PO Box 523, Station B,
Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6

PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6

Most of us think of “Dow’s Swamp” as having disappeared during the construction of the Rideau Canal, two centuries ago, leaving us with what we know today as “Dow’s Lake”.

But did you know that a remaining southern portion of Dow’s Swamp continued to thrive until Ottawa’s ever-expanding urban footprint brought about the final destruction of this vital and vibrant vestige of wetland in the 1950s?

Long-time naturalist Joyce Reddoch reminds us of our tragic loss of that precious remnant of primaeval ecosystem, as is illustrated in the attached collection of articles, including a post-mortem of her own, published in a journal of the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club almost a half century ago.

Scientific studies show that this now-gone swamp – a low trough between Dow’s Lake and the Rideau River, bounded on the west by the old CPR track and on the east by the old Bronson Avenue – was a lake from about 7,000 until about 3,000 years ago when bog and swamp forest began to form, finally becoming tree-covered 1,000 to 1,500 years ago.

(A swamp is generally a wetland or peatland with standing water or water gently flowing through pools or channels. The water is rich in nutrients and the vegetation is characterized by a dense cover of deciduous or coniferous trees and shrubs, herbs and mosses. Oft-misunderstood and underappreciated, our swamps are crucial to maintaining biodiversity.)

John MacTaggart, Colonel By’s chief engineer observed of Dow’s Swamp in 1829 that “the cedar-trees… grow as thickly in the swamp as they possibly can grow, an average fourteen inches thick and seventy feet high”.

In the century+ old Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club’s earlier days, this remaining southern remnant of Dow’s Swamp was cherished as a seemingly inexhaustible refuge for sightings of rare and flourishing flora and fauna, including rare and endangered orchids, rare butterflies, birds and frogs and other wildlife.

The terrain of Dow’s Swamp, as it still existed earlier last century, was well-described by renowned Canadian forester/zoologist C.H.D Clarke as he noted the birds he had spotted “there, among the cedars, willows, alders and elms, in tangled glades that led over sodden ground to beds of cattails”.

More than a dozen species of native orchids had been excitedly recorded in this now-disappeared remnant of the Dow’s Swamp wetland complex. Alder flycatchers, Lincoln swallows, white-throated and clay-coloured sparrows, rusty blackbirds, ruby-crowned kinglets, veeries, vireos, scarlet tanagers, waterthrush, warblers, Carolina and marsh wrens, purples finches and black ducks were among the sometimes-scarce birds that Dr. Clarke and other avid naturalists would add to their observation lists.

Through these attached articles, Joyce Reddoch invites us to better understand that swamps, in their undamaged state, are ecosystems crucial to the maintenance of ecological diversity (and for maintaining ground water levels) – not dismal, stagnant, fetid places as per our popular misconceptions.

(Even mosquitoes – such as those who had likely persuaded the Dow family to abandon their allotment in 1826 – perform crucial roles as plant pollinators and food for birds.)

Dow’s Swamp is a lost ecological gem that Joyce Reddoch urges us never to forget.

(As we mourn the loss of this one small urban-enclosed portion of primaeval wilderness, one can only reflect on the impact post-contact settlement has had across our nation, not only on the long-existing flora and fauna, but also on the Indigenous people, upon this land their lives and livelihoods had vitally depended.)

Here are the articles that Joyce has kindly provided for us to read and learn more:

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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.


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.

Sunday, 23 August 2020 20:43

McGill: Protect, Promote Historic Canal

Construction of the Rideau Canal began early in the year 1827. Taking only four years to construct, it opened for navigation in the spring of 1832.

About 150 years later, Hunter McGill arrived in Ottawa to attend Carleton University, located near Hartwell’s Locks. Since the 1980s he has been a member of the Friends of the Rideau. Hunter talked about the history of the Canal, how it has operated since its opening, and some of his views on the Rideau Canal today.

The British Colonial Administration of Canada was very concerned, during and in the immediate after-math of the war of 1812, about the vulnerability of the blockading, by the United States forces, of the communications route via the St. Lawrence River from Montreal to Kingston.

In 1820, Lord Dalhousie was appointed Governor of British North America. The Duke of Wellington thought a canal was a good idea. With this high-level backing, Dalhousie, as a preliminary step, began to acquire land in key locations.

Dalhousie chose Entrance Valley, the present site between the Château Laurier and Parliament Hill, for the canal headlocks.

A retired Royal Engineer officer, Lt.-Col. John By, was reactivated and hired by the British Army Ordinance department to be Superintendent of the Rideau Canal. He was an excellent choice.

He recommended that the lock size plan be increased to accommodate steam-powered vessels that were just coming into use.

The definitive approval for the building of the Rideau Canal was given in September of 1826. Work, began early in 1827.

The work was hard and the tools modest, such as picks, shovels, draft animals, simple rigs to lift and postion the stones for the lock chamber walls. Diseases such as typhoid, malaria, typhus and poor nutrition were prevalent.

The opening of the entire canal for navigation took place in the spring of 1832. Of the completed 202 kilometres length of the Rideau Canal, 19 kilometres are constructed canal. The remainder is through natural waterways. Final cost was 822,000 pounds, about $150 million Canadian in today’s dollars.

By the time the canal was completed the military needs were not pressing. It was more needed as a commercial enterprise. The canal made movement of settlers into the region much easier.

With the completion of canals on the Ottawa River in 1834, transportation links were opened to Montreal. During the 19th century the Rideau waterway was used to transport minerals from iron, phosphate, and mica mines in the Rideau Lakes area to smelters and other users.

In the 20th century, as commercial navigation ebbed due to improved roads and railway lines, a recreational fishing and tourism industry developed.

It took engineering genius to construct the Canal, in four years, in the sparsely populated region of Canada using simple tools and facing dis-ease and other great challenges.

Hunter says we are not doing a good job of telling Canadians and visitors about the Rideau Canal. The designation of the Rideau Canal, in 2007, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was only the second canal in the world to be so recognized. This helped to raise the profile of the canal, but it has not been matched by any of the three levels of government involved, he argued.

Hunter stated that the biggest threat to the historic character of the Rideau Canal is putting heritage landscapes at risk, thus making commemorative integrity an ongoing issue. Both private sector and public sector investments and infrastructure often do not adequately take into account the need to respect key settings.

Hunter McGill spoke at the HSO meeting October 30, 2019.

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Friday, 07 February 2020 10:33

Ottawa’s Rink

18 January 1971

While Ottawa is a great place to live, even its most partisan citizens would have to agree that at life’s great banquet, it got a double helping of winter. On average, Ottawa receives roughly two metres of snow each year over a season that lasts from early November to well into April, with temperatures dipping to -30 Celsius. Consequently, to live happily in Ottawa, it’s important to embrace the season. Fortunately, we have access to lots of winter amenities, including wonderful ski trails and slopes in the Gatineau Hills just a short car ride away. But one of the city’s winter crown jewels is the Rideau Canal Skateway, which runs 7.8 kilometres through the heart of the city from the Ottawa River locks beside Parliament Hill to the Hartwell Locks at Carleton University. Each year, Ottawa citizens eagerly await the start of the winter skating season, checking regularly the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) web site or its information line on the state of the ice. Requiring an ice thickness of at least 30 centimetres, it takes at least a couple of weeks of temperatures persistently below -15 and a lot of hard work by NCC staff to prepare the ice surface before the Skateway can be safely opened to the public.

Typically, the skating season starts in early January and remains open until mid-March, though the Canal might close for short periods owing to temporary thaws. The earliest opening date occurred on 18 December 1971 and 1982. Its latest closing date was 25 March 1972. The average season is about 50 days, of which 42 are skating days. The longest season was 1971-72 with 95 days, while the shortest was 2015-16 with 34 days, of which only 18 were skating days. Even then, the skateway was open for its entire length for ony a few days. In contrast, the canal was open for a record 59 consecutive days during the previous 2014-15 season, attracting an estimated 1.2 million visitors. In general, however, shorter and milder winters associated with climate change is shortening the skating season.

Skating on the Canal has in fact been a feature of the City’s winters since the 19th century. In March 1874, The Globe newspaper reported that there “was good skating on the Rideau Canal.” The ribbon of ice running through the city beckoned youngsters of all ages when climatic conditions were just right for a smooth, solid ice surface to form—low temperatures for several days with little snow. When that happened, skaters would descend on the Canal to enjoy the ice. On one occasion early in the 20th century, it was reported that people could skate all the way from Lisgar Collegiate to Sunnyside without benefit of snowploughs or sweeping.

At best, however, the city tolerated impromptu skating on the Canal. When times became more litigious, it forbade it owing to the risk of injury, or even death. Although the water is partly drained from the Canal each fall, it is sufficiently deep in places for people, especially children, to drown should they fall through the ice. Despite the risks, skating on the Canal captured the imagination of Ottawa’s citizens who recalled Dutch paintings of skaters on the canals of Holland. If they can do it in the Netherlands, why can’t we do it in frigid Ottawa?

Conditions were perfect for skating during the winter of 1958-59, and attracted thousands onto the ice on the Canal, Dow’s Lake, and even the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. Owing to public demand, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department asked Ottawa’s Board of Control for $16,000 to maintain a one mile length of canal between Patterson Creek and Bank Street, complete with ramps, changing huts and lightening, for the following winter season. Instead the City coughed up only $2,000, enough for a ramp at Fifth Avenue and a skating lane. It was maintained for just over two weeks from 15 December 1959 to 2 January 1960. Four men and two ploughs mounted on jeeps were unable to keep up with the snow. As well, twenty men using four water pumps were required to keep the ice surface smooth. But as the water was drawn from under the ice, city officials feared that air pockets might form leading to cave-ins. With attendance low, averaging only 30 skaters per day, the experiment was abandoned on 5 January, ending Canal skating for more than a decade.

Despite this setback, people kept the faith. In 1969, the National Capital Commission proposed the establishment of an ice rink on the Canal as a way of “finding imaginative and enjoyable uses for unused resources.” But even as late as December 1970, there were naysayers. In an editorial, the Ottawa Citizen opined that the “durable proposal” of Canal skating was “going nowhere.” Instead, it favoured a temporary outdoor rink with artificial refrigeration be installed by the National Arts Centre across from the Canal.

Douglas Fullerton, the redoubtable chairman of the NCC from 1969 to 1973, would have none of it. On 18 January, 1971, he sent teams of men with shovels to clear a five kilometre stretch of ice, twenty feet wide, from the Arts Centre to the Bronson Street Bridge. It was an instant success; 50,000 Ottawa residents flocked to the canal during the rink’s first weekend to enjoy the experience of skating through the heart of the city. There were glitches, however. During the second year of operations, the shelters provided on the ice for skaters sank. They were subsequently placed on gravel pads. Clearing the snow off the ice and maintaining a smooth ice surface suitable for skating also took considerable on-the-job learning. Within three years, however, NCC crews had improved their technique sufficiently to permit virtually the entire width of the Canal to be cleared for its full 7.8 kilometres length through the city. Changing facilities, bathrooms, skate-sharpening facilities as well as first aid centres were established. Refreshment stands served snacks, hot chocolate, coffee and cider to cold, weary skaters. To facilitate night time skating, lights were added.

In 1979, the NCC inaugurated the first annual Winterlude, or Bal de Niege winter festival featuring winter-related activities as well as snow and ice sculptures. It too was a great success. Naturally, its events centred on the Canal; so much so that Fullerton became concerned that Winterlude might detract from the skating. His fears were misplaced. Winterlude became a major tourist attraction and has attracted thousands of new visitors to the Skateway each winter. Ottawa is now a major winter tourist destination.

For many years, the Rideau Canal Skateway billed itself as the longest natural ice skating rink in the world. However, during the mid-2000s, Winnipeg’s River Trail usurped the title. Measuring 9.32 kilometres in length in 2009, it easily topped the Canal for length. Ottawa residents sniffed that Winnipeg’s Trail, which narrowed in places to no more than a car width was a poor excuse for a rink. Ottawa MP Paul Dewar called it a “cow path” in a tongue-in-cheek exchange with his Winnipeg colleague in the House of Commons. Today, Ottawa’s Skateway claims to be the “largest” outdoor skating rink in the world, equivalent to 90 Olympic-sized hockey rinks, a boast supported by the Guinness Book of Records.


Canadian Geographic Travel Club, 2009. “Skating: The Cold War,”.

Capital News Online, 2014. “The history of a record making rink,”

Forks North Portage Corporation, 2014. Red River Mutual Trail,.

New Straits Times,” 1975, “Ice-Skating, The Popular Winter Sports,” 29 June.

National Capital Commission, 2014. “Rideau Canal Skateway,”., 2005. “Fact Sheet-Rideau Canal Skateway,”.

The Age, 1974. “Skate Along Ottawa’s five-mile waterway,” 4 November.

The Citizen, 1984. “Evolution of Ottawa’s Rink,” 7 February.

The Globe, 1874. ”Latest from Ottawa,” 6 March.

The Globe and Mail, 2008. “Only in Canada: Two frozen cities face off over ice,” 8 January.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1960. “Skaters’ Wish Coming True With Rink At Mooney’s Bay,” 20 December.

———————–, 1971. “Canal Open—Night Skating On Its Way,” 24 December.

Image: skating on the Rideau Canada, February 2014 by Nea Powell


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, 06 February 2020 15:58

The Canal Basin: Going, Going, Gone

14 November 1927

Readers may be surprised to learn that the Rideau Canal of the twenty-first century is considerably different from the Rideau Canal of the nineteenth century. In the old days, the Canal was very much a gritty, working canal. While it had its share of pleasure boats that plied its length, commerce was its main function. At its Ottawa end, barges, pulled by horses and men along canal-side tow paths, were drawn to warehouses that stretched from the Plaza at Wellington Street to the Maria Street Bridge (the predecessor of the Laurier Avenue Bridge). Lumber, coal and other materials were piled high along its banks awaiting delivery. Consequently, the Rideau Canal was anything but a scenic port of entry into the nation’s capital. Later, railroads and train sheds replaced the warehouses on the eastern side when the Central Depot, the forerunner of Union Station (currently the Ottawa Conference Centre and soon to be the temporary home of the Senate), opened in 1896. While practical, this was not an aesthetic improvement.

The quality of the Canal’s water during the late nineteenth century was also considerably different than that of today. While we sometimes complain about the turbid nature of the water and the summertime weeds that choke stretches of the waterway and parts of Dow’s Lake, this is nothing compared to the complaints of residents of the 1880s. Then the Canal literally stank. The sewer that drained the southern portion of Wellington Ward, the neighbourhood located between Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) and Bank Street flowed into the Canal at Lewis Street. The smell was particularly bad in spring when the effluent that had entered the Canal through the winter thawed. Reportedly, the stench of festering sewage was overpowering. So bad were the conditions, the federal government forced the municipal authorities to fix things. After considerable delay, a proper sewer was constructed.

canal basin 1888Detail of 1888 Map of Ottawa, City of Ottawa Archives. Note the Canal Basin. By now, only a rump of the By-Wash remained.The other not so delightful feature of the waterway was its flotsam and jetsam. Stray logs—a hazard to navigation—was the least of the problem. Prior to the first annual Central Canada Exhibition held in Ottawa in 1888, one concerned citizen pointed out the many nuisances to be found by boaters on the Canal. These included several carcasses of dead dogs floating in the Deep Cut (that portion of the Canal between Waverely Street and today’s city hall) and a bloated body of a horse bobbing in the water opposite the Exhibition grounds. The citizen also groused about the “vulgar habit” of people swimming in the Canal without “bathing tights.” He didn’t comment on the advisability of canal swimming given the horrific water quality.

The physical geography of the Rideau Canal was also different back then. Patterson’s Creek was much longer in the nineteenth century than it is today; its western end became Central Park in the early twentieth century. There was also Neville’s Creek that flowed through today’s Golden Triangle neighbourhood and entered the Canal close to Lewis Street. The Creek, which was described as a cesspool in the 1880s, was filled in during the early twentieth century.

But the biggest difference was the existence of a large canal basin located roughly where the Shaw Centre and National Defence are today on the eastern side of the Canal and the National Arts Centre and Confederation Park are on the western side. This basin, which was lined with wooden docks, was used for mooring boats, turning barges, and picking up and delivering cargo and passengers.

canal basin evening journal 30 10 1897Diagram of the Rideau Canal and the covered eastern Canal Basin, 1897
The Ottawa Evening Journal, 30 October 1897.
Before the Canal was constructed, the canal basin was originally a beaver meadow from which a swamp extended as far west as today’s Bank Street. Following the Canal’s completion in 1832, which included digging out the basin, a small outlet or creek called the By-Wash extended from the north east side of the basin. It was used to drain excess water from the Canal. Controlled by a sluice gate, the By-Wash flowed down Mosgrove Street (now the location of the Rideau Centre), went through a culvert under Rideau Street, re-emerged above ground on the northern portion of Mosgrove Street, before heading down George Street, crossing Dalhousie Street on an angle to York Street, and then running along what is now King Edward Street to the Rideau River. In addition to controlling the Canal’s water level, the By-Wash was used by Lower Town residents for washing and fishing. In 1872, the City successfully petitioned the federal authorities who controlled the Rideau Canal to cover the By-Wash. It was converted into a sewer with only a small rump remaining close to the canal basin that was used as a dry dock.

map ottawa 1900Detail of Map of Ottawa, circa 1900, City of Ottawa Archives. Note that the eastern Canal Basin has disappeared.Big changes to the canal basin started during the last decade of the nineteenth century. John Rudolphus Booth, Ottawa’s lumber baron and owner of three railways, the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway (the O.A. & P.S.), the Montreal & City of Ottawa Junction Railway, and the Coteau & Province Line Railway & Bridge Company (subsequently merged to form the Canadian Atlantic Railway–CAR), received permission from the Dominion government to bring trains into the heart of Ottawa. Hitherto, his railways provided service to the Bridge Street Station in LeBreton Flats and to the Elgin Street Station, both a fair distance from the city’s centre. In early March 1896, Booth, through his O.A. & P.S. Railway, acquired from the government a twenty-one year lease for the
east bank of the Rideau Canal from Sapper’s Bridge (roughly the location of today’s Plaza Bridge) to the beginning of the Deep Cut for $1,100 per year “for the purpose of a canal station and approaches thereto.” Lease-holders of properties between Theodore Street (today’s Laurier Avenue East) and the canal basin were told to vacate. After building a temporary Central Depot at the Maria Street Bridge on the Theodore Street side, Booth subsequently extended the line across the canal basin to a new temporary Central Station at the Military Stores building at Sappers’ Bridge.

Initially, the railway crossed the basin on trestles, leaving the basin underneath intact while Booth dredged the western side of the canal basin and built replacement docks—the quid pro quo with the government for removing the eastern basin’s docks. It seems that the government was reluctant to allow Booth to fill in the eastern portion of the basin until the western portion had been deepened, fearing that any unexpected rush of water might be larger than the locks could handle leading to flooding. By mid-March 1896, 75 men and 25-35 horses were hard at work excavating the site. The Central Depot at Sappers’ Bridge was completed in 1896, and was promptly the subject of dispute between Booth and his railway competitors who also wished to use a downtown station. There was rumours that if the Canadian Pacific Railway could not come to terms with Booth, it would build a railroad on the western side of the Canal with a terminus on the other side of Sappers’ Bridge across from the Central Station. Fortunately, with government prodding an accommodation was made. Initially covered over with planks, the western portion of the Canal Basin was subsequently filled in. A new Central Station, later renamed Union Station, opened in 1912.

canal basin canada dept of mines and technical surveys lacanadapa 023229Rideau Canal, circa 1911. The western Canal Basin is on the left. Union Station and the Château Laurier are under construction.
Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, Library and Archives Canada, PA-023229.

If the eastern Canal Basin was sacrificed to the railway, the western Canal Basin was the victim of the automobile. This time, the Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, was responsible. Consistent with its plan to beautify the nation’s capital, the FDC in cooperation with the municipal authorities decided to extend the Driveway from the Drill Hall to Connaught Plaza (now Confederation Plaza) at a cost of $150,000. These funds also covered the construction of two connections with Slater Street, a subway at Laurier Avenue, new light standards, landscaping, and a new retaining wall for the Rideau Canal. Again, firms with warehouses at the Canal Basin, including the wholesale grocers L.N. Bate & Sons and the wholesale hardware merchant Thomas Birkett & Son, were forced to relocate. By the end of April 1927, workmen using steam shovels and teams of horses were hard at work filling in the western Canal Basin. Huge piles of earth were piled up near the Laurier Street Bridge ready to be shifted into the basin. On 14 November 1927, the last renovations to the Rideau Canal commenced with the construction of the new retaining wall from Connaught Plaza to the Laurier Street Bridge. With that, the old Canal Basin, which had served Ottawa for almost 100 years, vanished into history.


Colin Churcher’s Railway Pages, 2017. The Railways of Ottawa.

Daily Citizen (The), 1895. “Central Station Site,” 1 August.

Evening Citizen (The), 1898. “The New Line.” 11 June.

Evening Journal (The), 1888.” The City Sewerage,” 19 April.

—————————, 1888, “The By-Law,” 27 April.

—————————, 1888. “Canal Nuisances,” 28 May.

—————————, 1895. “Notice to Quit,” 3 October.

—————————, 1895. “Now For The New Basin,” 9 November.

—————————, 1896. “Now For The Depot,” 4 February.

—————————, 1896. “Basin Widening Begun,” 4 March.

—————————, 1896. “Pushing It Ahead,” 11 November.

—————————, 1896. “For The New Station,” 23 May.

—————————, 1897, “Picked From Reporter’s Notes,” 20 October.

————————–, 1897, “Special C.P.R. Depot All Talk,’ 30 October.

————————–, 1898, “The Central Station,” 7 November.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1925. “History of Early Ottawa,” 10 October.

————————–, 1927, “Start Filling Basin Of Rideau Canal,” 26 April.

————————–, 1927. “Artist’s Conception of Park Scheme Proposed by The Prime Minister,” 11 June.

————————–, 1927, “The Railways And he Central Station,” 1 November.

————————–, 1934. “Understanding Shown In Letters Between King Ministry and Ottawa Concerning Beautification of City,” 6 January.

————————–, 1935. “Ottawa’s Beauty Developed On Broad Lines,” 10 December.

————————-, 1949. “Ottawa’s Vanished Water Traffic,” 15 September.

Ottawa, Past & Present, 2014. “Aerial View of the Rideau Canal 1927 and 2014,”.

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.

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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.