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 as did several other people, but it was not enough. Surrounding towns on the future railway line eventually put up the remaining monies from local taxes.
Bush and Marches
There were several options to build a track through the bush and Shanly was figuring out what the best choice would be. The time to check out the swampy areas between Prescott and Ottawa was probably the winter time: the swamps were frozen and the insects were gone. The downside was the slow progress on snow shoes.
When he settled on the ideal route, via Kemptville, work started swiftly. Bear in mind, this was all done by hand, through the bush, with the help of horses to haul the heavy stuff. Trees had to be cut, stone and rock had to be removed, trestles had to be built, swamps had to be crossed.
Ideally the railway line would have ended above the Chaudière Falls west of Bytown, but Thomas McKay required the line would stop at his properties at the north end of the Rideau River at the east end of Bytown. Money talks….
Steel from England for the Bytown & Prescott Railway
Steel rails, all 5400 tons, were ordered from a London, England based company with mills north of Cardiff in Wales. It took two shipments across the ocean to get the rails to Canada. The first shipment arrived in September 1853, the remainder in 1854.
In May 1854 workers started laying tracks in Prescott and made their way north during the spring and summer. Already on June 21, they reached Spencerville.
In July, they reached Oxford Station and by August 19, the tracks arrived in Kemptville. It must have been quite a change for the people in the countryside as the arrival in Oxford was celebrated with a picnic.
Name change: Bytown becomes Ottawa
The Billings Bridge area was reached on November 3, still 5.6 km from Bytown, the final destination. Then, on Christmas Day 1854 a work train reached the Rideau River in New Edinburgh (where Stanley Park is now). Service into Bytown started December 29 and 3 days later on January 1, 1855, Bytown changed its name to Ottawa. The company had to change its name too from the Bytown & Prescott Railway to the “Ottawa & Prescott Railway”.
Business slowly dwindled though. The company went bankrupt and was restarted as the St. Lawrence & Ottawa Railway.
Other newer railways had been built in the meantime and ran shorter routes between Ottawa and Toronto and to make a long story short, eventually, just over a century later, starting in 1966, the tracks from Prescott were mostly pulled up.
The first steam trains were running on wood. The first locomotive put to work was the “Oxford”, built in Boston, MA. The company already started to run trains as soon as the first villages were reached north of Prescott; there was no need to wait until the entire line was complete, much like we are now seeing with LRT Phase 1 and 2. The locomotives were originally coming from the US and were shipped across the river from Ogdensburg, NY. It must have been quite a sensation as the only thing you’d have seen were horse and carriages. Not even the bicycle was around (the penny farthing with that enormous front wheel was introduced in 1866).
Tracing the Bytown & Prescott Railway tracks today
If you look on aerial maps today, such as Google Earth, you can fairly easily see where the tracks used to run from Prescott, via Kemptville to the south end of Ottawa, but once you hit Ottawa, it becomes a lot harder.
Bike the route of the Bytown & Prescott Railway
To see what is left of the first train tracks in Ottawa, I decided to bike the former Bytown & Prescott Railway inside Ottawa to search what is left of Ottawa’s first railway. It is not much unfortunately. But some of the landscape on the map still gives it away.
Let’s start at South Keys, where the Trillium Line runs north on the old railway right of way. The original track runs towards Walkley, where it started to veer a bit away. The current Trillium line veers west on the later built branch towards Carleton U and Bayview Station, but the original line would run further north from behind the LCBO warehouse on Bank and follow roughly what is now Anand Private. After you cross Walkley, you will enter Glenhaven Private. The houses on the east side are built right on the former track. At the end, we cross Brookfield.
Walkley and Heron crossings
If you cycle up Brookfield Rd E, you can still see the train corridor at the east end of Brookfield Rd E. While it says it is ‘private property’, the former railway track space is still visible. You can take another peak from behind the Overflow Brewing Company’s parking lot off Kaladar.
I walked my bike further north towards Heron. A kid on a mountain bike cycled towards me. This strip has some nice vegetation including cat tails.
Crossing Heron, you can now bike on a new stretch just south of the Lunen Haus but it doesn’t really go anywhere, so you might want to take the next street west, called Gilles St. That runs parallel to the old tracks. This gets you via Bruce Timmermans Park to Bank St. (Bruce was a founder of “Citizens for Safe Cycling” now known as “Bike Ottawa”. Coincidentally, I was a neighbour of Bruce in the late 1990’s. His living room was a bicycle work shop).
The train would cross Bank street here. That odd looking triangle plaza was were the train would continue into what later became Lamira St.
Lamira past the roundabout at Kilborn is yet another street where the houses are built on the railway tracks. This gets you to Pleasant Park. The track would wind its way behind where the Riverside Hospital is now and eventually reaches Riverside and the Queensway. It becomes really impossible here to follow the old track route, due to Highway 417, but you will cross another former railway line of the Canada Atlantic Railway that comes from the former train bridge east of the Gee-Gees field across the Rideau River.
In 1856, the mail train would leave Ottawa at 7:15 am and arrive in Prescott at 10 am, just short of a 3 hour ride. The ‘accomodation’ train would leave Ottawa at 1:10 pm and arrive at 5:10, 4 hours later, with stops in a.o. Osgoode and Spencerville.
Saint Peter and Paul Catholic church
The tracks would go pretty much due north across the current property of the RCMP and past the Saint Peter and Paul Catholic church. At the north east corner of that church, another east-west railway track, the Canadian Northern Railway, used to cross there later. Further east this track became highway 17 and as fate would have it, the LRT extension into Orleans.
A bit further north, the little park between the east end of Drouin Ave and the Vanier Parkway is another small remnant of the first railway in Ottawa. From there on the tracks followed the route of what is now the Vanier Parkway all the way to St. Patrick Street.
After St. Patrick, the track dips into the greenspace along the Rideau River behind Crighton. It is very overgrown but it would have been just a few meters east of the Rideau River Eastern Pathway, crossing Dufferin at the south end and then veering through Stanley Park toward the Ottawa River.
After the river, it would have basically crossed just south of the basketball court and terminate in the area of the Kuwait, Ismaeli and Saudi Embassies. You can still see remnants of the bridge piers in the Rideau River, the last memory of the first railway in Ottawa and the first railway bridge between Stanley Park and Bordeleau Park.
Bytown & Prescott Railway Bridge across the Rideau River
The railways played an important role in Ottawa but one wouldn’t know: there is little to no evidence left. We don’t even bother with the odd railroad paraphenalia as they do along the P’tit train du Nord. I always incorporate some railway stories into my bike tours though. As it turned out, one visiting Brit was a rail road fan, and he was super excited that I could point out the remains of the bridge of the oldest track.
I am hoping that the NCC has a plan for the remainders of this important piece of Ottawa history before they are washed away. At least stabilising the piers.
The Prince of Wales bridge
Twenty five years later, the Quebec government had a bridge built across the Ottawa River: the Prince of Wales bridge, feeding into a spur from the Bytown & Prescott Railway. Read in my previous blog about this bridge and the spur from the original Bytown & Prescott Railway.
And what happened to Shanly, the railway engineer? In 1863, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada for the riding of Grenville South. In 1867, he was elected to the House of Commons of Canada for the riding of Grenville South. He passed away in 1899.
Photo of a wood powered steam train https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/BytownandPrescottAnecdotes.html
photos of bridge over the Rideau River near New Edinburgh: https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/Findings_Bridges.htm