Posted by: John Calvert
Following the dramatic flooding in the spring of 1928, (see OSCAR column “Years of the Great Floods”, OSCAR, April 2008, pgs 22-23), Ottawa City Council decided to take action to mitigate against the annual Rideau River inundations. One of the flooding “hot spots” was in Ottawa South at the islands in the river just upstream from Billings Bridge where the ice would often jam causing the river to back up and flood both Ottawa South all the way to present day Carleton University and Billings Bridge (Nordic Circle) west of Bank Street.
Today the Rideau River looks quite different along this stretch, due in part to the flooding abatement project undertaken in 1930-31.
The accompanying map “Plan of the Rideau River and Islands opposite Lot number 18 in Junction Gore” (COA CA Bill 0339F) dates from 1889 shows 5 islands not the present-day 3 islands. Also, Sawmill Creek enters the Rideau River upstream of Billings Bridge, and there is no Brewer Pond.
Between March 1930 and February 1931, City Council formulated plans to level two of the five islands in the hopes of preventing the ice jamming. At one point City Council even entertained the idea of building a large flood control dam across the Rideau River in the vicinity of Strathcona Park, but this never came to fruition. Perhaps even more serious was the possibility that the dam at Hog’s Back could be damaged or washed away, which happened twice during the construction of the Rideau Canal. Thus on April 16, 1928, City Council resolved to “request the Minister of Railways and Canals to order a thorough investigation into the condition of the dam and as to the capacity or power to withstand severe flood waters.”
The gist of the Ottawa South project was to remove or level islands “B” and “C” as indicated in the map, and to deposit the rubble as fill along the edge of the river. To this end the City purchased the islands and several lots on Warrington Drive, just west of Bank Street, from Messieurs John I. MacCraken and Col. E. R. McNeill. To aid in the work the City hired an Erie type ¾ yard steam shovel (a steam-powered excavator) and a two drum steam hoist (a steam-powered winch) but, as a make work project for the unemployed, the City didn’t want the machinery to do too much of the work, so as the Ottawa Evening Citizen reported on December 3, 1930 “In reply to a question, the Mayor said the shovel would not be used where men could do the work by hand.”
This island levelling project took place during the early years of the Great Depression. The City of Ottawa undertook a number of civic infrastructure improvement projects during this time under the guise of “relief work” which was meant to provide government subsidised paid work to the vast numbers of unemployed. The City Council minutes at the time contain many references to sewer construction or repair projects undertaken as relief work. On September 15, 1930, city aldermen approved a motion “to make efforts to secure from the Dominion Government from the appropriation of $20,000,000.00 for unemployment, a sum sufficient to undertake work in the Rideau River for the prevention of the annual floods.” Ultimately the federal (Dominion) and provincial governments provided $100,000 towards the work with the City of Ottawa to furnish another $100,000. The town of Eastview (now Vanier) and township of Gloucester chipped in slightly over $1,000 each and were entitled (or required) to supply 2 and 3 men, respectively, per 100 employed in the project, with the City of Ottawa taking up the balance.
The March, 1982 (vol. 10, no. 7) issue of OSCAR has on the front page a photograph of the steam shovel and a dump truck at work removing one of the islands. The photograph is credited to “two of Ottawa South’s most senior residents. Mr. and Mrs. G.H.S. MacDonald of 1 Raleigh St. have lived here for 54 years [as of 1982].” If anyone knows the whereabouts of the originals of these photos, please contact me at HistoryProject@OldOttawaSouth.ca.
Originally published in the May 2008 OSCAR.