Policing Ottawa

29 May 1866

Uniformed Ottawa policeman outside of C. Poulin, Rochester Street, date uncertain, City of Ottawa Archives, CA001216.

Bytown, the small community that later was to become Ottawa, was a dangerous place. Ethnic and religious tensions which simmered below the surface often erupted into fights and riots, especially around St. Patrick’s Day and the July anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne that marked the Protestant victory of William III over the Catholic forces of King James II in 1689. Added to this potent mix was a rigid social structure, historical grievances, poverty and copious amounts of alcohol served up in both legal taverns and illegal grog houses. If that wasn’t bad enough, competition between French and Irish lumbermen during the 1830s often led to broken heads in what became known as the Shiners’ War. Added to this was the usual disorderly conduct, thefts, robbery, assault, and major crimes that you would expect in a rough and tumble frontier town. So bad was the situation that families despaired when loved ones went to Bytown to seek work in the lumber shanties. The Capuchin priest Father Alexis de Barbezieux said Il n’y a pas de Dieu à Bytown [There is no God in Bytown].

Law and order, to the extent any existed, was maintained by the thinness of blue lines. In 1827, it was recognized that the community needed some sort of police presence, leading to the appointment of Alexander Fraser as town constable, a position he held for the next twenty years. Bytown also petitioned the government for five magistrates to manage the community’s affairs, including law enforcement. Special constables could also be enrolled to help maintain the peace.

But this was insufficient to maintain order. Ill-trained, part-time, and unarmed constables could do little to stem unlawfulness. They too were threatened and intimidated. In the event they took somebody into custody, the suspect’s friends often intervened, with the prisoner escaping across the Ottawa River to Lower Canada, safe from the law in Bytown. Suspects of violent crimes had to be sent to Perth for trial and incarceration since Bytown was not a county seat and had no prison. The incentive to send a dangerous offender fifty miles through the bush was low owing to the high cost and the very strong possibility of an ambush by the offender’s friends. What constable would want to risk life and limb in such circumstances? When things got really bad, the army militia would be called out to maintain order, but they seldom intervened.

In response to the Shiners’ depredations, a petition to Sir John Colborne, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, led to the formation of the Bytown Association of the Public Police in 1835, which saw some 200 men, mostly untrained militia, keeping the peace—sort of. Poorly commanded, the Association did little. Robberies, fights, and assaults continued.

After Bytown was incorporated in 1847, Isaac Berichon was appointed Chief Constable with a meagre salary of £25 per annum. His job was to preserve good order, impound escaped livestock, prosecute those who broke the town’s by-laws and oversee nine constables, three for each of Bytown’s wards. He later took on the responsibility for daily inspections of the town’s markets and attendance at police court. But the constables he oversaw had little real authority.  Like their predecessors, they were ill-trained, had no uniforms, and were part-time. Instead of regular salaries, they received fees for services rendered paid for out of fines and fees collected.

Also in 1847, a Grand Jury recommended to Bytown’s Town Council that the community establish a regular police force “owing to the continued influx of a certain class of persons connected with the Timber Trade” who assaulted the “peaceful inhabitants of the town” as well as those coming from “more distant parts to transact their lawful business in Bytown.” The Jury also noted that the town constables had been maltreated “in their legitimate exercise of their duty,” and that malefactors had been able to evade justice. It added that the “mode of carrying out the provisions of the law by means of the ordinary constabulary [was] inefficient.”

The Packet newspaper concurred, opining that a police force consisting of about twelve men would probably keep “refractory spirits” in order. However, it though that the town couldn’t spare the likely £1,000 needed for the first year and that Town Council should apply to the Provincial government for funding.

The Bytown Council took these recommendations to heart and approved a motion to petition the Provincial government for £500 per annum to support a police force in Bytown on the basis that large provincial revenues were derived annually from Bytown trade and that most of the problems were caused by non-Bytown residents. While the motion carried, two aldermen dissented, one saying that the appointed constables were sufficient, and the other contending that the motion was without precedent and absurd. The Provincial government must have agreed as the petition went nowhere. However, by the mid 1850s, the number of constables in Bytown had apparently increased with six in Lower Town and nine in the much smaller but wealthier Upper Town.

Besides a perennial shortage of funds, a reluctance to have a professional police force was apparently due to widespread suspicions that a government-controlled professional police force was a threat to civil liberties. It was only in 1829 that the first civilian police service, London’s Metropolitan Police, was established in Britain by Sir Robert Peel. The officers became known as “Peelers” or “Bobbies.” Second, much of the mayhem and strife occurred in the poorer sections of Bytown, principally Lower Town. As long as the wealthy elite in Upper Town felt protected their councillors were not inclined to use town resources to support a regular police force.

By 1855, the year that Bytown changed its name to Ottawa, the Chief Constable’s salary has risen to $600 per year, while the Market Constable, a new senior position, was paid $200 per year. Other constables, however, continued to be paid on a fee-for-service basis rather than receive a proper salary.

A step towards a professional police service was taken in January 1863 when a three-man Board of Police Commissioners were formed, comprising Mayor H. Friel, the city Recorder, J.B. Lewis and the Magistrate Hamnet Hill. Ironically, the first statement of the new board was to announce that there was no need for a salaried police force. Thomas Langrell was appointed Chief Constable, and was paid on a fee basis.

However, views began to shift following a riot at the May 1863 annual meeting of the troubled Ottawa & Prescott Railway when a group of shareholders tried to take over the company. So bad was the situation that Ottawa’s constables were unable to cope and the militia had to be called out to restore order.

In March 1866, a special report to Ottawa’s City Council of the Board of Police Commissioners recommended that the city form a permanent police force. The Board advised that the force should consist of a Chief Constable paid $800 per annum, a Market Constable paid $300 per annum, one detective with a salary of $340 per annum, one sergeant also paid $340 per annum, and six privates and a messenger, all paid $280 per annum. Each constable would also receive a uniform costing $10. The total annual cost of the permanent force was placed at $4,140, only slightly more than the $3,833 paid in 1865 for policing services out of fines.

City Council debated the issue three times before coming to a vote. The Ottawa Daily Citizen reported that Alderman H.J. Friel opined that it was evident that for “the ordinary preservation of peace and order in a city with a population of over 15,000, and holding an important position, [i.e., being the capital of Canada], it is necessary that peace officers in an official uniform should appear.” He thought that the police would “exercise watchfulness over disorderly characters” and ensure that sanitary precautions as recommended by the Board of Health were carried out. He added that the cost of a permanent, uniformed force would not cost that much more than the “present inefficient system” and would likely “produce larger revenues.” Alderman Scott, who had previously opposed a permanent police force over the previous quarter of a century now thought such a force was appropriate and was in keeping with Ottawa’s motto “Advance.”

There was, however, significant opposition to the proposal. Alderman William Mosgrove felt that six policemen would do little “to stop the depredations of lawless men” and that the costs of a permanent police force would “materially add to the already heavy taxation in the city.” Confusing correlation with causality, he also made the curious point that cities with police forces had higher crime rates, and that the establishment of a police force would lead to increased crime in Ottawa.  (William Mosgrove would in future years have a close relationship with the Ottawa police force as he became a prominent Ottawa judge.) Another dissenting alderman said he had petitioned fifty-six residents of his ward and forty were opposed. Other aldermen were not impressed with his survey. One said he could easily find 200 residents in his ward in favour of a police force.

At the end of a special session of City Council called by the Mayor Moss Kent Dickenson on 29 May 1866, Ottawa City Council finally voted 12-6 in favour of a permanent, uniformed police force. A month later, the three Police Commissioners— Mayor Dickenson, J.B. Lewis, and Police Magistrate O’Gara personally appointed the new police force under the command of Thomas Langrell, who had previously been Chief Constable. Langrell became Chief of Police. The initially unarmed uniformed constables were armed with Smith & Wesson revolvers the following year.

The new force was a success. Three months later, the Ottawa Daily Citizen praised Thomas Langrell and said “that many nuisances have been done away with since the organization of the force, the absence of pigs, geese and cows, which were wont to obstruct our sidewalks is manifest.” There had also been a marked decline in the number of burglaries.

However, the newspaper felt that there was still room for improvement. The police were still ill-trained and underpaid.  It noted that to become a policeman in London, England, a man had to display a fair knowledge of mathematics, and must be able to read and write “with considerable facility.” He must also stand at least 5 feet 8 inches tall, and have unimpaired mental faculties and a strong physique. He should not have a large family dependent upon him; single men were preferred. Candidates for the force also had to have a reference check regarding their general character, health and their ability to undergo fatigue and hardship since “a policeman’s life is one continuous round of uninterrupted responsibility,” required to work Sundays and in all kinds of weather. As for pay, a London Chief Inspector received £159 per year ($775). A trainee constable received one guinea a week ($250 per annum) in his first year, rising to 28 shillings a week (roughly $350 per annum) after two years. Constables also received two suits of clothes annually, along with a cape, and a great coat every two years. As well, they received 36 shillings ($8.75) for boots and shoes. Provisions were made for a pension after fifteen years of service and a disability pension in the event of a disability occurring in the performance of their duties.

The Ottawa Daily Citizen opined that Ottawa should benefit from London’s experience and adopt these requirements and working conditions so that the city could have a truly efficient police force.

Today, the Ottawa Police Service is responsible for a territory of almost 2,800 square kilometres with a population of close to 1 million. In 2019, it had 2,096 service members. Its budget for 2022 is $346.5 million.


County Wicklow Heritage, 2021. “Ottawa’s First Chief of Police: Thomas Langrell of Aughrim, County Wicklow.

Crasjke, Peter (ed.) 1984. Law & Order in the Early Days of Bytown/Ottawa, Bytown Pamphlet #41.

Global News, 2021. “City council approves 2% police budget hike in 2022,” 8 December.

Larochelle, Gilles, 1994. The History of the Ottawa Police, 1826-1993, Tyrell Press, Gloucester.

Ottawa Police Service, 2021. “2020 Annual Report.”

The Packet, 1847. “Police Establishment,” 30 October.

————–, 1847. “Town Council Proceedings, 30 October.

————-, 1847. “Town Council Proceedings, 4 December.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1866. “City Council,” 23 March.

————————-, 1866. “City Council,” 30 May.

————————-, 1866. “New Constables,” 21 June.

————————-, 1866. “Editorial,” 12 September.

Velocipedes and Bicycles

1 May 1869

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the bicycle or its predecessor, the velocipede, were introduced to Ottawa. But, the first reference to a velocipede in the Ottawa Daily Citizen appeared in February 1862. However, instead of referring to a two-wheeled vehicle, it was the name of a horse that competed in the winter ice races held in Aylmer, Quebec. Out of a field of four, Velocipede, a brown colt owned by a Mr. Kenny, came in last in races held on in February 1862. If punters wondered what a velocipede was, they were certain it wasn’t a runner.

The velocipede was invented in Germany in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais. In its earliest form, it consisted of two wheels attached to a saddle. As there were no pedals, riders pushed themselves along with the feet. This design remained essentially unchanged for roughly fifty years, until Pierre Michaux or his employee Pierre Lallement (accounts vary) added pedals to the front wheel in 1863. This improved velocipede became all the rage in France among both men and women, with the craze spreading around the globe. In 1868, it was reported that so many people were using velocipedes on the Champs Élysées at night that police were requiring riders to attached lanterns to their machines owing to the number of accidents.

Man riding a velocipede, c.1870, State Library of Southern Australia.

In mid-February 1869, the Citizen reported that velocipedes were about to be introduced into Toronto, and that a carriage builder had gone to New York to obtain a pattern to manufacture them. A few days later, the newspaper said that a velocipede had appeared on Toronto’s King Street and had caused much excitement… and laughter when the rider “came to grief.” Meanwhile in Montreal, velocipede “fever” had set in, with schools established to teach people how to ride them. It was also reported that France was apparently exporting the machines in huge numbers to North America. The Citizen opined that “surely, the world is suffering from velocipede on the brain.”

The newspaper was, however, dubious about how long the velocipede fad would last. In May 1869, it claimed that six months of velocipeding in the United States had “been sufficient to show that this mode of locomotion is practically worthless.” The Citizen also reported that in Harrisburg, New York the velocipede had found a new rival—stilts.

The problem appears to have been that velocipedes were very heavy and, while they performed well on prepared tracks, they were difficult to ride on ordinary roads. Riders quickly exhausted themselves. As well, with its pedals attached directly to the front wheel, a velocipede had a tendency to swerve every time one pushed down on a pedal. They were also uncomfortable to ride owing to their heavy iron frames and solid wheels. Uneven road surfaces were another problem. These were the days long before smooth, asphalted road surfaces. At best, city roads were cobbled or “macadamized,” in other words made up of layers of stones. Owing to its uncomfortable ride, the velocipede was sometimes referred to as “the boneshaker.”

While Toronto and Montreal might have led the pack when it came to velocipeding in Canada, Ottawa was not far behind. By late April 1869, velocipedes were sufficiently numerous on Ottawa’s relatively smooth wooden sidewalks, that the “new fangled equestrians” were a great nuisance to “dress trains,” baby perambulators, and pedestrians in general. So great was the problem, police were instructed to ticket offenders. However, at the police court held on 1 May 1869, the presiding magistrate dismissed charges on the grounds that there was no city by-law prohibiting velocipedes from city sidewalks. In Toronto, however, a similar case led to a $1 fine being levied.  

By the summer of 1869, velocipede races were seemingly commonplace in Ottawa. In August of that year, the St. George’s Picnic, held in McKay’s Grove near New Edinburgh, featured a velocipede race. A “handsome silver medal” was awarded to the winner.

As an interesting aside, an article that appeared in the Citizen in 1869 but attributed to the Pall Mall Gazette of London referred to a proposal to make what would likely have been the world’s first, dedicated, city bike lanes. The article said that “An enterprising individual in Berlin” had suggested that the city cover over the gutters on each side of its streets to be “the future velocipede high road of the city.” He also proposed a thousand tricycles with uniformed drivers could use these lanes to deliver parcels, letters, and passengers for a small fee—a sort of nineteenth-century cross between UPS and Uber.

A “high-wheeler” like the one made in 1877 by Mr. Back. Howard Morton/Library and Archives Canada, C-002624.

The 1870s saw the appearance in Ottawa of the “high-wheeler” bicycle, also known as the “ordinary” or the “penny-farthing,” named after the two old British coins. The huge front wheel, which could have a diameter of four to five feet, was the “penny” and the small rear wheel, the “farthing.” The big front wheel apparently offered improved shock absorption. The bicycles were so high that a two-step stool was necessary to mount them.

In 1877, a Mr. Back, then eighteen years old, read about this latest technological marvel in American magazines and yearned to own one. Unable to afford the expensive machine that cost as much as a worker might earn in six months, the enterprising young man made his own machine using carriage wheels. The frame and handlebars he crafted from flat iron and pipe, while the pedals were fashioned from blocks of wood. Not surprisingly, the vehicle was heavy. But it rode well, and became the talk of the town. Back went on to sell four copies to other Ottawa residents. Years later when interviewed by the Ottawa Journal, Back, now a piano tuner at Orme’s Music Store on Sparks Street, said that he had recently seen one of his creations for sale in a second-hand shop.

In mid-August 1880, an advertisement submitted by A.E. Wilson appeared in the Citizen asking gentlemen who were interested in forming a bicycle club to meet at No. 40½ Elgin Street, opposite the Russell House to look at price lists for machines. That evening, the men formed the Ottawa Bicycle Club. Members of the club apparently wore a distinctive uniform. Riding on Sundays got members in trouble with local churches that viewed biking on Sunday as a desecration of the Sabbath. The Club advised people to ride “as unostentatiously as possible” on Sundays.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of velocipedes and high-wheeler bicycles led to accidents. In one possibly apocryphal story, Sir Hector Langevin, then Minister of Public Works, was run down by a high-wheeler. It was reported that because of this accident, an Order-in-Council was issued to bar high-wheelers from Parliament Hill. This ban apparently lasted for five years.

In 1884, a man on a bicycle was involved in a serious accident with a horse and buggy at the top of the hill on Albert Street. In a letter to the editor of the Citizen, an irate witness to the accident said that the horse had been spooked by the cyclist, causing the animal, vehicle and the two clergymen riders to capsize off the cliff and fall onto rocks ten feet below. While the horse was severely injured, the two men escaped with only bruises. The witness described the cyclist as being tall, with a light moustache, and wearing the uniform of the Ottawa Bicycle Club. He ended his letter by writing: “It is full time that a stop was put to allowing such machines to run on the streets and endanger the lives and limbs of the travelling public.” He was not alone in demanding such a ban. The Canadian Wheelmen’s Association, which was established in 1882 in St. Thomas, Ontario to promote biking, apparently spent considerable time and resources defending cyclists’ rights from attempts to legislate bicycles off of city streets. The Association had a branch in Ottawa and other major cities, and more than 650 members across the country in early 1885.

The Humber safety bicycle, 1892. The Humber was made under licence in Canada. Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.

By the mid-1890s, the high-wheeler had been replaced by the more familiar “safety bicycle” or “low bicycle” that didn’t risk life or limb in case of a tumble. Like modern bicycles, safety bikes utilized a chain and had two wheels of the same size. Initially equipped with sold tires, inflatable pneumatic tires were introduced in 1892. Pneumatic tires provided a much more comfortable ride. The first bicycle so equipped in Ottawa was a “Humber” safety bicycle. Its pneumatic tires were described as “a large rubber hose,” and was quite the novelty. The bicycle cost $170 (more than $5,000 in today’s money) and was brought to the city by a syndicate made up of Messrs. W.B. Parr, D.F. Blyth, Stewart McClenaghan, and Dr. M.G. McElhinney. McElhinney was the first to ride it from downtown to the Electric Park on Bank Street, near Patterson’s Creek. Stewart McClenaghan ended up owning the bicycle. Dr. McElhinney must have been passionate about all things related to personal transportation. In 1902, he purchased the first automobile sold in Ottawa.

As bicycle cycle production ramped up and new manufacturers entered the market, the cost of safety bicycles declined. By 1896, the Humber was down in price to a much more affordable, though still expensive, $65. A biking craze ensued in North America and Europe among both men and women eager to adopt this effective, invigorating and liberating form of transportation.

Mabel Williams with Bicycle at 54 Main Street, Ottawa, residence of James Ballantyne, July 1898, Library and Archives Canada, 3191717.

Biking was quickly adopted by early feminists. In the United States, Susan B. Anthony said the bicycle had done more to emancipate women than anything else. “It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel–the picture of free, untrampled womanhood.” While female cyclists were initially hampered by the Victorian dress code that mandated long skirts, petticoats and corsets for women, the impracticality of this type of costume for cyclists led to pressure for more rational dress.

Susan B. Anthony, 1890, author unknown, Wikipedia

By May 1895, Ottawa had roughly 250 bikers who, like bicycling enthusiasts elsewhere, sought good, smooth roads on which to drive. At that time, city streets in Ottawa were mostly made of crushed stone, wooden blocks, or cobbles. Even when well maintained, which they seldom were, such roads quickly became heavily rutted. Not surprisingly, Ottawa’s city fathers came under pressure to pave the streets.

At the end of August, 1895, Sparks Street was paved with asphalt from roughly where the National Arts Centre is today to Bank Street. The newly-paved street was inaugurated by bicycle races sponsored by Mayor Borthwick and City Council. Thousands of Ottawa residents turned out in the early evening to cheer on competitors in three races. The first was from the old Russell Hotel, which stood where the War Memorial is today, to Bank Street. It was won by T. Harvey of Hull with W. Besserer, in second place. Harvey also won the second race from the Russell to Bank Street and back, three yards ahead of A. Parr. In the third and final race, in which contestants had to had to go twice around the same course dismounting at each turn, Besserer emerged victorious beating out Harvey.

The introduction of the automobile at the beginning of the twentieth century put a brake on the bicycle mania of the 1890s. However, the bicycle’s utility as an effective mode of transportation and exercise meant that the vehicle has had enduring appeal. Today, the bicycle is popular as a fun, environmentally-friendly and healthy form of transportation and recreation suitable for people of all ages.


Age of Revolution, 2020. The Velocipede, https://ageofrevolution.org/.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1862. “The Trotting Races At Aylmer, 22 February.

————————–, 1868. “No Title,” 18 December.

————————–, 1869. “Toronto 13th,” 19 February.

————————–, 1869. “Police Court,” 3 May.

————————–, 1869. “Defective,” 3 May.

————————–, 1869, “The Failure Of The Velocipede,” 10 May.

————————–, 1869. “St. George’s Pic Nic (stet),” 17 August.

————————–, 1869. “No Title.” 1 October.

————————–, 1880. “Ottawa Bicycle Club,” 18 August.

————————–, 1884. “A Complaint,” 26 July.

————————-, 1892. “Local Briefs,” 27 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1895. “Do You Ride A Bike?”  27 May.

—————————–, 1895. “The Town Was Out,” 27 August.

—————————–, 1896. “We have the best,” Fotheringham & Popham, 17 March.

—————————–, 1942. “Return of Bicycling Recalls Wheeling In Mauve Age,” 11 April.

Smith, Kenneth, V. 2012. “Competitive Cycling in Canada,” Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cycling.

Smithsonian, 2021. The Development of the Velocipede, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/si-bikes/si-bikes-velocipede.

World Bicycle Relief, 2021. How Women Cycled Their Way To Freedom, https://worldbicyclerelief.org/how-women-cycled-their-way-to-freedom/.

Lord Lansdowne’s Triumph

26 May 1887

The nineteenth century was a miserable time for Ireland and its people. The potato famine and British misrule led to widespread starvation, and massive emigration. Millions of Irish immigrants left for North America during the mid-1800s, of which almost 500,000 came to Canada, with most stopping at the quarantine station at Grosse Île in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. More than 5,000 would-be Irish immigrants are buried on that island, now the home of the Irish Memorial National Heritage Site. The influx of Irish settlers was so great that it had a big impact of Canada’s demographics. By 1871, roughly one-quarter of Canada’s population was of Irish descent.

5th Marchioness and Marquess of Lansdowne, Library and Archives Canada, 34449704.

Ireland’s pain didn’t stop with the end of the potato famine. Declining produce prices during the 1870s and 1880s led to a further wave of Irish emigration as tenant farmers, unable to pay their rents, were evicted from their homes, often forcibly with the help of the police and army. Irish nationalism began to exert itself, with growing agitation for Home Rule, under which Ireland would have its own Parliament. Some nationalists, such as the Fenians, wanted independence, and were willing to use violence to achieve that goal.

Part of Ireland’s problem was that few Irish farmers owned their land. In 1870, 97 per cent of Irish farmland was owned by absentee landlords, many of whom lived in England.  Their properties were managed by land agents, who had a reputation for avarice. In response to falling commodity prices, the British government in 1881 took steps to judicially lower rents by 20 per cent, lengthen tenant land leases, and provide aid for small Irish tenant farmers to buy their land. But the measures were insufficient. Produce prices continued to fall, and many tenant farmers were unable to pay even their reduced rents.

One might ask what this sorry tale has to do with Ottawa. The answer lies in the appointment of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne as Canada’s Governor General in 1883. Lord Lansdowne was a very wealthy man with huge estates in England as well as in Kerry County and Queen’s County (today’s County Laois) in Ireland. He proved to be a competent and well-liked Governor General, active in promoting the sciences and charitable organizations. He was also an able diplomat, helping to settle a fishery dispute between Canada and the United States. A fluent French speaker, he was popular in Quebec. He also travelled widely, especially out West, and was sympathetic to the plight of the Indigenous peoples living there, including the Métis, and tried to improve their lot. The one black mark against him from today’s vantage point was his unwillingness to pardon Louis Riel in 1885 despite a plea for clemency from Queen Victoria. Civil war was not something he could countenance, however strong the provocation.

William O’Brian in 1917, Wikipedia

Given Lansdowne’s popularity, it came as something of a surprise to Canadians when William O’Brian, the fiery editor of the Irish nationalist newspaper United Ireland and member of the British Parliament, announced his intention of coming to Canada to denounce the governor general as a rapacious rake-renter—the term then used for a landlord who charged exorbitant rents. O’Brian claimed that Lansdowne was depopulating his Luggacurran (now spelt Luggacurren) estates in Queen’s County through his evictions. O’Brian said Lansdowne was “unjust, cruel and oppressive” and called him “the exterminator of 500 human beings.” His mission to Canada was to expose Lansdowne’s behaviour to Canadians and to oust him from his job as governor general. O’Brian added that he felt “assured that when the liberty-loving Canadians have heard the true account of Lord Lansdowne’s cruelty to the tenantry, they will not permit themselves to be governed by such a man.” He told the press that he wouldn’t be surprised if he were met with a warrant of arrest from the governor general once he arrived in Canada.

Even before O’Brian arrived in Canada, most Canadian newspapers across the political spectrum thought O’Brian’s trip was a mistake. Toronto’s Globe, which considered itself a friend of O’Brian, said it would do well if he turned around and went back to Ireland. The paper said that Canadians disapproved of attacks upon “the defenceless representative of the Crown,” who, given his position, was unable to respond to O’Brian’s accusations. Moreover, Lansdowne was not the ruler of Canada as O’Brian claimed, and didn’t have the power to arrest anyone. He was “simply a gentleman who represents Her Majesty,” and is “directed by his responsible constitutional advisers (i.e., the elected government).” Even American newspapers, typically pro-Irish, thought O’Brian’s trip was a mistake. The New York Times opined that O’Brian’s attempt at “showing up” Lord Lansdowne was a “tactical error.”

O’Brian arrived in New York after his cross-Atlantic trip on the Umbria in early May 1887, accompanied by Mr. Denis Kilbride, one of Lansdowne’s evicted tenants. They quickly took a train to Canada and began a series of anti-Lansdowne speeches in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa before returning to Ireland via Boston.

Many were apprehensive that O’Brian’s rhetoric would lead to unrest in Canada. The Ottawa Evening Journal likened O’Brian to “moral gunpowder” left lying around in quantities that might easily be set alight with the most serious results. The newspaper advised that O’Brian be allowed to come and go peacefully even though it felt that his attacks on the governor general were cowardly and totally unfair.

O’Brian’s speeches were very well attended, in large measure due to his prominence in the Irish nationalist movement. There was, however, trouble in Toronto where supporters and opponents squared off against each other. Rocks were thrown, and O’Brian was struck a glancing blow. An anti-O’Brian mob chanted “Pay your rent.” O’Brian blamed the unrest on Orangemen—Irish Protestants—who were put up to it, he alleged, by Lord Lansdowne who co-incidentally happened to be in the middle of a three-week visit to Toronto. O’Brian’s allegation, for which he offered no proof, riled Canadian newspapers still further. Subsequently, O’Brian faced another barrage of stones in Kingston.

O’Brian’s anti-Lansdowne speech in Ottawa, sandwiched between his visits to Toronto and Kingston, was fortunately marked by nothing worse than noisy demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. The event was held in the Roller Rink in front of 1,500 people. The stage was decorated with the Union Jack and the American Stars and Stripes. Banners with “Home Rule for Ireland” and “Cead Mile Failte [Hundred thousand welcomes] to Ireland’s Patriots” hung from the rafters. Pictures of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell and the former British Prime Minister William Gladstone who favoured Irish Home Rule, were positioned on either side of the stage.

Triumphal Arch of Evergreens at Sparks and Elgin Streets. The top of the old city hall can just be seen behind the arch. 26 May, 1887, Library and Archives Canada, 3422099.

Despite their best efforts to discredit the Governor General in Ottawa and elsewhere, O’Brian and Kilbride failed badly. If anything, their speaking campaign backfired; Lord Lansdowne’s popularity soared. There were several reasons. First, the attacks were widely seen as unjust. Second, Lord Lansdowne was good at his job. The Ottawa Daily Citizen opined that he was “one of the most painstaking, carful and conscientious administrators Canada has ever known.” Third, the Fenian threat and the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee were still fresh in the memories of many Canadians. O’Brian’s trip to Canada was seen as reviving grievances that were best left in Ireland.

In Ottawa, plans were put in place to welcome Lord and Lady Lansdowne on their return to the capital from their three-week trip to Toronto. A Citizens’ Committee organized the decoration of streets and a grand parade. As this was to be a citizens’ welcome, there was to be no military escort or parading societies which might dilute the civic emphasis or invite dissention. Mayor Stewart declared a half-day holiday for the event.

On 26 May 1887, Ottawa was en fête, its streets filled with people, many having arrived by carriage and train from outlying communities. The parade route was decorated with coloured banners, bunting and flags. A two-storey arch was built at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets out of evergreens. Somewhat oddly, high up on it was a moose head with immense antlers. Across the arch, two big banners saying “God Save the Queen” and “Welcome Lansdowne” were hung.

Lansdowne’s train puffed into the old Union Station in LeBreton Flats to the acclaim of some 6,000 people who had crowded in and around the station to greet the governor general. The vice-regal carriage was quickly uncoupled and pulled into a siding where Mayor Stewart in his robes of office, his wife, senators, MPs and members of the Citizens’ Committee, greeted Lord and Lady Lansdowne as they disembarked.

The vice-regal couple, along with Mayor Stewart and the chairman of the Citizens’ Committee, were driven off at the head of the parade in a “four-in-hand” carriage. Riding escort were 125 prominent members of the Ottawa community.  Musical accompaniment was provided by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, the Hull Band, the St Anne’s Band and the Hazeldean Band.

The parade went from the train station along Queen Street West, past the Pump House which was decorated with a welcoming banner. When the vice-regal carriage came near, a fountain of water shot high in the air. The parade wended its way down Wellington Street, rounded the corner at Bank Street. At the Sparks Street intersection, the Governor-General’s carriage was unhitched, its horses replaced by fifty “young men of muscle” from the Rifle Club.

Massed children and others at Cartier Square to greet Lord and Lady Lansdowne, 26 May 1887, Library and Archives Canada, 3422097. This photo is misidentified in the Archives as being taken at Union Station in LeBreton Flats.

At Cartier Square, the couple was greeted by a crowd of about 20,000 people, of which 2,500 were children waving tiny Union Jacks. After an official greeting from Mayor Stewart, Lord Lansdowne replied. He remarked that he didn’t think his trip home merited such a welcome.  He had not “suppressed a rebellion or annexed a new province to the Dominion” but had rather spent three agreeable weeks in the provincial capital. Alluding to O’Brian, he said that since he had last been in Ottawa, Canada had been invaded. He understood that the invaders had hoped “to put to flight a certain high official,” but unless he misunderstood the occasion, “the people of Ottawa are not particularly anxious to get rid of [him] just at present.”

Following laughter and cheers, the parade resumed its way to Rideau Hall, the Rifle team pulling Lord Lansdowne’s carriage the entire way. At the bridge into New Edinburgh was another arch of evergreens with a banner welcoming the Governor General. Arriving at his home, Lansdowne thanked Ottawa citizens from the bottom of his heart.

Looking back at the event, the question remains of whether Lord Lansdowne was the rapacious rent-racker who evicted hundreds of poor tenant farmers as O’Brian charged.

Some five hundred people were indeed evicted for non-payment of rent. According to O’Brian, some were old and infirm. A new mother and baby were also apparently turned out.

However, Lansdowne didn’t have a reputation as being a harsh landlord. In England, 504 Wiltshire tenants sent a public letter of support for Lansdowne that was published in Dublin’s Irish Times. They said that they were greatly satisfied by their treatment, and that Lansdowne had not only reduced their rents, he had built cottages for labourers, and spent a considerable portion of the rents on improvements. Lansdowne’s tenants in Kerry County, Ireland had also reportedly received rent reductions on the order of 30 to 35 per cent in 1886.

The dispute with Lansdowne’s Queen’s County tenants was over the size of reduction they deserved. They wanted the same rent reduction that was accorded Lansdowne’s Kerry County tenants. Lansdowne’s land agent refused since the Queen County estates were far more productive. In order to force Lansdowne’s hand, a rent strike was organized. The strike failed, and the tenants were evicted.

One of the organizers of the rent strike was the same Denis Kilbride who had accompanied O’Brian on his Canadian tour. O’Brian’s case against Lansdowne was not helped when it came out that Kilbride was a man of considerable means rather than some destitute tenant who had eked out a living on a hardscrabble plot of land. His rented 868-acre estate even had a gate house. Kilbride also admitted that he could afford to pay the rent due, but chose not to. As well, many considered him to be a rack-renter himself as he sub-let land at large mark-ups to sub-tenants.

An account by a local teacher, now in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, written several decades after the evictions says that Lord Lansdowne had dealt fairly with his Luggacurren tenants. He had seen that they had “good slated houses” and had supplied them with free iron gates. “In fact the houses on the Estate were the best in Ireland.” But owing to the “Pay No Rent” policy started by Kilbride and others, the evictions took place. While some farmers subsequently paid their rents and returned, the majority did not.

Lord Lansdowne left Canada later that year to become the Viceroy of India, his reputation intact. In 1890, Lansdowne Park in Ottawa was named in his honour. He died in 1927. William O’Brian finally saw major Irish land reform in 1903 with the passage of the Wyndham Land Purchase Act which provided subsidized loans to farmers to buy land. By the 1920s, virtually all Irish farms were owned by their former tenants. Irish Home Rule finally arrived in 1920 when Ireland was partitioned. The southern portion became the Irish Free State in 1922. It became the Republic of Ireland in 1937. 


Delaney, Mrs, 1938. “Luggacurren,” The Schools’ Collection, County Laois, Stradbally, (roll number 16576), National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4770050/4769332.

Globe, 1887. “Lord Lansdown and His Tenants Memorandum,” 11 March.

——–, 1887. “The Lansdowne Estate,” 7 April.

——–, 1887. “Lord Lansdowne’s Estates,” 14 April.

——–, 1887. “A Word with Mr. O’Brian,” 6 May.

——–, 1887. “The Irish Troubles: Lord Lansdowne’s Agents Defend Themselves,” 7 May.

——–, 1887. “Evolution of a Riot,” 20 May.

Glynn, Irial, 2012. “Irish Emigration History,” University College Cork, https://www.ucc.ie/en/emigre/history/.

Harris, Carolyn, 2019. “The Marquess of Lansdowne, Governor General of Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/henry-charles-keith-petty-fitzmaurice-5th-marquess-of-lansdowne.

Indianapolis Journal, 1887. “Editor O’Brian In Canada,” 12 May.

Kingston Whig, 1887. “The ‘Cause of Ireland’ Injured,” in Ottawa Evening Journal, 19 May.

Montreal Star, 1887. “Mr. O’Brian’s Victim,” in Ottawa Evening Journal, 4 May.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1887. “O’Brian’s Visit,” 3 May.

————————–, 1887. “The Governor-General In Toronto,” 5 May.

————————–, 1887. “Mr. O’Brian And The Governor-General – Scandalous Attacks,” 19 May.

————————–, 1887. “Luggacurran,” 19 May.

————————–, 1887. “Cause And Effect,” 27 May.

————————–, 1887. The Address To His Excellency,” 27 May.

————————–, 1887. “The Reception To-Day And What It Means,” 26 May.

————————–, 1887. “The Address To His Excellency,” 27 May.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1887. “Coming To Canada,” 2 May.

——————————, 1887. “Thanks To Lord Lansdowne,” 4 May.

——————————, 1887. “Mr. O’Brian’s Coming,” 4 May.

——————————, 1887. “What Is Truth?” 6 May.

——————————, 1887. “Luggacurran,” 6 May.

——————————, 1887. “To-Morrow’s Public Meeting,” 11 May.

——————————, 1887. “His First Attack,” 12 May.

——————————, 1887. “Noise and Fighting,” 18 May.

——————————, 1887. “The Attack on Mr. O’Brian,” 19 May.

——————————, 1887. “O’Brian in Ottawa,” 20 May.

—————————–, 1887. “The Governor-General,” 26 May.

—————————–, 1887. “Welcome To Lansdowne,” 27 May.

——————————, 1887. “The Governor-General’s Supplementary Letter of Thanks,” 28 May.

——————————, 1887. “Yesterday’s Demonstration,” 28 May.

New York Times, 1887. “The Root of the Matter,” in Ottawa Evening Journal, 5 May.

San Francisco Examiner, 1887. “A Crusade!” 2 May.

Taaffe, Frank. 2015. “Luggacurran Evictions,” Eye on the Past, http://athyeyeonthepast.blogspot.com/search/label/Luggacurran%20evictions.

Wilson, David. 1989. “The Irish in Canada,” Canadian Historical Society, Booklet No. 12.

The Ottawa Sharpshooters

2 May 1885

Tucked away close to the Cartier Drill Hall is the Ottawa Sharpshooters’ Memorial erected to the memory of two Ottawa volunteer militiamen, Private John Rogers and Private William B. Osgoode, who died on 2 May 1885 at the battle of Cut Knife Hill in the North-West Rebellion. The bronze monument, sculpted by the British sculptor Percy Guy Wood, is of a guardsman, his head bent in mourning, leaning on his reversed rifle. The sculpture is set on a ten-foot granite pedestal with an inscription and two medallions featuring the faces of the two servicemen in relief.

Sharpshooters’ Memorial, Major’s Hill Park, 1888, Topley, Library and Archives Canada, 2411919.

The memorial was originally installed in a far more prominent spot—Major’s Hill Park, where the Château Laurier is located today. However, when the hotel was built, it was moved to a site on Elgin Street in front of the old City Hall. (This City Hall was destined to be destroyed by fire in 1931.) When construction of the National Arts Centre began on that site in 1965, the Memorial, along with the 1899-1902 South African War Memorial, travelled to Confederation Park. The Sharpshooters’ Memorial was moved yet again in the early 2000s to its present, out-of-the-way location.

It was originally erected in 1888 to honour the ultimate sacrifice paid by these two men in fighting for what many English-speaking Canadians at the time felt was the integrity of the country. The monument’s current less-than-prominent location is more in keeping with today’s far more nuanced view about the North-West Rebellion, now often call the North-West Resistance. The Canadian government’s crushing of the uprising led to the hanging of eight First Nations’ leaders as well as Louis Riel, the famous Métis leader. While Riel was no innocent, having himself executed a Protestant, English-speaking man in the earlier 1870 Red River Rebellion, his execution, despite pleas for clemency from many, including Queen Victoria, embittered French-speaking Canadians who viewed Riel as a fighter for French rights in western Canada.

Back in 1885, there was little discussion of the long-standing grievances of the First Nations and Métis people which led to the uprising. And there were many. With the near extinction of the herds of bison on which indigenous people depended, the Plains’ First Nations were starving. Although the Dominion government was willing to provide rations and instructors on how to farm, assistance was contingent on the First Nations signing unequal treaties and going onto reservations. The government wanted their land for white settlement and the construction of the politically important, transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. Insensitive and incompetent “Indian agents” made a bad situation far worse. The Métis also felt threatened when government surveyors ignored pre-existing Métis boundaries as they mapped out land for incoming English-speaking settlers.

Notice, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 31 March 1985.

But back East, this didn’t account for much if people were aware. When the government sought volunteers to suppress the rising, thousands of patriotic, young men were quick to answer the call. At the end of March 1885, Captain A. Hamlyn Todd of the Governor General’s Foot Guards asked Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron, the Minister of Militia in Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government, if he could organize a company of sharpshooters for service in the North-West. It took Todd only five minutes to convince the minister than he could assemble the necessary men and be ready to leave by 4:00pm the following day.

Between the Guards and the 43rd Battalion stationed in Ottawa, Todd had more than enough volunteers willing to go at a moment’s notice. In the end, three officers and forty-eight men mustered at the Drill Hall on 31 March 1885 at 9:00 am for their final inspection before boarding the Canadian Pacific Railway for passage to Winnipeg. The contingent’s official name was the Guards Company of Sharpshooters though not all of the sharpshooters were guardsmen. They were generally known at the Ottawa Sharpshooters. Most of the volunteers were young. There were, however, a few veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian raids.

In addition to weapons, each soldier was equipped with two woollen blankets, one waterproof blanket, woollen undergarments, and a pair of leather moccasins. Later, the ladies of the “Broom Brigade,” a sort of women’s military auxiliary, provided each man with a “housewife”—a red case lined with yellow cloth (the colours of the Broom Brigade) containing needles, thread and buttons.

At 11:00 am, the sharpshooters marched to Union Station in LeBreton Flats with the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards leading the way. The station was filled with people to see the sharpshooters off. The Ottawa Citizen commented that “the platform at the station was filled with a dense mass of enthusiastic, patriotic, jostling, laughing, shouting and war-fever stricken individuals of all ages, sizes, sexes, and complexions.”

Eight days later in Winnipeg, the sharpshooters met up with contingents from other parts of the country, including Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. Perhaps surprisingly given the circumstances, there were many francophone volunteers. Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph-Aldric Ouimet, MP led the 65th Battalion from Montreal while Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Amyot, MP led the 9th Battalion (Les Voltigeurs de Québec) from Quebec City. Lieutenant-Colonel Montizambert commanded the Regiment of Canadian Artillery. Sir Frederick Middleton was in overall command.

Private John Rogers, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 20 July, 1885.

Some twenty members of the Ottawa Sharpshooters saw action at Cut Knife Hill in today’s Saskatchewan at the beginning of May 1885. Against orders from General Middleton, Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter, egged on by angry and fearful settlers, decided to punish the Cree leader Poundmaker and his people who were blamed for looting Battleford some weeks earlier. (Whether they actually did the looting is uncertain.) With a force of close to 400 men, equipped with two seven-pound guns and a Gatling gun (an early machine gun), Otter attacked Poundmaker’s camp of some 1,500 men, women, and children. The Cree, who were joined by Assiniboine bands fought off the attacking soldiers. Surrounded on three sides, Otter chose to retreat, suffering eight dead and fourteen wounded. The First Nations’ losses amounted to five dead and three wounded. Otter’s casualties might have been much higher if Poundmaker had not ordered his warriors to let the Canadian soldiers withdraw.

Among the eight soldiers killed were two Ottawa Sharpshooters—Privates John Rogers of the Guards and William Osgoode of the 43rd Battalion. It was reported that Osgoode’s body was mutilated after his death.

Private William Osgoode, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 20 July 1885.

Rogers, aged 27, had been born in Barbados and had come to Ottawa in 1882 where he worked as a clerk in the Interior Department. He had been a member of Ottawa’s Legal and Literary Society, the Debating Society, the Young Men’s Amusement Club and Taché’s Hill Sliding Club. Osgoode, age 23, was born in New Edinburgh and was a machinist by trade. He had been employed by Messrs. Steward & Fleck.

Two other Ottawa men were wounded in the battle of Cut Knife Hill. Sargeant Winters, a native of Prescott who worked in the Department of Marine and Fisheries, was shot in the face. Winters was one of the few veteran soldiers in the company, having served with the British Army in the 1882 Egyptian campaign against Arabi Pasha.  Private McQuilkin, aged 21, who had just passed his exams to become a land surveyor, received a minor flesh wound to his leg caused by a spent bullet. The bullet apparently fell into his boot after hitting him. Sargeant Winters’ wound was also relatively minor. He was left with a scar on his face and the loss of his sense of smell.

The bodies of poor Rogers and Osgoode were recovered, and returned to Ottawa in July 1885. Their remains were buried side by side with full military honours in Beechwood Cemetery in a plot of land purchased by Ottawa’s City Council. The gravesite was initially marked by wooden stakes with Rogers’ and Osgoode’s names inscribed in pencil. But when visiting veterans had a hard time finding the site a few years later owning to the weathering of the markers, a granite double tablet marker resting on a limestone base was erected at a cost of $348.

Ottawa Sharpshooters on their return from the North-West, Welcome by Ottawa Mayor McDougal, Colborne Powell Meredith fonds, Library and Archives Canada, 3406964.

Just days after Rogers’ and Osgoode’s funeral, the rest of the Ottawa Sharpshooters returned home to a hero’s welcome. Ottawa was decorated with flags, bunting, and banners proclaiming such messages as Home Sweet Home and Ottawa Welcomes You. Across from the Russell Hotel was a painted canvas banner saying Welcome Home, Our Brave Volunteers on one side and Well Done, Our Heroes on the other.

A grand parade was held featuring local militia units, national and benevolent societies as well as county and city officials. The Ottawa boys had been previously been fêted at stops along the way from Winnipeg. At Owen Sound and later at the East Toronto Junction station, meals were prepared and served to the troops by local women. When they arrived late in the afternoon at Union Station, a huge crowd awaited them, many of whom wore Union Jack badges bearing the words “Cut Knife Hill.”  Railway torpedoes, which were small dynamite charges placed on the rails, provided a “royal salute” of bangs. Met by militia and local officials, the Sharpshooters paraded up Wellington Street to Parliament where Mayor McDougal welcomed them home. The Mayor also presented to Captain Todd a silk Dominion ensign with the words “Ottawa Sharpshooters, Cut Knife Hill, 1885” embroidered on it.

The parade then continued on to the Cartier Drill Hall where Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron welcomed the men home on behalf of the Dominion government. He said that they had “travelled a distance of 2,000 miles to vindicate good government and the liberties of the loyal subject.”  That night, fireworks were set off from City Hall Square. Somebody suspended an effigy of Louis Riel made of leather stuffed with straw from a noose on Wellington Street close to Parliament Hill.

On the Sunday, a special Thanksgiving Service was held at St. Albans Church. The following Monday, the officers, NCOs and men of the Governor General’s Foot Guards hosted a gala dinner at the Russell House Hotel in honour of the Sharpshooters. The hotel’s dining room was decorated with bayonets and the arms of Canada’s provinces. Silk banners proclaimed “All honour to our guardians who fought for our country and honour” and “All honour to the wounded and our comrades who fell at Cut Knife Hill, May 2, 1885.”

Not all of Ottawa was happy with the celebrations. Six hundred francophone residents met in St. Joseph’s Hall on Dalhousie St. to condemn the hanging of Riel in effigy. This prompted an anglophone resident to write to the Citizen to censure the six hundred saying: “Is this a British Country? Has it been won by British pluck? Are we loyal men or rebels? The writer went on to ask “Do the French Canadians make common cause with the wretch who let loose the horrors of Indian War on the defenceless settlers of the North-West?” He ominously added “If so, …then the sooner we loyal Britons gird our loins for the inevitable conflict the better.”

The Citizen’s editor was appalled by the letter writer’s words. While the editor didn’t “hold Riel on the same level as our gallant fellows who placed their lives on the country’s altar to vindicate law and uphold order,” he said that “nationality should have nothing whatever to do with it.” He also retorted that the newspaper did “not hesitate to say that those who make it a question of race are making a great mistake.” Such a view, he said, was an insult to the French-Canadian volunteers who served in the North-West. He also argued that Riel should get a fair trial.

Unveiling of the Sharpshooters’ Memorial by Lord Stanley, 2 November 1888, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, 3362497.

There was widespread support for the commissioning of a memorial to honour Privates Rogers and Osgoode via public subscription. After early success in raising money, pledges fell off. As a consequence, it took three years before the memorial was unveiled in Major’s Hill Park in early November 1888 by Lord Stanley, who had just arrived in Ottawa as Governor General. The unveiling was not without controversy. The plaque on the memorial referred to the two men as members of the Guards Company of Sharpshooters. There was no mention of the 43rd Battalion to which Private Osgoode had belonged. Feeling that the Guards had been unduly favoured, the men of the 43rd Battalion initially refused to attend the memorial’s unveiling. In the end the Battalion was well represented when their commanding officer ordered them to join the ceremony.

At the unveiling, Governor General Lord Stanley poured oil over the trouble waters by noting that while the force was officially designated as the Sharpshooters of the Guards, in reality the unit has been composed of men from both battalions—the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the 43rd Battalion.

Sketch of Constable David L. Cowan of the North-West Mounted Police, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 27 June 1885.

Something missed that day was the recognition of another Ottawa death in the line of duty in the North-West. Two weeks before the deaths of Privates Rogers and Osgoode, David L. Cowan, age 19, a constable in the North-West Mounted Police, was killed at Fort Pitt (Saskatchewan), when Cree warriors led by Big Bear seized the fort which had been commanded by Inspector Francis Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens, the famous author. Constable Cowan was a member of a police scouting party. On news of his death, the Carleton County Council issued a statement saying “although in years a boy, he died like a man, defending the honour and glory of the standard he volunteered to uphold.”

The First Nations and Métis uprisings were quickly put down. Riel was hanged in Regina on 16 November 1885.

The repercussions of these events in the North-West continue to be felt today.


Bumsted, J.M., 2019. “Red River Rebellion,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/red-river-rebellion.

Camerons, Ottawa’s Regiment, 2020. History, http://camerons.ca/history/#1881-1899.

Carter, David R. 2016. “Inspector F.J. Dickens of the North West Mounted Police,” Eagle Butte Press, https://djcarter.ca/books/inspector-fj-dickens.

History Nerd, 2013. Sharpshooters’ Ambulatory Memorial, 14 June, https://www.historynerd.ca/2013/06/14/sharpshooters-monument/.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1885. “An Ottawa Boy Killed,” 23 April.

————————-, 1885. “Notes,” 31 March.

————————-, 1885. “Bad News,” 1 April.

————————-, 1885. “A Splendid Record, 28 April.

————————-, 1885. “North-West Troubles,” 1 May.

————————-, 1885. “Otter’s Fight,” 7 May.

————————-, 1885. “Ottawa’s Heroes,” 7 May.

————————-, 1885. “Ottawaites (sic) Who Fought Poundmaker,” 18 May.

————————-, 1885. “The Rebellion,” 30 May.

————————-, 1885. “General Notes,” 5 June.

————————-, 1885. “Late D.L. Cowan,” 12 June.

————————-, 1885. “Our Dead Heroes,” 20 July.

————————-, 1885. “Home,” 25 July.

————————-, 1885. “The Sharpshooters,” 28 July.

————————-, 1885. “Riel’s Effigy,” 28 July.

————————-, 1886. “Better Later Than Never,” 30 September.

————————-, 1887. “Sharpshooters’ Memorial Fund,” 20 December.

————————-, 1888, “The Sharpshooters’ Memorial,” 16 June.

————————-, 1888. “Not Credible,” 25 October.

————————-, 1888. “The Unveiling Tomorrow,” 31 October.

————————-, 1888. “The Statue Unveiled,” 2 November.

Ottawa Journal, 1888. “The Sharpshooters’ Memorial,” 26 October.

——————-, 1967. “Hill Talk,” 18 February.

Urbsite, 2017. Sculptor Week I – Time to wake up the Sharpshooters Northwest Resistance Monument?,17 September,  http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2017/09/sculpture-week-i-time-to-wake-up.html.   

The Iceman No Longer Cometh

18 May 1963

In today’s modern world, frequent visitors to the typical Canadian household are FedEx or UPS deliverers dropping off the latest purchases from Amazon or other virtual retailers. Back in our grandparents’ day, the typical household also received lots of commercial visitors—the postman, the milkman, the Fuller brush man, and the occasional telegram delivery boy. But no visitor was more welcome during the hot summer months than the burly iceman with his frosty block of ice, grasped between large metal tongs, destined for the family icebox. In the years before air-conditioning, the only way to mitigate those sweltering, sticky days of July and August was to indulge in your favourite chilled drink or ice cream. And for that, ice was essential. Through the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the most common form of ice in Canada and the United States was natural ice “harvested” from lakes and rivers during the depth of winter and stored in “ice houses” for the summer sales season. A huge industry developed around cutting, storing and delivering ice. It even went international, with ice cut in the Boston and New York areas sent by speedy clipper ships to the islands in the West Indies.

The Packet, 22 May 1847.

When ice “harvesting” began in Ottawa is uncertain. Certainly, ice was available in the summer of 1847. In late May 1847, Thompson & Smillie’s, confectioners in Lower Bytown, advertised ice cream for sale in The Packet newspaper.  Where there’s ice cream, there has to be ice.

By the 1880s, ice harvesting on the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers was big business, employing hundreds of people. The ice industry provided welcome jobs during the winter when the lumber mills were closed and employment hard to find. The largest Ottawa ice dealers at the time were Jos. Christin & Company, Charlebois & Eros, and Moise Lapointe. Tens of thousands of tons of ice was harvested annually above the Chaudière Falls close to the Prince of Wales Bridge and below the Falls near Nepean Point. Ice was also cut on the Rideau River in Mooney’s Bay.

The ice-harvesting process was straightforward, with the season lasting for five to ten weeks. When the ice was thick enough, roughly 18 inches, a depth typically reached by late January or early February, teams of men would clear the snow using horse-drawn scrapers. A straight line was then drawn across the newly cleared ice field. Two sharp blades, 44 inches apart, scored parallel furrows into the ice. These grooves were used as guides for the ice sawyers who cut out a column of ice. They then cut the ice perpendicular to these grooves to make large blocks called “cakes.” Using ice clamps, strong men hoisted these mega ice cubes out of the water which were then loaded onto horse-drawn sleighs for delivery to Ottawa’s ice houses for storage. There, the blocks were placed in tiers, one upon the other, separated by a few inches to stop them freezing into one huge block. Bark or sawdust was often used to provide insulation. While more than half of the ice might be lost through melting, there was usually sufficient remaining to meet the demand for ice during the hot summer months.

Ice ad odc 1866-5-24
Advertisement for ice, Ottawa Daily Citizen,  24 May, 1866

Prices were affordable. In 1866, T. Starmer, located at 126 Rideau Street opposite Matthew’s Hotel, advertised that he would deliver 10 pounds of ice daily, with a double amount on Saturdays for Sunday use, through the season (May 1st to October 1st) for a fee of $5. The same price was being charged thirty years later by the Ottawa Ice Company. Discounts were provided if one paid in advance and bought larger quantities of ice.

If a household had its own ice house, the cost of a season’s worth of ice was even cheaper. The Citizen reported that a man satisfied his home’s need for summer ice for only $4. The man purchased his ice from a dealer in the winter, and stored it in his personal ice house which was tucked away under the shade of a big tree in his backyard.

Owing to pollution concerns, the Ottawa Board of Health passed regulations in the early 1890s to restrict the harvest of ice on the Ottawa River to above the Chaudière Falls. Despite this, dealers persisted in cutting ice lower down the river. Apparently, they could save $1,000 to $1,300 per year by cutting below the Falls. After one ice dealer received a summons for cutting ice on the Ottawa River to the east of Earnscliffe, then the home of Sir John A. Macdonald, and now the residence of the British High Commissioner, dealers appealed to City Council for a relaxation of the regulations. These appeals were resisted by Dr Robillard, the head of the Ottawa Board of Health, even though an analysis of ice samples taken from the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers proved to be satisfactory. He thought that a one-off sampling was insufficient to ensure safety, pointing out that Ottawa’s sewers discharged on the Ontario side while the “washings of Hull and of the pulp industry” poured into the river from the Quebec side. With fears of cholera returning with the warm weather, City Council resisted the ice dealers’ appeals.

ice fishing LAC topley (2)
Ice harvesting, Ottawa River, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, R639-0-5-E.

In 1912, the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company began operations on Nicholas Street. Its president was Thomas Cameron Bate. Its vice-president was Thomas Ahearn, who, along with his partner of many years, Warren Soper, was involved in everything electrical in the city. The company used liquid ammonia as the cooling agent for making its ice, a process that had become economically feasible during the late nineteenth century. Instead of using potentially unsanitary river water, it drew its water supply from artisan wells almost 500 feet deep. The water was also tested daily. The company claimed that its ice was seldom touched by hands. While it advertised that it could make 50 tons of artificial ice per day, the company could only satisfy a small portion of Ottawa’s ice needs. Natural ice remained in strong demand.

Ice cutters Hogs back 3371780 LAC
Ice Harvesting at Hog’s Back, Rideau River, in the 1930s, Library and Archives Canada, 3371780.

In 1927, thirteen of the largest ice dealers in Ottawa and Hull, including the Artificial Ice Company, banded together to form the Icemen’s Association, and incidentally to raise prices. From then on, no allowance would be made for summer vacations. Previously, customers could suspend their ice service when they were away on holiday, and receive a credit for that time from ice companies. More significantly, apartment dwellers were henceforth charged a steep delivery premium of 50 cents per month per flight of stairs that the iceman had to climb carrying his load of ice. For some, this charge effectively doubled the price of ice.

For the next thirty years, ice harvesting continued to be an annual winter event on the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. The process remained little changed from that of the previous century. Horses continued to be used to remove snow and slush from the ice field and to scrape the surface. However, power saws with 24-inch diameter blades were used to cut the ice, though men still used long, cross-cut saws to finish the cuts. After breaking off each 300-pound block of ice with crowbars, men guided the blocks using sharp pikes down a water channel to the landing machine—essentially a gas-powered, toothed conveyor belt that hoisted the blocks onto the back of a truck for delivery to the ice houses. On arrival, ice packers stacked the blocks which were insulated with sawdust. The Department of Health and Welfare kept a close check on ice quality to ensure that the ice was safe for human consumption.

After the war, demand for ice remained strong for a time, notwithstanding the gradual introduction of electric refrigerators into Ottawa kitchens. Old-fashioned ice boxes remained in service. In early 1950, Ottawa ice dealers said the demand was as strong as it had been ten or fifteen years earlier, and planned to store 300,000 tons of natural ice during the 1950 ice season. However, within just a few years, the Ottawa ice industry had gone the way of the buggy whip, a casualty of technological change. In 1959, it was reported that no company was cutting natural ice from either the Ottawa or Rideau Rivers. The last advertisement for natural ice appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on 18 May 1963 in the classified ad section. Two thousand large blocks of natural ice were available if one called 684-5237. The name and the address of the seller, and where the ice was sourced, were not revealed.

Even the artificial ice producers had difficulty in competing with the modern refrigerator. The building of the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company on Nicholas Street was purchased in 1962 by the University of Ottawa which wanted the land for new university buildings. The company was officially closed in 1967.

After that, only the old, now vacant, ice houses were left to remind Ottawa residents of the once-great ice industry. And they too succumbed one by one. Typically made of wood and filled with old sawdust, many ice houses were destroyed by fire. Others were torn down. A few smaller ones found new life as cottages or offices.

Today, several companies supply ice to Ottawa. One of the largest is the Arctic Glacier Company of Winnipeg which has a production facility on the Hawthorne Rd in Ottawa. Its bags of packaged ice can be purchased at service stations and grocery stores throughout the city. Big 300-pound blocks are also still available, as is ice for commercial purposes.


Ottawa Citizen, 1893. “The Ice-Men’s Cool Request,” 18 January.

——————, 1894. “Ice Harvest,” 11 February.

——————, 1912. “Pure Ice At Last,” 27 December.

——————, 1948. “It’s Harvesting Time For Rideau River Ice ‘Crop,’” 5 February.

——————, 1949. “Ottawa’s Ice Harvest Is Cold Business,” 12 February.

——————, 1950. “Winter Sets Back The Ice Harvest,” 12 January.

——————, 1959. “Ice Company To Oppose U of O Bill,” 20 December.

——————, 1962. “New U of O Building,” 4 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “Cold Water,” 5 February.

——————-, 1920. “Ottawa Business Romances,” 21 April.

——————, 1927. “New Regulations Govern Ice Selling,” 3 May.

Packet, 1847. “Ice Creams,” 22 May.

The Queen’s Plate

31 May 1872

The most famous and prestigious thoroughbred horse race in Canada is the Queen’s Plate, open to Canadian-bred, three-year-old horses. It’s also the oldest continuously-run horse race in North America, dating back to 1860, seven years before first running of the Belmont Stakes, the oldest of the “Triple Crown” races in the United States. Over its illustrious history, many members of the Royal family have attended this storied event from Princess Louise in 1881, to the Queen Mother in 1965, and to Queen Elizabeth in 1959, 1973, 1997 and, most recently, 2010. Horse racing is indeed the “sport of kings!”

Queen's Plate 6-5-1872
Advertisement for the 1872 running of the Queen’s Plate, Ottawa Daily Citizen

The story of the Queen’s Plate begins in 1859 when Sir Casimir Gzowski, the president of the Toronto Turf Club, petitioned the Governor General for an annual horse racing prize to be awarded by Queen Victoria to horses bred and reared in Upper Canada (Ontario). He correctly believed that the cachet of winning a royal prize would encourage the development of horse breeding in Canada. Queen Victoria graciously agreed to the request providing an annual prize of 50 guineas for a race to be called the Queen’s Plate. (A guinea is defunct British gold coin no longer minted by the mid nineteenth century but widely used as a unit of account in horse racing, the art world, and certain professions well into the twentieth century. It had a value of 21 shillings sterling.)

The Royal Privy Purse continues to provide this annual prize though instead of 50 guineas, it reportedly sends a bank draft for the sterling equivalent except when a member of the Royal Family is present for the race. Then, the winner receives 50 gold sovereigns in a purple bag. The winner also receives 60 per cent of the race purse of $1 million. Confusingly, the “Plate” is a foot-high golden cup on a black base rather than a plate. (The traditional royal prize for a horse race had been a silver plate, hence the name. However, over time the nature of the prize changed but the name stuck.)

The first running of the Queen’s Plate took place at the end of June in 1860 at the Carleton Race Course in Toronto. It was open to all horses reared in Upper Canada which had never won public money. During the early years of the Queen’s Plate, horses competed in three heats rather than a single race as is the case today. The first winner was a five-year old horse by the name of Don Juan, owned by a Mr. White and ridden by Charles Littlefield. Don Juan came in second in the first heat, but won the second and third heats of the competition over a one-mile track with his best time of 1 minute 58 seconds.

Although the next several Queen’s Plates were held at the Carleton Race Course, it subsequently moved around the province depending on the lobbying powers of various racing clubs and politicians before it settled down for good at the Woodbine Race Course in Toronto in 1883. Until 1956, the race was held at the old Woodbine site at the end of Woodbine Street in Toronto close to Lake Ontario. It then moved to the current Woodbine location on Rexdale Boulevard, north of the Pearson Airport in Etobicoke.  During the Queen’s Plate’s journey around Ontario, the race came to Ottawa on two occasions, the first in 1872 and the second in 1880.

The organization that brought the Queen’s Plate to Ottawa in 1872 was the Ottawa Turf Club, founded in 1869 with the patronage of Sir John Young, later known as Lord Lisgar, the Governor General, who was an avid horseman. The President of the Club was Joseph Aumond, Vice-President was Nicholas Sparks, and  Edward Barber was the Secretary.  While the lobbying of Sir John A. Macdonald, the Premier, may have helped the new Ottawa Turf Club win the event, Lord Lisgar was likely the one most responsible for bringing the race to Ottawa. With His Excellency as its patron, the Ottawa Turf Club definitely had the inside track for hosting the event. News that the Queen’s Plate had been conferred on Ottawa was officially relayed to the Ottawa Turf Club in February 1872, with the race planned for late spring. The conditions of the race were: “For horses, geldings or mares, bred, raised, trained and owned, in the Province of Ontario, who have not previously won public money at any race meeting. The whole stake to go to the winner.”

The Club organized a two-day racing extravaganza for Friday and Saturday, the 31th of May and the 1st of June, 1872. The event was held at the new Mutchmor Driving Park which had opened the previous year. The race track and the adjoining Turf Hotel were owned by Ralph Muchmor and Edward Barber, the Turf Club’s Secretary. Total prize money for the two-day event amounted to $2,850—a fair sum in those days.

Long before race time, pedestrians and carriages packed Bank Street, all heading for the race track located now where the Mutchmor Public School is today. Race conditions were perfect with the track having just been rolled after a recent rain. The main attraction of the day was, of course, the Queen’s Plate, the third race of the afternoon. By the time Lord and Lady Lisgar arrived at 3 pm, every vantage point was taken up, the stands filled to capacity with ladies and gentlemen, while less fortunate punters made do with fence tops, and the seats of cabs and wagons. According to the Ottawa Daily Citizen, it was difficult to estimate the size of the crowd, but the stands scarcely accommodated a quarter of the numbers. Many of the visitors came from other parts of Canada and even from the United States to witness the Queen’s Plate which was already the highlight of the Canadian racing calendar.

The first race of the day was the $300 Hurdles Race, a two-mile run with eight hurdles 3’ 6” high, which was won by Duffy by three lengths. The second race was the $100 Steward’s Race won by Mohawk who took both heats. Up next was the Queen’s Plate. The prize was 50 guineas ($256), the gift of “Her Most Gracious Majesty.” The winning horse may have received an additional purse but the report relating to this was obscurely written. It read: “T.C.W. Entrance, $10 p.p. to go with the plate.”[1] The Ottawa Turf Club provided $100 to the second-place horse.

Six horses were entered in the 1½ mile race (no heats): Blacksmith, a 4-year old, black horse, with its jockey wearing a black jacket and blue cap; Fearnaught, a bay horse with its jockey in scarlet with a dove colour cap; Alzora, a chestnut mare, whose jockey wore brown and white; Jack Vandall, a bay gelding, its jockey in blue and white; Bay Boston, a 5-year old, bay horse, (colours not identified), and Halton, a 5-year old bay horse whose jockey wore scarlet. Halton was the favourite. Three of the horses in the running, Fearnaught, Alzora and Jack Vandall, had the same sire, Jack the Barber, a celebrated thoroughbred horse originally from Kentucky.

Queen's Plate Canadian Museum of History
The Trophy awarded for winning the Queen’s Plate, Canadian Museum of History.

At post time, there were four false starts. But after they were finally off, it was deemed a “splendid race.” After the first half mile, it became apparent that the race belonged to Fearnaught, with the favourite, Halton, fading. In a time of 2 minutes 54 ½ seconds, Fearnaugh, ridden by Richard Leary and owned by Alexander Simpson, won the 13th running of the Queen’s Plate. Jack Vandall came in second and Halton third. Richard Leary, the winning jockey who was also a resident of Ottawa and the horse’s trainer, was presented with a gold-mounted riding whip by Mr. William Young of the firm Young & Radford, a watchmaker and jewellery manufacturer located at 30 Sparks Street.

Two more races followed the Queen’s Plate to round out the racing for the afternoon. These were the $300 Tally Ho! Stakes and the $150 Memorial Plate.

Betting had been fierce in the lead-up to all the races. But all the favourites came up short that day causing “a monetary twinge among the sporting fraternity,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Pelting rain almost caused the postponement of the second day of racing from the Saturday to the following Monday. Racing on a Sunday, the Sabbath, was forbidden. However, as many of the horses were slatted to race in Montreal the following week, the decision was made to go ahead on the principle “run, rain or shine.” Fortunately, at race time the clouds cleared, though attendance suffered. Four more races were held: the $600 Carleton Plate; the $400 Lumbermen’s Purse; the $300 Merchants’ Plate; and, finally, the $150 Consolation Stakes. There was a bit of excitement surrounding the running of the Lumbermen’s Purse. Owing to “a misunderstanding or improper interference,” the race had to be run twice. People almost came to blows before the Club Secretary announced that all pools and bets were off for the race.

The Ottawa Turf Club, the host of the 1872 Queen’s Plate, disappeared from the Ottawa racing news in the decade following its big race weekend but not before becoming mired in controversy. At the end of a racing fixture held in October 1874, the Club held a “deer hunt” as a grande finale to the day’s events. A half-starved deer was released onto the field. It was barely able to run having been cooped up in a small cage, its joints stiffened from lack of use. Instead of taking off into the nearby bush to be hunted by a pack of dogs followed by riders, it stumbled into the crowd. It only took ten seconds for it to be taken down and torn to pieces by the hunting dogs amidst the spectators’ carriages. The Ottawa Daily Citizen thought that this was a case for the S.P.C.A. and “hoped that the people of Ottawa will never be asked to patronize such a “sport” again.”

The Ottawa Racing Association hosted the 21st running of the Queen’s Plate at the end of June 1880. It was the second race of the first day of racing entertainment again held at the Mutchmor track. Five horses were at the post come race time; a sixth, the mare Footstep, had been pulled on a challenge on the grounds of ineligibility since it had not been trained in Ontario. The winner was Bonnie Bird, owned by John Forbes and ridden by Richard Leary, the same jockey who rode to victory in the 1872 Queen’s Plate. Bonnie Bird also ran he following day in the first Dominion Day Derby carrying five pounds extra owing to having been the Queen’s Plate winner. Owing to a very bad send off, Bonnie Bird was virtually out of the race at the start but Richard Leary, the jockey, somehow manage to close the gap with the leaders on the turn but was unable to catch Lord Dufferin who won by a length.

Today, Ottawa horse-racing fans can enjoy standardbred harness racing at the Rideau Carleton Raceway on the Albion Road. But if you want to dress up, wear a fascinator, and otherwise enjoy the excitement of the annual running of the Queen’s Plate, you will need to head to the Woodbine Race Track in Toronto.


Anderson-Labarge, 2015. “Canada History Week: Spotlight on Sports (Part 2),” Canadian Museum of History, https://www.historymuseum.ca/blog/canada-history-week-spotlight-on-sports-part-2/.

Buffalo Commercial, 1861, “Great Race at Detroit,” 10 July.

Daily Citizen, 1872. “The Queen’s Plate,” 16 February.

—————–, 1872. “Ottawa Turf Club Races,” 31 May.

—————–, 1872.  “Ottawa Turf Club,” 1 June.

—————–, 1872. “Ottawa Turf Club,” 3 June.

—————–, 1880. “Mutchmor Park,” 2 July 1880.

Dulay, Cindy Pierson, 2018. “2010 Queen’s Plate Royal Visit,” Horse-Races.Net, http://www.horse-races.net/library/qp10-royal.htm.

Rideau Carleton Raceway, 2019. https://rcr.net/.

Smith, Beverley, 2018. “Horse Racing: Queen’s Plate,” Globe and Mail, 17 April.

Wencer, David. 2019. “Toronto’s Horse Racing History,” Heritage Toronto, http://heritagetoronto.org/torontos-horse-racing-history/.

Woodbine, 2019. Queen’s Plate 2019, https://woodbine.com/queensplate/.

Wikipedia, 2019. Queen’s Plate, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Plate.

[1] Thanks to Kathy Krywicki’s interpretation, this cryptic phrase likely means that the Queen’s Plate was an entry in the Triple Crown Winner series, and that the $10 per entry free was included in the prize.

Lovers’ Walk

14 May 1938

When visitors come to Ottawa, they naturally gravitate to Parliament Hill to view the magnificent neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings, to stroll in the surrounding gardens where statues and memorials to Canadian sovereigns and statesmen abound and, of course, to take in the stunning views across the Ottawa River towards Hull and the Gatineau Hills. One hundred years ago, the number two Ottawa tourist destination was Lovers’ Walk—a pathway that wended its way around the Parliament Hill bluff roughly half-way up the escarpment. Surrounded by a hardwood forest and flowering shrubs, including lilacs and honeysuckle, the pathway commanded splendid views of the Ottawa River, with benches for the weary or for the amorous. Visitors to this tranquil wilderness could easily forget that they were in the heart of Canada’s capital city. According to a 1920s’ guide book, anyone who has not taken a stroll there “has not seen all the charms of the capital. In fact, he has missed one of the greatest of them.” Fast forward to today, you would be hard pressed to find an Ottawa resident who has any knowledge about this once-famous pathway.

LoversLaneAlbertype Company LAC PA-032894
Lovers’ Walk, Parliament Hill, Albertype Company, Library and Archives Canada, PA023894.

The history of Lovers’ Walk apparently dates back long before the arrival of the first Europeans to the Ottawa Valley. Accounts say that the pathway was used by Canada’s native peoples travelling along the southern banks of the Ottawa River. During the first half of the nineteenth century, raftsmen took this same route as a short cut moving to and from their homes in Lower Bytown and the timber chutes at the Chaudière Falls. Sometime after Confederation in 1867, the rough path was widened, decorative iron railings were fitted to protect users from falling, and staircases were installed at several points to give the general public ready access.

One story says that William Macdougall, the Minister of Public Works from 1867-69 in Sir John A. Macdonald’s first Dominion government, was responsible for upgrading the trail from a rough, dangerous track to a gentle path that even women dressed in the long gowns of the period could stroll along without fear of tripping. Macdougall, who was apparently a “hands on” type of Minister, stumbled upon the footpath when he was inspecting the construction of a ventilation shaft for the Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

Another story gives the credit for Lovers’ Walk to Thomas Seaton Scott, the Dominion Chief Architect from 1872-1881. Seaton was responsible for laying out the structured gardens that surround the Parliament Buildings as well as designing the Drill Hall on Elgin Street. According to this account, Seaton constructed the steps down from the formal gardens on top of Parliament Hill to allow the general public access to the wilder charms of the pathway.

Who actually came up with the name Lovers’ Walk is unknown. The first newspaper reference to this name appears in the Ottawa Daily Citizen in 1873. A visitor at about this time said that “no more appropriate name could be devised.”

LoversWalkDept. of InteriorLACPA-034227c.1920s
Steps down to Lovers’ Lane, Parliament Hill, Dept  of the Interior, Library and Archives Canada, PA-034227, circa 1920s.

In addition to tourists and Ottawa residents, the denizens of Parliament on top of the bluff also took advantage of the pathway, seduced by Lovers’ Walk’s winsome charms. Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, Senators and ordinary Members of Parliament were all known to take breaks from the hard work of politicking to refresh themselves with a stroll through its sylvan beauty. Lovers’ Walk also attracted bird watchers. One avid amateur naturalist in the early 1930s spotted 59 different species from the pathway.

Lovers’ Walk could be accessed from either side of the Parliament Buildings. On the eastern side, there was a flight of stairs leading from roughly where the equestrian statue of Queen Elizabeth stands today. Another flight of stairs started from a location behind the Bytown Museum close to the locks on the Rideau Canal. On the western side of Parliament Hill at the end of Bank Street, behind the old Supreme Court of Canada, which was demolished in 1956, strollers entered the Walk through a stone gateway. Midway on the path there was a lookout with benches for those wanting to stop to rest or admire the views. There was also a lion-headed water fountain to refresh the thirsty. Unfortunately, strollers and lovers sometimes came across less-savoury elements who also frequented Lovers’ Walk. In 1875, there was a call for police to exclude “roughs” who amused themselves by throwing burrs onto ladies’ dresses. It was also advisable not to pick the flowers. In 1931, Mrs Pamela Cummings of 726 Cooper Street was fined $3 plus $2 court costs for stealing lilacs.

Lovers’ Walk was closed in the winter owing to snow and ice that made walking dangerous, but re-opened each spring, typically in May, once conditions were suitable. Given the steep nature of the hillside, there were frequent rockslides that were dealt with by the Department of Public Works. At the start of the First World War, the pathway was closed to the public and was patrolled by the Dominion Police. The authorities feared that German saboteurs could use Lovers’ Walk to access the ventilation shafts that aired the Centre Block. By cutting the iron protective grills, saboteurs could potentially plant explosives under the building and blow up Parliament. These precautions were discontinued after the Centre Block was destroyed by fire in February 1916.

LoversWalkTopley StudioLACPA-009322
Lovers’ Lane, Parliament Hill, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, PA039-220.

By the 1930s, Lovers’ Walk was becoming less popular. With the Depression at its peak, the pathway had become the haunt of panhandlers and the homeless, and was considered unsafe for casual strollers. The Ottawa Journal reported that “the dregs of humanity would pan handle the lovers, even seek to molest them.” A “jungle” of tin-patched shacks built by homeless men sprung near the path close to the western entrance. The eastern end, close to the Canal locks, was described as the haunt of drunks whose wild shouts could be heard from men drinking denatured alcohol. Regular police patrols and RCMP efforts to dismantle the shacks did little. There were also dark allegations of immorality.

In the winter of 1937-38, two landslides washed out more than sixty feet of Lovers’ Walk. It never officially re-opened. On 14 May 1938, the Ottawa Citizen reported that to repair the pathway would cost over $30,000. Although the Senate Standing Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, chaired by Cairine Wilson, recommended that the Department of Public Works take steps to stabilize the cliff face and reopen Lovers’ Walk, the repairs were not undertaken. During a time of depressed economic conditions, $30,000 was simply too much.

Besides landslides and the presence of “undesirables,” another possible factor behind the closure of Lovers’ Walk was concerns about Government liability. In 1933, a young boy had climbed over a gate when Lovers’ Walk was closed for the winter. He slipped on the ice, fell 50 feet, and was lucky to get away with only a broken femur. His father unsuccessfully tried to sue the government for his doctor’s bill. In 1937, a man, who had been sitting on a guard railing, broke his spine when he lost his balance and plunged down the cliff.

Some say that it was Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King who ordered the closure of Lovers’ Walk. However, another account says that King had wanted to keep it open and that it was only following extensive discussions with the RCMP, Public Works, and the Speakers of both the Senate and the House of Commons that the decision to close it was reluctantly taken. High barricades were installed at both ends to stop people from using the path now deemed unsafe.

By the 1950s, Lovers’ Walk was a “desolate ruin of crumbling masonry, rusted and broken iron guardrails and rotten wooden shoring.” What was left of the pathway was overgrown and narrowed by erosion. Empty bottles, and other refuse littered the place—evidence that the deteriorating ruins of Lovers’ Walk remained a refuge for the homeless sleeping rough during the summer months. After an intoxicated painter fell to his death in 1960, a coroner’s jury recommended that what was left of the pathway be destroyed to ensure public safety.

Nothing was done. The area got a fearsome reputation, especially at night. By the late 1960s, secretaries and clerical staff working late on Parliament Hill were fearful of using the stairs, which cross Lovers’ Walk, to get to the parking area known as “the Pit,” despite, according to the Ottawa Journal, “routine flushing out by the RCMP foot patrols of winos, ‘rub-a-dubs,’ vagrants and, more recently, hippies from their dormitory-pad along Lovers’ Walk.” In July 1968, ex-MP Herman Laverdière was stabbed and robbed by hooligans when he went to investigate a scream that had emanated from the wooded area after he left his office at 11 pm.

Notwithstanding the increasingly bad press, there were attempts during the 1960s to restore Lovers’ Walk to its former glory. Members of all major parties championed the pathway at various times. But with the price tag rising steadily, the government in power always demurred owing to the difficulty in controlling erosion on the escarpment. In the 1980s, when Jean Pigott was Chair of the National Capital Commission, there was another look at restoring the pathway. Again, it was deemed too expensive. In 2000, the Department of Public Works looked at rebuilding the pathway given the historic nature of Lovers’ Walk and the magnificent views of the Ottawa River. Again, the issue was put on the back burner.

Most recently, LANDinc was commissioned by Public Works to develop a strategy “to restore and reforest the slopes [of Parliament Hill] to ensure long-term sustainability.” Over time, invasive species, including the lilacs, would be removed and replaced by endemic shrubs and trees. In 2014, Graebeck Construction won a $4.78 million contract to rehabilitate the western slope of Parliament Hill and the perimeter wall. There was, however, no mention of re-opening Lovers’ Walk to the general public.


Capital Gems, 2018, Lover’s Walk Ruins, http://www.capitalgems.ca/lovers-walk-ruins.html.

Canada, 1938. Senate Journals, 18th Parliament, 3nd Session, Vol. 76, p. 344, 24 June.

———-, 1960. House of Commons Debates, 24 Parliament, 3rd Session: Vol. 6, p. 6605-06, 20 July 1960.

LANDinc, 200? Parliament Hill Stabilization,” http://www.landinc.ca/escarpmentwalkway-1.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1873. “Town Talk,” 7 July

————————-, 1875. “The Parliament Hill,” 20 March.

————————-, 1875. “The Lovers Walk,” 23 August.

————————-, 1926. “Lovers Walk As Seen In Seventies,” 24 December.

————————–, 1933. “Boy Injured On Parliament Hill,” 27 March.

————————-, 1937. “Has Romance Departed From Lovers’ Walk.” 16 January.

————————-, 1937. “When Sturdy Raftsmen Used Lovers’ Walk as Short Cut,” 6 February.

————————-, 1938. “Repair Works on Lovers’ Walk May Cost Over $30,000,” 14 May.

————————-, 1960. “Destroy Lovers’ Walk Jury’s Recommendation,” 20 May.

————————-, 1966. “Lovers find road to romance rocky on Parliament Hill,” 14 May.

————————-, 2000. “Behind the Hill: A Walk into history,” 22 May.

Ottawa Construction News, 2014. Graebeck Construction wins bid for Parliament Hill slope stabilization work, 1 February, https://ottawaconstructionnews.com/local-news/graebeck-construction-wins-bid-for-parliament-hill-slope-stabilization-work/.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1931. “Magistrate Warns Flower-Bed Vandals,” 29 May.

————————–, 1937. “Fear Spine May Be Broken,” 15 June.

————————–, 1938. “Sweethearts Missing Famous Lovers’ Walk,” 18 July.

————————–, 1939. “May Not Re-open Lovers’ Walk,” 26 May.

————————–, 1939. “Remember When?” 8 July.

————————–, 1942. “Lovers’ Walk Ruled ‘Dangerous,’ It Won’t Be Reopened,” 31 July.

————————–, 1968. “Perils of ‘The Pit’ Worry Hill Security Staffs,” 12 July.

Urbsite, 2009. Lovers’ Walk,” http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2009/12/lovers-walk.html, 29 December.

Windsor Star (The), 1952. “Today in Ottawa,” 23 August.

The Cross-City Tunnel

5 May 1910

On 5 May 1910, the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) announced its intention to build a new railway entrance into the Capital. Its arch rival, the Grand Truck Railway (G.T.R.), had already commenced construction of a new Central Station in downtown Ottawa located on the east side of the Rideau Canal.  Across the street from the station, the railway was also building a baronial-style hotel to be called the Château Laurier after the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Railway tunnel
Map of Ottawa that appeared in major Ottawa newspapers indicating the proposed route of the C.P.R. tracks in black running along the bed of the Rideau Canal (upper right) and under Wellington Street to LeBreton Flats, Ottawa Citizen 5 May 1910.

While the C.P.R. had been using the old Central Station for its transcontinental service since 1901, it was not happy with its access to downtown Ottawa. For starters, it had to use its competitor’s tracks and station for which the C.P.R. was forced to pay through the nose. Secondly, its trains coming to downtown Ottawa from points west had to take a long detour crossing the Prince of Wales Bridge located on the western outskirts of the city to the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, travel through Hull, and then retrace their journey across the river, this time over the Inter-Provincial Bridge (a.k.a. the Alexandra Bridge), to arrive at the Central Station. As well, trains travelling westward from Central Station had to reverse their way into the C.P.R.’s Union Station located on Broad Street in LeBreton Flats. This was considered dangerous.

To correct these deficiencies, the C.P.R. proposed a massive re-structuring of Ottawa’s transportation infrastructure. First, it announced its intention of acquiring from the Dominion government the bed of the Rideau Canal from the head of the “Deep Cut,” at roughly Waverely Street, to Sappers’ Bridge (approximately were the Plaza Bridge is today). The railway would dam and drain the Canal from that point and run a new track along its bed from a rail hook-up near Nicholas Street to a point roughly opposite the new G.T.R. Central Station. To keep the water in the blocked Canal from going stagnant, the C.P.R. proposed either a drain to the Rideau River or a drain to the locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel.

Second, the railway proposed running a double-track line from the downtown terminal through a tunnel fifty feet underground that would go from Sappers’ bridge under much of Wellington Street before coming out near the Aqueduct in LeBreton Flats. There, the new track would link up with the existing C.P.R. tracks and proceed into Union Station.

By using this new tunnel, trains could travel from Union Station in LeBreton Flats to downtown Ottawa in five minutes, lopping off as much as 25 minutes in time from their former circuitous route. The C.P.R.’s Montreal Express train could also start at Union Station and stop at the downtown station before heading east.

While the cost, estimated at roughly $1 million, was considerable, the railway would no longer have to pay the exorbitant charges for the use of its competitor’s tracks. As well, the shorter route would reduce costs, and by saving time offer a more attractive travel option for C.P.R. customers. Backing into Union Station would also be a thing of the past.

From the outset, the C.P.R. realized that the Achilles’ heel of its plan was its proposal to dam the Rideau Canal. It argued that the Canal would be little missed as only a comparatively modest amount of freight moved along its length, especially down the portion of the Canal from Dow’s Lake to Sappers’ Bridge. It contended that opposition to closing it was based on sentiment rather than economics.

To set against the loss of the Canal, railway executives argued that more efficient train access to the downtown core would benefit Ottawa residents and help to boost the tourist business. The new entrance into Ottawa would also improve the city’s position on transcontinental rail routes and would help make a reality the Capital’s ambition of becoming a major railway hub.

The idea met widespread opposition, especially from the mercantile and shipping companies that depended on the Rideau Canal. At a meeting of Ottawa’s Board of Trade sentiment was unanimous against any interference with the Canal. Communities located on the Canal south of Ottawa also objected strenuously. Kingston was particularly vocal in its opposition. Ottawa’s Evening Journal opined that the C.P.R. “ought to be ashamed of itself” for proposing the destruction of a national water route.

Some critics thought the C.P.R. was not really serious, and that the plan was  a stalking horse for another objective, presumably some sort of concession from the government. They noted that the C.P.R. would face the difficult task of obtaining approvals from the Ottawa City Council, the Railway Commission, and the Dominion government, possibly even from the Imperial government in London, since the Canal was built for military purposes by the Imperial government. An unnamed Militia official told the Evening Journal that the Rideau Canal formed a “most important portion of the military defence system of this country.” The same official opined that “any government trying to interfere with the defence works of Canada and the Empire to suit a railway…would drive them out of office.” He thought the proposal was “a bluff.” Of course, for many, the idea of the Rideau Canal still being considered as part of Canada’s defence system bordered on the ridiculous.

At a presentation to Ottawa City Council, Mr. D. McNicoll, the C.P.R.’s Vice-President and General Manager, was asked if the proposal was a “bluff.” He replied: “I’m willing to spend a million to show it isn’t.” He added that the C.P.R.’s president, Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, and the company’s Board of Directors had approved the plan and had appropriated the required funds. The only thing needed was the necessary approvals from the various levels of government.

Almost immediately, alternative plans were put forward that would avoid blocking the Rideau Canal. Mayor Hopewell came up with a daffy suggestion to build a 3,000-foot long curved bridge, with a pier on a small island in the middle of the Ottawa River, that would loop around Parliament Hill linking Victoria Island close to the Chaudière Falls in LeBreton Flats to a point near the locks of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa. The C.P.R. rubbished the idea arguing that the mayor’s proposal would cost triple the amount of the tunnel idea, the grade would be too great for its trains, and that it would not solve the problem of having to back into Union Station at LeBreton Flats. Another plan that was briefly considered was shifting the Rideau Canal twenty feet to the west from the Deep Cut to Central Station to allow for the construction of additional C.P.R. lines into Central Station.

An alternative that gained more traction was proposed by Mr N. Cauchon of the engineering firm Cauchon & Haycock who worked as a consultant to the C.P.R. To address the concerns of shippers while sticking with the C.P.R.’s proposal, Cauchon suggested digging a new canal from Dow’s Lake to the Ottawa River using the same route through Mechanicsville first proposed by British engineers in the 1820s. The new canal outlet would be situated above the Chaudière Falls and hence require a new set of locks to pass the rapids to be located where the timber slide was.

Cauchon envisaged linking the Rideau Canal system with the Georgian Bay Ship Canal then under consideration by the Dominion government.  The Georgian Bay Ship Canal was a massive construction project aimed at permitting ocean-going freighters to transport grain from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via a canal that linked Lake Huron with the St Lawrence River and from there the Atlantic Ocean via the French River, Lake Nipissing, the Mattawa River and the Ottawa River.

Ottawa City Council was receptive to the C.P.R.’s desire to have a new entrance to the Capital as long as the Rideau Canal was not blocked. Working with the Board of Trade, it commissioned two engineers to examine a variety of proposals from a citywide perspective. The engineers endorsed Cauchon’s plan of a cross-town tunnel combined with re-routing the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River at Dow’s Lake. However, they proposed that both the C.P.R. and the G.T.R. use the tunnel to Central Station. They also recommended that the City buy and pull up the cross-city G.T.R. tracks that ran along Isabella Street and hindered Ottawa’s growth to the south. In their place, they advised the City to build a scenic boulevard and resell the adjoining land for development or parks. As well, they recommended that the new portion of the Rideau Canal through Mechanicsville and Hintonburg should be deep enough to accommodate the ocean-going vessels using the Georgian Bay Ship Canal with appropriate harbour and port facilities constructed at the juncture of the diverted Canal and the Ottawa River. They also thought that a large factory site could be constructed for manufacturing industries alongside the Mechanicsville waterfront on the Ottawa River heading westward.  As for the old locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel, one suggestion was to re-purpose them as public swimming baths. Mayor Hopewell thought that a series of small cascades over each lock gate would look very pretty lit up at night.

The engineers’ proposal was predicated on the Georgian Bay Ship Canal being completed within five to six years. The engineers also hoped that the Dominion Government could be persuaded to contribute the funds needed to construct the diverted Rideau Canal since the estimated cost only represented an additional 1-2 per cent of the $125 million price tag for the Georgian Bay Ship Canal.

In April 1911, roughly eleven months after the C.P.R. had announced its plan for a tunnel, Ottawa City Council endorsed the engineers’ report with the recommendation that the City begin negotiations with the G.T.R. over acquiring its cross-city tracks. However, many remained sceptical. One member of Council thought that people were “insane” if they believed that C.P.R. would build a tunnel under Wellington Street within 25 years.

How right the councillor was! Problems immediately arose. First, the G.T.R. refused to sell its cross-city tracks to the City. Second, the Dominion government, at best lukewarm to the City’s grand design, was not willing to pay for diverting the Rideau Canal or to closing it at the Deep Cut. Third, plans to build the Georgian Bay Ship Canal fizzled after Laurier’s Liberal Party was defeated in the 1911 General Election. They were later abandoned, a victim of cost considerations and changing government priorities.

With the proposal to divert the Rideau Canal a non-starter, a modified plan involving narrowing it from the Deep Cut to Sappers’ Bridge to provide space for the C.P.R. tracks to come into downtown Ottawa briefly gave the tunnel proposal new life. As an adjunct to this modified proposal, the C.P.R. planned to locate its downtown station on Canal Street to the south of Sappers’ Bridge on the western side of the Canal across the Canal from the G.T.R. station; rumour had it on the site of the Russell Hotel.

Although the C.P.R. evinced its willingness to start construction as soon as the municipal and Dominion governments gave their approval, the railway seemed to lose interest despite Vice President McNicoll repeatedly saying that the plan was “not dead, but sleeping.” However, by 1913, the tunnel proposal was abandoned.

Ultimately, the C.P.R. negotiated a new deal with the G.T.R. to use the new downtown Central Station which in 1920 was renamed Union Station following the closure of the old Union Station in LeBreton Flats. The G.T.R.’s cross-city tracks (now owed by its successor company, the Canadian National Railway) were finally pulled up during the 1950s. Instead of becoming a scenic boulevard, the site of the old tracks became the location of a cross-city highway—the Queensway. While the Georgian Bay Ship Canal never got off of the drawing board, the St Lawrence Seaway, which allowed ocean-going ships to go from the Great Lakes to Montreal and beyond, was opened in 1959.

As a final sidebar to this story, on 4 May 2018, virtually 108 years to the day from when news of the C.P.R.’s intention to build a cross-town train tunnel became public, city officials, politicians, and company representatives converged on the eastern end of the LRT to drive in a ceremonial “last spike” in the Confederation Line’s tunnel under the city of Ottawa. Similar to its proposed early twentieth century counterpart, the tunnel is roughly 50 feet underground, and runs from a location near Ottawa University to LeBreton Flats. Instead of following the C.P.R.’s route below Wellington Street, it is located two blocks further south under Queen Street.


CBC, 2018. “There was no last spike, but the Confederation Line track is finished,” 4 May, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/lrt-tunnel-track-finished-1.4649177.

Churcher, Colin, 2018, The Railways of Ottawa, https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/findings.htm#CCRUnion.

Evening Journal, 1910. “C.P.R. Want To Build A Tunnel Under The City,” 6 May.

——————–, 1910. “Will Consider Other Scheme,” 10 May.

——————–, 1910. “Mr. M’Nicoll Explains C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme,” 8 June.

——————–, 1910. “Board Of Trade Is Opposed To Tunnel,” 17 June.

——————-, 1910. “Mayor’s Plan Went Further,” 8 July.

——————-, 1910. “Proposed Diversion Of The Canal By Way Of Dow’s Lake And The Chaudiere,” 16 July.

——————, 1910. “New Scheme For A C.P.R. Entrance To The City,” 8 December.

——————, 1911. “Experts’ Report Railway Entrance,” 3 April.

——————, 1911. “Mr. Tye’s Solution Ottawa’s Problem,” 4 April.

——————, 1911. “How Engineer Tye Would Solve Ottawa’s Problem Of The Railways,” 4 April.

——————, 1911. “Government Should Pay,” 5 April.

——————, 1911. “Approved The Entrance Plan.” 8 April.

——————, 1911. “Abandon Moving Canal: New City Entrance Plan,” 19 August.

——————, 1911. “Approves Of Tunnel,” 22 August.

——————, 1912. “States C.P.R. Scheme Is Certainty Say V-P M’Nicoll, 25 July.

——————-, 1913, “Revivies Tunnel Scheme,” 21 March.

——————-, 1913. “Is C.P.R. To Abandon Its Tunnel Scheme Now?” 24 April.

——————-, 1913. “C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme Is Temporarily Abandoned,” 18 June.

——————-, 1913. “C.P.R. Finally Abandons Scheme For Local Tunnel,” 9 September.

Griffiths, John, 2007. “Broad Street Station in Ottawa,” Branchline, http://www.bytownrailwaysociety.ca/phocadownload/branchline/2007/2007-06.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen, 1910. “Gigantic Project of C.P.R. — New Railway Entrance And Underground Line Through The City,” 5 May.

—————–, 1910. “The C.P.R. Entrance,” 13 May.

—————–, 1910. “C.P.R. Entrance,” 31 May.

—————–, 1910. “Plan Not Suitable,” 2 June.

—————–, 1910. “C.P.R. Asks City To Approve Plans New Railway Entrance,” 8 June.

—————–, 1910. “See Ocean-Going Ships In Ottawa Adjunct Of C.P.R. Tunnel Scheme, 15 September.

—————-, 1910. “Ask Outside Engineer To Report On Feasibility Of C.P.R. Tunnel,” 22 October.

——————, 1911. Engineers’ Report On Railway Entrance Embraces C.P.R. Canal Closing Plan, 3 April.

—————–, 1911. “Minister Favors Joining Canals,” 7 April.

—————–, 1912. “Tunnel May Be Held Up,” 28 May.

OTrain, Confederation Line, 2018, https://www.ligneconfederationline.ca/the-build/pimisi/overview/.

The Victoria Memorial Museum

10 May 1901

At the end of Metcalfe Street between McLeod and Argyle Streets can be found the Canadian Museum of Nature, housed in a magnificent baronial building with beautiful stained glass windows. Constructed over a several-year period during the first decade of the twentieth century, the edifice’s official name is the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, in commemoration of Queen Victoria who died in January 1901. Within weeks of her death, the government chose to honour her reign by the construction of a museum.

Victoria Tower post card
Post Card of The Victoria Memorial Museum, before 1915, Valentine & Sons’ Publishing C. Ltd, London, Toronto Public Library.

On 10 May, 1901, a sum of $50,000 appeared in the supplementary estimates for the 1901-1902 fiscal year for the commencement of work on the Victoria Memorial Museum. After considerable debate, the appropriation was approved by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, though the Conservative opposition complained about the lack of a definitive plan for the building.  The government was also uncertain of its location. It favoured siting the building at Major’s Hill Park, with a bridge across the Rideau Canal connecting the Park to Parliament Hill, roughly where the Château Laurier Hotel is situated today. However, others thought Nepean Point might be a good location. Still others objected to both locations arguing that the land should be conserved for parklands. They preferred a location somewhere in the south of the city. Mr. Joseph Tarte, the Minister of Public Works, assured the House that no work would commence until he and his colleagues were convinced they had found the best design and the best site for the new building. To that end, he had sent David Ewart, the Chief Dominion Architect, to Europe to look into museum designs.

The site finally selected for the new museum was a property owned by the Stewart family a mile due south of Parliament Hill. Located there was a stone building called Appin Place surrounded by fields and gardens. Appin Place was a homestead that dated back to 1856, though actual construction of the house was delayed until 1862 owing to the death of the property’s owner, William Stewart, who had been the Member of Parliament for Bytown in the Province of Canada legislature. Appin Place, whose paddock was sometimes used as a cricket pitch, was a well-known landmark. It was surrounded by a massive cedar hedge that was noted for its beauty. The hedge had been transplanted from a nearby swamp during the 1840s. The house itself was built on the highest point of land in “Stewarton” in a direct line and level with the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Appin Place was reportedly where Lord Dufferin had presented the colours to the Governor General’s Foot Guards in 1874. The government acquired the land for $73,500 at a sheriff’s sale in 1903 or early 1904.

The museum was designed by David Ewart, and built by George Goodwin of Ottawa. Goodwin had won the contract for building the museum with his bid of $950,000, excluding the cost of the electrical work, heating and furnishings. His was the lowest of four bids on the government contract. He would later come to rue winning the contract. The total cost of the building came to roughly $1,250,000, equivalent to more than $27 million in today’s money. Goodwin had previously worked on other public works projects, including the construction of the Trent Valley and Soulonges Canals.  The new museum measured 430 feet by 169 feet with a tower 97 feet high. Its walls were built using Scottish work masonry in Nepean brown stone, with trimmings in Nova Scotia red stone. Credit Valley stone was also used. The four-story building was fire-proof with its floors made of porous terra cotta covered with concrete. Wooden sleepers were set into the concrete to which wooden floors were fastened. The walls of the basement were lined with enamelled brick.

Demolition of the old stone Appin Place took only three days in mid-April 1905. Work on the foundation of the new museum commenced almost immediately. The structure was scheduled to take four years to build. But problems, disputes, and tragedy dogged the construction which took longer than expected. Goodwin wanted to substitute stone quarried in Ohio for the Nova Scotia stone, but was overruled by government; the contract called for Canadian stone throughout. In 1908, a labourer fell to his death while working on the building. He apparently lost his footing when he was 70 feet up on the girders. While he survived the fall, he sustained grievous injuries and died at St. Luke’s Hospital. By 1911, six stone cutters who had worked on the building had died from “stone cutters’ lung disease”—an illness, now called silicosis, caused by the inhalation of dust—that causes shortness of breath, cough, bluish skin, and ultimately death.

The name and organization of the new museum also proved to be controversial. A delegation of Ottawa’s finest, including Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper (the partners who owned Ottawa’s electrical company and electric railway), J.R. Booth, the timber baron, and Erskine Henry Bronson, after whom Bronson Avenue was later named, appealed to the Prime Minister. They wanted the new museum to be called the National Museum of Canada, reporting to a special government commission comparable to the British Museum in London and the National Museum in Washington D.C. Laurier promised to consult his Cabinet. The appeal failed.

Victoria Memorial Museum without tower LAC PA-48179
The Victoria Memorial Museum Without its Tower, Library and Archives Canada, PA-48179.

As the building was finally nearing completion in early 1911, cracks began to appear in the front tower owing to settling. A slight separation was also noted between the tower and the main building. The Ottawa Evening Journal ominously noted that the contractor, George Goodwin, was the builder of the Laurier Tower, an addition to the West Block on Parliament Hill erected a few years earlier that had subsequently collapsed. Government engineers initially thought that the cracks in the museum would soon be remedied. However, they proved to be wrong. By late 1911, cracks had appeared on both sides of the entrance rotunda. Some were as much as five inches across. The cracks were plastered over several times, only to reappear. In late 1913, the Department of Public Works denied that it was considering dismantling the tower. However, by the summer of 1915, it became obvious something had to be done to ensure public safety. There was even talk of tearing down the entire building. In the end, engineers decided that while the building could be saved, the tower had to come down. It was simply too heavy to be supported by the foundation which rested on unstable clay. Goodwin, the builder, who reportedly lost a fortune on the building, died later that same year. It is said that he had tried to warn the government about problems with the building’s specifications but his concerns had been brushed aside.

Victoria Memorial Museum inside, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada LAC-065507
Inside of the Victoria Memorial Museum, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada/Library and Archives Canada, C-065507.

Despite worries about its solidity, staff moved into the Victoria Memorial Museum in 1911 in order to get ready the many artifacts in the government collection. This included the Geological Survey’s collection of Canadian ores and minerals, fossils, stuffed mammals and birds, insects, as well as First Nations’ handicrafts, phonographic records of songs of indigenous peoples, as well as antiquities and other objects of scientific value. The National Gallery of Canada, with its over four hundred paintings, sketches, etchings and sculptures, also moved into the Museum. In 1913, the Museum acquired a complete skeleton of a “duck-billed” dinosaur, of the family Trachodonatae, discovered in the Red River Valley of Alberta. According to the Ottawa Evening Journal, the fossil was three million years old. Today, this animal is known as a hadrosaur, the old name of Trachodon no longer being used. The fossil, which can still be seen at the Museum of Nature, is actually about 65 million years old.

When the museum first opened its doors to the general public is a bit murky. The National Gallery of Canada located in the Museum building opened in mid-May 1912, from 9 am – 5 pm Monday to Saturday. It is probable that the Geological Survey’s collection opened at the same time. Admission was free. Owing to the great popularity of the museum, opening hours were subsequently extended to Sunday afternoons despite opposition from some clergy.

When the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was gutted by fire in early 1916, the Victoria Memorial Museum was quickly fitted out as the temporary home of the Senate and House of Commons. The House of Commons was located in the lecture hall while the Senate was housed in the hall previously devoted to fossils and extinct animals, a fact that caused great hilarity. Some wags noted that little had changed. Parliament met at the museum until 1920. The previous year, the body of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had laid in state in the temporary House of Commons chamber.

Victoria Memorial Museum today Google
Museum of Nature, Victoria Memorial Museum Building, 2017, Google Street View.

Over its life of more than 100 years, the Victoria Memorial Museum building has undergone two major renovations. During the early 1970s, it was closed to allow for workmen to stabilize the building which was still sinking into the Ottawa clay that lay beneath it. In 2010, a major building renewal and renovation took place. A 65-foot glass tower was installed in the same location as the old tower that was torn down in 1915. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth in 2010 and is called the “Queen’s Lantern.”


Canadian Museum of Nature, 2018. Historical Timeline, https://nature.ca/en/about-us/history-buildings/historical-timeline.

Globe, 1912, “The National Art Gallery of Canada,” 4 May.

—————————–, 1915. “”Contractor Goodwin Dead,” 1 December.

—————————–, 1916. “Tempoarary House of Parliament,” 5 February.

Globe and Mail,” 2006. “New life for old bones,” 21 October.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1904. “Commons And Ottawa Items,” 25 March.

————————–, 1904. “To Build Royal Victoria Museum,” 27 September.

————————–, 1905. “Number One Hard Wheat Threated by the States,” 10 February.

————————–, 1905. “Appin Place, Historic House, Will Disappear,” 4 March.

————————–, 1905. “Stewart Homestead A thing Of The Past,” 17 April.

————————–, 1906. “He Must Use The Canadian,” 2 May.

————————–, 1908. “Fatal Fall From Victoria Museum,” 16 June.

————————–, 1910. “Deputation on Change of Name,” 8 December.

————————–, 1911. “One Million And A Quarter Dollars of Estimates Passed,” 24 March.

————————-, 1911. “Cracks In Museum Wall Is Not Growing Larger,”21 April.

————————-, 1911. “Five Stone Workers Dead,” 8 May.

————————-, 1912. “Art Gallery To Open On Saturday,” 14 May.

————————-, 1913. “Dinossaur (sic) Is Secured For Museum,” 4 January.

————————-, 1913. “Museum Tower,” 2 October.

————————-, 1915. “Sealed Tenders for Partial Removal Of Tower,” 11 August.

————————-, 1915. “Contractor For Museum Warned Minister Plans Would Not Suit,” 12 August.

————————-, 1914. “Fine Skeleton Of Dinosaur At Victoria Museum,” 12 September.

The Return of Halley’s Comet

18 May 1910

Years before the return of Halley’s Comet, astronomers around the world including at the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm began to prepare for its arrival. The comet was scheduled to return in the spring of 1910, seventy-five years after its previous brush with Earth in 1835. Unlike that earlier year, astronomers now had the instruments to track, conduct spectroscopic research, and photograph this celestial visitor. Beyond knowing that its trajectory would take the comet between the Earth and the Sun, a scant 14 million miles from our planet, they were largely ignorant about it. Experts estimated that the head of the comet was as big as 42 Earths with a tail 62 million miles long and 600,000 miles wide. So close was it to come, astronomers expected that the Earth would pass through the comet’s tail. This was enough to send a frisson of alarm through the general public. Doom-laden views of certain observers, combined with long-standing superstitions that comets were portents of disaster, meant that there was a genuine fear that the end of the world was nigh.

Halley's Comet Yerkes, 29-5-1910 Prof Edward Barnard NYT 3-7-10
Halley’s Comet 29 May 1910, taken by Professor Edward Barnard, Yerkes Observatory, appearing in New York Times, 3 July 1910.

Newspaper coverage was also unhelpful. Although the vast majority of astronomers viewed the return of Halley’s Comet with delight, seeing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view close-up a celestial event of remarkable beauty, considerable column inches were given over to the apocalyptical views of the few. This was an early example of seemingly balanced coverage providing a decidedly unbalanced view of what was likely to transpire. Of course, articles portending disaster sold papers, a phenomenon noted by the Ottawa Evening Citizen. In a swipe of its competitors, most likely the Ottawa Evening Journal, the Citizen remarked after the Comet’s safe passage “There was no collision, as the superstitious and the ignorant feared, and, if truth must be told, some newspapers unfortunately traded in those fears by more or less veiled stories and hints.”

Halley’s Comet was named after Edmond Halley, an English astronomer and friend of Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first to describe the periodic nature of the comet in 1705, and predicted its return in 1758. Sadly, Halley, who died in 1742, was not alive to witness the event. However, the return of his comet, visible to the naked eye on Christmas Day 1758, immortalized him. Looking at historical records from China, historians have dated the first known recorded appearance of Halley’s Comet to 240BC.

We now know Halley’s Comet has a peanut-shaped nucleus roughly 15 kilometres long with a diameter of 8 kilometres, considerably smaller than the late 19th century estimates. Nonetheless, a collision with Earth would have been disastrous. The Chicxulub asteroid that likely led to the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago is believed to have been smaller. Halley’s Comet, a remnant from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, consists of dust, rock and ice. Its tail is made up of dust and sublimated gases that spew off as it approaches the Sun. The comet spends much of its time in the Kuiper Belt that circles the Solar System.

By 1909, the world’s telescopes were trained to the western sky shortly after sunset to watch for the comet’s return. When it was first spotted by telescope is a bit murky. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa received a telegram that a German astronomer had seen Halley’s Comet as early as mid-September 1909. The first Canadian spotting apparently occurred mid-January 1910 in British Columbia. At this point, the comet was hurtling towards the Sun reaching its perihelion (closest approach) on 20 April before commencing its return to the outer Solar System, but not before brushing close to the Earth. It was not yet visible to the naked eye.

With the return of Halley Comet, many newspapers, including the Ottawa Evening Journal, ran articles linking previous appearances of the comet to wars, plagues and other disasters of the past. One story managed to ascribe the biblical Deluge, dated to 2349 BC, to the comet as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1900 BC. Other world-changing events linked to the comet included the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the sack of Rome by Attila the Hun in 451 AD, the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the War of the Roses in 1456, and Wolfe’s Conquest of New France in 1759. For 1910, the article noted the return of the comet coincided with threatened war in the Balkans and labour unrest and socialist demonstrations in America and Europe. Coincidentally, King Edward VII died on May 6th, another apparent “victim” of the comet.

Halley' Comet Fight 13-4-10 OEJ
Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 13 April, 1910.

Halley’s Comet’s appearance in the night sky allowed astronomers to use state-of-the art equipment to photograph it and to conduct spectroscopic analyses. In February 1910, the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin announced the discovery of cyanogen gas, a chemical compound related to cyanide, in the comet’s tail. This stoked comet fears to new heights, especially when a French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, opined that all of the earth’s inhabitants would suffocate owing to the gas when the earth passed through the comet’s tail. He reportedly added that if there was also a “diminution of nitrogen and an excess of oxygen,” “the human race would perish in a paroxysm of joy and delirium, probably delighted at their fate.”  Professor Pickering of Harvard University suggested that Flammarion could be right. “The consequences of a collision of the earth with the comet’s tail may mean destruction to us,” he said. Another French astronomer, M. Deslandres of the Paris Observatory thought that the comet’s tail crossing the Earth’s atmosphere would led to an incalculable number of X-rays that would cause the water vapour in the atmosphere to condense leading to rains not “seen since the days of Noah’s great deluge.”

These were minority views within the astronomical profession. The famed American astronomer, Percy Lowell, said “Nothing can occur to the earth in consequence of its passing through the tail of the comet. The consistency of the tail is probably less than any vacuum procurable on earth.” (Mind you, Lowell also spotted “canals” on Mars that supposedly were a desperate attempt by Martians to tap water at the dying planet’s poles.) A similar sanguine view was expressed by Sir Robert Ball of Cambridge University. A Columbia University professor argued “the Maker of the universe” would not allow any harm to come to “the home of the highest form of life that He has fashioned.” Astronomers at the Dominion Observatory patiently addressed the questions of concerned Ottawa citizens. They also lectured at the Y.M.C.A. and other locales about the harmlessness of the comet’s return. At St Mathias Church, Dominion astronomer John Plaskett in a lecture titled “Wonders of Creation” rejected Flammarion’s thesis, echoing Lowell and Ball that there was no danger from the cyanogen gas as it was too rarefied to have any impact.

Halley's Comet Mary Proctor, San Fran Sunday Call
Mary Proctor, astronomer and author, member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1862-1957, San Francisco Sunday Call. University of California, Riverside.

One of the most reasoned, scientific assessments of the return of Halley’s Comet that appeared in the popular North American press was by a respected amateur astronomer, Mary Proctor. In an October 1909 Ottawa Journal article, Proctor said that “the fulfillment of the [Halley’s] prediction may be awaited serenely.” She added “Woe betide it, however, should it come too near to Jupiter, which has the reputation of being the greatest comet capturer of the skies.” (In 1994, this prophetic comment was captured on film when astronomers observed the tidal forces of Jupiter pulling apart the Shoemaker-Levy comet, causing it to plunge into the planet.) Later, after Flammarion’s dire prediction of the end of all life, she reiterated her views even more forcefully, adding “Astronomers are being suspected as conspiring together to keep the uninitiated in ignorance of the true fate awaiting our planet.” Instead of believing in conspiracy theories, she urged people to enjoy the comet’s approach, and “experience a spectacular display of cometary glory.”

After been lost in the light of the Sun for a couple of weeks, Halley’s Comet reappeared in the morning sky shortly before dawn in mid-April, 1910. Its reappearance was noted by Mr Robert Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory on 13 April using the observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope. Owing to intense sunlight, it was not visible to the naked eye, and wouldn’t be for some days. Motherwell discredited reports from around Canada that the comet had been spoted. He ascribed such sightings to confusion with Venus.

Halley's Comet OEJ 16-4-1910
Illustration for serial on a comet striking the Earth, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 16 April 1910.

The Journal took this opportunity to run a fanciful serialized story that had initially appeared in the Aldine Magazine of New York in the 1870s about a fictitious collision of Plantamour Comet with the Earth. In the story, the collision split the Earth into three pieces, with Asia completely vapourized, leaving America the only habitable part of the globe. When the clouds finally lifted, there were two new moons in the sky—Europa and Africa—that had split away from the Earth complete with their own seas and atmosphere. Now separated forever, the remaining people of America could only communicate with the survivors of Europa and Africa by using ten-foot high letters made of tin.

Halley’s Comet became visible to the naked eye in Ottawa early in the morning of 29 April 1910, when it was spotted by Mr Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory. It was visible in the eastern sky at a declination of eight degrees north of the equator. While the two Ottawa newspapers agreed on the sighting, they agreed on little else. The Journal reported that Motherwell got only a partial view of the comet at shortly after 3am in a break in the clouds that lasted just sixty seconds. The Citizen reported that the comet was located by Motherwell at about 4.20am and that the astronomer had a good view for about 30 minutes before the Sun became too bright. By early May, the comet was visible to all who got up early enough. It was to be seen low on the horizon with its tail pointing nearly upwards.

With the comet visibly bearing down on the Earth, the focus of attention shifted to what might happen when the Earth moved through the Comet’s tail, scheduled to occur sometime around May 20th. In preparation for the event, it was reported that restaurants in New York and Paris were hosting comet parties. Recalling Flammarion’s dire prediction, one enterprising restauranteur advertised that pure oxygen would be blown into the dining room to counteract the effects of cyanogen gas. More seriously, Dr Koltz at the Dominion Observatory said that it would take several hours for the Earth to pass through the tail. He rejected any concerns that this transit would have on the Earth, though there may be some magnetic effects. He warned of the possibility that telephone and telegraph service might be adversely affected. Dr King, the chief of the Dominion Observatory, thought there might be a “sort of aurora borealis, but nothing outside of that.” Parliament Hill was deemed a good vantage point to see the comet at its best.

Halley's Coment OEJ 19-5-10
Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 19 May 1910

In the event, both the Ottawa Evening Journal and the Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Ottawa was in the comet’s tail for several hours during the night of May 18th. As expected, the Earth’s passage through the tail was uneventful. There was no cyanogen gas, and there was no deluge of biblical proportions, though cloudy skies and rain made comet watching in Ottawa difficult. Telecommunications were unaffected. Dr Kloz said that instruments at the Dominion Observatory detected some slight magnetic effects, but that was all. Newspaper accounts again differed on whether the comet sparked a viewing of the Northern Lights. According to the Journal, shortly after midnight the clouds broke and there was “a magnificent display of the Aurora” that spread across the “entire dome of heaven” before disappearing again as the clouds returned. The newspaper added that the aurora was most brilliant in Toronto and contained “all the colours of the rainbow.” Contrarily, the Citizen reported that “there was none of the auroral effects some had predicted.” There was also no mention of an aurora borealis in Toronto’s Globe newspaper.

Halley’s Comet got progressively fainter during the following days as it continued its journey back out the Kuiper Belt. It returned to the inner Solar System in 1986. This time, however, the comet’s reappearance was unremarkable as it and the Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun when it occurred. For those who missed Halley’s Comet, you’re next opportunity will be July 2061. The showing is expected to be better this time.


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————————————, 1910.  “Halley’s Comet Is Located By Dominion Observatory,” 13 April.

————————————, 1910. “The Earth Takes Its Bath In the Comets Tail Tonight,” 18 May.

———————————–, 1910. “Ottawa Thro’ Comet’s Tail From 8.30 Last Night to 12.30,” 19 May.

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————————————-, 1909. “More About Halley’s Comet,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1909. “Astronomers Preparing For The Return of Halley’s Comet,” 30 April.

————————————, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Said To Be Full Of Cyanogen Gas,” 8 February.

————————————, 1910. “Gas From Halley’s Comet Could Not Affect Earth,” 10 February.

————————————, 1910. “Lectures on Halley’s Comet,” 18 February.

————————————, 1910. “Ottawa and District Will Soon See Halley’s Comet, 14 March.

————————————, 1910. “Harmlessness of Halley’s Comet,” 21 March.

————————————, 1910. “It’s Mighty Little Wisest Men Know About Comets,” 2 April.

————————————, 1910. “Must be Pretty Scrappy Stuff in Halley’ Comet,” 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Was Seen At the Observatory This Morning, 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “When the Comet Struck,” by W. T. Alden, 14 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Seen One Minute,” 29 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet History, And Why Halley’s Is Harmless,” by Mary Proctor, 14 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Night Preparations,” 17 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Passes Very Quietly,” 19 May.

Simon, Kevin, 2015. Fantastically Wrong: That Time People Thought A Comet Would Gas Us All To Death, https://www.wired.com/2015/01/fantastically-wrong-halleys-comet/.