Human remains unearthed during LRT dig finally find a resting place

The Canadian Museum of History is hosting a public visitation for the 79 individuals whose remains were discovered during construction of the city's light rail transit tunnel before being given a final resting place at Beechwood Cemetary.

Interment offers chance to 'correct the errors of the past,' says city archivist

The 79 individuals discovered during O-Train construction will be interred in 52 caskets and displayed at a public visitation at the Canadian Museum of History on Sept. 24, 2017. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Remains of 79 people found during construction of the downtown light rail tunnel will be moved to their final resting place at Beechwood Cemetery, but not before the public has had a chance to pay their respects.

The city is inviting people to attend a public visitation taking place on Sept. 24 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Canadian Museum of History, where the individuals will rest in 52 caskets.

The remains were unearthed during Confederation Line construction under Queen Street in 2013 and 2014, the one-time location of the Barrack Hill Cemetery.

The cemetery closed in 1845, making those individuals "some of the earliest residents of Ottawa," said City of Ottawa archivist Paul Henry.

"From what we can tell, many of the [people] — I think 78 of the 79 — arrived in the Ottawa region probably a decade before the building of the Rideau Canal," said Henry, whose office is overseeing the interment project.

"And they were mainly working class people, from all walks of life. Men, women and children."

This illustration, dated to 1845, shows Bytown as it would have looked from Barrack Hill — now better known as Parliament Hill — at the time. (Archives of Ontario)

Cemetery established in 1827

The cemetery was established in 1827 and was the final resting place for many Bytown residents — including entire families — who died of diptheria, malaria, cholera and other illnesses, as well as canal workers who perished on the job.

If there was no one left from a particular family, there was no one to take responsibility for moving those remains to the new cemetery.- City of Ottawa archivist Paul Henry

"It's quite clear that early Bytown was very much a difficult and hard place to live, [with people] eking out a living in what was in essence a wilderness at this time," Henry told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

While the human remains were moved to a newer cemetery in Sandy Hill after the Barrack Hill Cemetery closed, the LRT construction project revealed that some were left behind.

The rough-and-tumble existence that characterized Bytown, Henry said, partly explains why.

"When we looked in the record, we couldn't find an organized attempt by anyone to organize the move of the cemetery. And so it looked like it was word-of-mouth," Henry said. 

"If there was no one left from a particular family, there was no one to take responsibility for moving those remains to the new cemetery."

Chance to 'correct errors'

As for why the cemetery moved in the first place, the city was rapidly expanding by the mid-19th century, and given that embalming practices at the time didn't involve the use of formaldehyde, there was a public push to relocate the graves, Henry said.

"Some of the remains were — to put it delicately — unburying themslves. So there was a general demand from the populace to move the cemetery," he said.

In this undated photo, work crews sift through soil in an attempt to remove some of the human remains discovered at the light rail site on Queen Street. (Paterson Group)

Sunday's visitation will host experts available to discuss the Barrack Hill archaeological finds, research discoveries and the history of life in early Bytown.

The individuals will be re-interred at Beechwood Cemetery in October, Henry said, in a manner consistent with 19th-century burial practices, such as using simple pine caskets painted black and closed with iron nails.

Brass plaques will also be placed at the cemetery with a number that matches the scientific report prepared by the Canadian Museum of History for each of the bodies.

That will allow future researchers to potentially identify the remains, Henry said, should DNA analysis one day allow that.

"This is an excellent opportunity for us to correct the errors of the past," he said.