Posted by: David Bouse
First appeared in “Your Essential Guide to Old Ottawa South”, Ottawa South Community Association © 1999
The Evolution of Old Ottawa South
- 1800-1872: Rural Settlement
- 1872-1920: Growth of a Suburb
- 1920-Present: Consolidation and Maturation
- Other Sources of Heritage Information
History around us …
- The Aberdeen Pavilion
- Echo-Bank House
- Hopewell Avenue Public School
- Precious Blood Convent
- Mayfair Theatre
- Bank St. Bridge (over The Rideau Canal)
- Rideau Canal
- Graham Firestation #10 “The Old Firehall“
- Billings Bridge Estate
The Evolution of Old Ottawa South
If there is a single defining feature of Ottawa South’s natural heritage, it must be the Rideau River. From the tumultuous cascade at Hog’s Back down past the Billings Islands to the stills before its sheer drop into the Ottawa River, the Rideau bounds and dictates the geography of our neighbourhood. It has been reported that it was used for millennia as a trade route between First Nations people of Lake Simcoe and those of the Ottawa. Our stretch of the river is as rich and varied as any.
Today, its tree-lined banks have changed little – successfully hiding the modern intrusions from canoeists and walkers along the community’s southern border. Five city parks line our side of the river: Brewer, Osborne, Linda Thom, Windsor and Brighton. At the southwest and southeast corners of Ottawa South are two former swimming beaches (Brewer Beach and Brighton Beach.)
The Rideau Canal is the most significant cultural heritage site in Ottawa South. Constructed by British military engineers as an essential defensive water route to Upper Canada in case of armed invasion from the U.S., it has defined the north edge of our neighbourhood for 180 years. The canal is of national importance, both as a historic site and as a recreational waterway. In 2007, UNESCO declared the Rideau Canal waterway a world heritage site.
Several interesting aspects of the canal’s current layout have natural origins: Dow’s Great Swamp (part of which is now Dow’s Lake), the former “notch of the mountain” (north of Leonard Avenue), and the former beaver pond (adjacent to Lansdowne Park). Dow’s Great Swamp was a 10,000-year-old relic of run-off down the Ottawa River from the post-glacial Champlain Sea. This low-lying area carried flood waters from both the Ottawa and the Rideau. The “notch of the mountain,” so named in about 1815, was a slight depression on the high ridge of land extending along the north edge of Ottawa South northwest into the Glebe near Bronson. The beaver pond became used as part of the canal bed near Pig Island across from Lansdowne.
The first inhabitants of the national capital area were Algonquins who called themselves “the people of the Great River,” referring to the Ottawa. French explorers and fur traders came next. By the end of the 1700’s American and British immigrants began expressing an interest in permanent settlement of this region.
More than two hundred years ago basic surveys for what was to become Ottawa South had been carried out by John Stegmann. His name survives today, attached to the little waterfall on the Rideau River near the railway bridge at Carleton University. He established concession road rights-of-way for what have become Main Street and Bronson Avenue. He also established the east-west lot lines that are visible today approximated by Sunnyside Avenue and Cameron Avenue.
The first pioneers to arrive at the national capital region were a group of settlers from the U.S., led by Philemon Wright in 1800. Anticipating the enormous energy possibilities of the Chaudiere Falls, as well as the agricultural and forestry potential of the area, they established the region’s first permanent community on the north bank of the Ottawa River.
Ottawa South’s first settlers arrived after in 1814. Elkanah Billings came that year, followed by Abram Dow and his younger brothers Samuel and Jonathan. They settled mainly at the river crossing opposite the Braddish Billings farm which had been established 2 years earlier. One of the first roads within Ottawa’s boundaries was cut by the British government in 1815 between the Ottawa River and this river crossing on the Rideau. It ran from below the Chaudiere Falls, along the east edge of the Dow’s Great Swamp, through the “notch of the mountain”, and (at about the point where Hopewell Avenue School is located) lined up with what is today Bank Street. This road was soon extended to the more-populated townships up the Rideau River all the way to Kingston.
In 1818, Ottawa South’s best-known pioneer family arrived. Lewis Williams, originally from Pontipool in Wales, was among the first non-Americans to settle in the region. He took possession of the south half of lot “K”, a 45 hectare piece of property between today’s Main and Bronson, north of Sunnyside. Lot K originally included both the previously mentioned “notch of the mountain” and the beaver pond. After his first house burned in the 1820s, he rebuilt and slowly established a successful farm which stayed in the family for 5 generations. Much altered, the house stands today at 96 Southern Drive.
In 1827 the landscape began to change dramatically. British military engineers, led by Lt.-Col. John By, began construction of an alternate water route – the Rideau Canal – between Upper and Lower Canada, in case of invasion from the U.S. and loss of the vulnerable St. Lawrence River route. Bytown was established as the northern terminus and population of the township increased 5-fold in one year.
Surveys showed it would be advantageous for the canal route to come across to the beaver pond north of the Lewis Williams property, through the “notch of the mountain” over Dow’s Great Swamp (originally proposed was an aqueduct) and up to Hog’s Back. This required acquisition of the northwest 40% of Lot K. Over the next few years the canal was built through land that had previously been extremely dense bush and swamps. At Dow’s Great Swamp, 2 long dams were constructed to raise the water level 7-8m above the adjacent peat bog.
A new road was soon established along the east side of the canal to replace the 1815 road from the Ottawa River. The primary road south out of Bytown, it included part of today’s Echo Drive and Riverdale before connecting with the newly constructed toll bridge (1830) at the Billings crossing.
Though the nearby rural community of Billings Bridge was located on the south side of the Rideau River, during the 19th century a school, grist mill, hotel, blacksmith shop and church were built (primarily near the Bank and Riverdale intersection) in Ottawa South. Prior to the time of Confederation, before Bank Street Road was extended across the Rideau Canal with a wooden swing bridge, early residents of this area tended to look south toward Billings Bridge as much as they looked north to Bytown (Ottawa). Five years after Confederation this began to change.
In 1872 land speculation activities reached new heights in the townships around Ottawa. For example, in eastern Nepean a record 20 subdivision plans were drawn up, including those for Rideauville — the name sometimes given to early Ottawa South. Here, the firm of Garland, Mutchmor & Company embarked on a speculative venture to buy 25 hectares west of the Bank Street Road from Lewis Williams.
The Ottawa Citizen of May 13th, 1873 listed the attractions of this proposed suburb as follows:
- “It commands a fine view of the Parliament Buildings, the City of Ottawa, Rideau River, Canal and surrounding country … The soil is well adapted for garden purposes. Parties intending to build will find this locality very convenient and cheap … A healthier locality cannot be found in the vicinity of Ottawa.”
In 1891 two additional subdivisions were created: Wyoming Park (between Sunnyside and Grove) and Oakland Heights (occupying the wedge between Bank, Cameron, and Riverdale). Local advertisements described choice lots “…only a few rods from the City limits, Electric Railway, City water, etc., free from City taxes, with nearly all of the City advantages.” While growth of Rideauville was more rapid than the other residential areas in Ottawa South, the lack of convenient public transportation held back suburban development.
Growth began to increase in 1907 when the City of Ottawa annexed this area. In 1912 the high-level Bank Street Bridge was constructed, soon to be followed by an electric streetcar line. The Ottawa Free Press, March 22nd, 1913, reported:
- “In 1909 there were few persons in Ottawa with either sufficient courage or optimism to buy land in Ottawa South. Today building lots command from $1,000 to $1,400. When the electric railway gets through, Ottawa South is going to be a place of homes costing anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000.”
Following construction of the new streetcar tracks (primarily along OC Transpo’s current #7 bus route) the community grew rapidly. For example, even though a new building had been built at Hopewell Avenue School in 1910 to replace the older structure, it was necessary to more than double its size in 1914 to accommodate the rapidly growing enrollment. Development slowed during the Great War but picked up again quickly in the 1920s.
Eighty-five years ago Ottawa South was the capital city’s newest suburb. Today, though worn with time, it is still one of the few areas of the city where high-rise units have not appeared. In fact, this community has changed surprisingly little.
The water boundaries of the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal have given our community an insular quality. To the east is a mid-20th century housing development on the old farmlands of Rideau Gardens and to the west of Brewer Park is the expanding Carleton University. Both the park and the university occupy what was, until less than 60 years ago, a large frequently-flooded swamp. But those beginnings have been mostly forgotten now. Few of the students who cross the park on their way to classes would be aware that the area was once the city dump.
Old Ottawa South had a noteworthy wooded area along the Rideau River south of Cameron Avenue. “The woods,” as it was known then, provided a natural playground for children. There was always the prospect that vagrants or a gypsy caravan would be encountered. The danger was half the excitement. But no more; today, row houses run off Cameron, heavily cutting into the natural “green belt” which previously came right up to the street in places.
One nearby area has remained unchanged since the 1920s: the large property at the intersection of Cameron and Seneca given over to the activities of the Ottawa Tennis & Lawn Bowling Club, a summer oasis in the southwest corner of our community for 75 years. Near the opposite corner of our neighbourhood, the community-run Brighton Beach began operation in about 1920 and continued to offer organized swimming lessons for more than 50 years. During this period, the popular beach provided a change house, several rafts, and a 3-storey diving tower.
Some of the current church buildings and the former St. Margaret Mary School date from the 1930s. The Mayfair Theatre opened in December 1932, but the deepening depression brought commercial expansion to a halt until the 1950s. In the mid-1940’s, 30 years before taking possession of the Old Firehall, Ottawa South’s community association acquired space at Hopewell Avenue Public School for a community centre.
During World War II, many local houses were temporarily duplexed to provide accommodation for the influx of government workers. The Windsor Park area had “Victory Gardens” near the river; otherwise this location, as with “the woods” near Cameron, was dense bush. Rabbits, tree forts, and a wonderful network of paths made these locations exciting places to play. Until the system of dykes was constructed in the 1970s, each spring the Rideau River overflowed its banks, much to the delight of local children – and to the dismay of their parents.
Today, the vacant lots, the dirt-covered laneways, the market garden, the city dump and “the woods” have all disappeared. Low-density housing, indeed whole new streets have taken up all the remaining available land. Many of Ottawa South’s homes, now over 80 years old, have for the most part been well-maintained so that our community is remarkably free from those pockets of urban blight that can stealthily creep into a neighbourhood over the years. Thus, old and new comfortably exist side by side. A small garage or laneway is sometimes the only indicator of the true age of a freshly renovated and landscaped property.
New shopping habits and lifestyles are reflected in the stores on Bank Street. The groceterias and chain stores of the 1930’s have mostly gone—to Billings Bridge Plaza. Much of Bank Street between the bridges has been given over to restaurants and specialty antique stores.
It has been 95 years since the first streetcars carried commuters out to the new suburb of Ottawa South. Although other parts of the city battle speculators and developers who materialize with grandiose schemes, Old Ottawa South has remained relatively free of obtrusive development. The river and canal boundaries of our community firmly block expansion north and south. And to the west, the university takes up all available land. Thus, with the help of nature, conservative zoning regulations and conscientious maintenance at the individual level, this part of Old Ottawa has been spared the problems that have beset many other urban communities.
Protecting our Local Cultural Property
Protection of cultural property is first of all governed by zoning. The new City of Ottawa regulation is called “Zoning Bylaw 1998”; it will replace the previous by-law known as “Z2K”.
Info: City of Ottawa 613-580-2424
“Ottawa South Neighbourhood Fact Sheets” were put out in 1994 by the Department of Planning and Development.
Books & Articles
There are numerous articles on our community’s heritage available in the Ottawa Public Library. OSCAR back issues lead the lot beginning with its first issue in 1974 containing “A backward glance at Ottawa South.” The former Ottawa Journal also has several good articles such as Eric Minton’s Ottawa South (August 5, 1972); and Colleen Kong’s Ottawa South Walkabout (Nov 7, 1975).
The best published source of historical information on 19th century Ottawa South is found in Bruce Elliott’s award-winning history of Nepean entitled The City Beyond (1991).
Other sources of information about the Ottawa vicinity are:
- Ottawa: an Illustrated History (1986) by John Taylor
- The Carleton Saga (1968) by Harry Walker (provides an interesting historical overview)
- Ottawa Old & New (1946) by Lucien Brault
One good place to begin your research is with the main library’s “Ottawa Room,” a special collection of local publications, articles, and other records related to the history of Ottawa.
Tel: 613-580-2940 (Ottawa Room)
Public Library: 120 Metcalfe St., 3rd floor.
Back issues of OSCAR contain information about all aspects of our community. The Ottawa South History Project (OSHP) is reviewing the back issues of OSCAR papers and compiling and indexing the information for future reference.
Info: John M. Calvert, founder and coordinator OSHP
Both the National Archives on Wellington Street and the City of Ottawa Archives at 100 Tallwood Drive contain detailed information on various aspects of our community’s history. Photographs, fire insurance maps, and other documents offer a wealth of sources for the serious researcher. Brief information guides are available to help you research your Ottawa house or family.
Tel: 613-996-5115 (Library and Archives Canada)
Tel: 613-580-2424 x13333 (City of Ottawa Archives)
As part of its heritage mandate, the City of Ottawa maintains a Heritage Reference List of over 7,000 sites and structures throughout the city. Many Ottawa South houses are included on the list. In addition at least 7 local properties have been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The City of Ottawa also supports various heritage programs and provides a lecture series on selected topics.
City of Ottawa
Both Heritage Canada and Heritage Ottawa provide information on the identification and care of valued aspects of the built environment; the former at a national level, the latter city-wide. Another group is the Ottawa Historical Society.
Info: 613-230-8841 (Heritage Ottawa)
As Ottawa South’s oldest and largest institution, the public school on Hopewell Avenue has played an important role in neighbourhood history. The school has both a display and a special room set aside for heritage related records such as old attendance books.
Location: 17 Hopewell Ave.,
History around us …
A number of historically significant structures exist in Old Ottawa South. They provide an opportunity for us to pause for a moment to appreciate the significance and events of the past. History is not limited to dusty textbooks – it exists around us, and impacts the things we do and the environment we function in.
Our most significant historic buildings include one of the oldest continuously occupied residences in the national capital region. The Williams House at 96 Southern was occupied by the Williams family from the 1820’s (when it was rebuilt) until they sold the property in about 1960. The building is marked with a heritage plaque. Other outstanding residences include 149 Hopewell, 32 Cameron, and 700 Echo Drive. The latter heritage home, constructed in about 1867, is featured on many published tours of Ottawa’s historic buildings.
Institutional buildings with noteworthy cultural significance include Hopewell Avenue Public School (one of the oldest continuously operating school sites in the national capital region), Southminster Church, St. Margaret Mary Church, Trinity Church, Mayfair Theatre, the former Precious Blood Convent (now The Royal College of Physicians & Surgeons of Canada), and the Old Firehall (our community centre). The latter building received its heritage plaque from the City of Ottawa in the fall of 1998.
In total, over 300 residences and institutional buildings in Ottawa South are included on Ottawa’s heritage reference list (an inventory of sites & structures potentially considered for legal protection as cultural heritage resources). Other noteworthy heritage works include the restored Bank Street Bridge.
Just beyond the south edge of Ottawa South, and very much a part of our early history, is the Billings Estate Museum. Open to the public, it is the City of Ottawa’s primary historic site. To the west of our community is the Central Experimental Farm, a national historic site of 500 hectares, complete with barns, arboretum, numerous fields, livestock and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden.
Take a browse here, and then get out to take a look at these examples of our neighbourhood heritage.
The Aberdeen Pavilion is really just a barn, but an elegant barn at that. It has been appreciated by generations of people from Ottawa and the Valley. It is Canada’s last surviving example of a Victorian exhibition palace. The Pavilion was built in just 3 months during the summer of 1898 to serve as the showcase for that year’s Central Canada Exhibition. At the time it cost $75,000. On opening night, about 3,000 people attended a free concert by the Band of the 43rd Rifles, which included a selection of English, Scottish and Irish melodies, collectively entitled “Albion.” The building was formally opened a few days later, on September 19th by Lord Aberdeen, The Governor General, when he opened the 1898 exhibition.
The Pavilion was designed to be the central feature of the yearly exhibition. Its eclectic decoration is typical of fair ground architecture which adorned the exterior of buildings with elaborate architectural elements with little expression of those elements in the interior space. This is typified by its complex entrances, pediments, finials, cupolas and turrets. The large turret that sits likes a cherry on its roof is purely ornamental.
Lansdowne Park, 1015 Bank Street
At the time of construction, the building was an important engineering achievement. For the first time in the Ottawa area a building was constructed with the use of long-span steel arches. This form of construction encloses a very large column-free space at a comparatively low cost.
For most of its life, the Aberdeen Pavilion has served the purpose for which it was built: as a place to display prize-winning farmyard animals and provide entertainment for visitors to Ottawa’s annual fair the Central Canada Exhibition. At other times, the building occasionally served as home for the Ottawa Silver Seven, the legendary “world’s best hockey team” of the early 1900s, and as a shelter and training ground for Canadian soldiers preparing for wars dating back to the Boer War in 1900. When it was used as a hockey rink, they just poured water on the floor and let it freeze.
Little more than a year after the Aberdeen Pavilion opened as a pleasure palace, it became a military camp, used by one of the most legendary units in the history of the Canadian forces. In December 1899, Britain’s war with the South African Boers was going badly. Lord Strathcona, Canadian high commissioner in London, offered to form a cavalry unit of crack Canadian horsemen. The unit, named Strathcona’s Horse, gathered in Ottawa for training, and did mounted exercises in the Aberdeen Pavilion in February 1900 before serving with distinction in the British victory over the Boers in South Africa.
Over the years the building was so badly neglected it might have fallen down in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Members of Ottawa council spent years arguing what to do with it. Thirty-five times council voted on whether to spend money on restoring it, or tear it down. Finally, in 1994 the decision was made to have the building completely restored. The Aberdeen Pavilion’s future now appears more secure than at any time in the building’s 100-year history.
Nestled on Echo Drive overlooking the Canal, Echo-Bank house is a charming, heritage property built in 1865. This manor house has pleasantly set windows, graceful verge boards trim and is in the same architectural style as Earnscliffe (1855), the current home of the British High Commissioner. The stone used in the construction of Echo-Bank is from the same source as that used to build the Canal locks.
When the original settlement of Bytown decided to adopt a new name, it was Colonel George Hay, the original owner of Echo-Bank, who suggested the name Ottawa. Colonel Hay went on to design Ottawa’s first civic crest, and his grandson eventually became a chairman of the National Capital Commission.
700 Echo Drive
Hopewell Avenue School was constructed in the 1840’s to plans prepared by the School Board’s Superintendent of Buildings, A. Garvock. The original structure is a good example of an early 20th century urban educational building. This type building, constructed in 1910, marks an evolutionary step from the earlier school buildings of the Victorian period to the less ornamented, highly specialized educational institutions of today. Relatively few Canadian buildings of this transitional type and period are still in use as schools, as their number steadily declines in the face of “educational improvement.”
According to School Board records, the building is the 4th oldest surviving school built by the Ottawa School Board. Hopewell Avenue is one of only 2 elementary schools in the city listed with the Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings.
The design of Hopewell School was in stark contrast to earlier buildings as it as was designed to exacting medical standards which insisted on lighting only from the left side of the room, with window space being determined by a scientific formula of proportion of windows to floor area. Buildings of this era also included facilities such as a nurse’s room and auditoriums, and comparatively advanced mechanical hearing and ventilation systems. Even today, the classroom ventilation system might be considered to be superior to those used in some types of modern buildings which re-circulate oxygen-depleted air. The large “fireplaces” in the classrooms were actually part of the air exhaust system that removed foul air through large ventilators on the roof.
Because of the systematic principles driving the design of this school its their exterior appearance is comparatively regular, simple in form and repetitive – a considerable change from the grandiose, usually classically inspired facades of earlier public buildings. Decoration has been limited to patterned brickwork, the use of stone for foundations and other structural units, and a modicum of cast or carved stone trim around the main door. In comparison to the grand. cupola-capped exteriors of municipal schools from the Victorian era, the new schools of the 20th century were fairly austere and businesslike in appearance, in keeping with the serious, increasingly professional, activities which occurred within.
Hopewell Avenue School is a typical example of school s constructed in the early 20th century. Although the school has undergone extensive renovations and additions over the years, its simple but dignified exterior, a fixture of the neighbourhood since its opening, should remind us all of the challenges that have taken place, and the changes successfully met, by the 20th century educational system.
|17 Hopewell Ave.|
The building which now houses The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada offices is a key Ottawa South landmark that presents an impressive sight from the Canal and the Bank St. Bridge. The building was constructed between 1914-1923 for the Soeurs du Précieux Sang. It was designed by Alphonse Contant.
The Soeurs du Précieux Sang, a contemplative order, was founded in 1861 and came to Ottawa in 1887. In 1898 the order purchased the Mackay estate on Echo Drive, which included a large stone house. The expansive treed lot was well suited to the needs of the Sisters who, as members of a contemplative order, lived a quiet existence devoted to prayer and meditation with little contact with the outside world.
In 1914, construction of the present structure began. Construction did not proceed smoothly, the Architect disappeared with the funds and the building stood unfinished for 4 years while the Sisters raised money for its completion. Finally, donations from the community allowed the building to be completed in 1923.
The former Monastère du Précieux Sang is a large, pale yellow brick structure which is 5 storeys in height, with a hipped roof. A modified mansard roof, with dormer windows, forms an attic story on the north facade. The building was originally laid out with a central courtyard (now a glassed atrium), bounded on three sides by 4 story wings and on one side by a two-story wing. The 2 story wing on the front (north) facade, features an attractive frontispiece topped by a monumental pediment and a 2 story, round arch that contains double front doors and large windows. This entrance was constructed in 1981, replacing a pair of entrance doors that had been centrally located on each end of the four story wings. Smooth stone string courses separate the storeys of the front facade, but they are not continued around the corners to the east and west facades. On the east facade, the former chapel, now large, 2 storey stained glass windows light a meeting hall. The west facade repeats the simple rectangular windows with stone lintels found elsewhere on the building. The south facade features an open 3-story gallery overlooking a lawn. There is a large centrally placed belfry. The building creates a monumental impression, despite the austere simplicity of its exterior.
Stylistically, the building is a very simple classically proportioned structure, similar in form and massing to convents and monasteries built throughout Canada by religious orders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Generally, these institutions were laid out around a central axis with each wing housing a different function.
The original grounds between the building and the rear fence and the open treed lawn to the north contribute significantly to its character. The grounds serve as an important reminder of the building’s original role as the home of an order of contemplative nuns who used the then-fenced grounds for meditation and passive recreation.
|774 Echo Drive|
Officially designated a heritage building in 2008, the Mayfair theater has been a local landmark for over 70 years. Mr. Fred Robertson, an Almonte general store keeper, and his father, build the theater in 1932. Together they completed the construction of the theater complex including the smoke shop, restaurant and barbershop within the relatively short span of 6 months. When completed, the theatre was a marvel for its time. The exterior walls were brick, plush carpeting covered the floors and terrazzo tiles graced the entrance lobby. The projection equipment was the latest available and its vacuum tubes and photoelectric cells were touted by the local press.
Entering the building is like a flashback to 1932, because so little about the decor has changed. The interior affords a rare opportunity to immerse oneself in history. The clock to the edge of the screen is framed with ornate, gilded scroll-work punctuated with red and green accents. Even the exit signs and signs for the washroom are authentic leaded and stained glass.
On opening night the show was the unlikely combination of Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis with the love story The Blue Danube. One double bill, which was featured later, takes on a whole new swing with changes to the slang. Carey Grant starred in I was a Male War Bride which was paired up with Duncan Renaldo in the Gay Amigo.
|1074 Bank Street|
The original bridge was built in by the city in 1912 for $134,400. After serving the people of Ottawa-Carleton for 81 years, the deteriorating concrete structure was restored at a cost of $12 million by a team of experts including Barry Padolsky (restoration architect), in 1991 to 1993. This project rehabilitated the bridge to meet current safety standards and restored a number of its original features. In 1994 the Region received an award of Excellence in Conservation from the City of Ottawa for the restoration of the bridge.
The Rideau Canal, now over 175 years old, is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. It was designed to provide a secure supply route from Montréal to Kingston, avoiding the St. Lawrence River route that was vulnerable to the Americans.
The Canal was constructed by contractors, under supervision of the Royal Engineers. Conditions were difficult. The men lived in crude camps in the wilderness. Many succumbed to malaria that was prevalent at the time as well as job site accidents. Although records on malaria deaths were never kept, it is estimated that upwards of 500 workers may have died as a result of malaria during the building of the canal.
Essentially all work was done by hand. Workers with wheelbarrows carried out most of the excavations. Rock was laboriously hand drilled and blasted with gunpowder. The large stones that make up the locks were set in place using simple hand cranes. The bulk of the unskilled labour was made up of Irish immigrants, brought in for this purpose, since there was no local labour force to draw from. It is estimated that a total of 2,000 labourers worked to make the Rideau Canal a reality.
Colonel By made a decision to turn the Rideau into a slackwater system which meant flooding the regions between one lock and the next to navigable depths. It meant the construction of water control dams in addition to the locks. Several of these dams became some of the major engineering triumphs of the 19th century (including the Hogs Back Dam which collapsed twice before it could be completed successfully).
The Rideau was never used for its intended purpose, a military supply route. Several military vessels have traveled the Canal, but the main traffic along the canal was at first commercial and then pleasure. The Rideau became the economic lifeline for communities that sprang up along it. In the early years it saw heavy barge traffic, with paddle steamers pulling long strings of barges loaded with timber and goods on their way to market.
By 1875, railroads had progressed to the point where they carried most of the commercial traffic, and use of the Rideau dropped. It was at this time that the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to make Smiths Falls its main junction in eastern Ontario. Coal for the trains, shipped across Lake Ontario from the US, was loaded onto barges in Kingston and brought up the Rideau to Smiths Falls. This lasted until early in the 20th century when it became cheaper to bring the coal in by train.
On the 100th anniversary of the Canal in 1932, discussions were underway to “close” the Canal as a cost saving measure. What saved the canal was not so much its capacity to generate tourist dollars, as the fact that it also functioned as a water control system for the whole region. As the 20th century progressed, the current use of the canal, a waterway route for pleasure boats, came to the fore. Today more vessels travel along the length of the Rideau that at any other period during its years of operation.
Ottawa South’s community centre, the Old Firehall, was constructed in 1921 to the designs of one of this region’s best known architects, W.E. Noffke. It is among the municipality’s oldest surviving fire stations and one of the first constructed to serve those growing suburban communities which sprang up around Ottawa during the proliferation of early automobiles. The building’s design captures the evolution of municipal fire-fighting from a small force equipped with horse-drawn equipment to a fully professional service with larger motorized vehicles. The building is named after prominent Ottawa Fire Chief John Graham (1867-1921), who became first president of the Dominion Fire Chiefs Association in 1915.
The Old Ottawa South Firehall is a local landmark due in part to its elaborate Spanish Colonial Revival styling which features stone and stucco accenting rough red brick, an asymmetrical front elevation which includes an open porch with a stepped & curvilinear gable, and glazed vehicle doors separated by an elaborate cartouche. Its low profile relates well to the surrounding residential neighbourhood, not notably changed in character in spite of the recent construction of a long stretch of row houses directly to the north.
The architectural significance of this building is demonstrated by its inclusion in the 1992 publication A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles by architectural historians Maitland, Hucker, and Ricketts. The latter author won the 1991 City of Ottawa heritage prize for her essay on Noffke. Another noteworthy publication is Heritage Ottawa’s The Architecture of W.E. Noffke (1976). Noffke was of German ethnic origin and emigrated to Canada as a young child in the early 1880s. He began his architectural apprenticeship at 14 and also pursued night studies at Ottawa’s only technical drawing training centre then available. In 1896, he began working in the prestigious office of Ottawa architect M.C. Edey, designer of the Aberdeen Pavilion. By the time of the design of the Firehall, Noffke was a well-established independent architect with a mature style. Several other significant examples of his Spanish motifs are located on Clemow Avenue. Ottawa’s Central Post Office is a later work by Noffke, completed 25 years before his death in 1964.
The Graham Station (our Firehall) originally had 6 stalls for horses where the fitness room is located today. Undoubtedly, there would have been one or two Dalmatians. A dormitory room for 8 firefighters was then located in today’s activities room. The original, richly constructed wooden lockers survive today, used for arts supplies and other storage. In the old assembly room (now lounge) older residents of Ottawa South used to come to play cards or talk with the firefighters. Historical research tells us the “apparatus room” (now main hall) was often used to show local movies before the Mayfair and Strand were built. More recently, the Great Canadian Theatre Company was based here until they constructed their new home on Gladstone.
Soon after the Old Firehall was declared redundant as an operational station, local activists acquired it from the City of Ottawa for a local drop-in centre operated by OSCA. Two years later, in 1977, several hundred thousand dollars were invested by the City to renovate and upgrade this facility to serve community programming needs then defined. Early programs included disco, belly-dancing, and natural food cooking lessons.
Over the years, this building has become a much-used and much-valued part of our community. Few would argue that the Old Firehall is our most visually distinctive, architecturally significant, and culturally symbolic landmark. Its outline is imprinted on thousands of T-shirts worn by former OSCA children who now study and work across Canada and beyond. Its image sits atop our neighbourhood newspaper and is imprinted on the OSCA membership cards. For many, the Old Firehall is simply the heart of this community.
The Billings Estate Museum was the home and property of Braddish and Lamira Billings, two of Ottawa’s founding settlers. The well-preserved and architecturally unique Billing house, built c. 1827-1828, is one of Ottawa’s oldest. It is the focal point of a beautiful heritage site that also includes several outbuildings and a cemetery nestled on 3.5 ha of lush, green parkland.
The house functions as a museum with intimate exhibits of family heirlooms, personal belongings and other possessions such as furniture, tools, paintings, documents and photographs illustrate the intertwined stories of family and community between 1812 and 1875.