The land where Ottawa stands was occupied for thousands of years by the ancestors of Canada’s First Nations but they left few if any signs of their presence in what is now Sandy Hill. The same can be said about the many explorers, coureurs des bois, and missionaries who travelled up the Ottawa River in the 17th and 18th centuries. Our stories of Sandy Hill, therefore, start in the middle of the 19th century, after the founding of Bytown.
Sandy Hill is a neighbourhood in downtown Ottawa bounded by Rideau St. to the north, the Rideau River to the east, the Queensway (Highway 417) to the south and the Rideau Canal to the west, although these boundaries have shifted slightly over time. Built to accommodate the arrival of middle and upper class civil servants and politicians after Ottawa was designated Canada’s capital in the mid 19th century, it remains today primarily a residential neighbourhood, albeit one with extensive commercial and institutional development.
Queen Victoria may have designated Ottawa as the capital of a united Canada in 1857 but it remained a lumber town at heart with sawmills providing most of the jobs. At the time of Confederation in 1867, there were only some 350 federal public servants in Ottawa, with the Post Office being the single biggest department. The public service merely doubled over the next 20 years even as the country increased vastly in size with the addition of three new provinces (Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia) and the Northwest Territories, which then included Alberta, Saskatchewan, northern Ontario and northern Quebec, Yukon, today’s Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Although Ottawa in 1867 had an attractive setting at the confluence of three rivers and imposing new parliament buildings, it was a dirty, smelly city with a population of under 20,000 inhabitants, with few social services: Running water was installed only in 1874 (it had been delivered in horse-drawn wagons before) as were trunk sewers. The wooden drains that existed until then were often clogged and stank. In the summer of 1867, Sir John A. Macdonald wrote to his sister in Kingston : “our drain is stopped up and my study, where I do all my work, has so offensive a smell that it began to affect my health”. (R. Gwyn, 2011) Electric streetlights replaced gas lamps only in 1885. The first public library as well as municipal garbage pick-up date to 1906. Ottawa lagged behind comparable Canadian cities in providing services, in part because its finances had been hobbled by a bad investment in a local railway.
Most streets were unpaved until the beginning of the 20th century, creating distinct challenges for getting around in summer and winter. In summer, the streets turned to mud after it rained and to dust when it was dry. In winter, snow was a desired commodity for transport, as long as it was hard-packed. Horse-drawn ploughs would push the snow off the sidewalks into the streets where horse-drawn rollers would pack it down (see photo next page). By the end of the winter, the roadway could be several feet high. There would have been manure in the streets in every season.
Rats were a common problem: in 1876, a resident on Augusta St. reported seeing 28 poisoned rats stretched out on the wooden sidewalk close to his house. In summer, there were flies everywhere as many people kept horses, there was no garbage pick-up and window screens had not yet been invented.
One of Ottawa’s greatest natural attractions, the Ottawa River was full of logs (sawmills occupied the riverbanks creating a whine that could be heard throughout the downtown) and sawdust and lumber piles posed a continuous danger of fire, which indeed destroyed large swathes of Hull and Ottawa in 1900. The first municipal park was established only in 1876 (on Major’s Hill) and there were few trees in the city.
Flies, rats, dust, plugged drains, mosquitoes, lack of trees, extremes of temperature — it is no surprise that recent arrivals had few kind words to say about the City. In 1861, Edmund Meredith, a senior civil servant, described Ottawa as “rough, wild and unfinished. … Possibly the place may be fit for habitation in fifty years time, but certainly not before.” (S. Gwyn, 1980) In 1866, the Governor General, Viscount Monck, wrote that “it seems an act of insanity to have fixed the capital of this great country away from the civilization, intelligence and commercial enterprise of this Province, in a place that can never be a place of importance … . My confident belief is that Ottawa will not be the capital four years hence” (Haig, 1969). In 1884, Wilfrid Laurier would say “I would not wish to say anything disparaging of the capital, but it is hard to say anything good of it. Ottawa is not a handsome city and does not appear to be destined to become one either “ (Haig, 1969). As a result of these disparaging remarks, many of the newly-arrived civil servants were reluctant to buy homes, some of them expecting Canada’s capital to move again as it had repeatedly in the two previous decades.
Snow management in the 19th Century: horse-drawn rollers pack the snow on the road to facilitate the circulation of vehicles. City of Ottawa Archives CA 15065
The City of Ottawa in those days consisted mainly of Lower Town and Upper Town with industrial areas developing around the Chaudière and Rideau Falls. Lower Town was then largely populated by Catholic, French and Irish working class settlers. Upper Town, by contrast was richer and mostly English and Protestant. Sandy Hill was still largely unsettled but was well-located, close to Ottawa’s then-commercial centre in Lower Town and Parliament Hill, where the civil service worked. It provided a neutral ground for new arrivals, particularly members of the professional élite, who for reasons of class or religion preferred not to settle in established neighbourhoods.
Louis-Théodore Besserer, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada had inherited in 1828 the part of Sandy Hill north of Laurier Ave. and west of Waller St. This was before the construction of the Rideau Canal and several years before the small village of Bytown became the city of Ottawa. Not surprisingly, development started very slowly. By 1857, thirty years after Besserer acquired his land, the streets of north Sandy Hill had been laid out but most of the neighbourhood was still empty and treeless. In 1850, Daly Ave. east of King Edward Ave. (then known as King St.), for example, was impassable because of the many stumps still remaining in the street.
The pace of development quickened in the late 1860s after Confederation. Businessmen, civil servants, politicians and other members of the professional elite began to settle in Sandy Hill, some of them building large houses, reflecting their status, their large families and the number of servants they kept. While the houses may have been grand, the atmosphere was still somewhat rural as several families kept a horse, cow or chicken in the backyard, a garden for fresh vegetables as well as large woodpiles for cooking and heating (pilfering was a common problem). Development spread gradually east from Waller St. and south from Rideau St. but most of what we know today as Sandy Hill remained meadow or swampy land.
Sandy Hill filled out gradually between 1880 and 1920 when the population of the City of Ottawa quadrupled to over 100,000 as a result of national expansion and the growth in the civil service. Small walk-ups and low-rise apartment buildings started to appear in Sandy Hill to house professionals and their families. Last to be developed was Strathcona Heights at the south end of Sandy Hill where housing was built only after World War 2 for returning veterans and their families.
While parts of Sandy Hill today still recall the gentility of another era, other parts have been utterly transformed, none more so than the northwest corner: the many warehouses and shops servicing Ottawa’s Union Station are gone, replaced by the Rideau Centre, the Westin Hotel and the Shaw Centre. The quiet residential streets south of Laurier Ave. E. and west of King Edward Ave. are now home to the institutional buildings of the University of Ottawa. The modest, working-class street that used to be Nicholas St. has become a long access ramp linking downtown to the Queensway. Fire has destroyed several buildings, including the first building of the University of Ottawa on Wilbrod St., two churches — St Joseph and Sacré-Coeur (twice) — and some private homes (e.g., the J. F. Booth house on Charlotte St. where the Russian embassy now stands). The three hospitals that once clustered near the corner of Rideau St. and Wurtemburg St have moved to more distant neighbourhoods. Two churches have been converted to other uses and several schools have closed. Embassies now occupy several former private mansions.
Paralleling these changes have been important demographic shifts: while the number of residents has held stable or even declined somewhat, there are fewer Francophones and the once-feisty Irish presence has largely disappeared; few of the many Jewish businesses that once punctuated Rideau St. remain. The presence of Catholic religious orders, in particular the Oblate Fathers, is greatly diminished. Although Sandy Hill today remains home to many families, overall, the population is younger, less affluent and more transient, reflecting both new lifestyles and the rapid recent growth of the University’s student population.
 These were almost all men. In 1871, there were only two women in the entire federal civil service, one the secretary to the Governor General, the other a lighthouse keeper.
 Colonel By eventually acquired the southern part of Sandy Hill.
Sandy Hill features a number of places of historical interest that are not necessarily associated with a single individual. These include the Rideau Canal, Strathcona Park, one of the most beautiful parks in Ottawa, the University of Ottawa, the headquarters of Canada’s code-breaking service during World War 2, several churches and former hospitals. These are described below. In addition, this section features stories about three tragic episodes that touched Sandy Hill, the Spanish flu epidemic, the sewer explosions and a deadly love triangle.