Smiths Falls History & Mystery: Seize the day

Mathew Ryan
Mathew Ryan. Photo credit: Smiths Falls Heritage House Museum.
Posted on: July 15, 2021

In 1886, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway yards in Smiths Falls, Ontario created some incredible business opportunities. Matthew Ryan was a local carpenter who took advantage of the situation to make his fortune. He quickly branched out to become a dealer in lumber and shingles, a manufacturer of brick, a contractor, a buyer and seller of real estate, an ice dealer, a Board of Trade representative, a Smiths Falls town councillor, and a racetrack owner.

Matthew Ryan was born on October 5, 1856, in Smiths Falls, Ontario. The 1871 census indicates that he was the youngest of seven children born to Roman Catholic parents. The family had recently immigrated from Ireland, and his parents could neither read nor write. His father Mathew, and older brother James, supported the family of nine by working as labourers. Matthew was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to school. The 1881 census indicates that Matthew was a carpenter at 24. A decade later, Matthew Ryan was documented as living with his wife, Mary Ann (Shanks) Ryan, two children, and a “domestic”. His profession was listed as carpenter and builder of homes, and he had 60 employees.

Ryan did not just build brick houses—he manufactured brick. The 1884-5 Ontario Gazetteer and Business Directory includes a listing for Ryan & Allen and describes Matthew Ryan and Herbert Allen as “Brick Makers”. Their brickyard was on the southwest bank of the Rideau below Old Slys Rapids. Although Allen was the stone mason and bricklayer in this partnership, Ryan is the one who made the headlines. In 1929, The Rideau Record wrote “Ryan bricks really built Smiths Falls. Ryan bricks are in practically every building of this type in the town of Smiths Falls. His brickyard, it is conceded, resulted in the erection of many “fire-proof” homes and incidentally in the lowering of local insurance rates.”

Matthew Ryan was a highly coveted contractor during his glory years in Smiths Falls. He frequently collaborated with the high-profile architect George Thomas Martin. Ryan’s impressive list of accomplishments includes numerous private homes, the Smiths Falls Firehall and Hose Tower, St. Francis de Sales School, Malleable Iron Works Foundry, Wood’s Mill, St. Andrew’s Church, Carleton Place Town Hall, modifications to Saint John the Evangelist Church and the Smiths Falls Public Market.

Matthew Ryan supplied ice to the Town of Smiths Falls for years. He obtained a lease and built the first icehouse at the detached lock in October 1895. He had competition a few years later, as Frances Hourigan also received a lease to build an icehouse. Mathew Ryan’s father-in-law James Shanks bought both businesses and then sold them to John E. Joynt in June, 1918. The original business consisted of a 140-foot by 30-foot building with an addition in the centre and stables for the delivery horses. 20 to 30 labourers would harvest 5000 tons of ice from the canal each year. The ice was cut into two-foot by three-foot blocks with a hand saw, which were transported from the canal to the icehouse.

In the late 1890s, Ryan converted his farm on Jasper Road into a public park. “Ryan’s Park” was surrounded by woods and had a magnificent view of the Rideau River. It featured an impressive, half mile oval racetrack with a grandstand and was far enough out of town to allow for a discreet drink or other forms of debauchery. In 1924, “Ryan’s Park” was acquired by a group of local citizens known as the Strathcona Park Association. The Association made extensive improvements and changed the name to “Strathcona Park”. At Old Home Week in 1925, the Association boasted “of having one of the best racetracks in Eastern Ontario”. By the 1960s the area was commonly referred to as “Ryan’s Park” again. In the 1970s, it became a housing subdivision. A portion of the racetrack is now Colonel By Crescent.

In 1888, Matthew Ryan built a magnificent house at 102 Brockville Street with a separate ornate brick carriage house on Elm Street. He lived there with his wife Mary Ann, their six children and one servant. Ryan died at the age of 73 on November 6th, 1929. The Rideau Record newspaper referred to Ryan as “… one of Smiths Falls most prominent citizens and one who was largely responsible for the modern, attractive Smiths Falls of today.”

Ted Outerbridge & his wife Marion are currently restoring a Smiths Falls heritage home built by Matthew Ryan in 1893. They are also being swept away by local history & mystery. You can follow them at The Keyhole House on Instagram & Facebook.

Column by Ted Outerbridge

Hometown News
Author: Hometown News