Ottawa Winter Carnival, 1922 edition

“A Week Without Worry!”… “Mirth Will be King for Carnival Week.” These were some of the slogans used to describe the first Canadian National Winter Carnival—otherwise known as the Ottawa Winter Carnival—of 1922. This was no tame affair. Instead, for a week at the end of January and early February 1922, Ottawans partied—and even went foolishly wild.

Canadians were used to winter parties. Since the late 19th century, there had been somewhat more genteel winter carnivals, which featured ice forts, informal skating parties and hockey matches. During these, there was only the occasional leap into the absurd. An example is the February 1894 skating masquerade at Rideau Hall where Lord Aberdeen’s male staff dressed up as schoolgirls:

Black-and-white photograph showing eight people standing on a snowy staircase, holding decorative fans. They are all wearing similar costumes comprised of dresses, pinafores and bonnets. Close inspection reveals that some of them have mustaches and look somewhat masculine.

Lord Aberdeen’s staff dressed as schoolgirls for a masquerade skating party at Rideau Hall, called “Dame Marjorie School” (MIKAN 3422882)

The 1922 Ottawa carnival was the brainchild of stock broker and mayor, Frank Plant. He organized everything within a matter of weeks. Lord Byng, the Governor General, was asked to open the festivities, which he did outside the Château Laurier on Saturday, January 28, 1922, with 10,000 people in attendance.

Black-and-white photograph of an ice castle taken from a very high vantage point. Crowds of people are milling about and the city fades into the distance.

Ice Palace at the Ottawa Winter Carnival (MIKAN 3517932)

The carnival included the following activities:

  • torchlight snowshoe parades on downtown streets
  • a grand ball at the Château Laurier
  • hockey matches between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens
  • curling and boxing
  • nightly bean dinners in Lowertown
  • giant bonfires at Major’s Hill Park and at Connaught and Cartier Squares
  • ice castle climbing
  • midnight dances
  • horse-drawn passenger cutters that ferried people around the city
  • ski jumping off the cliffs at Rockcliffe Park

Although prohibition was in effect in the province of Ontario, alcohol was still legal in neighbouring Quebec. And with the exuberant party atmosphere, authorities turned a blind eye to the reveling hordes travelling back and forth across the river from Hull (now Gatineau) with bottles of booze.

There were three major attractions. The first was the 22-metre Ice Palace located at Cartier Square on Elgin Street.

Black-and-white photograph showing many people standing, possibly queuing, around an ice castle.

The Ottawa Winter Carnival Ice Palace during the day (MIKAN 3517934)

Black-and-white photograph showing an ice castle, brightly illuminated from the inside.

Ottawa Winter Carnival Ice Palace at night (MIKAN 3517933)

The second attraction was the giant ice column that towered over Connaught Square (now Confederation Square, roughly where the National War Memorial is located) between Union Station, the old Post Office, and the Château Laurier.

Black-and-white photograph of an ice column topped with a crown. A man stands beside it.

Ice column in front of the old Post Office (presently the location of the National War Memorial), Ottawa Winter Carnival, Jan. and Feb., 1922 (MIKAN 3384979)

And the pièce-de-résistance—the ski and toboggan slide.

“Ride a mile for a dime” was the slogan attached to this breathtaking chute. Built out of ice blocks with deep tracks, it extended from the Château Laurier down to the Ottawa River following the side of the Rideau Locks. The departure gate looked like an innocent-enough rustic wooden construction covered in evergreens. But when you entered and looked down, this is what you saw:

Black-and-white photograph of a view of the toboggan chute looking down towards the river and beside the Rideau Canal Lock. The track is very long and steep, and almost reaches the Alexandra Bridge in the distance.

Ski and toboggan chute for the Ottawa Winter Carnival (MIKAN 3517935)

If you were brave enough to venture forward, the chute fell at a daring 45-degree angle which levelled out somewhat before being punctuated by a series of steep dips, rather like a roller coaster. (For more views, see the Flickr album). Lord Byng presided over the first toboggan ride, which held Mayor Plant, prominent businessman A.J. Major, and two others. Throughout the week, daredevil ski jumpers would conduct daily demonstrations on the slide. And the rest of the time, thrill seekers bravely took the plunge on toboggans, racing down and out onto the frozen expanse of the Ottawa River at speeds of over 100 kilometers an hour!

When the week was over, the first Canadian National Winter Carnival was declared a resounding success, with tens of thousands of revelers (the city’s population had only just reached 100,000). The present-day equivalent of the Canadian National Winter Carnival—Winterlude—now garners more than half a million visitors every year.

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