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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
A new lease on life
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The Short Life of the Ottawa & New York RailwayReading Time: 12 minutes At some time in our history, Ottawa had a direct train connection to the Adirondecks and Tupper Lake in New York State via Cornwall. From there, you could travel further south to New York City. The original idea was to create a direct connection to NY, NY, but that didn’t materialise. (with video of the route)
- A 52 km loop along the Estriade and Yamaska National Park in QuebecReading Time: 7 minutes The Estriade is a 22 km bicycle route on a former railway bed. Combined with a route through a National Park, it makes for a lovely 52 km route, all on separate pathways.
- Retracing the First Train into Ottawa: the Bytown & Prescott RailwayReading Time: 10 minutes Mr. Walter Shanly (1817-1899), a civil engineer, touched the ground to inspect the land underneath his snow shoes. He was on a mission: recently he, and a group of investors, had agreed on building the first railway track into Bytown (now Ottawa), all the way from Prescott on the St. Lawrence river, to connect the lumbertown on the Ottawa River with the ports in Prescott. A distance of about 50 miles (80 km). Not everyone was excited about their plans though and it had taken time to get the funds together. Thomas McKay, who built Rideau Hall, put forward money [Read more…]
- Prince of Wales Bridge Reopens as Active Transportation Bridge with New NameReading 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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- A bike ride on the Ecopista do Dão in PortugalReading Time: 7 minutes The Ecopista do Dão wasn’t on the agenda for our trip in Portugal, but we found this gem of a rail to trail in the hinterland of Portugal. Closed for trains in 1988, it is now a paved trail through a lovely, peaceful part of rural Portugal.
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.
Photo from City of Ottawa fly over drone video with my own text overlay