Written by Bytown Museum
From its very beginnings in 1826, Bytown (early Ottawa) was divided geographically, with Uppertown to the west of the Rideau Canal and Lowertown to the east. Lowertown, then bounded by Sussex, Clarence and Rideau streets and the Rideau Canal, was swampland. In addition, the Bywash carried runoff from the Canal through Lowertown to the Rideau River. The polluted water only added to the unhealthy living conditions in the village.
Lowertown was also known as a boisterous and, at times, violent area. At the time, Clarence Street was a bustling row of taverns and brothels catering largely to the town’s seasonal lumbermen. Every spring, hundreds of lumberjacks arrived in Lowertown with half a year’s wages in their pockets. After spending months in the woods, they were eager for the diversions Bytown offered.
The early town's physical divide was mirrored by its ethnic and religious differences. Uppertown was settled by a relatively wealthy British and Scottish Protestant minority. Lowertown, where two-thirds of the population resided, was largely home to poor Roman Catholics, both Irish and French.
The makeup of Lowertown's population changed little over the next century, with the exception of an influx of Jewish immigrants in the 1900s. In 1951, over 10,000 people were living in the Byward Market and surrounding area. The 1960s saw the beginning of a massive population decline as families moved to new suburbs. In addition, a policy of urban renewal resulted in the eviction of many residents, whose homes were subsequently torn down. By 1986, the population sat at just over 3,000 people.
Today, the population of Lowertown is trending upwards as new condos spring up in the area. The Byward Market has transformed itself into one of the city's top tourist attractions, surrounded by a thriving community awash with heritage buildings, eateries, shops and entertainment venues.
As you explore the Lowertown map, some stories will seem familiar while others will likely surprise you, such as the location of one of Ottawa's earliest cemeteries, a local connection to Louis Riel and one of the coolest coffee houses of the 1960s and ’70s.
Do you have a favourite memory, spot or shop in Lowertown? Share your story with us.