The announcement last week by Mayor Jim Watson of Ottawa that he would be presenting the Ottawa Citizen newspaper with the Key to the City in acknowledgement of 175 years of publishing history may not seem to have much relevance for North Grenville, unless, of course, you’re a regular reader of that publication. But there is, in fact, quite a strong link to this community.
The newspaper was founded in 1845, and was originally known as The Packet. Just four years later, it was purchased by Robert Bell, of Kemptville, who renamed it the Ottawa Citizen in 1851. Bell was born in 1821 in Strabane, Ireland, and emigrated with his parents to Oxford-on-Rideau in the 1820’s. He attended local schools and then apprenticed with Francis Jones, a Provincial Land Surveyor who had been a school teacher in Oxford for many years. On 16 June 1843, Robert himself qualified as a Provincial Land Surveyor, and moved to Ottawa (then Bytown) to pursue a career in surveying.
Around the time he bought The Packet, Robert became involved in railway construction projects, promoting the building of a railway from Bytown to Prescott, where it would connect with the railway at Ogdensburg, New York. Ottawa valley lumbermen would thus be provided with easier means of transport to the increasingly important American market. Robert become secretary of the provisional committee of the Bytown and Prescott Railway (later the Ottawa and Prescott Railway) in 1850, with funds raised, in part, from businessmen in the Kemptville area. It is said that Robert Bell, more than anyone else, was responsible for overseeing the completion of the line and he was president of the company for many years. The railway reached Bedell Station (for Kemptville) from Prescott in August, 1854, bringing with it the first printing press to be established in North Grenville.
Robert ran for an Assembly seat for Ottawa and had a somewhat controversial career, as he supported equal educational rights for Catholics, in spite of being a Presbyterian. He also supported the choice of Ottawa as the new capital of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Confederation marked the turning point in Robert’s fortunes. He was defeated in an attempt to win a seat in Parliament in 1867. He had sold the Ottawa Citizen in 1865, and the Bytown and Prescott Railway Company went into receivership that same year. In 1868, his wife died, and he withdrew completely from public life, going to live with his daughter in Hull, where he died in 1873 at the early age of 52.
So, the awarding of the Keys to the City of Ottawa to the Citizen should also include some recognition of the local boy who had such an important part to play in the early years of the Citizen, even in giving it its present title.
“This award will be presented to the Ottawa Citizen in recognition of your extraordinary accomplishments in sharing news and information in Canada’s capital for 175 years,” Mayor Jim Watson said. A nod of appreciation to Robert Bell, then, from his community.