Retracing the First Train into Ottawa: the Bytown & Prescott Railway

Reading 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 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.

Wouldn’t this be an awesome commuter rail from Kemptville today?

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.

South Keys

I am starting just south of Walkley, where you can find 3 high rise buildings. Note a branch veers of to the left, that is now the Trillium Line.

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.

A pathway next to a road in a new development
This is Anand Private looking north. This is where the tracks of the Bytown to Prescott Railway used to run
Heading further north, after crossing Walkley, you’ll bike into a street called Glenhaven private. From what I gather, the train basically ran on your right, where the houses are built

Walkley and Heron crossings

At the end of Glenhaven, you can continue to bike towards Brookfield East, which runs left to right on this picture and turns into a pathway towards Bank. Ahead, following the hydro poles, there used to be the tracks, between Bank on the right and Kaladar on the left.

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.

This is probably as close as you can get to the original railway, give or take a few meters
The path continues towards Heron. and in August shows an abundance of flora. I even saw several cattails
Arriving at Heron, you can clearly see the greenspace (ie the former track) continuing. Unfortunately, you can not walk it as most of it is now back yard and parking lot. Note the rock on the pathway next to the mid rise
This is how that greenspace looks like past the mid rise and look north from the ditch

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 right in front of where the Second Cup is located now

The train would cross Bank street here. That odd looking triangle plaza was were the train would continue into what later became Lamira St.

There is now a strip mall, but the train would pretty much run right here where the cars are parked and then cross Bank St into Altavista (which obviously didn’t exist at that time)

Lamira St.

There is another strip mall on the corner of Bank and Lamira. The train would run right here
From here is would run where Lamira is, towards the current roundabout at the bottom of Kilborn
Following Lamira past the roundabout, you’ll bike into a newer neighbourhood. The train tracks would run behind the mailboxes and just right of this mansion, which apparently is the embassy of Angola
This is part of the actual track bed where the tracks used to run. You are looking from the end of Lamira towards Pleasant Park where the tracks would run towards Hurdman, where now VIARail’s tracks are.
This would pretty much have been the view along the tracks

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

That little bit of green between Hurdman and the Queensway has a lot of railway history, lots more than just this red line of the Bytown & Prescott Railway. Note how much space the Vanier – Queensway on and off ramps area occupies

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.

Vanier Parkway

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.

Stanley Park

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.

Another bit of the route that is still visible. This is a very short track between Dufferin Rd and Stanley Park. Now you know why there is that odd bit of pathway there: you’re cycling on the oldest rail road track bed of Ottawa.
Stanley Park towards the Rideau River has another bit of rail road history, although the actual track was a bit further to the right. But rather than veering to the right it would continue more or less straight towards the railway bridge
And there it is, the Rideau River. In the background on the right is the Ministry of Global Affairs Canada
The remains of the bridge seen from Bordeleau Park at the other side

Bytown & Prescott Railway Bridge across the Rideau River

The bridge in all its glory in the early 1960’s – Frayne Collection
In this photo, you can still see the pedestrian underpass (underneath the dead tree) – Frayne Collection
Very little is left, but -hoorey- the NCC left a plaque to explain what this used to be. The goat path is where the pathway used to run underneath the bridge
“The bridge was removed for the construction of the McDonald – Cartier bridge and the Vanier Parkway”

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.

More railway related posts

  • The Short Life of the Ottawa & New York Railway
    Reading 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 Quebec
    Reading 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 Railway
    Reading 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 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.
  • Cycling the Ecopista de Évora in Portugal
    Reading Time: 8 minutes Throughout Portugal you can find an increasing number of dedicated cycling facilities, often called Ecopistas. Recently I wrote about an Ecopista starting in Vizeu in Portugal. This week, we’ll take you on an interesting ride on the Ecopista de Évora in the Portugese province of Alentejo, known for its cork trees, white washed villages, wine and vistas. Many years ago, I visited Évora (the emphasis is on the ‘E’, not on ‘VO‘), an old city in Portugal. It must have been around 1990-1991. I was there for an agricultural trade show and for a visit to a dealership of the [Read more…]

Sources
Photo of a wood powered steam train https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/BytownandPrescottAnecdotes.html

https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/findings4.htm

photos of bridge over the Rideau River near New Edinburgh: https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/Findings_Bridges.htm

https://www.historicalsocietyottawa.ca/publications/ottawa-stories/significant-technological-changes-in-the-city/the-arrival-of-the-iron-horse-87

https://bytownrailwaysociety.ca/phocadownload/branchline/2005/2005-02.pdf (incl map)

Wikipedia

4 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this Hans, I have cycled many of spots in your story and have acquired new knowledge ne appreciation of the railroad history of Ottawa. Thank you.

  2. Nice work, Hans! I too have studied this route, either amazing or boring my friends when I explain all the abandoned train routes in Ottawa to them.

    And while the bike path that picks up where Vanier Parkway stops is nice, I still say they should’ve pushed that parkway through to the MacDonald Cartier bridge as originally planned, saving us from 50 years of heavy truck traffic through Sandy Hill and along King Edward.

    • I didn’t know that that was the original plan and I think that would have been a good idea (and ideally cut and cover underground like they did in Boston, but I am sure people living around the Vanier Parkway likely disagree 🙂

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