Ottawa at the Time of Settlement
When settlers arrived in the Ottawa Valley, they found a rich wilderness characterized by lush forests, fertile soil, rolling hills, and abundant waterways. Timber was an important natural resource that influenced Ottawa’s early history and development. The area became famous for the size and quality of its trees including pine, spruce, cedar, maple, ash, oak, and birch.
TITLE View of Deep River (part of Ottawa) taken from Colton's island, near foot of the Des Joachim Falls [sic]
ITEM NUMBER MG002-11-033.13
DESCRIPTION Etching from Charles Billings The Annual Address of the Carrier of The Democrat, Ballston Spa. January 1, 1857. William E. Luff, Carrier. Printer, W.S. Hunter. Artist, J. Walker
Braddish Billings occupied Clergy Reserve Lot 17 when he moved to Gloucester Township in 1812. When Braddish chose the homestead, the site’s original features and benefits attracted him:
four hundred and sixteen acres of fertile, remarkably well timbered [land] and on the bank of the [Rideau] river.
In 1890, Charles Billings reminisced about the Ottawa Valley during the early days of settlement, He noted that there were only eight families in the township of Nepean in 1825, and with the exception of a half-dozen houses in Bytown area limits,
the [present] City of Ottawa was in its primeval state; an entire wilderness: the hill upon which the Parliament Buildings (now are) was what is called (“ridge land”) the timber on which consisted chiefly of hardwood interspersed with hemlock. South of Sparks Street was low…land, and the whole extent of Lower Town was a dense and almost impenetrable swamp.” [sic]
As the area became more populated, the Ottawa Valley’s topography changed dramatically. The Timber Trade cut into the forests, while farmers cleared the land to make way for crops and homesteads. Charles Billings remarked that by 1828, in Bytown there were:
15 general stores, 3 jewellery stores, 8 shoemakers, 3 blacksmith shops, 4 bakeries,
1 butcher shop, 2 taylor [sic] shops, 1 chandler shop, 1 tinsmith shop, 1 harness shop,
1 Church of England minister, 1 Roman Catholic priest, 1 Presbyterian minister and
2 Methodist ministers, 5 doctors, 3 school teachers and only 1 lawyer,
as the residents chose to settle their disputes themselves. Bytown grew along with the building of the canal, and forever altered the landscape from a quiet wilderness into a bustling social hub. Billings Bridge area also grew in amenities, but remained slower in growth than Bytown and Ottawa.
Geology of Ottawa
The Ottawa Valley is a geological ‘meeting point’ of the Canadian Shield to the north and the St. Lawrence Lowland to the south. The City of Ottawa is situated in the Lowland. It lies on a base of consolidated rock covered with limestone and shale.
When the last ice age ended, the land was covered with debris left behind by a massive glacier. As the ice melted, water gathered in the depression made by the weight of the glacier. Eventually, salt water flowed into the fresh water lake, creating what Geologists call the Champlain Sea. They suggest that the ancient Ottawa Valley was completely covered by salty waters, higher than the top of the Parliament Buildings’ Peace Tower. Fossils of molluscs, seals, whales, and other marine life found in the area support this claim.