Rideau Canal saga

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Nearly 190 years ago, on May 22, 1832, the steamboat, “Rideau”, also known by its nickname, “Pumper”, left the dock in Kingston to make the inaugural voyage through the newly-completed Rideau Canal to Bytown. The passengers included the British officer who had supervised the construction since 1826, Lt. Col. John By, along with members of his family and some of his fellow officers. Stopping at some of the settlements along the way, the “Rideau” arrived in Bytown on May 29, the first of innumerable vessels to make the journey in the near-two centuries since.

Section of the Rideau Canal showing Merrick’s Mills, Nicholson’s, and the Oxford Snie (later Burritt’s Rapids locks), from a drawing by Lt. Col. John By, February, 1829.

The impact which this waterway was to have the regions through which it passed would be profound, bringing with it access for new settlers and goods, the opening up of the lands which had, before then, been difficult to reach overland, and changing the face of the landscape almost beyond recognition. Some small settlements, such as Merrickville and Burritt’s Rapids, would experience exponential growth in importance and population, if only for a short time, before being bypassed, in turn, by the railways and roads which would come in the future decades. And, after a long period of neglect and comparative irrelevance, the Rideau Canal would regain its status as a primary route, but this time for tourists, boaters, and sightseers, becoming recognised as a World Heritage Site.

But the project that reached a conclusion 190 years ago this month, was itself the outcome of an earlier and more urgent initiative that began some twenty years earlier, in 1812, when Britain and the United States went to war against each other, a war that would be fought almost entirely in the province of Upper Canada and would make the future defense of that outlying part of the British Empire a matter of concern for its government and military.

The Rideau Canal saga begins, in truth, with that earlier conflict, and it is in that context that the very existence of the Canal came to be. In this anniversary month, and the weeks to come, we will delve into this great saga of Canadian history, and look at the events surrounding the decision to build the great work, the people who were brought together to achieve the vision, as well as the ironic twist that made it largely redundant almost before it was completed. It is also the story of the thousands of men who worked on the canal, both the military engineers and the labourers who did the hard work without the aid of any major mechanical support. It was the shovel and wheelbarrow, the dynamite and pickaxe that did the job.

Irish labourer on the Rideau, c. 1830, by J. P. Cockburn, Royal Ontario Museum.

The section of the Rideau Canal that forms part of the boundaries of Merrickville-Wolford and North Grenville has its own store of legends and stories, tragedies and comedies, from the pathos of the McGuigan Cemetery, to the comedy-farce of the Battle of Merrickville in 1829. To this day, no-one knows how many of those workers died in the course of the construction, and estimates usually range around 1,000. French-Canadians and Irish were the main casualties, from both disease and accident. The work, through malarial swamps and sweltering temperatures, had a devastating effect on the labourers. One account from October, 1827, described the condition of canal workers returning to Kingston after the working season:

“There is scarcely a hut or log house here but is filled with sick and needy, who are suffering, not only from Disease, but also from Hunger, and from almost every other misery concomitant upon the want of the common necessities of life.”

There is no doubting the incredible achievement in completing such a project through such a landscape with such minimal technology and maximum labour. Looking at the vessels passing through the locks at Merrickville, Nicholson’s, or Burritt’s Rapids, it is easy to admire the scene and forget the background, the context, the saga itself. Easy, too, to take for granted that this heritage site exists solely for recreation and tourism.

But why is it there? What prompted such a massive undertaking through a land that was almost entirely unpopulated, aside from a few scattered settlements and farms? That is where the saga begins, and where we must begin also, if we are to appreciate the jewel that is our Rideau Canal today.

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