In 1920 a crew of city workers were landscaping the grounds of Macdonald Park, a large and picturesque plot of land in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill district when a passerby noticed a round object roll down an embankment. Upon closer inspection the round object was discovered to to be a human skull. The park was once an old graveyard for Ottawa’s first residents, some of whom still inhabit this tranquil PARK OF THE DEAD.
BURIED IN TIME
Macdonald Park is a quaint little Lowertown park bordered by Heney, Wurtemburg, Cobourg and Tormey streets just north of Rideau street where it meets the Rideau River. Enjoyed by locals who wander its lush grass and meandering pathways, this park was once home to hundreds of graves, and still is. Below the surface forgotten tombstones and skeletal remains of some of Ottawa’s earliest residents lie quietly below the visitor’s feet, part of a long forgotten cemetery that became a park.
The land became a graveyard for Bytown’s earliest settlers when the city’s first graveyard at Elgin and Sparks was moved in the 1840s from its location at the foot of Barrack Hill, a site that you may recall recently had some human bones dug up near Queen and Elgin Streets. Ottawa’s first settlers were buried at this original graveyard but were later moved to a new cemetery east of the city, to what was then called the “city limits”, that being the Rideau River. This second graveyard was opened for burials staring in 1845 and operated until the 1870s when the graveyard had to be moved yet again, this time out to Beechwood.
Hundreds of remains had to be claimed and moved to the new Beechwood cemetery, but many souls had no one to claim them, and their remains were left behind. A report at Bytown.net mentions a time when the abandoned cemetery had cows grazing among skeletons and toppled tombstones for almost 35 years as the land sat vacant. The unclaimed remains were left to the elements until 1911 when the City of Ottawa levelled the area for a new park in honour of Sir John A. Macdonald. Any unclaimed remains and tombstones were flattened over with a bulldozer and reburied under a new park landscape. Out of respect for those left behind, the city of Ottawa read the names, hundreds of them, at a city council meeting and recorded every name and inscription on the re-buried tombstones. Those names and inscriptions are available for viewing today at the Ottawa Room of the Ottawa Public Library Main Branch.
Later a stone structure was placed atop a small hill, known as “Summer House”. The park enjoyed years of pleasant use until the 1920s when a 1936 Ottawa Citizen article recounted the story of workers doing some hill landscaping who accidentally unearthed the skull of one of the unfortunate souls left behind.
Today the quiet park sits much as it has for over a hundred years, its boundaries never shifting, and no new buildings have ever been built atop the lost souls that still lie below the surface. For those that know the haunting secret beneath, the park is a grim reminder of a time when it was where the dead were parked.
Andrew King, January 16, 2017
Google News Archives, The Ottawa Citizen, Feb.21, 1936
Map of the City of Ottawa, Published by A.S. Woodbrun. Ottawa, 1885
My parents lived on Tormey for 15 years. We loved looking out on and walking through the park. I’m glad to know more of its history.
I saw a documentary on this years ago
I tried to google it for a long time!!
I’m so happy I found it it’s a awesome story!!
I love history!!!
It’s such a sad story!!!!!!!!!
In those days only people who had money could take their loved at beauchood cemetery
The poor were left there!!
So so sad!!!!
Thanks for reading!
When the large Apartments were planned on WurtenBurg Street, many pieces of Coffin hardware were brought up in the large shovel while excavating the deep holes for the building foundation. I worked with Grant Haulage then, in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Some heritage “Bitters” and Perfume bottles I kept for a number of years, then sold everything at the “Gibson Sales out in the West End near Stittsville. It is gone now also.
I always thought that park looked odd. I have friends living just across the street from it. Now I find out it was a cemetery, yes that makes sense I can see it.
I like these sort of tales; as always, thank you for doing it.
Hi Andrew – we’ve met many times, as I’m a fan of your paintings, and live in the neighbourhood! I enjoyed this story particularly, since I’m a tour guide at Beechwood National Cemetery. I always start tours with a short talk about the Lowertown cemetery, which I believe closed in 1872. I’ve understood that at the time, the growing city had begun to encroach too closely upon the cemetery, which had become quite full given the various plagues (e.g. typhus) that affected Bytown in the mid-century. Residents began to have health concerns. Today if you walk through Beechwood, which was founded in 1873, you will occasionally see tombstones on which the date of death precedes the establishment of the cemetery; these generally mark the graves of persons who were transferred from the Lowertown cemetery. Thanks for running this story! Cheers. Jennifer.
Thanks for the feedback Jennifer…glad you enjoyed the tale….Interesting how the graves were always on the moved in Ottawa…hopefully they can rest in peace now.
Love this story, thanks Andrew. I lived on Tormey St. as a kid, and spent a lot of time running up and down that hill.The “summer house” still looks exactly the same as it did in the early fifties, though the hill seemed much higher then. Glad I didn’t know then what was under “my” park!
Thanks for reading and sharing your spooky park story!
I had to walk twice a day this park knowing his history
I.was living on Desjardins st
There’s a strange feeling!!????
This cemetery gets a mention in Norman Levine’s short story “Champagne Barn,” part of his 1975 collection of short stories called “Thin Ice.”
The story is set in early 1960s, and the protagonist is back from England visiting his mother, who lives in a seniors’ building across from the park. At one point in the story, he’s waiting in the lobby for a lift, and starts talking to another tenant, Mr Tessier.
“‘I played in this park when I was a kid,’ I said.
‘When I was a kid,’ Mr Tessier said, ‘it was a cemetery. When they widened the road, they dug up skeletons.'”