We were once Ottawa’s railway centre

Album of Bygone Sandy Hill

Ken Clavette

CNR train at Union Station, Ottawa, Ont., 1927
Clifford M. Johnston, LAC PA-056248

Over the years I have had the chance to listen to people reminisce about Sandy Hill’s railway history. Families struggling through the depression of the 1930s would send their children down to the tracks running along the canal to collect the coal that would fall off the fully loaded trains as they pulled out of the Union Station. Many families in the southern part of the community were employed in some way with one of the railways. Young Richard Merritt Jr, who lived in my home, was working as a baggage handler at the Union Station when he enlisted in World War One.

Tracks ran adjacent to the Rideau Canal starting in 1896 when lumber baron J.R. Booth built the Central Railway Depot to serve his Canada Atlantic Railway (CAR). The Depot was just south of the building known as the Union Station, later as the Government Conference Centre and now serving as the Senate Chamber. In 1909 construction began on the new station, opening to the public in 1912. It served Ottawa until 1966 when trains no longer came downtown but stopped at the Alta Vista Station. Gone was the last of Sandy Hill’s long connection with the railway history of the city.

1912 Fire insurance map, Grand Trunk round house

The canal tracks were only part of “Railway” Sandy Hill. In 1890 Booth built a Railway Roundhouse to service and repair his Canada Atlantic Railway rolling stock. The large building was just south of Mann Avenue (then called Gladstone), about where the OTrain and the Nicholas Street interchange with Highway 417 now are.

In 1898 the Ottawa & New York Railway (ONYR) came into Ottawa. Unable to use the CAR Depot along the canal, they build a terminus station at the foot of King Edward Avenue.

1912 Fire insurance map, Ottawa & New York railway

The Canadian Northern Railway was the nation’s lesser known third transcontinental railway. It was put together over 20 years from several smaller regional railway lines. The first Canadian Northern train arrived in Sandy Hill on December 5, 1909. Like the Ottawa & New York it didn’t have access to the CAR Depot so used the station at the foot of King Edward where the uOttawa SITE building now stands.

As time went on the railway companies were merged. Canada Atlantic Railway was absorbed into the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in 1914. Canadian Northern was merged into the government’s own Canadian National Railways (CNR) in 1918. Then in 1923 the GTR, on the verge of financial collapse, was fully absorbed into the CNR as it became a Crown corporation.

For many years the community was surrounded on two sides by railway tracks. The many railway companies provided work for residents but also contributed noise and dirt in an age of coal-fired steam locomotion. As the railways merged into the CNR and Canadian Pacific, the Union Station became Ottawa’s train station. In North America, any train station serving more than one railway is automatically known as a “Union Station.”

Dec 5, 1909 Canadian Northern Railway first train arrived at Henderson and Mann.
LAC PA-165400