Alma Street, all one block of it, runs along the west side of McBurney Park, which was once the Upper Burial Grounds. The park is still the resting place of the remains of many hundreds of people; only a small percentage were exhumed in 1893 when the park was established. In 2009, a burial was found under the street itself, which led to the decision to narrow it.
Given the funereal history, you might think the street name is a cute reference to the soul (‘alma’ in Spanish) that leaves the body behind upon death. But in fact, Cemetery Lane was renamed Alma Street after the Crimean War. At the Battle of (the River) Alma in 1854, Lord Raglan led the French and British to victory against the Russians — at the cost of 3300 lives among the victors alone. Around the British Empire, city fathers gave streets names like Alma, Raglan, and Balaclava to glorify that miserable war.
Despite the morbid associations of both old and current street names, we have been curious to dig into Alma Street’s more lively history (apologies for the puns). After all, people have lived along this street for a long time. Just like today, they ate, drank, slept, and played here, sometimes no doubt quite oblivious of what lay under the ground in front of their houses.
Here are the beginnings of stories about two families and three houses.
The 1901, 1911, and 1921 censuses list Robert Moon as living at 12 Alma Street with his family and various lodgers. In 1893 he had had the contract to install sewers and water mains on Alma Street when the cemetery was being converted to a park, and his granddaughter Mona recalled that he built the house. By 1927, it seems Robert had died, and his son William moved up from North Street with his wife Lena, his 16-year-old daughter Mona, and his 15 year-old son Guy. The eldest daughter, Gretta, was probably already married in 1927 as she never lived on Alma Street; it must have been a shock to the family when she died in the early 1930s, at age 28, of meningitis. William worked for Canadian Locomotive at the bottom of Earl Street. “All the men did,” Mona stated when interviewed in 2001. According to the directories, William was a boilermaker and a ‘flanger.’ This is where the kindness of a facebook stranger comes in: we have it on good authority that “A flange is an edge or surface that runs at 90 degrees to a large sheet or plane. Its purpose is to stiffen, form a safety edge or a joining surface of a larger sheet which could be flat or cylindrical. [Probably William would have been installing] boiler cladding (outer skin covering insulation) or various sheet metal components, chassis, running board, cab, etc.” During the war, Guy went “overseas,” as Mona put it; at least two other men from the street, Ross Bell and Charles Pickering, are also listed as “active service” in the directories from the war period. Meanwhile, Mona, like many women at the time, went to work — and like her father, she worked at Canadian Locomotive, doing “war stuff.” She did that “till the men came back,” when she moved to Dupont — and she worked at Dupont for over 30 years until her retirement. She lived at 12 Alma long after both her parents passed away, staying only briefly at Providence Manor before her death in 2001. So: one house, one century, one family.
Down near the other end of the block are two identical brick houses (indeed they are identical to many houses across Kingston — you probably recognize this design). From the 1920s to the 60s, these houses were home to the Pappas family. George Pappas lived at 38 Alma with his wife May, daughters Dora and Alexandria, and sometimes some boarders. Right next door lived George’s brother, Nicholas, with his wife Matilda and their six children: Minerva, Catherine, Theodore, George, Othon, and Helen. Nicholas and George owned the Pappas Brothers billiards hall and cigar store on Princess street at Montreal — where Frameworks is now. Many of the children lived at home well into adulthood, and from the age they were able to start working, all the boys of the family were employed at the pool hall. Much research needs to be done on the history of Greeks in Kingston, who ran (and continue to run) many restaurants and other businesses. We haven’t yet been able to locate any members of Pappas family to talk with, and not many Greeks seemed to live in this particular neighbourhood. But many people in the neighbourhood do remember the pool hall, and we also note that the family name seems to be referenced in Judith Thompson’s 1980 play The Crackwalker. In this very dark play about poverty and desperation in Kingston, a nasty character down on his luck, who we can assume is of British or Northern European origin, expresses bitter resentment against “Pappadapa” and other Greeks he has been gambling with. Another character, who works as a dishwasher, says he hates his “greasy” Greek boss. We wonder whether the hostile attitudes Thompson portrays were widespread. We noticed that Theodore and Theodora are sometimes listed in the city directory by their given names, but at other times they are listed as Ted and Dora. This is of course speculation, but it may be that the shorter names represent an attempt to assimilate or minimize difference in a not entirely friendly environment.
These very short, very incomplete, stories have been cobbled together from city directories, censuses, a warbly old cassette interview Laura did in 2001, the help of that facebook stranger, an archaeological report by Sue Bazely, the Whig Standard, and even a play. We hope you can begin to conjure the people who lived here — but we’re still a long ways from knowing them. Maybe you can tell us more? Maybe you have known some of these people or have also lived in these houses?
— Laura Murray and Ronen Goldfarb