Old St. Catharines jail lasted more than a century before 1973 closing


Published December 15, 2022 at 12:59 pm

The old Lincoln County Jail on Niagara Street in St. Catharines. (Photo: St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canal Centre)

A picture of the old Lincoln County Jail on Niagara Street in St. Catharines certainly evoked a lot of creepy memories from area youth when it was posted.

The stark black-and-white image of the imposing gothic building, built in 1866 and designed by architect W.G. Storm, leaves out one striking detail – the doors of the building were bright red.

That lent for its neighbourhood nickname, the “Red Door Hotel.”

The use of the jail, built at 116 Niagara Street, a residential neighbourhood, was more recent than many would think. Prisoners were incarcerated there from 1866 until the opening of the Niagara Regional Detention Centre in 1973.

The jail was demolished three years later after much public debate in 1976. On the site now is a Ukrainian Credit union and a real estate building.

According to the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canal Centre, “The jail’s first occupant, Jack Bryant, was one of the 164 other prisoners in the first year of operation.”

“Despite the 76 cm (30 inch) thick walls, six escapes occurred during the jail’s 107-year existence. Only one hanging took place. Sidney Gordon Chambers was hung on December 16, 1946 for the murder of a nine-year-old St. Catharines girl.”

The museum included the below 1975 photo of adjoining cells with a communal toilet and sink, noting, “A jail sentence in the late-19th century was focused less on rehabilitation, and more on incarceration and the punishment of inmates.”

“Prisoners were assigned individual cells and their security was ensured through locks fitted deep within the limestone door frames which required a key on a small pole to be opened. Prisoners shared a common block with a sink, table, and toilet.”

But the mere image of the jail on a Facebook history page brought back a lot of memories for older area residents. It seems that parents at the time were using the building as a constant reminder to behave.

Said one poster, “Niagara Street jail, and its big red door. I was only about seven years old when my mom pointed it out to me – with a well timed pause for effect. It worked (well, mostly) and to this day that image is as clear in my mind as it was then.”

Another poster noted his mother picks a drizzly, miserable day to make her point. “Right where Dacotah St. meets Niagara Street. It was a cold blowing miserable autumn night, half the trees stripped bare, when my mom stopped at the intersection on Dacotah facing it, put our ’65 Galaxy in park, pointed it out to me, told me what it was and let that ‘big red door’ sink in.”

The building gave the chills to another poster. “I lived on Niagara St for a couple of years when I was a young teen and went by there everyday. I admit I did walk faster as I passed by it.”

One man remembered being an occupant. “It was the Red Door Hotel. I had the pleasure of staying there in the 60s. Toast, no butter and cold black coffee.”

A single poster mourned its demolition. “Its so sad that we felt the need to tear down such an iconic building and replace it with a parking lot. Surely it could have been repurposed. One of the roof beams is now a mantle on my fireplace.”

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