As part of the celebration we thought it would be nice to take a look back at some of the early achievements and history of the Rideau Canal and those important people who helped construct it. As the oldest continuously operated canal in North America the Rideau has had a long list of workers who helped in its success.
It took a lot of hard work and organization to get the canal open in 1832. The idea to construct a navigable waterway between Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River was conceived after the War of 1812. The idea behind its’ construction was that it would be a safe supply route from Montréal to Kingston. Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers was granted the task of supervising the construction in 1826; the task ahead of him was never simple as he was building the canal amongst thick wilderness terrain. The first steps in the creation of the canal were surveying the unknown areas in order to get an idea for what supplies were required. Next there was an arrangement of contracts for workers to come to the area, these contracts were administered by the Commissary General in Montréal and after they were issued the canal began to be constructed by thousands of labourers and tradesmen (blacksmiths, carpenters, stone masons, etc.), hired by independent contractors who were under the supervision of the Royal Engineers. This meant that the actual construction was completed by independent contractors but all the engineering design work was done by the Royal Engineers (mostly Colonel By). Colonel By divided the Rideau into 23 work sections with the intent that a contractor should be able to complete the work requirement for a single section within a 2 year time span.
The areas where much of the labourers worked were unsettled and therefore posed a tough climate for the workers. Most of the physical work was done by hand; shovels, pickaxes and wheelbarrows were common tools of the excavation jobs. The large stones used to build the locks were difficult to maneuver as only simple hand cranes were available for the job. The more skilled rock work was carried out mostly by British stonemasons and French Canadians who had experience on other lock projects. The unskilled labourers were commonly recent Irish immigrants who had difficulty finding jobs in the period, these immigrants made up about 60 percent of the labourers. The other 40 percent were largely made of French Canadian labourers who had worked in the timber industry. It is estimated that a total of about 2,000 men per year worked to make the Rideau Canal a reality. Many of these men brought their families with them to the canal construction area, meaning that small communities grew as families began to set up life around the Bytown area (current Ottawa).
It is hard for us today to truly appreciate the conditions and hard work of the workers who helped build the canal. Many men were hurt or got sick on the job from the physical demands and diseases that grew in the areas they worked. These workers deserve credit for the hard work they put into building the Rideau Canal, a heritage site that still represents a major engineering triumph and a system that has worked well since it first opened in 1832.
Come learn more about Colonel By and the construction of this astonishing lock system that remains an important piece of Ottawa’s history.
The family-oriented event runs from 11:00am to 4:00pm Monday August 6th on the grounds around the Bytown Museum, close to the Entrance Locks of the Rideau Canal between Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier. We hope to see you there!