From Farm to Flying Boats,
and Bird Sanctuary
by S. Bernard Shaw
One of the first stations
to be established by the new Canadian Air Board in 1920 was
at Rockcliffe, alongside the Ottawa River east of Ottawa.
Through the dubious generosity of the Department of Militia
and Defence, land was made available in the danger area behind
the butts of the rifle range. Until Trenton was developed
a decade later, this was the only combined land-and-water
base in the service.
This dual facility was convenient
for use by wheeled aircraft then engaged in developing aerial
photography and wireless telephony techniques, and the flying
boats then in general use because airfields were few and far
between. However, the dangers of stray bullets, and logs emerging
from the Gatineau River combined with debris from the mills
in Ottawa influenced a move of water-borne aircraft in May,
1925. Shirleys Bay, on the Ottawa River seven miles (10km)
west of the city, was selected as the "air harbour"
because its gently-shelving beach was convenient for hauling
out flying boats. The army followed its established practice
in making land available next to the Connaught Rifle Range.
Operations at Shirleys Bay
were all from water by a varied collection of flying boats
and float planes including a Curtiss HS2L donated by the US
Navy at the close of World War I. Representing the rebirth
of Canada's aircraft manufacturing capability were a Viking,
a Vedette and a Varuna manufactured by Canadian Vickers in
Montreal. Station staff consisted of three officers and 23
airmen. Tasks included test flying new aircraft and transportation
in connection with the visit of Field Marshal Sir Douglas
Haig, the British supreme commander in World War I.
Most of the flying from
Shirley Bay was devoted to exploring the possibilities of
aerial photography to make the topographical maps essential
to the development of Canada-establishing borders; settling
immigrants; town, highway, canal and railway planning; and
natural resource exploitation. Photographs were taken of the
Rideau Canal all the way from Kingston to Ottawa and are a
great source of interest today to the cottagers and tourists
along the waterway. They can be seen at the National Air Photo
Library on Booth Street in Ottawa. These early experiments
were such a success and the results so important that it can
be argued that the economic return justified maintaining the
Royal Canadian Air Force during the Depression years. The
emphasis on "Civil" operations was evident in the
fact that no RCAF aircraft was armed until the war clouds
loomed in Europe.
Early freeze-up of the Ottawa
River in 1925 sent the Shirleys Bay aircraft in a hurry to
Victoria Island in Ottawa. The Department of Public Works
made available its slipway and buildings where the aircraft
were overhauled during the winter. Administration of separate
land and water operations at Rockcliffe and Shirleys Bay was
proving difficult and uneconomical so a decision was made
in 1927 to concentrate operations at Rockcliffe. An additional
22 acres was obtained and permanent buildings were erected.
Rockcliffe went on to become the major Ottawa base for military
flying operations for many years and is now the home of the
National Aviation Museum. (The rifle range is no longer at
Rockcliffe.) The Shirleys Bay site was vacated by the air
force in 1929 and reverted to a boat launch facility, site
for picnickers, unique bird watching area, and a secluded
parking spot for the occasional courting couple.
Shirleys Bay is located
at the north end of Rifle Road, just east of the Carling Avenue
railway overpass. A 2.1 km stretch of paved road leads to
the riverside parking area that used to be the air force base.
On the right, 0.4 km before reaching the river, Lois Road
leads to a cottage area, and a bird feeding station on Hilda
Road. Continue a little further on Hilda to the National Capital
Commission's Greenbelt Pathway where dogs must be on leash
and are prohibited from some areas.
To the left from the parking
area, Shirley Boulevard leads to a military complex, the Connaught
Range. At 0.3 km, just inside the range boundary, is an overgrown
trail leading to a dyke that harbours many migrating birds
every year. The dyke was built across the bay to form a settling
lagoon capturing the outflow of processed sewage from The
Watt's Creek Filtration Plant on Carling Avenue. The Britannia
Water Filtration Plant supplying most of Ottawa's drinking
water is a few miles downstream, but Ottawa engineers give
assurance that the sewage is now pumped across Ottawa for
treatment at Green's Creek.
The remaining vintage neutrients
in the lagoon promotes growth that attracts many migrating
birds and the dyke is a favourite destination for bird watchers.
The property to the west of the parking lot is controlled
by the Department of National Defence, but, subject to operating
conditions, permission is readily given for access to the
dyke. Telephone the Range Safety Officer at 991-5740 or 724-8716.
Many rare birds have been seen at Shirleys Bay and more detail
can be obtained from the excellent web site http://members.rogers.com/larry.neily/birdguide.htm
The campus of the federal
government's Shirleys Bay Communications Research Centre (CRC)
stretches over 600 hectares from Carling Avenue to the river,
just upstream from the Bay. It contains a wide variety of
research facilities, including the Canadian Space Agency's
David Florida spacecraft assembly, integration and testing
centre. In the 1950s, a more esoteric field of study was undertaken
when radio engineer Wilbert Brockhouse Smith (1910-1962) convinced
the government to initiate Project Magnet, the study of "flying
saucers." Today, we call them UFOs (Unidentified Flying
Objects) because they have been reported in a variety of shapes.
Wilbert established his "sighting station" with
a staff of four experts in a small brick building housing
recording instruments alongside Carling Avenue, just west
of Rifle Road. Following classified discussions with the U.S.
government, Wilbert was convinced that flying saucers existed,
perhaps utilizing magnetic forces, his area of speciality,
for propulsion. Ironically, he was the victim of his own success
when he attracted a great deal of media attention with his
report that a flying saucer had flown over Shirleys Bay at
3:01 pm on 8 August, 1954. Apprehensive of ridicule, the government
closed down Wilbert's operation. His sighting station, now
known simply as "Building 67," is still in use,
but, officially, for something other than observing flying
saucers-although it still has a large antenna on its roof.
Among other unique facilities
at the CRC was the National Research Council's Ottawa River
Solar Observatory (ORSO), located on the point of land upstream
from the Bay. The site was selected in the early 1970s because
it had an uninterrupted line of sight to the sun for 5 km
across the river from sunrise until about 2 pm, and offered
the stable atmospheric conditions valued by astronomers for
photography. Changing government scientific priorities resulted
in the ORSO closing down in 1992. The telescope was sent to
storage at the Museum of Science and Technology in 1994. Despite
pleas from birders to save the observatory as a nesting site,
the concrete structure that housed the large telescope was
destroyed the same year in a demolition exercise.
Also at the CRC is a 55-foot
diameter geodesic dome that started life sheltering one of
the huge radars at the Foymount Pine Tree Line radar station.
It was moved to CRC as a test facility for SHARP (Stationary
High Altitude Research Project) investigating the feasibility
of relaying power by microwave to an unmanned aircraft orbiting
at an altitude of 21 km. The objective of the investigation
was to use the platform as a reflector for a variety of telecommunication
signals. It had promise of forestalling the need for all the
communication towers now littering much of Canada, but the
project is "on hold."
The Royal Astronomical Society
of Canada has a unique facility with another long name and
appropriate acronym at the CRC Campus. The Simple Multiple
Access Remote Telescope (SMART) is expected to enable people
to explore and photograph distant galaxies, via the internet,
from the comfort of their own homes. SMART is expected to
become available to the public early in 2004. Information
can be found at ottaw.rasc.ca/astronomy/smart.
There has long been confusion
over the name "Shirleys Bay." The area was originally
deeded to Thomas Shirley and the bay on the Ottawa River became
known as "Shirley's Bay." The federal government
research facility on Carling Avenue and the adjacent Connaught
Range together became known as "Shirley Bay" during
World War II. During the 1950s, the name reverted to "Shirley's
Bay." In 1962, the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical
Names resolved the problem and decided on "Shirleys Bay,"
in line with its policy decision to delete apostrophes or
other punctuation in Canadian place names. This version is
now used on all official maps and references.
This is the unabridged
version of the story, Shirleys Bay Comes a Full Circle,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 45, Spring 2004. Copyright S. Bernard Shaw.
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