, the Walker property that was to grow into the most fabulously valuable of all was an unprofitable little wagon factory on Sandwich Street east of the distillery. In 1903 the MilnerWalker Wagon Works was close to bankruptcy, and young Gordon McGregor, its office manager, faced unemployment. Across the river Henry Ford had just started to make cars. McGregor convinced Ford that tariffs made a Canadian plant desirable. Ford of Canada was formed, with McGregor as manager. Its first cars rolled into existence along ruts worn in the floor by the hundreds of wagons that preceded them.

By 1913 the expanded wagon works had rolled out 180,IKK) cars, and Sandwich Street crawled with Model Ts ($675 for the roadster, $750 for the touring). But in other ways that was a year of misfortunes for the street.

At its upper end the residential suburb of Riverside became a municipality in its own right. Its well-to-do residents did not want their mansions to have the same address as shops, hotels, factories and ferry docks. They named their extension of Sandwich Street Riverside Drive.

Riverside Drive became Sandwich Street’s nemesis. In two big gulps the upstart, suburbia-sounding Drive was to swallow the street for several miles, clear through Ford City (renamed East Windsor), Walkerville, Windsor, to its pres-

ent limits within its original home town of Sandwich.

What happened to the street at the other end of Sandwich town in 1913 was even more disastrous. For years agents of United States Steel Corporation had been quietly buying up land on both sides of the street. On Jan. 1, 1913, came a grandiose announcement: on two thousand acres would grow a steel metropolis, Ojibway. the Pittsburgh of Canada.

Border Cities residents bitterly protested one detail of the project—to abandon Sandwich Street, the "River Road” that skirted the shore, the favorite Sunday afternoon drive of the newly motorized population. In spite of angry opposition the company obtained a court order, and weeds soon grew over the street. A new generation knows this part of Sandwich Street only as a few yards of well-worn “lovers' lane” that peters out in a thicket.

But, as if the doomed street put a dying curse on its executioners, the ambitious steel city of Ojibway never came into existence. The site of a huge steel mill was prepared, residential streets were laid out, curbs and sewers were installed. Adjacent land shot up to fifteen hundred dollars an acre. Building lots were peddled in distant states.

Arthur Reaume, mayor of Windsor for many years and now MPP for a Windsor riding, remembers the sad disillusion of absentee buyers who visited their “investment.” Reaume was born and grew up in his father’s Brighton Beach Hotel on Sandwich Street near" Ojibway. One

day a Southern-colonel type of traveler paused at the hotel to ask the way to “the thriving town of Ojibway where I own property, Suh.”

Albert Reaume pointed down the street, then said to his son, “He’ll be back —and badly in need of a drink.”

“He was back, all right,” Reaume recalls, “and many more like him from all over the United States.”

At its peak Ojibway’s population was eighteen persons, six thousand horses and upward of a million frogs. In World War I Ojibway was a collecting station for horses bound for overseas from as far afield as South America. After the war a small steel plant actually was built but it never got into serious production, and was dismantled.

An an incorporated municipality, however, the ghost town that buried Sandwich Street has a mayor and councií, “elected” by the company, plus a medical officer, tax assessor and an eight-footsquare post office that also serves as police headquarters for Ojibway’s sevenman force. The imaginary town even collects its share of Ontario’s grants to municipalities: fifteen dollars a year.

If Ojibway never became the Pittsburgh of Canada, it proved a profitable long-range real-estate investment. In 1956 the Morton Salt Co. of the United States bought Ojibway for fifteen million dollars, and the Canadian Rock Salt Co. is now mining the vast salt beds under old Sandwich Street. In fact, a thousand feet under the ghost town is a busier and better - laid - out “subdivision” than the surface Ojibway ever was. A mile-long main street runs through the clear salt, and from it branch dozens of smaller streets all cut through solid rock salt. No pit props are needed, and the workers call themselves “white - collar miners” because the mine is totally dustless. There’s enough salt under Sandwich Street to last a hundred and fifteen years.

The new owners of Ojibway plan to sell the surface for industrial development. They hope the St. Lawrence Seaway may finally make Ojibway into a boom town—fifty years delayed.

Ojibway’s large frog population was the ghost town’s only real contribution to the prosperity of Sandwich Street. Small boys speared them by sackfuls for the roadhouses whose specialty, “Chicken, Fish and Frog’s Leg Dinners” still have an international reputation. The fish came from nearby, too. For the Detroit River, flowing between two great industrial cities and churned by the world’s most concentrated freighter traffic, is surprisingly good fishing water.

Anglers swarm over the rotting rumrunning docks. They cast minnows under the bows of Canada Steamship Co. and Northwest Steamship freighters as they load and unload cargoes of salt and coal, chemicals and automobiles at the busy riverside piers, and pull out big catches of fat perch and catfish, occasional whitefish and bass. Recently one fisherman, after an hour’s effort, departed with a yard-long string of fish and said disgustedly, “Fishing’s bad — I should have had a hundred by now.”

Down past the radish fields of La Salle, farmers on Sandwich Street (here identified in recent years as part of Highway 18) catch fish as a sideline and sell them at roadside stands, much as farmers elsewhere sell eggs and fruit.

Sandwich Street roadhouses — the Brighton Beach, Lido, Sunnyside and Edgewater Inn among them—still serve the traditional menu. In the first twenty years of the century half a dollar (children half price) bought all a family could eat from great sizzling platters, preceded by whisky at a dime a shot and washed down by beer at a nickel a schooner. The Twenties and the end of drinks-by-theglass brought little change. The innkeepers did not so much defy the law as ignore it. Raids, arrests, fines, even imprisonment did not dampen Sandwich Street's ebullient night life.

The most memorable innkeeper was Bertha Thomas. Her Riverside Inn was the rendezvous of Detroit rumrunners, Ontario politicians, newspapermen, tired businessmen, tourists and average citizens on their night out. Bertha’s slightly cynical joviality earned her the nickname "the Texas Guinan of Canada.” But behind that façade Bertha was a philanthropist and benefactor of the poor.

When Bertha died in 1955 hundreds filed through her big dining room, silent and solemn for once, to pay their respects as she lay in state on the band stand. Flags on the street flew at half mast, as they had at Lincoln's death ninety years earlier. Mayor Robert Bondy of Riverside eulogized her as "one of the finest citizens of our town.”

Bertha’s heyday was the mad era of prohibition. So many people made money fast that the Border Cities had the air of a gold rush. A Windsor businessman who was a newsboy in the Twenties remembers selling a paper at the door of the British American Hotel on Sandwich Street to a roughly dressed man who handed him a ten-dollar bill and told him to keep the change.

Off Sandwich Street, up and down the river at docks manned by imperturbable Canadian customs officers. Canadians sold legal liquor that became illegal when it reached midstream. Canadian law allowed liquor to be shipped only to countries where its importation was legal. So flimsy boats pulled away from docks with cargoes of liquor and export papers that gave their destination as Cuba or the Bahamas. When the same boats returned in a few hours to take on another cargo the customs men didn't raise an eyebrow.

Some of the boats and their crews failed to return, of course. At midstream

U. S. government patrol boats lurked. There were nightly pursuits, captures, escapes, gunfights. Gunplay was even freer when hijackers pounced, as they did frequently.

A few big Canadian syndicates undertook the entire smuggling operation, but most Canadians preferred a safer method: they bought w'hisky at fourteen dollars a case and sold it, legally and cash-at-dockside, for eighty. Not infrequently an overloaded boat would capsize near shore. The crew would haul it {¿shore, dump the water and buy another cargo, paying for it with a large, wet roll of bills. One old-time liquor-seller remembers having to spend the end of many a busy night of trading drying out damp banknotes in a slow oven at home. And only last year when Harry Fredericks took over an old rum-running slip at La Salle and decided to deepen the basin, the dredge brought up thousands of bottles buried in mud. Unhappily, all were broken or had their metal caps rusted through.

In May 1930, a federal government order ended the export of liquor as a legal operation, and the lively days on Sandwich Street halted abruptly. In the same few months the depression began, the vehicle tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge opened. The last tw'o robbed the street of traffic by carrying vehicles over and under the street to points several blocks inland. Presently the ferries stopped running for lack of business.

Yet many in Windsor think Sandwich Street, under its various names, is on the verge of a new career. Windsor’s Chamber of Commerce and its new Harbor Development Board predict that the St. Lawrence Seaway will make Windsor and the whole Canadian side of the Detroit River an international seaport. From seventeen miles of new docks, they say, men and cargoes from all the world will cross Sandwich Street, in the wake of Eliza and Isaac Brock. Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison, Hiram Walker and Ford’s Model T, and all else that brought fame to the ancient street, if