Ottawa is the capital of Canada, and the fourth largest city in the country. The city stands on the south bank of the Ottawa River in the eastern portion of Southern Ontario. Ottawa borders Gatineau, Quebec, and together they form the National Capital Region (NCR).
Founded in 1826 as Bytown and incorporated as “Ottawa” in 1855, the city has evolved into a political and technological centre of Canada. Its original boundaries were expanded through numerous minor annexations and ultimately replaced by a new city incorporation and major amalgamation in 2001 which significantly increased its land area. The name “Ottawa” is derived from the Algonquin word adawe, meaning “to trade”. Initially an Irish and French Christian settlement, Ottawa has become a multicultural city with a diverse population.
The 2011 census had the city’s population as 883,391, the census metropolitan area (CMA) population as 1,236,324. Mercer ranks Ottawa with the second highest quality of living of any large city in the Americas, and 14th highest in the world. It is also rated the second cleanest city in Canada, and third cleanest city in the world. In 2012, the city was ranked for the third consecutive year as the best community in Canada to live in by MoneySense.
Étienne Brûlé, the first European to travel up the Ottawa River, passed by Ottawa in 1610 on his way to the Great Lakes. Three years later, Samuel de wrote about the waterfalls of the area and about his encounters with the Algonquins, who had previously been using the Ottawa River for centuries. The Algonquins called the river Kichi Sibi or Kichissippi’ meaning “Great River” or “Grand River”. These early explorers were later followed by many missionaries.
Philemon Wright, a New Englander, created the first settlement in the area on 7 March 1800 on the north side of the river, across from Ottawa in Hull. He, with five other families and twenty-five labourers, set about to create an agricultural community called Wrightsville. Wright pioneered the Ottawa Valley timber trade (soon to be the area’s most significant economic activity) by transporting timber by river from the Ottawa Valley to Quebec City.
Bytown, Ottawa’s early name, was founded in 1826 because of preliminary work on the Rideau Canal. Its construction was overseen by Colonel John By, and the canal was intended to provide a secure route between Montreal and Kingston on Lake Ontario by bypassing the stretch of the St. Lawrence River bordering New York State. Colonel By set up military barracks on the site of today’s Parliament Hill. He also laid out the streets of town with its “Upper Town” and “Lower Town” separated by the canal. Bytown’s population grew to 1,000 as the Rideau Canal was being completed in 1832. Bytown saw some trouble in its early days, first with the Shiners’ War from 1835 to 1845 and the Stony Monday Riot in 1849. Bytown was renamed Ottawa in 1855, when it was incorporated as a city.
On 31 December 1857, Queen Victoria was asked to choose a common capital for the Province of Canada, and she chose Ottawa. The Queen’s advisers suggested she pick Ottawa for several reasons: Ottawa’s position in the back country made it more defensible, while still allowing easy transportation over the Ottawa River. Ottawa was at a point nearly exactly midway between Toronto and Quebec City (500 kilometres or 310 miles). The smaller size of the town also made it less prone to rampaging politically motivated mobs, as had happened in the previous Canadian capitals.
The Centre Block on Parliament Hill under construction in 1863.
Starting in the 1850s, large sawmills began to be erected by entrepreneurs known as lumber barons, and these would become some of the largest mills in the world. Rail lines erected in 1854 connected Ottawa to areas south and to the transcontinental rail network via Hull and Lachute, Quebec in 1886.
Between 1910 and 1912, the Chateau Laurier and a downtown Union Station would be constructed. Public transportation began in 1870 with a horsecar system, overtaken in the 1890s by a vast electric streetcar system that would last until 1959. The Hull-Ottawa fire of 1900 destroyed two thirds of Hull, including 40 per cent of its residential buildings and most of its largest employers along the waterfront. The fire also spread across the Ottawa River and destroyed about one fifth of Ottawa from the Lebreton Flats south to Booth Street and down to Dow’s Lake. The Centre Block of the Parliament buildings was destroyed by a fire on 3 February 1916. The House of Commons and Senate was temporarily relocated to the then recently constructed Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Canadian Museum of Nature until the completion of the new Centre Block in 1922, the centrepiece of which is a dominant Gothic revival styled structure known as the Peace Tower.
Urban planner Jacques Greber was hired in the 1940s to work on a master plan for the National Capital Region. Greber’s plan included the creation of the National Capital Greenbelt and the Parkway System, and it also developed many other projects throughout the NCR. He was also responsible for the removal of the streetcar system and closing down historic downtown Union Station (now the Government Conference Centre) in favour of a suburban station several kilometres to the east. From the 1960s until the 1980s, the National Capital Region experienced a building boom. This was followed by large growth in the high-tech industry during the 1990s and 2000s. In 2001, in an amalgamation legislated by the Province, all twelve existing municipalities in the area were terminated and replaced by a new incorporation of the City of Ottawa.