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The Colonel's Canal



From top: An early depiction of the locks at the Ottawa end of the Rideau Canal; an aerial view of Jones Falls; many of the locks are still hand operated, like this gate at Jones Falls; a tour boat cruises the canal in Ottawa.

Stretching 202 kilometres from Kingston, Ont., to Ottawa, the Rideau Canal is one of North America’s most scenic waterways. It is also a National Historic Site, a Canadian Heritage River and might very well be declared–sometime soon–a World Heritage Site, the highest global designation any site can possibly achieve. This year, communities all along the waterway are marking the canal’s 175th anniversary with events that are built upon the legacy of Lieutenant-Colonel John By and the thousands of workers who created this incredible engineering feat.

Constructed between 1826 and 1832, the canal was conceived as an alternative route for military transportation between Montreal and Kingston. During the War of 1812, moving troops and supplies through rough, international waters–along the St. Lawrence River–had proven costly, difficult and dangerous. The proposed alternative was to ascend the Ottawa River to its junction with the Rideau, then continue in a southwesterly direction to Lake Ontario.

In 1826, after a series of commissions and surveys, the British parliament agreed to finance work on the canal. In doing so it relied on an exceptionally low cost estimate of £169,000. John By of the Royal Engineers was appointed superintendent engineer.

Arriving on the Rideau, By chose a ravine above the junction of the Ottawa and Rideau for the canal entrance. On Sept. 26, 1826, Lord Dalhousie, governor-in-chief of British North America, presented him with a letter of authorization and a blueprint of land to be used as a settlement for workers. On the adjacent hill (now Parliament Hill) By erected a barracks and hospital. At the canal entrance, contractor Thomas MacKay built a flight of eight locks–now one of Canada’s most recognizable landmarks–to carry vessels 80 feet higher to the level above. And on the shoreline he built the Commissariat Building, a supply depot. Today the building, Ottawa’s oldest stone structure, houses the Bytown Museum. By’s settlement–Bytown–was soon a bustling village.

The lieutenant-colonel spent that winter planning and conducting his own extensive surveys. In designing the canal, he developed a course of natural waterways with 18 miles of constructed channels, 47 locks (two more locks connecting the town of Perth, Ont., to the canal were built in 1887) and nearly two dozen lock stations. He overcame a water level difference of 277 feet between Bytown and the canal’s highest point, Newboro, (then called “the Isthmus”) 85 miles away, followed by a 162-foot drop through to Kingston Mills, the last station before Kingston. By’s revised estimate for building the canal was £576,757.

Three factors–lock size, design and “contracting out”–reveal insights into both By, the ingenious engineer and supervisor, and why canal costs continued to rise.

By wanted canal locks large enough to accommodate military vessels as well as steamships. The latter, in particular, were changing the nature of inland navigation. His perseverance led to the Rideau Canal being the first steamboat canal in the world. In the short term, the larger locks–134 feet by 33 feet–were costlier, but in the long term, the larger locks made the canal a major route for commerce and settlement.

By’s slack-water design entailed flooding turbulent rapids and falls, and turning them into navigable waters, instead of bypassing them with canal cuts. Every area of the Rideau system was flooded, except for a stretch in Ottawa. In the process, By realized that waste weirs–separate control dams by which excess water could bypass the main dam and locks–were needed at most sites. This was another unforeseen expense.

“Contracting out,” then a radical idea, was to be more efficient and less costly than the assigning of full-time military personnel. Contractors, who received an agreed rate per cubic yard excavated, or cubic foot of masonry laid, were responsible for their own on-site camps as well as the recruiting, paying and housing of workers. They could begin work without waiting for notification of government grants. Eventually, everything would balance out, it was thought. In the end, five of the 18 initial contractors completed their contract; two died of malaria.

While some stonemasons were from Lower Canada, most were from the British Isles, specifically Scotland. French-Canadians, experienced river men or skilled in woodcraft, were often hired for jobs where these skills could be used. Over the last 30 years many men had quit their work on farms in Lower Canada due to overcrowding and declining crop yields. Some found winter work in the Ottawa Valley timber trade and migrated to canal projects throughout North America the rest of the year. Irish immigrants supplied the bulk of unskilled labour. In Europe, landlords were shifting to more economic farming methods and this helped push tenants off the land.

In the 1820s the British parliament began providing assistance in exporting unemployed Irish to the colonies. In 1828, when malaria ravaged workforces, Peter Robinson, who had brought two boatloads of Irish to the Rideau area already, returned to Ireland in search of more workers. Workers were typically in their 20s and 30s, strong and fit. Being unskilled they had few work choices, especially as the influx of other unskilled labour continued.

The Rideau Canal workforce consisted of four main groups: members of the Corps of Royal Engineers; two companies of Royal Sappers and Miners; specialty civilian staff; and private contractors and labourers. The Royal Engineers helped By establish the canal’s route and were responsible for overseeing large areas of construction. The 7th and 15th companies of the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners, a special construction corps of the British Army comprised of skilled labourers–carpenters, masons, bricklayers or smiths by trade–were often assigned to work at sites where construction had met with difficulty, or when contractors abandoned their work. They were also called upon to guard stores and keep order at work sites. In addition, a number of civilians served under By, either in a clerical or technical capacity.

Construction was an arduous process: After areas of wilderness were cleared, navigation channels were dredged and blasted, trenches dug and banks shored up to prevent cave-ins. Stone for the walls was quarried along the riverbanks, some was hauled in from great distances, often in winter when roads were firmer. Oxen teams hauled rock and timber, and earth was removed in wheelbarrows or tracks resembling miniature railways. Temporary dams held back water during excavation and carpenters formed lock gates while blacksmiths shaped iron parts and artisans finished walls and built lock floors. Walls were waterproofed with clay, massive stones lowered into place, and hydraulic cement poured to secure the stonework. Dams were built to control water levels, drown rapids and create reservoirs for locks. Workers toiled using chisels, picks, shovels, explosives and bare hands.

Civilian John MacTaggart, By’s first clerk of works, wrote about this dangerous work in his book, Three Years In Canada. “Even in their spade and pickaxe business, the (men) receive dreadful accidents; as excavating in a wilderness is quite a different thing from doing that kind of labour in a cleared country. Thus they…dig beneath the roots for trees, which not infrequently fall down and smother them.” Men who needed the money, he wrote, took jobs for which they weren’t qualified and were “blasted to pieces by their own shots, (or) killed by stones falling on them…heads, arms and legs, blown about….”

Amazingly the only major failure, which occurred at Hogsback–now part of Ottawa–resulted in no deaths.

At Hogsback the Rideau was 170 feet wide, with a discharge of 170,000 cubic feet per minute, and during flooding, rose 16 feet up its banks. The lieutenant-colonel tried–three times–to build a dam across the channel to flood the rapids ahead and provide a navigable four-mile stretch of water. When two dams were washed away by floods, By refused to give up. His miners and sappers, along with contractor Philemon Wright, persevered through the winter of 1828-29, unaware that frost had penetrated the structure. The soil used in construction thawed, losing its strength. The soil on top of the dam, however, remained frozen for a period while attempted repairs were being made. “(I) was standing on top of (the dam),” By later wrote, “with forty men employed in trying to stop the leak when I felt a motion like an earthquake and instantly ordered the men to run, the stones falling from under my feet as I moved off.” Two years later By’s dam–259 feet long by 49 feet wide–was completed.

Work accidents were tragic. But malaria was the killer. A sufferer himself, MacTaggart described malaria as “an attack of bilious fever, dreadful vomiting, pains in the back and loins, general disability, loss of appetite…(then) yellow jaundice is likely to ensue, and then fits of trembling…bones ache, teeth chatter, and the ribs are sore…followed by chills, sweating and more vomiting.”

Malaria incapacitated workers for months. Relapses were common.

Sites in the southern region near Kingston were especially affected by malaria, given the larger workforces required there. From 1828 to 1831, during August and September, malaria stopped work in most sites. By tried attracting more labourers with promises of an on-site hospital. He purchased more land and had it cleared, believing improved air circulation would help. He convinced the ordnance department to bank a percentage of his workers’ wages so if injured or sick they could still receive partial salaries. The plan was not extended to contract workers as original contracts contained no reference to the idea.

Accurate death records are not available. Perhaps contractors recognized such statistics would not help retain workers or recruit new ones. Steve Dezort, program manager at the Bytown Museum, suggests that when labourers’ families are included, at least 1,000 people along the canal died from malaria.

Malaria, also called “swamp fever,” was believed to be caused by bad air. The association with swamps was correct, states Dezort. Many sites were in swampy areas, infested with mosquitoes–now recognized as the disease’s carriers. The Lower Town area of Bytown, where many workers lived, was built on a swamp and lacked drainage and sanitation. “It was its own sewer,” explains Dezort.

An 1828 malaria epidemic resulted in the creation of Bytown’s first official cemetery. As Bytown grew, Dezort states, some remains were moved, but the cemetery was soon forgotten. Then in the 1960s, a mass grave was unearthed during construction of the National Arts Centre. On several occasions–such as when a road crew was opening a gravel pit–canal workers’ remains were unexpectedly found in southern sections of the Rideau Canal, as well.

Of the 160 sappers and miners, 22 died. Some are buried alongside canal workers in a cemetery outside Newboro. Others lie buried near Chaffeys, Davis, Jones Falls, Upper and Lower Brewers and Kingston Mills locks. In the last 15 years plaques and Celtic crosses commemorating canal workers have been erected at sites along the waterway.

Incredibly, By’s dedication and daring prevailed to the end. Nowhere is this more evident than at Jones Falls, situated between Newboro and Kingston Mills. Here the Jones Falls Dam, an arch dam made from hand-cut stones hauled in from six miles away, measures 350 feet along its crest and rises just over 60 feet above a rocky gorge. When built it was twice the size of any dam in North America and the largest in the British Empire. It is perhaps the greatest achievement of By, contractor John Redpath and his crew.

From the onset, By faced huge obstacles: an unknown geography, inexperienced contractors and workers, labour shortages and unrest, extreme weather, limited supplies, poor roads, disease, red tape and transatlantic communication problems with superiors, many of whom did not understand the project. That he completed this task in six years is truly amazing. Most work was actually completed by the fall of 1831, but the canal opened officially the following spring.

In May 1832, By, with his family and friends, celebrated by taking an inaugural cruise from Kingston to Bytown. That summer, he returned to England to appear before a parliamentary committee. The final cost of the canal was £822,000 and he had to answer questions about overspending. Although exonerated, he died four years later without receiving the honours due to him.

John Redpath returned to Montreal, entered politics and diversified his businesses. In 1854 he founded Canada’s first sugar refinery which is still in operation and still bears his name. Thomas MacKay played a key role in Bytown’s early industrial development. The mansion he built for himself is now Rideau Hall, the home of our Governor General. Philemon Wright set the stage for the lumber industry in the Ottawa Valley. John MacTaggart was dismissed for drunkenness in 1828. Not fully recovered from malaria, he returned to England where he published his book and wrote highly of By.

On the canal’s completion, 71 sappers and miners were discharged. Forty-one received land and settled along the canal, some becoming its first lockmasters. Scottish stonemasons stayed in the area, too. Many 19th-century stone homes and buildings they crafted, endure today, an integral part of the landscape.

The canal was directly responsible for the settlement of Smiths Falls, now the headquarters of the Rideau Canal. With the canal’s opening, products from forests, fields, mills and mines could be easily transported to Ottawa, Kingston, Montréal, places in-between and beyond. From 1840 to 1847, the Ottawa-Rideau Canal system moved 144,000 immigrants through eastern Ontario.

Today, the canal remains a vital transportation route, especially for recreational boaters. In 2006, 69,804 boats passed through its locks. Over one million land-based visitors walk, drive or bike to lock stations annually, while another 1.4 million use the canal during Ottawa’s Winterlude celebrations. Come winter–and weather permitting–the canal is transformed into the world’s longest skating rink.

The canal now operates on an annual budget of $6.8 million, contributes $24 million to the provincial gross national product and sustains over 600 full-time jobs. It is open from the Victoria Day long weekend to Canadian Thanksgiving Day. Jobs range from administrators to lock staff to interpreters to water management officers. The latter regularly monitor and adjust water levels and conduct snow surveys, working to find a balance between the Rideau waterway’s various uses, including transportation, recreation, history and heritage, habitat management and hydraulic power.

The landscape along the Rideau is one of contrasts and constants: historic towns and villages, cottage country, fertile fishing grounds, wildlife and wetlands, fields and farms and dramatic Canadian Shield rock, forests and waters.

Captains in sleek yachts use navigational charts little changed in the last 175 years and pass through stations where staff still hand operate most locks. And here along the water’s edge, defensible lockmaster’s houses and blockhouses with cannon portholes, gun ports and thick stone walls remind modern-day voyageurs of the original purpose of the canal and the tremendous amount of hard work that went into building it.

Canal Celebration Highlights

During the Rideau Canal’s 175th anniversary, festivities are happening all around, year-round:

· Parks Canada’s exhibits, highlighting Colonel By’s genius, will be featured at Ottawa’s Bytown Museum, the Rideau Canal Museum in Smiths Falls, Merrickville’s Blockhouse Museum and Fort Henry National Historic Site in Kingston. Ottawa musicians, Superband, will be playing movements from their Rideau Canal Jazz Suite at all lock stations.

· Through music and storytelling, Ottawa’s Dominion Chalmers United Church presents Tribute to the Fallen Rideau Canal Navvies, April 21. A Tribute to Labour takes place at Jones Falls, Sept. 1.

· The sap will be running at Delta’s Maple Syrup Festival, April 21-22. The finale to Perth’s month-long Festival of the Maples is April 28.

· The Rideau 175 Steamboat Flotilla travels from Chaffeys Lock to Smiths Falls and back, via Perth and Portland, June 18-22. Antique and classic boats cruise from Kingston to Manotick, Aug. 6-10, for the 32nd Annual Ottawa International Antique and Classic Boat Show, Aug. 11. An antique/vintage race boat regatta takes place Aug. 18-19 at Rideau Ferry.

· The Rideau 175 Heritage Festival in Smiths Falls is July 6-8, Merrickville’s Canalfest is July 14-15, and Bytown Museum’s Colonel By Day, takes place Aug. 6. The Perth Museum features Victorian Society and Fashion in Perth, May 5 to Sept. 3.

· Colour The Canal will be held at 12 lock stations, July 28-29. Dozens of other art shows and studio tours take place along the Rideau throughout the year.

· The International Plowing Match happens outside of Crosby from Sept. 18-22.

· The Holiday Season will be celebrated at the Festival of Good Cheer in Perth, Nov. 24.

For more information about celebrations along the canal, visit


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