Some Notes for Shard Collectors in Ottawa and Hull

My goal of this essay to provide some background information for amateur archeologists looking for ceramic fragments around Ottawa. It also gives a description of four sites to visit to look for oldish ceramic fragments, that is, pieces of dinnerware that were smashed up and bull dozed into landfill likely during the last 70 years.

Why? Well, it wasn't always like this, you know. There wasn't always shopping malls, buses on the transit way, highrises downtown, and paved express ways. Every so often, while wandering through along the river or through the green spaces of Ottawa, the past intrudes on us. I first noticed this as broken glass along the river. Almost everywhere you can find broken glass, some shards from thick and odd looking bottles, some from pop bottles, some from beer bottles. I was intriqued by the odd misshapen pieces that looked quite old. Their story was lost irretrievably but I sensed it went back to a time quite different from my modern experience.

When I worked at the Fontaine Building I used to go for walks over lunch by the river in Jacques Cartier park which was close by. I liked to go right up to the river bank and look in to the water to admire the water plants or maybe see some minnows. One time I was looking there I happened to notice some old bits of pottery fragments just a bit off shore. I reached through the water to pick them up and found that one of them came from an old decorated piece of porcelain with a turn of the century design. That was a nice surprise and I took my treasure back to office as a souvenir. From that humble beginning, my office collection would grow to include blacksmith iron, old glass shards, punched lead plates, bones, branches, roots, fossils, and stones to create a diorama of early Ottawa archaeology,  All this from stuff I found lying around during my lunch hour.

First let us clarify the different historical strata encountered in Ottawa.

Guide to the Archaeological Stratigraphy of Ottawa-Hull

Early Period The Early period starts with the end of Ice Age and the draining of the Champlain sea 15,000 years ago. To the beginning dates the Mer Bleue marsh, the accummulation of Upper and Lower Duck island and the laying down of the sand pits by Ottawa airport. In Hull it would be the cemetary along Fournier Blvd which would first appear from beneath the Champlain sea and artifacts, were they to be found in the grave diggings there, would represent the lowest strata of human habitation in that area. The Early period includes the native indian ossuary burial below the National Archives and the stone tool and pot shard finds in Leamy Lake park. It includes Champlain, the explorers and voyagers travelling past on the Ottawa River highway. This period belongs mostly to scholarly history as there are precious few material goods with an Ottawa connection from this epoch on public display - Champlain's astrolabe and some native pottery at the Museum of Civilization being the most important exception. 
Pioneer "Bytown" Period: (1800 - 1837) From the time Philemon Wright and his settlers arrived to the start of the Victorian era. This period includes the building of the canal by Colonel By from 1828 to 1835, the founding of Bytown and the building of timber slides by Ruggles Wright in 1829 and by George Buchanan in 1834. There were military and engineering barracks and a hospital on what was to become Parliament Hill. 
Victorian Period (1837-1901):  Victoria who was born in 1819 assumed the throne of the British Empire in 1837. It was Victoria who chose the young city of Ottawa as the capital of Canada. The first Parliament Buildings were built then. The E.B. Eddy and J.R. Booth lumbering operations occured during this period. E.B. Eddy arrived here in 1850 and died in 1906. Ottawa was connected to Montreal and Toronto by railway and telegraph. Victoria died in 1901 a year after the great fire, an important strategraphic layer defining the end of this period. 
Industrial Ottawa Period: (1901-1952) This was a very working class, very Canadian Period. There is not much use in dividing by the reigns of British kings as it includes two Edwards and two Georges. It begins with the rebuilding of Ottawa and Hull after the great fire. It includes the building of the Ring Dam at the Chaudiere and the industrial shift away from water power and Clydesdale horses to electricity and internal combustion engines. There is actually an important Ottawa historical stratigraphic layer from 1916 during the First World War when the original Centre Block of Parliament burnt down and the new one was built. Where the Museum of Civilization is now was a huge mountain of pulp wood and a steamy paper plant fed by a extensive log boom system in the river in front of Parliament Hill and at the mouth of the Gatineau. The districted delimited by Bronson Avenue, Wellington, the Ottawa River down to the Prince of Wales bridge and the filtration plant was crisscrossed by railways and dirty industries like paint plants. Nepean Bay was covered with floating timber and Victoria Island was covered with timber piles. The death knell for this period was a fascinating bureaucratic publication called Plan for the National Capital, Canada, 1950 by Jacques Greber put out by the National Capital Planning Service. In this document is described a visionary plan which would eliminate the railways and dirty lumber industries from downtown Ottawa. 
Elizabethan Period: 1952 - present  Elizabeth II was born in 1926 and was crowned Queen in 1952. For Ottawa this was the modern period where lumbering was removed from the river, the railways and level crossings were eliminated from downtown, the lumber industries were dismantled and Lebreton Flats cleared out to be replaced by bicycle paths and parkland. The National Arts Center being built as part of the Canadian centennial is a prime example of a building built during this transformation. The Elizabethian period also includes the important Trudeauian sub-period when downtown Hull was razed to build the Terrasses de Chaudiere and the Place du Portage government buildings, while many other modern edifices were built in Ottawa leading to the modern city we know. 

The habitation history of Ottawa is not as rich as say in Montreal where whenever a bit of digging is done downtown a whole, somewhat dubious, sector of society turns out to watch. What follows is a description of four places around town where a pleasant afternoon may be had looking for pioneer artifacts. This is far from a systematic survey of the region as the places described here are limited to those sites I would walk to at lunch from my office or bicycle by on my way home from work.

Take a friend if you intend to explore these localities as they are rather lonely and difficult to visit. The successful collector will need to clamour around precariously steep cliffs of loose fill dodging bushes and branches. With a friend you can watch out for each other. Some of the pieces I have found certainly go back to the pioneer period and others likely come from the Victorian era or later. But don't expect to be that lucky on a first visit although with little trouble one should find artifacts from before the second World War.

One thing which always surprises me when I am collecting is that if you find ten pottery pieces together, chances are they will be from ten different pots, rather than being ten different pieces of the same pot. Outside of Ottawa, I have found some lovely porcelain fragments at portage stops while canoeing on the Desmoine River. I am sure they are Victorian. In another town I happened across some nice old fragments. When I showed them to a local he said "Oh yeah, those are from the hotel which burnt here down in the 1890's." Then there was the time on my birthday when I was visiting the Skead Mills ruins just east of Westboro beach when my 10 year old son Daniel disappeared for half an hour, only to re-appear with some black smith iron hunks which he gave to me for my birthday. It's a useless hobby perhaps, but rewarding in its own way.

Along the Bronson crib slide ravine on Victoria Island

Here is a pleasant leafy ravine containing the remains of the Buchanan crib slide along with the 1970 steel log plume. It's a nice view of an historic site. The old stone and lumber crib slide walls are mostly rotted away but some parts still remain and may be examined along the bottom of the ravine. The slide was built 1832 by John Buchanan and so some of the many blacksmithed iron spikes and nails found in the lower walls here must go back to that era. Here also is a minor garbage dump where one may find a vast deposit of smashed liquor bottles going back to the early century, numerous acetylene tanks from the carbide works of Thomas "Carbide" Wilson, what looks like pieces of a Victorian toilet bowl and an old safe. I found a big Clydesdale horseshoe, a wrought iron clasp, and a sprout from a ceramic jug there. Another broken plate I saw there said "Microwavable" on the back.

The huge amount of broken glass there would make an interesting study. It looks like guys have been sitting and drinking there for the last two centuries! My guess is that they used to have wild drunken parties at the Booth offices just behind and then break up the liquor bottles and throw them in the ravine afterwards to destroy the evidence.

When you turn off of Booth street onto Victoria Island just at your right in front of the red brick steam plant (building 31) is a public parking lot. Stop there Now go to the south east corner of the parking lot and walk into the trees there. The south east corner of the parking lot gives the best access. Any place else behind the lot makes the ravine seem quite uninviting and inaccessable.

At the end old of the Hull slide on what was Philemon Island

The dirt and wood debris used to fill the outlet of the Hull slide provides some meager but not totally unrewarding shard collecting opportunities. The old Hull slide, built in 1829 by Ruggles Wright, was filled in with debris from the wood operation on what was Philemon Island likely during the sixties. Among mostly uninteresting garbage like old bricks, ceramic blocks, discarded industrial piping, etc. I found a curious piece of wrought iron of obscure use there.

Go on the bicycle trail along the river on the Quebec side between the Museum of Civilization and the Portage Bridge. The trail goes under a road overpass. Just five meters to the east of this overpass is a steep climb which is the entrance to the unofficial trail going to the cliffs. People go there to picnic, kids jump off the rocks into the river, and one day I saw a bureaucrat practising his rock-climbing while still wearing his office clothes. Mineral collectors can find samples of whitish-pink calcite plastered here and there around the limestone bedrock .

Along the water outlet ravine of the Fleet street pumping station at the east end of Lebreton Flats

Downstream from the Fleet street water pumping plant is a ravine with rapids. Included in the dirt walls of the ravine are minor occurences of domestic shards and industrial and railway debris. I found a piece of broken decorated china plate and a blue glass lens from a railway lamp.

So how old is this stuff? It is possible some was dumped there after the Great Fire of 1900 which devasted this area. More likely it dates from the sixties. In the middle of the sixties the Lebreton Flats was a dirty place with scrap yards, an extensive railway yard, and blighted houses. As part of the makeover of Ottawa before the centennial celebrations it was decided to bull doze all this down. (See Phil Jenkins "An Acre in Time".) My best guess would be that this garbage, its not much more than that, came from the clean-up during the sixties. The rest of the garbage and debris and polluted earth went into the great earth mounds around the site.

There are some stairs down to the ravine past the campground. Its a worthwhile visit to an attractive and little known part of the city. A local kayaking group built the stairs and has setup kayak targets and a watching platform there. A quick look at the water works is a must while you are there. The Fleet Street water works were built in 1888 and uses water power to pump water up the escarpment into downtown Ottawa. Make sure you look at the well crafted stone bridges upstream from the plant as well.

Brewery Creek Shoreline in Jacques Cartier Park

There is a parking lot east of MacDonald-Cartier bridge in Jacques Cartier Park. Park there. Climb down to the Ottawa River and then walk east along the River shore. Soon you will come to the Brewery Creek inlet in a ravine going north. Continue along the shore line here looking into the water. It is very rough going, but here and there just in the water at the shore you will find either minor bits of mid century ceramics or pieces of rusted iron used in the Hughson and Gilmour lumber operation.   The ceramics shown here are about half actual size.

Assuming you have nothing better to do, and you enjoy looking at old discarded stuff you will find the climb through the bush interesting with many curious artifacts of mid-20th century industrial life to be found.

There is a park field just down hill from the park just where Brewery Creek meets the Ottawa River. Just where the shoreline of the creek leaves this field and enters the bushy ravine there is a few large chunks of sculptured architecture building limestone and brick. They are just beside the big tree which hangs over the river. Further up the creek are monumental concrete weights which were used to anchor log booms.

There are less interesting things like old bricks, including fire bricks, iron cable and chain pieces, old rusty iron strap connectors in abundance and other iron pieces such as blacksmith spikes and nails. I found an old saw mill or two-person size saw blade. I have also shards of Victorian-looking pottery which I think may have been carried down by the ice from up the creek.

Halfway between Fournier Blvd and the Ottawa River right on the water of Brewery Creek is an old stone foundation on some kind of mill. Likely this structure was made in the middle of the 19th century as base for a machine which would pull sorted logs up the hill to be sawed by a steam powered saw. The structure is filled with old sawdust.

The MacDonald-Cartier bridge was opened in 1965. When they were building the foundations for it in the middle of the river the contractor had to dig through 10 meters of saw dust and drowned wood debris which was dumped in the river by lumber operations at the Chaudiere. One interesting sight of the walk is the compacted, half rotted layers of sawdust anywhere from ten centimeters to two meters deep to be seen along the shore. Its defines a definite cultural soil layer.

There seems to be fossils in the park but it is the lucky collector who will find any. In the ashlar paving stones under the MacDonald-Cartier bridge there is the fossil remains of a cephalopod shell the diameter of a sewer pipe. Over the years I have found a bivalve shell, a chunk of stromatolite reef, a crinoid stem and a piece of a two inch diameter trilobite. I visit the park alot and my impression is that these rocks I found were wanderers or a strays in the sense that they were carried there by ice or as fill from somewhere else. Don't go to the park to just look for fossils. You will almost certainly find nothing.  This gastropod was found by my son Daniel at Lemieux Island.

I always thought Jacques Cartier was an inappropriate name for the park by the way. Cartier never explored the Ottawa River much past where it flows into the Lake of Three Rivers by Montreal. Nicolas de Vignau, my personal favorite explorer - the guy went native and attracted all the native girls with his light skin, was the first European through here coming as an emissiary of Champlain around 1610.  However as he got Champlain into a lot of trouble and sort of came to a bad end he may not be the historical type one wants to name a park after.  Perhaps our park might have been called Etienne Brule Park, or LaVerendrye Park (ok, so that name is already taken) or how about Hughson and Gilmour Park or Park des Recollects... but let us just leave that for now.

Canoeists may paddle along the north side of the Ottawa River westward from the Gatineau River confluence and admire the ceramic debris strewn along there. I wonder if some of it doesn't come from the old hospital at Sacre Coeur and Laurier in Hull which was demolished in the 50's. There are pottery shards (and garbage) all along the north side beaches of Upper Duck Island. I think that came from squatter cottages torn down decades ago. The island was almost a garbage dump until a few years ago when an initiative was made to collect the metal junk, tires and garbage lying around there.

A little further east in Leamy Lake park there has been arrow heads, stone tools, and native pottery recovered. A few years, after the NCC spent the summer properly digging and documenting what was there, somebody went in with a shovel and made a mess of the site looking for pottery pieces. May I close in saying that this type of action is reprehensible. If you find what looks like a pre-contact or early pioneer era site it should be reported to, the Ontario Regional Archaeologist. I make these notes to give hints for idle surface collecting, not to encourage pirate digging and site despoilation for the sake of finding a few older ceramic pieces.

Francis Morley and Company of Hanley, Staffordshire, England used a series of views from W.H. Bartlett's Canadian Scenery (1842) on table china. This one shows the Ottawa exit of the Rideau Canal into Entrance Valley.