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Slattery’s Field in Old Ottawa South – Ottawa’s First Accidental Airfield

(Editor's note: 2011 story regarding naming a street in Ottawa after Slattery: click here for the related Orléans Star article and here for the City of Ottawa November 2011 update.)

Originally published in the OSCAR January 2010

Cornelius von Baeyer & Kathy Krywicki

At the corner of Riverdale Avenue and Main Street, lies a field that was once part of the extensive pasturage of William Slattery and his son Bernard, prosperous local farmers and butchers.  Their lands extended into what we now call Rideau Gardens, Old Ottawa East and beyond.  In fact, nearby Elliot Avenue was once called Slattery.

The first airplane take-offs and landings in this region took place here, not because it was a designated airfield, but because of its proximity to Lansdowne Park.  In 1911, and again in 1913, pilots tried to land at the Central Canada Exhibition to show off their new-fangled contraptions, but were unable to because of large crowds.  Each time, they found the nearby field on the Slattery property.  Presumably, it was safer to land among some cows and horses than among the many people at the Ex, although there was at least one near miss with a horse.

Today, the field is occupied by a Hydro Ottawa substation.  Beside the door of the substation building at 39 Riverdale Avenue, there is a plaque commemorating this history:

SLATTERY’S FIELD

IN THIS AREA, ONCE A COW PASTURE, THE FIRST AEROPLANE FLIGHTS OCCURRED IN THE OTTAWA REGION.  BETWEEN SEPTEMBER 11TH AND 14TH 1911, LEE HAMMOND, FLYING A BIPLANE, PERFORMED BEFORE CROWDS ATTENDING THE CENTRAL CANADA EXHIBITION.  ON OCTOBER 8TH 1913, WILLIAM C. ROBINSON LANDED AT SLATTERY’S FIELD AFTER FLYING FROM MONTREAL, THE FIRST FLIGHT BETWEEN TWO CANADIAN CITIES.  BOTH PILOTS HAD TO CONTEND WITH COWS AND HORSES WHICH SHARED THIS CRUDE AIRFIELD.

CET ENDROIT, JADIS UN PÂTURAGE, FUT LE THÉÂTRE DES PREMIERS VOLS AÉRIENS DE LA RÉGION D’OTTAWA.  ENTRE LE 11 ET LE 14 SEPTEMBRE 1911, LEE HAMMOND SURVOLA LA VILLE AVEC SON BIPLAN DEVANT LA FOULE QUI ASSISTAIT À L’EXPOSITION DU CANADA CENTRAL.  LE 8 OCTOBRE 1913, WILLIAM C. ROBINSON EN PROVENANCE DE MONTRÉAL EFFECTUANT LE PREMIER VOL ENTRE DEUX VILLES CANADIENNES, ATTERRISSAIT À CE MÊME ENDROIT.  LES DEUX PILOTES ONT DÛ PARTAGER CE TERRAIN D’ATTERRISSAGE PRIMITIF AVEC LES VACHES ET LES CHEVAUX.

PLAQUE ERECTED BY THE CANADIAN AVIATION HISTORICAL SOCIETY 

 

The First Flight between Two Canadian Cities and Two Canadian Provinces

The Montreal Daily Mail sponsored the 1913 flight by William Robinson from Snowdon Junction in Montreal West to the Lansdowne Park exhibition grounds in Ottawa, following the CPR tracks at a height of about 1500 feet.  Refuelling stops were set up for the Vought/Lillie biplane at St. Anne de Bellevue, Choisy, Caledonia Springs and Leonard Station, including a farmer’s field marked with a 20-yard white cotton cross at each stop. There was an emergency stop near Lachine to fix a leaky fuel pipe, but then all went well until Ottawa.  There, the crowds at Lansdowne Park forced the pilot to turn towards the nearby field owned by Bernard Slattery, where after narrowly avoiding a horse, he landed safely. He was driven to the Chateau Laurier and described his flight to the media.  A week later he made another flight over Ottawa but for undisclosed reasons then returned to Montreal with his plane on the train.

 

William C. Robinson in the cockpit of his Vought/Lillie biplane during his Montreal-Ottawa flight

(from On Canadian Wings by Peter Pigott, with permission, credit Library & Archives Canada/PA-165978) 

By coincidence, two other flights had landed at Slattery’s Field two years earlier.  In 1911, because of crowding at the Exhibition grounds, both Lee Hammond flying a Baldwin Red Devil biplane, and Georges Mestache flying a Borel Morane monoplane, had landed there.

Baldwin Red Devil biplane

Rear facing engine behind the pilot (from www.pioneeraeroplanes.com with permission) 

In later years there were other occasional landing fields around Ottawa, for example near the Rockliffe Rifle Range, and near the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Course.  But it was not until 1920 that the Air Board built an aerodrome at Rockliffe, and 1929 that the Department of National Defence formally declared the airfield operated by the Ottawa Flying Club as Uplands Aerodrome.  (Information drawn from Peter Pigott’s On Canadian Wings: A Century of Flight, Dundurn Press, 2005.) 

The Slattery Family

William Slattery emigrated from Ireland and married Honora McGrath in 1850.  They had two children, but then Honora died.  William married Margaret Hendrick, also from Ireland, in 1858 and they had four children.  His first landholding in the area was in 1872 when he purchased property in Concession D, Lot K.  Then in 1877 he bought the site that was then 40 Riverdale Avenue and built a home called Mount Pleasant.  The wide veranda was added in 1911 – it was designed by architect Moses C. Edey who created the Aberdeen Pavilion.  William was one of the first importers of western beef, and helped advance animal husbandry in the area.  He became wealthy as a farmer and a butcher. 

William and Honora’s son, Bernard, was born in 1852 and took up his father’s trade with great success.  Barney, as he was known, acquired additional lands in the area, and specialized in raising beef.  On market day, he would sometimes drive cattle decorated with banners and bells through the Ottawa East community and across a bridge connecting to Argyle Street.  In 1879 he married Annie Kennedy (1862-1932).  Living at 40 Riverdale, they raised five sons and three daughters.  Bernard also helped establish the Catholic church and school in the village, supported the Conservative Party, and served on the Ottawa Improvement Commission (later the NCC) for many years.

The Slattery Homestead, formerly 40 Riverdale Avenue, sometime after 1911 (from City of Ottawa Archives, CA-2954)

 

Slattery’s Sheep Field, November 1898 (attributed to James Ballantyne/Library & Archives Canada/PA-132294) 

Bernard died October 10, 1922, and his widow lived on in the home for a decade.   The house was vacant for many years after that, and then passed on into other hands.  In 1948 the Chinese Military Attaché lived there.  In 1993, the Slattery homestead was destroyed by fire.  The site now includes two homes with addresses on Mount Pleasant Avenue and a triplex and single along Riverdale.

From early in the 1900s, three of Bernard Slattery’s sons lived in distinctive red-brick homes nearby: first John J. at 66 Riverdale, and then son Bernard at 64, and son William at 68.  By 1931, son Bernard’s house was sold.  By 1948, John’s property had passed to his widow Catherine.  By 1957, son William’s property had passed to his widow Theresa.  By 1962, there were no Slatterys left on this part of Riverdale – all had passed on or moved to other parts of the city.

(The Slattery story was assembled from Rick Wallace’s A History of Ottawa East, 2004; Bruce Elliott’s The City Beyond, 1991; City directories; and www.ancestry.ca)

 

The Hydro Substation

The station at 39 Riverdale Avenue was built in 1945 and renovated in 1991. It is owned by Hydro Ottawa, but much of the space is leased to Hydro One (Ontario’s electricity delivery company).  The station is remotely controlled from headquarters at Albion Road and transforms electricity, which comes in from the Hawthorne Road station, from 115kV to lower voltages.  This power is then distributed to 12,000 customers in the area including Carleton University, parts of Alta Vista, Old Ottawa South, Old Ottawa East, and parts of Sandy Hill. (Based on James Hunter’s detailed description in the June 2005 OSCAR.)

39 Riverdale Avenue with plaque

 

The site of Slattery’s Field today