A window into the 1870s is unearthed (right next to the KT offices!)

By Dave Allston – 

A planned excavation of an old railway site has begun to yield some exciting results. The archaeology firm working next to the City Centre building by Bayview Station set off on a dig not knowing what to expect from their efforts. However, they have discovered the well-preserved foundation ruins of the original 1871 turntable and engine house, which is a marvel to see. A window into the 1870s, this stone, brick, wood and iron discovery dates back to the birth of the neighbourhoods surrounding the site. Hintonburg, Mechanicsville, Bayswater and the Preston areas owe their early development to the establishment of the railroads in the area. The rail workers purchased small builder lots, built modest wood homes nearby, and toiled in difficult and often harsh working conditions at the rail yard. You can almost picture these Kitchissippi pioneers working on this site, in what was then strictly an industrial area.

The excavations have been performed at two different sites. One is the original 1871 turntable, which was used to move train engines into service or storage bays, or to simply turn them around for their return journey. The turntable was located next to a small rectangular engine house, which was destroyed by fire in 1883.

1871 turntable with wood pivot in the centre and a stone foundation. Photo by Dave Allston
1871 turntable with wood pivot in the centre and a stone foundation. Photo by Dave Allston
1871 engine house bays next to turntable. Photo by Dave Allston
1871 engine house bays next to turntable. Photo by Dave Allston
1883 roundhouse bays with St-Francois Church in distant background. Photo by Dave Allston
1883 roundhouse bays with St-Francois Church in the distant background. Photo by Dave Allston

A new, larger turntable and roundhouse was constructed in late 1883 slightly to the west, and part of this roundhouse too has been exposed by the archaeologists. The stone circumference surrounds a number of individual bays, constructed of neatly laid brick, where the engines could be serviced from underneath.

What is most impressive is how well both sites are preserved. It is not just a pile of old rubble in the formation of an old industrial structure. Many features are still as evident as the day they were covered up. The researchers did not have to dig far either – the structures were located only a foot or two down.

The 1883 roundhouse was destroyed by fire in 1910. This is significant because a new roundhouse had to be built. The CP Railway decided to build a much larger roundhouse and expand their yard to the west so they purchased all the houses in the neighbouring subdivision off of Bayview Road (on what was called Alonzo Street), tore them down, and built the new roundhouse which opened in the Spring of 1911. This is on the location of what is now the Tom Brown Arena. (The 1911 roundhouse was demolished in 1968, and Tom Brown was built in 1977). Had it not been for the fire of the 1883 roundhouse, it is likely that Alonzo Street and its houses would still stand today on this spot!

Train in front of the new CPR Ottawa West roundhouse, 1884 (LAC PA-203972)
Train in front of the new CPR Ottawa West roundhouse, 1884 (LAC PA-203972)

The future of this archaeological find of local history is cloudy. At present, there are no plans to preserve the unearthed turntable and there is no requirement on the part of the developer, Trinity, to do so. It would be wonderful if this important piece of local railway history could be preserved in some way – either as a feature of the new condo building itself or in its courtyard. Steam railroads and their importance have become a thing of the deep past; having an authentic exhibit such as this would be an incredible educational piece. It would be an ideal monument, especially for those of us with deep family ties to the workers who spent their hard-working days on this site and helped build Hintonburg and Mechanicsville so many years ago.

Dave Allston is a local history buff who researches and writes house histories and publishes a blog called The Kitchissippi Museum. His family has lived in Kitchissippi for six generations. Do you have stories to share about the area? We’d love to hear them! Send your email to stories@kitchissippi.com.

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