Ottawa holds a number of secrets beneath its streets, from tunnels to vaults with many other concealed subterranean features, but one hidden feature I find to be particularly interesting. It is the legend of a far stretching cavern with waterfalls, stalagmites and a century old connection to one of Canada’s largest soft drink companies. It is the Legend Of Pooley’s Cave.
Before the National Capital Commission “re-imagined” downtown Ottawa in 1960 and started terraforming the historic downtown core of the city, there were a number of unique elements that have sadly been lost forever. The entire neighbourhood of LeBreton Flats was expropriated and demolished without a trace. The “Park of The Provinces” was built over what was once Brading’s Brewery. And just around the corner from that was a remarkable natural feature of a cavern that stretched east under Sparks Street for apparently more than 200 feet all the way to Christ Church Cathedral. This legend originated from the 1800’s and described a “natural wonder” and a room of stalagmites and stalactites that were “beautiful beyond description”. But not a single mention or trace exists today of this incredible underground feature in the heart of the Nation’s Capital. So, I thought we should look for it.
I find it hard to believe that a substantial subterranean cavern running under downtown Ottawa would just be quietly sealed up without a mention, but then again, city and federal government officials continue to ignore the concealed beer train under LeBreton Flats, so I guess anything is possible. I started to do some digging based on the “legend” of Pooley’s Cave, the name “Pooley” found to originate from a Lieutenant Pooley who in 1827 was ordered by Colonel John By to construct a bridge over a gorge to make a connection between the Chaudiere/Flats area to Wellington Street.
First made of wood, it was rebuilt in 1873 out of stone, of which sit till stands in the same spot today. The bridge is called “Pooley’s Bridge” and it is near this bridge the entrance to our mystery cave lies.
Researching old newspaper clippings from the 1860s and onwards I came across curious descriptions of our cavern in great detail. The entrance was recounted to be down the side of the gorge near Pooley’s Bridge where the entry to the cavern was an opening about 5 feet by 4 feet in dimension.
Upon entering the cave, a natural tunnel headed in an easterly direction towards Christ Church Cathedral. Traveling 75 feet in a stooped position through the tunnel, it was then said that one had to go on hands and knees for another 40 feet. Here, the tunnel widened into a room about 40 feet by 60 feet where stalagmites and stalactites appeared. Other descriptions mention a running waterfall inside the cave. So, this all sounds pretty cool but where would this be now and would it still possibly be there?
Back in 2015 I went on a quest to find the actual “spring” from Pure Spring Ginger Ale that was said to be around this very same place. Coincidentally I ended up at the cliff where this cave is supposed to be located, and I did indeed hear a waterfall or some kind of running water underground. Was this the same “waterfall” mentioned by the early cave explorers who said there was the sound of rushing water in the cave? This would seem logical as Pure Spring’s entire business centred around an actual spring coming out of this very spot.
Canning this fresh underground cave spring water in the early part of the 20th century, a young Jacob Mirsky sold it in five gallon cans and delivered it to Ottawa homes by horse and wagon. Using his earnings from water sales, Mirsky began to carbonate and flavour his spring water, and by 1925 incorporated his company as “Pure Spring”. The Mirsky family continued to own Pure Spring until 1963 when they sold it to Crush Beverages which later moved operations in 1969 to a state of the art manufacturing and bottling plant on Belfast Road.
Pure Spring not only commanded a large percentage of the soft drink industry in Canada at the time, but they also introduced canned soft drinks to this country and later the twist off cap. Pure Spring Ginger Ale continued to be produced until the mid-eighties, at which time their logo featured spring water pouring over a limestone embankment, the same water source that was likely inside this cave!
An exploration of the area found it is overgrown and fenced off in most parts, but behind some shrubs an old stone and mortar structure rising from the base of the cliff about 15ft up its face was visible accompanied by the sound of rushing water.
Sometime in history, someone has built a stone enclosure around the base of this cliff containing what sounds to be a water source underneath. A concrete hatch is on its top surface and nearby there is a City Of Ottawa water management building with hatches to whatever lies underneath. Is this an entrance into Pooley’s Cave?
Looking at old maps of this area to see if any cave was marked, that search turned up nothing, so I then turned to satellite imagery from the Pre-NCC revisions to the area. In 1928 the cave entrance probably still existed, and perhaps right up until 1991 when the NCC started to terraform the Pooley’s Bridge area. Massive alterations were made to the gorge and any cave entrance was likely sealed up for safety reasons, its secrets blocked off and hidden forever.
But using the 1860’s descriptions I can sketch out what it may have looked like before it was sealed off as it stretched east underneath the cathedral and Sparks Street.
The cave is probably still there and if it indeed lies under the cathedral then perhaps a member of the church could provide further details. Maybe they have an access door to this mysterious cave. The Cathedral was built in the 1870s and has a crypt so they may have information on what lies beneath.
It seems that more than one source over history has described what seems to be a large cave under the western end of Sparks Street, yet no entrance to it has yet been found. The sound of running water from under the cliff substantiates the tales of a cavern waterfall or running water, and it is historical fact that Pure Spring Ginger Ale got its water from an underground spring at this exact spot. Perhaps someone in the city staff network knows more about what is around Pooley’s Bridge, or maybe members of Christ Church Cathedral can shed some light onto this dark mystery.
If anyone else has more information about it, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments section of this post. I’d love to get a ground penetrating radar rig out there and see what we can find, but again I do not know anyone in that field of expertise. Until then, this will remain the Legend Of Pooley’s Cave…
Andrew King, May 2021
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Library and Archives Ottawa
Fire Insurance Plans, Carleton University, Macodrum Library; https://library.carleton.ca/find/gis/geospatial-data/georeferenced-ottawa-fire-insurance-plans