History of Ottawa

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If Samuel de Champlain were to return to modern-day Ottawa, he would likely shake his head in wonderment at what has transpired in the years since his last visit some four centuries ago. In 1613, he was the first European to tour the area, which had long served as hunting grounds for the Outaouais tribe of Algonquin Indians. Champlain took the time to christen the Chaudière Falls (French for "cauldron") and observe Indian sacrifices of tobacco before venturing deeper into the continent.

In the two following centuries the region served as little more than a camping stop along the Ottawa River, which was named by the French fur traders who followed Champlain's lead. In 1800, a United Empire Loyalist (a supporter of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War) named Philemon Wright left Massachusetts, snowshoed down the Ottawa River, and found a likely spot to found a permanent settlement. Originally called Wrightstown, the tiny community was later renamed Hull in honour of the English birthplace of Wright's parents. Wrightsville grew in the early 19th century as British demand for wood exploded. The Napoleonic Wars, and Britain's lumber-hungry shipyards, made the Ottawa region's thick pine forests a valuable commodity; Wright cleared the forests and floated timber down the Ottawa River to Montreal.

In 1826, construction began on the Rideau Canal. Lieutenant-Colonel John By and his workforce of French, Irish, and Scottish workers completed the 202-kilometre, 47-lock canal in 1832. It was originally designed to keep military marine traffic safe from American invasion of the St. Lawrence River. As a defence project the canal was useful in theory only; shortly after its completion it proved much more valuable for industrial purposes. The canal shifted development to the south side of the river where Ottawa (originally known as Bytown, after the canal's builder)now stands.

An influx of European immigrants flocked to the region, and Wrightsville and Bytown quickly earned their legendary reputations as beery, brawling logging towns. A group of American lumber barons descended upon the area in the 1840s, expanding the squared-timber trade and establishing the two communities as their centre of operations in the Ottawa River Valley. In 1850, the Chaudière Falls were harnessed, providing the power for the largest concentration of milling operations in the world.

Controversial capital
The late 1850s were a turning point for the rough-and-tumble Bytown community. It was renamed Ottawa in an attempt to shed its sordid reputation, and to enhance its chances as a contender for the capital of the Province of Canada. When it won the honor, chosen with seeming arbitrariness by Queen Victoria, who had taken a fancy to watercolours she had seen of the area, Ottawa became the center of a political maelstrom. Leaders in the other contending cities of Montreal, Toronto and Kingston were furious--at times, it seems they still are--but there was method to Victoria's madness. Ottawa sat conveniently along the border between English Ontario and French Quebec, geographically balancing Canada's two founding nations, and it also could be easily defended militarily by virtue of its remoteness from the United States. Indeed, as one American newspaper noted, any "invaders would inevitably be lost in the woods trying to find it."

Construction on the neo-gothic Parliament Buildings began in 1860, and in 1867 they became home to the federal government of the Dominion of Canada, which initially comprised Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. The "Westminster in the Wilderness" was a bizarre study in contrasts: the stately centre block of Parliament Hill towered over the haphazardly-planned bustle of industrial Ottawa, and the circular, flying-buttressed Library of Parliament overlooked an Ottawa River that was often tightly packed with floating lumber. Rideau Hall, the palatial residence of the Queen's representative in Canada, was also completed in 1867, in nearby Rockliffe. All of Canada's Governors General have lived there since its construction, including one Lord Stanley of Preston, who, in 1892, donated the silver cup that bears his name. (It was the National Hockey League Ottawa Senators who masterminded the first professional Stanley Cup dynasty, winning four Cups between 1920 and 1927.)

A more presentable city
In 1899, the Canadian government concluded that if Ottawa were to be a worthy capital of the vast and steadily expanding Dominion, some planning would be in order, and thus the Ottawa Improvement Commission (OIC) was established. A wholesale restructuring of the city ensued, along with a cleanup of the Rideau Canal and the creation of scenic boulevards. A park system was begun, and, in 1912, the Grand Trunk Railway Company's Union Station and Chateau Laurier were opened. Development was hampered, however, by a massive fire in April, 1900. It wiped out a swath of the community from Hull across the river all the way to Dow's Lake at the south end of the city. Another fire in 1916 destroyed all but the northwest wing and the Library at Parliament Hill. Although most of Canada's resources at the time were directed to the war in Europe, reconstruction began almost immediately and by 1922 Parliament had been rebuilt. The new structure featured the 89.5m Peace Tower in the centre block, erected to honour the 66,000 Canadians who died in the First World War. The tower houses a memorial chamber, an observation deck, and a 60-ton, 53-bell carillon considered one of the finest in the world.

In 1936, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who ran the country for 22 years, became acquainted with the renowned French civil architect Jacques Gréber. Gréber provided the blueprint for the broad park corridors and 44.8-kilometre greenbelt, which give Ottawa its distinctively bucolic and open feel. Mackenzie King lived at Laurier House until 1949, and there visitors can see the portrait of his mother and the crystal ball from which he sought advice during the darkest days of Canada's involvement in the Second World War.

Ministerial mansions
King also maintained a country home at Kingsmere in the nearby Gatineau Hills. The sprawling estate features stone ruins carefully reconstructed from the bombed-out rubble of London's Houses of Parliament.

The gloom of the Second World War briefly lifted in Ottawa when the heirs to the Dutch throne, then riding out the war at Rideau Hall, found themselves in a quandary with the imminent birth of a new princess. In 1943, Parliament temporarily ceded a floor of the Ottawa Civic Hospital to the Netherlands so that Princess Margriet could be born a Dutch citizen on Dutch soil. This gesture, as well as Canada's leading role in the liberation of the Netherlands, led to a lasting bond between the two countries--one that has been symbolized every year since 1945 with the shipment of millions of Dutch tulips to Ottawa. The Ottawa Tulip Festival, held every May, is one of the region's most popular attractions.

In addition to the prime ministerial residence at 24 Sussex Drive, which has been in use since the 1950s, another official residence bears mention--the nuclear bomb-proof Diefenbunker in nearby Carp, Ontario, which was built in the early 1960s and is now open to the public. Constructed in total secrecy some 30 metres beneath a dairy farm (with the grudging permission of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker), the 100,000 square-foot complex was designed to enable the federal government to run the country in the event of an atomic attack.

A less sombre aspect of all things military also made its first appearance in the early 1960s: every day in the months of July and August the guardsmen and band members of the Ceremonial Guard have mount their changing of the guard ceremony on Parliament Hill.

The metropolitan population of Ottawa-Hull has grown to more than 1 million, and with its booming tourism industry the capital continues to round itself with such recent additions as the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The mid-1990s also saw Ottawa reinventing itself as the "Silicon Valley of the North," with a profusion of high-tech companies establishing themselves in the city's western suburbs.

Despite its somewhat sterile reputation among Canadians as a quiet, family-oriented city, Ottawa is both a bustling metropolis and a magnet for tourists from all over the world.

- Sean C. Jordan