The Chaudière Bridges

28 September 1826

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

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

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

Plan and elevation of Union Bridge by Burrows in Joseph Buchette, 1831, p.82 (2)
Plan and Elevation of the Union Bridge in Joseph Bouchette, The British Dominions in North America, London, 1832

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

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

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

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

Truss Bridge LAC Acc. No. 1936-60-1 by John Burows 1828 C.
Truss Bridge over the Chaudière Falls, Ottawa River, watercolour by John Burrows, 1828, Library and Archives Canada, No. 1936-60-1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Union Supsenson bridge, watercolour by F.P. Rubidge, LAC ARch. Ref. R182-2
Union Suspension Bridge, Watercolour by F. P. Rubidge, Library and Archives Canada, Arch. Ref. R182-2.

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

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

Union Suspension Bridge, Topley Studio LAC, PA-012705 c.1867-70
The muddy and rutted entrance to the Union Suspension Bridge, looking towards Ottawa, Topley Studio, c. 1867-70, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012705.

In 1889, the Dominion government appropriated $35,000 for a new iron truss bridge to replace the deteriorating Union Suspension Bridge. Messrs. Rousseau & Mather were the contractors. Work commenced at the beginning of August and was completed by the beginning of December of that year. Many were concerned that the 30-foot width of the new roadway was too narrow given the growing amount of traffic between Ottawa and Hull. Appeals to the government to widen the bridge or at least put the two 5-foot sidewalks on the outside of the trestles in order to increase the width of the roadway by 10 feet fell on deaf ears.

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dow’s Lake and Its Causeway

27 December 1928

Dow’s Lake nestles in the heart of Ottawa much like a pearl in an oyster. It’s the centre of much of the city’s recreational activities, hosting skating in the depths of an Ottawa winter and canoeing and kayaking during the glorious days of summer. The boathouse at Dow’s Lake Pavilion provides welcome marina facilities for sailors travelling from Kingston to Ottawa through the Rideau Canal system. There too you will find canoes and pedalos for rent as well as restaurants to tempt the taste buds of Ottawa residents and tourists no matter the time of the year. Around the lake’s perimeter are parks, pathways and driveways frequented by joggers and cyclists. On one side is the Dominion Arboretum, part of the Central Experimental Farm, a favoured venue for picnics by families and lovers alike. On the other is Commissioners’ Park, the home of Ottawa’s annual tulip festival in May, and magnificent beds of annuals during the rest of the summer.

Of course, this was not always the case. At one time, Dow’s Lake marked the outer limits of Ottawa—beyond here be devils, or at least Nepean. But urban sprawl and amalgamation with surrounding communities have brought it well inside the Capital’s embrace. The lake is named for Abraham Dow, an American who came north in 1814 and acquired “Lot M in Concession C” in the Township of Gloucester. Samuel and Mabel Dow followed him two years later and settled nearby. Much of the Dow land was a mosquito-infested swamp that extended from the Rideau River to the Ottawa River. Roughly two-thirds of the swamp’s water flowed into the Rideau River, with the remainder debouching northward into the Ottawa River. Samuel and Mabel Dow must have despaired of their new home as they returned to the United States in 1826.

That same year, however, things began to change with the building of the Rideau Canal through Dow’s Great Swamp.  To make a navigable route, Irish and French-Canadian workers, labouring under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel John By’s Royal Sappers and Engineers, built two embankments. The first was constructed along what became the southern end of Dow’s Lake. Work on the embankment was started by a contractor named Henderson but was finished by Philemon Wright & Sons. The second, was constructed by Jean St. Louis, a French-Canadian pioneer in the region. Known as the St. Louis Dam, it blocked a creek flowing northward to the Ottawa River. The creek bed is now Preston Street. The work was difficult and dangerous. Many workers sickened with malaria. But they succeeded in raising the level of the water in the swamp to a depth of twenty feet, more than adequate for boats to traverse. Dow’s Great Swamp had been transformed into Dow’s Lake.

Dow's lake causeway circa 1888

Dow’s Lake, circa 1888. Notice the St. Louis Dam. Today’s Queen Elizabeth Driveway runs on top of the St. Louis Dam. The Central Experimental Farm is on the left side of the map. The “macadamized road” north of the Farm is now Carling Avenue. The railway line to the left of Dow’s Lake is the Ottawa and Prescott Railway. Source: City of Ottawa Archives.

The new lake remained a remote place for Ottawa citizens for most of the remainder of the nineteenth century. But as the city’s population increased, the city expanded southward towards the lake, a process that was accelerated by the creation of the Experimental Farm on Dow’s Lake’s northern fringe in 1886. The extension of the electric streetcar service to the Farm ten years later turned Dow’s Lake into a popular boating and swimming area. One indignant boater of this time wrote an angry letter to the editor of the Journal newspaper complaining that foul-mouthed, naked boys were diving into the Canal at its juncture with Dow’s Lake, swimming under pleasure boats, and shocking the ladies.

In 1899, the Ottawa Improvement Commission (OIC) was formed by the Dominion Government for the express purpose of beautifying the nation’s capital which was still largely a rough lumbering town. The Commission’s first big project was the creation of the Rideau Canal Driveway, renamed three decades later the Queen Elizabeth Driveway after the wife of King George VI. The Driveway ran from downtown Ottawa at Elgin Street, along the western side of the Canal, to the Experimental Farm.  This became the scenic southern gateway road into the Capital during the early part of the twentieth century. Conveniently, much of the land used for the Driveway was already owned by the Dominion government as an ordnance reserve.

As part of the Driveway, the Commission constructed a diagonal causeway across Dow’s Lake from the eastern shore of the lake to the Experimental Farm. The first intimations of such an idea emerged in 1900 when it was revealed that the OIC was considering the building of a “pier” across the lake to the Experimental Farm, similar to the one that had just been completed at Britannia Bay. The OIC hoped that the pier would be “of ample width and character to make it one of the prettiest portions of the drive.”

Dow's Lake Causeway ross Dunn Flickr

Dow’s Lake Causeway to the Experimental Farm, circa 1904.  Notice the macadamized road surface. Source: Don Ross, Flickr

In 1902, the five OIC commissioners decided to proceed. It was a close 3-2 vote. One of the dissenters was Ottawa’s Mayor Fred Cook who favoured extending the Driveway around the perimeter of the lake to the Experimental Farm instead of cutting through the lake. However, this would have meant displacing the J.R. Booth Company’s lumber piling ground located on the north-western part of Dow’s Lake close to the St.-Louis Dam. Booth had moved his lumber to this site in 1885, which was then beyond the city limits, due to concerns about the risk of fire—a not insignificant risk. But Booth was a major taxpayer and employer in the city. Weighing the economic and political risks, the Commission apparently felt it prudent to build a causeway rather than displace a company owned by one of the city’s most prominent citizens.

The causeway was constructed in 1904 linking Lakeside Avenue on the eastern side of the lake to the corner of Preston Street and the Experimental Farm, roughly where Dow’s Lake Pavilion stands today. Consequently, Dow’s Lake was bisected, with a triangular northern section cut off from the main body of water. Although the Commission got its way with respect to a causeway across the lake, it failed in constructing a huge aviary that it had hoped to build on the shores of Dow’s Lake similar to the one at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Cost was the likely factor. The Commission had planned to stock the aviary with representatives of every species of native Canadian bird.

The Dow’s Lake causeway lasted for roughly a quarter of a century. Narrow, high-crowned and unlit at night, the causeway was the location of many accidents. Apparently, the sight of automobiles being winched from the lake was not uncommon.

In 1926, the OIC, which became the Federal District Commission (the forerunner of the National Capital Commission) the following year under the direction of Thomas Ahearn, asked the Dominion Government to remove the causeway and extend the Driveway around the lake as originally championed by former Mayor Cook. In March 1927, the Railways and Canals Department of the Dominion Government agreed to demolish the causeway once 2,500 feet of new driveway had been laid through the old Booth piling grounds to the Experimental Farm.

Dow's Lake and Causeway 1928

Aerial map of Dow’s Lake, 1928, taken a year before the causeway was removed. The lake is oriented slightly differently from the 1888 map. The causeway runs from Lakeside Avenue on the right to the corner of Preston Street on the left. The St. Louis Dam is the thick white line that forms the shortest line of the triangular northern section of the lake above the causeway. Source: GeoOttawa.

On 27 December 1928, after the water level in the Rideau Canal had been lowered for the winter, a steam shovel began to deconstruct the causeway. Excavated material was repurposed to reinforce the retaining wall at the lake. Along the new stretch of Driveway, the FDC planted young trees to hide what was left of the Booth piling yards. The project was wrapped up by the end of March 1929. When the water was let back in the lake the following month, Dow’s Lake was restored to its full extent, much to the delight of boaters and canoeists. Residents along the lake were also pleased with the sparkling blue expanse in front of them.

All that was left of the old causeway were remnant rock piles that were covered with several feet of water. Alex Stuart, the Superintendent of the Federal District Commission, assured boaters that these rock piles would not pose a threat to navigation. He expected that there would be roughly five feet of water above the site of the old causeway, more than sufficient clearance for boats on the Canal which typically had a draught of no more than three feet. He also claimed that the action of flooding the lakebed would cause the remaining pieces of the causeway to subside.

Dow's Lake --2017

Aerial Map of Dow’s Lake, 2017.The white dot at the north-west end of the lake is Dow’s Lake Pavilion.  Source: GeoOttawa.

Still, additional work was carried out in 1936 to dredge sections of the old causeway. This action enabled fish to swim into the deeper parts of the lake during the winter. It seems that the remnant foundation of the causeway was sufficiently high to trap fish once the water level in the canal and lake was lowered in the fall. During a cold winter, the shallow water remaining in the northern part of the lake froze to the bottom killing trapped fish.

Today, the causeway is all but forgotten by Ottawa residents. However, when the water is let out in the fall, traces of the old causeway in the form of low, narrow, stone islands that cross the lake can still be seen. Its location can also can be determined with hydrographic charts. 

Sources:

Bytown or Bust, 2008. Dow’s Lake, Hartwell Lock and Hog’s Back, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, http://www.bytown.net/dowslake.htm.

Kingston-Wayne, 2011. Dow’s Lake Causeway, http://kingston-wayne.ca/node/121.

Ottawa Journal, (The), “Chase Those Boys,” 5 July.

—————————, 1900. “A Pier Across Dow’s Lake,” 11 October.

—————————, 1904. “Proposal For Giant Aviary,” 12 March.

—————————, 1904, “Plans For The Ottawa Improvement Commission,” 7 April.

—————————, 1904. “The Ottawa Improvement Commission’s Part In Making The Capital A City Beautiful,” 16 September.

—————————, 1921. “Dangerous Driving,” 21 June.

—————————, 1926. “Have Other Plans To Provide Work,” 4 November.

—————————, 1927. “Laurier Statute Will Be Placed Before July 1,” 27April.

—————————, 1928. “Dow’s Lake Road Will Be Built In Early Spring,” 24 March.

—————————, 1928. “Start Tomorrow Remove Causeway,” 26 December.

—————————, 1929. “Familiar Crossing Over Dow’s Lake Had Now Vanished,” 3 April.

—————————, 1929. “Sees No Danger To Craft,” 4 April.

—————————, 1929. “Dow’s Lake Takes On New Beauties,’ 30 April.

—————————, 1936. “Breaking Hole To Free Fish,” 9 November.

Rideau Canal World Heritage Site, 2018, A History of the Rideau Lock Stations, http://www.rideau-info.com/canal/history/locks/h01-08-ottawa.html.

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

Urbsite, 2010. Canal Crossings, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2010/05/canal-crossings.html.

 

Major’s Hill — Ottawa’s First Park

21 August 1874

One hundred and seventy years ago, Ottawa, was a rude, crude, muddy shanty-town, newly hacked out of the wilderness to be the northern terminus of the Rideau Canal linking Lake Ontario to the Ottawa River. There were few amenities for its roughly ten thousand citizens, many of whom had settled in the area first to build the canal in the late 1820s, and later to exploit the surrounding forests for their valuable lumber for sale to markets in Britain and the United States. But things began to change once Ottawa was selected as the new capital of the Province of Canada in 1857. Lacking the facilities worthy of a capital, work began in 1859 on constructing Canada’s magnificent Gothic-revival parliamentary and governmental buildings on what was then called Barrack Hill, a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River, and is now known as Parliament Hill. Thoughts also turned to beautifying the town, as well as to providing its burgeoning population with satisfactory, outdoor recreational facilities. As early as 1860, a petition was circulated requesting the Provincial Government to convert Major’s Hill, located to the east of Barrack Hill, into a park for Ottawa’s residents. The petition failed. Despite this setback, the hill was unofficially used as a recreational area, hosting weekend concerts by regimental bands. It was also the site for a huge party and bonfire to welcome the birth of the Dominion of Canada on 1 July 1867.

Initially the hill was called Colonel’s Hill, after Col. John By, the supervising engineer responsible for building the Rideau Canal whose residence once stood on the property. (The foundation of the home, which was destroyed by fire in January 1849, is still visible today.) However, after his deputy, Major Daniel Bolton, moved into the home after Col. By was recalled to England in 1832 to answer for cost over-runs in building the canal, the land became known as Major’s Hill. This name stuck. Back in those early years, the hill was thickly forested, and was known for its great flocks of pigeons, most likely the now extinct passenger pigeons.  The species migrated in their millions in eastern North America during the nineteenth century, but was sadly exterminated by the early twentieth century through over-hunting and habitat destruction. According to a letter that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen in 1882, sportsmen hunted the pigeons with “every description of flintlock from the Queen Anne to the blunderbuss.”

In 1864, Ottawa’s Mayor Dickenson sounded out the Provincial Government about the city acquiring the land for a public park “for the future Capital of Canada.” (Government—politicians and civil servants alike—was still based in Quebec City awaiting the completion of their new quarters on Parliament Hill.) This petition, like the preceding one, fell on deaf ears. The Provincial Government was not willing to part with Major’s Hill, seeing it as the possible location for the Governor General’s residence. Plans for such a building on that site had been approved in 1859 but ultimately were never used owing to cost over-runs in constructing Canada’s Parliament buildings. Instead, the government chose to rent, and later to buy, Rideau Hall.

Major's Hill Park
South end of Major’s Hill, looking from the construction site on Parliament Hill,  circa 1860. By this time, Major’s Hill had been largely denuded of trees.

In 1873, the Ottawa City Council again approached the now Dominion Government of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie about the possibility of acquiring Major’s Hill as the site for a new city hall, or as a public park. The former idea met popular resistance. But this time the idea of a park found traction. On 21 August 1874, the Dominion government accepted a memorial from the City Council under which the city of Ottawa would lease Major’s Hill for the purpose of a public park, agreeing to “protect the trees and shrubberies thereon,” and to “make roads, place seats, plant trees, erect fences” for the duration of the lease. Council also agreed to hire a full-time caretaker for the grounds, and to build and maintain a road, later known as Mackenzie Avenue, between Major’s Hill and the rear line of lots on the western side of Sussex Street (later Drive). The Dominion Government retained its right to tip excavated material from the Parliament grounds into any holes or waste areas on Major’s Hill. As well, the Dominion Government could take back the park at any time should it have need of the land without compensation being paid to the city.

The following year, Ottawa’s City Council set aside $10,000 (a huge sum in those days) for the development of the park under the direction of Robert Surtees, the city engineer, with work beginning in earnest in the summer of 1875 after the city’s plans had received the Dominion Government’s approval. Initial efforts on levelling the Hill actually commenced prior to receiving the official go-ahead. With the economy in recession, City Council authorized Surtees to commence the levelling of Major’s Hill “in order to give employment to our labouring classes, to enable them to prepare for the hard winter, which, to all appearances, is before them.”  Subsequently, perimeter fences and gates were erected, and a formal, semi-circular carriage way along with a number of pathways were created inside the park. Low spots were filled in using clay excavated from Parliament Hill, and an artificial pond was created at the northern end of the park. Fountains were installed, and mounted cannon were placed for decoration. On the horticultural side, a variety of trees were planted, including European sycamore, ash, elm, basswood, maple, and tamarack. Flower beds were also laid out.

Major's Hill Park
Major’s Hill Park, May 2015, looking south toward the Château Laurier Hotel

Major’s Hill Park, sometimes referred to as Dominion Park, became a major attraction. However, it seems vagrancy and vandalism were persistent problems. In 1878, City Council passed a by-law excluding from the Park “all drunken or filthy persons, vagrants and notoriously bad characters.” Other rules including a prohibition against driving or riding any horse at an immoderate rate, playing football, throwing stones, or shooting with bow and arrow or firearm. People were also prohibited from letting animals, including horses, cattle, swine, or goats, to run free or feed in the park. There was also an explicit prohibition against “carrying any dead carcase, ordure, filth, dust, stone, or any offensive matter or substance.” On the positive side, the playing of games and the selling of refreshments were permitted with permission, though the regulations stressed that the latter would not be permitted “on the Sabbath Day on any pretence whatsoever.”

After spending some $35,000 over the ten years, the cost of maintaining the park was deemed too large, leading the City to hand back the land to the Dominion Government in 1885. Fortunately, the Dominion Government conserved the Hill as a park. Since then, it has been maintained by various federal departments or Crown agencies, including the Department of Public Works, the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the Federal District Commission and, today, the National Capital Commission.

Being a valuable piece of real estate located in the heart of the city, stretching originally from Rideau Street in the south to Nepean Point in the north, Major’s Hill Park was coveted by many as a desirable building site. After the aborted attempt by the City of Ottawa to construct a new city hall on Major’s Hill during the 1870s, consideration was given in 1901 to building a national museum there in a style that would “harmonize” with the Parliament buildings a short distance away. Fortunately, this idea was not approved. However, a few years later in 1909, the Dominion Government under Sir Wilfrid Laurier controversially sold the southern portion of the park to the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) for the then huge sum of $1 million to build a magnificent hotel—the Château Laurier. The hotel and Union Station railway terminal also built by the GTR on the opposite side of Rideau Street were key elements in Prime Minister Laurier’s plan to make Ottawa the “Washington of the North.” The proceeds of the land sale went to the Ottawa Improvement Commission to develop Nepean Point.

In 1888, the park received its first statue, that of a uniformed guardsman wearing a bearskin hat with his head bowed in mourning and his rifle reversed. It was erected to commemorate the deaths of Ottawa-born Privates W.B. Osgood and J. Rogers, members of the Sharpshooter’s Company who were killed at the Battle of Cut Knife Hill three years earlier in the Riel Rebellion in western Canada. This memorial, which was unveiled in the presence of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, his Cabinet, as well as Ottawa’s Mayor and other members of city council, was located close to the southern entrance to the park. When that part of the park was sold to the GTR, the statue was relocated to Elgin Street in front of the old city hall that burnt to the ground in 1931. When the National Arts Centre was constructed on that site in the late 1960s, the statue was moved again, this time to outside the Cartier Street Drill Hall where it stands today.

Col. By statue
Statue of Colonel By erected in 1971, Historical Society of Ottawa

In 1971, a statue of Col. By, sponsored by the Historical Society of Ottawa, was erected in the park as a fitting tribute to the man most responsible for the building of the Rideau Canal, and the founding of the city of Ottawa. The statue by the sculptor Joseph-Émile Brunet, which stands on a granite plinth, portrays the man in his Royal Engineer uniform looking over the Rideau Canal towards the Parliament buildings.

Today, Major Hill’s Park remains as integral part of Ottawa life, offering downtown workers and tourists alike a welcome, verdant space in the heart of the city to rest and play. As was the case almost 150 years ago, Major’s Hill continues to be the focus of city events and celebrations, in particular the annual Canada Day festivities.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, 1864. “Council Minutes,” Petition by Mayor M.K. Dickenson address to the Commission of Crown Lands, re: possible acquisition of Major’s Hill for a public park,” 18 June.

——————, 1974. “Memorial presented to His Excellency to take possession of Major’s Hill and covert the Hill into a park for the use of the public,” 21 August.

——————, 1875. “Council Minutes,”16 August.

——————, 1878. “By-Law #439, “To provide for the maintenance and care of Major’s Hill Park,” 8 July. 2015. “Major’s Hill Park,”

National Capital Commission, 2015. “Major’s Hill Park,” http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/parks-paths/majors-hill-park.

Newton, Michael, 1981. Lower Town Ottawa, Vol. 3, 1854-1900, Manuscript Report #106, Heritage Section, National Capital Commission.

Ryan, Christopher, “Sharpshooters’ Ambulatory Memorial,” The Margins of History, http://www.historynerd.ca/?p=260.

Sibley, Robert, 2015. “A haunting monument to Col. By,” Ottawa Citizen, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/pdf/storiesinstone/storiesinstone11.pdf.

The Globe, 1901, “Site For The New Museum? Advantages of Major’s Hill Park,” 26 October.

————-, 1909. “For a Park and Driveway,” 17 June.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1874. “Major’s Hill Park,” 16 February.

Images: South End of Major’s Hill, circa 1860, looking from the Parliament Hill construction site. Major’s Hill, located, on the far side of the Rideau Canal, has been largely denuded of trees, photo by Samuel McLaughlin, Library and Archives Canada, c-000601.

Major’s Hill Park, May 2015 by Nicolle Powell

Col. By statue, Historical Society of Ottawa, https://www.historicalsocietyottawa.ca/.