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CityScapes: Ottawa

Early Days

Watercolour of the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River, by George Heriot, 1807

Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River, watercolour by George Heriot

The Ottawa River was part of the Aboriginal trading route and although there were minor fur-trading posts around the Ottawa Valley, the first permanent settlement in the region was on the northern side of the Ottawa River. Wrightville (or Wrightsville or Wrightstown, as it was sometimes called) was established by New Englander Philemon Wright in 1800 and quickly became an agricultural community involved in the timber trade. Wrightville was later renamed Hull, and is now part of the City of Gatineau.

Photograph of Lamira Dow Billings as an old woman

Lamira Dow Billings in her later years

Among the earliest settlers to live on the south side of the river was a woman named Lamira Dow Billings. Lamira Dow was born in Vermont in 1796 and came to Upper Canada with her parents in 1801. The family settled in Merrickville, where Lamira became a teacher. Her salary was $7.00 a month plus room and board. At the end of the school term, she found that she was to be paid in wheat receipts that would be honoured by a storekeeper in Brockville. After making the 20-mile journey on foot, she was told that the receipts would not be accepted for credit unless the wheat itself was brought to the store. Miss Dow returned to Merrickville, borrowed a team of horses and delivered the wheat. Lamira Dow married Braddish Billings in 1813. That same year the couple moved to a farm in Gloucester Township south of the Rideau River (now part of the city of Ottawa). For seven years, they were the only settlers in the area. The Billings helped to build the first bridge, school and church in the area.

The Rideau Canal

Plan of the Rideau Canal, signed by Colonel John By, 1830, showing the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River, the Rideau River and the canal, as well as Lot B (land bought by the Earl of Dalhousie), Entrance Bay, and lands owned by Nicholas Sparks and Captain LeBreton in Bytown

Plan of the Rideau Canal, signed by Colonel John By, 1830

The founding of what would become Ottawa began with the Governor-in-Chief of British North America, Sir George Ramsay, the Earl of Dalhousie. He travelled to the area in 1823 and arranged to purchase land along the Ottawa River, including what is now Parliament Hill. Three years later Britain approved the construction of the Rideau Canal, deemed an essential alternate route between Montréal and Lake Ontario in the event of an American attack. Dalhousie was able to use his land for the canal and for the community that would spring up on either side. A construction camp was set up in 1826 with hundreds arriving at the canal site by the end of the year.

Accompanied by Scottish masonry contractor Thomas McKay, canal designer Colonel John By examined the shoreline for a suitable entranceway to the canal. In consultation with the Earl of Dalhousie, they decided the entranceway should be located in Sleigh Bay (later Entrance Bay) between what is now Major's Hill and Parliament Hill.

Dalhousie visited in 1827 and 1828 to follow the progress of both the canal and the developing town. With his approval the town was named Bytown in 1827 in honour of Colonel By, who was in charge of both the design and construction of the canal as well as the development of the adjacent community.

Watercolour of the entrance locks of the Rideau Canal by W.H. Bartlett, 1842

Entrance locks of the Rideau Canal by W.H. Bartlett, 1842

Watercolour of the wooden bridge over the Ottawa River at the Chaudière Falls, by John Burrows, 1828

Wooden bridge over the Ottawa River at the Chaudière Falls, 1828, watercolour by John Burrows

Watercolour of the Union Suspension Bridge over the Ottawa River, 1844

Union Suspension Bridge, 1844, designed by Samuel Keefer, a daring feat of Canadian engineering for the time

Construction of the Rideau Canal, through swamps and rocky headlands, was achieved largely by Irish labourers, Scottish stonemasons and the Royal Sappers and Miners who had been brought from Britain for this task. Working conditions were dangerous, and many lives were lost to swamp fever and accidents. The Rideau Canal opened in 1832, a huge undertaking and engineering marvel. Many of the nearly 1000 inhabitants of Bytown were on hand to welcome Colonel By and officials as they travelled through the locks on the steamer Rideau on May 29.

To link the canal site with Wrightville, the 640-foot Union Bridge was built below the Chaudière Falls using the rock outcroppings as abutments in a series of bridges that made up the whole. This wooden truss bridge was used until it collapsed in 1836. A ferry service was then provided until a wire suspension bridge opened in 1844.

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Growing Pains

At the Earl of Dalhousie's request, Colonel By laid out the town's grid. The Rideau Canal bisected the community, which was served by two main roads: Rideau Street in Lower Town and Wellington Street in Upper Town. Lower Town, to the east of the canal, was populated by Roman Catholics, both Irish and French; Upper Town, to the west, was made up largely of Protestants, both English and Scottish. Barrack's Hill (now Parliament Hill) was home to soldiers. Along the canal embankment, By allowed canal labourers to "squat" in sod or log shanties. This area became known as Corkstown, after County Cork in Ireland where many of the labourers were from. Once the canal was finished, the Corkstown inhabitants left Bytown or moved into Lower Town.


Photograph of the corner of Rideau and Sussex streets, circa 1860, showing buildings, wooden sidewalks, hitching posts and gas lamps

Corner of Rideau and Sussex streets, circa 1860

In 1845, the first continuous plank sidewalk was laid on Rideau Street. By 1854 there were ten miles of boardwalks to help pedestrians avoid the terrible roads - muddy in rainy weather and dusty in dry spells. Upon his arrival in 1866, Governor General Monck was so horrified by the state of the road leading from his residence at Rideau Hall to his office in the East Block, he arranged for a six-oar cutter with a Royal Navy crew to row him down the Ottawa River. Streets were not paved until much later; the first street to be paved was Sparks Street in 1895. Streets were first lit by whale oil lamps. These lamps were replaced by gaslight on December 31, 1855 but still had to be lit by a lamplighter with a ladder each night. Electric arc lights were installed in 1885, despite letters to the newspaper complaining that residents might not be able to sleep, as night was being turned into day.

Lumber Industry

Photograph of the Rideau Falls with Thomas McKay's grist and woolen mills

Rideau Falls, 1853, with Thomas McKay's grist and woolen mills on left. McKay's carding mill earned him a gold medal at the Exposition of All Nations in London, England in 1850 for his woven blankets.

Photograph of a group of raftsmen cooking and eating on J.R. Booth's raft, circa 1860

Cookery on J.R. Booth's raft, circa 1880. The raftsmen cooked, ate and slept on these rafts as they floated down the river.

In 1830, Jean-Baptiste Saint-Louis erected the first sawmill in Bytown. Many followed his example at strategic points near the Rideau and Chaudière falls, including Thomas McKay, who opened the first grist mill, as well as a sawmill.

The first timber slide was built in 1829 by Ruggles Wright, son of Philemon Wright, on the north side of the Ottawa River, allowing logs to safely bypass the Chaudière Falls. Bytown's first timber slide opened in 1836. Expert raftsmen steered cribs - rafts made of squared timbers tied together - down the slides. Watching the cribs go down the slide became a popular activity with visitors, and many, including royalty, were even given rides down the chute. The expression "ride the Bytown slide" gained widespread popularity in the mid 1800s as a result of this exhilarating activity.

Photograph of the Prince of Wales on a timber slide, 1860

Prince of Wales on timber slide, 1860. "Slowly at first, but quickly gaining speed, the crib shoots down in a wild spray of water. Riders and spectators roar their excitement, rivaling the thundering of the crib as it sways and bounces in a flurry of flying water. (Ottawa: the City of the Big Ears, by Robert Haig, p. 120)

In 1850, Bytown was incorporated as a town and had a prosperous lumber industry. In 1902, the town's lumber output reached 613 million board feet. It declined in later years as the region's nearby forests became depleted.

Capital City

Page 13 of the OTTAWA DIRECTORY FOR 1874-75 showing an advertisement for the Parliament Hair Dressing Saloon, with clients mentioned such as Lord Dufferin, and former governors general Lord Monck and Lord Lisgar

Ottawa Directory for 1874-75, p. 13

Ottawa's development was also in large part due to its eventual status as the capital of the Province of Canada. In 1855, Bytown not only achieved city status, but also changed its name to Ottawa. Many thought that such a change might improve the city's chance of becoming the capital. The question of where the capital might be permanently located was put to Queen Victoria in 1857.

Of the proposed choices for the capital: Québec, Montréal, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa, the latter was the Governor General's preference. On New Year's Eve 1857, Governor General Sir Edmund Head received a message announcing that the Queen had chosen Ottawa.

Photograph of the 1916 fire at the Parliament Building

Fire of 1916. "The magnificent pile of buildings lately erected as Government and Departmental Buildings will always make Ottawa rank high among the cities of America in point of architectural objects of interest." (Ottawa Directory, 1866-67, p. 3)

In 1859, a competition was announced for the design of three buildings - a Parliament building and two departmental buildings - to be erected on Barrack's Hill, now called Parliament Hill. The chosen design was in the Gothic Revival style. The cornerstone was laid in September 1860 by Edward, the Prince of Wales. Work on the buildings came to a halt in 1861 due to cost overruns, throwing labourers and skilled craftsmen into unemployment. Construction resumed in 1863 and the first session of Parliament was held in the unfinished Parliament building on June 6, 1866.

Disaster was to strike the much-admired architecture. A fire in 1897 damaged the West Block. In February 1916 a major fire started in Centre Block, destroying all but the Library of Parliament. A newly designed Parliament building was built in 1917.