Arthur Frederick Wells, P.Eng. (1880-1979)
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By Dr. David T.A. Symons, P.Eng.

Expert at reinforced concrete, he pioneered its application to infrastructure for transportation, municipal development and industrial manufacturing.

Arthur Wells was born in 1880 in an unexceptional wood frame farmhouse on Malden Road in Sandwich West Township, about five miles (eight kilometres) outside of the town of Sandwich, in Essex County, Ontario. Today, Sandwich forms the west end of Windsor, Ontario, and the farm has been subdivided into lots in the rapidly growing bedroom suburb of LaSalle.

Arthur’s lineage was quite typical of the times. His grandparents, William and Elizabeth Wells, had married in Jaxton, Nottinghamshire, England, in 1830. They soon had seven children: John, William, Job, Sarah (who died in infancy), George, Ann and Joseph. The family emigrated to Canada in 1849, homesteaded on about 100 acres on Malden Road and prospered. After the sons grew to manhood, they moved across the river to Detroit, except for George. He married Elizabeth Ure in 1872 and bought about 40 acres of the family farm on which to settle. George and Elizabeth had four children, namely Jane Elizabeth (Bessie) in 1873, William George (Will) in 1874, Bertha Eleanor (Bert) in 1876 and, finally, Arthur Frederick (Art) in 1880.

Tragedy soon followed for the family when George died of tuberculosis in 1886. Elizabeth and the children tried to keep the farm going for a short while, but it proved too much for them to manage, and so they moved to a house on Goyeau Street in downtown Windsor. Elizabeth did housework to support the family, but her health was poor, and tragedy soon struck again in 1889, when she died of cancer.

The orphans were split up. Bessie, Will and Bert moved into a cottage on Sandwich Street in Sandwich with their Aunt Annie Wells, a spinster, so they could finish their schooling. Art was sent to live on a farm in Sandwich South Township with his uncle David Ure and his aunt, who had eight children of their own. Art lived with the Ures for several years until he finished grade school, whereupon he joined his siblings with Aunt Annie in the cottage. Art went to the Windsor Collegiate Institute, where he distinguished himself both academically and athletically. Upon graduation at the age of 17, Art earned an Ontario Public School Teacher’s Third-Class certificate from the County Model School and was hired to teach in a one-room grade school in LaSalle, complete with a birch rod. For three years, he rode his bicycle to and from work, a 20-kilometre round trip, to earn the money to go to university to become an engineer.

In the fall of 1901, Art entered the School of Practical Science at the University of Toronto, taking civil engineering. An obvious influence in his choice of discipline was his uncle, Frederick Ure, who was the city engineer in Woodstock, Ontario, but who also had an extensive drainage practice in the rich but boggy low-lying farmland of Essex County. Also, of course, Uncle Fred was able to employ Art as a “student engineer” during the summers of 1902 and 1903, enabling him to continue to earn the necessary funds.

While at the university, Art first lived at the local “Y” (Young Men’s Christian Association). A skinny six-footer (1.85 metres), he was tall for his times and played basketball for the six-man Central Toronto YMCA. intermediate team that won the league championship in the 1902/03 season (fig. 2). Later, he joined and moved into the Toronto chapter house of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, a definite upgrade to his social life. Notwithstanding these activities, he graduated close to the top of his class in 1906 with honours in civil engineering.

1907 was a signal year. Early in February, he wrote to John Spiers to ask for his daughter Barbara’s hand in marriage. John was a prominent citizen of Sandwich–he ran the town’s general store at the main crossroads of Sandwich and Mill streets, which included running the post office until a new one was built across the corner. John’s reply, if somewhat stuffy by today’s standards, was positive, i.e. “I certainly put no stumbling block in the way.” The letter was also prescient, i.e. “I am glad to see that you take the bright view you do of your circumstances. With good health and with the business that you have adopted, it should not take a great while to place you in the condition you require.” Barbara and Arthur were married on New Year’s Day, 1908, at St. John’s Anglican Church in Sandwich. Barbara’s sister, Jennie, was the bridesmaid, and sisters Ethel, Lillian, Florence and Winnifred, were the ushers. The local newspaper reported the affair as “the social event of the season,” and John, who had only the six daughters, was likely relieved to finally have one married!

In 1907, Art incorporated the Concrete Engineering and Construction Company Ltd., with himself as president and with offices on Bay Street in downtown Toronto. One year later, his brother-in-law, John Vickers Gray, joined the company as its vice-president. The division of duties was straightforward. Art looked after the engineering and architectural duties, the supervision of the construction site engineers and foremen and the promotion of contracts. John ran the office, tracking the contracts, ordering the construction materials, paying the suppliers and employees and billing the clients. Shortly thereafter, Wells & Gray Ltd., Engineers and Contractors, Toronto, Ontario, was formed.

At first, the firm’s contracts were modest, with none prior to 1910 being deemed sufficiently significant to be featured in their advertising portfolio of projects. In the winter of 1910, they won the contract to build the train station in Guelph, Ontario, for the Canadian Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR Co.). This was followed immediately by a contract to build the Parkdale station in Toronto for CPRR Co. They also built the Wilton Avenue bridge for the City of Toronto, a 383-foot long, four-lane bridge spanning the Don River. Another contract was to build piers for transmission lines about 200 feet offshore in Lake Ontario along the West Toronto shoreline for the Ontario Hydro-Electric Company to carry power from Niagara Falls to the city. Clearly, however, the most important contract was to build the first Canadian factory for the Ford Motor Company Ltd., in Walkerville, Ontario, which is now part of Windsor. It was designed by the famed Detroit/Windsor architect Albert Kahn and was a three-storey, 94 ft. x 65 ft. reinforced concrete structure built beside the Detroit River.

By this time, Wells & Gray became known for its expertise in reinforced concrete construction and for the use of glass to create well-lit open factory space, and the years from 1911 through 1913 were extremely busy. In most cases, “A.F.,” as Art was now becoming referred to in the company, provided both the architectural and engineering services, but in some cases, the client company provided the latter services. These buildings included:

  • dam #2 and transformer house for the Sydney Electric Power Company near Trenton, Ontario;
  • the 380-foot-long and 290-foot-long car subway and train bridges at Runnymede Road and at Jane Street, respectively, in Toronto, for the CPRR Co;
  • the freight car repair shop in West Toronto for CPRR Co., a 40-foot- high, 14,000-square-foot building with a glass roof;
  • the traction factory building in Toronto for Canadian Fairbanks-Morse Company, a two-storey structure measuring 55,000 square feet;
  • a nine-storey, 125,000-square-foot cold storage warehouse in West Toronto was built for the Swift Canadian Company in just six months, as well as an ice house of similar size;
  • three-storey, 15,000-square-foot buildings for the Swift Canadian Company Ltd. and for Gunn’s Ltd. in the St. Lawrence Market, Toronto;
  • a 22,000-square-foot fertilizer building, also for Swift Canadian, which was built in three months;
  • for the Union Stock Yards Ltd., in West Toronto, a “Stores and Bank” building and a 60,000-square-foot concrete “sheep pens” building;
  • a 50,000-square-foot, five-storey warehouse in Chatham, Ontario, for the International Harvester Company of Canada Ltd;
  • the Power Building, with 100,000 square feet, for Walker Sons Ltd., in Walkerville (now Windsor), Ontario;
  • a 20,000-square-foot building for the Universal Car Company Ltd., a Ford dealership in Windsor; and
  • also in Walkerville, an 8,000-square-foot plant erected for Hiram Walker Metal Products Company, a 9,000-square-foot plant for the Canadian Detroit Lubricator Ltd. that was built in only six weeks and a
    15,000-square-foot factory for the Leather Label Overhaul Company Ltd., and for the Dominion Stamping Company Ltd. a 42,000-square-foot, five-storey factory building.

Perhaps the most interesting building of these years was the addition to the original factory for the Ford Motor Co. in Walkerville. This was a four-storey building entirely on piles in the Detroit River (fig. 1). The building was 707 ft. x 75 ft., giving a floor area of 213,000 square feet. During this time, many other structures were built for the company: a 60,000-square-foot factory building, a “fireproof” office building, the engine house, the steel heat treatment building, etc. A.F. liked to tell the story of his run-in with the local building inspector, who did not believe that the reinforced concrete could carry the designed loads with a sufficient safety factor. After the first floor was built, construction stopped, pig iron bars were piled in the centre of the floor and a two-day wait ensued. The structure passed with flying colours, leaving the inspector with egg on his face.

These were active years on the home front also for Art and Barbara. While looking after a contract in Montreal, their first child Eleanor Isabel (Sybil, a.k.a. Icky to Art!) was born on July 4, 1909. In early 1910, the family moved into a house on Springhurst Avenue in Toronto. Here, Florence Elizabeth (Tiny) was born in 1912. A few months later, in 1913, the family moved again, to a 12-acre mini-farm on Lakeshore Drive in Port Credit. The family lived here for the next 12 years, augmented by the birth of Barbara Ella (Boo) in 1915. With home-schooling and a handyman to run the farm, it was a great life for the children.

From 1913 on through the 1920s, our knowledge of the construction projects undertaken by Wells & Gray is limited, because many were not included in their advertising folio. Nevertheless, it is clear that the World War I years were very busy. As 1913 came to an end, Wells & Gray Ltd. completed a transformer station (20,000 square feet) at Niagara Falls for the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. The folio picture notes that their firm had done more than $300,000 worth of contracts for the commission. In 1914, a 20,000-square-foot plant was built in London, Ontario, for the Ford Motor Co. of Canada; more than 200,000 square feet of office and cold storage space were added at the Swift Canadian Co. plant in West Toronto; in Walkerville, King George Public School was constructed with 10 classrooms, offices and basement space; and General Brock Public School was erected with eight classrooms in Sandwich. Also, a small but attractive building was constructed on the corner of Dupont and Christie streets in Toronto for the Merchants Bank of Canada.

1915 saw the building of the North Toronto Station for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. This work included a subway underpass for vehicles on Yonge Street, a railway bridge, freight sheds and passenger shelter. Except for the shelters, these are still in operation at Summerhill Street in central Toronto, and the site has been redeveloped as the flagship outlet for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Also in 1915, St. Joseph’s Separate School was built in Windsor with eight classrooms.

In 1916, A.F. Wells was given the unusual task of constructing the new Windsor Collegiate Institute, replacing his “teenage alma mater.” Later renamed Patterson High School, this building served Windsor’s youth for seven decades, until downtown demographics led to the site being redeveloped in the 1980s. An interesting structure built in 1917 was the railway bridge over Reservoir Park Ravine in North Toronto. It continues to be in service today at the north end of Rosedale in what is now central Toronto.

Clearly, there were, however, three main construction sites through the war years. One was the Ford Motor Company’s site in Walkerville–renamed to Ford, Ontario–that was continually expanded both inland and further out into the Detroit River at a cost of $1.5 million, a huge sum at the time, to serve the war effort. The second site was at the Harris Abattoir Company Ltd. plant in West Toronto, to which three large sections were added between 1916 and 1918 at a cost of $250,000. And the third was the huge Peters Cartridge Company munitions factory in King’s Mills near Cleveland, Ohio. This plant, built between 1916 and 1918 at a cost of $900,000, appears to have around 500,000 square feet of floor space. In 1919, as war wound down, Wells & Gray Ltd. also constructed the foundry building in Sarnia, Ontario, for the Holmes Foundry Company Ltd. that operated until demolished a few years ago.

At war’s end, little changed on the home front. Home-schooling ceased for Sybil, Tiny and Boo, and they were enrolled first as day girls and then as boarders at the fashionable Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. A.F. took out memberships at the Essex Golf and Country Club in Windsor and the Mississauga Golf and Country Club in Port Credit. Although he was reputed to be a “pretty good golfer,” the purpose was primarily for business contacts. Each autumn, he would take a week or two off and head to Port Loring in northern Ontario with some of his cronies from either Port Credit or St. Catharines to hunt for deer and relax, returning most seasons with his quota of one buck.

The “roaring twenties” passed by with a full order book and a comfortable lifestyle. A large 300,000-square-foot factory was built for Dominion Forge and Stamping Company in Ford, Ontario, in 1921. As well, a three-storey store and office building of about 24,000 square feet was built for Walker Sons Ltd. in Walkerville, and a new police station of about 20,000 square feet was built for the City of Windsor–both buildings remain in use today. A year later, an exchange building was erected in Walkerville for the Bell Telephone Company of Canada. The major project in 1923 was to build Plant 2, a machine shop for the Ford Motor Co. in Ford, Ontario. Unlike the early Plant 1 complex, this building was designed by Albert Kahn. It covers 15 acres on floor with a mostly glass roof and cost about $1.5 million. It is still in use today, although it no longer has the glass roof. Another notable building of that year was the office building and streetcar barns at Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street in Toronto, built for the Toronto Transportation Commission.

The unusual building of 1924 was the “garbage destructor building” put up for the City of Toronto, a large incinerator complex. That same year, Wells & Gray built a 68,000-square-foot factory for the Hoyte Metal Company of Canada Ltd. in Toronto. The Bell Telephone Co. gave the firm two contracts in 1925 to build the “Hargrave Exchange” and the “Lyndhurst Exchange” in Toronto. At the same time, the firm put up a factory of about 24,000 square feet for Langleys Ltd. on Spadina Avenue. Standing at the corner of University Avenue and College Street is a widely recognized landmark in Toronto. It is the Hygiene and Public Health Building built in 1925/1926. It is still part of the university’s medical complex. The year 1926 also saw an addition of about 18,000 square feet to the Canadian Kodak Company’s building at Mt. Dennis, Ontario–now part of Toronto in the Eglinton Avenue and Weston Road area. Another project was a substantial building erected for the Consumers’ Gas Company in Toronto. Certainly, the most ornate and elegant building constructed by the firm was an office and factory building of about 160,000 square feet erected for Crosse & Blackwell Canada Ltd. in 1927 in Toronto.

At this point, in 1927, the record of buildings erected by Wells & Gray goes cold, because this is the year that the last promotional folio of buildings was produced. Nevertheless, the company did continue to operate for another two decades. The “dirty thirties,” however, were very difficult times for the firm and the Wells family. In the heady days of 1925, A.F. sold the home on Lakeshore Drive, bought property off Mississauga Road overlooking the Credit River and built a substantial home on it. Contracts were small with thin margins in the depression days of the early 1930s, but the firm remained in the black. Unfortunately, there were no escape clauses in construction contracts of the time if the workers of a building trade went on strike, resulting in losses because of penalty clauses. This happened to Wells & Gray, costing A.F. most of his personal wealth, although the firm did not go bankrupt. In later years, he ruefully commented that he could not “catch up with the bricklayers who were laying fewer and fewer bricks-per-hour but winning contracts that paid them higher and higher wages-per-hour.” Thus, in 1936, the home on the Credit River had to be sold for a fraction of its original cost, and the family moved to a modest house on Birchview Crescent in West Toronto.

There were some joyous moments during these grim years. In 1934, Sybil married D. Martin Symons, a lawyer in Toronto, and three years later Tiny married Hugo R. Holland, a chemical engineer with Imperial Oil Ltd. in Sarnia. At the time, Birchview Crescent was a rough, unpaved road that caused A.F.’s Packard to bounce wildly, much to his grandchildren’s delight. They renamed A.F. “Bumpah” or “Bump,” and the moniker stuck. Another highlight occurred in 1935, when A.F. was elected president of the Engineers Club of Toronto (fig. 3). An excellent bridge player, A.F. would play a game or two after lunch and, more often than not, was able to pay for his meal out of his winnings.

During the World War II years from 1939 to 1945, Wells & Gray was steadily busy with mostly smaller contracts for plant additions and other sorts of concrete work. By 1947, A.F. was able to build a comfortable home for Barbara and himself on a large lot on Mineola Road in Port Credit. Feeling that he had sufficient funds, he retired in 1956 at the age of 76 and closed the firm. During the 1950s and 1960s, there were trips to Florida, Vancouver, Ottawa, Alaska and Bermuda to visit relatives (remember all those five sisters of Barbara and his three siblings?). He continued to go hunting each autumn, never confessing to Barbara that he fell through the ice one year and nearly drowned! Then, in 1963, a gravel truck ran into his car in Streetsville, leaving him badly shaken and his car almost beyond repair. He opted not to take his annual driver’s test the next time around and drove into Port Credit weekly for a year to get groceries without either a licence or insurance.

By 1964, looking after the large lawn, the large vegetable garden and the winter snows was proving too much and sanity prevailed. The three daughters moved A.F. and their mother into an apartment in central Toronto about four blocks from Sybil’s home. There, they lived quietly. A.F. took daily walks–a lifetime avocation–down to Bloor Street to do the shopping, read the papers, sometimes went to the Engineers Club for lunch and watched the news, hockey and comedy shows on T.V. A family party was held at the club in 1968 to celebrate the couple’s diamond anniversary. Again, in 1970, on the occasion of A.F.’s 90th birthday, a celebration was held at the Engineers Club, where he was by now its oldest member. Then, in November 1971, his beloved Barbara died at the age of 89. Undaunted, A.F. continued to live in the apartment, looking after himself and enjoying his daily cigar and drink of scotch, as Doc Sutton, his longtime doctor and hunting pal from the days on Lakeshore Road, had always prescribed. Shortly after his 99th birthday, he was no longer able to cope on his own and had to be moved into a nursing home, where he died at the age of 99 ½ in 1979.

A.F. Wells was a remarkable man in many ways, but most notably as a professional engineer who was a Canadian leader in the realm of reinforced concrete construction and as an architect and builder of major industrial facilities throughout central and southwestern Ontario in the 1910s and 1920s. Many of the companies for which he built these plants went on to become leading Canadian corporations and employers, and some still are.

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