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Home > About Us > History


The history of the ByWard Market area is the history of fire, of working-class folk, of farmers, industry, brawls and bawdiness. Although today it is best known for its trendy restaurants, boutiques and nightclubs, this was not always so. The Market area was until two or three decades ago known simply as Lowertown, Ottawa's oldest blue-collar neighbourhood and the cradle of the city's French population.

Early History

This is one of the earliest pictures of the Ottawa River.

The ByWard Market is where Ottawa was born. This is due to the separate actions of two completely unrelated men, Philemon Wright and Napoleon. Wright settled in Hull, and started the lumber industry. Napoleon, through his wars, closed the Baltic ports to British vessels during the early 19th century. The British, up to that point, had relied on the Baltics for all their timber needs. With the access to those supplies eliminated, they turned to their colonies and Ottawa benefitted most from this new trade.

The first settlement in the area was Hull. An American by the name of Philemon Wright, from Woburn (Mass.) just outside Boston, was granted title to most of the lands that were part of Hull Township in 1800 and, in just a few years, established a booming lumber village called Wrightsville. Within five years, in addition to hundreds of acres of cultivated fields, the village boasted two sawmills, a blacksmith's shop, a tailor's shop, a shoemaker, a gigantic bakery and a hemp-processing mill which was used to produce rope and clothing. In fact, Mr. Wright won a silver medal in 1814 at the Agricultural Committee for the Arts Society in Quebec City for a 14-foot hemp plant. By 1810, Wrightsville produced 85% of all hemp sold in Lower Canada.

With the War of 1812, the British became interested in building a water passage for ships between Montréal and Kingston. Scouts were sent to assess proper locations and, upon arriving at Wrightsville, determined that the Rideau River would be the shortest and best route. This would require building a canal, however, because the Rideau Falls were the only point of contact between the two rivers. In fact, the British had no idea how difficult this undertaking would be. If they had known, it is doubtful the canal would ever have been built. Between Ottawa and Kingston, boats would have to be locked up and down about every 135 metres (450 ft) because of the different water levels over the 200-km journey. Estimates first called for £162,000. The figure was later inflated to £400,000 and ended up costing more than twice that amount. One of the driving forces behind the project was Lord Dalhousie, then Governor General.

  The ByWard Market is where Ottawa was born...it is now one of the trendiest places to live, shop and go out. Serving just about every segment of the market from jazz to rock to dance music to alternative, and for every clientele from the university crowd to the gay and lesbian community to multi-ethnic groups.

Bytown the terrible

Lowertown was predominantly Irish and French. The French Canadians of Lowertown were mostly lumbermen who had been working for Wright in Hull and who had supplied the canal works with wood and related materials. This made Lowertown a mainly Roman Catholic area, while Uppertown was mostly Protestant.  

As people were competing for jobs, old animosities were revived. The French Canadians, who remembered the still-recent defeat of 1760 (je me souviens), and the Irish, fresh off the British conquest of their country, became arch-rivals with the Englishmen of Uppertown, who were better educated and wealthier. Another major source of resentment were the living conditions in Lowertown, which contrasted enormously with the ones in Uppertown. Lowertown was mostly shanties, whereas Uppertown was starting to have some elegant mansions.

Colonel By was responsible for the building of the Rideau Canal. 

Uppertown residents also administered the affairs of the town. When Bytown got an elected Council, only men with mortgage-free property were allowed to run and vote in the elections. This meant that people from Lowertown had virtually no chance of participating in the administration. Again this goes back to the early canal-building days. Back then, well aware that the canal workers were Frenchmen and Irishmen, the Crown had instructed Col By not to sell the lots in Lowertown, but instead to lease them to their occupants. This explains why almost none of the first buildings in the Market have survived: most were built cheaply out of wood and were not designed to last. When the political situation escalated to a crisis, in the 1830s, the Crown agreed with local officials to start selling the lots. At this point, brick and stone buildings slowly started replacing the wood shanties and log taverns - and people gradually earned mortgage-free property and the right to vote.

This didn't happen smoothly. After the canal was completed, jobless Irishmen became restless about their situation. They were known as the Shiners. They began to wage intimidation campaigns against the French raftsmen and against Orangemen. The violence, which started out as street fights and bar brawls, escalated until it crested with a series of assaults and murders in 1837. Bytonians' tolerance levels also were evolving, and by this time they were enlisting in militias. The end of Shiner terror came when their leader, Peter Aylen, left Ottawa to settle in a large mansion in Aylmer. By that time lots of Shiners were finding work anyway, and tensions eased.  
This didn't mean an end to violence in Bytown, but the focus now shifted to wider Canadian politics, of which the city was a microcosm. Englishmen were mostly Tories while the French and Irish were Reformers. In Bytown, each lived in their own part of town. The Tories spent the decade of the 1840s incensed at the Reformist-minded politics of the Governor General, Lord Elgin. This started riots most notably in Montréal, where Tories burnt down the Parliament following passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill. This incident prompted Elgin to look for another capital. When he released his plans to come to Bytown in September of 1849, the people of Lowertown started preparing a royal welcome. Uppertowners were instead of the opinion that he should be ignored. A meeting was called in the ByWard Market building to discuss the situation. It erupted into a bloody riot where stones were thrown and one person was shot dead. The event is known as Stoney Monday.  

Stoney Monday could have lasted the entire week, but the next day, as Lowertowners tried to cross Sappers Bridge into Uppertown, the army was called in and faced the riot with fixed bayonets. The soldiers could have been overrun as they were badly outnumbered, but the bluff worked and the riot dispersed.

After Stoney Monday, the ByWard Market area became somewhat more peaceful. Six years later Ottawa was made capital and the Market concentrated on booming business. Which is not to say that there were no more bar fights. They still exist today.

The Market's Streets

  Small shops and businesses appeared and mills started being built after a few years, where the people of Lowertown found jobs. The industry was predominantly lumber, but there were also many other shops, ateliers, and related businesses which made the area an industrial centre as well as a farmers' market.

The first commercial streets were Sussex and Rideau. Small shops and businesses appeared and mills started being built after a few years, where the people of Lowertown found jobs. The industry was predominantly lumber, but there were also many other shops, ateliers, and related businesses which made the area an industrial centre as well as a farmers' market. Beginning in the 1850s rail service reached Ottawa and rails were installed all over. Back then each railway company installed its own rails. The Market area had a big railyard, which lasted until the 1960s. This is now the site of the US Embassy. 

York Street

York Street was the farmers' street. At the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th, this was an extension of the Market itself and was lined with all sorts of shops, sidewalk sellers, feed and seed stores.  This area had a permanent carnival atmosphere - the noise, the sights and the smells were ongoing. Also part of the street were hotels and taverns, for farmers who came to Ottawa for the week to sell their produce. The only one of these that remains is the Chateau Lafayette, built in 1849, which now operates as a pub. York Street was also a focus point for French-Canadians as the Institut Canadien-Français was located in the stone building at 18 York.

Clarence Street

Clarence Street, on the other hand, was the raftsmens turf. Along with Murray and St. Patrick Streets, it was known as the Queen of Pleasure. Taverns, hotels, prostitution and street fights mingled with small shops, tradesmen, tinkerers and supply stores. Typically, the raftsmen came into town in the spring after spending the winter out in the woods; they terrorized the streets during the summer and blew their pay on alcohol and sex, then went back into the woods at the beginning of the winter. The area was consistently very poor, and many fires over the years have caused almost all original buildings to disappear. Rebuilding was just as prompt, though, and vacant lots were unheard of in this area.

Sussex Street

  Sussex Street, as it was originally known, has a long and interesting history. It got its present "look" during the 1870s, and until the first decade of this century both sides of Sussex were lined with stores and apartments... now it is home to numerous stores and the new U.S. Embassy.

Sussex Street, as it was originally known, has a long and interesting history. It was one of the commercial thoroughfares of Ottawa from the early days, but with the arrival of the federal government it became a bit more elegant than Rideau Street or the Market area. It featured imported-goods stores, good clothiers, furniture stores, and also utilitarian shops like hardware, jewellers, bookstores and shoe stores. It got its present "look" during the 1870s, and until the first decade of this century both sides of Sussex were lined with stores and apartments. Business was very good. Merchants made elaborate sidewalk displays that sometimes got them a $2.00 fine for encroaching on the public right-of-way, but storekeepers didn't mind paying it.  

Store signs were mostly wooden pictures of whatever was being sold. The sign for Le Castor Hotel and Tavern, which closed in the 1970s, can be seen in the Tin House Courtyard. Others included a saw for the hardware store, a watch for the jeweller, a big boot for the shoe store and an Indian head for the tobacco store.  

A big part of Sussex's commercial success, as was also the case for Rideau, was public transit. The first horse-drawn tramway rolled down Sussex in 1870; 21 years later transit switched to electric trams and trolleys.  

One of the least-remembered places on Sussex was the Casino Theatre, located right behind Union Station on what was called "Little Sussex". This was Ottawa's sleaziest burlesque house, featuring girlie shows and all sorts of stage entertainment that made every priest in town cringe and fulminate with sermons admonishing people not ever to be found there. This was the cornerstone of its success. It was within easy barfing distance of two taverns, the Grand Hotel across the street, and the old Albion. With the advent of the movies, it tried to catch up by showing films and changing its name to the Majestic, but failed and closed in 1929.  

Sussex stayed a local commercial area until the 1970s, when the NCC decided to restore and revitalize the area. During the '60s it was the francophone hippie hangout par excellence, with music clubs (boîtes à chansons) such as Le Hibou and La Guillotine. Harmonium and Beau Dommage both played at La Guillotine in their early days.  

The west side of Sussex is one of the first examples of government intervention in planning the capital. Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General, wanted to enjoy a "beautiful ride on her way from Rideau Hall". She eventually got the government to expropriate the entire west side of Sussex, except for the Daly Building at the corner of Sussex & Rideau.

The Connaught Building was built between 1913- 1915, but then the rest of the land stayed vacant. After the Parliament Building fire, sheds were erected there for the construction crews. When that was finished, it became parking space. During World War II, again temporary wood buildings were built there to house a swollen public service. They lasted until 1979, when the site was vacated and became a parking lot. In 1999, the new U.S. Embassy was opened on the site.

The ByWard Market Building

The ByWard Market building itself  was originally much larger than the one we know today. And also, it spanned two blocks instead of one: the second building, now the site of a City-owned parking garage, reached Clarence. Market Square was truly the heart of Lowertown. The Market Building had a rough life. It was destroyed by fire 4 times. Also, it had to compete with the other 4 markets in Ottawa, particularly with the Upper Town Market.

Upper Towners were forever jealous of the booming business generated by the ByWard Market and repeatedly tried to impose regulations and taxes to try to sway business toward their own market at Wellington and Kent. As we can see, present-day regulations on the type of produce to be sold in the Market are nothing new. The Market was the central place for farmers to sell their produce, but also to sell cattle and livestock. Butchers would set up shop and slaughter animals right in front of you. Livestock selling continued until the early 1980s, when the new yuppie crowd started to find this too smelly. York Street complemented the Market Building, accommodating hay markets and horse sellers within its extra wide roadway.

Of the original five markets in Ottawa, two remain: the ByWard, which is the most popular, and the Parkdale, located in Hintonburg, another working-class neighbourhood.

The Courtyards

The courtyards we know today were simply back alleys for the disposal of garbage and storage of junk for the Sussex Street stores. Over the years they became used as parking lots, which they remained until the 1970s when the NCC decided to restore them into interior pedestrian spaces. The most popular is Tin House Court. The metal facade that is hung on the wall was the facade of an actual house, that of Honoré Foisy. Foisy was a blacksmith who decided to cover the real facade of his house with a metal cover. He didn't do this to be cute or trendy, but to protect himself better against the wind and the elements. When his house was demolished during urban renewal in the 1960s, the facade was preserved and restored.

Clarendon Court  

Clarendon Court, corner of George and Sussex, is maybe the building with the most history. It was originally a log tavern. As business picked up, it was upgraded to stone and enlarged to become a higher-quality hotel. Then the first public reading room in Ottawa, ancestor of the library, was opened there. Afterward the Bytown Mechanics Institute had their training school in the building. The militia used it for a year as barracks during the Fenian crisis. During this time one convicted traitor was hanged at the courtyard. You can still see the small window through which he was escorted from the building.  He was hanged over the archway. It reverted to a hotel in 1875. Five years later, the Canadian Academy of the Arts was formed there and went on to become the National Gallery of Canada. The Geological Survey Branch used it for years before moving to their complex on Rochester Street. In 1911 it served as a hospital during a typhoid epidemic. The government used it until World War II, and since then it's been used as offices and apartments. It also houses the headquarters of the Canadian Institute of Planners and some great cafés and restaurants.

What happened then

The Market today is a very different place than it used to be, but it has continued to evolve organically, adapting to different times. When the Rideau Centre was opened, people region-wide now found the comfort of a suburban-calibre shopping mall along with traditional commercial forms and nightlife. This led to a massive rediscovery of the Market which is now one of the trendiest places to live, shop and go out. Nightlife includes live music bars, cafés, discotheques and taverns serving just about every segment of the market from jazz to rock to dance music to alternative, and for every clientele from the university crowd to the gay and lesbian community to the multi-ethnic groups.