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

Capital History: The First Known Photos of Ottawa, 1859–60

By Ashley Newall on November 2, 2021

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


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

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

Working on my June story for Apartment613 (on the building of the first Parliamentary Centre Block), I asked the Bytown Museum if they knew what, pray tell, might constitute the first known photo series featuring Ottawa. They kindly sent me a set of five photos from the late 1850s, unattributed to any photographer, which I was then able to cross-reference with a few McCord Museum photos of Ottawa all dated “about 1860” and attributed to Montreal’s William Notman – and I found two matches!

The two matching photos were part of a comprehensive set of various Canadian scenes gifted to Queen Victoria via her son the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) upon his visit to Canada in 1860. During that visit, he formally dedicated the Grand Trunk Railway’s Victoria Bridge in Montreal (on Aug. 25) and laid the cornerstone for our Parliament Buildings here in Ottawa (on Sept. 1).

“The Prince of Wales Laying the Corner Stone of the New Parliament Buildings,” Sept. 1, 1860. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 29, 1860. Original image and caption via Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.

“Notman seized (the prince’s visit) as a perfect opportunity to promote his work on an international scale. He selected a range of large photographs and smaller stereographs of views of Canadian cities and natural wonders […] (and subsequently) mounted the stereographs singly and in groups on fifty-four large cards together in two lavish leather-bound portfolios. The portfolios were then each set in an ornate maple box (to then be gifted to the Queen).” (William Notman: Life & Work by Sarah Parsons, 2014.) This famous series of photos is known as “Stereographs from the Maple Box.”

In all that has been written about Notman’s Stereographs series, there has been nary a mention of the Ottawa photos. Notman would have been well aware that they would be of keen interest to Queen Victoria, as she had just named Ottawa the capital of Canada in 1857. But Ottawa had not yet “arrived” as a city of importance, and so all the reporting on the photos at the time and until now focused exclusively on sexier subjects like the new Victoria Bridge and Niagara Falls, completely ignoring the Ottawa segment. And so this late-breaking news article you’re reading is focused on setting the record straight.

The nine Ottawa stereographs were displayed on a giant 52 x 72 cm card (below) for viewing through funky stereograph glasses. (The glasses were mounted on a stick and held like a sideways magnifying glass.) Individual full-sized “mono” versions of the pics will follow for you momentarily.

Photos by William Notman via McCord Museum.

The “C.W.” on the above card stands for “Canada West,” previously known as Upper Canada, and now as Ontario.

The “Stereographs from the Maple Box” content (as a whole) is dated 1859–60. Individually, in the McCord Museum’s online archive, the Ottawa photos are all dated “about 1860,” which suggests they could have been taken after 1860. While some photos were added to Notman’s own copy of the box later (for the 1862 International Exhibition in London, England), those were exclusively of “Canada East” (aka Lower Canada), so our Ottawa photos must have been taken prior to autumn 1860 at the latest, but more likely before that summer. (When exactly during the prince’s visit the box was gifted is unknown.) The Notre Dame Basilica steeples, which appear in two of the photos, were not completed until Oct. 1858, further narrowing the window in which the snaps could have been taken. All I needed was for the McCord Museum to confirm what I already presumed to be true – that the photos were indeed part of Notman’s Stereographs from the Maple Box series and were thus taken in 1859–60.

Well, guess what? McCord Museum has confirmed my theory. An extremely helpful archivist there actually went into Notman’s famous maple box itself, and lo and behold, there were the Ottawa photos. Further, that awesome archivist concludes that the photos match the other 1859–60 ones in the box, and conversely their presentation/dichotomy does not match that of those added to the Canada East set for the 1862 International Exhibition. (I have been advised that, as a result of this discovery, McCord Museum will be clarifying the date range of the Ottawa photos on their website.)

So we can officially say the Notman series constitutes the first known photo series featuring Ottawa. Hot on its heels were series taken by multiple photographers capturing the construction of our Parliament Buildings and the surrounding city. There is one known earlier photo (singular) of Ottawa’s Lowertown, dated 1857, which has been kindly furnished to us by the Bytown Museum. The version I have is a bit too rough around the edges to be presented here; however, if you want to see it I’ve posted it to my personal blog.

Scottish-born William Notman opened his Montreal studio in 1856, and it was fully blooming by 1859. Starting with his “Stereographs from the Maple Box,” which garnered him favourable press attention in England, he would quickly become the first Canadian photographer to achieve international renown.

Moore’s hand-book of Montreal, Quebec, and Ottawa, 1860.

Alright, the individual photos are coming up in a sec here, and I know you guys are used to me colourizing old photos; however, this is some serious, studious stuff here, and so I’m presenting the original, old-school black and whites. Not to worry – a few colourizations will follow. You’ll just have to hold your horses.

Without further ado, here are the nine photos that comprise the first known photo series featuring Ottawa!

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

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

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

Chaudière Falls from 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.

Lower Town from Barrack Hill, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859-60. 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, 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 historical Brussels sprouts, you may have dessert. Here are the few colourizations I garnered from Notman’s above series of Ottawa photos:

Chaudière Falls from suspension bridge, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1859–60. Photo: William Notman via McCord Museum – colourized by Ashley Newall.

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

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

As a side note, evidently my main man Samuel McLaughlin took photos in Ottawa in 1857, sent here by the Legislature for the Province of Canada, then situated in Quebec City, to create an historical record of Barrack Hill, upon which our Parliament Buildings would be built. As of this writing, those prospective 1857 photos have not been located. When I find them, however, you can rest assured there’ll be a follow-up article to this one, to be titled “First Known Photos IN Ottawa.” Cha cha cha!


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

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