The Big 150

Transit past & future — Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear

A traditional Algonquin birchbark canoe sits in a place of honour in the Ottawa airport. You’ll see it as you wait to board or after you’ve disembarked, above a waterfall feature representing Chaudière Falls. It is one of a pair made by master canoe craftsman Patrick Maranda — the other was given to Pierre and Margaret Trudeau as a wedding gift — and it couldn’t have a more fitting home. Canoes and airplanes are the alpha and omega of Ottawa transit.

The human history of the limestone cliffs below the real Chaudière Falls begins with the canoe. Algonquin traders paddled past the spot in these vessels and later taught European explorers to do the same.

In 1826, the building of another waterway inspired Ottawa’s original townsite. At the head locks of the new Rideau Canal, Bytown was cut from the wilderness. In the end, the canal served no military purpose and had relatively brief commercial use, yet no transit innovation has impacted the city more.

Less than 30 years later, Bytowners already had a more efficient means of getting themselves and their goods to and from the St. Lawrence. The Bytown and Prescott Railway left from a Lowertown station at 6 a.m. and was in Prescott by 9 a.m., in time to make connections to Montreal and New York.

City of Ottawa Archives/CA-0166
City of Ottawa Archives/CA-0166

Privately held railways proliferated. Soon there were train stations in New Edinburgh, LeBreton Flats, on Elgin Street, and at Nicholas and Mann. Passenger rail traffic was centralized in 1912 when the Grand Trunk Railway’s Union Station opened across from its new hotel, the Château Laurier.

The tracks that criss-crossed the city weren’t all bound away from town. Rail was also the most efficient means of moving people within the city. Until 1891, these trams were horse-drawn. Then Ottawa innovator Thomas Ahearn and his partner, Warren Soper, revolutionized Ottawa transit by introducing electric railcars. The Ottawa Electric Railway Company would see to Ottawa’s transit needs until 1948, when the Ottawa Transportation Commission (OTC) was formed and the city took over. Streetcars predominated.

The fall of streetcars in Ottawa paralleled the rise in automobiles. By 1915, there were enough private automobiles in Ottawa to spark a craze for jitneys, a pre-cellular Uber. The cars would follow well-travelled tram routes and, for a nickel a ride, pick up passengers who were happy to forgo the shoehorn crowding in streetcars.

City of Ottawa Archives
City of Ottawa Archives

After the war, car traffic mushroomed (by 1953, there was one car for every four residents), and trams, incapable of dodging traffic, were seen as an impediment and a hazard.

In a reply from 1958 to Ottawa resident E.D. Donaldson, who called for the retention of Ottawa’s streetcars, OTC chairman David McMillan said that in addition to congested roads, the upkeep of aging streetcars and their tracks was getting too expensive. “However, we are still operating 96 streetcars and there is no absolute certainty that they will disappear all at once,” wrote McMillan. The last streetcar was retired the next year.

Railway lines were banned from downtown streets not long after, and one abandoned east-west line was given over to a new four-lane freeway, dubbed the Queensway. Ottawa became a city of cars.

It took a half-century for the city to realize its mistake. Ottawa’s return to mass rail transit in 2018 is ironic, to say the least. The Confederation Line will more than double east-west transit capacity.

Air traffic in the nation’s capital also saw a post-war boom. By 1959, the volume of commercial and military traffic at Uplands Airport (today the Ottawa International Airport) was the highest in Canada. The city has been struggling to keep up with demand ever since.

The airport canoe, installed after renovations in 2003, is not an anachronism. It’s a reminder.