In this Readers' Platform, your author visits the Archives of Canada in hopes of proving a theory

by Joshua Nelson

Journey of Discovery Joshua Nelson

Your author looks through an 1888 Toronto City Directory, which includes an advertisement for the Fensom Elevator Works.

Earlier this year, I found myself digging through hundreds of microfilms, aging city directories and dusty historical records in the archival underbelly of Ottawa, Canada’s national capital.

I was in search of something specific.

To get to the Archives of Canada building, I walked down Wellington Avenue past the Supreme Court, parliament buildings and the Fairmont Château Laurier, with many of the structures separated by spaces between sprinkled with historical monuments erected during the early days of confederation. To gain access to the archives, I had to first register for a library card for the Federal Library (which was neat). Unlike at your everyday city library, here, visitors are first searched, then given a locker for belongings and informed of the facility’s strict rules, brought about after a 1983 visitor, in protest of the Constitution Act, poured paint on the historical repatriation document signed by Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau the year before. Because of this, I am allowed in with only a pencil (no messy pens).

Finally, on the inside, I ascend a marble and bronze staircase to the second story, where I meet with eager and beaming research assistants. For obvious reasons — not the least of which is the fact that many of the country’s records have been digitized and made available online — few people travel across the country to visit the national archives. In many cases, microfilmed documents are simply a relic of the past.

Journey of Discovery 1887 Toronto City Directory

1887 Toronto City Directory

Journey of Discovery 1888 Toronto City Directory

1888 Toronto City Directory

But, as I said earlier, I was in search of something specific.

After passing a third security check, I am told to wait, while my search requests are being reviewed by the staff. To pass the time, I delve into the stacks of city directories dating to the 19th century. I work my way past an alphabet of Canadian towns, many you probably have never heard of, until I get to the T's, where I begin pulling out Toronto directories.

The first few decades are mostly listings for merchants of coal, lamp oil and waxes. Around the 1850s, steam and industrial companies start showing up, followed by metalworkers and stonecutters in the 1860s. When I reach the 1870s, I finally spot a familiar name: John Fensom. The name known for elevators, however, was listed here for metal works. The 1878 directory, however, sports a small line entry for John Fensom Elevator Works! And, just four years later, the listing appears on the first page of the directory with a snazzy woodblock illustration depicting an early passenger elevator car. I snapped a few photos before I pulled myself from this rabbit hole and turned my focus back to this trip’s goal.

Journey of Discovery John Fensom Signature

Close-up showing John Fensom's signature on an engineering drawing.

I’m led to a dimly lit back room. The walls are lined with metal filing cabinets with thousands of small labeled drawers. I’m shown to a section of about 200 drawers and informed this is as far as the staff can take me. I begin the painstaking task of opening each unit and inspecting the microfiche sheets inside,  one by one. The delicate, glossy slides are wrapped in safety film that makes them extra difficult to handle.

The microfiche sheets hold endless mementos from Canada’s past: geographic records, land surveys, farm plans, trading routes, grain silo designs and urban development plans. I begin losing hope that I will ever find the image I came here for.

Then, whether by magic or luck, I pull out a drawer and see something recognizable! It’s a ceiling detail for the parliamentary library.

Now, you might be thinking this has nothing to do with elevators, but I’m now a lot closer than I was back at a land survey for a grain silo in Saskatchewan. Over the next hour, I carefully go through a few hundred slides: everything from basement plans to wall assembly drawings for the Parliament buildings. It’s fascinating — even at these tiny sizes, the hand-drafted drawings are simply exquisite.

At last I find it! My heart is beating quickly — at best, I was hoping to find a vague reference. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would find such detailed records! I quickly scoop up the next 10 or so sheets and make my way over to the desktop microfiche reader. Enough movies have given me the confidence I needed to operate this electric dinosaur. The screen flickers on as I pull the small metal tray and slide in the first microfilm.

Glorious success!

Journey of Discovery Engineering Drawing

Engineering Drawing

Journey of Discovery Engineer Drawing Fensom Signature

Engineering drawing detail showing Fensom's signature; note the flyball governor on the car top

Journey of Discovery New Departamental Building Ottawa Elevator Car

Engineering drawing for "New Departmental Building, Ottawa Elevator Car" signed by Fensom and government officials "This 10th Day of October A.D. 1888."

Journey of Discovery Design Drawing

Design Drawing

Canada is such a young nation. Its union occurred around the same time Elisha Graves Otis filed patents for the elevator.

That is how it occurred to me: the design and construction of the Parliament buildings must have included designs for these novel contraptions. I came to Ottawa to find evidence that elevators were included in the original architectural designs for the Parliament of Canada — that every prime minister in the nation’s history has traveled in these modern machines and, even more importantly, they were made by Canadians. In the process, I found a new appreciation for the country I already loved, and the unwavering effort and genius of the people who worked so hard to build it.

Those aging directories are filled with the names of long-forgotten businesses that toiled to feed the young nation, raise its buildings and invent its future. Their years of work and dedication have made this nation what it is today.

Journey of Discovery Microfiche Viewer

The microfiche viewer may be low-tech, but it's the right tool for the job when this deep in the national archives.

Journey of Discovery Packets of Microfiche

Thousands of these packets of microfiche are stored in metal cabinets at the Archives of Canada.

Joshua Nelson is the creative director and vertical-transportation expert at JNKM Design. He holds a degree in interior/architectural design from OCAD University in Toronto. His work has received a number of awards.