Louis-Théodore Besserer and the Founding of Sandy Hill

Occasionally, and sadly, historic buildings are overcome by the march of progress. The fine stone structure that stands at the corner of Daly and King Edward Avenues and known as Besserer House had a panoramic view of Bytown to the west and north when it was built circa 1844. Today, it is jammed up against the sidewalk of a busy thoroughfare and constantly rattled by 18-wheel trucks that have no business being downtown.

Louis-Théodore Besserer (1785-1861) was born the son of a German immigrant in Château-Richer, just outside Québec City. He became a notary public in 1810, served in the militia during the War of 1812 and sat as a member of the House of Assembly in Lower Canada between 1833 and 1838. Besserer had 13 children with two wives. His last son was born just a year before his death and was named Louis-Joseph Papineau after the leader of the 1837 Lower Canada rebellion. The elder Papineau was present at the baptism. Besserer inherited 124 acres in Sandy Hill/Cote-de-Sable in 1824 from his brother Rene Leonard and eventually moved to Bytown in 1845 to develop his inheritance. The death of his first wife in 1843 may have prompted the fresh start in a new town.

Besserer had his land surveyed and divided into lots, but the development of Sandy Hill into the stately neighbourhood that it is today did not really commence until Ottawa was declared the capital of a new Dominion by Queen Victoria in 1857. Family debts forced the sale of land parcels well below market value. A large share went to the Catholic diocese for the College of Bytown (later the University of Ottawa). Besserer is considered the founder of Sandy Hill, with a street named in his recognition by the City of Ottawa. He was one of the three original landowners, along with Nicholas Sparks (two streets so named) and the British Ordnance. Besserer named two streets for his sons Wilbrod and Théodore (now Laurier Ave. E.). Stewart Street was named for his land agent and Daly Avenue for a British official in Lower Canada who was his patron.

The house at 149 Daly Avenue was the first large residence built in the area. Its classic Georgian plan was accented with Canadien casement windows. There were verandas on all four sides and a widow’s walk on the roof. William McDougall, one of the fathers of Confederation and a minister in Macdonald’s cabinet, became the next resident of Besserer House in the 1860s.

In addition to his Sandy Hill acres, Besserer owned land in Orléans, where his descendants built a popular hotel and a wharf that launched an Ottawa River cruise. His son Théodore was the first postmaster who named the village after his birthplace, Ile d’Orléans, near Québec City. One of Besserer’s grand-daughters, Eugénie “Jennie” Besserer, born in Watertown, NY, went to Hollywood where she starred in silent movies and most famously opposite Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.