Doors Open 2022 Thunder Bay

The Fort William Grain Exchange Building. The six bays on the near side identify it as the north side. The six bays plus the portal on the right side identify it as the east side. From the beginning in 1913, Chapples Limited rented the lowest floor, and much later also laid claim to the second floor. Note the cornice that ran above the fifth floor. And note the natural air conditioning (the open windows). This photo is undated and unsourced, but appears in many Internet sites.

Sixty-nine years ago, I was introduced to Chapples (as we called it then, and spelled it). In 1953 our family had moved to Geraldton, and Chapples was the biggest retail store in town.

On September 10, we approached on Justice Street from the north. Note that the cornice on this north side terminates abruptly.

On September 10, 2022, sister Sue and I drove to Victoriaville Mall in Thunder Bay at the corner of Victoria and Archibald. We entered the building off Justice Street across from the court house, as directed, and soon discovered we’d made a mistake. No one loitered inside the door or in the corridor. We encountered a fellow tourist who was just exiting the staircase that led to the basement.

“Nothing to see there,” he said.

Then he pointed to a door across the hallway. Someone had just come out of the door. We followed the tourist through the door and found ourselves in a lobby with a couple of greeters at a desk. Apparently the tour began there, at the eastern entrance to the Chapple Building.

The greeters were not acting as tour guides. They had a copy of a couple of pages from Henderson’s guide published in 1920. The list of offices and services is quite impressive.

Page from Henderson’s directory in 1920. The third floor hosted the general office of the  Board of Grain Commissioners of Canada, which gave the building its name of Fort William Grain Exchange.
On the fifth floor, ask yourself, which department or office required a walk-in vault?
How many buildings in 1913 had twin elevators? In 1852, Elisha Otis invented the “safety elevator”, and the industry never looked back.

The greeters suggested we tour the fifth floor ourselves. Why, we never learned the reason. Leaving the elevator, we wandered two short corridors. We were denied entry everywhere. We were not impressed. We chose to walk down the staircases, which reeked of history, but with no guide to offer a narrative. Keep in mind that I am architecturally illiterate, but I might fool you sometimes.

On the fifth floor, frosted glass and locked doors exclude the public. The wood trim looks expensive, possibly mahogany?
In 1879, the Cary Safe Co. was established in Buffalo, N.Y. It manufactured floor safes and rolling safes and even this bank vault. What was so valuable on the fifth floor?
In descending to ground level, we marveled at the wide steps and solid iron balustrade.

Voices floated up the stairwell, but when we reached bottom, there was no one there. The wide staircase featured a black ironwork balustrade. The motif was repeated in a long, narrow black band on the walls, a frieze, that followed us. Touching this decorative element, one felt cold black iron with embossed patterns. The staircase reeked of Edwardian elegance. With a little imagination, one can visualize crowds of employees from the dozens of offices exiting to lunch. Perhaps the bodiless voices belonged to them. Picture the women in their long gowns and chic hats, the men in striped trousers and derbies or straw boaters, all stepping sprightly down the stairs. 

The black strip on the walls above the stairs and landings is a solid iron frieze. Apparently, no expense was spared in designing this now historic building.

Returning to the lobby, I snapped shots of the northern wall. No listing for a Chapples store nor a grain exchange. An online site for City heritage properties proves almost useless. The City has 26 properties formally designated as heritage properties. It has 41 listed heritage properties but not designated, meaning owners cannot alter them without permissions. The Chapple Building (originally called the Fort William Grain Exchange Building) was declared a listed property in 2010.

Back in the lobby. Facing us in two panels are a capsule history and the current floor directory.
The lefthand panel uses the address of 701 Victoria Ave. East. So, it may have been mounted before the advent of Victoriaville, which obliterated one stretch of Victoria Avenue.
The righthand panel does not list Chapples Limited as one of the businesses or operations.  

The site gives 1913 as the year that the Fort William Grain Exchange building was erected on Victoria Avenue. It housed the Board of Grain Commissioners which governed all grain transactions in Canada. The first floor was rented to Chapples Limited (note the absence of an apostrophe). Clement E. Chapple’s department store was the largest in western Canada. In 1930, the Grain Exchange moved to Winnipeg. In 1946, Chapples Limited bought the building. In 1980, the Chapple Building was incorporated into the newly established Victoriaville Mall.

Here is one of the unhelpful remarks on the site: “The façade of the building features Classical detailing. Some of the more notable architectural features include large scale dentils located on the metal projecting cornice as well as brick piers with stone relief capitals creating seven bays. The building has a recessed entrance with Doric columns.” Make of that what you will.

The east side of the Chapple Building. How many people notice the lovely green space at the northern entrance to the mall?

I had one memorable visit to the Chapple Building in the ‘70’s, but it was an unpleasant one, which I have tried to repress.

On the other hand, my memories of the Chapples store in Geraldton are all pleasant.

View of Main Street, Geraldton, west side, second block south from railway, circa 1938. Some of the open ditches have been covered.
Same view of Main Street from different angle, same day, circa 1938. Truck/van in lower left is still parked in front of Pattenick & Clavir, which opened its doors in August 1937. In November, the Toronto Dominion Bank was still under construction. In these views, circa 1938, Chapples and the bank are in full operation. These two photos were posted by Yvonne Poshtar on Facebook.

In 1936, the fledgling community, not yet incorporated as a municipality, underwent mushroom growth. In September, C.E. Chapple of Fort William began construction of the Geraldton store. The store carried meat and groceries, furniture, and dry goods, and included staff apartments and offices for rent. The grand opening occurred on November 10th. Long before the opening, shoppers had depleted the packing cases, and stock had to be replenished.

John Chapple, son of the owner, managed the operation. He inaugurated a delivery service consisting of two horses with a sleigh, and a Ford truck which delivered to the mines.

In June 1938, Chapples in Geraldton established a cash railway system to handle sales. It was the acme of retail technology.

The cash railway encompassed tiny cars, tiny trolleys, and moving wire cables. It looked like a Rube Goldbery setup. At the sales counter, the customer proffered cash, which the associate tucked along with an invoice into a small metal box (the car).  The car was attached to a tiny apparatus with grooved wheels (the trolley). Somehow the trolley was activated, perhaps by clamping to the moving wire. The trolley zipped up a vertical wire towards the ceiling and then switched to a horizontal plane. The trolley then zipped along on straight-aways, up and down slopes, around curves, and over bridges. In 1953, the railway system was likely powered by electricity; in older versions, gravity or a small engine provided the power.

In operation, the cash railway was fascinating to watch. In a few seconds the car arrived at the cash office where the cashier extracted the cash and invoice, made change, stamped the invoice, and sent the trolley back on a return wire. In a matter of minutes, the sales associate opened the car and gave the customer the change and the receipt.

This beautiful Lamson poster helps transport us back to the Edwardian Age. This image, and the next, are copied from one of many Lamson sites.
A Lamson wire railway car from the early days of the company. The original cars were wooden, but this one appears to be ceramic.

As I said, Geraldton’s Chapples was the biggest retailer in town. In 1953 I recall separate rooms or sections for clothing, for furniture, and for dry goods and other products. Perhaps there were meat and groceries, too, but at 13 years old I didn’t do grocery shopping.

I don’t recall if the cash railway was still operating when I returned to Geraldton in ’69. Chapples soon closed its Geraldton and other regional stores, but the Chapple Building in Thunder Bay still offered service.

In 1881, a William Stickney Lamson of Massachusetts, U.S.A., a cloth merchant, had patented his “aerial railway” system. In 1883, a local newspaper noted the arrival of the Lamson Cash Carrier System in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1887, Timothy Eaton introduced the system into his magnificent Toronto store. No doubt such a system was in service in 1913 when C.E. Chapple opened his department store. So far I’ve found no reference to it.

I am hopeful that readers of this site will enlighten us about the whole Chapples operation, its history, and the architecture and décor of the Chapple Building itself. Hours in the archives of the City, Thunder Bay Historical Museum, and the Province will likely produce a wealth of information. I found only one useful photo on the Internet.

Doors Open 2022 ended for me. Sue had other places to go. I had signed up for a fungi field tour. We will catch more doors in 2023.

One last look at the Chapples Building, east side. The cornice hovers over the fifth floor.

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