Not so long ago spring flooding of the Rideau River was taken for granted in Old Ottawa South. While this year’s near-record snow fall might cause some to worry about the Rideau River’s plans, it is not like past years before the Brewer and Windsor dykes and pumping station were constructed. As the early photographic record shows, the spring of 1900 gave rise to a major flood, but the vehicles of the day were perhaps a little better able to cope with a foot or more of water on the roadway.
On April 6, 1928 the Ottawa Evening Journal reported that at the corner of Cameron and Seneca Aves the water was more than a foot deep and completely covered the Ottawa Tennis Club’s courts. On the other side of the Rideau, the water was nearly a foot deep over the Bowesville Rd, the precursor to what is now Riverside Dr, and came within 50 ft of the south end approach of Billings Bridge, which has since been raised by about 17” when the bridge was rehabilitated in 1986. At that depth of water, the road was closed to motor vehicles. Numerous photos from 1928 of Hogs Back falls and the Rideau River just below (at the City of Ottawa Archives) show a madly raging torrent more in keeping with a mountain landscape.
The accompanying aerial photo of April 12, 1947 from the National Air Photo Library shows perhaps one of the worst floods of the past century in Old Ottawa South and Billings Bridge. The flood waters followed the land contour and filled in all the low spots extending to the end of Glen Ave and covering what is now Bronson Ave into the Carleton University property. On the south side of the river a cluster of houses known as Nordic Circle where there is now an NCC park were completely flooded. The entrance to the Merkley brick yard, near the present R.A. Centre, was also awash, as was the site of the future Billings Bridge Plaza.
The year 1959 saw another major flood as is attested to by the family snapshot showing local boys Bob Simpson and Fred Cooper in the Ottawa Tennis Club parking lot. No doubt fun for horsing around in your gumboots.
Major flooding occurred again in 1976 with high water on March 27, as was reported in the April 1976 issue of OSCAR (vol. 3 no. 4). The waters covered Marco Lane, the south end of Leonard Ave, the west end of Cameron Ave and Rideau River Lane. It was particularly frustrating for area residents as the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) was scheduled to have completed work on a flood control dyke at the end of 1975 that would have saved most from the effects of the flooding but it was still unfinished come the spring freshet. According to RVCA historical data, 1976 saw the all time high peak flow rate of the spring runoff, but overall the flooding was possibly less severe than 1947.
Long time local resident Harry Thomson recalls 1976 was a very bad year. Across from his house on Rideau River Drive on the bank of the Rideau River he has mounted a measure stick to track the annual flooding. He recorded a water level of 5’ 11 1/2” at peak that year.
On the east side of the neighbourhood the Lexington Apts on Riverdale were hard hit in 1976. This area had to wait until October 13, 1984 for the official opening of the Windsor Park Flood Control Dyke and pumping station, located in what is now known as Linda Thom Park. With no flood dyke to protect Belmont and Fentiman Aves, the end of those streets was again submerged under water in the late 1990s.
While it may be the case for the stock market that "past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results," we can be fairly certain that if not this year some time soon the Rideau will once again surprise us with her spring waters.
Thanks for Bob Simpson for his research, writing and photo sleuthing to assemble background material for this story.
Original published in the April 2008 OSCAR.