The first known pictures of Ottawa, 1859–60 – Apartment613

Ashley Newall’s “Capital History Ottawa” (#colourized) has portrayed outstanding scenes in the city through his newly colored photos and accompanying facts. The project’s home is on Twitter, but once a month, a more in-depth piece that dives into the stories behind these photos will be published here on Apartment613.


“Lower Town from Barrack Hill, Ottawa, ON,” ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum. Colored by Ashley Newall.

Have you ever googled “first known pictures of Ottawa?” I have, and nothing shows up – until now!

As I was working on my June story for Apartment613 (about the building of the first parliamentary center block), I asked the Bytown Museum if they knew what could be the first known photo series featuring Ottawa. They kindly sent me a set of five photos from the late 1850s, not attributed to any photographer, which I was then able to cross-reference with a few McCord Museum photos of Ottawa, all dated “around 1860” and attributed Montreal’s William Notman – and I Found Two Matches!

The two matching images were part of a comprehensive set of different Canadian scenes, which were given to Queen Victoria via her son, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) during his visit to Canada in 1860. During that visit, the inauguration he formally Grand Trunk Railway’s Victoria Bridge in Montreal (August 25) and laid the cornerstone for our Parliament buildings here in Ottawa (September 1).

“The Prince of Wales Lays the Cornerstone of the New Parliament Buildings,” September 1, 1860. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 29, 1860. Original image and caption via Library and Archives Canada – colored by Ashley Newall.

Notman seized (the prince’s visit) as a perfect opportunity to promote his work internationally. He selected a number of large photographs and smaller stereographs of views of Canadian cities and natural wonders […] (and subsequently) assembled the stereographies individually and in groups of 54 large cards together in two sumptuous leather-bound portfolios. The portfolios were then each put in an ornate maple box (to then be gifted to the Queen). (William Notman: Life and work by Sarah Parsons, 2014.) This famous series of images is known as “Stereographs from the Maple Box.”

In everything that has been written about the Notman’s Stereographs series, there has been no mention of the Ottawa images. Notman would have been aware that they would be of great interest to Queen Victoria when she had just named Ottawa the capital of Canada in 1857. But Ottawa had not yet “arrived” as an important city, and so all the reporting on the pictures on that time and until now focused exclusively on sexier topics like the new Victoria Bridge and Niagara Falls, and completely ignored the Ottawa segment. And so this late news article you are reading is focused on setting the record straight.

Below, the menu card for the Ottawa photos is contained in the Maple Box, as is the legend in a box of chocolates. Full size versions followed as they will for you a moment.

Photos by William Notman via McCord Museum.

The “CW” on the map above stands for “Canada West”, formerly known as Upper Canada, and now as Ontario.

The contents of “Stereographs from the Maple Box” (as a whole) are dated 1859-60. Individually, in the McCord Museum’s online archive, the Ottawa pictures are all dated “around 1860”, suggesting that they may have been taken after 1860. While some pictures were added to Notman’s own copy of the box later (for the international exhibition in 1862 in London, England), they were exclusively of “Canada East” (aka Lower Canada), so our Ottawa photos must have been taken no later than the fall of 1860, but more likely before that summer. (Exactly when the box was donated during the prince’s visit is unknown.) The towers of the Notre Dame Basilica, seen in two of the pictures, were not completed until October 1858, further narrowing the window into which the schnapps could have been taken. All I needed was for the McCord Museum to confirm what I already assumed to be true – that the images were actually part of Notman’s Stereographs from the Maple Box series and were thus taken in 1859-60.

Well, guess what? The McCord Museum has confirmed my theory. An extremely helpful archivist who actually walked into Notman’s famous maple box itself and laughed and saw there were the Ottawa pictures. Furthermore, the amazing archivist concludes that the images match the others 1859-60 in the box, and conversely, their presentation / dichotomy does not correspond to those added to the Canada East set for the International Exhibition in 1862. (I have been informed that that as a result of this discovery, the McCord Museum will clarify the date range of the Ottawa images on their website.)

So we can officially say that the Notman series is the first known photo series with Ottawa. Right on the heels were series taken by several photographers who captured the construction of our Parliament buildings and the surrounding city. There is a known previous photo (singular) of Ottawa’s Lowertown, dated 1857, which has been kindly provided by the Bytown Museum. The version I have is a little too rough at the edges to be presented here; but if you want to see it, I have posted it on my personal blog.

Scottish-born William Notman opened his studio in Montreal in 1856, and it flourished in 1859. Starting with his “Stereographs from the Maple Box”, which garnered him positive press attention in England, he quickly became the first Canadian photographer to achieve international fame.

Moore’s Handbook of Montreal, Quebec, and Ottawa, 1860.

Okay, the individual pictures come up in a second here, and I know you guys are used to me coloring old pictures; However, there are some serious, diligent things here, and therefore I present the original, old-school black and white. Don’t worry – a few colorings will follow. You just have to keep your horses.

Without further ado, here are the nine photos that make up the first known photo series with Ottawa!

Barrack Hill and Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Lower Town from Barrack Hill, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Barrack Hill, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1860. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Rideau Falls, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Suspension Bridge and Chaudière Falls, Ottawa, ON, approx. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Chaudière Falls from the Suspension Bridge, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

“Ottawa River and Suspension Bridge, Ottawa, ON,” ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Gatineau Falls, ten miles from Ottawa, QC, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Rideau Falls, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum.

Now that you’ve eaten your historic Brussels sprouts, you may have dessert. Here are the few colorings I got from Notman’s series of Ottawa photos above:

Chaudière Falls from the Suspension Bridge, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum – colored by Ashley Newall.

Rideau Falls, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum – colored by Ashley Newall.

Lower Town from Barrack Hill, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum – colored by Ashley Newall.

As a side note, my principal Samuel McLaughlin apparently took pictures in Ottawa in 1857, sent here by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, then located in Quebec City, to create a historical record of Barrack Hill on which our Parliament buildings would be built. At the time of writing, the potential 1857 images have not been located. When I find them, however, you can be sure that there will be a follow-up article to this one, titled “First Famous Pictures In Ottawa.” Cha cha cha!


I acknowledge that Ottawa was built on undeveloped Algonquin Anishinabe territory.

Many thanks to the Bytown Museum and McCord Museum for their generosity in providing materials and information, making this article possible.

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