Evolution of an Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Neighbourhood in the 1800's
by Marc St. Pierre
November 18, 2010:
Painting by Gerald Trottier, 1946 - By Ward Market
Source: National Gallery of Canada
December 13, 2002:
Lower town's topography, economy and culturally diverse inhabitants, along with
such external influences as worldwide epidemics and land ownership acts all play
an important role in explaining why Lowertown looks the way it does.
Right from its very conception Lowertown was a planned community meant to
be home to Bytown's lower class of people. Sitting on the lower of two
plateaus just south of the mighty Ottawa river and east of the Rideau River,
the cedar swamp which was to be Lowertown was shadowed by Uppertown's
In the early 1820's Colonel By of the British Royal Engineers was hired to
build a canal from Lake Ontario to the Ottawa river for the purpose of providing
a safe passage for British troops. One of the first things he did upon arriving
in the Ottawa valley was to purchase a great piece of land on the south bank of
the Ottawa river opposite Wrightsville. Merging at this point were three large
rivers: the Ottawa, the Rideau and the Gatineau.
Colonel By set to work laying out the plans for an ‘Upper Town' and Military
Barracks, which were to be located on the higher plateau. It was in this
Uppertown that By originally planned to have all the important business and
institutions reside. He also wanted the rich aristocrats and merchants to
live here. In the lower cedar swamp to the east of Uppertown and the Canal
By divided the land according to a Georgian style, which was typical of the
time, especially amongst the British. Thus, Lowertown was set up on an
orthogonal street layout (or gridlock pattern) with several alterations made
by By himself, including the widening of York, George and King Edward Streets
to double the usual width of 66'. By's intention was to create a small
commercial area in the vicinity of York and George, while hoping that a
widened King Edward Street would act as a grand entrance to Bytown for
With the news of the building of a canal came floods of workers from
all over the place. Irish immigrants and French-Canadians poured in
from Quebec, while stone masons under the leadership of Thomas McKay
were hired en masse from Scotland and brought to Bytown. Thomas McKay
immediately set up a settlement east of the Rideau, called New Edinburgh,
and brought over his workers and their families to live there. On the
other hand almost all the French-Canadians and Irish settled in Lowertown
(probably not out of choice, but rather dictated by their lack of money).
With the influx of so many people, new business opportunities arose and
Lowertown also saw a rush of entrepreneurs who mainly chose to settle in
the market area.
So with an early cultural base of Irish and French-Canadians one may begin
to see why some of Lowertown looks as it does. For example, given that both
the Irish and French-Canadians were devote Catholics, it is no wonder that
there are two beautiful Catholic churches, St Brigids and St Anne's, as well
as the Notre-Dame Basilica, all within a small area. This is a testament to
the popularity of Catholicism in Lowertown and the density of the population
(to require three large centres of worship). The Catholic influence is also
visible in street names, such as St Patricks, St Andrew, St Joseph, Guiges
(the first Roman-Catholic Bishop of Ottawa) and Bruyere (named after Sister
Elizabeth Bruyere of Montreal).
Perhaps the major force in making Lowertown what it is today was the economy.
Ranging from squared timber, sawn lumber and wheat, to tourism, the economy of
Lowertown changed frequently and revolved around a number of staples and trades,
each one leaving its mark on the town landscape.
As soon as canal construction commenced little businesses began popping up
everywhere; a butchers shop was set up on Sussex St. by John and Charles
Sparrow, a wharf was built on St. Patrick St. and the Rideau river by James
Fitzgibbon, and a twelve home rental unit on Rideau and Dalhousie was set up
by Louis Maville (Mika-149).
Despite the arrival of new immigrants and businesses to Lowertown, Bytown's
economy was still dominated by Uppertown, that is, until the Rideau canal was
finished. The completion of this great building project, and the routing of
the Bywash along York Street to the Rideau river gave Lowertown an economic
advantage in that "the volume of water in the Bywash was sufficient to allow
the passage of delivery barges right through Lowertown"(Mika-150). This offered
businesses and the market a cheap, quick and affordable means of having goods
delivered to their doorsteps. As a result, Lowertown began to "outstrip its
neighbour on the hill in commercial activity"(Mika-150).
In addition to facilitating the delivery of goods, the Bywash became a source
of industrial power for Lowertown. Around 1830 a man by the name of Jean-Baptiste
St. Louis built Lowertown's first sawmill on York St. This sawmill was powered
by the flow of the Bywash (Mika-150). Mr. Louis also "established a grist mill on
York St, expecting to work it by the waste waters of the canal"(Bytown Pamphlet series #33-6) .
Unfortunately, this first grist mill failed and the venture was abandoned.
At the same time as the completion of the Rideau canal, Colonel By built a steamboat
landing in Sleigh Bay by Sussex Dr. As this was the quickest way to get into Bytown
from the Ottawa river, Lowertown soon experienced a nearly constant flow of travellers
and workers walking and riding along Sussex Dr, right by their marketplace. This
could very well have been the beginning of Lowertown's tourist trade and would
have had a profound impact on the market.
The entrepreneurs of Lowertown were quick to take advantage of this popular route
by providing services for the travellers and visitors. In the 1830's,
the stone-structured British Hotel was built by Donald McArthur on the corner of
Sussex and George- a business which probably would have floundered had there not
been so many people passing by on their way to Uppertown. Another man, named Lucius
Barney, set up the Bytown Hotel and Coffee House right next to Sleigh Bay and
"advertised that a carriage will be in waiting at the Steam Boat Wharf, on the
arrival of the SHANNON , to carry Passengers and Luggage to the
Bytown Hotel Gratis."(Mika-150).
Coinciding with the creation of the canal and the steamboat landing was the expansion
of the lumber industry. First begun in the early 1800's, the lumber industry
provided seasonal work for thousands of Lowertown residences. Each year citizens
and newly arrived immigrants would travel north and west of the city along
the Ottawa river and begin chopping trees down. The trees would then be tied
together and floated down the river. By far the most dangerous and troublesome
part of the journey was the Chaudiere Falls, as logs tended to jam there
requiring men to walk out on the logs and unclog the jam- a process which over the
years claimed the lives of dozens of men. As early as 1826 Colonel By, wishing to
encourage the timber industry and make it a safer business, built a rafting channel
on the south side of the falls. This channel was later improved to a crib slide,
which coincidently not only made log floating over the Chaudiere Falls much easier
and safer, but also attracted many tourists to Bytown to slide down the shoot on
The lumber industry began to visibly impact Lowertown when, in 1842, Britain ceased
to give preferential tariffs on colonial lumber, and exposed Canada to harsh
competition. Bytown, being one of the lumber capitals of the Canadas, relied
heavily on this staple industry and quickly sought for a new market. They found
one in America, and so moved from providing Britain with square timber to providing
the Americans with sawn lumber. It is at this time that businesses such as
Jean-Baptiste St. Louis' sawmill boomed.
In the thirst for quick and economic access to a greater market, merchants and Town
authorities in Bytown and Prescott decided to build a railway line between the two
towns. When the line was finally completed in 1854, goods could be loaded on a
train at McTaggart Street station (Picture below) in Lowertown and shipped to Prescott, where they
could then take the Grand Trunk Railway all over Ontario and Eastern North America.
City of Ottawa clerk William Lett adds that, "in addition to the facilities for
travel and transportation it afforded, it was the means of enhancing the value of
real estate..."(Bytown Pamphlet series #45-11). Aside from the economic spinoffs,
the railway spurred the building of much of north Lowertown. If one looks at a map
of Lowertown in 1842 the northernmost road is Bolton (now Bruyere). A map of the
1850's with the railroad, on the other hand, shows the addition of at least eight
east-west running streets to the north and Cathcart marketplace. As Lett said,
the railroad increased land value around the area, so its not surprising that
growth during that time was in the direction of McTaggart Street station. Also,
one may not be surprised that a marketplace was added so close to the station, as
it offered vendors and store owners easy access to goods arriving on the trains.
In addition, there was probably a number of tourist-based businesses located near
the station, such as a hotel or pub, to accommodate tourists arriving on the trains.
March 17, 2011: (added picture)
During the building of the railway and on through to the 1900's the Rideau Canal
saw its peak as a commercial waterway. In this time, dozens of merchants got into
the business of delivering and storing goods which were travelling along the canal.
Many large warehouses were erected along Sussex street and around the market.
Places like the Chateau Cheese Factory (later the pork packing plant) on 18 York
are a good example (Fletcher-82). They may have used the canal to ship their
products all over the world. They most definitely would have received their raw
products from other parts of Ontario via the canal, and refined them in the plants
before shipping them off or selling them in the Lowertown market. It is also
probable that the railway had a similar effect, attracting merchants to build
warehouses and factories close to the station.
The largest building complex in Lowertown, the Bruyere Hospital and Health Care
Centre, owes its existence not to wealthy merchants or aristocrats, but to
Lowertown's impoverished Catholic population and several epidemics of cholera,
typhus and influenza.
The cholera epidemic first struck Lowertown in 1832. Arriving by boat, the
disease quickly took hold in the poor population. Attempting to curb the
disease before it killed everyone, authorities and the quickly put together
Board of Health built an isolation hospital (a hastily put together wooden hut)
exactly where the Canadian Mint now stands on Sussex. They also built a special
wharf on Sleigh Bay so they could transport the sick, with minimum contact to the
public, straight to the hospital. Despite their efforts Bytown was still ravaged
by the sickness and the Board of Health never did follow through on its own
recommendations that Lowertown be cleaned up.
By 1845, Lowertown's population was much larger than the 1832 population, but
it still lived in the same squalid conditions. Although a major outbreak such
as the cholera one had not since occurred, there were still many reported
illnesses such as malaria (most likely due to the filthy state of the Bywash
and the cesspool of breeding mosquitos). On a whole, the lower class in
Lowertown, which was a large part of the population, was in a sorry state.
It was this which attracted Sister Bruyere and a group of Nuns to Lowertown to
construct a school and hospital.
The General Hospital, as it was called back then, was built on leased lots just
north of Bolton and south of Cathcart. Building went slowly due to lack of funds
and problems acquiring more land (the Sisters sent a petition to Bytown's
authorities for more land), but eventually a school and wooden hospital was erected -
and just in time. For, in 1847 typhus struck Lowertown.
Thousands of Irish immigrants were fleeing the Potato Famine and becoming infected
on the boat rides over to North America. When 3000 Irish arrived in the summer of
1847 typhus hit Lowertown like a storm. Once again the Board of Health was quickly
reenacted and sick were isolated on the West side of the Canal in wooden sheds.
There were so many sick that the sheds became overcrowded and people were forced to
sleep under boats and tents. The Sister's immediately offered their land and services
and an addition was begun on the brand new hospital. By the end of the typhus epidemic,
nearly all the Sisters' volunteers had quit and a great many of the Nuns themselves
were ill, but they still managed to treat "619 typhus victims, of whom 167 died"
(Mika-173). Aside from the loss of life, the effect of typhus on Lowertown was
that it convinced politicians that the petition for more land by the Sisters was
justified. In the subsequent years Lowertown's booming population and a nasty
worldwide pandemic of Influenza in 1917 fuelled the construction of the huge Elizabeth
Bruyere Health Care Centre.
In terms of accounting for the design of actual buildings in Lowertown, much can
be explained by looking at land ownership issues, building products available and
the builders themselves. Between 1832 and 1844 By had a Vesting act in place
stating that no one in Lowertown could own property, it must be leased for periods
of 30 years. Accordingly, the citizens of Lowertown put little effort into the
building of their homes. They were usually made of wood and were probably not
repaired (they may have been used as firewood when they began to fall apart).
It was only when the Vesting act was lifted that people began to put some money
into their homes. One sees a number of stone houses all built around this time,
such as the Rathier House of 1862 and the homes of the Tim House Court
(Fletcher-85 and 91). It is because people only began to build solid, long lasting
stone homes in the 1840's that one does not see many private pre-1840 buildings in
Building material ranged from wood to stones and bricks. Of these, the cheapest
and least dependable was wood. The vast majority of early wood homes are now gone,
having fallen apart or been used for firewood. It was in these homes that lived
the poorest citizens, the Irish and French-Canadian. Conversely, most early
stone homes which have survived to today were built well and with good material.
They would have been owned by rich merchants and businessmen and were probably
built by the best masons- the Scots. For these reasons, most of the buildings
we see today are representative of a minority of Lowertown's historic population,
the rich, and they reflect a pretty uniform style of building because most were
built by people of the same cultural background and trained in the same areas.
The vast majority of buildings left standing today have smoothly cut stones on the
front, public side of the house, while the rear and sides of the house made use of
rough cut stones. Nearly all the houses have overhanging eave areas on the rooves,
usually of ornately, foliated-style carved wood or stone, and most of the homes have
smaller symmetrically-placed windows on the front of the house, with few windows
on the back.
Over the past one hundred and fifty years Lowertown has changed dramatically.
There is no longer a dirty, muddy wooden shanty town inhabited by Irish and
French-Canadians. Most of the buildings are no longer of either a wood or stone
construction - brick facia and aluminium siding have found their way onto the scene.
There is a popular movement to restore homes to their mid-nineteenth century styles,
especially the French-Canadian clap-board style which was all but wiped out because
of the building materials used.
The market place has partly retained its function as a commercial place, although
these days it is more of a tourist area than anything, as supermarkets satisfy
consumer needs for food. The whole market area has also turned to entertainment,
providing probably the largest selection of nightlife ventures in the whole
capital region. Lastly, factories and warehouses have totally disappeared from
Lowertown as the Canal is no longer an economic means of transporting goods, and
the railway has been moved.
by Marc St. Pierre, Fall 2002.
Mika, Nick et al. Bytown- The Early Days of Ottawa Mika Publishing Company, Belleville, Ontario, 1982.
Lett, William Pittman. The Transition of Bytown to Ottawa 1827-1877 in the Bytown Pamphlet Series. The Historical Society of Ottawa Publications, 1993.
Van Cortlandt, Gertrude. Records of the Rise and Progress of the City of Ottawa in the Bytown Pamphlet Series. The Historical Society of Ottawa Publications, 1990.
Fletcher, Katharine. Capital Walks: Walking Tours of Ottawa McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1993.
Lowertown in 1879
Note the double-wide market streets (George and York)
and the route of the railway.
Source: Belden's Atlas
scanned and sent to us by Suzanne O'Neill, July 2007
August 2, 2007 (map)
Features to observe while doing this walk:
November 3, 2002:
- The lowertown area is generally a flat topography (it was originally
a cedar swamp). It is quite high above the Ottawa River, but not as high as
Barrack's Hill. The only good river accesses are the sites of the original
steamship wharf and the present site of the Canoe Club.
- Be aware of the "constructed" landscape - the Rideau Canal locks, the
Georgian military plan of the site and the age of the buildings. It was not
until the Vesting Act of 1844 released the land to private ownership that
brick and stone buildings began to replace the log houses and shanties.
The heirarchy of building construction is:
1. Cut stone
2. Stone Rubble
3. Brick - first brick yard in Bytown was built in 1832
4. Wooden post and beam (log and deal)
5. Balloon Frame - present day
- The commercial aspect of the area was centered around the market on
George and York Streets. Both of these streets were twice as wide as normal
streets (132 feet vs. 66 feet). There are some interior courtyards which
allowed for horse-drawn carts to make deliveries and turn around at the rear
of the buildings. In the days before refrigeration, meat could only be sold
at the market. Cathcart Square was a stockyard/butchery which processed animals
which arrived by train. The Bytown and Prescott Railway (1854) Station was close
by on McTaggart Street (see map above). The McTaggart street area was populated
by Irish squatters until it was razed (downed) because it was an eyesore for
dignitaries passing by on Sussex Drive towards the residences of the Prime Minister
and Governor General. McTaggart Street was named after John McTaggart who was a
contractor on the Rideau Canal construction between 1826 and 1832. He wrote a book
called Three Years in Canada, 1826-1828.
- There are many Catholic institutions due to the prominent French and
Irish cultures. Notre Dame Basilica is the only example of "high" Gothic
architecture. The other buildings, while of heritage interest, are vernacular.
- The Lowertown area, in the 19th century, became the point of first residence
for most immigrants to the city. Irish Catholic canal labourers, French commercial
enterprises (suppliers to the fur trade and early workers in the square timber
trade) were followed by the first Jewish immigrants who settled in the King
Edward area beginning in the late 1800's.
- The Champagne Bath is located on King Edward Avenue. Similar to Plant Bath
on Preston Street, the two were known as "baths for the boys" combining hygiene
facilities and swimming pools. Hey, in the 1950's a man named McCann (I think),
taught thousands of neighbourhood kids how to swim.
Time Series Source: Ottawa: An Illustrated History, by John Taylor, page 211
June 23, 2008:
Here is a map from Professor John Taylor's book, Ottawa: An Illustrated History, page 70.
See also our page on the surveying and development of the area shown as Ottawa Ward on the map.
January 4, 2010:
Hi happy new year. I am looking for info if possible for the where abouts of the national restaurant on Sussex street.
Its listed in 1864/65 Ottawa directory but there is no address listed. would really like to know exact address it was my
great great grandfathers establishment
Any info would be appreciated
... J Lafontaine
Good evening, Mr.Lafontaine:
Thanks for your e-mail regarding the National Restaurant on Sussex Street in Ottawa.
I’ve had a look through my mateial here and am unable to find anything about the National Restaurant. Attached is a photo,
dated about 1870, showing the south end of Sussex Drive, near where it joins up with Rideau Street. This picture comes
from a book called “The Mile of History” which describes the importance of the mile or so of streets from
Parliament Hill to the end of Sussex Street. It will at least give you a sense of what Sussex looked liked at that time.
The wide street coming into Sussex from the right of the picture is George Street. It was the main market street in
Ottawa. You can see horse-drawn buggies on George Street.
There is no reference to the National Restaurant, but there are names of the owners of some restaurants over the years.
I didn’t see any references to the name Lafontaine in connection with these restaurants.
Was your grandfather a Lafontaine? The name is well-known in the Ottawa area. I’m pretty sure that there was a Lafontaine Hotel
in uppertown Ottawa (around Queen Street?) in the 1970’s. Possibly a descendant?
With your permission, I’d like to add your e-mail enquiry to our web page at www.bytown.net/lowertown.htm along with the attached picture.
Hopefully someone will have some information for us.
Let me know if this is OK with you.
Thanks for the info you have. I have an email from Gaelynn Wall stating that in city directory 1869/70 the National restaurant
with Leon / Roy names was on thecorner Murray and Sussex street. However didnt know what corner. My research comes
from city directory 1864/65 stating national restaurant in several places listing owners Edouard and Moise Lafontaine.
The only two building i see on line are Richard Robison building and haunted The earl of Sussex Pub. The other corner
museum and US embassy I believe from looking at google map. I dont know how long he was there. My family research has been
difficult because of name change in 1880's by his wife after he died in 1881 Toronto. The actual name was fontaine bienvenue
from Quebec. Stories growing up was told by grandparent we were related to Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Zoe Lafontaine .
But I have found to be untrue, however I believe they must have frequented establishment perhaps because of location to area.
That would make more sense. I finally cracked my genealogy tree and want to find out more about his life. I also was told that
he had concessions on a steamship. This might be around this time. It's nice to finish story.
Anymore info appreciated.
... Joe Lafontaine
Photo Source, below: The Mile of History, National Capital Commission, 1981, page 54
January 6, 2010:
I just read about the request for information on the National restaurant on Sussex St. from Mr. Lafontaine.
If you go to the digital newpaper site and put National restaurant and Ottawa Citizen
you will find advertisements about this establishment for the year 1861.
It looks like they had pretty good food and delivered. Here is a copy of an ad from April 12, 1861:
Thanks for this, John. Gaelynn Wall informed Joe that the National Restaurant was located at the corner of Murray and Sussex Streets.
According to the ad above, it was on "Sussex West". We're getting close!
February 2, 2011:
Marc Aubin, of the Lowertown Community Association, is looking for old photos of the old houses in Lowertown.
He is especially interested in photographs of houses and businesses in the eastern parts of By Ward and Ottawa Ward.
February 5, 2013:
This article was written last night. http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/ottawa/Lowertown+schoolhouse+risk+collapse+city+says/7917486/story.html
Driving home, I was shocked to see barriers around this wonderful Lowertown / Market heritage building Monday evening. It is reminiscent of our
lost buildings at 160 and 162 Waller Street, that disappeared so suddenly overnight.
Last year Ottawa Heritage president Leslie Maitland argued that the Ogilvy Mall was being destroyed through demolition by neglect and that the
city should enforce the neglect bylaws that are already on the books. No action was taken. The same bylaw should be enforced here for the
lowertown school house at St Patrick St, and Cumberland St. I do not think that it is OK for owners/developers to leave our lovely heritage
buildings unattended or cared for in hopes that eventually they can point to the deteriorated structures as unsafe and just tear them down
as is being done with the Ogilvy Mall. For too long the City of Ottawa has been lackadaisical on the heritage front, with weak and laughable
penalties for those who have no respect for treasured heritage buildings. Remember the mall facade that was being “saved” at the site which
is now 90 George St. there was zero effort put into preserving it, they just declared it unsafe, tore it down, and went about continuing
construction. It's well known that the penalties are very affordable. If you go to other Canadian cities, there is a clear and conscious
approach to protecting heritage buildings. Just try and touch a heritage structure near the Halifax Pier and you will never do business in
that city again. Ever. Can Ottawa not put in any noticeable effort to protect the significant buildings that it is charged with looking after?
The barriers around the lowertown schoolhouse today, speak of a sense of immediacy and I am really worried that the wrong move will be taken. Again.
John O'Sullivan, Broker
Keller Williams Ottawa Realty, Brokerage
See also Uppertown, a contrasting neighbourhood.
and the Glebe, Ottawa's first suburb.
and Sandy Hill.
E-mail Marc St. Pierre, John O'Sullivan and Al Lewis
Back to Bytown or Bust - History and Genealogy in the Ottawa area