Lost Ottawa: Lebreton Flats

It was gone, long before my time.

Looking at it now, you would never have known that this low-lying region, just west of Centretown, was once a thriving community of residential streets and industry, where houses, warehouses, factories, and hotels filled a series of cross streets and railway lines.


Ottawa Archives photo
Lebreton Flats is named after a retired army captain, John Lebreton, who purchased the land in 1820 with the hopes of flipping it, making a profit from interested developers. Until then, the land had been occupied by a British military regiment (who have been credited with establishing a road that is now Richmond Road) and had a small tavern that hosted weary travellers who navigated the Ottawa River.

Parts of that tavern were recently uncovered, where today's Canadian War Museum now stands.

To the extreme east of Lebreton Flats, where Wellington Street now seems to be some dismembered roadway, businesses lined shoulder to shoulder, street trolleys rolled, and two communities connected.

More than 100 years ago, Wellington Street, which passes from the War Memorial, to the east of Parliament and travels the length of Parliament Hill, to the west, used to be lined with low-rise shops, instead of the gargantuan stone, concrete, and steel government buildings that now hold that land. As it passed Bay Street, it bent south, toward Bronson Avenue (which was high above, on a bluff, overlooking Lebreton Flats), and ran south-west, through Lebreton Flats, and continued where it still exists today, in Hintonburg, and now ends at Island Park Drive, where it becomes Richmond Road.

But as it took that bend, north of where Bronson meets Sparks Street, by the bluff, it intersected with a road that no longer exists in that area. It is this area, where a park now sprawls, that has drawn my interest since late last year.

Where the Garden of the Provinces and Territories lies was once an area with a coffee shop, automobile service station, and, of particular interest to me, one of Ottawa's oldest breweries.

As late as the 1950s, Sparks Street ran parallel to Wellington Street, from Elgin in the east to Bay Street in the west. But Sparks did not end at Bay. Like today, it continued, atop the bluff that overlooks Lebreton Flats, until it meets Bronson Avenue. But unlike today, Sparks Street split on the west side of Bay Street: the north fork, which no longer exists, sloped downward and connected with Wellington Street. The stone wall, which shores up the bluff as you stand on the north side of today's Sparks Street, separated the two parts of the road.

The north fork of Sparks Street, heading toward Wellington—archive photo: Ottawa Past & Present
Looking down the same spot, today, in the Garden of the Provinces and Territories.
If you stood atop the southern fork of Sparks Street and looked down at the north fork, you would have seen two-story buildings—one, which advertised coffee—Ingram's Garage (later, Tip Top Garage), and Broadview Apartments.


Archive photo: Ottawa Past & Present
Ingram's, which was a garage and gas station, was situated on a point where these two streets met. Today, you would never know it to look at it.


National Archives photo. Street-car tracks once ran along this section of Wellington. Christ Church Cathedral remains, above the north fork of Sparks Street.
Where this intersection once lay, only this unused section of Wellington remains.
Archives photo: Ottawa Past & Present
The two breweries, at 310.
And, across the street from Ingram's, on the northwest side of Wellington Street, stretched The Brading Breweries offices and ale shed. Behind it, on the long-gone Keefer Street, lay Union Brewery (I couldn't find any information about this brewery other than a mention of it on an old City of Ottawa map and a nod to it in an Ottawa Citizen article). Also mentioned in the article and still yet to be uncovered, an underground railroad ran from this brewery neighbourhood to another beer facility, which once lay along Wellington, on the north side from where Preston Street ended.

Brading Breweries, founded in 1865 by Henry Brading, was one of Ottawa's first breweries. In 1930, Ottawa entrepreneur E.P. "Eddie" Taylor bought Brading, among other breweries, to form Canadian Breweries, Limited, which eventually evolved into Carling O'Keefe.


Archives photos: Ottawa Past & Present
What I wouldn't give to get my hands on one of Brading's old recipes and have one of today's Ottawa craft brewers recreate it.

Lebreton Flats has gone through a vast number of changes over the past 200 years. From a forest on the edge of the wild Chaudière Falls to a military camp site, to a lumber yard, to industrial neighbourhood, to empty space, it has seen hardship, too. A fire in 1900, which started in Hull but jumped across the Ottawa River, leveled Lebreton Flats and continued southward, through the neighbourhood surrounding Preston Street, until it burned out, just north of Dow's Lake. The National Capital Commission, in its infinite wisdom to rebuild downtown Ottawa in the 1950s, saw Lebreton, with its low-income housing and industry as an eyesore, and plans were made for its demolition.

An overhead view of the area, today (Google Earth view).
For decades, the area was an empty field with a few crumbled roadways and nothing to show for all of the people who lived and worked there.

You can see what Lebreton Flats was once like by visiting Ottawa Past & Present, a Web site that gives you a brief history of Ottawa neighbourhoods. On the site you can slide over old photographs and then see what that spot looks like today.

I habitually get lost, myself, on this site.


Looking out from Sparks and Bronson
onto Lebreton Flats, today.
Nothing has occupied the area of Lebreton Flats in my lifetime, save the Fleet Street Pumping Station, until the past dozen or so years, when the War Museum moved there from Sussex Drive and new condos started springing up near where the new light rail transit line is under construction. In the next few decades, as further redevelopment takes shape, this lost neighbourhood might once again thrive.

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