Reaching sky-high limits with Fensom’s Canadian-made elevators
Stepping into the sleek car, passengers are whisked to upper floors or downward at great speed. Safety is imperative, especially as residential and commercial buildings stretch higher toward the clouds. The Fensom Elevator Works thrived in Hamilton for nearly two decades, then merged with the world leader in elevators, Otis Elevator Company.
Moving freight in industrial plants, elevators were not appealing to fearful passengers. The elevator could suddenly plunge and cause harm. At the 1853 World’s Fair in New York, Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated his innovative design for an elevator brake. Sporting a top hat on his head, Otis stepped dramatically onto the freight platform at the Crystal Palace and pulled the ropes to raise the elevator high above the gathering audience.
Testing new elevator system… with an axe
On Otis’ signal, a worker swung an axe to cut the cable holding the elevator. “The axe fell, the cable snapped and the spectators screamed,” said New England Historical Society, “but the platform plunged only two feet.” The inventor’s device “had a spring mechanism that prevented the platform from falling even if the cables broke.” Three dozen orders poured in after the heart-stopping demonstration. Otis Elevator Company was born.
Three decades later, John Fensom (b. England 1829) established a new elevator manufacturing plant in 1885 on Duke Street in Toronto. Experienced in the milling and machine shop sector, the businessman owned a shipyard in Collingwood, Ontario. A fire destroyed the ship works and Fensom took his chances on the young elevator industry.
Elevators chugged along at about 40 feet per minute
Initially building freight elevators for factories and warehouses, The Fensom Elevator Works soon had customers requesting passenger elevators. Elevators allowed architects to design progressive buildings that reached sky-high limits—hotels, office buildings, stores, and apartment buildings. Elevators chugged along at about 40 feet per minute.
Describing Fensom hoists on July 3, 1896, The Globe article noted that the firm’s systems “are representative of the most modern type of hoisting machinery adapted to building equipment. They are constructed in connection with steam power (either gear or belt power), hydraulic and electric power.” The elevators are “also able to be worked by hand power when required.”
Fensom high-quality elevators at Eaton’s in Toronto
Fensom’s equipment reviews praised combining “simplicity, durability and economy of power with the highest capacity and efficiency,” the article noted. “They are also the smoothest starting, running, easiest stopping, handling and controlling,” along with much more praise.
One of company’s larger customers was the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. store on Toronto’s Yonge Street. Nine elevators were installed to carry impressed customers to sales floors by 1896. Nearby, the Robert Simpson Co. Ltd. store also installed six elevators, and Union Station needed two.
Merger created Otis-Fenson Elevator Company in 1902
Word of the factory’s quality products spread throughout Canada. The firm sold passenger elevator systems for Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, shipped systems to Hudson Bay Company stores in Winnipeg and Vancouver, and to customers in Quebec.
In the USA, the expanding Otis company trained their sights on Canada. “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.),” said Industrial Hamilton: A Trail to the Future. In 1905, C.O.E. grew again through a merger with Fensom’s company. Renamed Otis-Fensom Elevator Company Limited (O.F.E.), the manufacturing facility was located in Hamilton and head office in Toronto.
Booming in both sales and growth until war loomed, Otis-Fensom was contracted to manufacture shells during WW1. Prosperity continued after the war and for a time, the company was the world’s largest elevator manufacturer at one location.
Company produced wartime weaponry in WWI
In 1927, the head office moved to Hamilton and workers joined the International Union of Elevator Constructors. The Great Depression brought a sharp slump in elevator production, but the company survived to take on the pressures of the next war effort.
“Tens of thousands of anti-aircraft and light naval gun barrels, tank gun mounts and various other high priority war products were turned out in the existing elevator plant,” according to Canadian Business Resource (CBR). “In addition, a 40 MM Bofors anti-aircraft gun plant was erected and operated for the Department of Munitions and Supply.” Throughout, the workers were still building elevators to fill customer orders.
Fensom patents and inventions led the industry
Before establishing his company, Fensom invented elevator safety devices such as the “mechanical overspeed governor.” Early braking devices were inadequate in the mechanic’s view. In US Patent US51014A issued May 1874, Fensom described his improvement attached to a freight or passenger elevator as “a governor, driven by a pinion from a rack on one of the guide-posts, and actuating through levers properly balanced, two catches of which are securely pivoted to the cage opposite to each guide-post.”
In 1949, Otis-Fensom became Otis Elevator Company Limited (Canada). The manufacturer installed elevators in the CN Tower in 1976. The tower was the tallest building the world for more than 30 years. Otis remains a leader in elevator systems. Top floor, please!
This article first appeared in Ontario Construction News, December 2021. (C) Susanna McLeod