A Capital Idea : The youth hostel in Ottawa occupies a former cellblock

For 110 years, the gray stone building that now serves as the Ottawa International Youth Hostel was known as the Carleton County Gaol (British spelling for jail ).

Today, after renovations and fresh paint, the jail is a novel, historic hostel in the heart of Canada’s capital, providing budget accommodations for up to 160 travelers for less than $15 per night.

It was officially opened as a youth hostel in 1973 by England’s Prince Philip. Because it is a Heritage Building, many of its original elements have been retained.

Prisoners once lived in cramped single cells measuring 3 1/2 by 9 1/2 feet, or triple cells, 6 1/2 by 9 1/2 feet. The cells remain today, as do the barred doors, but most are filled with bunk beds and backpacks, and some have been converted into showers. The solitary confinement area has become the laundry room.


The stairs are punched with one-inch holes (this enabled the guards to see who was walking above or below them). The stairwells are still fitted with nets, installed after one prisoner tried to toss a guard down.

On the basement level is a large room that once served as the debtors’ prison at a time when a criminal’s family members could be imprisoned until a debt was repaid. Eventually the room became the chapel; today it’s the hostel dining area.

Out in the courtyard (60 feet by 90 feet), where some of the prisoners worked their sentences off by breaking rocks, you will find a stack of canoes. Guests can rent them to use on the nearby canal.

On the top level of the hostel are the single cells that made up death row. This area has direct access to the gallows, still in working condition. A glass window separates residents from the dangling noose.


The last public hanging in Canada was here, on Feb. 11, 1869, when Patrick Whelan was hanged for the assassination of D’Arcy McGee, one of the 12 Fathers of Confederation.

In an unusual discount offer, travelers who allow themselves to be locked in a cell on death row from 9 at night until 9 the following morning are given their next night’s accommodation free.

Each year, 25,000 visitors “do time” at the Ottawa International Youth Hostel. Members of Hostelling International pay about $11 U.S.; non-members pay $14.

One-hour tours of the hostel are available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 p.m. for $1.


For more information: Ottawa International Hostel, 75 Nicholas St., Ottawa, Ontario K1N 7B9, Canada; telephone (613) 235-2595.