Spanning conflict: from Kettle Island to Big Joe Mufferaw

Three years ago, the City of Ottawa held a christening ceremony for a long-awaited piece of civil engineering. The Corktown Bridge was named in honour of a 1830s-era settlement of Irish canal-diggers. This pedestrian bridge crossing the canal and joining Somerset Street in Sandy Hill to Somerset Street in Upper Town is of such design strength it won an urban design award presented by the associations of Canadian architects, urban planners and landscape architects. Corktown was the name of the region near the canal where many canal workers – navvies – lived. Most of them hailed from County Cork, and in remembering them, the bridge is a recognition of Ottawa’s labour history and the estimated one thousand canal builders that died of malaria when building the canal.

Today, across town in Manor Park, citizens continue to rally against the construction of a much different type of bridge. The Kettle Island Bridge has been designed as a solution to the ongoing problem of too many transport trucks in the downtown core. The Manor Park community argues that this bridge will effectively destroy the livability of their community, and detrimentally affect many of the Capital’s prized attractions such as the Aviation Museum and the RCMP stables.

These two bridge additions and controversies are only the most recent in a city where bridges have played a vibrant yet under-appreciated role. The bridges span not only Ottawa’s urban and natural geography, but important moments in local history.

Legendarily ( see illustration above ), Joseph Montferrand – the French-Canadian hero who was Stompin’ Tom’s “Big Joe Mufferaw” – once out-fought as many as 150 Irish ‘Shiners’, who were a large gang of ruffians terrorizing Ottawa after the canal-building era; as the tale would have it Big Joe swung dozens of them into the water under a bridge connecting Gatineau to Ottawa.

Then there was Sappers Bridge, one of the earliest bridges in Ottawa. It was commissioned by Colonel John By and built in 1827 to connect Upper Town to Lower Town over the Rideau Canal. It was a simple stone arch of remarkable strength. The Sappers Bridge became a witness to the riots of Stony Monday. On September 17, 1849, in Lowertown (near the contemporary Stoney’s bar incidentally), a riot broke out involving the throwing of sticks and stones when the Reformists were planning celebrations to welcome Lord Elgin to Ottawa. The tensions were based on Lord Elgin’s support for the Rebellion Losses Act. Two days later, the riots continued on Sappers Bridge when the Reformists from Lowertown and the Conservatives from Uppertown faced off with cannons, muskets and pistols. Fortunately, the military diffused the face-off on the bridge.

The Sappers Bridge was joined in 1872 by a parallel bridge, the Dufferin Bridge, named for the current Governor General, and designed by prominent civil engineer Samuel Keefer. The Sappers’ Bridge was destroyed in 1911 to precede the construction of the Chateau Laurier and allow for the development of Confederation Square. Built by By’s engineers, Sappers was of such high quality that it took three and a half hours of dropping a 1818 kg block of stone to demolish it. A cornerstone from the Sappers Bridge was moved to Major’s Hill Park as a memorial, where it can be visited today.

Between 1898 and 1900 the Interprovincial or Alexandra Bridge was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, inaugurated in 1901. At the time of its construction, the Alexandra Bridge boasted a main cantilever with the longest centre span in Canada, and fourth longest in the world (an honour that it has since lost). It was renamed the Alexandra Bridge in 1901 in honour of Queen Alexandra during a visit of the Duke of Cornwall (later King George V). At its inauguration, the Bridge had CPR train tracks and tracks for the Ottawa electric trolleys. Incidentally, the Bank Street Bridge crossing the Rideau Canal between the Glebe and Old Ottawa South was also built to facilitate the extension of the Ottawa streetcars in 1912.

As a national capital, Ottawa has been planned to circle the Ottawa River, with many national jewels, Parliament Hill, the Supreme Court, and the National Library and Archives, facing the Ottawa River rather than a grand boulevard. Ottawa also prides itself as a city with immense natural wonders, including its waterways, the Ottawa River, the Rideau River, and the Rideau Canal. Considering this focus and pride in Ottawa’s waterways, it makes sense to also honour the sites that allow for their passage: the city’s many story-rich, aesthetically charming, and structurally fortified bridges.

-Tonya Davidson is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Alberta. She currently lives in Ottawa, where she is completing dissertation research on the dynamic social lives of Ottawa’s monuments. She has also written for Briarpatch and Canadian Dimension magazine and is a contributor to the Yolk blog She can be reached at

Image credit: Unknown Ottawa

One comment

  1. many Irish and Italians died building the Bloor st. bridge in Toronto and the Welland Canal, Catholics were seen as second class in those days, was it the 30’s? At any rate, at some point it was even illegal to be Catholic, so these often Catholic Irish and Italians ended up doing the deadliest jobs, but their work is still here today as a testament.

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