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Shirleys Bay

From Farm to Flying Boats, Flying Saucers
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

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

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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