PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Monday, 30 August 2021 10:56

The Chaudière Bridges

28 September 1826

Bridges are amazing structures. Spanning rivers, gorges, bays and even open ocean, they are testaments to the ingenuity of the engineers who designed them and the courage and ability of the workers who constructed them. Who hasn’t crossed a bridge and wondered what’s holding it up and experienced a frisson of excitement or even terror? The longest bridge in the world over water connects Hong Kong to Macau and the city of Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland, a distance of 55 kilometres, of which a 6.7-kilometre stretch midway is an under-water tunnel between two artificial islands to allow ocean-going ships to travel up the Pearl River estuary. It opened in 2018. Canada’s Confederation Bridge, which links Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick, is 12.9 kilometres long. At the other extreme is Bermuda’s Somerset Bridge that connects Somerset Island with the “mainland.” Dating back to 1620, it is reputedly the smallest drawbridge in the world. Operated by hand, it is just wide enough to allow a mast of a sailboat travelling between the Great Sound and Ely’s Harbour to pass through the gap.

In Canada’s capital, six bridges span the mighty Ottawa River: the Alexandra (or Interprovincial) Bridge; the Champlain Bridge; the Chaudière Bridge; the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge; the Portage Bridge; and the Prince of Wales Bridge (now closed). While the current Chaudière Bridge dates from 1919, it is the site of the first and for a long time the only bridge across the Ottawa River.

The need for a bridge crossing the Ottawa River became apparent after work commenced on the Rideau Canal in the summer of 1826 under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. With only wilderness on the Upper Canada side, workers and supplies had to be ferried across the river from Wright’s Town (later known as Hull) in Lower Canada, the only settlement of any consequence in the region, where labourers were billeted and shops and stores could be had. (American Philemon Wright had founded Wright’s Town in 1804.) As this was unsatisfactory to all, Colonel By and his engineering colleagues decided to build a bridge as quickly as possible, their haste probably encouraged by the approach of winter.

plan and elevation of union bridge by burrows in joseph buchette 1831 p82 2Plan and Elevation of the Union Bridge in Joseph Bouchette, The British Dominions in North America, London, 1832.

Their plan was to build a series of bridges to link Lower Canada on the northern shore of the Ottawa River to Upper Canada on the southern shore at the Chaudière Falls where the river temporarily narrows, using the islands mid-river as stepping stones. All were to be made of stone and masonry except for the widest section which was to be made of wood given the width of the gap, the depth of the water and the speed of the current. Col. By later modified this plan. Five of the seven bridges were made of wood—(from south to north over the river,) a 117-foot truss bridge, a small bridge over a deep chasm, a 160-foot bridge, a 212-foot truss bridge, a 180-foot bridge, and two limestone bridges.

After a quick survey—these were the days long before environmental assessments—construction began. On 28 September 1826, General George Ramsay, 9th Earl Dalhousie and Governor General of British North America, placed several George IV silver coins under a foundation stone on the Lower Canadian shore. Colonel Durnford of the Royal Engineers, Colonel John By, and a number of prominent area landowners, including Nicholas Sparks, Thomas McKay and Philemon Wright, attended the ceremony.

Three weeks into the construction, the first masonry arch on the Lower Canada side collapsed when the temporary supporting falsework was removed. Colonel By ordered work to recommence immediately with new plans drawn up by Thomas Burrowes, the assistant overseer of works. The new, hammered stone arch was completed by early January 1827 despite atrocious working conditions. Spray from the nearby falls froze thickly onto the workers’ clothes despite rough wooden screens being installed to shelter them. The second arch was finished by the summer of 1827.

The biggest challenge was bridging the Chaudière itself, also known in English as the Giant Kettle. To link its two sides, Captain Asterbrooks of the Royal Artillery fired a brass cannon loaded with a ½-inch rope to workmen on Chaudière Island. Twice he failed, the rope breaking. But he succeeded with a 1-inch rope. Once workers had a hold of it, they were able to haul over larger cables. Two ten-foot wooden trestles were constructed on either side with ropes stretched over their top and fastened to the rocks. The workers fashioned a precarious footbridge with a rope handrail. It swayed in the wind and sagged to within seven feet of the raging torrent beneath it. It must have been terrifying to cross. In his 1832 book The British Dominions in North America, Joseph Bouchette wrote: “We cannot forebear associating with our recollections of this picturesque bridge the heroism of a distinguished peeress [Countess Dalhousie], who we believe, was the first woman to venture across it.”  The bridge’s ropes were then replaced with stronger chains.  But as workmen were planking the floor of the bridge, the last step in its construction, disaster struck. First one then the other chain broke, throwing men and their equipment into the raging torrent. While accounts vary, as many as three men drowned.

Undeterred by the tragedy, Colonel By immediately got back to work. This time, workmen constructed stronger trestles and bridged the gap with two 8-inch link chain cables. Two large scows, a type of flat-bottomed boat, were built and moored securely in the location of the bridge. Jack screws placed on the scows supported the bridge during its construction. Unbelievably, just prior to the bridge’s completion, a strong gale flipped it over. Workmen were obliged to cut the bridge free which sent it sailing down the Ottawa river, coming to land close to the entrance of the Rideau Canal. Reportedly, the Chief workman, Mr. Drummond, shed tears in frustration.

Again, Colonel By persevered; his next bridge held. Supported by chains made of 1 3/4-inch thick iron and 10-inch links, the wooden bridge was 212 feet long, 30 feet wide and roughly 40 feet above the water, high enough to escape damage during the spring freshet.  It was completed in the summer of 1828, two years after construction had commenced. Upper and Lower Canada were finally united. Fittingly, Col. By called it the Union Bridge.

Lieutenant Pooley, who worked for Col. By, supervised the construction of a final bridge needed to connect Bytown with the new Union Bridge.  This bridge spanned a “gully” in what became LeBreton Flats. So impressed was Col. By with Pooley’s round-log bridge that he dubbed it “Pooley’s Bridge.” This name stuck. Lieutenant Pooley’s wooden bridge was replaced by a stone bridge in 1873. It was designated a heritage structure in 1982.

As the Union Bridge was funded by the Imperial Government, Colonel By instituted a toll to help pay for it. The cost was one penny per person, one penny for every horse, ox, cow, sheep and pig, and two pennies for every wagon and sleigh. This was a pretty steep tariff for the times.

Sadly, the Union Bridge did not last. In May 1836, it collapsed into the river and was swept away. Fortunately, there was nobody on it at the time. Again, the only way across the Ottawa River was by ferry.

This all changed in 1843 when the Union Suspension Bridge, constructed by Mr. Wilkinson, an American, opened for traffic. The bridge had a span of 242 feet. Its iron wire suspension cables, which were imported from Britain to Montreal and ferried to Bytown in barges, supported an oaken plank deck. It was the first of its kind in Canada, and was considered an engineering marvel of the age. The Packet opined that the bridge was “a beautiful piece of work” and that it “reflects great credit to the builder, Mr. Wilkinson.” A big celebration was held at Doran’s Hotel on Wellington Street to mark its opening. Engraved invitations were sent out to guests to attend the “Union Suspension Bridge Ball,” complete with a picture of the completed bridge.

union supsenson bridge watercolour by fp rubidge lac arch ref r182 2Union Suspension Bridge, Watercolour by F. P. Rubidge, Library and Archives Canada, Arch. Ref. R182-2.

Like its predecessor, the Union Suspension Bridge charged tolls. It was a profitable business. In the June to September period of 1851, Duncan Graham, appointed the (tax) Collector for Bytown in the Finance Department by Earl Cathcart, collected £303. 6s. 7d. (equivalent to more than $1,650) in tolls. This was almost enough to cover his annual salary of $1,500 and the monthly stipend £6. 5s. of Mr Mossop, the bridge keeper, who lived in the toll house rent free. Later, the government put the toll business out to tender. At the 1869 tender, the government set a reserve price of $2,000. This compares with annual tolls collected in the 1865-1868 period ranging from $2,500 to $3,350. The winner of the auction was required to maintain the toll house, and keep the bridge clean of rubbish. In winter, they were also responsible for snow clearance, but were required to leave six inches to facilitate sleigh traffic.

Bridge maintenance was not up to everybody’s standards. People complained that the bridge was dangerous especially at night as its railings were low and weak. “Persons run a very great risk on a dark night of driving into the ‘Devil’s Punch-bowl’” said the Ottawa Citizen. As well, the approaches to the bridge on either side of the river were nearly impassable during rainy weather owing to “the enormous quantity of mud and water collected.” In an agreement with the City, the Dominion government abolished tolls on the Union Suspension Bridge in 1885.

union suspension bridge topley studio lac pa 012705 c1867 70The muddy and rutted entrance to the Union Suspension Bridge, looking towards Ottawa, Topley Studio, c. 1867-70, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012705.In 1889, the Dominion government appropriated $35,000 for a new iron truss bridge to replace the deteriorating Union Suspension Bridge. Messrs. Rousseau & Mather were the contractors. Work commenced at the beginning of August and was completed by the beginning of December of that year. Many were concerned that the 30-foot width of the new roadway was too narrow given the growing amount of traffic between Ottawa and Hull. Appeals to the government to widen the bridge or at least put the two 5-foot sidewalks on the outside of the trestles in order to increase the width of the roadway by 10 feet fell on deaf ears.

Twelve years later in 1900, the Great Fire, which destroyed much of Hull and LeBreton Flats, severely damaged the bridge. A vital thoroughfare, the government moved quickly to repair it.

In 1919, the Government condemned the Chaudière bridge as being unsafe. According to the Citizen, just walking over the old bridge was enough to give one “thrills” owing to its “see-saw motion when cars pass over it.” Dominion policemen ensured that too many vehicles didn’t try to cross the bridge at the same time. The replacement bridge was built by the Dominion Bridge Company at a cost of $110,000. It was assembled on the Quebec side and was moved into place using scows. This time, government listened to its critics, and placed the sidewalks on the outside of the piers. Before the new Chaudière bridge was put into position, the old bridge was lifted by four 50-ton hydraulic jacks, placed on rollers, and moved 50 feet downriver to a temporary location so that traffic across the river would not be unduly impeded by the construction.

In 2008, the Chaudière bridge was temporarily closed when an inspection revealed that its stone arches, some of which date back to that first 1820’s bridge, were no longer safe. Following repairs, the government reopened the bridge the following year. It continues to serve thousands of commuters every day.


Sources:

Bouchette, Joseph, 1832. The British Dominions in North America, Vol. 1, London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman.

Bytown Gazette, 1846. “No title,” 14 September.

Canada, Province of, 1867. Report of the Minister of Agriculture for 1866, Ottawa: Hunter, Rose & Company.

Mika, Nick & Helma, 1982. Bytown, The early day of Ottawa, Belleville: Mika Publishing Company.

Ottawa Citizen, 1868. “Editorial,” 19 June.

——————, 1869. “Tolls on Union Suspension Bridge,” 26 July.

——————, 1908. “Civil Servants’ Income Tax,” 17 February.

——————, 1919. “Chaudiere Bridge Gives One Thrills,” 18 August.

——————, 1919. “Are Moving The Old Chaudiere Bridge,” 21 August.

——————, 1929. “Ottawa’s First Bridge And Other Narrations,” 12 October.

——————, 1933. “Chaudiere Toll Bridge 1851, Document Tells of Revenue,” 5 August.

——————, 1981. “By-Gone Days,” 28 February.

Ottawa Journal, 1889,” Supplementary Estimates,” 24 April.

——————, 1889. “The Chaudiere Bridge,” 19 September.

Packet (The), 1847. “The Ottawa-Slides-Steamers-Railroads-Necessary Improvements, etc.” 12 June.

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Saturday, 03 July 2021 17:50

Sappers' Bridge

23 July 1912

It ended with a crash that sounded like a great gun going off, the noise reverberating off the buildings of downtown Ottawa. After faithfully serving the Capital for more than eighty years, Sappers’ Bridge finally succumbed to the wreckers in the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, 23 July 1912. However, the old girl didn’t go gently into that good night. It took seven hours for the structure to finally collapse in pieces into the Rideau Canal below. After trying dynamite with little success, the demolition crew rigged a derrick and for hours repeatedly dropped a 2 ½ ton block onto the platform of the bridge before the arch spanning the Canal gave way. Mr. O’Toole the man in charge of the demolition, said that the bridge was “one of the best pieces of masonry that he [had] ever taken apart.”

sappers bridge burrowesView of the Rideau Canal and Sappers’ Bridge – Painting by Thomas Burrowes, c. 1845, Archives of Ontario, Wikipedia.The bridge, the first and for many decades the only bridge across the Rideau Canal, dated back to the dawn of Bytown. In the summer of 1827, Thomas Burrowes, a member of Lieutenant Colonel John By’s staff, gave his boss a sketch of a proposed wooden bridge to span the Rideau Canal, which was then under construction, from the end of Rideau Street in Lower Bytown on the Canal’s eastern side to the opposing high ground on the western side. Colonel By accepted the proposal but opted in favour of building the bridge out of stone rather than wood. Work got underway almost immediately, with the foundation of the eastern pier begun by Mr. Charles Barrett, a civilian stone mason, though the vast majority of the workers were Royal Sappers and Miners. On 23 August 1827, Colonel By laid the bridge’s cornerstone with the name Sappers’ Bridge cut into it. The arch over the Canal was completed in only two months. On the keystone on the northern face of the bridge, Private Thomas Smith carved the Arms of the Board of Ordnance who owned the Canal and surrounding land. The original bridge was only eighteen feet wide and had no sidewalks.

Reportedly, one of the first civilians to cross Sappers’ Bridge was little Eliza Litle (later Milligan), the six-year old daughter of John Litle, a blacksmith who had set up a tent and workshop where the Château Laurier Hotel stands today. Apparently, Eliza was playing close to the Canal bank on the western side when she was frightened by some passing First Nations’ women. She ran screaming towards Sappers’ Bridge which was then under construction. A big sapper picked Eliza up and carried her over a temporary wooden walkway and dropped her off at her father’s smithy.

Back in those early days, there were two Bytowns. Most people lived in Lower Bytown. It had a population of about 1,500 souls, mostly French and Irish Catholics. The much smaller Upper Bytown, which was centred around Wellington Street roughly where the Supreme Court is situated today, had a population of no more than 500. This was where the community’s elite lived, mainly English and Scottish Protestants. The two distinct worlds, one rowdy and working class, the other stuffy and upper class, were linked by Sappers’ Bridge. While the bridge joined up Rideau Street on its eastern side, there was only a small footpath on its western side. The path wound its way around the base of Barrack Hill (later called Parliament Hill), which was then heavily wooded, past a cemetery on its south side that extended from roughly today’s Elgin Street to Metcalfe Street, until it reached the Wellington and Bank Streets intersection where Upper Bytown started. It wasn’t until 1849 that Sparks Street, which had previously run only from Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) to Bank Street, was linked directly to Sappers’ Bridge. During the 1840s, that stretch of path to Sappers’ Bridge was a lonely and desolate area. It was also dangerous, especially at night. It was the favourite haunt of the lawless who often attacked unwary travellers. Many a score was settled by somebody being turfed over the side of the bridge into the Canal. People travelled across Sappers’ Bridge in groups: there was safety in numbers.

Bytown, which became Ottawa in 1855, quickly outgrew the original narrow Sappers’ Bridge. In 1860, immediately prior the visit of the Prince of Wales who laid the cornerstone of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, six-foot wide wooden pedestrian sidewalks supported by scaffolding were added to each side of the existing stone bridge. This permitted the entire 18-foot width of the bridge to be used for vehicular traffic.

But only ten years later, the bridge was again having difficulty in coping with traffic across the Rideau Canal. There was discussion on demolishing Sappers’ Bridge and replacing it with something much wider. The Ottawa Citizen opined that such talk verged on the sacrilegious as Sappers’ Bridge was “an old landmark in the history of Bytown.” The newspaper also thought that it was far too expensive to demolish especially as the bridge had “at least another century of wear in it.” It supported an alternative proposal to build a second bridge over the Canal.

In late 1871, work began on the construction of that second bridge across the Canal linking Wellington Street to Rideau Street, immediately to the north of Sappers’ Bridge. It was completed at a cost of $55,000 in 1874. It was called the Dufferin Bridge after Lord Dufferin, Canada’s Governor General at that time. Another $22,000 was spent on widening the old Sappers’ Bridge on which were laid the tracks of the horse-drawn Ottawa Street Passenger Railway.

Despite the upgrade, Ottawa residents were still not happy with the old bridge. Sappers’ Bridge was a quagmire after a rainstorm. On wag stated that “It is estimated that the present condition of the bridge has produced more new adjectives that all the bad whiskey in Lower Town.” One Mr. Whicher of the Marine and Fisheries Department was moved to write a 24-verse parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Bridge about Sappers’ Bridge. In it, he referred to “many thousands of mud-encumbered men, each bearing his splatter of nuisance.” He hoped that a gallant colonel “with a mine of powder, a pick and a sure fusee (sic)” would blow it up. His poem was well received when he recited it at Gowan’s Hall in Ottawa.

But it took another thirty-five years before the government contemplated doing just that.  As part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to beautify the city and make Ottawa “the Washington of the North,” the Grand Trunk Railway began in 1909 the construction of Château Laurier Hotel on the edge of Major’s Hill Park, and a new train station across the street. Getting wind of government plans to build a piazza in the triangular area above the canal between the Dufferin Bridge and Sappers’ Bridge in front of the new hotel, Mayor Hopewell suggested that Sappers’ Bridge might be widened as part of these plans in order to permit the planting of a boulevard of flowers and rockeries to hid the railway yards from pedestrians walking over the bridge. He also added that public lavatories might be installed beneath the piazza.

sappers bridge demolition ottawahhDemolition of Sappers’ Bridge, 1912. The arch of Sapper’s bridge is gone leaving only the broken abutments and rubble in the Canal. The newly built Château Laurier hotel in in the background on the right. Dufferin Bridge is in the centre of the photograph. Bytown Museum, P799, Ottawahh.In the event, the federal government decided to demolish Sappers’ Bridge. Both the Dufferin and Sappers’ Bridges were replaced by one large bridge—Plaza bridge. This new bridge was completed in December 1912. The piazza over the Canal was also built. It was bordered by the Château Laurier Hotel, Union Station, the Russell House Hotel and the General Post Office. A straw poll conducted by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper of its readership, favoured naming the new piazza “The Plaza.” However, the government, the owner of the site, had other ideas. It decided on calling it Connaught Place, after Lord Connaught, the third son (and seventh child) of Queen Victoria who had taken up his vice-regal duties as Canada’s Governor General in 1911.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the beautification of downtown Ottawa continued. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell Block of buildings and the Old Post Office to provide space for a national monument to honour Canada’s war dead. The war memorial was officially opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In the process, Connaught Place was transformed into Confederation Square.

Little now remains of the old Sappers’ Bridge. Hidden underneath the Plaza Bridge is a small pile of stones preserved from the old bridge with a plaque installed by the NCC in 2004 in honour of Canadian military engineers. The bridge’s keystone with the chiselled emblem of the Ordnance Board was also saved from destruction. For a time it was housed in the government archives building but its current location is unknown.

Sources:

Ross, A. H. D. 1927. Ottawa Past and Present, Toronto: The Musson Book Company.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1871. “editorial,” 3 May.

————————, 1972. “A Dirty Bridge,” 10 April.

————————, 1874. “Sappers’ Bridge,” 9 October.

————————, 1913. “‘Connaught Place’, Cabinet’s Choice of Name for Area Formed By Union of Sappers’ and Dufferin Bridges,” 24 March.

————————, 1925. “Muddy Sappers’ Bridge In the Seventies,” 18 July.

———————–, 1928. “Girl of Six Was the First Female To Cross Sappers’ Bridge Over Canal,” 23 June.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1910. “Widening of the Bridges,” 3 June.

———————————–, 1912. “Early Days In Bytown Some Reminiscences,” 27 April.

———————————–, 1912. “When Ottawa Was Chosen The Capital of Canada,” 4 May.

———————————–, 1912. “Bridge Is Blown Down,” 23 July.

———————————–, 1914. “Notable Stones In the History Of The Capital,” 16 March.


Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Thursday, 08 October 2020 09:42

Community Projects

colonel by plaqueStatue of Lieutenant-Colonel John By in Major’s Hill Park. Source: HSO.

At the 2019 Annual General Meeting held in July 2020, members agreed to release a portion of the funds held in the Research and Development Fund and the Col. By Gravesite Maintenance Funds (in total, approximately $30,000) to support community projects over the next few years. In response, and at the request of the membership, your Board of Directors has developed a process and a set of criteria which will be used to select community projects going forward. These criteria include relevance to the HSO’s mandate, cost, and the availability of volunteers to carry the project through to completion. The Society might also consider working with other heritage organizations on a project as a way of leveraging its resources.

Community projects are not new to the Society, and can take many forms. The HSO’s operation of the Bytown Museum from 1917 to 2006 could be considered as an example of a very long-term community project. Similarly, the Society’s funding and installation of a statue of Lieutenant Colonel John By in 1971 in Major’s Hill Park is another example of a community project, albeit a large one! Historical displays, or the support of research into Ottawa’s history, might also qualify as community projects.

The Board eagerly awaits the suggestions and the support of HSO members in this new, and exciting chapter in the life of our Society. 

Current Community Projects

The Crawley Plaque

Crawley Judith and Budge and family c 1950 wikipedia Judith and "Budge" Crawley and family, circa 1950. Source: Wikipedia.Following the 2017 presentation by George Shirreff on the contribution of Frank “Budge” and Judith Crawley into making Ottawa a centre for producing world-class films during the mid-twentieth century, the Society decided that it would install a bilingual plaque at 19 Fairmont Avenue in Hintonburg, the headquarters of Crawley Films, in honour of the Crawley family. Discussions have been held with the Crawley family, the current occupants of the building, and the City of Ottawa. Delayed in part owing to the COVID-19 emergency, and more recently by second thoughts from the owners of the building, the Society is reconsidering the merits of proceeding with this project at this time. 

The Strathcona Pavilion

strathcona pavillionStrathcona Park, Ottawa, Ontario, 1923-1924. Library and Archives Canada.Following a suggestion by member François Bregha, the Historical Society agreed in January 2021 to provide financial support to the construction of a replica pavilion at Strathcona Park, the original gazebo structure having been torn down during the 1960s. The project is organized by Action Sandy Hill. A heritage architect has agreed to design the structure pro bono. COVID-19 has delayed this project and the Society is awaiting news on when it will proceed.


Guidelines for Community Projects

  • Canvass the membership asking for project ideas that are consistent with the HSO’s mandate;
  • Ask whether the person making the suggestion is willing to either lead or participate in a committee tasked to detail the idea, identify potential challenges, determine the likely cost, estimate a timeline, and to carry out the project to completion if it is selected (i.e. be that idea’s “champion”);
  • Send suggestions to a Board Selection Committee for vetting. If there are a lot of suggestions, the Committee may need to make a preliminary pass to reduce the numbers by winnowing out those suggestions that are inconsistent with our mandate or which have no obvious champion. All other suggestions would be examined in greater detail. After a period of time, the Board Selection Committee would reassemble to make their project recommendations. The choice of project(s) would depend on: a) relevance to the mission and objectives of the Society; b) estimated cost; c) other feasibility considerations; d) time-frame; e) the availability of somebody to take the lead on the project; and f) backup.
  • The Board Selection Committee will make recommendations to the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors’ decision will be final.
  • The call for ideas and the selection process would be posted on our website and highlighted through social media.
Thursday, 02 January 2020 14:16

Our History

(Drawn from Mullington, Dave, 2013. “To Be Continued…A Short History of the Historical Society of Ottawa,” HSO Publication No. 88.)

matilda edgar1Lady Matilda Edgar, née Ridout, (1844-1910), wife of Sir James Edgar, Speaker of the House of Commons, chaired the inaugural meeting of the Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa in 1898. Library and Archive Canada, PA-025868On June 3, 1898, thirty-one Ottawa women, united by a desire to preserve and conserve Canada’s historical heritage, assembled in the drawing room of the Speaker of the House of Commons located in the old Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Chairing the meeting was the prominent author and early feminist Lady Matilda Edgar (née Ridout) wife of Sir James Edgar, the Speaker. The cream of Ottawa society attended the meeting, including Lady Zoë Laurier, the wife of the then Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mrs Adeline Foster, the wife of the prominent Conservative politician Mr (later Sir) George Eulas Foster, and Mrs Margaret Ahearn, the spouse of Mr Thomas Ahearn, the famous Ottawa-born inventor and businessman. The ladies agreed to form the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa. As reported by the Ottawa Journal, they hoped “to resurrect from oblivion things of interest to every patriot Canadian woman, and preserve such things that are already treasures.”

Under its original 1898 Constitution, the objective of the Society was to encourage “the study of Canadian History and Literature, the collection and preservation of Canadian historical records and relics, and the fostering of Canadian loyalty and patriotism.” The Constitution also stressed that “neither political parties nor religious denominations” would be recognized. Adeline Foster was elected as the Society’s first president. Lady Aberdeen (née Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks), the wife of the Governor General, consented to be the Society’s patron, thereby establishing a link to Rideau Hall that continues to this very day. The annual membership fee was set at fifty cents. Initially, the Society was a women-only organization, though men sometimes participated as honorary members. This situation continued until 1955, when men were allowed to join the Society as full members.

zoe laurier1Lady Zoé Laurier, née Lafontaine, (1841-1921), wife of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada, was a founding member of the Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa in 1898. Library and Archives Canada, PA-028100During the early years of the Society’s history, particular attention was paid to the collection and preservation of important artifacts and historical documents. The Society put on its first exhibition of historical objects in 1899. This collection, which was to expand greatly over the coming decades, went on permanent display with the opening in 1917 of the Bytown Historical Museum, located in the old Registry Office on Nicholas Street. The museum was staffed and operated by Society volunteers. Other activities included regular lectures and the publication of historical research. The Society was also instrumental in the erection of the statue of the French explorer Samuel de Champlain at Nepean Point in 1915. To celebrate Ottawa’s centenary in 1926, the Society unveiled a memorial to Lieutenant-Colonel John By, the Royal Engineer responsible for the construction of the Rideau Canal, and the founder of Bytown. A replica of his house, which had been destroyed by fire years earlier, was also built at Major’s Hill Park.

adeline foster1Mrs Adeline Foster, née Chisholm, (1844-1919), wife of Mr (later Sir) George Eulas Foster, Conservative politician, first president of the Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa. Library and Archives Canada, Mikan No. 3423435During the lean years of the Great Depression, the Society was forced to tailor its activities to suit the straitened financial circumstances. Its publications were cut back, and a ten cent fee began to be charged for museum entry. In 1930, the annual membership fee was also increased to one dollar. Notwithstanding the difficult economic situation, the Society continued to flourish. Its collection of historical artifacts and books expanded. Meetings, historical outings, and presentations were held regularly. In 1937, the Society was officially incorporated by the Province of Ontario. With the outbreak of World War II, Society activity slowed to allow members more time to support the war effort. The museum was closed for the duration. Nonetheless, membership meetings continued to be held, and the Society’s collection of antiquities grew through donation. Members also raised money for deserving wartime causes.

bytown museum1The Bytown Museum, formerly the Commissariat building, was built in 1827 and is the oldest stone building in OttawaFollowing the conclusion of the war, Society activities picked up. Particular attention was paid to finding a new home for the organization’s growing collection of historical artifacts and books; the old Registry Building was no longer adequate. In 1951, the Society leased premises from the federal government for a nominal fee in the Commissariat building adjacent to the Rideau Canal locks. The building, the oldest stone structure in Ottawa, was built by Scottish stonemasons hired by Colonel By during the construction of the Rideau Canal during the 1820s. Unfortunately, it was in a poor state of repairs; the building’s restoration and renovation occupied a considerable portion of the Society’s time, effort, and resources over coming years.

In 1955, there was a dramatic shift in the life of the Society. After vigorous debate, men were permitted to become full members of the Society in order to build a broader and stronger organization. The following year, the Society’s new name—the Historical Society of Ottawa—was officially adopted to reflect that change. Mr H. Townley Douglas, who had been previously active as an honorary member was elected as the Society’s first male director.

col john by1In Major's Hill Park stands the statue of Col. John By, Royal Engineers, who was responsible for building the Rideau Canal and the founding of Bytown, later renamed OttawaWhile the Bytown museum remained at the centre of the Society’s activities, the 1960s, under the leadership of Dr Bertram McKay, saw the HSO working hard for the erection of a statue in honour of Colonel By. Although Ottawa’s mayor at the time, Dr Charlotte Whitton, and City Council were supportive, it was up to the Historical Society to come up with the necessary funds. Raising $36,500 by 1969 (equivalent to more than $233,000 in today’s money), the Society hired the Quebec-born sculptor Joseph-Émile Brunet. On August 14, 1971, Governor General Roland Michener unveiled the bronze statue of Colonel By in Major’s Hill Park. Fittingly, the statue overlooked the Rideau Canal, itself a lasting memorial to the Colonel’s engineering abilities.

In 1981, the Society took a new step in its effort to increase public awareness of Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley’s rich history with the launch of a pamphlet series dedicated to that purpose. Its first publication was titled John Burrows and Others on the Rideau Waterway by a former Society president Charles Surtees. The pamphlet series continues to be an important feature of the Society’s efforts to increase public awareness about the history of Ottawa.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the museum became an increasing preoccupation and concern for Society members. Forced to relocate temporarily due to restoration work conducted by the federal government at the Commissariat building and Rideau locks, attendance plummeted. Even when the Bytown Museum reopened at the Commissariat Building, the number of visitors was subsequently adversely affected by the reconstruction of Plaza Bridge. Declining membership, fewer volunteers, and rising costs owing to inflation also strained the Society’s ability to sustain the Museum in the manner it deserved. After considerable soul searching and debate, the difficult decision was made in 2003 to transfer the Bytown Museum to a separate not-for-profit organization. Roughly half of the artifacts and rare books collected over more than a century were loaned to the Museum; the loan became a permanent gift two years later. Considerable funds were also transferred to the new Museum Board to help launch the new organization.

Although now legally separate from the Historical Society of Ottawa, the Museum and the Society continue to cooperate closely. Over the following years, the Society transferred its remaining collection of items to other heritage organizations, most importantly the City of Ottawa Archives. A large collection of military medals was also offered to Canadian museums. Those medals that could not be placed were subsequently sold. In 2011, the proceeds of the sale helped to launch the Historical Society of Ottawa’s Research and Development Fund to support research into Ottawa’s history.

In 2013, the Society reviewed and approved revised “purposes and objectives” (Article 2 of its Constitution) in light of the many changes to the organization in recent years. Remaining true to the spirit of its founding members, the Society remains focused on increasing public awareness and knowledge of the history of Ottawa, the surrounding region, and their peoples. In cooperation with other heritage organizations, it also works to conserve archival materials, supports and encourages heritage conservation, and preserves the memory of Colonel By.

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