|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.
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 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.
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