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Archaeologists dig up a story from Ottawa's past

OTTAWA — It's 1885 and the city of Ottawa is a different place. The LeBreton Flats are not an empty space next to the Canadian War Museum to hold Ottawa Bluesfest each year. Instead, they are a busy part of the growing national capital, a settlement of mostly labourers and the home of Ottawa's second oldest train station between Booth and Broad Streets.


Jean is a young French Catholic boy growing up on LeBreton Flats. His parents work in the mills at Chaudière Falls. Every morning he puts on his shoes, they are made of leather and held together with small copper nails. They were made by a nearby shoemaker, and last year he wore holes in a pair that now sit in the trash heap behind his house.

After breakfast, he and his little sister Marie walk down to the one room schoolhouse, Ste-Famille French Separate School on Sherwood Street, for their lessons. Marie clutches her doll tight, its porcelain face peering up at Jean from the crook of her little arm.

'The history books we have don't really tell us a lot about the lives of the working class people. '

At lunch time they go outside for a game of marbles, where the boys compete with their clay marbles to try and win Jean's special glass marble. One of the boys shows off his new lead toy pistol and the rest of the boys watch with quiet admiration.

After a long day of lessons, Jean and Marie go home in the afternoon and have oysters from the Ottawa River for dinner.

These are just some of the small details that paint a picture of life on LeBreton Flats, provided by the artifacts and discoveries of the ongoing archaeological excavations of the area.

"The history books we have don't really tell us a lot about the lives of the working class people," says Jeff Earl, the lead archaeologist of on the excavation of Ste-Famille. "It's just been a great way to discover a little bit about them."

Since 2000, the National Capital Commission has contracted out salvage excavations of several sites on the LeBreton Flats in order to begin housing developments and the construction of the War Museum in the area.

The foundation of the Ste-Famille Seperate School
The post-1900 foundation of Ste-Famille Separate School was built on top of the remains of the original.

Salvage archaeology is done in order to find and record archaeological evidence before putting up new buildings.

The NCC purchased the land in the 1960s and everything standing was demolished. But the school house was destroyed before that by a devastating fire that swept through the area in 1900. A new school was rebuilt on top of the old foundation. Archaeologists found both foundations in their excavation last summer.

You can see the evidence of the fire in the stratigraphy, Earl says, which means the layers of the past are marked in the soil by lines of different coloured rock and sediment. The layer from 1900 is thick black ash.

"Because of the great fire that swept through in 1900, we've been able to find that fire layer in lots of parts of the Flats," says Earl. "If you can identify that layer you know that all of the layers below it pre-date 1900 and all of the layers on top of it were post-1900."

The archaeologists can use this as a marker for dating all of their finds.

Earl and his company, Past Recovery, finished excavating the grounds last season around the Ste-Famille school, which dates back to 1880 and a train station from 1870. From 1860 to 1880, there were two houses and outbuildings where the schoolyard would later be. They were demolished when they put up the school in 1880, but evidence of them still remains.

Map showing the location of the Ste-Famille school
The school was located on Sherwood Street, which was between Broad and Booth Streets south of Wellington.

"Since there was no later 20th Century construction in the schoolyard itself," says Earl, "It preserved any remains from those houses. That we found really interesting because there was such a short 20 year period, so we got a really good snapshot of the lives of those inhabitants."

The personal items are of most interest to Earl. In one case, a unique shoe.

"Usually in the bottom of the sole there's rows of nails all around the exterior and the heels sort of holding them together. But this one also had a pattern of a heart in small nails on the inside," says Earl.

The artifacts will be processed and catalogued by the archaeological team. They are property of the NCC who are curating them for now. The excavation of the school and the train station were the last major excavations of LeBreton Flats.

Front page courtesy of Jeff Earl

Related Links

National Capital Commission: LeBreton Flats

Ottawa's Bytown Museum

City of Ottawa Museums



Ste-Famille Soil Profile

This graphic shows the soil profile from the Ste-Famille site on LeBreton Flats.

Graphic depicting the soil profile at the Ste-Famille school

Layer B is the layer of black ash from the Great Fire in 1900.

Layer A is the debris from the 1960s demolition of the LeBreton Flats area.

Source: Jeff Earl


Planning Ahead

In salvage archaeology, archaeologists usually have a limited amount of time to gather as much information and preserve as much of the past as possible. For this reason, they plan ahead so they know where to dig.

Fire insurance plans from the 19th Century are an excellent way for archaeologists to know where they might find remains.

.Fire insurance plans from the site of the Ste-Famille school

These fire insurance plans from the area around Ste-Famille Separate School show the layout of the area from 1878 to 1956.

Source: Jeff Earl



© Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication