Lebreton Flats

Lebreton Flats is virtually unpopulated, but has a long and fascinating history.  The neighbourhood is being re-developed, and had a population of 373. It lies to the west of Centretown neighbourhood, and to the north of Centretown West with “Nanny Goat Hill” as the dividing line. The Ottawa River forms the northern limit. It’s main feature currently is the striking new Canadian War Museum, and it is now the site of the popular BluesFest music festival. 

LeBreton Flats was named after Captain John LeBreton, one of Nepean Township’s first settlers and a hero of the War of 1812. In 1820, LeBreton lived at the community of Britannia, Ottawa, and overheard Lord Dalhousie explain that the intended plan for the Rideau Canal was from Dow’s Lake to the Chaudière Falls, directly crossing the flats. LeBreton bought for the land for £499, before Lord Dalhousie had a chance to purchase the territory. LeBreton then offered to sell the land to Dalhousie for £3000. Dalhousie recognized LeBreton’s scam and was so infuriated he decided to move the canal to Entrance Bay, the current location where the canal enters into the Ottawa River. This significantly raised the cost of the canal, as it was a longer route and additional locks were now required. At the same time, Dalhousie purchased Barracks Hill as part of the agreement, which would become Parliament Hill.

With the development of the Ottawa area, LeBreton Flats by the mid-19th century had developed into a mixed community to serve the lumber mills on the nearby Chaudière and Victoria Islands. A rail line came in with a station and yards, and industries developed in turn. There was also housing for both the workers and owners, as well as hotels and taverns.

The area was ravaged by the Great Fire of 1900, which had started across the river in Hull (now Gatineau, QC), but jumped over by way of the great stacks of piled lumber on the islands. The fire destroyed the neighbourhood, leaving many homeless. The area was rebuilt, but the lumber barons relocated their dwellings up into the city proper above the escarpment, leaving the workers as the remaining Flat’s residents.

In the 1960s, expropriation occurred in order to make room for redevelopment, including offices for the Government of Canada. Ottawa Valley artist, Ralph Wallace Burton documented the neighbourhood in his Lebreton Flats series of oil sketches (now on display in Ottawa City Hall), “working just ahead of the demolition crews.”

As a result of disputes over the use of the land and soil contamination from the previous industrial uses, the land remained vacant for over forty years. It was used in the winter for piling snow that had been removed from Ottawa streets, with the pile often remaining well into the late spring. As a result of the runoff from this snowpile, the land became more contaminated.

Because of this, it was found that almost all of the area’s topsoil would have to be removed in order for redevelopment to proceed, but the ownership had to be consolidated, since the Federal Government, the former Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, and the City itself were all landowners. This situation was remedied with a federal agency called the National Capital Commission (NCC) acquiring all title to the land.

In May 2005, the new home for the Canadian War Museum was opened on LeBreton Flats as the first component of redevelopment. There are plans to use the remainder of the site for housing, commercial space, offices and parkland.

The southern part of LeBreton Flats between Albert Street and Nanny Goat Hill escaped the expropriation of the 1960s. In this area, brick houses and townhouses built immediately following the 1900 fire still exist alongside row housing built in the 1970s. The portion of Lorne Avenue which lies below Nanny Goat Hill is an example of the housing which filled LeBreton prior to the 1960s and is a Heritage District designated by the City of Ottawa.

Pooley’s Bridge, Ottawa’s oldest bridge, is a stone arch bicycle/pedestrian bridge located in Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats east of the Canadian War Museum and south of the Portage Bridge. The three span closed spandrel stone arch structure, built in 1873, was designated as a heritage structure by the City of Ottawa in 1994. It is located beside the Fleet Street Pumping Station (Ottawa’s original water works) at the end of Fleet Street.

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