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Capital Builders: Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, the ‘Edisons of Canada’

Bruce Deachman, Ottawa Citizen
September 11, 2017

In 1855, the muddy rough-and-tumble lumber centre known as Bytown gave birth to the city of Ottawa, not yet even close to a bustling metropolis but certainly on its way to greater things, including its soon-to-be-announced position as the central governing hub of the young nation.

Gas lights had only just been introduced to Ottawa’s business area, while whale oil lamps were used elsewhere in town. Citizens still had their water delivered by cart or drew it themselves from wells. The first paid police force was still eight years down the road (and the first paved road a further three decades away).

Into this was born, also in 1855, on Duke Street in LeBreton Flats, Thomas Franklin Ahearn, the son of Irish immigrants Norah and John Ahearn, the latter a blacksmith.

Tom, as he was known his entire life, grew up in lockstep with the new city, and it’s impossible to imagine what Ottawa might look like today without his influence. Along with his business partner, Warren Young Soper, Ahearn touched the lives of everyone in Ottawa, through transportation, electricity, beautification and leisure and entertainment. The pair’s interconnected business enterprises very much shaped how and where the city grew, as its population soared from just over 10,000 when Ahearn took in his first breath, to about 150,000 when he exhaled his last.

“Even (Ahearn’s) contemporaries would speak about his importance to the development of the city,” says Laura Ott, who is writing the first extensive biography of Ahearn and Soper. “The streetcar, especially, was spoken of as bringing the city into the modern era; a step out of the sawdust city and into a modern city that the country could be proud of as a capital.”

Indeed, Ahearn & Soper’s Ottawa Electric Railway, which began operations in June 1891, was instrumental in guiding the city’s expansion, especially to the west, as “streetcar suburbs” sprang up near the tracks. The Bank Street line out to Lansdowne Park, for example, led Alexander Mutchmor to subdivide his family farm, creating the Glebe.

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