The Canal

29 May 1832

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ottawa owes it very existence to the Rideau Canal, the ribbon of water that snakes its way through the heart of the city before heading south to Lake Ontario more than 200 kilometres distant. Without this incredible feat of early nineteenth century engineering, the south shore of the Ottawa River would not have been settled where and when it was. With no Ottawa, Queen Victoria would likely have chosen Montreal, or even Kingston, as the nation’s capital, radically changing the course of Canadian history.

It all began in the War of 1812 which pitted Britain and British North America against the new, thrusting U.S. republic to the south. With the Saint Lawrence River, the principal transportation route into the interior of the continent, forming the Canadian-U.S. frontier, the movement of military and other supplies from Montreal to Kingston on Lake Ontario was a perilous enterprise. Supply vessels coming to the defence of Upper Canada were exposed to potential attack for much of the journey. Consequently, an alternative, safer route was a military necessity. In 1814, the British sent out reconnaissance missions to assess the merits of building a canal system through the Rideau Lakes system, linking Kingston to the Ottawa River which flows into the St. Lawrence at Montreal. Although interest in a canal waned at the war’s conclusion in 1815, the start of work on the Erie Canal two years later, which provided a navigable water route from New York City on the Atlantic coast to Buffalo on Lake Erie, as well as efforts by the Duke of Wellington to strengthen Canadian defences against possible future U.S. aggression, convinced British authorities to proceed with an alternative, all-Canadian route from Montreal to the Great Lakes.

Colonel By
Colonel By, Royal Engineers

In 1826, Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers, who had fought under Wellington during the Peninsular War in Spain against Napoleon, was assigned the task of supervising the construction of the canal. By was given instructions to proceed with all dispatch using two companies of royal sappers and miners as well as contracted local labour. The cost of the project, based on rough-and-ready estimates made by earlier surveyors, was placed at £169,000. This number, which proved to be wildly inaccurate, was to haunt By in later years.

A ceremonial first stone to the locks at Sleigh Bay (later Entrance Bay) was laid on 16 August 1826 by the famous Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. As well as starting construction on the initial eight locks of the canal system and two wharves, Colonel By built a hospital, barracks, a commissariat (now the Bytown museum), and storehouses. Two town sites, Upper and Lower Bytown, on either side of the canal connected by Sappers’ Bridge were also developed. Mostly English Protestant settlers lived in Upper Town. The much larger Lower Bytown was the home to working class, mostly Irish and French Catholics. The community began to swell in size as workers and their families arrived in response to the demand for skilled and unskilled labour, forming the nucleus of what later was to become Ottawa.

By established three work camps to build the canal. The first at Entrance Bay, the second at Kingston, and the third midway at Isthmus Summit, roughly where the village of Newboro is located today. In addition to the companies of sappers and miners, more than 4,000 labourers and 1,000 masons were employed, mostly during the summer months. It was a logistical nightmare to feed and equip all these people, some with families, at a time when Kingston, the largest city in Upper Canada, had less than 3,000 inhabitants. The vast majority of the workers, especially at the Kingston end, were poor immigrants from Ireland, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Many, particularly at the Ottawa River end of the canal, were French-Canadians employed by two Lower Canadian companies, Philemon Wright and Sons of Wrightville (later Hull) and McKay and Redpath of Montreal, winners of construction contracts tendered the military.  It was a potentially combustible combination, but there was surprisingly little ethnic strife, though tempers would flare in the largely male shantytowns that grew around work sites where alcohol was widely available. Worker peace was maintained by a strong military presence.

Rideau Canal
Rideau Canal, looking into Entrance Bank, Ottawa River, LAC

It was a tough life, especially for immigrants unfamiliar with the torrid hot summers and bitter cold winters of the Ottawa Valley. Workers battled terrible conditions, labouring 14-16 hours days, six days a week, driving the canal through sparsely-populated bush country and mosquito-infested swamps. For three summers, malaria, known then as swamp fever or the ague, caused temporary work stoppages with sixty per cent of the workforce coming down with the disease; many died. In 1828, smallpox threatened Bytown. Workplace injuries also took their toll. In total, some 1,000 lives were lost, mostly from disease, in the almost six years it took to build the canal. Many were buried in unmarked graves in unconsecrated ground.

In addition to the high human cost, the financial costs of building the canal skyrocketed. Though the initial cost estimates were widely recognized as being ludicrously low, By’s decision to enlarge the size of the forty-seven masonry locks to accommodate steamboat traffic was a costly one. He was also forced to make a number of changes to the location of the canal from the original survey owing to local conditions. Furthermore, the speed of construction raised costs, as did construction setbacks; for example, the dam at Hog’s Back had to be built three times. By also had to compensate landowners whose land was expropriated for the canal. Although By’s decisions and expenses were closely scrutinized and approved by the British Army’s Ordnance Department, the British Treasury was greatly displeased when the final price tag came in at more than £800,000.

On 29 May 1832, Lieutenant-Colonel By, accompanied by his wife Ester and their two daughters, Ester and Harriet, arrived in Bytown on the maiden voyage from Kingston through the Rideau Canal. They made the five-day journey aboard the 80 foot, 12 horsepower, paddleboat steamer Pumper, rechristened the Rideau especially for the occasion. By, who must have been savouring his success, was unaware that a letter recalling him to London to explain the cost over-runs was already on its way to him. Although he was vindicated in the subsequent inquiry, By, caught in a political squabble between the army and a new, penny-pinching government, never received the recognition that was his due. He died a disappointed man in 1836 in his home in Sussex, England.

Initially, as By had hoped, the Rideau Canal became a favoured route of vessels going upriver to the Great Lakes from Montreal. But it went into decline in the late 1840s following improvements to the canals and locks on the Saint Lawrence River route which allowed larger, heavier ships to bypass the Lachine rapids. Improving political relations with the United States also undermined the Canal’s military raison d’être. The only time the waterway was used to transport troops was in 1838 when soldiers were sent to stop an invasion of “Hunter Patriots” at the Battle of the Windmill outside of Prescott, Ontario. From the late 1800s onwards, it was principally used by pleasure craft though commercial goods continued to be on- and off-loaded at the Canal Basin (now filled in) close to the city centre into the 20th century. In 1925, the Rideau Canal was designated as a National Historic Site. In 2000, the Rideau Waterway was declared a Canadian Heritage River in light of its historic significance and superb recreational facilities. In 2004, a Celtic Cross was erected beside the locks at Entrance Bay to commemorate the sacrifices and achievement of the mostly Irish workers who built the Rideau Canal. Three years later, UNESCO named the Rideau Canal a World Heritage Site. It is the only North American canal dating from the golden years of canal building in the nineteenth century which is operational through its entire length with most of its original buildings intact.


Corbett, Ron. 2007. The Rideau Canal, Then and Now, Magic Light Publishing, Ottawa.

Conroy, Peter. 2002. Our Canal, The Rideau Canal in Ottawa, General Store Publishing House, Burnstown, Ontario.

McKenna, M. J. (ed.), 2008. Labourers on the Rideau Canal, 1826-1832: From Work Site to World Heritage Site, Borealis Press, Ottawa.

Passfield, Robert W., 1982. Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History, Fitzhenry and Whitside in association with Parks Canada, Don Mills, Ontario.

———————–, 2013. Military Paternalism, Labour and the Rideau Canal Project, AuthorHouse LLC, Bloomington, IN.

Tulloch Judith, 1981. The Rideau Canal: Defence, History and Archaeology, No. 50, Transport and Recreation, Parks Canada, Environment Canada.

Watson, Ken, 2013. Bye By, Rideau Canal World Heritage Site,

———————-, 2014, History of the Rideau Canal,

Images: Lieutenant-Colonel John By, Royal Engineers Museum

Rideau Canal Locks at Bytown, Etching, Library and Archives Canada, PA-133872



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