Horsepower and House Moving in Stratford

  • History   Friday, May 13, 2022   Hayden Bulbrook
Anchor Wire and Frame Co. on Albert Street at the intersection of Waterloo Street South in 1905. It would be being moved behind the Queen’s Hotel Stables shown here. Vince Gratton Collection. Colourized by Hayden Bulbrook.

Anchor Wire and Frame Co. on Albert Street at the intersection of Waterloo Street South in 1905. It would be being moved behind the Queen’s Hotel Stables shown here. Vince Gratton Collection. Colourized by Hayden Bulbrook.

Most people are surprised to know that a building can, in fact, be moved. That’s right, it can be picked up, carried down the road, and placed on a new foundation. Today, this happens with professional moving companies that place buildings on trucks with synchronized hydraulic systems to even weight distribution and stabilize the building during transport. What may come as an even greater surprise to some is that buildings were being moved by the 18th century and, like many technological innovations of the past, there are historic examples of moving buildings in Stratford with at least three structures moved in the early twentieth century. We focus on two of these buildings.

By 1903, the City of Stratford was petitioning the Dominion government to build an armoury here. London architect Hubert Carroll McBride designed the armoury and in November 1904, Nagle & Mills of Ingersoll successfully received the tender to build it on the northwest corner of Waterloo Street South and Albert Street. Work on the armoury would commence in March 1905 but it would necessitate the relocation of two Albert Street buildings. 

One building was a two-storey yellow brick commercial block that housed the Anchor Wire Company. This company was incorporated in March 1897 and had financial backing from prominent local businessmen including merchants Robert Mitchell Ballantyne (T. Ballantyne & Sons), Alfred James McPherson (A.J. McPherson & Co), and John Leeming Bradshaw, as well as manufacturers Edmund Tyndal Dufton (Dufton & Sons) and Arthur Henry King (Stratford Soda Water Works), and accountant Alfred Coulson Mowat (Mowat & Johnston). The other building was a two-and-half-storey red brick front gable structure that was the residence of fire chief R.H. Myers. Both buildings likely predated 1885. Land records suggest His Majesty King Edward the Seventh dished fairly handsome payments to the property owners for the land on this corner. These buildings, which were demolished in the late 20th century, were relocated on Albert Street just east of Waterloo Street about where the post office and its parking lot are today.

The old methods of moving buildings were far less sophisticated and far more labour intensive than today. There was a higher risk of failure. However, strength and sheer horsepower appeared to get the job done. The moving process was really quite simple. As scholars Ming-Hsiu Su and Huey-Jiun Wang described, there were four steps: Reinforcing, Separating & Lifting, Moving, and Positioning. 

Essentially, three tools were required. These were jackscrews, rollers, and timbers. After a trench was dug around the house, cribbing was meticulously constructed, ideally with pine joists, to reinforce the structure. It was easy to hear if pine was splitting therefore disaster could be averted. Horizontal timber beams were placed along the bottom of the house in 3-foot intervals. The jackscrews were positioned at each corner of the building between the foundation and the sills. Ideally with the coordination of multiple people, each screw was rotated simultaneously to lift the structure off its foundation. Once it was lifted to a suitable level the screws were replaced with timber that would aid the horizontal movement of the building.

As seen in the photographs, the buildings were moved along a timber track atop rollers to their destination. The rollers were lubricated with tallow and soap to ease horizontal movement. Transportation typically involved literal horsepower with the horse sometimes pulling a cable around a capstan or winch that was moored into the ground. With sound planning, foundations at the new locations would have been constructed prior to moving.  The positioning process on new foundations would be, more or less, the reversal of the separating and lifting process. Though with some variation, this moving process persisted well into the 1920s.

With the province and developers looking to densify our cities, moving historic buildings should be considered more often. While relocation removes a historic structure from its contextual landscape, it is a step toward preserving historic material and lessening our impact on the planet. The most historically significant buildings ought to stay put, but perhaps relocation is an appropriate method for older buildings that do not necessarily have significant heritage value but are worth preserving, nonetheless. The City of Stratford should look toward moving buildings such as those at 388, 390, and 396 Ontario Street rather than let their rich building material end up in the landfill. Unlike a century ago, the job wouldn’t even require horses!