A Brief Survey of Some Archaeological and Historical Remains in Ottawa-Hull for Residents and Visitors

by Michael Davidson

Readers of this essay should be aware that nothing here is spectacular or rises much above being a opportunity for pleasant evening stroll without being in a crowd of tourists.  Hopefully you will find here something new that may inspire you to take a peek at a previously unknown corner of the town.

Mill Ruins at Deschênes Rapids, Hull

There are an impressive array of 19th century stone walls, arches, canal works, mill ruins, etc. on the islands at the Deschênes Rapids in Hull.  Drive down either the Alymer Road or Lucerne Blvd until you get to the Vanier Road.  Drive to the end at the River.  Park along the road.  A pleasant park with a trail follows beside the river.  Walk east here until you come to the islands, close to shore, where the remains are.  You can save yourself the walk by driving east along Martel for 200 meters (until where it turns north) and there you will be exactly at the ruins.  A historical plaque explains, in French only, what was going on.  The Alymer Deschênes ruins are little known to Ottawa residents although I imagine they are quite well known in Alymer.  During the summer, anyone with shorts and old sandals should be able to scramble across the shallow channel and visit the stonework directly.  When you are finished there drive to the marina in Alymer at rue Principale and Front for a walk-around.  Downtown Alymer goes back to the 1830's and the town has many fine old buildings in both stone and wood.  Highly recommended.

Deschênes Rapids at Britanna Bay, Ottawa

We are now on the Ontario side of the river.  What is interesting here is the canal remains.  At the turn of the last century, on land purchased from J.R. Booth, the Metropolitian Power Company was organized to develop an electric generating project here.  The power would be used to help drive the new electric streetcar system that had just been built in 1900 to the Britannia cottages and recreation resort.  The canal was to start above the rapids with the dam 850 meters downstream below the rapids.  The canal fills up with water behind the dam providing a substantial head of water to drive the turbine generators.  They had problems and the project was abandoned.  The project was never part of the Montreal-Ottawa River-Georgian Bay project as is sometimes thought.  In 1929 the property was sold to Ontario Hydro and later the western part of the canal was rehabilitated as a basin for the Yacht club.  (The Yacht club, as the story goes, only has bright members as the not-so-bright ones tend to get swept over the rapids and never heard from again.)

Go down Carling to Britannia Street and follow it to the river.  Turn right when you get to the Britannia Yacht Club on Cassals Street.  After a hundred meters or so you will see Mud Lake on your right.  Stop there.  A trail on the river side goes up to give a view of the canal remains.  A trail on the right goes around Mud Lake.   The Mud Lake trail at the west end of the park is the nature/birding preserve extraordinaire of Ottawa.  At the south-west corner of the lake you can almost always see turtles in the summer.

The Indian Portage Trail at the Little Chaudiere Rapids, Brebeuf Park, Hull

This trail is a definite must see.  Drive down Blvd Alexandre-Tache in Hull.  Take rue Coalier to the river and park on Bourget or Begin Street.  You are now at Brebeuf Park.   Walk to the eastern end of the park by the river.  Keep walking along the rough trail just beside the river.  A plaque against the rock cliff lists some of the people who have came by before you.  There are prehistoric natives through Etienne Brûle (1610), Nicholas de Vigneault (1611), Samuel de Champlain (1616) and so on.  Going further down the trail you come to rough stone stairs laid by early voyageurs to get to the water level.  It is a very impressive trail and a genuine historical site.  The trail goes beside limestone outcrops and shelves and is surrounded by scrubby hardwood forest.  The river is churning over rapids and there are ducks and birds all over.  Before the ring dam at the Chaudiere falls was built in 1910 the water level was a few feet lower.

A statue of Saint Jean de Brébeuf graces the park.  Brébeuf was born on March 25, 1593 in Condé-sur-Vire, Normandy.  He arrived in New France in 1625 where he laboured until his death on March 16, 1649 at Saint-Ignace near present day Midland.   Brebeuf, and a fellow missionary Gabriel Lalemant, were tortured to death by the Iroquois during the Huron-Iroquois wars of 1648-50.  He was canonized with Lalemant and other Jesuits (collectively the Martyrs of North America) in 1930 by Pope Pius XI.  Their feast day is September 26.  Corpus Dómini nostri Jesu Christi custódiat ánimam tuam in vitam aetérnam.   Et fidélium ánimae per misericórdiam Dei requiéscant in pace.   Salvos fac servos tuos.  Amen.

Rideau Falls and the 187?/8? sewage outlet behind the NRC

Visitors to Ottawa will likely want to see the Rideau Falls.  While you are there may I encourage you to visit my personal favourite monument from early the Ottawa period which is the sewage outlet just behind the NRC.  The National Research Council is the grand stone building on the river just west of the Rideau Falls.  Walk into the parking lot behind there. A sidewalk with a fence goes around the outside giving a view of the river.  Just beyond the sidewalk and the fence the ground falls away down a small cliff.   About right in the middle of the building, along the sidewalk on the cliff just outside the fence may be seen the top of a stone and concrete structure.  Hop the fence and climb onto this structure.  By sticking your head over the edge here you can read the limestone inscription recording the names of the mayor and engineer of public works for the first sewage outlet of Ottawa.  (If anybody goes to see that, would you please copy down the inscription and e-mail it to me.)  The sewage of the city was just dumped in the river and cholera was a big problem until the water filtration plant was built on Lemieux Island.

My favourite NRC story relates to their cesium clock.  For the longest time visitors could take a tour of the NRC building and see all the scientific work that was done there.  During the tour visitors would be taken to see the cesium clock which kept time for the famous Canadian "N.R.C. Eastern Standard Time."  The tour guide would explain how accurate the clock was, how it would lose only thousandths of seconds over millenia, how it was carefully synchronized with other cesium clocks all over the world, what experiments depended on it, how it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, etc.  Then the tour guide would pause for a second, stare carefully at the clock, look at his watch preferably a Timex, look back at the clock, say "That's not right." and twiddle a knob on the cesium clock.

The Embassy of France was built in 1939.  Rideau Hall/Government House of the Governor-Generals of Canada was originally built in 1838 but has been so much improved and added onto the little of the original structure is noticeable.

Tree stumps in Dow's lake in April

Our National Capital Commission drains the canal and Dow's Lake over the winter.  It is usually refilled early in May for the Tulip Festival.  Just before it is refilled there is a curiousity for the curious at Dow's Lake.  If you walk around the lake at this time you can see here and there in the shallow water large tree stumps poking out.  These old white pine stumps are from the primeval forests that covered the region before the first settlers arrived here.   The trees were drowned when Colonel By started flooding the canal in 1830-32.  In his Experimental Farm Report for 1887, Dr William Saunders, then Director, records that 2,600 stumps were cut down to ice level and removed from Dow's lake.  Apparently the stumps are so well preserved that the axe marks from both the felling (wedge-shaped cuts) and from the stump shortening may still be seen on them.

Billings Estate

The Billings Estate is a modest pioneer museum located in a pleasant and historic Georgian estate home.  It commemorates the pioneer family of Braddish and Lamira Dow Billings who settled there in 1813.  The wooden house was finished in 1829. The Museum, by reference to the life of the Billings family, relates the story of very beginning of settlement in Ottawa and Billings Bridge, the effects of events such as the War of 1812, the building of the Rideau Canal, the founding of Bytown, and the coming of rail.  Along with artifacts and antiques from the pioneer era, the estate includes a pioneer graveyard with 19th century tombstones.  The rail line of the 1854 Bytown and Prescott Railway passes close by.  The Billings Estate is at the east end of Pleasant Park Road off Alta Vista Drive.  Admission is $2.50 for adults.  As of May 1998 the museum had its budget cut by one third.  It is to be seen how badly this cut will effect its role as a tourist attraction and educational institution.