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Photo provided by Andrew King.

Interview: Andrew King, Ottawa’s resident detective and purveyor of the past

By Kiefer Uuksulainen on December 14, 2020


When was Ottawa’s first pub built? Was there ever a nuclear reactor at Tunney’s Pasture? What is James Bond’s connection to the nation’s capital?

One Ottawa man can confidently answer all three questions: Andrew King, local artist, animator, and history-sleuth-turned-author. (For the record, the answers are: Mother Firth’s Tavern was built in 1819; yes, and the water pumping station still exists at Remic Rapids; and Agent 007 visits the 613 in the original 1960 short story For Your Eyes Only.)

King is a purveyor and digital preserver of local “lost” history. Since 2013, he’s documented more than 150 stories via his blog, Ottawa Rewind, and authored two books, Ottawa Rewind: A Book of Curios and Mysteries and Ottawa Rewind 2: More Curios And Mysteries. My review of the sequel can be found here.

In our interview, King discusses the hazards of field research, Ottawa’s greatest unsolved mysteries—including the possible existence of a top-secret aircraft and location of the hidden beer tunnel—and why he’s worried about local government’s preservation efforts (or lack thereof).

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

King started Ottawa Rewind as a passion project with a wholesome mission: “To reveal cool local history and have others appreciate it.” His enthusiasm is palpable and harkens back to a lifelong pursuit of mystery and adventure. From an early age, King explored the outdoors, inspired by literary adventure-seekers like Tintin and the Hardy Boys. To this day, the backwoods remain his backdrop, but now he is the one mining mysteries for the masses.

King inspects remnants from an abandoned moonshine distillery while conducting field research. Photo: Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen/YouTube.

In the winter months, King combs digital archives, books, maps, and documents, piecing together common elements to prepare for field research come springtime. “It’s tedious work,” says King, “but if I don’t do it, these stories might never be explored.”

Despite being armed with research, trekking equipment, and a lifetime of woodland walking experience, King is not always prepared for what he’ll find in the field. “I’ve been out in the woods and heard coyotes howling in very close proximity. That is a terrifying sound.”

King recounts another close call while snorkelling a shipwreck in windy conditions: “I nearly drowned when huge waves kept filling up my snorkel while I was trying to film. I was choking, it was pretty nerve-racking.”

The most abundant hazard is also the hardest to spot: private property lines. “I’m always respectful of ‘No Trespassing’ signs, but with so much Crown land, it’s not always a clear distinction. I worry about accidentally treading on private property and getting a shotgun to the back.” Thankfully, King’s usual concerns are poison ivy, mosquitos, and finding the best camera shots.

He focuses on publishing stories that are accessible and safe for exploration. “I want my readers, especially kids, to find their own adventure,” says King, “I get messages from parents who read my stories with their kids and then plan a day retracing my steps. I think that’s really cool and it inspires me to keep going.”

King asserts that some stories, particularly those in precarious places, will never be published and “forever remain in [his] secret files.” Other stories remain obscured for different reasons. He calls these “Ottawa’s greatest unsolved mysteries.”

“There’s always been speculation that one Avro Arrow aircraft escaped destruction,” says King. In the late 1950s, the Canadian government set out to design and build the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, the Avro Arrow. Then, inexplicably, after 7,000 hours of testing, the program was abruptly cancelled, all files were sealed, and prototypes ordered to be destroyed. For an aviation enthusiast like King, finding a prototype intact “would be a bombshell.”

“There’s also the lost beer train tunnel at Lebreton Flats,” says King. “During the 1950s, the tunnel was used to transfer beer from Brading’s [Capital Brewery, later Carling O’Keefe] brewery to the warehouse.” News of the tunnel surfaced in 2012, when an anonymous city employee retold the story of finding the hidden pathway while investigating a water main break north of Albert Street 24 years earlier.

Diagram depicting the 1988 discovery of the lost beer train tunnel at Lebreton Flats. Photo: Dennis Leung and Ian Macleod/Ottawa Citizen.

In 2014, King tipped off the Ottawa Citizen about the tunnel’s proximity to ongoing Albert Street reconstruction. Sure enough, a side tunnel was discovered and promptly filled in by workers. King has “enough circumstantial evidence to believe the main tunnel still exists” but without proper exploration (or continual destruction), it will remain an unsolved mystery.

A side tunnel was discovered and promptly filled in during the Albert Street reconstruction in 2014. Photo: City of Ottawa/Ottawa Citizen.

For King, the bigger concern is the lack of government foresight. While he is the first to acknowledge the counterpoint to his preservation efforts, he also believes that provincial and municipal constituents have a duty to recognize and protect local history. “I respect that some will see it as ‘just an old abandoned tunnel,’ after all, it is subjective. But we also have to recognize that if we continue obliterating these markers of our past, there will be nothing left for future generations.”

The 1930s “cottage-style” gas station in Island Park pictured in 2018, was granted heritage protection in September 2015 before it could be flattened by property developers. Photo: Andrew King/Twitter.

King recounts a time he successfully protected a piece of 1930s architecture from being flattened by property developers. The “cottage-style” gas station at Island Park (pictured above), once owned and operated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s grandfather, was granted heritage protection in September 2015. It was a well-earned victory, but unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending.

In an example from his recent book, King describes the Wright Homestead. Built sometime in the early 1800s, he believes it to be the first settlement in the National Capital Region. However, it’s hard to tell, because it lies in unrecognizable ruins.

Comparatively, the oldest structure on its original foundation in Washington, D.C. operates as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two very different endings for a pair of similar capital city structures.

King recognizes Wright Homestead (and other points of interest documented on Ottawa Rewind) as a means to rejuvenate Ottawa’s tourism industry. “Not everyone is interested in mainstream tourism, like the Parliament Buildings,” says King. “There is a very real opportunity to tap into our own unique history and give both locals and tourists a different look into our past.”

One thing is clear: King’s passion for preserving the past is unwavering. Ottawa Rewind is his assurance that the past will remain present in our future.

Ottawa Rewind 2: More Curios And Mysteries by Andrew King is available at independent bookstores and all Chapters, Indigo, and Coles stores in Ottawa. Please visit the Ottawa Rewind blog for a structured take on his latest adventures, or follow him on Twitter for, in his words, a “more casual stream of consciousness.”