The time we nearly filled in that ‘practically useless stretch of waterway’ known as the Rideau Canal

Think of some of the iconic postcard images of Ottawa — skaters on the Rideau Canal during wintertime with the majestic Château Laurier in the background; a springtime view of beds of brightly coloured tulips at Dow’s Lake; pleasure craft plying the locks at Entrance Bay, where the canal empties into the Ottawa River.

Now imagine that none of those things exists anymore. The Rideau Canal, as we currently know it, has been filled in from Dow’s Lake to the Château Laurier to better accommodate street traffic and train tracks.

Instead of meandering through Old Ottawa South, Old Ottawa East, the Glebe, Sandy Hill and Centretown, surrounded on both sides by driveways and bike paths, the canal now empties into the Ottawa River at the end of Preston Street, in a straight-line flue from Dow’s Lake. Except there is no Dow’s Lake anymore, after it, too, was filled in, in this case to create a military parade ground of unparalleled empty flatness.

It may sound harebrained, but just over a century ago, the city came within a breath of undergoing just such a de-beautification project when progress, in the form of the Canadian Pacific Railway, with support from media and engineers and planning experts, set about to rid the city of one of its most inconvenient waterways: the Rideau Canal.

By the turn of the last century, the canal was already an aging edifice — a seventyish-year-old aqueduct that never had to live up to its promise as a military supply route between Kingston and Montreal should the Americans attack Canada and blockade the St. Lawrence River.

Instead, it had become a commercial waterway of some note: in 1909, for example, almost 92,000 tons of goods found their way through its locks. In Ottawa, canoeists and others would avail themselves of its waters for weekend and evening paddles, while it also provided “neutral” ground for occasional competitions between rival Rockcliffe and Britannia rowing clubs.

Although not organized or sanctioned like today’s Winterlude festivities, people did skate on the canal in the winter, and its wharfs allowed it to be used to ferry passengers about town in the summer. And occasionally, especially in those perilous times in between, Ottawans, many of them children, drowned in the canal. As a brief in the Ottawa Citizen on Nov. 25, 1909 declared, “The winter drowning season has now opened. The Rideau canal and small bodies of water are sufficiently frozen over to tempt the adventurous skater, but the ice is not thick enough to be safe.”

So there was hardly the sort of hue and cry you might expect today when, on May 5, 1910, the CPR filed plans with the city’s registry office to drain the canal from Waverley to Wellington streets and use its bed for railway tracks to the new Central train station just beginning construction across the street from Château Laurier. The CPR plan also called for the construction of a train tunnel from what is now the National War Memorial, under Wellington and Sparks streets to the company’s lines and the original Union Station at LeBreton Flats.

Meanwhile, water from the blocked-up canal would be diverted through Sandy Hill to the Rideau River.

The plan, the Citizen wrote when it was announced, will “not only be a greater convenience to the citizens of Ottawa and the yearly increasing number of visitors to the Capital than has been hoped for, but will materially tend to make the city’s position on the great transcontinental road a more important one than it occupies it today. It will, in fact, be a powerful factor in the actual realization of Ottawa’s laudable ambition to become a great railway center … ”

The Ottawa Journal was more cynical about CPR’s “nervy” plan, accusing the company of simply trying to make more money by not having to pay track dues to the Grand Trunk railway and Interprovincial Bridge Company for the common practice then of routing trains through Hull and having to back trains in and out of Ottawa’s stations.

The Journal also quoted an unnamed official from the Militia and the Defence Department, who called the canal-filling plans “a wild dream ‘which the people of Canada would never consent to.’”

Among the most iconic images of Ottawa shows skaters on the Rideau Canal in winter. More than a century ago, there was much discussion about filling in the canal and using this portion for railway tracks.

The Journal agreed. In an editorial regarding the plan and the Ottawa Board of Trade’s opposition to it, the paper argued that the city should fight the proposal, at least the canal portion of it, “tooth and nail.”

CPR vice-president David McNicoll argued otherwise, noting that opposition to closing the canal was sentimental, and not business-minded. As for its military importance, he explained that “if the integrity of the empire was to be dependent on the Rideau canal it was time to throw up hands.” And if the canal were cleared of transport ships, bridges spanning it would not be required to have 33 feet of clearance space, and so could be built at a fraction of the cost.

At a Retail Merchants Association meeting in October, consulting engineer Noulan Cauchon, who later became the first head of the Ottawa Town Planning Commission, argued that if traffic on the canal from Dow’s Lake through Ottawa could be kept to pleasure craft, 15 low-level bridges could be built for the cost of the single, higher Bank Street bridge then being proposed.

“He said,” reported the Citizen, “that the city is being hampered in its growth because of this canal, and the property on the other side could have no connection with the street cars, which would not operate over swing bridges.” Traffic between Dow’s Lake and the Ottawa River, he further argued, did not warrant the $140,000 annual expenditure (more than $3 million today) in upkeep.

The Citizen agreed with Cauchon. In a lengthy editorial, it argued that the Rideau Canal, and the Rideau River, posed serious impediments to Ottawa’s reaching its inarguable destiny of becoming a great city. A great city, it suggested, requires that a passenger rail terminal be located in the vicinity of the houses of parliament and government department offices. “(I)s it not a foregone conclusion that sooner or later the Rideau canal must be closed to navigation, and even entirely drained and filled up from St. Louis dam to the foot of the locks? … Already the city is being seriously cramped by the existence of this waterway.

“As the city continues to grow, this condition of affairs will not be tolerated.”

Filling in the “practically useless stretch of waterway,” it added, would open up the city, allowing streets formerly cut off from one another by the canal to access their counterparts on the opposite side.

In another editorial three days later, the Citizen continued to voice its support. “Until the railway company made its proposition,” it reminded readers, “the people of Ottawa had come to regard the canal as a permanent immutable obstacle in the very midst of the city. The canal has been there since before the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and it had not really occurred to anybody that the canal might not be there for all time to come.” Until now, it continued, all civic efforts have been directed at overcoming that obstacle — with expensive bridges — instead of removing it.

“But the cold fact is brought to public attention that that portion of the canal through the city forms an obstacle that must be got rid of sooner or later, and the sooner the better.”

In April 1911, city council heard a 23-page report from city engineer Newton Ker and William Francis Tye, the latter a consulting engineer who five years earlier had been the CPR’s chief engineer. In it, the pair essentially supported the CPR plan, with a few additions. A new length of the canal would be built, extending from Dow’s Lake straight to the Ottawa River. It would be dug deep enough to accommodate ocean-going vessels, and would connect to the proposed Georgian Bay canal, a not-yet-abandoned plan to route Great Lakes ships through Ottawa and Montreal via Georgian Bay, the French River, Lake Nipissing and the Ottawa River. This, the report argued, would attract industry to the city while also encouraging the growth that the canal’s current path prevented.

Additionally, the report noted that with Pennsylvania’s coal supply estimated to run out in 30 years, the Ottawa River’s water supply almost guaranteed “a great and clean manufacturing center in the Ottawa Valley.”

“The City of Ottawa, provided a proper connection with the Georgian Bay canal be made, has, from its present size and importance, the best chance to become this manufacturing center.

“The Rideau canal,” it concluded, “should undoubtedly be moved and so reconstructed as to give this connection, and at the same time to provide abundance of good manufacturing sites.”

Later that year, city council approved the train tunnel, but not the canal relocation. Railway tracks instead ran alongside the canal, on what is now Colonel By Drive. Despite the matter’s being raised occasionally over the next handful of years, the tunnel was ultimately never built, and Ottawa never became a deepwater port city.

In November 1911, Cauchon suggested filling in much of Dow’s Lake and using the reclaimed land as a military parade ground. That, too, never transpired.

This story was brought to you by the letter R, for Rideau Canal, and is part of a 26-story series about Ottawa, one for each letter of the alphabet.

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