By Terry Hughes
How many times did I pass this impressive building as a boy on my way to the Cross Street Pool and wonder what kind of function it served? The accompanying plaque, above left, sums up the highlights of the building but until you enter those huge wooden doors one has no idea what stories are hidden inside.
While teaching at Gordon School, the topic of downtown came up and the Court House in particular. Later that week one of my students said that her mother worked in the office there and wondered if we would like to tour the facility? It was not too much longer before we pulled up in front of the building and was met by Dave Thomas the registrar who volunteered to show us around.
The outside of the building was under construction and as we later found out was in need of major repairs. As we toured the halls you could see but hardly hear the workers chipping away at the loose cement and replacing windows. The walls were made of limestone and nearly four feet thick! The roof was replaced with slate and the three cupolas were re-covered with copper.
The interior was a total disaster. It had not been touched except for patchwork repairs in decades since the fire in 1913 with the plaster peeling off the walls, holes in some of the portraits of former judges and poor lighting. The main courtroom lacked air conditioning and reached one hundred degrees in the summer
Before we move on, a political reality was facing Mayor Dick Reuter. The outside work was going to cost several millions of dollars and because the city had taken over ownership from the region, it was faced with a huge debt and the repairs to the interior had not been started! This situation was compounded with the province possibly leaving the three court rooms vacant and moving its operations to St. Catharines. The mayor contacted our member of Parliament, Gib Parent, who contacted Premier Harris and he reversed the decision to move the courts. A long-term agreement was reached that would help fund the repairs.
The rest of the tour included a climb upstairs to the governor’s apartments (warden) and down to the very lowest of the jails cells where the worst offenders were housed…a very cold and damp place. We also saw the table onto which the victim of a hanging was dropped through the trap door after execution and wheeled out to the yard where they were buried. Two six-foot tables were used to tie down and whip prisoners when they entered the jail as a reminder to obey the rules. Thirteen hangings occurred in three municipal jails until they were halted after 1958.
With the future secure for the building, the interior went through a metamorphosis. Old paneling was removed revealing details long forgotten. The ceilings were removed allowing sunlight to shine through the cupolas to the main courtroom and two ante rooms formerly used as washrooms. Walls were repaired and new light fixtures imitating the gas lights of yesteryear illuminated the facility. Extra courtrooms and electric security were added and prisoners were to be housed in the new facilities in Thorold.
The remaining picture shows the county building around the turn of the century on property owned by the county from Dorothy Street (bus terminal) to Cross Street. The building in the foreground is the registry office, later the Eatons order office, the wall enclosure, jail and courthouse.
Next column: Public access and more jail stories at the county building.
(Terry Hughes is a Wellander who is passionate about heritage, history and model railroading. His opinion column, Heritage Lives, appears on the blog once or twice monthly.)