The Big 150

The ByWard Market — Still the heart of the city

In the beginning, there was the Market.

In 1827, when Colonel John By erected a market building in the part of his frontier townsite that he called Lowertown (then little more than wishful gridlines on a surveyor’s chart), the nature of the settlement changed. It suddenly had a heart.

The Market was the first vigorous neighbourhood in what would become a city of neighbourhoods — the one place where farmers, loggers, soldiers, and navvies would come together, a place of commerce and conviviality. The best thing about the Market is how little this essential character has changed.

The enduring symbol of the Market is its central building. Though a mere 90 years old, it sits on the approximate site of Colonel By’s original building and remains the Market’s pole star. It has endured longer than any of the earlier four market buildings.

Among the best features of the Market is one that no longer exists: the By Wash, an aqueduct that ran along George and York streets carrying runoff from the new canal to the Rideau River. The barging of goods to the Market along this mini-canal helped make Lowertown the commercial hub of Bytown. For almost half a century, Lowertowners fished in it and skated on it. But as the population grew, it became an open sewer and was filled in in 1874.

The most iconic corner in the Market has to be where ByWard Market Square meets York Street, or rather where Irving Rivers meets the Chateau Lafayette. The former, an uncategorizable purveyor of hats, boots, and ironic garden gnomes, has been an eccentric element of the Market since before Charlotte Whitton was mayor. The latter has been around in some form since before Ottawa was Ottawa. The Laff was Grant’s Hotel when it opened in 1849.

Corner of York and ByWard Market Square in the 1920s. Photo: courtesy of City of Ottawa Archives
Corner of York and ByWard Market Square in the 1920s. Photo: courtesy of City of Ottawa Archives

Back then, horses pulled everything from tramcars to milk wagons. How charming that a 19th-century stable has survived almost intact. John Cundell’s grandfather began Cundell Stables in 1890, and it thrives to this day tucked behind a house on York Street, right beside the Tea Party Cafe. Cundell’s Belgians now haul tourists.   

The Market abounds in seeming opposites that are actually related: Notre Dame Cathedral, the city’s oldest, most opulent church, and 138 St. Patrick St., the humble cottage of an 1830s church woodworker; e18teen, the super-swank York Street restaurant, and the farmer’s stall down the street that supplies its seasonal veggies; the teeming sidewalks of Market Square and the open courtyards near Sussex.

The Market writes the story of Ottawa.