Otis Elevator Company

Location: 1902-1987, Victoria Avenue and Ferrie Street, Hamilton, Ontario (1902-1905, 1927-1985, headquartered in Hamilton) The entrance to the Otis-Fensom Elevator Company offices (click for a closer look)

In 1853, Elisha Graves Otis went into the elevator manufacturing business in Yonkers, New York. When he died four years later, he passed the company on to his sons, Charles and Norton Otis, who formed the Otis Brothers and Company firm. In 1898, the Otis brothers took over eight other manufacturing companies and incorporated the Otis Elevator Company ("Otis U.S.A.").

Meanwhile, John Fensom, after losing his Collingwood, Ontario, shipyard in a fire, moved to Toronto, Ontario, and opened an elevator manufacturing shop on Duke Street in 1885.

At the turn of the century, the president of Otis U.S.A., W.D. Baldwin, took a holiday in Quebec. On his way back to New York, he passed through Southern Ontario. Impressed by the industrial development of the area, he decided to put a subsidiary of the Otis U.S.A. company somewhere in Canada. Toronto, Montreal (Quebec), Hamilton (Ontario), and Peterborough (Ontario) were all vying for the opportunity to host the new plant. John Hendrie, then-mayor of Hamilton, convinced the Otis U.S.A. representative that his city would be the best location. On August 22, 1902, three small elevator companies in Hamilton, Toronto, and Montreal were merged to form the Canadian Otis Elevator Company (C.O.E.). The plant was built on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Ferrie Street.

Three years later, C.O.E. merged with Fensom's Toronto elevator manufacturing company to become the Otis-Fensom Elevator Company Limited (O.F.E.), with W.D. Baldwin as president, and John Fensom's son George as vice president and general manager. The Hamilton plant of the new company would manufacture all types of elevators and escalators, while the corporate headquarters remained in Toronto.

O.F.E. immediately began to establish sales offices in various principal cities across the country. The years preceding World War I were prosperous for the company; the Hamilton plant was expanded to the point where by 1913 it was ten times its original 1902 size. During WWI, the company made shells for the war effort; when the war ended, it returned to manufacturing elevators with the same success as before. The offices of the Otis-Fensom Elevator Company on Victoria Avenue and Ferrie Street (click for a closer look)

The corporate headquarters of O.F.E. returned to Hamilton in 1927, and the next year the workers were organized into the local branch of the International Union of Elevator Constructors.

The company was negatively affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s, as evidenced by the fact that the number of orders decreased to the point when there were absolutely none in the entire year of 1935. However, the beginning of World War II ensured that the plant would be busy for another six years manufacturing gun barrels and tank mounts. The federal government built a gun plant on O.F.E.'s premises in 1940, where 3,000 workers hired by the company would produce anti-aircraft guns. An Otis-Fensom employee works at a machine, ca. 1941 (click for a closer look) The first anti-aircraft gun in Canada was made there in August, 1941. W.D. Black, then-president of O.F.E., declared on the occasion:

We took the black magic and mystery out of gun-making and proceeded to tool up the job, using boys and girls.

When the war ended, the government sold the gun plant building to Studebaker of Canada in March, 1946.

On September 19, 1949, the name of the company was changed back to Otis Elevator Company ("Otis Canada"); however, the ownership and company organization remained the same.

The skyscraper construction industry experienced a boom during the 1950s and - as every skyscraper requires at least one elevator - so did Otis Canada. The new type of elevator that was becoming standard in office buildings and skyscrapers was the "autotronic", that is, operator-less elevator. Instead of telling an elevator operator what floor they want, passengers would simply press a button corresponding to a floor. Otis Canada installed the first autotronic elevators in Hamilton in the Bank of Commerce building on King and James Streets during the decade.

By July, 1954, there were 950 skilled and office workers at the Hamilton plant. In December of that year, Otis Canada received an order for 17 elevators and escalators to be installed in the new 21-storey skyscraper Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. Five years later, the company won another Montreal contract worth $5 million to install elevators in the 42-storey Cruciform Building in Place Ville Marie, across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. The contract was the largest elevator contract ever awarded in the Commonwealth, and the second largest in the world.

The company continued to turn profits over the next decade and in 1964 completed a $750,000 plant and equipment expansion and modernization project to keep up with the demand for elevators and escalators. Eighty-five thousand square feet of manufacturing space was added to the Hamilton facility, and the employee population increased to around 900 workers. Two years later, the company purchased 100 acres in Burlington, Ontario, in case it had to expand further.

On May 14, 1968, five hundred and fifty steelworkers at the plant, represented by the United Steelworkers of America (U.S.W.A.) Local 7062, went on strike for 139 days. On September 29 they went back to work, having gained an hourly wage increase of between 48 and 62 cents over two years.

In August of 1969, Otis Canada received a contract to manufacture a 950-foot freight elevator for a hydroelectric operation; by comparison, the elevator in the Empire State Building in New York City is 953 feet long. A few months later the company bought back the Studebaker plant, which had been idle since Studebaker left Hamilton in March, 1966. A man inspects an Otis elevator with fire-proof doors in the early '70s (click for a closer look)

The parent company, Otis U.S.A., was taken over by the New England firm United Technologies Corporation (U.T.C.) in 1975. Four years later, U.T.C. acquired Otis Canada and its 500 employees. Otis Canada had been experiencing low sales over the past few years due to a slump in the construction sector, and the Steelworkers' union wanted assurance that the employees' jobs would not be endangered by the takeover. In early May of the next year, 500 production workers of U.S.W.A. went on strike for over two months and gained, among other things, a cost-of-living clause in the new contract.

By June, 1982, fears surfaced that the Hamilton plant might close down. Elisha Otis' original Yonkers plant had closed down that year, and the only North American plants remaining were in Hamilton and Bloomington, Indiana. In May of the next year, only 250 skilled and office workers remained in the Hamilton facility. Several of the facility's manufacturing operations had been discontinued or transferred to Bloomington. Rather than producing varied products for the Canadian market as it had in the early '80s, the Hamilton plant was now manufacturing only high-rise elevator equipment for use in all of North America. On September 1, 1985, the corporate headquarters were moved to Oakville, Ontario.

United Technologies Corporation decided in February of 1987 to close the Hamilton plant of Otis Canada. Fortunately for the remaining workers, they received a generous $4 million closeout settlement that included 35 weeks severance pay and five months of benefits. However, workers who had been laid off before the closure announcement were not so happy; they maintained that had not received proper pensions, and that the company was keeping the surplus pension funds for itself. In March, 1991, the Ontario Court of Justice upheld Otis Canada's right to withdraw the $7 million in surplus pension funds.

The former Otis Canada plant on Victoria Avenue and Ferrie Street is now occupied by the Allan Candy Company.



Home List E-mail