*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Almost a decade after the Canadian Parliament Buildings burned to the ground in Montreal, Queen Victoria of England made a decision which would reorient the sprawling province in North America. On December 31, 1857, she issued a decree naming the small town of Ottawa the new capital. In denying the much larger cities of Toronto and Quebec City the privilege, she laid a foundation of security for the center of government in Canada.
Though European traders had been floating past the location for centuries engaging with the native Algonquin tribes, no settlement occurred in the area until Philemon Wright arrived in 1800. Determined to take advantage of the vast forests surrounding the Ottawa River, he brought his family and a few dozen others to the north banks of the “Great River.” The tiny community quickly became a smooth-running lumber operation, shipping felled trees northeast to Quebec City on the strength of the river’s flow.
In the mid-1820s, military officials decided to build a canal to link the region with Kingston, Ontario off to the southwest. During the War of 1812 between the United States and Canada, the St. Lawrence River — the border dividing Ontario from Upstate New York — became a battleground. If the Americans were able to secure territory on the Canadian side of the border, leadership realized, the ability to link the capital of Montreal with the port city of Kingston would be lost.
Cut off from resupply, it would only be a matter of time before the Canadian government would be isolated and have to surrender if a conflict were to arise in the future. Administrators decided the best course of action would be to send Colonel John By to the Ottawa Valley to oversee the construction of the Rideau Canal, a new military waterway to avoid the nightmare scenario of a trapped Montreal. He arrived in 1826, immediately beginning the process of creating a modern town — drafting plans for streets, housing for soldiers, and so on — as the canal extended toward Kingston. By the time the work was done, Bytown, as the colonel named the fledgling community, had grown to more than 1,000 citizens.
For the next three decades, the town faced all the problems of a backwater with little government supervision: conflict between different groups, workers’ riots and general lawlessness. Finally incorporated as a city in 1855, Bytown officially became known as Ottawa, a modification of the Algonquin word for trade.
After riots in 1849 left the Parliament in ruins, Montreal’s claim to being the capital of Canada was under threat. Years passed without official offices or a gathering place from officials from the provinces. By 1857, four other cities — Toronto, Kingston, Quebec City and Ottawa — submitted a complaint to Queen Victoria seeking to have the seat of government moved. Following intense discussion and a series of recommendations from her advisers, she revealed her decision for Ottawa as the new capital on December 31, 1857.
Still comparatively small, Ottawa had the advantage of multiple water routes to access other cities and a location which would make it difficult to seize if war were to break out. Plus, with less population, it would be more difficult for angry citizens to assault the government, as had happened in Montreal. Having won the right to host the Canadian government, Ottawa was now poised for a boom.
In the following decades, as rail lines developed across the countryside and the lumber industry exploded, Ottawa quickly rose from a population of 18,000 to nearly four times that by the end of the 19th century. Once predominantly made up of French Catholic and Irish immigrants, it is now a cosmopolitan city of nearly 900,000 people.
Also On This Day:
1600 – The British East India Company receives a charter from Queen Elizabeth I
1878 – Karl Benz files a patent for a two-stroke gas engine in Mannheim, Germany
1879 – Thomas Edison demonstrates incandescent lighting to the public in Menlo Park, New Jersey
1907 – Times Square hosts its first New Year’s Eve celebration
1992 – Czechoslovakia becomes the separate nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic in the Velvet Divorce