Moving Day

25 September 1865

The day had finally arrived. After decades of dithering, political wrangling and construction snafus, the seat of Canada’s capital was finally moving. On 25 September 1865, the first boxes of government effects were loaded onto trains and barges for their one-way journey from Quebec, dubbed “the ancient capital,” to Ottawa. For almost a quarter century since the merger of Upper and Lower Canada to form the Province of Canada in 1841, the colony’s peripatetic capital had moved from Kingston to Montreal, before alternating between Toronto and Quebec. Imagine the cost of picking up sticks every few years as well as the physical and emotional toll on public servants and their families.

In 1857, Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the permanent seat of Canada’s capital after partisan provincial legislators were unable to select a city. Even then, it took two more years for Canadian politicians to ratify her choice and for construction on the new legislature and department buildings to commence. Cost overruns due in part to contracts being awarded on the basis of patronage rather than price, led to further delays. When the money ran out, construction came to a temporary halt before building was resumed under new leadership. But by the beginning of 1865, work had progressed to the point that the government, then resident in Quebec, was encouraged enough to issue an Order-in-Council to set in motion the removal of the government to Ottawa for the following May.

West Block Government Building nearing completion, c. 1865, Library and Archives Canada, ID 3246837.

This date was also missed. However, with 500 workmen on site, the departmental buildings were nearing completion, though the legislature building was not quite as advanced, and the Parliamentary Library to the rear of the legislature building scarcely begun. Press reports suggested that the government was determined to move government employees to Ottawa by the fall. The Bytown Consumer Gas Company, which had won the contract for suppling the government buildings with illuminating gas, was told that it had to lay it pipes and make all arrangements necessary to supply lighting by mid October.

In late July 1865, Thomas D’Arcy McGee visited Ottawa to assess the progress and report back to Cabinet on the possibility of the civil service staff moving to their new quarters by the fall. The Ottawa Citizen reported that he spent virtually all of his time in the city examining and exploring the governmental buildings. He was favourably impressed.

A month later, Jean-Charles Chapais, the Commissioner of Public Works, told the Clerk of the House to have everybody ready for removal to Ottawa immediately after the close of the session expected in a month’s time. Based on Chapais’ announcement, many government employees instructed their agents in Ottawa to immediately secure housing. There were reports, however, that some public servants, fearful of not finding adequate accommodations, had in fact rented houses for a year or more in anticipation of the move.

At the end of August, three senior civil servants, Mr. T. Trudeau, Deputy Commissioner of Public Works, Mr. Himsworth from the Executive Council Office, and Mr. William White, Secretary of the Post Office Department, came down from Quebec to make their own assessment of the state of the buildings.

Ottawa was abuzz with excitement. The big day when the city was to finally become the seat of government was at hand.

On 7 September, Robert Bell, the owner of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, and MP for Russell County in the Provincial legislature, sent a private dispatch to the newspaper informing it that Public Works Department had began to advertise for tenders for moving government effects from Quebec to Ottawa with the move to be completed no later than mid November. Ottawa MP J. M. Currier also reported to Ottawa’s Mayor Dickenson that there was “not the slightest doubt…that the Government will be removed to Ottawa this fall.”

The small announcement that the government’s move to Ottawa was finally underway, Ottawa Citizen, 25 September 1865.

Fourteen bids were received by the government for the removals contract, ranging from $12,000 to $39,000. The winner was the firm of Craig & Vallière, Quebec cabinetmakers.

The first departments to be packed were Crown Lands and the Post Office, with the first load of government effects leaving Quebec bound for Ottawa on 25 September, 1865.  Papers were loaded securely in bound wooden boxes, closely watched by Mr. Trudeau of Public Works who kept a wary eye out for careless packing.

Written papers and departmental books were transported by the Grand Trunk Railway. Office furniture and the Parliamentary Library, part of which had been in storage in Laval University, went by barges towed by steamers to Ottawa. Most of the books were to be held in storage until the new Parliamentary Library was completed a decade later. The government allowed the barges to pass through the Lachine Canal free of tolls on their way down the St. Lawrence River before being pulled down the Ottawa River to the new capital. On 15 October 1865, the Post Office and the Crown Lands Department opened for business in Ottawa. The Globe newspaper reported that “Quebec may be said to be decapitalized.” The last government effects left Quebec for Ottawa on 24 October.

As departments were given orders to pack their belongings in Quebec, the government buildings in Ottawa were being buffed and polished. Disused workshops were dismantled while rubbish was carted away from around the government building in preparation for their new occupants.

Journalists were given a three-hour tour of the buildings, escorted by Mr. Page, the public servant in charge of the Parliament buildings, and Mr. Thomas Fuller, one of the architects of the central legislative building. The reporters were very impressed. They enthused about the large, airy departmental offices, each supplied with water and gas. The reporters’ room, located on the northwest corner of the centre building had a fine view of the Chaudière Falls. The governor general’s office was described as an elegant apartment with windows of stained glass. The universal opinion of the Press Association was that despite some bungling and some chiselling, the buildings were spectacular and that generations of Canadians as yet unborn will be proud of them.

Journalists also remarked that downtown face of Ottawa had been transformed beyond the Parliament buildings. On the principal streets, first class stone buildings had recently been erected. Most of these buildings had been built of blue limestone and were deemed to be both substantial and elegant, with high French windows and projecting sills that gave them an air of “grace and strength.” Ottawa was clearly destined for a great future.

What about the poor civil servants who had to move from the delights of old Quebec to rough hewn, little Ottawa? The Ottawa Citizen opined that “removal to Ottawa [was] not quite synonymous with banishment to a penal colony.”

The government softened the blow by providing allowances to its civil servants. Each employee was given two months salary plus $40 for each adult in the family, with children of twelve years of age considered adults, and $20 for each child and servant. This scale of payment was the same as that given to civil servants when they moved to Toronto in 1855 and to Quebec in 1859. However, the allowances were reduced by 10 per cent to account for the shorter travel distance.

The biggest fear of government employees was finding adequate housing in Ottawa. Not only was it much smaller than Quebec, having a population of only 16,000 compared with more than 60,000 for the ancient capital, but it seems that relatively little new housing had been constructed in anticipation of a flood of new arrivals. Reportedly, this was due to the uncertain timing of when the government would actually move the seat of government to Ottawa.

According to John A. Macdonald, who stopped in Ottawa to see how things were going in late September 1865 while his way to Quebec, upwards of 2,000 people would be moving to Ottawa. He told Ottawa officials that in addition to heads of departments, there were “numerous labourers, workers and employees with small income, who have to look at a shilling twice before they spend it.”

It is not clear, however, who Macdonald was counting in this total. Twenty years later, total federal head office staff (inside service) accounted for fewer than 750 positions. It’s possible Macdonald was counting family members as well. Alternatively, he was counting non-government ancillary jobs that were also moving to Ottawa. For example, George Desbarats, the Queen’s printer, moved his printing business from Quebec to Ottawa. Regardless, for tiny Ottawa, this was a large number of people.

Macdonald expressed his conviction that the people of Ottawa would do all in their power to smooth the path for the new arrivals. He also claimed that according to his inquiries, Ottawa landlords were not taking advantage of the tight housing conditions, and rents remained reasonable. He attributed this to Ottawa landlords taking the long view.

Others were not so sure, especially Quebec-based papers, though perhaps they were biased, keen to point out the worst in the move to Ottawa. The Quebec Chronicle reported (and reproduced in the Ottawa Citizen) that not only were houses few and far between in Ottawa but private boarding was “scarcely to be had” and what rooms that were available costed from eight to ten dollars per week. “What are the single men with small salaries to do at these rates? Or, for that matter, the married ones?” the newspaper worried.

Another report said that a departmental officer paid £45 ($220), inclusive of tax, per year in Quebec but was forced to pay £90 ($440), exclusive of tax, in Ottawa. Ottawa’s taxes were also higher than Quebec’s. Another report in October 1865 claimed that most of the employees who had gone to Ottawa could not obtain “anything approaching a moderately comfortable dwelling without paying exorbitant rates. The shabbiest hovels costed £25 to £85 (roughly $120-$400). (The salary of a male, third-class clerk, which was a middle-rank position, ranged from $600-$1,000 per annum in 1886. Guards made only $500 per annum.)

The Ottawa Citizen rubbished these reports, claiming that rents of eight to ten dollars per week were ridiculous. The newspaper said that a single man could find “good quarters” for $6 per week. Moreover, it contended that private boarding houses were not scarce and that accommodations could be easily found. However, it added the qualifier, as long as people were “not overly fastidious.”

In early 1866, a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen from somebody with the nom de plume “Government Clerk,” said that there had been too much whining by civil servants. He asserted that the inconvenience of moving was less than what it had been after the moves to Toronto in 1855 and to Quebec in 1859. While one could hardly expect that comfortable accommodations at reasonable rates could be immediately found given the large number of persons arriving at once in Ottawa, its landowners demanded less than Toronto and Quebec landowners had in similar circumstances. Ottawa was not a “den of thieves.”

Public servants also had to hope that their personal effects made the journey from Quebec to Ottawa intact. The Globe reported that there had been a series of mysterious robberies leading to a very large quantity of belongings of government employees apparently stolen.

While government employees moved in late in 1885, members of Parliament and the Legislative Council moved later. Like the civil servants, they too had difficulties finding accommodation. Some, like George Brown, the fiery Liberal leader, stayed at the Russell House Hotel when the Legislature was in session. Others found lodgings in rooming houses. Thomas D’Arcy McGee took rooms in the Toronto Hotel, otherwise known as Mrs. Trotter’s Boarding House. He was to die on its front steps, felled by an assassin’s bullet, less than a year after Confederation.

The first session of the Provincial Legislature opened in its new home in Ottawa on Friday, 8 June 1866, when Governor General, the Viscount Monck delivered the speech from the Throne in the Legislative Council. The first two bills introduced by John A. Macdonald and Georges-Étienne Cartier dealt with the apprehension and punishment of Fenian raiders.


Department of the Secretary of State, 1886. Civil Service List of Canada, Ottawa, March.

Evening Telegraph & Commercial Advertiser, 1865. “Removal To Ottawa,” 27 January.

Globe, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 26 September.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 29 September.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 16 October.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 21 October.

Ottawa Citizen, 1865. “No title,” 23 May.

——————-, 1865. “Editorial,” 22 July.

——————, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 18 August.

——————, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 29 August.

——————, 1865. “Editorial,” 30 August

——————, 1865. “From Toronto,” 6 September

——————, 1865. “From Quebec,” 8 September.

——————, 1865, “The Late Press Excursion,” 18 September.

——————, 1865. “The Late Press Excursion,” 20 September.

——————, 1865. “Editorial,” 21 September.

——————, 1865. “The Removal to Ottawa,” 23 September.

——————, 1865. “The Removal,” 25 September.

——————, 1865. “No title,” 26 September.

——————, 1865. “No title,” 28 September.

——————, 1865. “The Hon. J.A. Macdonald In Ottawa,” 29 September.

——————, 1865. “Removal,” 18 October.

——————, 1866. “Correspondence,” 22 January.

——————, 1866. “Editorial,” 5 October.

Bob, the Fire Horse: The End of an Era

25 September 1929

On 25 September 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal reported the death of old “Bob,” a twenty-five year old horse. It was front page news as Bob wasn’t just any horse but was Ottawa’s last fire horse. The red ribbon and cup winner at the Ottawa Horse Parade passed away in pasture, honourably retired for more than a year. He had been purchased by the Ottawa Fire Department (O.F.D.) in 1908 at the age of four from Hugh Coon. Standing 16 hands, 2 inches tall (66 inches) from the ground to the top of his withers, the jet black, 1,300 pound horse served four fire stations during his lifetime, retiring from the No. 11 station at 424 Parkdale Avenue. Old Bob wasn’t the last horse in active service, but was the last owned by the O.F.D. In late 1928, the last two-horse team, also at service at No. 11 station, was displaced when the O.F.D. purchased three motorized combination ladder and hose trucks. When the team was sold, only Bob was left, pensioned off in recognition of his many years of noble service to the City. His retirement to greener pastures was controversial. Ottawa City Controller Tulley opposed Bob’s pensioning. A delegate to the Allied Trades and Labour Association meeting held in Ottawa in the fall of 1928 wanted to know if Tulley thought the old horse deserved to be shot, and whether the councillor favoured the same treatment be given to other old employees.

Fire Station No.2 Ottawa, Topley Studio LAC PA-012920, c. 1880
A Horse-Drawn Hose Reel with 500 feet of hose wrapped around the axle in front of No. 2 Fire Station, 123 Lyon Street at Queen Street, 1880. Left to right: Richard Waggoner, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Stanford. Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012920.

Bob’s passing marked the end of an era dating back to 1874 when the City purchased the first horses for its fire department. Prior to then, firemen had to pull their fire engines manually to the scene of a fire. The first fire engine in the city dated back to 1830 when the British regiment stationed on Barracks Hills, now called Parliament Hill, acquired the Dominion, a small manually operated machine. A volunteer fire department was formed in 1838. Later, the first fire hall was established on the ground floor of Bytown’s (later Ottawa’s) City Hall on Elgin Street. During these early years, insurance companies played a major role in fire-fighting, even providing the fire equipment. The first fire stations date from 1853 when the Bytown Town Council established three “engine” houses in West, Central and East Wards, each equipped with hand-pulled engines. In 1860, the now City of Ottawa purchased two hook and ladder trucks. As each weighed more than a ton, they were supposed to have been drawn by horses. But the City was too cheap or too poor to provide the funds for horses so the engines had to be manually pulled to fires.

The volunteer fire department was neither well managed, nor very professional in its operations. According to David Fitzsimons and Bernard Matheson who wrote the definitive history of the Ottawa Fire Department, there were complaints in the 1850s of volunteers who were quick to show off their sky-blue and silver laced uniforms in parades, but were no-shows when there was an actual fire. To “secure the utmost promptitude in the attendance of the different [fire] companies and water carriers at fires,” the City began to offer in the mid-1860s significant financial premiums to first responders. “The first engine to arrive in good working order” received $12, the second $8. The first water carrier received $2 and the second $1. Although such financial incentives did indeed encourage prompt service, they also led to fisticuffs between competing firemen with fires sometimes left unattended. Even when fire fighters managed to arrive at a fire without delay, there was the occasional problem. In 1914, Mr. J. Latimer, a fire department veteran, recalled a major fire in the Desbarats building located on the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets that occurred in February 1869. When the fire threatened to spread to the neighbouring International Hotel, barrels of liquor were rolled out into the street to keep them safe from the flames. In the process, some were broken open and at least two detachments of firefighters went home “wobbly” and had to be replaced before the fire was extinguished.

The first fire horses arrived in 1874 when the City acquired the Conqueror steam engine with a vertical boiler from the Merryweather Company of Clapham, England for the huge sum at the time of $5,953. Considerably heavier than other fire equipment, Ottawa was obliged to buy horses to pull it—anywhere from three to six depending on weather and road conditions. That same year, Ottawa’s volunteer fire department was replaced by a professional, full time force under the leadership of Chief William Young and Deputy Chief Paul Favreau.

The first motorized fire engines were introduced in North America during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1906, the Waterous Engine Works Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota and Brantford, Ontario produced the Waterous Steam Pumper. That same year, the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts produced its motorized fire engine. Such machines quickly became popular with fire departments everywhere. Compared with horse-drawn engines, the new motorized engines were faster and cheaper to operate. Horses needed to be fed 365 days of the year, and required stabling, shoeing, harnesses, and veterinary care. Fire horses also needed to be well trained. They had to be strong, obedient, and willing to stand patiently regardless of weather conditions, noise, and swirling hot embers, flames and smoke. Motorized fire engines didn’t need to be trained, were impervious to weather, and consumed gasoline only when used.

Ottawa purchased its first motorized fire engine in 1911 following pressure from insurance companies that threatened to raise their rates if the City didn’t get into the twentieth century and acquire modern fire-fighting equipment. Chief John Graham was also insistent that the City buy motorized fire equipment for efficiency and effectiveness reasons. Although the initial outlay for a motorized fire truck was higher than that of a traditional horse-drawn vehicle, the operating costs were lower.

Fire engine tender 13-3-1911
Call for Tenders for Ottawa’s first motorized fire engine, 10 March 1911, The Ottawa Evening Journal

Chief Graham had recommended buying a motor fire truck costing $10,450 from the Webb Motor Fire Apparatus Company of St Louis, Missouri. However, City Council chose a vehicle produced by the W.E. Seagrave Fire Apparatus Company of Walkerville, Ontario (now part of Windsor), the Canadian subsidiary of a company of the same name that had been established in Ohio in 1881. The company had previously sold three of its motorized fire engines to Vancouver in 1907 and one to Windsor in 1910. The four-ton, 80 h.p. Seagrave vehicle purchased by Ottawa carried a price tag of $7,850.  It was a combination chemical and hose truck capable of carrying ten firemen, two 35 gallon tanks of fire-suppressing chemicals, 1,000 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a twelve-foot ladder plus extension, door openers, and three fire extinguishers. Fully loaded, the vehicle could attain a speed of up to 50 miles per hour on flat terrain (typically 35 mph), or 20 mph on a 5-10 per cent incline. The City had initially sought a combination automobile pumper truck with a pumping capacity of 700-800 gallons per minute. However, it opted instead for the chemical and hose truck on the grounds that a pumper truck had not yet been adequately proven though tests were underway in New York City on such vehicles.

Fire Apparatus, Ottawa, 1914 Topley Studio LAC PA-032798
The Seagrave Chemical Hose Combination Truck, Ottawa’s first motorized fire truck, 1914, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-032798.

The new Seagrave truck was shown off to Ottawa residents at the end of May 1911 when it was run out on the road with its siren shrieking for the first time. Chief Graham invited reporters to witness the truck take him, two deputy chiefs and several firemen on a tour of Ottawa along Rideau, Sparks, Bank, Elgin, Laurier and Albert Streets. It visited No. 3, 7, and 2 fire stations before parking at its new home at No. 8 station located to the rear of the Ottawa City Hall on Elgin Street. In town for the event was Mr W.E. Seagrave himself and an instructor, Mr C.E. Fern, who drove the vehicle that first time. Fern taught Fireman James Donaldson of No. 9 station how to drive the newfangled machine.

The Ottawa Evening Journal hoped that the purchase of the Seagrave vehicle marked the start of a complete replacement by Ottawa of its horse-drawn vehicles by motorized fire trucks. (The second motorized vehicle purchased by the O.F.D. was a flash car for Chief Graham who could then retire his horse and buggy.) At that time in 1911, Ottawa’s fire department owned 46 horses, for which the cost of feed alone amounted to $4,600 per year. This was the department’s second largest budgetary item after paying the firemen’s salaries. On top of this were the ancillary costs associated with owning and taking care of horses that needed to be regularly replaced. The newspaper thought that by 1931, the whole O.F.D. might be equipped with motorized vehicles. This was a pretty accurate guess, with the motorization process taking twenty-seven years.

Fire Car Chief Graham William James TopleyLibrary and Archives CanadaPA-010055
Chief Graham & assistants in auto “Fire Brigade”, 1911, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-010055.

The last major event that saw horse-drawn engines in action was the fire that consumed the old Russell Hotel in the middle of April 1928. By the end of that year, the entire Ottawa Fire Department had been motorized, leaving only old “Bob” to live out his days in green pastures far from the smoke and flames of his fire-fighting days.

Today, the Ottawa Fire Department has forty-five fire stations strategically positioned to protect close to one million people living in an area of 2,796 square kilometres. Among its equipment are pumper trucks, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, and brush trucks as well as boats, ATVs and other rescue equipment.


Fire-Dex, 2011. The Switch from Horsepower to Motorized Fire Apparatus, September,

Fitzsimons, David R. & Matheson, J. Bernard, 1988. History of the Ottawa Fire Department, 150 Years of Firefighting, 1838-1988, Kanata: J. B. Matheson and D. R. Fitzsimons, publishers.

Morgan, Carl, 2015. “Seagrave: Birthplace of the Modern Firetruck,” Walkerville Times Magazine,

Ottawa, City of, 2017. About Ottawa Fire Services,

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1911. “Fire Chief Wants A Motor Engine,” 26 January.

——————————, 1911. “City Will Purchase An Auto Fire Engine,” 10 February.

——————————, 1911. “Read Tenders For Furniture,” 7 April.

——————————, 1911. “Deputy Chief At Eganville,” 12 May.

——————————, 1911. “Using Automobiles For Fire Purposes,” 29 April.

——————————, 1911. “Shriek of New Engine Was Heard,” 1 June.

——————————, 1914. “With the Ottawa Fire Fighters In Bygone Days,” 7 March.

——————————, 1928. “Labor To Take Keen Interest In Coming Vote,” 22 September.

——————————, 1928. “Only Two Horse In Fire Service,” 9 November 1928.

——————————, 1929. “Last Fire Horse Dies In Pasture,” 25 September.

——————————, 1930. “Chief Burnett Dies At Home Was Long Ill,” 3 November.

Saskatoon, City of, 2000. History of Webb Motor Fire Apparatus,

Wildfire Today, 2016. Horse-drawn fire engines,