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  • Rick Henderson

Ottawa - Celebrating Canada Day with some more Curious History

Updated: Jul 1

What's in a name - Part IV, a Guided Tour

Stent & Laver print created from Ottawa Waterscape by John Henry Walker, 1850

On Canada Day this year, there will be no party on the Hill, so you should plan instead to take a proper, socially-distanced walk - or a virtual one, using this guide - around downtown Ottawa during this, the screwiest year in our nation's history. Take this handy Curious History guide with you, using the print above, which shows Ottawa at a moment in time when it went from being Bytown to Ottawa, the Nation's Capital.


I suggest you start early enough to snag a parking spot in the Byward Market. Put on your mask, and walk towards the National Gallery to begin the tour at everyone's favourite sculpture, the giant spider called Maman. You can take a few snaps standing by her legs with the Parliament Buildings framed behind like all tourists do, or you can go sci-fi-monster-movie, like I did, with this historic shot.


I suggest you now choose either to walk straight up the hill past the Gallery to the highest spot, or go across to the Tavern on the Hill in Major's Hill Park for some craft beer and Ottawa's best hot dog. (I know what my choice would be!)


From either spot, the Ottawa River takes centre-stage, and given that the river is where all of the history begins, that's how our tour will begin, as we walk through Ottawa's Curious History.


There's nothing kitschy about Kichi Zìbì

With the great view of the Great River in front of us, we should clear up the confusion about its name, which the Indigenous guides of the explorers were not to blame for. The guides told the explorers it is the Great River, Kichi Zìbì, but the paddling tourists caused all of the nonsense by naming and renaming the river:

  1. Samuel de Champlain went with la rivière des Algommequins - well-meaning and somewhat accurate.

  2. Sixteenth century French mapmakers went with la rivière des 8ta8ois that was subsequently written & pronounced (improperly) as Outaouais [1]

  3. The French & English fur traders and settlers properly went with a translation: Grande Rivière or Grand River.

  4. And finally, modern-day anglophones went with the Ottawa River.

A river's name is whatever it is called, of course, but some of this river's names tell the history better than others. In a nutshell, the river was the superhighway that passed through the land of the Anishinàbeg or Algonquin people; a great river where many First Nations traded. So, all in all, Kichi Zìbì describes it best; rivière des Algoummequins locates it best; and Ottawa (adaawe) simply translates to s/he buys. Ottawa probably should never even have made the list.


Stop 1 - Getting the Point

You are now either standing on or looking up at Nepean Point.


When explorers, coureurs des bois, fur traders and settlers, later on, paddled past the Rideau Falls (Pasapkedjinawong) and then towards the great Chaudière Falls (Akikodjiwan) they would pass by the two most prominent bluffs, that they'd seen along the length of the river. So, naturally, the first of them became known as Bluff Point.


Samuel de Champlain passed below Bluff point on his voyage up the Ottawa River in 1613 and although he was not by any measure the first French explorer to pass there, he scored a statue. It was placed there in 1915, and there it still stands.


There are several things to think about as you gaze at Champlain's statue, not the least of which would be that his statue occupies Ottawa's most prominent spot ... even though he only spent 4 days here.



Ottawa Citizen 1996

If you are at the Tavern on the Hill, you may have noticed a statue of an Indigenous person planted among the shrubs. He was not always there, hiding in that spot.


The Anishinàbe Scout, as he is called, once occupied the empty pedestal below Champlain's statue. The 'Scout' had been added to the statue's base in 1918 to "signify how the native people helped Champlain navigate through the waters of the Ottawa River".


In the 1990s, a major uproar about this subservient depiction caused the statue to be moved across the road into Major's Hill Park. So now, the Anishinàbe Scout holds a dubious position in the bushy margins of the Tavern on the Hill, looking longingly, I presume, towards the coveted higher ground that Champlain occupies on Bluff Point. I suspect, however, that after a century of ignominy, he may be planning an ambush.


Other curious things to ponder about Champlain's statue may be:

  1. Why is Champlain holding an astrolabe in his hand with a handle that doesn't exist and why do you suppose the great explorer is holding it upside down?

  2. When no one actually knows what Champlain looks like, why do you suppose that every representation of Samuel makes him look like he could be a fourth Musketeer?

Stop 2 - Oh what fun it is to ride in a ...

Down below Bluff Point and Major's Hill Park is the Rideau Canal, which was, in its time, the largest and most audacious engineering project in North America. I suggest you either order another beer and read on or take a walk down to visit the canal.


While down at the canal, pay a visit to the Bytown Museum, it's one of Ottawa's real treasures. Once you get to the third floor take note of the large portrait of a rather stern elderly lady in black dress and white bonnet. Her name is Sally Olmstead and we'll be reading about her, later on our walk.


Plan showing Bytown Ordnance property north of Wellington and Rideau streets, 1853, LAC

Not surprisingly, since the day the canal was built, the bay at its entrance was given the descriptive - if not terribly imaginative - name of Entrance Bay.


However, before the canal was built, Entrance Bay was the location of a colourful story that gave it a much more colourful name: Sleigh Bay.


I know it's summertime but try to imagine a winter scene here:


The date is March 13, 1817 and a royal wedding of sorts is about to take place. The couple to be wed is Christopher Columbus Wright and Charlotte "Lottie" Holt. 18 yr.-old Chris, as he was known, is the youngest son of Philemon and Abigail Wright, the Old Squire and the Grande Dame of the Township of Hull.


The Township at this time is populated by about 400 souls but here on the opposite shore, it is a wilderness. There being no Preacher, one had to be fetched from Montreal or Perth for the ceremony. An event of this sort in such a small pioneer community would be one of the highest order.


Just imagine the magical scene: Families from every farm, bundling up in their finest winter garb, climbing into their one-horse open sleighs or cutters while the lamps are lit, everyone wrapping themselves in furs and sleigh blankets, sleigh bells jingling merrily as they glide to the appointed place.


For this blessed event, there was no Church, so the ceremony would have to be performed in God's own cathedral under the stars; this place where two massive, pine and cedar-covered bluffs tower over a sheltering bay across the river from Wright's Town.



With the sleighs all gathered in a circle, Chris and Lottie were married and then the first toasts were poured and raised to their health, wealth and good fortune. No doubt the sleighs then left in procession to go back across the river and finish the festivities at Philemon's mansion, known to all as The White House.


Although from then on, the bay was known to everyone as Sleigh Bay, the memory soon faded when the newcomers began building the Canal in 1827.


Stop 3 - Dis-still is da place

Timber Raft and Parliament Buildings by WJ Topley 1882

From the west bank of Sleigh Bay, there's a walking/bike path named the Trans-Canada Trail that takes you around Parliament Hill along the river. Let's explore.


Almost as soon as you leave the canal, look left and you'll see some ruins. There used to be a steam-powered sawmill here - only the second of two steam-powered mills that operated in the Ottawa Valley - the other being Andrew Leamy's sawmill at Leamy Lake, across the river in Wright's Town.


Keep walking west towards a new bay when you come around the west flank of Parliament Hill and you will find yourself at the foot of a winding set of stairs leading up to Parliament Hill. The bay here is named Brewery Bay, so-called because from 1819 - and for almost a century - Ottawa's first Brewery operated here. If you keep walking you will see what appears to be some of its ruins on the side of the Hill.


The brewery was operated by Ralph Smith, Bytown and Wright's Town's master-brewer and distiller. Although he opened this brewery here, all of the main booze-action had first begun in Wright's Town years before, where Smith had plied his craft in Philemon Wright's distilleries and breweries.


I'm not sure exactly why, but it tickles my funny bone just knowing that between the marbled halls of Parliament and the august bench of the Supreme Court, is a place called Brewery Bay. You're welcome!


Stop 4 - The Battle of Bellows Bay?

As you keep making your way west, you are leaving Brewery Bay to go through a tunnel of sorts and make your way around the base of the bluff on which sits the Supreme Court. Throughout this walk, I hope you've been taking in the views of the river and Gatineau. Many people living in the National Capital never take this path and I think you'd agree that they are missing a real treat.


From a 'Plan and section of the first eight locks at Entrance Bay, 1828' by John Burrows, signed by John By, 5th May 1828

As you go past the Supreme Court, you enter Bellows Bay, which is named after Caleb Bellows who operated a store/tavern in 1824 across the bay at what was then called Bellows Landing but today, known as Richmond Landing.


You are approaching a parking lot that lies just below the Library and Archives Canada building. This parking lot covers a spot where at least two historians say that in May 1660, 25 yr.-old Adam Dollard-des-Ormeaux, commander of the garrison at Ville-Marie (today, Montreal), with sixteen volunteer riflemen and four Algonquin warriors fought 200 Haudenosaunee warriors at the Battle of the Long-Sault, preventing them from attacking Ville-Marie.


Hold the canoe! you may say. I think I remember my history and wasn't that battle fought about 90 km downriver at ... let me think ... LONG-SAULT?


According to both aforementioned historians there are three interesting facts that get in the way of that story. First of all, according to the account of a survivor, it took six days to reach the rough stockade where Dollard-des-Ormeaux and his men would make their stand. However, Long-Sault would have been no more than a 3-day paddle from Ville-Marie. Secondly, the account says the stockade was at the foot of les chutes Chaudière – a 6-day paddle from Ville Marie. (Long-Sault was never called Chaudière) And, thirdly, TW Edwin Sowter, an early 20th century archaeologist/naturalist who discovered many indigenous sites along the Ottawa, claimed there was a rough "indian" stockade at the foot of Perley St. at Bellows Bay.


Now, I won't argue whether these historians got it right or wrong, but you have to admit, this sure is an interesting addition to the Capital's Curious History.


Stop 5 - What's in a street name?

Leaving the Trans-Canada Trail at Wellington Street, head east along Wellington, past the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) building and walk back towards Parliament Hill. Do stop in front of the LAC, though, to take a selfie sitting on the Secret Bench of Knowledge ... it's how I learnt all that I have about the Capital's secret history.

Secret Bench of Knowledge by Lea Vivot

When you get to the parking lot past the Archives, turn and face south. You will be facing the two Memorial Buildings and the Memorial Arch, which crosses over Lyon Street. Lovely as they are, the buildings are not really what you want to focus on.


Detail from "View at the West End of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, Looking East" by Thomas Burrowes 1845

Right about at the center of the west Memorial Building on your right, between its two doorways, would have been the walkway that led up to the front door of Nicholas Sparks' beautiful stone house that stood with its back on Sparks St. for well over a century.


When it was built some time between 1825 and 1830, it was the only house in the area. It had a full view of the river from the front yard, all the way down to Sparks's sawmill on the shore of Bellows Bay.


Nicholas Sparks's home c. 1930, Bytown Museum collection

Sparks bought most of the land that centretown Ottawa sits on and a good chunk of the land where the Rideau Canal would pass through, making him a fortune - considering he bought it all in 1821 for a measly 95£. He bought it, by the way, from the man, John Burrows Honey, who drew the beautiful maps in this article. Poor John Burrows made the worst deal a man could make.

You are facing Lyon Street, and as a quick aside, most people think that Lyon street is either named after William Lyon Mackenzie, a Canadian politician who led the Upper Canadian Rebellion or William Lyon Mackenzie King, a Canadian Prime Minister. It was not. It was named after Robinson Lyon, who came to Bytown from Richmond to manage the very popular Exchange Hotel that was at the corner of what would be Lyon and Sparks. The Exchange was a very popular hotel in its time, no doubt well-provisioned by Smith's Brewery, down by the bay.


Lyon Street’s original name was Sally Street. Remember the portrait in the Bytown Museum? Yes, that Sally ... Sally Olmstead. She was married to Nicholas Sparks and given that he owned all the land in this area, he got to name the streets, one for himself and another for his wife Sally. Her full name, by the way, was Sarah Olmstead Wright Sparks - that's Wright as in, Philemon Wright Jr., Philemon & Abigail's oldest son, the heir apparent, who died tragically in 1821. Sally was his widow and then married Nicholas, in 1825.


Her stern portrait leads one to believe that Sparks may never have ever crossed Sally, but we now know ... it did!


Stop 6 - Old Fort Ottawa ... what could have been.

View at the West End of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, Looking East by Thomas Burrowes 1845

Ambling up Wellington is always pleasant, for all of the important structures you see there today, but as you amble, you can let your imagination wander to a time before Confederation when it would have been a tree-lined boulevard, which by Col. By's plan was as wide as it is today, with stately mansions and buildings leading to Barrack Hill.


Originally, Parliament Hill was called Barrack (or Barracks) Hill because - well - there were barracks on it. Lt.-Col. John By used the location as a military outpost in the early 19th century to house much of the military personnel that would oversee the construction of the Canal.


Today, the Hill is topped with what are arguably Canada's most beautiful buildings but can you imagine how different this hill would have looked with a huge fort on it? Yes, a FORT! Before the Canal was completed, the plan was to build a fort on Barrack Hill [2] but in the end, the powers that be thought that Col. By grossly overspent on the canal, leaving him to die in disgrace in England, and leaving the Hill with no topper.


From a 'Plan and section of the first eight locks at Entrance Bay, 1828' by John Burrows, signed by John By, 5th May 1828

It's a pretty good bet that if they had built that fort, the Parliament Buildings would have been built elsewhere - probably in Major's Hill Park, is my guess. That would mean there would be no Chateau Laurier, no Park, and sadly, you would have had to find another spot to have a beer at the beginning of this tour.


You can pull off your mask now as it is just a short walk back to the Market where the car is parked. You may be too tired to stop anywhere else, but if you're not, I suggest you walk up to Sparks Street and Elgin to go sit in the shade by the Canal or better yet, see if you can snag a table at D'Arcy McGee's, a place that evokes the history of Confederation's greatest orator; a man who was assassinated by ... never mind, that's another story for another day ;-)


Hope you enjoyed the walk.

Cheers and Happy Canada Day!

[1] Jean-André Cuoq was a 19th century priest & linguist who wrote, among other books, two lexicons of the Algonquin & Iroquois languages: Lexique de la langue Iroquoise, avec Notes et Appendices. (Montréal: J Chapleau et fils, 1882) and Lexique de la langue Algonquine.(Montréal: J Chapleau et fils, 1886). Cuoq wrote (in translation): "Let us therefore continue to write Ottawa, as it is pronounced, and not Outaouais, as it is not pronounced, and as it has never been pronounced", he explains. "The source of the error was the substitution of “ou” for the vowel sound written as “8" (as in “huit”) in early French orthography of the word 8ta8ois. The English “w” is much closer to the actual sound."


[2] Here is a more detailed view of the plan for the fort.

Plans signed by Lt. Col. John By and Lt. Col. Durnford - commander of the Royal Engineers in Canada; 1831


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