Barrack Hill

Upon arriving in Bytown in 1827 to begin construction of the Rideau Canal, the British Royal Engineers chose Barrack Hill as the site for their military quarters. Atop Barrack Hill, the Royal Engineers built three barracks, a hospital, and several other ancillary buildings. With its strategic placement overlooking the Ottawa River, Lt. Col. By thought Barrack Hill would be an ideal location for a military fortification and he drew up extensive plans to this effect. These plans were never approved. In 1858 Barrack Hill was chosen as the site for the seat of the Canadian government, and renamed Parliament Hill.

Points of Interest

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[Source: Royal Sappers and Miners Uniform Jacket- Sgt. J. Coombs, 1820- 1830, wool & brass, Bytown Museum, M107.]

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Royal Sappers and Miners Uniform

Renowned as skilled tradesmen and artisans, the Royal Sappers and Miners were a division of the British military that specialized in engineering and technical projects. At By’s request, two companies of Royal Sappers and Miners - 162 men in all - arrived in Bytown during the summer of 1827. Given their engineering expertise and knowledge of certain trades, By originally intended the men to play a crucial role in the canal’s construction. Thanks to Bytown’s complete lack of law enforcement at the time, however, By’s skilled tradesmen were instead forced into the role of policing and guarding military property.

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[Source: John By, “Plan of the Ground & Proposed Military Works on the West Side of the First Eight Locks”, 1831, Library and Archives Canada, H1/440/Ottawa/1831 (5 sections), NMC 17423; Unknown Artist, “Endorsed: Plan for Fortifying the Hill above the Entrance Valley of the Rideau Canal at Bytown (now Parliament Hill, Ottawa)”, [1831], Library and Archives Canada, NMC-0005249; “By’s Plans to Fortify Barrack Hill” [Animation]. Dr. Stephen Fai. Carleton Immersive Media Studio. 2012.]

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By’s Plans to Fortify Barrack Hill

In these ambitious plans, Lt. Col. By used existing government-owned land to plan a potential fortification for Bytown. He integrated existing barracks, adding bomb-proof casements, massive storage facilities, and ramparts in case of land attack-all at a projected cost of £205,450. In the end, the effort was put into the fortification of Kingston instead, and Bytown would assume only a minor military role.

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Painting of Barrack Hill and the Ottawa River at BytownEnlarge

[Source: View of Barrack Hill and the Ottawa River at Bytown (Ottawa). Edmund Willoughby Sewell, Edmund Willoughby Sewell collection, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1991-120-3, C-011047]

The Military’s Lasting Impression on Bytown

Although Bytown did not become the military stronghold By initially envisioned, the military continued to play an active role in shaping the fabric of Bytown long after the canal was completed. The Ordnance Department still owned and leased land to residents in the area surrounding Entrance Valley and Lower Town, and the military garrison that would come to occupy Barrack Hill remained a visible landmark for many years. As a reliable economic and social pillar, the military community would purchase fuel, food, and living amenities from local Bytown businesses. Military officers were also highly active in the social, religious, and civic life of the community.

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[Source: “Hospital on Barrack Hill” [Animation]. Dr. Stephen Fai. Carleton Immersive Media Studio. 2012.; Lt C. Sedley, “Bytown C.W. Plans, elevation and sections of the Barracks”, [1852], Library and Archives Canada, NMC-0023053]

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Hospital on Barrack Hill

As early as the fall of 1827, Lt. Col. By approved a contract for the construction of a two-storey stone hospital (108 feet by 70 feet [33 metres by 21 metres]) on Barrack Hill-a necessity with early working and living conditions being as dangerous and unpredictable as they were. The hospital was completed by November at a cost of £700, and was located where the West Block of Parliament currently stands. Since the hospital had only twenty beds, priority was given to those permanently employed by the Board of Ordnance. Even when beds were available, labourers often went without professional medical care due to the high cost of treatment. When malaria outbreaks became a serious problem in 1828, Lt. Col. By allowed the most serious cases into the hospital at his own expense. The Board of Ordnance ultimately reimbursed him for these expenditures, but denied his recommendation that they establish a basic health insurance system for workers. Instead, the board recommended that contractors at each site establish their own system for assisting labourers who became sick or injured on the job.

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Photograph of the Parliament Buildings under constructionEnlarge

[Source: Parliament Buildings – construction. Centre Block showing north-west section and the buttresses of the Library. Samuel McLaughlin, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1964-144 NPC, C-010005]

Barrack Hill Becomes Parliament Hill

In 1857, Mayor J. B. Lewis and City Clerk William P. Lett wrote to Queen Victoria describing Ottawa’s attributes and suitability as a permanent capital of Canada. The Queen approved the nomination seven months later, and a competition for the design of the Parliament Buildings was launched. The neo-Gothic designs by Fuller & Jones and Stent & Laver were selected out of 24 submissions by various architectural firms. When construction began in 1859, the remaining military stations that had for so many years dominated Barrack Hill were replaced by government buildings and the area was renamed Parliament Hill.

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Photograph of a Royal Engineers capEnlarge

[Source: Royal Engineers Cap, c. 1837, wool, leather & metal, Bytown Museum, M111.]

Royal Engineers Cap

The Royal Engineers were a division of the British Armed Forces that provided engineering and technical support for the construction of the Rideau Canal between 1826 and 1832. The cap seen above originates from approximately 1837, and was part of a Royal Engineers uniform. Note the embroidered cap badge, complete with the letters “RE” for “Royal Engineers.”

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[Source: “Bytown Barracks” [Animation]. Dr. Stephen Fai. Carleton Immersive Media Studio. 2012.; Lt C. Sedley, “Bytown C.W. Plans, elevation and sections of the Barracks”, [1852], Library and Archives Canada, NMC-0023053]

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Bytown Barracks

Barrack Hill, now the site of the Parliament of Canada, was heavily used by military personnel during the canal’s construction period and beyond. After reviewing several draft proposals, By decided on three housing barracks, each measuring 108 feet (33 metres) by 70 feet (21 metres) in size. The buildings were constructed almost identically using rubble stone and wood, and were divided into sixteen rooms plus a garret or attic. By the summer of 1827, two companies of Royal Sappers and Miners-162 men in all-had arrived on site and promptly took up residence in the barracks, which were still unpainted and sparsely furnish due to their uncertain future use. On January 5, 1832, one of the central barracks being used as a mess room and officers quarters was lost to a fire. It was never rebuilt.

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Major’s Hill ParkMajor’s Hill Park Entrance ValleyEntrance Valley