By Dave Allston –
Laroche Park has always been a significant part of the lives of local residents, and that importance is only increasing with the recent announcement of the arrival of Westfest and the promised Sens RINK. To the disappointment of many, the rink has been delayed due to soil contamination. But what is this severe contamination, and how has it occurred? News reports have been vague.
My mission became to dig deep into the archives, and reveal the long-lost history of Laroche Park, buried nearly a century ago, but causing so many problems now.
The property’s history dates back to 1849 when Nicholas Sparks acquired Nepean Township lot 37, concession A; the final piece of his riverbank empire. He owned all the land north of Scott Street from west of the Brooke Claxton building in Tunney’s Pasture to the Bayview O-train station. Sparks operated a sawmill near the north end of Parkdale which was destroyed by fire after his death in 1862.
His heirs sold some of his holdings, but in 1875 they capitalized on Ottawa’s exploding growth by creating a subdivision of the east portion of the property, called “North Bayswater.” What we now know as Laroche Park was split into Blocks Q and R. The two blocks were separated on the plan by Cunningham Street (named for James Cunningham, Commissioner of the Water Works department), which, if it still existed today, would essentially be an extension of Lyndale through the middle of the park.
The long-time Mason sawmill (which became the Shepard & Morse Lumber Mill in 1903) was located on the opposite side of Bayview, in an ideal spot when Lazy Bay used to come in further before being filled in for the construction of the parkway (the river came almost right up to the Bayview O-Train station, most of the area north of the station, between it and Bayview Road was once under water). The mills used part of the Laroche Park property for occasional wood piling and storage, but for the most part the lot sat vacant, in a marshy state due to its proximity to the Bay.
In 1911, 87 Ottawa residents died from a typhoid outbreak attributed to contaminated city water. Hintonburg’s raw sewage was entering the River near where the City water mains intake valve was located. A scramble ensued to ensure this could never occur again, and decisions were made in haste. The “west end drainage scheme” was established, creating a sewer system through Hintonburg. Sewer branches were laid down streets created for this purpose (all of Ladouceur west of Merton, and Gladstone east of Rosemount exist because of this project), and the main trunk ran down Merton to Laroche Park, where the city, in July 1911, expropriated nine acres from the Sparks estate (blocks Q and R). At Laroche, the city constructed a purification plant which included a massive concrete septic tank and bacteria beds, at a cost of $40,000 (which would be the equivalent of nearly $1M today). Sewage would flow from Hintonburg, to the plant, then exit from this drain to Lazy Bay in the Ottawa River. City Engineer Newton Ker designed the system, inspired by what he had seen in Berlin.
Construction lasted until 1913, however just prior to completion, the Ontario Board of Health stepped in and forbade the use of the tank; it would not allow even the overflow from the tank to enter the river at Lazy Bay. Instead a brick and concrete sewer was constructed on CPR land from Merton to Broad, and connected to the Preston sewer.
However, construction of the septic tank was ordered to be finished, to avoid a squabble with the contractor, and to have options for future use. The finished tank (as seen in the included photo) was made of reinforced concrete, divided into overflow chambers, and complete with all necessary piping.
In November 1914, incinerators were a popular new technology in waste management. Ottawa had opened one on Lees Avenue (where the University campus now exists) in 1912, and wanted to build one for the west end. A city-wide vote approved the purchase, the $50,000 funds were acquired, and tenders were put out for the job in the summer of 1915. However, at the last minute, Ottawa’s garbage contractors came forward with a proposition making a second city-built incinerator unnecessary, and the project was scrapped.
The problem was that in anticipation of the coming incinerator, the property had already begun to be used for collecting garbage in early 1915. The issue was further compounded by a source of pollution that today’s city dwellers don’t really think about: dead livestock. Prior to 1912, most of Ottawa’s dead animals (predominantly horses) were taken to a Hull rendering plant. When the plant was closed in 1912, Ottawa’s incinerator was to take over the job. However, the incinerator did not generate sufficient heat to burn horse carcasses, so they were buried by the thousand around the incinerator property. It is very likely the same practice was done at the Laroche site, adding to the present day problem.
The City continued to use the site, known as the “Stonehurst Dump” for garbage collection. Meanwhile the old septic tank sat unused, and was criticized, not only for being “a civic tragedy” of waste spending, but that little was being done to protect it against “wind, weather and the depredations of boys.”
In 1916, a battle began with the Sparks heirs over payment for the expropriated land. The case ended up at appellate court in Toronto, with Ottawa arguing the worthlessness of the land, that it was “worth little for anything but piling lumber on.” The judge called Ottawa’s bluff and suggested the City hand back the property to the Sparks estate. The City conceded the land had too much potential, and decided to keep it, paying the arbitrated $21,000 to the estate.
At the time, estimates showed it would be too expensive to fill in the site to sell lots for building purposes. Many suggestions were made for the usage of the site, including converting the enormous tank into a swimming pool, and intriguingly, converting the dump into a playground.
This is the first of two columns about Laroche Park. Find the second one right here.
Dave Allston is a local history buff who researches and writes house histories and also publishes a popular blog called The Kitchissippi Museum. His family has lived in Kitchissippi for six generations. Do you have early memories of the area to share? We’d love to hear them! Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org.