They were working to build Ottawa’s future.

They found a fascinating piece of its past.

Workers replacing water mains along Queen Street in advance of digging the tunnel for Ottawa’s new LRT system uncovered far more than they expected – human remains.

It happened in late September. Construction was immediately halted and police called in to determine if they had found a crime scene. Once they were satisfied there had been no foul play, archeologists took over.  They soon realized they were looking at Ottawa’s earliest Christian cemetery.

“This is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever found,” says Ben Mortimer, Senior Archeologist for the Paterson Group. “Finding human remains is always a unique incident. It doesn’t happen too often, especially in a downtown urban core.”

Mortimer says the cemetery dates from around 1828 to 1845, back when Ottawa was known as Bytown. Archives show a burial site in the southeast corner of Barrack Hill – now Parliament Hill. Up to then, the practise was to bury people across the Ottawa River. But a summer of disease might have changed that. “Some of the histories account that the cemetery was started for canal workers that succumbed to malaria during the construction of the canal.” says Mortimer.

Workers building what could be considered Ottawa’s first rapid transit system, the Rideau Canal, found by workers preparing for the City’s newest rapid transit system, the LRT.

Investigators say they have found the remains of 12 individuals in their original resting places, and at least 4 disturbed gravesites. Those buried in the Barrack Hill site were supposed to have been moved to other local cemeteries years ago. But some were left behind. “If you didn’t have relatives here or didn’t have money to pay to have your relatives moved you stayed in the ground,” says Mortimer.

The next step is to try to find living descendants to act as representatives of the interred. That involves searching Parish records, and posting notices through the Registrar of Cemeteries to find anyone who might think they have a historical connection.  

Meanwhile, the remains have been left on the Queen Street site, insulated and re-buried for the winter. In the spring they may be moved to other cemeteries nearby, to finally rest in peace in the City they helped build.