VANCOUVER 2010 WINTER OLYMPICS | THE CHAMPIONS OF THE GAMES :: ROBERT SWANSON’S O CANADA HERITAGE HORNS TRUMPET CANADIAN MEDALISTS
On Saturday, 13 February 2010, at about 19:30 I heard a strange sound: Vancouver’s O Canada Heritage Horns blaring the first four notes of the national anthem: “O-CA-NA-DA!”
Every day at noon these horns tell Vancouverites that it’s time for lunch. What were they doing playing O Ca-na-da at night?
I thought that the horns had malfunctioned, but I was wrong.
Jenn Heil had just won Canada’s first medal — a silver for her freestyle skiing. The horns were blaring for her.
Jenn Heil with her silver medal
The Heritage Horns went off 26 times during these games to celebrate the achievements of Canada’s winter athletes.
I love the O Canada Heritage Horns. Together with the Nine O’Clock Gun, they are a unique part of Vancouver’s soundscape. Twice a day — at noon and at nine in the evening — Vancouverites are told the time of day via these two timepieces.
top: the Nine O’Clock Gun; below: the O Canada Heritage Horns
As mentioned, the Heritage Horns play the first four notes of the national anthem:
Thanks to Peter’s Useful Crap > GIVING YOU AS MUCH CRAP AS POSSIBLE. GOOD CRAP, THOUGH. USEFUL CRAP for the horn soundscape.
The Horns have an interesting history. They were designed by Robert Eugene Swanson (1905 – 1994) to celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967.
Centennial of Canadian Confederation logo designed by Stuart Ash, Paul Arthur and Associates for the Government of Canada in 1966 (and one of my favourite Canadian logos).
Swanson was a logger, researcher and poet. He is credited with the invention of the first six- and five-chime air horn which sounded exactly like a steam locomotive whistle; an invention that, as the article below states, made diesel locomotives whistle “A Song of Safety.”
Prior to his invention, diesel train engines used horns that sounded like trucks — the cause of many accidents.
SOURCE: Canadian Railway Hall of Fame
To celebrate Canada’s first one hundred years as a country, Swanson the “logger poet” turned his sound expertise towards designing the O Canada horns.
They were originally placed on top of the BC Electric (now BC Hydro) Building (shown below in 1957, the year the building was completed):
The BC Electric Building by Ron Thom and Ned Pratt of Thompson, Berwick and Pratt
BC Hydro logo photo by Tom Magliery, Flickr. (This is another of my favourite Canadian logos.)
B.C. Binning‘s mosaic tiles on the BC Hydro (formerly BC Electric) building
Robert Swanson with his O Canada horns atop the BC Hydro Building
Swanson also made a smaller version of his horns for the locomotive that pulled the Confederation Train (a museum on wheels) across Canada in 1967:
below: Swanson tests the Confederation Train’s version of his O Canada horns in 1966
above: The Confederation at Ottawa’s Union Station, 1 January 1967. Photo credit: © Jim Brown from John Whelan’s superb website, Expo 67 in Montreal.
above: Crowds queue to visit the Confederation Train in Montréal. Photograph by Yvon Bellemare.
From 1967 until 1990, Swanson’s array of ten aluminum horns played the first four notes of “O Canada” from the building’s roof at noon each day.
Then BC Hydro decided to abandon its mid-century masterpiece of architecture. The horns stopped playing.
When the company’s ex-HQ was retrofitted to become condominiums (in a very sensitive-to-the-original design by Paul Merrick), the horns needed a new home. (I suppose the purchasers of those expensive condos didn’t want to hear O Canada every day.)
The BC Hydro Building converted to The Electra condominiums by Paul Merrick Architects, 1998
A new location was eventually found, atop the Pan Pacific Hotel at Canada place (I wonder how many complaints the hotel receives from its guests; perhaps they don’t mind the horns’ ear-shattering 115 decibels of patriotism).
The “O Canada!” horns were first tested at Canada Place on Vancouver’s waterfront on 13 October 1994; the test was timed to coincide with a memorial service for Swanson, who had died on nine days earlier.
The horns were turned on permanently again at noon on 8 November 1994 and have been blaring every day since then.
The Olympics marked the first time they were heard outside their regular noontime gig.
> click on the screenshot below to view the Canadian Press video, “Blowing Our Own Horn”
I’m sure that Robert Swanson would have been delighted that his creation played such a significant role during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
After all, he designed them as a means to celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967, one of the most patriotic years in modern Canadian history.
The 2010 Olympics were arguably the most patriotic moment in the lives of many Canadians, so the two events tie in together nicely.
We should applaud whoever came up with the brilliant idea of using the Heritage Horns to announce that a Canadian athlete had won another Olympic medal.
I know that every time I heard them go off during the Games I got excited and curious to know who had just won another medal for Team Canada.
P.S. Swanson was also partly responsible for another Vancouver landmark, the Gastown Steam Clock, created by Robert Saunders, Horologist, in 1976.
Electricity runs the clock but the steam heating system used to heat many downtown buildings (from Central Heat Distribution, Ltd.) blows the clock’s whistles.
Photo of Robert Swanson by Brian Kent/Railway Appliance Research Collection/Nanaimo District Museum via dieselduck.net
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- 2010/02/28 / 12:00
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