1871 Railway turntable uncovered on LeBreton Flats

In addition to a 1871 roundhouse turntable, parts of a 1883 roundhouse have also been uncovered on LeBreton Flats near Bayview Station.

The archaeological dig covers some city land where the Trillium OTrain line and Trillium multi-user pathway is located, and some of it is 900 Albert, owned by Trinity Development, and soon to become 3 or more  55-storey towers. It is the imminent commencement that of that major construction project that has prompted the archaeological dig.

The 1871 roundhouse must have been quite small, because the turntable pit is also quite small. But so were the locomotives in 1871. Here’s an picture of the St Lawrence and Ottawa Railway locomotive #328 in 1873. The fence in the background is likely the railing on a turntable. Notice the presence of boys on the far left of the picture. The engine is the size of a small delivery truck.

st lawrence railway loco 1873

And here is the brick perimeter foundation of their first 1871 turntable, as uncovered today:


A turntable avoided space-consuming and expensive multiple switches in favour of a single rotating platform upon which a train engine stopped and was easily pivoted around to exit onto another track, often into an adjacent workshop or roundhouse. Here’s the model train version that illustrates the concept:

turntable pic

While the Ottawa turntable excavation site is fenced, it is readily visible if you walk by, or from the passing OTrain, or from buses on Albert Street at the temporary Bayview Station stops (look south and east, towards the City Centre building).

This was the first locomotive turntable for the St Lawrence and Ottawa Railway, which came north from Dow’s Lake along the current MUP. Here’s another view of the 1871 turntable foundation:


Railways were a booming business in the late 1800’s, and locomotives grew larger and more powerful. So the 1871 turntable quickly became obsolete and was replaced in 1883 by a new larger turntable nearby with larger “roundhouse” repair sheds.

Parts of those newer sheds are located where the OTrain tracks and the MUP are today, so they cannot be excavated. But one complete bay is excavated:


The rubble stone foundation would have held up posts giving the building structure. The narrower brick-foundation portion in the centre is likely to have been the servicing pit. Steam locomotives couldn’t easily be hoisted up in the air to service the undersides, so workers walked down some steps into a pit that ran under the train where they could inspect and repair the locomotive undersides. You can still see car and truck service bays like this in less-developed countries or places with very mild climates. In the pic below, notice how the foundation to the left starts to bend, as the exterior wall of the roundhouse apparently wasn’t a curve but was constructed in segments.


This aerial photo from the late 1950’s shows the old Wellington alignment over the railway tracks. That bridge, with a wooden deck, was closed in the late 1960’s. The CPR roundhouse in the bottom of the picture by the big chimney is now the location of Tom Brown Arena. Now Wellington  Albert runs right down the left edge of the picture to join Scott Street via the current concrete overpass. The building at centre top, with all the skylights, was the Champagne Streetcar Barn, and is now Just Right Storage. The Edwards lumber yards show up with white blocks of piled dressed lumber with Argue coal yard squeezed in along Champagne Ave N  City Centre Avenue.

The St Lawrence and Ottawa Railway turntable and roundhouses are being excavated roughly where the two trains are parked by some sheds on the left.

aerial photo old trainyards bayview city centre area

This plan of archaeological work shows the existing Trillium MUP as a gray vertical band along the left side, and the location of underground sewers is shown in orange. A bunch of these are being relocated by Trinity Developments starting in January to permit construction of those 55 storey towers. The 1871 turntable is the yellow circle, and is visible today but only for a limited time. The 1883 roundhouse is shown in the purple area with a blue line showing the outline of part of the roundhouse building. This illustrates why they are not going to excavate more of the roundhouse foundations as they extend under the MUP and tracks.

archeological excavations bayview

This is a fun opportunity to engage your brain in some “time travel”. Look at the foundations and try to picture what used to be there, and the people who built our economy and city.

It would be interesting if Trinity built their retail space / food court in a shape inspired by the prior uses of the site.


Remember those boys in the 1873 picture shown above? My father told me a story on the weekend of walking down to railyards when he was a boy. Once, while still in high school (Ottawa Tech) he was by the yard tracks when a steam locomotive was being shunted around. The engineer stopped and invited him up into the cab. The engine proceeded forward a bit, a track switch was thrown, and then the engine was to back up towards a shed. He let my father pull the throttle. It was stiff, so dad gave it a big pull and the driving wheels slipped/spun on the rails and the train lurched backwards waaaay too fast. The engine driver slammed his hand down over my father’s to wrest things back under control. Thus ended his putative career as a train engineer. Instead he joined the Navy at Dows Lake.  I wonder how a subsequent “accident” could have been explained. 

The former garage in my back yard  (actually visible just at the left top edge of the Champagne Streetcar Barn in the aerial pic above) was built out of BC fir(?) timbers, each about 4″ x 12″ x 24′. Just friggin’ huge thick boards, grossly oversized for a garage. The previous owners of the house (1925 – 1981) said the boards came from the 1929 demolition of the Hurdman roundhouse, but now I wonder if they weren’t picked from the Bayview yards … here’s the 1982 pic of my garage demolition with the back wall of the Champagne garage on the right:

demolish garage


9 thoughts on “1871 Railway turntable uncovered on LeBreton Flats

  1. Here’s a related etching dated 1871, illustrating the nearby Prince of Wales Bridge under construction:

    However I think this etching might actually be from between 1877 and 1880. Construction of the bridge, which connects Quebec’s Lachute line to the St Lawrence and Ottawa Railway in Ontario was only authorized by Parliament in 1872 (See: goo.gl/chdDDc “An Act to Amend…”). If this etching was indeed been from 1871, it might have been done to envision the work that was being planned, and which was assented to by Parliament the following year.

    RE: “This was the first locomotive turntable for the St Lawrence and Ottawa Railway”

    And the St Lawrence and Ottawa Railway was amongst the first railway companies authorized under the new Government of Canada. “An Act to Incorporate the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway” was assented to on 21 December 1867. goo.gl/GAzMV7

    RE: ” It is the imminent commencement that of that major construction project that has prompted the archaeological dig.”

    Do the people of Canada expect that heritage assets will be protected?

    Joseph Potvin
    Director General | Directeur général
    Moose Consortium (Mobility Ottawa-Outaouais: Systems & Enterprises) | http://www.letsgomoose.com
    Consortium Moose (Mobilité Outaouais-Ottawa: Systèmes & Enterprises) | http://www.onyvamoose.com

  2. Well Eric, one of the most delightful pieces you have favored us with recently. What a clever mix of history, family stories and comment on present plans. And it is all practically in your back yard it seems…

    1. Why would they bother digging up foundation materials when they were just going to lay new railway tracks on top of the land in question? The archaeologists previously also found evidence of the 1870 Canada Central Railway station west of Broad Street, which had been flattened, roof shingles, window glass and all, when new tracks were laid over it around 1881.

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