Ottawa and its sister city, Gatineau, are located at the confluence of three rivers: the Ottawa, the Gatineau and the Rideau.  For centuries societies that travelled by water made it a gathering place for native peoples, and later a stopping place for European trappers and lumberers.  The name Ottawa, in one version, is derived from the Algonquian verb meaning “to trade”.  From Ottawa, by water, it is possible to reach the Atlantic, The Pacific, and The Arctic oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico, and we know that European explorers and traders passed by Ottawa and Gatineau in some of these pursuits.


The first Europeans passed by in the early 17th century and the quarry soon was fur, especially Beaver fur, the raw material for Beaver felt, the makings of the best hats for men.  The Valleys of the three rivers were also heavily forested, especially with groves of White Pine, much sought as a building material, but especially for masts in an age of wooden ships. It was a strategic resource for the British Navy, especially when shut out of the Scandinavian forests by Napoleon in the early 19th century.  A woods-based industry sprang up in the Ottawa Valley, shipping mainly squared timber to Britain, the White Pine complemented by Red Pine and some hardwoods, like Oak and Maple.  Its centre was in what is now Gatineau City (then Wrightsville and laterHull), and only still later across the river in what is now Ottawa.


Timber was its own transportation, the logs squared and bound into cribs with Willow roots, and the cribs gathered into large rafts with sleeping and cooking facilities.  They were floated down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers to the ocean-going ships in Quebec City.  Squared timber, happily, would not roll once inside the holds of the sailing ships.


Growth of commercial activity began on the Ottawa side of the river between 1826 and 1832 with the construction of the Rideau Canal and Waterway by British Ordnance as a defensive work against further American invasion. A small town grew up around the Headlocks of the Canal. It was originally called Bytown, after Lt.-Col. John By, the officer in charge of the Waterway construction.  Originally conceived of as a small place to service and defend the Canal, Bytown soon attracted merchants who became the dominant force servicing the Trade in Squared Timber.


In the 1850s a new opportunity emerged. Cities in the United States were growing rapidly at this time, its treeless western plains were being settled, and much of the accessible commercial forests had been cut.  But this market wanted “SAWN LUMBER” not “SQUARED TIMBER”.


Entrepreneurs from New York state in the 1850s acquired Hydraulic Leases at the massive Chaudiere Falls in the City.  For the Trade in Squared Timber, the Falls were chiefly an obstacle; for sawn lumber a source of power for mills.  In this phase, the logs were boomed to the falls using steam tugs, run into the mills and sawn into boards, dried in massive lumber piles on the shore, and barged to Upper New York State for finishing.  By the 1860s the two trades constituted, according to some, the largest woods-based industry in the world. These first entrepreneurs were soon joined by others, including, later, pulp and paper manufacturers.  Among other things, the milling and pulp operations generated a large blue-collar community around Chaudiere Falls, plus smaller operations on the Rideau and Gatineau Rivers.


Ottawa and Gatineau were industrial,working-class cities.


The Capital Experience


It is accounted by some as a small miracle that rough, lumbering Bytown ever became a national capital. But by the 1850s, it had a new name, Ottawa, replacing Bytown:  “Give a dog a dirty name and hang it,” said one local worthy about the old name.  It also had thriving industry, a railway and telegraph connection, a bank branch, and by 1854 was incorporated as a City. 


Meanwhile, in the Province of the Canadas, of which Ottawa and Gatineau were a part, the matter of where to situate the capital of the new province was emerging as the Legislature’s most contentious issue, as both Kingston and Montreal, the first two capital locations, had blotted their reputations and were out of the running.


As a compromise, the capital at the time itinerated between Quebec City in the eastern part of the province and Toronto in the western part.  It was not satisfactory and there was much pressure for a “fixed” capital, and nearly every place, including Ottawa, considered itself a candidate.


The issue created political deadlock, and threatened the government of John A. Macdonald and Georges-Etienne Cartier, and they booted the choice to the Crown, in a formal sense to Queen Victoria, and in a real sense to the Governor in Chief in Canada, Edmund Head, and the Queen’s advisors in Westminster.


Ottawa was “chosen” in 1857 by Victoria, in part because Quebec City, too French and Catholic; and Toronto, too English and Protestant, were also too remote geographically, that is, not central.  Both had also been attacked from the south, and were clearly vulnerable. 


Ottawa was central, so deep in the bush that the “Americans would get lost trying to find it,” it had a magnificent site for the government buildings, one owned by the state, and at least nominally, if not in reality, was culturally mixed, in those days mixed meant French and English, and Catholic and Protestant.


So Ottawa became a Provincial Capital, and the government  built the Legislative Buildings and moved into them in 1865.  Meanwhile, the British North American colonies were negotiating a National Union, which came to pass July 1,1867, as Canada.  The new constitution said: “Ottawa shall be capital until the Queen otherwise directs.”  So it remains today. 


The city also landed in 1867 at the remote edges of two Provinces, Quebec and Ontario, rather than formerly at the centre of one.  The boundary between the two runs down the middle of the Ottawa River.  The jurisdictional complexity is a story of its own, and part of the life of the people who live at the same time in one country, two cities, two provinces and a national capital.