Prince of Wales Bridge Reopens as Active Transportation Bridge with New Name

A close up of an old train brdige with teh letters chief William Commanda bridge super exposed on the image
photo: screenshot City of Ottawa video
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Prince of Wales bridge was recently renamed Chief William Commanda bridge

It has not been that long ago that trains were introduced to Canada. To be precise, the first train ran between Saint- Jean on the Richelieu river in Quebec to La Prairie on the St. Lawrence River. Passengers going to New York would step on board of a steamer that would bring them via Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to New York. The date: July 21, 1836.

Ottawa’s first railway

As the railroads developed, it was only a matter of time before Bytown (Ottawa) got its first railway, a line between Bytown and Prescott: the Bytown and Prescott Railway (B&PR). It took a while to sort everything out and build but finally the service started in 1854.

A map from 1906. Note the Glebe being built and the causeway running right through Dow’s Lake. Also interesting is the GTR (Grand Trunk Railroad) having tracks at the north end of Dow’s Lake where Commissioners Park is now. I believe there was a saw mill there. East of the Rideau River runs a CPR track, the first tracks in Ottawa. Image source: Year 1906 Sheet no. 031G05 ocul.on.ca

The first train ran in Ottawa roughly east of the Ottawa river to New Edinburgh. Why New Edinburgh? One of the financers, Thomas McKay, (who built Rideau Hall) owned industrial land there and really wanted to have a train close to his operations. From New Edinburgh it would veer west across the Rideau River towards where more or less the Lester B. Pearson building now is situated. You can still see some remnants of stone piers of the bridge in the Rideau River from Bordeleau Park or Stanley Park.

The land around the south end of the bridge is now filled in, but there used to be an island. The blue tracks terminated where the lawn of the War Museum (Bluesfest etc) is now. A few years ago, the NCC dug up remnants of the Roundhouse that is mentioned on this map

A spur to Chaudière Falls

Jumping forward in time, and skipping a lot of really interesting local railway history, in 1871 the company (now called the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway) completed a spur that branched off from the existing line towards where City Centre is now (the building with Arts in Bakery, see map above). That is the stretch where we now cycle on the Trillium pathway and where Line 2 LRT runs. The two spurs meet behind where are now the LCBO and Home Depot on Bank Street, just north of South Keys and Greenboro Station.

The track towards the Chaudière Falls branches off to the left just south of Walkley road.

In Quebec the government meanwhile had created the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway (QMO&O) on the other side of the Ottawa river and in 1879 issued a tender to build a bridge across the Ottawa River. Earlier, the Quebec government had merged two initiatives into the QMO&O after failed financing attempts in the private sector (That is a whole other story, involving PM John A. McDonald). In fact, the bridge consists really of two bridges, with an island, Lemieux Island, in the middle.

Prince of Wales bridge – Phoenix bridge company – From the 1888 Album of Designs Courtesy, Frank A. Weer

The City of Montreal chipped in $5000 to help pay for the bridge as it wanted Montreal to be the eastern terminal for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, rather than Toronto.

A Bridge is sold

Finally, the Prince of Wales Bridge (after Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria), the first railway bridge linking Ottawa and Hull, was opened on 17 January 1881. Then the Quebec government sold the QMO&O and the bridge, at a loss, to the CPR on 1 May 1882. The CPR connected it with their recently aquired Canada Central Railway. You are cycling on parts of that Canada Central Railway track now if you cycle from Brittania Bay to Holly Acres Road and from Bells Corners to Stittsville and Carleton Place. Another part is the stretch of LRT 1 that runs along Scott Street. We really have to thank the railways for parts of our cycling infrastructure.

Fast forward to 1927, when the bridge was reinforced to carry heavier trains. In eight months the bridge was replaced span by span at a cost of $750,000: 6 spans on the south side of Lemieux island and 7 spans on the north side.

Last train on Prince of Wales bridge

The last train crossing the bridge on July 26, 2001 photo courtesy – Ray Farand

But by 2001 the Prince of Wales bridge saw its last train. It hauled ballast for the construction of the O-train, now Line 2 of the LRT system, on July 26, 2001. An era drew to a close.

Last train leaving the Prince of Wales bridge with ballast for the O-train tracks – photo courtesy Ray Farand

Fortunately the bridge was not removed as there was still the idea that it could one day be revived for a commuter train between Ottawa and Gatineau and connect to Line 1 at Bayview. Plus, removing would have cost money, money we would rather spend on new things, right?

I had hoped that the “INCE of WALES” sign would remain on top

A new lease on life

In 2015, the City issued a Request for Qualification for the conversion of the bridge

The City of Ottawa bought the bridge in 2005 for $11 million (‘scrap value) for future transit use. I once heard from former mayor Watson that the city was actually making money of the bridge as there was (is?) a glass fibre optic cable running along the bridge somewhere.

Renovations on the bridge only started in the fall of 2021. There was a lot of work done you won’t notice when you casually bike there, from bridge deck jacking to under water masonry repairs on the piers.

The total estimated project budget (for both the multi-use pathway and the substructure rehabilitation work) is $22.6 million, with approximately $14 million from the City of Ottawa and approximately $8.6 million through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) Public Transit Infrastructure Stream (PTIS funding)“. (Source: City of Ottawa project website)

That doesn’t include the $11 million price tag for the bridge paid in 2005.

The official line is still that the bridge’s designation as an active transportation corridor is temporary: the tracks remained underneath the timber deck, but Bayview station has been built right on top of the old tracks leading up to the bridge.

The bridge at the north end in June 2023
The yet unfinished path leading towards the Voyageur Pathway in Quebec
Work on the bridge in June 2023 with edge stone work
The demise of the railways. I had hoped some items would be saved as reminders of the glory days of railways, like Quebec did at the P’tit Train du Nord
If you look really hard, you can find that old 1871 railway leading up to the Commanda bridge when you are standing at the northside square of Bayview station
Waiting for pavement, further fencing, lines, a post and signs. Large signs.

Renaming the bridge

The bridge has already been renamed on November 11, 2022. It will no longer be known as the Prince of Wales bridge, but as the Chief William Commanda bridge, although I suspect it wil take some time for the new name to become common after 141 years. Chief William Commanda was the chief of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation from 1951 to 1970. He was an Algonquin elder, a spiritual leader, a promoter of environmental stewardship, a bridge builder between nations, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 2008 for his dedication and outstanding service to his people.

Fun fact: it is only 4.5 km from Dow’s Lake to Gatineau Park with only 3 traffic lights

The bridge is open

On Friday August 4, 2023, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe posted a short clip in running clothes on social media that the bridge would be “open today”, after Ottawa Traffic Services posted a tweet earlier that week it would be end of August.

Open at last…
Same place roughly as the previous picture. Taken from Gatineau towards Ottawa
The island part of the connection. You can see the rails behind the rural fence on the left
I dropped by on the opening day and wow, was it busy. A steady stream of people checking out the bridge
Not only the bridge, but also the new views on Ottawa’s skyline are very impressive

I dropped by on the opening night and I was very impressed with the number of people on the bridge, given there was hardly any announcement and a soft opening, it was a Friday afternoon and it is holiday long weekend. In that half hour I spent there, I saw a a recumbent, roller bladers, a electric extra long cycle (Hi Felicity), a surprising number of walkers, a cargo bike with two kids and quite a number of kids on bicycles. And apparently Chris Taggart, according to his post on X. What Karen and I both noticed was the peaceful environment. We are so accustomed to cycling with the noise of car traffic that the bridge (and the island) feels like an oasis. It looks already like a hugely successful project.

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  • Prince of Wales Bridge Reopens as Active Transportation Bridge with New Name
    Reading Time: 8 minutes A large piece of new active transportation infrastructure finally opened yesterday. Here is all the background you want to read about the historic Prince of Wales bridge, now the Chief William Commanda bridge, connecting Ottawa with Gatineau and an easier gateway to Gatineau Park.
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Sources

Over the last few years I have been reading more about the railways and a whole world opened up for me. I found it fascinating to read that there were more train bridges (even one across the canal at the south end of Dow’s Lake), several stations, large saw mills and trainyards all over the still small city. I have always found it very difficult to imagine how LeBreton flats looked like when you stare over an empty area of Canadian Shield. But bit by bit I am starting to piece together a better image of 19th century Ottawa. This is very helpful for my stories I share with my guests as a bicycle tour guide. These websites and articles by our ‘train buffs’ were very helpful.

https://churcher.crcml.org/Articles/Article2006_05.html

https://churcher.crcml.org/Articles/Article2006_01.html

https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/transportation/history-spotlight-canada-s-first-railway

http://www.canada-rail.com/quebec/railways/QMOO.html#.W-YXsPnibcs

https://ocul.on.ca/topomaps/collection/

http://www.kballantyne.ca/geomatics/maps/ottawa-railways/

Chief William Commanda Bridge multi-use pathway and rehabilitation project | City of Ottawa

Wikipedia

Photo from City of Ottawa fly over drone video with my own text overlay

3 Comments

  1. Would be nice to add a paragraph about Moose Rail’s attempt between 2015 and 2020 to make it part of a regional train network. And Jim Watson’s and Marc Garneau’s successful attempt to squish the project. https://www.letsgomoose.ca/maps/.

    The project started in October 2015 with an agreement between eight companies to “create a private sector metropolitan passenger railway” (https://www.insideottawavalley.com/news/agreement-formally-signed-to-launch-moose-commuter-train-consortium/article_50708f57-7cdd-5a78-b117-c5d05773e049.html?)

    The Prince of Wales bridge was to be a critical link between two lines, one going from Smith Falls to La Pêche / Wakefield and the other from Arnprior to Montebello (https://www.letsgomoose.ca/maps/).

    In 2018 the Canadian Transportation Agency Issues Order to the City of Ottawa to maintain railway bridge or to sell it and that it cannot let it fall into disrepair. Under the leadership of Jim Watson the city appealed to decision to federal cabinet. Marc Garneau, then Minister of Transportation, agreed with the decision of the Federal Court to reverse the decision of the CTA [I’m at a loss here on the exact bureaucratic term here)

    There’s more history to Moose Rail in their media releases: https://www.letsgomoose.ca/media/

  2. Nice write-up, Hans. I find it interesting that when crossing Lemieux Island the route deviates a bit west of the original line, which is still there with tracks on it, so there’s at least a little bit of rail heritage there.

    And I agree with the above comment that the Quebec side is not really ready for the extra traffic. Perhaps they should continue the path over the old northbound route coming straight off the bridge, which leads to and then runs alongside the current Rapibus corridor. (Of course, they’d have to figure how how to get it across Blvd. Tache…).

  3. The bridge is great, the paths on the Ottawa side are fine (at least, the ones not blocked by construction), but the Voyageur pathway on the Quebec side is not suitable for a big increase in traffic. That path is narrow, and has some dangerous corners and steep grades. I will stick to Tache Blvd at busy times. The bridge path could be extended along the rail track northwards, but I do not expect the UQ wants a right of way across their campus (though you can reach the campus via the partial bike path along Tache from the Chaudiere Bridge). So…use caution riding on the Quebec side.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Retracing the First Train into Ottawa: the Bytown & Prescott Railway
  2. Cycling infra updates in Ottawa in 2023 – part 1/2 – Hans on the Bike

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