MYSTERY: The Tannery at 98 Friel Street

The Germain Tannery, 98-100 Friel Street, ca. 1880

Most of what I will share on this blog are the treasures I’ve already found. But, from time to time, I’d like to share some of the treasure hunting that’s still underway. Maybe you can help?

Today’s mystery is the old Germain “City Tannery” business that was once at the southwest corner of Murray Street and Friel Street. One day, many years ago, I was looking at an old map. I noticed some smokestacks in the middle of Lowertown East among all the tiny wood houses. No known photograph exists of this old industrial building.

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Map of Ottawa, ca. 1880, showing the tannery circled in red

Map of Ottawa, ca. 1880

Edmond Germain came to Ottawa in 1850. The Ottawa directories show him living and working at 337 Clarence in 1862. His 1.5-storey wood house was at 337 Clarence whereas his tannery with its tall smokestacks, was behind the house and along Friel Street. The tannery was a 2.5-storey shack of a building. A tannery is a place where raw animal hides are processed into leather. Germain also served as a well-regarded alderman (city councillor) for the area in the 1880s.

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Map showing the Germain tannery at 98-100 Friel Street and the Germain residence at 337 Clarence Street

At the time, Murray Street at this end of Lowertown did not exist as shown in the map above. A former employee of Mr. Germain’s recalled the area and working at the tannery.

Ottawa Citizen, July 23, 1927

Alphonse Danis, an Ottawa resident and employee of one of the other three tanneries in Ottawa recalled a well on the Germain property and how Lowertown East was in the late 1860’s:

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Ottawa Citizen, May 23, 1931

By 1887, Mr. Germain had built one of the finest brick houses (339 Clarence) in Lowertown next to his old wood house (337 Clarence). Unfortunately, that year, according to newspaper accounts, Mr. Germain lost his tannery to another local tanner, William Mackey, to whom he had mortgaged his business and home. Germain blamed protectionist tariffs placed on the U.S. by the Liberal government for having destroyed his business. The tannery property and all the equipment were sold at auction on October 11, 1887.

The following newspaper advertisement must have been a humiliation for Mr. Germain and his family after having built a successful business and beautiful home over the course of several decades:

Sale of the Tannery, Ottawa Journal, Sept. 24, 1887

After 37 years in Ottawa, it appears that Edmond Germain moved to Québec City. Two of his sons, Edmond and Gaspard, were listed as tanners in Québec City’s directory of 1890-91 at 285 St. Valier Street under the name Edmond Germain & Cie (Cie = company).

At the time of his death, Edmond Germain was living in Montcalmville near Québec City with one of his sons, Alphonse Germain. Despite leaving, Germain was brought back to Ottawa for his funeral at Notre-Dame Basilica in 1909 and is buried at Notre-Dame Cemetery on Montréal Road. He left behind four sons and two daughters

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The tannery was used as a Planing Mill by Desrivières and Company but the business soon moved to another location in Lowertown West. By 1891, the Ottawa Canning Company was using the building. By 1901, the building was occupied by the Watson Carriage Company and further research indicated that Watson tried to woo automobile manufacturers from Detroit to build cars on the premises. The building burned down in 1914 and it appears to have stayed vacant for many years until some art deco apartment blocks and doubles were built on that corner of Friel and Murray. These brick buildings remain on the property to this day…

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Aerial photograph, 1928, showing the empty lot where the tannery once stood

Where the trail ends:

  • I’m still trying to track down descendents of Edmond Germain. Besides one daughter who never married, I’m trying to determine if the rest relocated to Québec City. Perhaps one daughter married and stayed in Ottawa? I’m having trouble locating her as well as obituaries for Québec City.
  • I’ve also tried to track down the Watson family. The manager of the Carriage Works was Robert E. Watson. He had a son, R. Harold Watson who acquired large interests in mining and rubber through a brokerage business, married Stella Rose Loughlin (Aug. 6, 1921), and lived at 274 Roncesvalles Avenue, Toronto as of 1923. They had children: Albert (died 2008), Carlton (dead), Donald (dead), Gilbert (dead), and Kenneth (might still be alive).

The mystery of the old Germain Tannery remains. I’ve been looking for years for a photograph of the building but none is known to exist. Surely, someone, among all these businesses that owned the property, had taken a photograph? My research continues…

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