The McElroy Family of Richmond, Ontario, Canada

The Elopement of Sarah Bell and the History of the Rielly House

Richmond, Ontario

This article, written by my father, George Eldon McElroy, Jr. relates how Sarah Bell, daughter of Hugh Bell of Bell's Corners eloped with Edward Rielly, the family's coachman. Edward Rielly went on to become the proprietor of the Rielly House, Richmond's main hotel in the 19th century.



George McElroy

In the historic village of Richmond, about twenty miles from Ottawa, stands a large stone building which has been there for almost 150 years. In recent times, it has housed various businesses but in the latter half of the nineteenth century when it was known as The Rielly House, it was reputed to be "the largest and most up-to-date hotel in Eastern Ontario."

Rielly House in the early 1900s

The Rielly House as it appeared in the early 1900s.
(Picture courtesy of the Goulbourn Township Historical Society.)

How my great grandfather, Edward Rielly, got his start in the hotel business is something of a family legend. As a footloose young man in Ireland, his main interests were horses, pretty colleens, and having a good time. According to all reports, he was a handsome man with a lively wit and gift of the gab. He was also famous for his singing and yarn-spinning but, darlin' man that he was, he had a full share of human failings. He was bone idle, liked to gamble, seldom had any money and, in all of the first twenty years of his life, had never been able to settle down to a steady job or one woman.

One day, at a race meeting near Belfast, Rielly's horse ran and won in a claiming race. His winnings plus what he'd received for the sale of the horse gave him more money than he'd ever possessed. Never a man to pass up an opportunity for new and exciting adventures, he paid out five pounds of his new found wealth for passage on a sailing ship bound for New York. No doubt he had a grand time in that city until his funds ran out. He was then forced to find work as an itinerant coachman, groom, teamster and stableman. His wanderings finally led him to Canada and Philemon Wright's settlement across the Ottawa River from Bytown. Due to the booming lumber industry and Rielly's outstanding expertise with horses, he had no trouble finding work as a teamster and soon became well known in lumber shanties, taverns, hotels and race meetings for miles around. He even saved enough money to buy a horse of his own and promptly traded it for a better one. After a series of such trades, he became the proud owner of a beautiful animal that won many races for him.

One day he took his horse to a race meeting at a place west of Bytown called Bell's Cross - later to become Bell's Corners. Bell's Cross was named after Mr. Hugh Bell, a hotelman and land owner who was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the district. But over and above all of Mr. Bell's worldly possessions, what he prized most was Sarah, his beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter. Fate decreed that Rielly's horse would win the race that day and that Sarah Bell would present the winner's purse. Rielly fell in love with the girl at first sight and vowed that from that moment on, this would be the one and only woman in the entire world for him.

Of course the chances of Hugh Bell welcoming a roving, rootless Irish vagabond like Rielly as a suitable life partner for his beloved Saran were non-existent. The beautiful young thing was as carefully guarded and chaperoned as a fairytale princess locked in a castle. But that didn't deter Rielly. He began by spending most of his time hanging around Bell's hotel but only rarely did he ever catch so much as a glimpse of Sarah. His attempts to get on friendly terms with her father were equally unsuccessful. Just as it began to seem that his wooing was doomed to failure, his patience and persistence paid off. Rielly's opportunity came when Hugh Bell's prize Belgian stallion ran amuck and started to kick the stable to matchwood. The brute's handlers fled for fear of their lives.

"Cowards" Bell shouted. "Get back in that stable and stop his rampaging before he does himself an injury!"

But not one of the frightened stablemen moved to obey.

"You're all fired, the lot of you!" Bell roared. He turned to the small crowd of bar room idlers who'd congregated in the stable yard to watch the fun. "Dammit! Isn't there a man here who'll help me?"

Edward Rielly then stepped forward and raised his cap politely. "With your kind permission, Sir," he said, "I'd like to see what I can do."

He entered the stable and for several anxious and suspenseful minutes, the racket continued unabated. But then, miraculously, it began to subside. Finally, it stopped altogether and Rielly reappeared leading the mighty Belgian stallion, which was now as docile and playful as a pet retriever. "Ah, but it's a fine, handsome lad you are," he crooned as he patted the animal's massive neck. The stallion tossed its head in amiable agreement. "He'll be just fine now, yer Honour," Rielly said to the astounded hotel keeper. "All he needed was for someone to talk nicely to him and calm him down."

Hugh Bell showed his appreciation by hiring the Irishman on the spot and putting him in full charge of his stable. One of Rielly's new duties was to act as the Bell family's coachman and this, he was overjoyed to learn, included driving Miss Sarah to and from Bytown, where she attended school. Predictably, Miss Sarah was soon hooked on Rielly's blarney and other blandishments and he lost no time in telling her that he loved her dearly and wanted her to become his wife. Sarah accepted the proposal even though she fully realized that obtaining her father's consent and blessing would be next to impossible. The young lovers decided that the only course of action open to them was to elope.

Rielly planned the elopement as carefully as that other great Irishman, the Duke of Wellington, planned his battles and campaigns. Like all good plans, it was basically simple. It called for Sarah to slip out of the hotel one evening after supper to meet her coconspirator who would be ready and waiting for her with his prized race horse hitched to a buggy. The couple would then flee to Perth where arrangements had been made for a clergyman to marry them.

All went well up until the moment Sarah climbed into the buggy. It was then that her father stepped out of the front door for a breath of fresh air. Realizing at once what was afoot, he rushed to the rescue bellowing with rage. Rielly cracked his whip and the highly strung champion leaped forward in the shafts displaying all the form that had won many a race and point-to-point for its proud owner.

The outraged Hugh Bell immediately raised a hue and cry, offering a substantial reward to anyone who stopped the elopement. Soon a sizeable posse was in hot pursuit. The chase continued for several miles by which time the heavy farm horses ridden by the posse were thoroughly winded and began dropping out of the race. But Rielly was taking no chances. Not content with leaving his pursuers far behind, he kept racing his animal at full tilt until it dropped dead in its tracks. He and his beloved eventually arrived at Perth, horseless and penniless but still determined to marry. The ceremony was carried out without delay.

It was quite some time before reconciliation with great great grandfather Bell was possible but eventually it occurred. Hugh Bell loved his only daughter far too much to give her up forever. After great deal of soul-searching, he swallowed his pride and accepted Rielly as a member of the family. "After all," he reasoned, "He must love her. He killed his horse, which was the only damned thing he owned, in order to get her."

The two were permitted to return to Bell's Cross and when it became known that Sarah was expecting their first child, her father became so elated at the prospect of becoming a grandfather that he gave them a 400-acre farm in nearby Richmond. He also helped his son-in-law get started in the hotel business.

Edward and Sarah Rielly eventually had thirteen children and the eldest boy was christened Hugh after his grandfather Bell.

In the l850s there was much traffic between Prescott on the St. Lawrence River and the lumber communities on the Upper Ottawa. This traffic traveled along the Prescott to Ottawa Road until swinging off at North Gower and passing through Richmond and Stittsville. Rielly astutely began counting the teams and supply wagons that passed through the village in a single lumber season; they exceeded 300 in number. Often, the small hotel he then owned was forced to turn away trade because of its limited accommodation and facilities. He decided to build the biggest and best hotel in the entire district. Construction of the Rielly House began in 1855. It was located on the corner of the Richmond Road [Perth Street] and Murray Street at the point where through traffic turned north onto the Stittsville Road. The stone building's dimensions were to be 80 by 40 feet and four stories in height. There was also to be an annex measuring 30 by 20 feet.

When finished, the hotel had twenty-two bedrooms, a large dining room, bar and upstairs parlour. It was built by Mr. May of Franktown, whose sons, William and Richard, did the stonework. The carpentry was done by Joseph Scott of Richmond.

The family moved into their new hotel on January 3, 1857 and Edward continued as the proprietor until his death on October 3, l876. The operation of The Rielly House was then taken over by his sons, Hugh and John. The hotel had quickly become a popular community centre and rendezvous as well as a haven for weary travelers and continued in those roles well into the twentieth century.

When the Rielly House opened for business, Richmond was a thriving settlement with a population of about six hundred. There were two distilleries in the village and about a dozen stores. As the centre of a rich farming district, it held four horse and cattle fairs every year. These took place on the first Tuesdays in January, March, July and October and were attended by butchers and drovers from all parts of the Ottawa Valley. The winter and spring fairs were usually conducted in vicinity of the Rielly House where livestock was paraded and auctioned in the streets. The summer and fall fairs were held on 'Fair Green', a six acre block at the eastern entrance to the village that was owned by Edward Rielly. In l895 the County of Carleton Agricultural Society moved its buildings to this site from Bell's Corners. Edward Rielly also owned the stage line that carried passengers and mail daily between Richmond and Ottawa. The fare, one way, was a dollar.

According to all contemporary accounts, Fair Days in Richmond were wild and woolly. Before the Scott Act, all hotel bars did a roaring trade with the result that as many as six or seven street fights might be in progress at any one time. It was common practice for anyone looking for a fight, to drag, his coat behind him in the dusty street as an invitation for any challengers to step on it.

Horse trading was an important, year-round activity conducted in the stable yard of the Rielly House. Edward and, later, his son, Hugh, both members of the Goodwood Masonic Lodge, were known as expert traders. A favourite tale with village yarn spinners concerns a horse trade Hugh Rielly once made with a fellow Mason named Jamieson. All members of the Masonic Order are pledged to conduct all matters of business "on the square" and both parties agreed that this vow would be strictly adhered to. As Rielly's bay mare was obviously the better of the two horses, Jamieson asked him now much he wanted "to boot". But as Jamieson was counting out his money, Hugh Rielly said, "Before I take your money, Mr. Jamieson, there is something you should know: My horse is blind in one eye." Jamieson immediately snatched the money from the table, stuffed it back into his wallet and announced that the deal was off. The next day, as Jamieson was leaving the village, his horse ran off the road, miring the buggy in a swamp. When Hugh Rielly went to investigate he discovered that Jamieson's horse was blind in both eyes.

The Rielly House of Richmond, Ontario in 2004

The Rielly House in November, 2004.

By the early 1900s, the fortunes of the Rielly House had greatly declined. The advent of the railway era ended the seasonal migrations of teams and wagons supplying the lumber trade. Automobiles and buses brought about the demise of the Rielly Stage Line and the loss of the mail contract. Prohibition in Ontario was a final, mortal blow and Hugh Rielly sold the hotel and retired. For a time, the building was used by an agency for agricultural machinery and then it became a garage.

But all this happened long after Edward Rielly's death in the autumn of l876. Then, the Rielly House was in its hey-day and Edward was living the "Life of Rielly".

This is a slightly edited scan of my father's original article. I have cleaned up the scanning debris and indulged in some minor copy editing. I have resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes; it remains my father's story.

This account was written as a story rather than as a piece of scholarly research; it is largely based on family legend. Consequently I expect that nothing has been lost in the telling and indeed, I expect that maybe a little has been gained.

The black and white photo of the Rielly House is from the collection of the Goulbourn Township Historical Society and is used with their kind permission.