Ottawans have always had a certain amount of antipathy for the National Capital Commission, but it wasn't until recently that I began to understand how deep this antagonism seems to run through the capital. I was on a treasure hunt last week, hunting for old photos in the newly redesigned Library and Archives Canada online photo archive as well as the City of Ottawa's historic photo gallery. This search led me down some interesting alleys and left me with a different impression of the city.
Most notably, I came away with the impression that, despite efforts to bury Ottawa's railway history, longtime residents have continued to embrace the city's railway past.
The photo below is part of the City of Ottawa's online archives. CP F-unit 1428 leads a 1958 royal train carrying Princess Margaret in 1958. The train is set out in the former train yard behind Ottawa's downtown Union Station, along the Rideau Canal. The building, which still stands, remains a subject of fascination for Ottawa residents, not to mention a source of frustration.
Readers of this blog know the story of Ottawa's Union Station and its demise as a rail station in 1966, due to a decision by the National Capital Commission to lift rails from central Ottawa. The photo below shows the station in its heyday (photo is from the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology), as a focal point in Ottawa's core. It seems strange today that a city like Ottawa would have this gem of a station in its core, which is off limits to the public and used strictly for government conferences. The building is officially known as the Government Conference Centre, but as I learned searching through some Facebook pages and other historical discussion groups, people who know Ottawa's history loathe the official name of this building and still call it Union Station. They also resent the fact that the government took off the dome atop this building to make way for a penthouse level of offices. This added level really seems out of place on the building.
I also noticed quite a few comments in the discussion groups that question the decision to remove the passenger service to the core. Clearly, these people are my kind of people! Although, I do have to say that having a triple track next to Majors Hill Park, across from the Bytown Locks (lower left) and Parliament Hill is a bit of overkill, especially today. This undated photo below shows the approach to the Alexandra Bridge, which is now a main artery for cars.
The great tragedy of the downtown train station seems to be the continuing efforts by the federal government to keep this building off limits to locals and to downplay its magnificent history. Anyone who has walked around this building will only find a tiny hint of its past in the form of a small plaque overlooking the canal. Try as we might, we can't escape the fact that Ottawa was once a very different city that had a more pronounced industrial character.
The shot (below), which seems fitting this week, shows how the Rideau Canal was used as a snow dump for the downtown rail yards. The shot below is an undated shot from the national archives, but it's a safe bet that it was taken in the 1930s-40s, judging by the vintage of the passenger coaches and wooden boxcars (to the right). This yard is now part of a scenic parkway called Colonel By Drive. The lands to the right are part of a mini expressway and bus route called Nicholas Street, which basically empties traffic off of Highway 417 (The Queensway to locals) into the core. Beyond Nicholas, you will find the University of Ottawa campus. I personally believe having this expressway to and from a 400 series highway in not much of an improvement.
One of the unintended consequences of pulling up the rails from Ottawa's core was the stress it placed on downtown roads and the interprovincial bridges. This decision contributed to an inundation of truck traffic on key downtown streets, like Rideau Street. This has been a longstanding problem for the city, with no relief in site.
One of the funnier discussions I came across concerned some promotional literature for Ottawa's current train station, which was opened in 1966. The building won architecture awards and it really is an interesting structure, to give it its due. However, I found it funny that some effort was made in 1966 to dub this station as Ottawa's new "Union Station," as it served both CP and CN. From the discussion boards I read, I gather that this attempt at branding was a dismal failure. The name never caught on. Today, most people know of only one Union Station in Ottawa and it's not here. And what is Ottawa's train station known as exactly? Some names list it as the Central Railway Station, but the station isn't exactly central, so that name is also dubious. Most just call it the train station.
One thing is certain. Those who know Ottawa know this will always be the Union Station.
I find it interesting that, despite the best efforts of the NCC and federal officials to gloss over a piece of Ottawa's history, local residents have refused to buy into it. Like I said, these are my people.
Programming note: The Beachburg Sub will be taking a short break on a passing siding as I will be on vacation for the next few weeks. Expect some southern railroading content to come!