Businesses

Vooght building was inside. 1914

“Back in the 1870s and 80s North Sydney was the fourth largest port in Canada. Only Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal, exceeded it in total tonnage handled. It also had the largest department store east of Montreal, with the first elevator in Atlantic Canada.”

Written by Rannie Gillis – Cape Breton Post

This statement, in last week’s column, led to several emails and telephone calls asking for more information on this particular department store, when it was in existence, and who owned it. But first, I must correct part of the above statement. In the 1870s and 80s North Sydney did not have the largest department store east of Montreal, that did not come until the early years of the 20th century, and it was known as the Vooght Brothers.

However, in 1870 there was a Vooght store in North Sydney, which had opened in 1862. It was built by John Vooght, who had emigrated to Canada from England, while only a young man. It was only a small store, but when he was joined in 1873 by two brothers, Tom and James, the three decided to build a large general store on the corner of Commercial and Court streets. At that time it was the largest commercial building on Cape Breton Island.

Because of the town’s status as the fourth largest port in Canada, their business prospered and did very well. However, when it was destroyed by fire in 1902, the brothers decided to build a larger four-storey building on the same site, now the location of the Bank of Nova Scotia. Constructed of brick and stone it was not only the largest department store east of Montreal, it also had two elevators, the first in the Maritime provinces.

I vividly remember riding on those two elevators back when I was in high school, with Peter and David Miller, whose father had a business (Herald Stationers) in the former Vooght building. The passenger elevator was enclosed, but the freight elevator had open sides, and you could plainly see the walls of the elevator shaft as you made your way between the four floors.

I have several interesting photographs of the new store. One, from 1902, shows the massive building under construction, and you can just make out the scaffolding around the exterior of the building, as well as the large water tower on top of the building. This tower was required in order to provide enough water pressure for the bathrooms on the upper floors.

The Vooght brothers also operated a substantial wholesale business, with their own wharf and two warehouses located on the waterfront, directly across from their new super store. By 1914 they employed a total of 33 staff, made up of 19 women and 14 men.

Another photograph, from 1914, shows the entire staff lined up on the sidewalk in front of the huge store. You can see the name Vooght Brothers carved above the main door, and the brass hitching rail at waist level along the front of the building. This rail, which was at least six inches in diametre, was used to tie up your horse and wagon, when you came to town to shop. This rail remained in place until a few years before the building was demolished in 1982.