Pre-construction, 1826-1858

On February 17th, 1858, the City of Ottawa and Bytown was officially declared the capital of the United Province of Canada. It was shocking that this industrial town on the northern edge of the wilderness could seriously be considered for such an honour, especially when the news arrived while the town was locked in the bitter cold of a typical Canadian winter!

Bird's eye view of Ottawa, 1857Larger, more sophisticated cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec were in the running as were many smaller but bustling cities such as Hamilton and London. However, the city of Ottawa had undeniable advantages: it was a safe distance from the border with the United States' border, had the Rideau Canal, and it was right on the line between Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). Politically, it seemed a very wise choice, an early example of one of the defining characteristics of our national identity, The Great Canadian Compromise!

Towering over the Ottawa River between the old Upper and Lower sections of the City of Ottawa and City of Ottawa and Bytown was a limestone cliff with a gently sloping top. For thousands of years it had stood as a landmark on the ancient river highway as native peoples and later European traders, adventurers and industrialists made their way to the interior of the continent. The builders of the Rideau Canal had used it as a military base and named it Barrack Hill, but the huge fortress planned for the location was never built and by 1858 it had lost its strategic importance. Greater things were in store for this commanding site, as the government began looking for a place to build a permanent home.

City of Ottawa and Bytown

When Colonel John By chose the site of Ottawa as the northern end of the Rideau Canal, he laid out two town sites, Upper and Lower Bytown. Upper Bytown was located to the west of Barrack Hill, and overlooked the Chaudière Falls. Lower Bytown was to the east, between the canal and the Rideau Falls.

From the beginning, Lower Bytown was the home of the more transient part of the population: raftsmen, lumberjacks and mill workers. Most of the rooms above the shops were hotels or boarding houses. The area was a thriving, colourful market community, populated by cobblers, blacksmiths, general merchants, grocers and many kinds of tradesmen.

By contrast, Upper Bytown boasted bankers, lawyers, doctors and upper class commercial establishments.

Fed by the booming lumber and milling industries, the towns grew quickly. By the mid-19th century, stylish shops, houses and public buildings were replacing the crudely designed buildings of the pioneer years. On January 1st, 1855, Bytown was officially incorporated as a city and changed its name to Ottawa. It had come a long way in just under 30 years.

When the news arrived three years later that Ottawa had been named the capital of the United Province of Canada, the city was mostly made up of ramshackle wooden buildings. The streets were piled high with snow in the winter, and knee deep in mud in the spring. The lumber barons lived well, but it was difficult to find a house grand enough for the Governor General. In the end, a country villa in New Edinburgh, named Rideau Hall, was rented—"temporarily". Canada's Governor General resides there to this day.

United Province of Canada

In 1837 Rebellions broke out in Upper and Lower Canada. The people were angry with the high-handed, elitist government led by the wealthy upper classes, known as the "Family Compact". The rebellions were put down and the leaders fled to the United States where they had friends.

The British didn't want another revolution on their hands, so Lord Durham was sent to investigate. Durham advised the British government to unite Upper and Lower Canada into a single province with a more responsible form of government. On February 10th, 1841, the Act of Union was proclaimed in Montreal. Upper Canada became Canada West, and Lower Canada, Canada East.

Durham had solved one problem, but another remained: where to put the capital?

Both Canada East and Canada West agreed to the Act of Union, but agreeing on a capital was quite another story. Lord Sydenham, the first Governor of the United Province, chose Kingston on the shores of Lake Ontario as his capital. A few years later, it was moved to the more cosmopolitan city of Montreal but this was a disaster. In an attempt to please everybody, the government decided to alternate between Toronto and Quebec City. Every four years, the legislature would move, taking with it the library, the civil service, and all of their files and records. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but before long the grumbling began again and the debate raged. Everyone had a favourite, usually located in his own riding! Finally, fed up and unable to agree, the government petitioned Queen Victoria and her Privy Council to make a decision and all agreed to abide by the Royal Decree.


The City of Kingston seemed like a good choice for a capital. In 1841, it was a well established city halfway between Montreal and Toronto. Lord Sydenham moved into Alwington House, a country estate on the lakeshore, and the legislature used the new Kingston General Hospital until a proper House of Parliament could be built. Kingston was suddenly on the map.

Unfortunately, it was not to last. Kingston was right across the lake from a major American port and naval base. It was always open to attack in time of war. The War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837 were still fresh in the government's memory. In fact, some of the leaders of the rebellions were locked up in Fort Henry and they had friends just across the lake! On top of everything else, the Members of Parliament (MP)s found Kingston primitive and too far away from anywhere else.

When the people of Kingston found out that the government planned to leave, they tried everything to persuade it to change its mind. They even offered to give the government their beautiful new city hall for a legislature. However the decision was final. Kingston's moment of fame had come and gone in just two short years.


The government moved the capital to Montreal in 1843. 19th century Montreal was a thriving commercial city with a bustling port. It seemed an obvious choice for the capital, located in Francophone Canada East. However the city was closer to the Anglophone power base in Toronto than Quebec, with a mixed population of both cultures. It proved a lively mix; too lively in fact.

On April 23rd, 1849, a riot broke out in the streets surrounding the legislature. The crowd was outraged by the Rebellion Losses Bill which seemed to reward traitors for their part in the 1837 uprisings. Before it was over, the building had been torched and the governor had been driven away in a barrage of stones hurled by the mob.

The government reconvened in the Bonsecours Market Building. Badly shaken, MPs once more began to discuss moving the capital to a more stable location. What they chose was anything but stable.

Toronto and Quebec City

In 1849 the government made a strange compromise and decided to alternate the location of the capital between Toronto and Quebec City every four years.

These cities had been the capitals of Upper and Lower Canada before the Act of Union, and both had buildings available for the legislature. The inconvenience of moving everything back and forth made members grumble, quite naturally. However it made sense in some ways. Both cities had all of the conveniences that the MPs could want and were more conveniently located than Kingston.

No one ever thought that this would be a permanent solution. It was very expensive and for Toronto and Quebec it meant that the local economy would swing from prosperity to poverty and back every eight years. It must also have been embarrassing for the government. After the fiasco in Montreal, the government needed credibility. A nomadic legislature did not project the right image.

The first session was held in Quebec. It closed with a catastrophic fire in 1854 which destroyed the legislature. The next session was held in Toronto in the old parliament building on Front Street. The final roving session was held in Quebec City, in a different location, while new buildings were being prepared in Ottawa.

Industrial town

Ottawa's location was ideal for industry. Within a few kilometres, the Rideau and Gatineau Rivers join the Ottawa River. The dramatic cliffs and hills create major waterfalls, the Chaudière (Cauldron) Falls, and the Rideau (Curtain) Falls. Both sets of falls powered the mills that drove the local economy.

The Chaudière (Cauldron) Falls

Philemon Wright, an American who visited the falls in the late 1790s, was so impressed that he moved there in 1800 and established the first lumber mill at Wrightstown, later named Hull and now Gatineau. Timber from the interior was rafted down the Ottawa to the Chaudière where Wright was later joined by industrialists J.R. Booth and E.B. Eddy.

For much of the 19th century, their mills at the Chaudière were the largest in the world.

Rideau (Curtain) Falls

Thomas McKay milled grain, woolens and other agricultural products at the Rideau Falls. The Ottawa River provided a direct route to the Port of Montreal, and access to the markets of the world.

The Rideau Canal

After the War of 1812-14, Britain began to take the defence of its North American colonies more seriously. There were only two choices: either spend the money to defend British North America properly, or withdraw completely and let the United States have it. The Duke of Wellington, fresh from the Napoleonic Wars, was assigned to design forts and other defences that would keep the Canadas and the Atlantic colonies safe from American invasion.

Wellington's plan depended on a safe shipping route between Quebec and Toronto. He needed a canal built far away from the border, connecting the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario. In 1826, Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers arrived to build the canal. The entrance to the canal from the Ottawa River lay between two great cliffs. On the higher one to the west he built barracks, officers' quarters and a hospital.

Six years later, when the canal was complete, it was an engineering marvel but it had cost a fortune. The British Government was not impressed. Colonel By was called home in disgrace to explain his extravagance. There wasn't enough money to finish Wellington's plan. The canal was never used as intended, but it did become a very busy route for commercial traffics, and is hugely popular for recreation even today.