The Beechwood Cemetery

25 October 1873

The Beechwood Cemetery, located on Beechwood Avenue and Hemlock Road in Vanier, is the largest cemetery in Ottawa encompassing roughly 160 acres of wooded land. It is the resting place for more than 85,000 persons from every walk of life. Leaders such as Sir Robert Borden, Canada’s prime minister from 1911 to 1920, and Ramon Hnatyshyn, Canada’s Governor General from 1990 to 1995 are buried there. Lumber barons, military heroes, sportsmen and poets also rest at the Beechwood Cemetery as do felons and at least one executed murderer. It shady walks provide a fascinating journey into Ottawa’s past as well as a peaceful sanctuary for reflection and contemplation.

Its story begins just a few years after Confederation. Ottawa’s Protestant and Roman Catholic cemeteries in Sandy Hill were fast filling up, and congregations began to look further afield for new burial grounds for their departed flocks. The Roman Catholic Church found a site to the east of Ottawa on the “King’s Road,” now known as Montreal Road. The fifty-acre site was purchased by the Church from a Mr. Bradley. Named Notre Dame Cemetery, the new Roman Catholic burial ground was consecrated at 5:00 pm on 2 June 1872 by Bishop Guigues. An immense crowd, apparently in the thousands, attended the ceremony. Father Malloy preached in English, with “another reverend gentleman” speaking in French, according the Ottawa Daily Citizen.

It was more difficult to organize the Protestant congregations. Many meetings of church representatives were held in the Lecture Room of the Mechanics’ Institute to discuss the issue and vote on alternatives. A sub-committee was formed to visit suitable sites, of which there were many, including even a site across the Ottawa River in Hull. That site was quickly rejected as being vastly too expensive. On the Ottawa side, the sub-committee considered several farms, including the Baine, Blaisdell, and Bradley properties to the west of the city. All were rejected as unsuitable.

Attention coalesced on two particular properties, the Thompson farm in the west and the farm owned by Hector McPhail in the east though church representatives kept an eye out for other potential sites. On the way to examine the Thompson farm, the investigating sub-committee stopped at the Cowley farm on the Richmond Road. Captain Cowley was a well-known steamboat captain and farmer who owned 200 acres of land along the Richmond Road which at the time was in Nepean Township. Although the Cowley site was sufficiently large, the price tag of $175 per acre was deemed to be too high.

Initially, the balance of opinion favoured purchasing the Thompson farm, which was located to the west of the Cowley property close to the Ottawa River. The seventy-two-acre parcel of land could be acquired at a price of $10,000, less than $140 per acre. As well, the Canada Central Railway promised that if the Thompson property was chosen it would run funeral trains to and from downtown Ottawa at a day’s notice. At $10 per trip, a funeral train would be more economical than hiring carriages to bring the remains and mourners to and from the cemetery. 

However, many churches complained that the Thompson farm was too distant, being roughly six miles from the centre of the city, and hence too expensive for the poor to attend funerals and visit their dearly departed. Some clergymen complained that it would be “nigh impossible” for ministers to continue their custom of following the remains of the deceased from the funeral service at the church to graveside if the Thompson site was chosen.

Some congregations were also concerned that removing the dead from the old Sandy Hill cemetery to a new cemetery at the Thompson farm would meaning carrying the bodies through the city. Others were concerned that the prevailing westerly wind could potentially bring smells to the city and that rain water run-off from a cemetery located relatively close to the Ottawa River would eventually pollute the river upstream from where the city drew its water supply.

Supporters of the McPhail farm, located to the east of Ottawa just north of the new Notre Dame Cemetery, contended that this roughly 130-acre site had many advantages, not least of which was its price at $80 per acre ($12,000). While the northern part of the property consisted of swamp land and a gully, there was 35 acres of cleared land and perhaps another 40 acres under cultivation, all of which could be used for burying purposes. There was also another 30 acres of fine timber land. Importantly, the property had the additional advantage of being relatively close to the city, being only one mile from the St. Patrick Street Bridge across the Rideau River and about 2 ½ miles from Sappers’ Bridge downtown. As well, the nearby McKay estate had already constructed a carriage road to within a half mile of the proposed cemetery site. (Rideau Hall, located on the McKay estate, had been purchased in 1868 by the Dominion government as the home of the Governor General.) The Ottawa City Passenger Railway said that if the property was selected, the horse-drawn street car service would be extended to the site. This would make the McPhail farm site easily accessible by the general public.

A team went out to examine the suitability of the soil at the McPhail farm. Seven test pits were dug to a depth of six or seven feet, four in the field and three in the bush. In all cases, the sites were dry with the soil consisting of sand. The men judged the ground to be well suited for burial purposes, better in fact than the Thompson farm site. As well, the bush was not thick; a horse could be ridden through it, they claimed. They concluded that with relatively little expense, walks could be laid out, making the site a beautiful place for a burial ground.

Support for purchasing the McPhail farm as the new Protestant cemetery was almost unanimous. Only the Christ’s Church congregation voted against it. In favour were Bishop’s Chapel, St Alban’s, St Andrew’s, the Bank Street Church, Wesleyan Church, Congregationalist Church, the Baptist Church, and St Bartholomew’s Church in New Edinburgh.  Three Methodist churches, who did not attend the mid-November 1872 meeting at the Mechanics’ Institute, indicated that they would vote with the majority. A committee consisting of Joseph Merrill Currier MP (the builder and original owner of 24 Sussex Drive), John Rochester, and William Whyte, was then appointed to complete the McPhail purchase on behalf of the Protestant churches.

The following week on 19 November 1872, the committee announced that it had purchased the farm at a price of $80 per acre, with a down payment of $3,200, with the balance to be paid in four annual installments at an interest rate of 7 per cent. Possession of the land was immediate with the exception of the buildings which Mr. McPhail and his son could occupy until the beginning of May 1873. The McPhail family was also permitted to collect as much wood as they might need through the winter but were required to take fallen timber first. If they had a need for additional wood, the McPhails would only be permitted to fell trees selected by the new cemetery’s management.

After rejecting the name Rockcliffe Cemetery proposed by Dr. Sweetland, church representatives agreed that the lands purchased would henceforth be known as the Beechwood Cemetery. The cemetery would be used for burial purposes by all congregations that took part in the purchase, as well as by all those who joined thereafter. A committee was struck to draft an act for the incorporation of the Beechwood Cemetery Company. The committee also devised a plan for the management of the new cemetery and to develop the site for burial purposes.

The capital stock of the new company was $20,000 divided into 200 shares of $100 each. The funds raised were used to purchase the McPhail property. The company’s management then laid out and improved part of property in order to make it available for burial purposes, and placed it on the market by May 1873. An adult’s grave was priced at not more than $5, while a child’s grave cost $2.50. The first charge against net revenue from the sale of lots was the payment of interest to stockholders at a rate of 12½ per cent per annum, payable half yearly. One half of net revenue after the payment of interest to shareholders was applied to buying back the capital stock of the company with the other half used to improve the property. When the capital stock of the company was fully repaid, the lot holders became the shareholders of the cemetery. When this occurred, all net income was devoted to the improvement or embellishment of the cemetery. The cemetery was non-sectarian in nature. Moreover, those without religious profession had an equal right to purchase burial plots.

Memorial to Captain James Forsyth, first memorial erected in Beechwood Cemetery, site of the consecration ceremony performed by the Bishop of Ontario, 25 October, 1873, Veterans Affairs Canada, by F. Taylor Vergette.

Through the spring and summer of 1873, improvements were made to the property under the direction of engineer Robert Surtees. The grounds were fenced, and the cemetery subdivided into parcels and lots through which beautiful avenues were constructed, giving the area a picturesque appearance said the Ottawa Citizen. Also constructed were a chapel, a conservatory, a mortuary and stable buildings.

On Saturday, 25 October 1873 at 3:00pm, the Anglican Bishop of Ontario consecrated the Beechwood Cemetery. The spot chosen for the ceremony was the flat area at the foot of the memorial to Captain James Forsyth who died in September 1872. The newly-built memorial, the first in the cemetery, had been erected by members of the 2nd Ottawa Field Battery. The proceedings were unfortunately delayed several times by inclement weather. Although only a small group of people were in attendance at the ceremony, the Ottawa Citizen reported that among the spectators present were J.M. Currier, N. Bate, J.D. Slater and several women.

The bishop commented that most people he knew regarded consecration of land as an act of superstition. However, he believed that the act did a great deal towards producing a proper respect of the dead. Then, the people assembled sang hymn 142: Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His Throne by Matthew Bridges.

From these early days, the Beechwood Cemetery became know as a place to go, not just to visit departed loved ones, but to stroll its shaded pathways and enjoy the serenity of nature. Open to all, the cemetery developed areas for particular communities. One early such group was Ottawa’s Chinese community. At the end of World War I, a military cemetery was set aside, forming the basis of what would become in 2007 the National Military Cemetery. Most recently, the remains of early Bytown residents who were buried in the old Barrick’s Hill cemetery and were uncovered by the excavations for Ottawa’s light rail system were re-interred at the Beechwood Cemetery.

Over the years, the cemetery was expanded and improved. With a growing acceptance of cremation, a crematorium and columbarium were built in 1962. At the end of the 20th century, the corporate structure of the Beechwood Cemetery changed from a private company to a non-profit organization. In 2000, the Beechwood Cemetery Foundation was established to safeguard the cemetery’s future and to increase public awareness of the cemetery’s place in Canadian history. In 2009, Beechwood was recognized by the federal government as the national cemetery of Canada.


Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “A New Cemetery,” 3 June.

————————–, 1872. “The Protestant Cemetery,” 23 October.

————————–, 1872. “The Cemetery,” 24 October.

————————–, 1872. “The Cemetery Question,” 1 November.

————————–, 1872. “The Cemetery Question,” 9 November.

————————–, 1872. “The Cemetery Question,” 13 November.

————————–, 1872. “Cemetery Meeting,” 20 November.

————————–, 1872. “Beechwood Cemetery,” 30 November.

————————–, 1873. “The Beechwood Cemetery,” 27 October.

Notre Dame Cemetery, 2022. Notre Dame Cemetery History.

Jackson, Christine, 2016. From Steamboats to the NHL: The Ottawa Valley’s Cowley Family, Historical Society of Ottawa, Bytown Pamphlet #98, March.

Ritchie, Thomas, 2022. The History of the Beechwood Cemetery, Beechwood Cemetery.

The Slater Street Explosion

25 October 1958

Saturday, 25 October 1958 started as a typical, mid-autumn, weekend morning in the nation’s capital. It was overcast, and there was a cool crispness to the early-morning air. Downtown streets, which on a week day would have been thronging with civil servants on their way to work, were largely deserted. The stores that lined Sparks Street had yet to open. Ottawa’s cinemas, whose Saturday morning cartoons attracted hundreds of children, were still shuttered. Shortly after 8am, when most Ottawa citizens were still at home having breakfast, or reading the morning newspapers, the city’s usual calm was shattered. A tremendous explosion rocked the downtown core, obliterating buildings on Slater Street, blowing out store fronts, and shattering windows from Sparks Street to Somerset Street. Downtown residents who were indulging in a Saturday morning lie-in were rudely thrown from their beds. Some thought that a plane had crashed, while other believed it was an earthquake. Reflecting Cold War jitters, some feared that Ottawa had been the target of a nuclear attack.

Slater Street explosion
View of Slater Street, October 1958. The Addressograph-Multigraph building has been completely destroyed. In the mid-ground is the ruin of the Odeon Theatre, author unknown

It was quickly determined that the centre of the blast was the Addressograph-Multigraph building located at 248 Slater Street. At 8.17am, William J. Anderson, the building’s janitor, entered the basement of the building to retrieve some cleaning materials. Smelling a bad odour, he switched on a light to get a better look. The light ignited natural gas that had seeped into the basement through a disused, uncapped, gas main.  The gas explosion in turn blew up the building’s oil tank and boiler. Later in hospital, he reported to police that there had been a “rumble and a terrific explosion.” Anderson, who received third-degree burns over most of his body, later died of his injuries.

The massive explosion, estimated to have been the equivalent of a 1,000-2,000 ton bomb, totally destroyed the Addressograph building. Neighbouring Meyers Motors offices and showroom at 260 Slater were also demolished, as was the Odeon Theatre at 142 Bank Street which abutted the Addressograph building at the rear. The back of the cinema was reduced to a mess of twisted girders and fallen masonry. The Jackson Building, where thousands of civil servants worked, situated at the corner of Slater and Bank Streets across from the Addressograph building, was also severely damaged. Virtually all its windows were blown out; debris, sent high in the sky by the force of the blast, littered its roof. Major-General H.A. Young, the deputy minister of public works, said that the building had been reduced to “a shell.” So twisted were its elevator shafts that all twelve elevators were out of commission; filing cabinets and furniture were later retrieved using external hoists. Remarkably, however, the sturdy, nine-story office building, the tallest in Ottawa, remained structural sound, and was later repaired. Touring the site of the explosion by helicopter, a Citizen reporter described the scene as just like “bombed-out, wartime London.”

The first alarm was sounded by Guy Lebel, an off-duty fireman attached to the No. 4 Fire Station. He had been standing on Slater Street when the explosion occurred. Hearing a loud noise and breaking glass, he turned to see a car flung high into the sky. Two hundred firemen and sixty Ottawa policemen and RCMP officers responded to the alarm. The injured were located and quickly cared for, the area promptly secured. Fortunately, as the explosion occurred early on a Saturday morning, there were relatively few casualties. Major-General G.S. Hatton, the deputy coordinator of civil defence, estimated that had the explosion occurred on a week day, 600 casualties might have been expected, with many lives lost. Even so, it was bad enough. In addition to poor William Anderson, the janitor at the Addressograph building who lost his life, forty people were injured, some seriously. Most were struck by flying glass. Bill Smith of Gloucester Street was struck by glass as he was walking down Laurier Street, several blocks away from the site of the explosion. He needed thirty-two stiches to his arms and legs to close his wounds. Glen Dinsmore and Joe Moreau, who worked at Meyers Motors, were also seriously injured by glass and falling masonry. Miraculously, Herb Rawson, the car dealership’s parts manager, escaped unscathed. He had just stepped out of his office to go to the stock room when the blast occurred. The roof of his just-vacated office caved in, burying his desk under two tons of rubble.

In addition to the casualties, twenty-five businesses were closed indefinitely due to the explosion. The Odeon Theatre never reopened; its last show was the sexy, restricted movie …And God Created Woman, starring the up-and-coming French starlet, Brigitte Bardot. Other stores forced to close included the Levey Sign Company, Hobbyland, the Stage Door Restaurant, and the Sherwin-Williams paint shop. More than one hundred residents in the Sula, Imperial, and Cairo apartment buildings located on Slater Street had to be evacuated. Two schools, the Kent Street Public School and the Eastern Ontario School of Technology, were temporarily closed, while the 2,000 government employees working at the Jackson Building were forced to relocate while the building was repaired; many went to the #1 “Temporary” building on Wellington Street.

Officials from the gas company, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, and the Fire Marshal’s Office immediately descended onto the blast site seeking answers. Prime Minister Diefenbaker, who came to view the scene of the explosion, called it “the most appalling thing” that he had ever seen. Prince Philip, who happened to arrive in Ottawa a few days after the explosion, also inspected the damage. He asked Ottawa’s Mayor Nelms for a personal report on the causes of the blast.

Prince Philip and the Slater Street Explosion
H.R.H. Prince Philip at the site of an explosion at the Addressograph-Multigraph of Canada Company Ltd, 248 Slater Street, 30 October 1958.Andrews-Newton Photographers Fonds/ City of Ottawa Archives/MG393-AN-060432

Mayor Nelms established a five-man commission headed by Major-General H.H. Worthington to establish the causes of the disaster, and to make recommendation on ways to avoid similar incidences in the future. But the commission had barely begun its investigation when it ran into legal problems, and was disbanded. Apparently, under provincial law, it did not have the authority to call witnesses. To replace the commission, the provincial attorney-general ordered a inquest into the death of William Anderson, instructing the coroner, Dr Roger Rouleau, to make a “broad inquiry” into all facets of the fatal disaster.

More than seventy witnesses testified in front of the five-member coroner’s jury, whose foreman was Dr E.R. Birchard, former vice-president of the National Research Council, and a member of the disbanded civic inquiry commission. Expert testimony concluded that the explosion had been caused by a highly explosive mixture of gas and air that had been touched off when Anderson turned on the basement electric lights in the Addressograph building. The source of the natural gas was a 1 ¼ inch supposedly decommissioned gas service pipe that had years earlier been used to supply manufactured (coal) gas to the building. The explosion started in the south-west corner of the basement adjacent to Myers Motors, with the “flame front” moving easterly through the service room, the oil tank room, and finally, the boiler room, which became the epicentre of the blast.

Witnesses reported that when natural gas was introduced to Ottawa in January 1958, the Ottawa Gas Company, a subsidiary of Consumers Gas, had re-used the gas mains that had previously delivered manufactured gas to Ottawa residents. The disused and uncapped pipe in the basement of the Addressograph building had been forgotten; employees in the building believed it to be a rusty, unused, water pipe. Although the pipe had been blocked over time by sludge and debris, the natural gas introduced into the mains gradually eroded the “stoppage,” which finally gave way during the night before the explosion, allowing gas to flow unimpeded into the Addressograph building’s basement. Ironically, just two days before the explosion, Ottawa Gas has assured Ottawa’s Board of Control that “no explosion hazards” existed “in relation to the Ottawa Gas Company’s mains in the city streets.”

The coroner’s jury came up with a number of recommendations that were later implemented to help ensure against a future disaster. These included the establishment of a board with the authority to inspect gas distribution systems, the maintenance of plans and records of underground gas pipelines and mains in municipal offices, and the requirement of a permit from a competent authority before the installation of gas distribution systems. Ottawa Gas was also required to cap all disused gas service lines, with disconnections done on the outside of buildings. Over the following year, Ottawa Gas complied, disconnecting more than 2,000 disused gas lines, and installing 1,000 shut-off valves.

Site of Slater Street Explosion
Site of Slater Street Explosion, 2015

Not surprisingly, the explosion initiated a flood of law suits. Most importantly, the owners of the Odeon Theatre sued Consumers Gas, the Addressograph-Multigraph Company, the owners of the A-M building, and the City of Ottawa for $1 million. The suit was later reduced to $500,000. The Government of Canada also sued the gas company to cover the cost of repairing the heavily damaged Jackson Building. By the end of 1960, Consumers Gas had reached out-of-court settlements with roughly 400 plaintiffs, mostly area residents and shop owners. The company paid out $1.3 million, of which $375,000 went to the owners of the Odeon, and $500,000 to the federal government. Thankfully for city managers and taxpayers, the company covered all costs.

Today, 248 Slater Street, the site of the destroyed Addressograph-Multigraph building, is a parking lot.


City of Ottawa, The Slater Street Explosion,

The Ottawa Citizen, 1958. “No Explosion Hazards In Ottawa Gas Mains,” 23 October.

———————–, 1958. “Janitor May Hold Key To Explosion,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “The Bank Street Explosion,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958, “On Week Day: 600 Casualties,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “Affects Thousands,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “From Air, ‘Just Like Bombed-Out War-Time London,” 27 October.

———————–, 1958. “Man Tells Of Terrifying Brush With Death,” 27 October.

————————, 1958. “First Alarm Sounded By Off-Duty Fireman,” 27 October.

————————, 1958. “Blast Inquiry Set Up,” 28 October.

————————, 1958. “Prince Philip Inspects Scene of Explosion,” 31 October.

————————, 1958. “Tale Of Rusty Pipe In Blasted Building,” 12 November.

———————-, 1958. “Inquiry Into The Explosion,” 15 November.

———————–, 1958. “Slater Pipe Under Scrutiny,” 15 November.

———————–, 1958. “Move To Avert New Explosions; Mayor Issues Orders,” 18 November.

———————–, 1958. “Mains Spill Death,” 18 November.

———————–, 1958. “Board Directs Gas Mains; $1 million Suit by Odeon,” 18 November.

———————–, 1959. “Slater Street Blast Rocked Us Year Ago,” 24 October.

———————–, 1960. “Actions,” 22 December.

Urbsite, 2012. Bank and Slater Streets, 3 September,


View of Slater Street, October 1958. The Addressograph-Multigraph building has been completely destroyed. In the mid-ground is the ruin of the Odeon Theatre, author unknown, Urbsite,

H.R.H. Prince Philip at the site of an explosion at the Addressograph-Multigraph of Canada Company Ltd, 248 Slater Street, 30 October 1958. Andrews-Newton Photographers Fonds/ City of Ottawa Archives / MG393-AN-060432-001, City of Ottawa Archives.

248 Slater Street, site of the Addressograph-Multigraph building, today. Google Street View.