Once called Bytown, this city had a place of great merriment, a place where thirsty labourers and travelers alike would gather to relax and have fun…it was Ottawa’s first pub, a place called Firth’s Tavern. The Nation’s Capital has all but forgotten where this entertainment mecca was located and if we want to remind oursleves that fun is not forgotten here, maybe we should not forget where fun began. Let’s find where we once relaxed, partied and had fun…let’s find our Firth Tavern.
Maps and sketches drawn by Colonel John By upon his arrival in this area in the early 1800’s survey this area for his ambitious Rideau Canal project that started in 1826. At the time, Philemon Wright had set up his abode in 1800 across the river in Hull, and Ottawa saw its first settlers on the other side of the river soon after. The once unpopulated wilderness of the area soon saw American Loyalists, retired military personnel, and entrepreneurs staking out properties along with general labourers who built the structures needed for this developing lumber town. Colonel By sketched the Chaudiere Islands and Lebreton Flats area and within his sketches there is a place labelled “Mrs. Firth’s Tavern.
According to the “Journey To Nationhood”, an amazing website devoted to the history of Ottawa, the tavern was originally the “Chaudiere Inn” owned by Miss Dalmahoy, a brazen Scottish woman who soon married Isaac Firth. Together they opened the area’s first watering hole, “Firth’s Tavern” in 1819. Thirsty travelers, fur traders, voyageurs and military personnel of the time all gathered at this new pub where beer and food could be had. Originally a log cabin structure, the Firth’s expanded their tavern operation to include a two storey hotel, stables and barn structures to accommodate the town’s growing population.
Wild nights of partying beside the rushing waters of the nearby Chaudiere Falls entertained a mix of people from all walks of life…decorated military captains drank among grit covered mill workers and soaked raftsmen of the lumber trade. It was a place where stories were told, songs were sung and the vibrancy of what was to become the Nation’s Capital was born.
The pub was almost closed when Lebreton who purchased the lands nearby tried to evict the Firth’s but Governor General Dalhousie, knowing the importance it had in the community, came to the rescue and saved Firth’s Tavern from closing. The Firth’s operated the pub until 1832, but future owners of the tavern stopped serving in 1836. The tavern then closed around 1860 and was soon forgotten as Ottawa’s landscape evolved and development covered any remains of this once important gathering place. So where was the tavern? Is there anything left to remind us of where our ancestors partied?
The radical re-development of the Lebreton Flats area wiped clean any visible traces of Firth’s Tavern, but super-imposing old maps onto modern ones we can pinpoint the area where the tavern once stood. This shows that it was located on property that is now the
Canadian War Museum, on the North East end of the building. The current museum was opened in 2005, but before construction would have began, an archeological assessment would have to be completed. A quick check turned up the archeological assessment of the area that indeed was conducted between 2002-2004. The report by Past Recovery Archeological Services Inc. states a foundation was unearthed and labeled as site ‘Bi-Fw-53” …this was Firth’s Tavern. A Stage 4 assessment at the Firth Tavern site (BiFW-53) was completed by Jacques Whitford Environment Ltd. in 2005 and it was found that “remnants included a small part of the original circa 1818- 1819 log tavern building, the stone foundation from a late 1830s addition to the second tavern building constructed in the late 1820s, and the southern portion of a stable or shed to the east of the tavern complex constructed in the early 1830s. The artifact assemblage led the researchers to conclude that the tavern had likely ceased operations sometime in the early 1860s.”
Following the investigation of unearthing Firth’s Tavern it was decided that “there were no further concerns for the Firth Tavern site” and it was subsequently reburied and built over. No remains or plaque have yet to be erected on the site to indicate its location or the history of the tavern where Ottawa’s first publicly poured drinks occurred. Today, a garden and concrete path cover the site and it is largely forgotten by most residents who pass by it each day.
Using Colonel By’s original map and sketch I was able to recreate an image of how Firth’s Tavern would have looked during its heyday as Ottawa’s party place. The original log cabin tavern of 1819 and the addition of the two-storey hotel and stables are as accurately portrayed to the best of my interpretation of the old maps and knowledge of 1820s architecture allow.
As we ramp up to our Ottawa 2017 celebrations next year it would only seem fitting if we could somehow once again pour a beer or two and party like our ancestors did at the same spot where we gathered to do so 200 years ago. Let’s not forget where the city once had fun.
Andrew King, April 27, 2016
Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 2837923, C-000226
Journey To Nationhood, journeytonationhood.com/firths-tavern/