Seven lost tourist attractions on the Ottawa waterfront

As I get ready for my Jane’s Walk tour on Sunday, Bike Tour: Ottawa’s Stolen Urban Waterfront (and how to get it back) I’m getting a rare chance to dig through a lot of old photographs and postcards of the city from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. And it’s amazing to me how much has changed, and how much really amazing, quirky, and lively stuff we’ve lost over the 200 short years we’ve been an urban centre.

Is that retrogressive nostalgia for a mythical bygone era? Maybe. I hope not. I hope it leads to a hopeful discussion about the future of these places, and the city’s waterfronts as a whole.

But as you look at these “lost attractions”, try to imagine how the City’s urban fabric would be different if these things were still there.  And how much buzz, excitement, (and yes City Hall, revenue) could be building around Ottawa if tourist guides still listed them as reasons to visit Ottawa.

Seven lost attractions that surprised me:

Chaudiere Falls as it looked in 1870

Chaudiere Falls

The Falls were not only the reason the City grew here and not – as British planners originally hoped – 20 km inland in Richmond; they were also Ottawa’s earliest, and most dearly treasured, tourist attraction. Champlain himself commented on the beauty of the falls, and every other postcard and souvenir map from before the 1930’s shows the falls in all their untamed beauty. Even early postcards of the Parliament buildings were almost always done from an angle that would show the falls in the background.

So what happened? Of course, now the falls are so strangled by hydro dams and hidden behind the decaying mills on Chaudiere Island that most Ottawans couldn’t even tell you where they are. And where is the great “Free the Chaudiere” movement that could help us work towards restoring this treasure? Hmm. Now there’s an idea…

Victoria Island Timberslide

Prince of Wales rides slide in 1901

This channel cut through Victoria Island used to draw visitors and gawkers to see the huge cribs of timber from the upper Ottawa as they slid down to bypass the Chaudiere Falls. It was such a large attraction that not one, but two Princes of Wales- and future Kings of England – rode down the slide on ceremonial rafts: King Edward VII in 1860 and King George V in 1901.

So what happened? The slide was converted to sluiceway in early 20th century, which can still be seen as an overgrown ditch with a rusting metal trough.

Lover’s Walk

The long lost Lover's Walk

This was a very popular 19th century attraction is featured on most downtown maps before the first World War. It was a forested promenade running around the back of Parliament Hill about 2/3 of the way up the slope, allowing even well-heeled ladies in hoop skirts to walk from Wellington near the canal around Parliament and emerge on Bank Street at its Western end. Here’s some glowing tourist-guide copy about Lover’s Walk.

So what happened? Sadly, this attraction was dismantled in the 1930’s due to a few landslides and some temperance-era moral concerns (corrupting the young and all that). You can still see the ruins in the photos on this great Urbsite post about Lover’s Walk.

Canal Basin

Canal Basin and "By Wash" canal

I was shocked to discover that there used to be a sizable body of water in downtown Ottawa, with docks for steamships and other canal boats extending East and West from the canal where Confederation Park and the Conference Centre are now – as well as a secondary canal that ran from the basin to the Rideau River through what is now the Rideau Centre and Byward Market. Imagine if that body of water looked like this.

So what happened? The relentless growth of Ottawa gradually covered over or filled in the parts of this water system. First the ByWash was “infrastructured” out of existence – with new sewers and drains. Then the East side of the Basin was “railed” out of existence. And finally, the West side was “roadwayed” and “parked” to death.

Britannia Amusement Park and Dance Hall

How awesome would this be?

Built by the owners of the Britannia tram line as a reason to use the line on weekends, this park became Britannia Beach. In addition to a steam train ride for kids, and a few other small attractions, there was also a steamboat terminal that doubled as a dance hall that extended out into the Bay on wooden stilts connected by a long a boardwalk to the beach.

So what happened? Sadly, the dance hall burned during first world war, the trams stopped running, and only recently has a restaurant opened to bring a bit of life back to this urban jewel.

Lansdowne Park

Lansdowne as it appeared around 1890

Lost in the debate over Lansdowne Park was the fact that the space was once an actual waterfront *public space*, before Queen Elizabeth Drive, fence, stadium, and parking lot created mental blockades around the park. Old drawings and photos show buildings right up to the edge of the canal.

So what happened?  Roads. Jurisdictional disputes. Decay. Sole source “renewal”. What didn’t happen? The new plan for Lansdowne will create more parkland, but not the canal-facing restaurants and cafes our city so desperately lacks, and sadly, the roadway remains.

Nepean Bay Beach

Aerial photo from 1950s

Okay, I cheated on this one. It never became a public space per se. But it could have been a jewel. There used to be a sandy beach that stretched between Le Breton Flats (where the War Museum is now) and the Prince of Wales Rail Bridge, and curved inland almost as far South as the Scott /Albert corridor.

In the 1950 Greber Plan, Jacques Greber identified this area as an ideal place for a public park and beach, or in the words of the plan:

“NEPEAN BAY, BORDERED BY A DRIVEWAY, WOULD BECOME A LARGE RECREATIONAL CENTRE AND BEACH OF MAJOR IMPORTANCE.”

So what happened? And there’s the rub as well. Greber’s words “Bordered By a Driveway” evolved into “utterly Destroyed by a four-lane high speed roadway” and the vast embankment that engineers built to support it cut straight across the bay in the mid 60’s. Now the shoreline of the Bay is not much of a Bay at all – just a narrow path with no room for any sort of public space.

Here's what Greber had in mind for Nepean Bay - and the rest of the waterfront

Comments

  1. A great post, Dennis. It’s interesting to think how different our city would be if we took better advantage of our waterfront. I’ve passed along the think to my colleagues as we’re always interested in learning more about the city… Good luck on your Jane’s Walk, I’m sure you’ll knock ’em dead! 

  2. postpomo says:

    thanks for sharing this – interesting look at what our city could be – I’m just glad we didn’t take the Kingston route and build a prison on our pristine waterfront land =)
     

    •  @postpomo True. We are deflinitely not the only City that historically has neglected our waterfront. Although in Kingston’s case, with the news that they’re shutting the old Pen down, word has it they might be gaining a waterfront tourist attraction.

      • postpomo says:

         @DenVan  I honestly don’t know if a tourist attraction is an improvement or not 😉

        • @postpomo Fair point. But that classic old stone building could be put to some public use – and create a gathering place along the waterfront. Ottawa tore down most of our old buildings in an orgy of parkway building in the 1960s.

        • postpomo says:

          As much as I enjoy the parkway (and the impromptu inukshut building site), there could be a wiser use of the space – I imagine a proper tea-house would be simply lovely…

  3. Chris082681 says:

    @DenVan Do you know if there is any realistic likelihood of restorations to the Chaudiere waterfront? I would volunteer my time to help put together petitions. I consider Ottawa history to be quite riveting and packed with drama. It would be amazing to see the natural beauty of the Ottawa River come back to life. Have you ever been to Granville Island in Vancouver? Something similar (but a little more natural) would be incredible(for tourism too). Parkland, shops,  markets, farmers markets, cafes!! and all beside the roaring Chaudiere falls in all her beauty and glory!!! Wouldn’t hurt to throw a whitewater park for whitewater enthusiasts too to boost the city’s sports image.

  4. in yr last photo, you can see Russell Island just out from the dam. there’s not even a hint of it out there now & it’s obviously not because it was submerged after the dam was built. do you happen to know what the story behind its disappearance is?

  5. This is great! Just discovered your blog and your work.

    Helping a child with a project on Bytown and interested in the Bywash map – do we credit you or does it come from somewhere? Thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. […] kilometers bike ride with stories about access to Ottawa’s Waterfront (or the lack thereof). http://denvan.ca/wp/lost-tourist-attractions/  With input from Alayne McGregor of Citizens for Safe Cycling. Share this with cycling […]

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