Britannia-on-the-Bay

24 May 1900

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the big new invention that was transforming peoples’ lives. Within a short span of years, electric lights replaced gas lamps in homes, in businesses and on city streets in the major cities of North America. Horse-drawn public transportation was also retired in favour of electric streetcars, also known as trolleys. But while the fast and comfortable trolleys were very popular on weekdays and on Saturday mornings transporting commuters from the suburbs to downtown offices, streetcar companies found their vehicles underused on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. What to do? The answer was to increase weekend ridership by giving people someplace to go and something to do on their time off.  Spurred by the success of Coney Island in New York City, transit companies in many major North American cities built amusement parks, colloquially known as “electric parks.” Constructed at the end of a streetcar line, these parks attracted thousands of working class men, women and children seeking weekend fun and excitement. Of course, people had to buy a streetcar ticket to get there; the days of the automobile were still in the future.

Ottawa-Hull was no exception to these trends. Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper introduced the electric streetcar to the nation’s capital in 1891. Four years later, their Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OERC) opened the West End Park on Holland Avenue in Hintonberg, which was then on the outskirts of the city. Later known as Victoria Park, following the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, the park was the home to many rides and musical entertainments. The West End Park was the location of the showing of the first motion pictures in Ottawa in 1896. Across the Ottawa River two miles west of Alymer, the Hull-Alymer Electric Railway Company opened “Queen’s Park,” in May 1897, again named in honour of Queen Victoria, at the western terminus of its line. Among the attractions at this park, located on Lac Deschênes (a widening in the Ottawa River rather than an actual lake), were a merry-go-round, a water chute and a “mystic maze.”

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People boarding the OERC trolley, Britannia-on-the-Bay, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016974.

To compete with the Queen’s Park development in Quebec, the OERC acquired eighteen acres of land in the little summer cottage community of Britannia Village to the west of Ottawa. There, it established in 1900 an amusement park, with swimming and boating facilities on the Ontario side of Lac Deschênes, with a purpose-built tramline linking the new park to downtown Ottawa. Appropriately, it was called the Britannia line. Thomas Ahearn gave journalists a sneak preview of the new line in mid-January 1900. Although the rails had been laid all the way to Britannia Village, at that date the electric lines only went as far as Richmond Road. But the tramline was completed in time for its official opening at 6am on the Queen’s Birthday holiday on 24 May 1900. From the post office at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets to Britannia-on-the-Bay tram stop took just twenty-eight minutes, much of which was through the city. The trip from Holland Avenue, the previous end of the line, to Britannia-on-the Bay, with stops at Westboro, Barry’s Wharf and Baker’s Bush, took only eight minutes. The cost for the trip from downtown was initially set at 10 cents—the usual 5 cent fare plus another five cents to travel on the newly completed Britannia line. The five-cent supplement was later dropped.

In and of itself, the trip to Britannia-on-the-Bay was an exciting adventure for Ottawa citizens at the dawn of the twentieth century. Carried in specially-made carriages, trolley goers were taken along rails that ran close to the south side of Richmond Road except for the last mile or so where they crossed Richmond Road to head into Britannia. After leaving the city, which essentially ended at Preston Street, people journeyed through fields of grain and cow pastures, past fine homes and shoreline cottages before reaching their destination. A journalist on the initial January test run said there was a number of long grades with several sharp turns that give the route “a rolling appearance” which will “add zest,” since “pleasure-seeking humanity likes a spice of danger with its bit of fun.” He added that between Hintonburg and Britannia, there were a number of lovely spots.

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The footbridge over the CPR tracks at Britannia Park, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016975.

On reaching Britannia-on-the-Bay, riders crossed to the park, its beach and a long pier via a high footbridge, built at a cost of $1,500 by the OERC, which went over the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) tracks that ran north of the tramline. The footbridge allowed visitors to the park to avoid any danger of being hit by passing trains. On the other side were picnic gardens, concession stands as well as bathing and boating facilities on a thirty-foot wide pier that extended 1,050 feet into Lac Deschênes. The pier was built of wood with a stone base, using material excavated by the Metropolitan Power Company in an earlier failed attempt to build a canal and hydroelectric generating station at Britannia. Lit by electric lights at night, the pier was furnished with seating that ran along its length, perfect for visitors to sit and enjoy the sights, listen to band concerts, and to watch the promenading crowds. At the end of the pier was a perpendicular, two hundred foot long breakwater that protected moorings for boats. At the land end, two octagonal pavilions were erected at a cost of $2,500, housing a restaurant, changing rooms and bathrooms, a ladies’ parlour and sitting rooms.

The weather on opening day was bright and fine, attracting thousands of Ottawa picnickers to try out the OERC’s new park and pier at Britannia. Although the pavilions were not quite completed, they “were temporarily fitted up for use” for the estimated crowd of 12,000-15,000 visitors. The band of the 43rd Battalion gave a concert in the afternoon and evening to the multitudes. When darkness fell, the park was brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. Ten large arc lights lit up the pier.

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Britannia Pier, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016976.

The new Britannia Park was a big success, and over the next several years was considerably improved and expanded. With the new waterside park eclipsing the old Victoria Park on Holland Avenue, the OERC cannibalized the latter’s attractions, moving its merry-go-round and auditorium to Britannia. In 1904, the OERC increased the size of the park by buying the 35-acre Mosgrove property close to Carling Avenue. It also extended the pier by four hundred feet, at the end of which a three-story boat house was erected that became the Britannia Boating Club’s clubhouse. In addition to rooms for members and a lower storage area for boats and canoes, which were available for rent by visitors, the clubhouse had a large ballroom and grandstand for spectators. At night, a searchlight on top of the building played over the darkened waters of Lac Deschênes. Other attractions at Britannia Park included excursions on the double-decker, side-wheeler, steamer G.B. Greene, the “Queen” of the Ottawa River which took tourists upstream to Chats Falls two or three times a week. Through the summer, holidaymakers were entertained by the festivities and music of “Venetian Nights.”

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Britannia Boating Clubhouse, c. 1907, William James Topley, Library & Archives Canada, PA-009028.

Britannia Park enjoyed its peak of popularity before World War I. Then things started to sour. In 1916, the G.B. Greene burnt. Though it was rebuilt, with Canada at war sightseeing wasn’t as popular as in the past. The steamer ended up towing logs and was dismantled in 1946. In August 1918, the Clubhouse at the end of the pier was consumed by flames. Some two hundred canoes and boats, along with the personal effects of members as well as trophies, furnishings and other valuables were lost. Although the cause of the $50,000 fire was never accurately determined, it was believed that a lighted cigarette carelessly thrown into the window of a bathroom was to blame.

Through the 1920s, amusement parks everywhere began to lose their allure. With more and more families owning their own automobile, people had the luxury of exploring other entertainment options. No longer were they limited to where the trolley could take them. Queen’s Park outside of Aylmer closed. Britannia limped on. The Park’s Lakeside Gardens Pavilion still managed to pull in the crowds for dances through the 1930s. Sunday band concerts also remained popular. In the early 1930s, the OERC began promoting the Park as a great place for parents to send their children. For youngsters under 51 inches tall, (i.e. roughly 8 years old or less) the trolley company advertised that they could travel to Britannia for only 6 4/7 cents, total fare, if they purchased a book of seven tickets for 25 cents plus an additional 3 cent fare for the Britannia line. Under its policy of “Safety First,” the trolley company said that special attention and care would be given to children by its car men. “It is therefore possible to send children to Britannia-on-the-Bay with the assurance that they will be safe while going, while at the beach and while returning.” Clearly this was a different time with a different level of care expected of parents. Few today would consider sending young children to swim at a public beach on city transit without formal supervision.

By the late 1940s, Britannia Park and Britannia beach were becoming shabby from years of use and limited maintenance. Transit consultants advised the financially weak OERC to close the park. In 1948, the Ottawa Transport Commission, which was owned by the City of Ottawa, took over the transit company, including its Britannia property. Concerned that the park was continuing to deteriorate, the City decided in 1951 to operate it directly. Some improvements were made, including the building of a children’s miniature railway at the park. However, more grandiose plans that include a zoo, stock-car racing and two artificial pools never left the drawing board. Park infrastructure continued to rot. Meanwhile, the beach was becoming fouled by weeds and pollution. By 1954, what had been one of Canada’s top tourist attractions was now considered “Canada’s worst.” That year, the footbridge over the CPR tracks was demolished. (The trains themselves continued to go through the Park until they were re-located out of downtown Ottawa in 1966.) In 1955, the aging Lakeside Gardens burnt to the ground.

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Defunct Trolley Station, Britannia Park, 2015.

New investments were finally made into the park in 1958. The rotting wooden pier, now deemed unsafe, was demolished. The stone base of the original 1,050 foot pier built in 1900 was widened and the beach expanded. Lakeside Gardens was also rebuilt for dances. With these changes, the Park experienced a brief renaissance. However, it was not to last, doomed by changing tastes, and for Lakeside Gardens, the lack of a liquor licence. The beach was also increasingly shunned owing to a persistent weed problem. City efforts to control the weeds using bulldozers, chemicals and tons of rock salt proved fruitless. (This was a time before much consideration was given to the environment.) In any event, pollution closed the beach for extended periods. During the 1960s and 1970s, Britannia Park was threatened by a planned extension of the Ottawa River Parkway (today’s Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway) through the Park using the old CPR right-of-way, now turned into a bike path, as well as the construction of the Deschênes Bridge that would have link Alymer to Ottawa. Both ideas were finally scuppered by opposition from area residents and changing government priorities.

Today, Britannia Village, annexed by Ottawa in 1950, is no longer a remote summer cottage community. Businesses and housing have long filled the open space between the old City of Ottawa and Britannia and beyond. The streetcars that once linked it to downtown are gone; the last trolley to Britannia-on-the-Bay rode into history in 1959. But the magnificent park and beach endure. Owing to the marked improvement to the water quality of the Ottawa River due to the closure of the pulp and paper mills that had polluted it with their effluent, and the treatment of sewage by riverine communities, boaters and swimmers have returned. While Britannia Park and its beach may no longer attract the hordes of day trippers they did every weekend one hundred years ago, they remain a popular summer destination for people trying to escape the heat of the City. The Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, formerly the Lakeside Gardens, also continues to host big band dances as well as education courses ranging from the arts and crafts and dog obedience, to yoga and fitness.

Sources:

Evening Journal, (The), 1897. “Handled The Motor,” 27 May.

—————————-, 1900. “The New Electric Line To Britannia,” 15 January.

—————————-, 1900. “Searchlight on Lake Deschenes,” 2 April.

—————————, 1900. “Ottawans Loyally Observed the 24th,” 25 May.

—————————, 1906. “A Good Show At Britannia,” 22 May.

—————————, 1918. “Britannia Club House Is Destroyed By Fire Loss Nearly $50,000,” 30 August.

—————————, 1931. “The Children’s Beach At Britannia-on-the-Bay.” 13 July.

—————————, 1948, “Battle Of Seaweed Goes On At Britannia,” 1 May.

—————————, 1951. “Britannia Park Is Saved,” 21 June.

—————————, 1954. “Recommend Closing Britannia Park Amusement Centre,” 27 May.

—————————, 1954. “State of Britannia Park,” 28 May.

—————————, 1954, “At Last New Deal Coming For Battered Britannia Park,” 23 July.

Ottawa, (City of), 2016. Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, http://ottawa.ca/en/facility/ron-kolbus-lakeside-centre.

Taylor, Eva & Kennedy, James, 1983. Ottawa’s Britannia, Britannia Historical Association, Ottawa.

 

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Ottawa the Beautiful — The Gréber Report

18 November 1949

Ottawa is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Blessed by geography, the city borders the mighty Ottawa River, and is bisected by the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal, one of only eight UNESCO world heritage sites in Canada.  Reputedly, Ottawa has 8 hectares (20 acres) of parklands for every 1,000 residents, compared to only 3.2 hectares (8 acres) of green space for every 1,000 Toronto residents, and a miniscule 1.2 hectares (3 acres) for every 1,000 Montréalais. And that’s not counting Gatineau Park that encompasses 361 square kilometres (139 square miles) of rolling hills and pristine lakes, and extends close to the centre of Gatineau, Quebec, just a few minutes’ drive from Parliament Hill.

Befitting a capital city, Ottawa can also boast magnificent governmental, cultural, and historic buildings and monuments. The National Capital Commission’s “Confederation Boulevard,” which is bordered with broad, tree-line sidewalks, runs along Sussex Drive and down Wellington Street before looping across the Ottawa River and along rue Laurier in Gatineau before returning to Ottawa. On this ceremonial route, one can find the stately homes of the Governor General and the Prime Minister, Canada’s National Gallery, the War Memorial, the storied Château Laurier Hotel, and the Canadian Museum of History. Of course, the crown jewels of the route are Canada’s iconic Gothic Revival Parliament buildings on Wellington Street, perched on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River.

While a beautiful and extremely livable city, Ottawa is not without blemish. Sparks Street, once the commercial heart of the city, hardly beats these days, while parts of Bank and Rideau Streets are tired and shop-worn. And let’s not talk about LeBreton Flats. But Ottawa is redeemed by its parks and gardens, flourishing neighbourhood communities, thriving markets, and leafy parkways that border its waterways.

Not that long ago, however, Ottawa was a grim, dirty, industrial town; crumbling buildings and blighted neighbourhoods were but a short distance of the Parliament buildings. During World War II, most of the downtown green spaces was filled with “temporary” wooden office buildings hastily constructed to house the Capital’s burgeoning civil service. The city’s natural beauty was also threatened with unplanned urban sprawl, while its waterways were fouled by the detritus of the area’s extensive wood-products industry and the untreated sewage of its mushrooming population.

Efforts to improve the city began shortly after Confederation with the creation of Major’s Hill Park in 1874. In 1899, three years after Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier voiced his desire for Ottawa to become the “Washington of the North,” the first city improvement committee called the Ottawa Improvement Commission (later the Federal District Commission) initiated a number of landscaping projects, including the Rideau Canal Driveway. A series of urban planning studies were subsequently commissioned, including the Todd Report in 1903, the Holt Commission in 1915, and the Cauchon Report in 1922. Their recommendations included an expansion of Ottawa parklands, the rationalization of the city’s tangle of railway lines, and the enforcement of building regulations. Broadly speaking, however, little was achieved owing to changing government priorities, war, and the Great Depression. One idea that initially found traction but ultimately also failed was the suggestion of forming a National Capital District, akin to the District of Columbia in the United States, that would encompass the cities of Ottawa in Ontario and Hull in Quebec, along with their hinterlands. Political opposition, notably from Quebec, and concerns about the linguistic future of the area’s francophone residents scuppered the idea.

Another effort at rejuvenating Ottawa’s downtown core close to the Parliament buildings began in 1937 under the guidance of Jacques Gréber, a noted French urban planner whom Prime Minister Mackenzie King had met at the Paris Exhibition (Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne) held that same year. Gréber had been the Chief Architect of the Exhibition. When the two men hit it off, King asked Gréber to come to Ottawa to help prepare long-term plans for the development of government buildings along Wellington Street and in adjacent areas. However, war broke out before much could be achieved beyond the construction of the National War Memorial at the intersection of Wellington and Elgin Streets.

Wellington and Lyon Streets

Ottawa the Ugly – Intersection of Wellington and Lyon Streets, looking South in 1938

Immediately following the end of World War II, Mackenzie King invited Gréber back to Ottawa to head a far larger urban planning project—devising a long-term development plan for the entire 2,300 square kilometre (900 square miles) National Capital Region. Gréber was a controversial choice. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada objected, writing a letter to Mackenzie King saying that the National Capital development project should have been entrusted to a group of Canadian specialists rather than to a foreigner. Officially, responsibility for the project rested with the 17-member National Capital Planning Committee composed of representatives of the cities of Ottawa and Hull and area counties, the chairman of the Federal District Commission (FDC), the Federal Minister of Public Works, Canadian professional institutes, including the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and others. While Gréber was clearly the lead consultant, he was supported by the FDC and a staff of Canadian architects and engineers.

The final 300-page report, along with the accompanying volume of maps, watercolours, and scale model of the city, was released on 18 November 1949 after more than four years of work. Mackenzie King, who had retired as prime minister the previous year, wrote the foreword to the report. In many ways, Gréber’s plan for the National Capital was King’s legacy to the country. The plan was also dedicated as a memorial to Canadian service people who died in World War II.

Before discussing its recommendations and their justification, the Report provided an in-depth survey of the National Capital Region, covering its physical characteristics, history, demographics, land use, housing, public buildings, transportation systems, with a special section on the railways, and recreational/touristic facilities. Sometimes the Report is more poetry than prose, referring, for example, to the “broad bosomed” Ottawa River and the “boisterous leaping Chaudière.” At one point it strays into conjecture, uncritically accepting the unsubstantiated claim that the 1916 fire that demolished the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was “set by a German hand.” Despite such quibbles, the Report is exhaustive, and makes a compelling case for its sweeping urban renewal plans for downtown Ottawa-Hull, and the preservation of rural greenspaces.

The key recommendation was the relocation of the railways and associated rail yards and warehouses out of the downtown core. Gréber argued that the tracks had been laid to serve the interest of their operators and the lumber barons rather than those of the broader community. Originally on the outskirts of the city, the railways had been constructed without regard for future urban expansion. In addition to beautifying the city, their removal would return the city to its citizens by eliminating rail barriers that divided neighbourhoods, improve safety, and speed traffic circulation. Replacing the railways would be a network of highways, urban arteries, and tree-line parkways. Gréber recommended the construction of two new bridges across the Ottawa River on the outskirts of the city that would link the Ontario and Quebec highway systems, one in the west over Nepean Bay at Lemieux Island, and another in the east over Upper Duck Island. Gréber also sought the elimination of Ottawa’s trolleys as their overhead wires and related infrastructure in the downtown core detracted from the beauty and monumental nature of the area.

Jacques Gréber

Jacques Gréber shows off the model of his plan for the National Capital to Members of Parliament, 30 April, 1949

Other important recommendations included urban renewal for blighted neighbourhoods close to Parliament Hill, such as LeBreton Flats, the elimination of the war-time “temporary” buildings that littered the city, the imposition of strict building regulations to preserve the view of Parliament Hill, and the decentralization of government operations. To address urban sprawl, Gréber recommended that the Government acquire land to build a greenbelt around the city. He also favoured the expansion of Gatineau Park and the preservation of neighbouring forests and rural areas for recreational and touristic purposes. In downtown Ottawa, he recommended the construction of a number of large monumental buildings, including an Auditorium and Convention Centre on Lyon Street between Sparks and Albert Streets, the establishment of a National Theatre on Elgin Street, a National Gallery on Cartier Square, and a National Library on Sussex Street, north of Boteler Street. Noting that, a “capital without a dignified City Hall is a paradox,” Gréber proposed the construction of a new Ottawa City Hall to replace the one destroyed by fire in 1931 but never rebuilt. His proposed building fronted on Nicholas Street with a new bridge across the Rideau Canal at that point. He also recommended relocating Carleton College (the forerunner of Carleton University) to the fields of the Experimental Farm along Fisher Avenue. Finally, in keeping with the idea that the redesigned National Capital Region would be a memorial to Canada’s war heroes, Gréber planned a giant memorial terrace at the southernmost point of the Gatineau Hills with “an imposing panoramic view” of Ottawa.

As one might expect with any such sweeping plan, there was opposition; many of Gréber’s recommendations were rejected or ignored. But the French urban planner got his way on two key recommendations—the relocation of the railways out of downtown Ottawa, and the establishment of a greenbelt. Through land swaps between the FDC and the railways companies, downtown Union Station, which was across the street from the Château Laurier Hotel, was replaced with a new passenger station built south of the city on Tremblay Road. The unsightly, 600 foot long, train shed at Union Station was demolished, and the tracks that ran alongside the Rideau Canal were removed, making way for Colonel By Drive. Similarly, the Ottawa West freight station and tracks at LeBreton Flats were expropriated. Ottawa’s rattling trams with their unsightly overhead wires were also retired in favour of more economical buses. Earning the gratitude of future residents, the Federal Government was also able to push through Gréber’s greenbelt proposal south of the Capital, despite opposition from suburban townships—Nepean politicians called the greenbelt the “weed belt.”

On other issues, Gréber was less successful. His idea of a huge war memorial in Gatineau was dropped owing to opposition from veterans who wished to commemorate World War II dead at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa. Most of the monumental buildings he planned for the downtown core were never built, or were located elsewhere, though his call for the demolition of the “temporary” war-time office buildings was heeded, albeit over a very long time, with the last one—the Justice Annex to the east of the Supreme Court building—only succumbing to the wrecking ball in 2012. His attempt to preserve the view of Parliament Hill from the south through height restrictions on commercial buildings also failed as high-rise office buildings, constructed to house federal civil servants, blocked the view. Similarly, his attempt to rejuvenate the LeBreton Flats took more than a generation to get underway owing in part to changing government priorities and inertia. Fifty years after the blighted neighbourhood was demolished, it remains a work in progress.

With hindsight, Gréber’s preference for the automobile over trains and trams, also had its downside, in part because he grossly under-estimated the expected future population of the National Capital Region. He had anticipated a population on the order of 500,000-600,000 by 2020, compared to 1.4 million today. Like the railways that preceded them, highways and major urban arteries came to divide neighbourhoods. A case in point is the Queensway which replaced the east-west CN rail line; Gréber had envisaged a tree-lined boulevard. Many mourn the loss of a downtown train station, and the passing of the city’s tram lines. The failure to build two new bridges across the Ottawa River at the city’s periphery linking the Ontario and Quebec highway systems has meant that interprovincial traffic continues to be routed across downtown bridges, aggravating traffic woes. Finally, the development of the greenbelt did little to stop urban sprawl as Gréber had hoped. Instead of the greenbelt promoting the development of self-contained satellite communities as he had envisaged, the automobile permitted them to become bedroom communities for Ottawa, and in the process further contributed to traffic congestion.

In sum, the Gréber Plan was marred by faulty assumptions and inadequate follow-through. But, despite all, Ottawa was transformed from a grimy, industrial city to a capital Canadians can be proud of. For that, we must give a big hand to the vision of Jacques Gréber.

Sources:

Butler, Don, 2012. “Putting things back on track for Ottawa’s train station,” 27 May, The Ottawa Citizen, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Putting+things+back+track+Ottawa+train+station/6690940/story.html.

City of Ottawa, 2010-15. Relocating the Rail Lines, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/witness-change-visions-andrews-newton-6.

Gordon, David. 2000. Weaving a Modern Plan for Canada’s Capital: Jacques Gréber and the 1950 Plan for the National Capital Region, https://qshare.queensu.ca/Users01/gordond/planningcanadascapital/greber1950/Greber_review.htm.

Théoret, Huger, 2013. “Le plan Gréber dévoilé aux Communes,” Le Droit, 8 mars.

NCC Watch, 2003(?). NCC Blunders: Ottawa’s Union Station, http://nccwatch.org/blunders/unionstation.htm.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1945. “Canadian Architectural Institute Protest Hiring of Jacques Greber,” 2 October.

———————-, 1945. “Jacques Greber Arrives to Plan National Capital,” 2 October.

National Capital Planning Committee, 1950. “Plan for the National Capital,” (The Gréber Report), https://qshare.queensu.ca/Users01/gordond/planningcanadascapital/greber1950/index.htm.

Macleod, Ian, 2014. “The lost train of nowhere,” The Ottawa Citizen, 18 December, http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/from-the-archives-the-lost-train-of-nowhere.

Images:

Intersection of Wellington Street and Lyon Street, looking south, 1936, the Gréber Report, Illustration #153.

Jacques Gréber shows off the model of his plan for the National Capital to Members of Parliament, 30 April, 1949,National Capital Commission, 172-5, http://www.lapresse.ca/le-droit/dossiers/100-evenements-historiques/201303/08/01-4629049-16-le-plan-greber-devoile-aux-communes.php.