We’ve been skating on the Canal for more than 150 years

By the time this issue of the Glebe Report is published, skating on the Canal will have finished for the winter. Millions of skaters have glided along the 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal Skateway since it was opened by the National Capital Commission (NCC) in 1971. But the history of skating on the Rideau Canal goes much farther back than that.
Hockey on the Rideau Canal, Christmas Day, 1901.    Photo: Library and Archives Canada

 

Flooding the Canal in preparation for the 1958-59 skateway pilot project
Photo: Ottawa Citizen, December 16, 1958.

By Blake Butler

Ottawans have been skating on the Canal since at least the 1860s. The Ottawa Citizen reported that thousands were taking to the ice by the 1870s. Looking to take advantage of the pastime’s popularity, local businessmen Thomas Huckell and Fred Fooks cleared a rink in December 1873 on the Canal Basin, a large moorage area that once encompassed the present-day sites of the Shaw Centre and National Arts Centre. That winter, the popular “Huckell and Fooks Rink” hosted a carnival and skating tournament, the latter organized by the governor general, Lord Dufferin. Other businessmen replicated these efforts in subsequent years, making the Canal Basin a favoured skating destination.

Skating was an impromptu affair on the rest of the Canal. As the Glebe was developed and settled in the late 1800s, residents created their own rinks on the Canal and Patterson’s Creek. Skating was most popular in early winter when the ice was free of snow; by mid-winter, deep snow limited skating to small sections of the Canal. One exception came in February 1913, when cold, snowless weather created a continuous ice sheet from Sparks Street to Ottawa South. Hundreds of skaters crowded the Canal that month.

Residents first pushed for the creation of an extended skating rink a few years later in 1918. While members of the Ottawa Improvement Commission (OIC), the NCC’s predecessor, voiced their support, they stressed that they did not have the funds for such a project. The snow-clearing costs alone were considered too prohibitive for a “straight-away” rink. Instead, the OIC created a smaller Canal rink to complement its other outdoor rinks at Bingham Square, Lansdowne and Plouffe Parks.

Grand plans for the Canal were renewed 30 years later by City Controller C.E. Pickering. In January 1949, Pickering suggested that the city should transform the Canal into the world’s longest skating rink. Weaving its way through Ottawa, the Rideau Canal, lined with concession stands and coloured lights, would be “a winter attraction second to none.” While Pickering’s proposal was endorsed by the OIC and city officials, the plan was scrapped in December when the federal Department of Transport, which oversaw the waterway, refused to maintain the water levels necessary for skating. Instead of a skateway that winter, the Canal was, as Pickering later described it, “nothing but a mud-hole.”

This setback did not dampen skating enthusiasm in Ottawa. The Canal, Patterson’s Creek, and Dow’s Lake remained popular. In response to growing demand, Ottawa’s Department of Parks and Recreation finally agreed to create a skateway between Patterson’s Creek and the Bank Street Bridge in December 1958. The Board of Control only set aside $2,000 for the project, considerably less than had been requested. Officials hoped to see at least 1,000 skaters a day in order to justify future investments; instead, only an average of 50 skaters a day turned out, possibly because there was more snow that usual. Snow-clearing costs quickly ate up the skateway’s budget. The board closed the rink on January 5, 1959, much earlier than anticipated.

Local officials did not attempt any more skateway initiatives for the next decade. Instead, the city created smaller rinks on Dow’s Lake and the Canal as part of its Winter Carnival festivities. But the idea of skating along the entire Rideau Canal continued to resonate with residents. “Each year it seems Ottawa’s Winter Carnival planners express a hope that this city could become a centre of winter sports activity,” wrote an Ottawa Journal reporter in January 1965. “Using the natural advantages of the Canal-Dow’s Lake waterway would seem to make good sense.” Continued government inaction frustrated skateway proponents. As the Journal complained in December 1970, “this imaginative idea is being killed mainly because there’s never really been the will to make it work.”

The future of the Canal changed the next month when NCC Chairman Douglas Fullerton instructed crews to clear the ice between the National Arts Centre and the Bronson Street Bridge. The new Rideau Canal Skateway was a huge success with residents that winter, as it has been ever since. It’s a unique part of Ottawa’s winter culture that, as a new Glebe resident, I am glad I can take part in.

Blake Butler is a history PhD candidate and new Glebe resident who enjoyed skating on the Rideau Canal whenever he had the chance this winter.

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