OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
May 5, 1910
As the City of Ottawa awaits its light rail system, with its 2.5 km tunnel under the heart of the city, it's timely to look back at an earlier plan to build a tunnel under the capital that almost came to fruition more than a century ago.
On May 5, 1910, the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) announced its intention to build a new railway entrance into Ottawa.
Its arch rival, the Grand Trunk Railway (G.T.R.), had already commenced construction of a new Central Station in downtown Ottawa, located on the east side of the Rideau Canal. Across the street from the station, the railway was also building a baronial-style hotel to be called the Château Laurier, after the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
While the C.P.R. had been using the old Central Station for its transcontinental service since 1901, it was not happy with its access to downtown Ottawa.
For starters, it had to use its competitor's tracks and station for which the C.P.R. was forced to pay through the nose.
Secondly, its trains coming to downtown Ottawa from points west had to take a long detour crossing the Prince of Wales Bridge, located on the western outskirts of the city to the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, travel through Hull, and then retrace their journey across the river, this time over the Inter-Provincial Bridge (a.k.a. the Alexandra Bridge), to arrive at the Central Station. As well, trains travelling westward from Central Station had to reverse their way into the C.P.R.'s Union Station, located on Broad Street in LeBreton Flats. This was considered dangerous.
To correct these deficiencies, the C.P.R. proposed a massive re-structuring of Ottawa's transportation infrastructure.
First, it announced its intention of acquiring from the Dominion government the bed of the Rideau Canal from the head of the "Deep Cut," at roughly Waverely Street, to Sappers' Bridge (approximately were the Plaza Bridge is today). The railway would dam and drain the canal from that point and run a new track along its bed from a rail hook-up near Nicholas Street to a point roughly opposite the new G.T.R. Central Station. To keep the water in the blocked canal from going stagnant, the C.P.R. proposed either a drain to the Rideau River or a drain to the locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel.
Second, the railway proposed running a double-track line from the downtown terminal through a tunnel fifty feet underground that would go from Sappers' bridge under much of Wellington Street before coming out near the Aqueduct in LeBreton Flats. There, the new track would link up with the existing C.P.R. tracks and proceed into Union Station.
By using this new tunnel, trains could travel from Union Station in LeBreton Flats to downtown Ottawa in five minutes, lopping off as much as 25 minutes in time from their former circuitous route. The C.P.R.'s Montreal Express train could also start at Union Station and stop at the downtown station before heading east.
While the cost, estimated at roughly $1-million, was considerable, the railway would no longer have to pay the exorbitant charges for the use of its competitor's tracks. As well, the shorter route would reduce costs, and by saving time offer a more attractive travel option for C.P.R. customers. Backing into Union Station would also be a thing of the past.
From the outset, the C.P.R. realized that the achilles' heel of its plan was its proposal to dam the Rideau Canal. It argued that the canal would be little missed as only a comparatively modest amount of freight moved along its length, especially down the portion of the canal from Dow's Lake to Sappers' Bridge. It contended that opposition to closing it was based on sentiment rather than economics.
To set against the loss of the canal, railway executives argued that more efficient train access to the downtown core would benefit Ottawa residents and help to boost the tourist business. The new entrance into Ottawa would also improve the city's position on transcontinental rail routes and would help make a reality the capital's ambition of becoming a major railway hub.
The idea met widespread opposition, especially from the mercantile and shipping companies that depended on the Rideau Canal.
At a meeting of Ottawa's Board of Trade sentiment was unanimous against any interference with the canal. Communities located on the canal, south of Ottawa, also objected strenuously. Kingston was particularly vocal in its opposition. Ottawa's Evening Journal opined that the C.P.R. "ought to be ashamed of itself" for proposing the destruction of a national water route.
Some critics thought the C.P.R. was not really serious, and that the plan was a stalking horse for another objective, presumably some sort of concession from the government. They noted that the C.P.R. would face the difficult task of obtaining approvals from the Ottawa City Council, the Railway Commission, and the Dominion government, possibly even from the Imperial government in London, since the canal was built for military purposes by the Imperial government.
An unnamed Militia official told the Evening Journal that the Rideau Canal formed a "most important portion of the military defence system of this country." The same official opined that "any government trying to interfere with the defence works of Canada and the Empire to suit a railway would drive them out of office." He thought the proposal was "a bluff."
Of course, for many, the idea of the Rideau Canal still being considered as part of Canada's defence system bordered on the ridiculous.
At a presentation to Ottawa City Council, Mr. D. McNicoll, the C.P.R.'s Vice-President and General Manager, was asked if the proposal was a "bluff." He replied, "I'm willing to spend $1-million to show it isn't." He added that the C.P.R.'s president, Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, and the company's Board of Directors had approved the plan and had appropriated the required funds. The only thing needed was the necessary approvals from the various levels of government.
Almost immediately, alternative plans were put forward that would avoid blocking the Rideau Canal.
Mayor Hopewell came up with a daffy suggestion to build a 3,000-foot long curved bridge, with a pier on a small island in the middle of the Ottawa River, that would loop around Parliament Hill linking Victoria Island, close to the Chaudière Falls in LeBreton Flats, to a point near the locks of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa. The C.P.R. rubbished the idea arguing that the mayor's proposal would cost triple the amount of the tunnel idea, the grade would be too great for its trains, and that it would not solve the problem of having to back into Union Station at LeBreton Flats.
Another plan that was briefly considered was shifting the Rideau Canal twenty feet to the west from the Deep Cut to Central Station to allow for the construction of additional C.P.R. lines into Central Station.
An alternative that gained more traction was proposed by Mr N. Cauchon of the engineering firm Cauchon & Haycock who worked as a consultant to the C.P.R.
To address the concerns of shippers while sticking with the C.P.R.'s proposal, Cauchon suggested digging a new canal from Dow's Lake to the Ottawa River using the same route through Mechanicsville first proposed by British engineers in the 1820s. The new canal outlet would be situated above the Chaudière Falls and hence require a new set of locks to pass the rapids to be located where the timber slide was.
Cauchon envisaged linking the Rideau Canal system with the Georgian Bay Ship Canal, then under consideration by the Dominion government. The Georgian Bay Ship Canal was a massive construction project aimed at permitting ocean-going freighters to transport grain from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via a canal that linked Lake Huron with the St. Lawrence River and from there the Atlantic Ocean via the French River, Lake Nipissing, the Mattawa River and the Ottawa River.
Ottawa City Council was receptive to the C.P.R.'s desire to have a new entrance to the capital as long as the Rideau Canal was not blocked. Working with the Board of Trade, it commissioned two engineers to examine a variety of proposals from a citywide perspective.
The engineers endorsed Cauchon's plan of a cross-town tunnel combined with re-routing the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River at Dow's Lake. However, they proposed that both the C.P.R. and the G.T.R. use the tunnel to Central Station. They also recommended that the city buy and pull up the cross-city G.T.R. tracks that ran along Isabella Street and hindered Ottawa's growth to the south. In their place, they advised the city to build a scenic boulevard and resell the adjoining land for development or parks. As well, they recommended that the new portion of the Rideau Canal through Mechanicsville and Hintonburg should be deep enough to accommodate the ocean-going vessels using the Georgian Bay Ship Canal with appropriate harbour and port facilities constructed at the juncture of the diverted Canal and the Ottawa River. They also thought that a large factory site could be constructed for manufacturing industries alongside the Mechanicsville waterfront on the Ottawa River heading westward. As for the old locks beside the Château Laurier Hotel, one suggestion was to re-purpose them as public swimming baths. Mayor Hopewell thought that a series of small cascades over each lock gate would look very pretty lit up at night.
The engineers' proposal was predicated on the Georgian Bay Ship Canal being completed within five to six years. The engineers also hoped that the Dominion Government could be persuaded to contribute the funds needed to construct the diverted Rideau Canal since the estimated cost only represented an additional 1-2 per cent of the $125-million price tag for the Georgian Bay Ship Canal.
In April 1911, roughly eleven months after the C.P.R. had announced its plan for a tunnel, Ottawa City Council endorsed the engineers' report with the recommendation that the City begin negotiations with the G.T.R. over acquiring its cross-city tracks.
However, many remained sceptical. One member of Council thought that people were "insane" if they believed that C.P.R. would build a tunnel under Wellington Street within 25 years.
How right the councillor was. Problems immediately arose.
First, the G.T.R. refused to sell its cross-city tracks to the city.
Second, the Dominion government, at best lukewarm to the city's grand design, was not willing to pay for diverting the Rideau Canal or to closing it at the Deep Cut.
Third, plans to build the Georgian Bay Ship Canal fizzled after Laurier's Liberal Party was defeated in the 1911 General Election. They were later abandoned, a victim of cost considerations and changing government priorities.
With the proposal to divert the Rideau Canal a non-starter, a modified plan involving narrowing it from the Deep Cut to Sappers' Bridge to provide space for the C.P.R. tracks to come into downtown Ottawa briefly gave the tunnel proposal new life. As an adjunct to this modified proposal, the C.P.R. planned to locate its downtown station on Canal Street to the south of Sappers' Bridge on the western side of the Canal across the Canal from the G.T.R. station; rumour had it on the site of the Russell Hotel.
Although the C.P.R. evinced its willingness to start construction as soon as the municipal and Dominion governments gave their approval, the railway seemed to lose interest despite Vice President McNicoll repeatedly saying that the plan was "not dead, but sleeping."
However, by 1913, the tunnel proposal was abandoned.
Ultimately, the C.P.R. negotiated a new deal with the G.T.R. to use the new downtown Central Station which in 1920 was renamed Union Station following the closure of the old Union Station in LeBreton Flats. The G.T.R.'s cross-city tracks (now owed by its successor company, the Canadian National Railway) were finally pulled up during the 1950s.
Instead of becoming a scenic boulevard, the site of the old tracks became the location of a cross-city highway -- the Queensway.
While the Georgian Bay Ship Canal never got off of the drawing board, the St. Lawrence Seaway, which allowed ocean-going ships to go from the Great Lakes to Montreal and beyond, was opened in 1959.
As a final sidebar to this story, on May 4, 2018, virtually 108 years to the day from when news of the C.P.R.'s intention to build a cross-town train tunnel became public, city officials, politicians, and company representatives converged on the eastern end of the LRT to drive in a ceremonial "last spike" in the Confederation Line's tunnel under the city of Ottawa. Similar to its proposed early twentieth century counterpart, the tunnel is roughly 50 feet underground, and runs from a location near Ottawa University to LeBreton Flats. Instead of following the C.P.R.'s route below Wellington Street, it is located two blocks further south under Queen Street.