Rideau Street has a dirty past. Prior to becoming a busy Ottawa main street, it was something completely different: it was in fact, a swamp. When the Rideau Canal construction started in 1826, Lieutenant Colonel John By drained the swamp, making space for a roadway serving as the main route to Montreal.
In 1827, Rideau Street welcomed the first shops, church and schoolhouse in Bytown. Lined with hitching posts and wagons, Rideau Street quickly became a buzzing commercial district for residents of Lower Town and Upper Town. Just ask City Archivist Paul Henry, “Rideau Street was one of the first streets to emerge in Ottawa and helped establish a downtown core,” he explains.
Underground drains and sewers were installed by the mid-1850s and gas lamps lit the street at night. In the same era, Bytown was renamed Ottawa and declared Canada’s capital, further raising Rideau Street’s profile.
Rideau Street was also the first in Lower Town with electric lighting. In 1887, Ottawa made history by becoming the first city in North America to light its streets entirely by electricity.
Another big moment came when department stores gained popularity at the turn of the 20th century. In 1905, T. Lindsay Company, Ottawa’s first multi-purpose department store, arrived on Rideau Street. Others soon followed suit, including A.J. Frieman’s, Caplan’s and Ogilvy’s, solidifying Rideau as Ottawa’s premier shopping district.
After the Second World War, Rideau Street faced steep competition from new suburban shopping centres. To support downtown commerce, significant investments were made in Ottawa’s core between the 1960’s to the 1990’s, including public transit, building a new conference centre and the keystone Rideau Centre shopping mall. These investments revitalized the area, returning Rideau Street back to its glory days.
Rideau Street improvements continue to this day. Rideau Station is a major connection point on the O-Train LRT Line 1, with two separate station entrances. Since April, construction has been underway to renew Rideau and William streets and both are set to reopen later this month.
The renewed corridor will include exciting new features like increased pedestrian space for transit customers using Rideau Station and two new ParaTranspo stops. New bike-friendly infrastructure with bike lanes and rack-style parking will also be added, as well as improved streetscaping and new public facilities. Our downtown core will also be a little greener: fifteen new trees will line the street.
Famous for its lights, Rideau Street improvements include energy-efficient LED lighting and overhead string lighting to illuminate William Street, creating an ambient atmosphere for pedestrians and shoppers. Standing as tributes to Ottawa’s rich and diverse past, the existing William Street time capsule will be joined by an historical timeline set into steel drainage panels.
Once dominated by wagons and buggies, Rideau Street is now accessible to anyone in the city whether traveling by bike, foot, transit or car. Just as it started but with all the modern amenities, Rideau Street is a hub to shop, work, enjoy a meal and experience the unique culture that Ottawa has to offer.