The Rideau Canal, a Feat of Engineering
Completed in 1832 by the bare hands of men with only rough tools, the Rideau Canal is an engineering achievement of glory. Locks permitted travel uphill and downhill.
The visitor today sees a river of calm, flowing blue water and hears shore birds and huge geese calling to their mates. Pleasure boats of all sizes putt up and down the river, the chatter and laughter of passengers echoing off the limestone rocks as they traverse the locks. But when the waterway was planned by Lieutenant-Colonel By in the mid-1820s, there was no easy traveling in sight. There was a river with steep falls, swamp land, forests, and rock. Lots and lots of rock.
After the War of 1812, when an early Canada was invaded by the Americans in an attempt to bait the British, it was decided that a safe passageway between the Ottawa River and Kingston was required – something not so close to the American border as was the hub city of Montreal, in case invasion happened again.
- Planning the construction of the Rideau Canal began in 1826. The man put in charge was Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. He was an experienced military engineer, first posted to Canada in 1802, about age 23. He returned to England in 1810, then was posted again to Canada in 1826.
- The full length of the canal was to be 126 miles.
- The canal was to have locks, 100 feet long by 33 feet wide, to handle the larger boats being constructed. The engineering miracles were used to lift and lower boats up and down the river, allowing travel uphill and downhill without the need of portage. The locks, formed of limestone sides, had large gates of thick timber that were cranked closed with enormous chains, then water was rushed in to raise, or let out to lower the vessel, to the next section and on their way.
- The hard work began in 1827, starting at the Ottawa River valley. The settlement that sprung up when work began was named after Colonel By, and later to become Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.
- Contractors were hired to perform the laborious task of clearing the forests and scrub, to perform excavation work and to build the stone work. Living in rough camps, Irish immigrants and French Canadians made up most of the labour force.
- Some families came with their men, staying in the camps, too.
- The work was exhausting, manual labour: shovels and axes, hand-cranes and wheelbarrows were the available tools. Those tools also included sturdy backs, strong arms and legs, and a big dose of determination.
- But determination wasn’t enough against disease. Approximately 1000 men died during the five years of construction. About half died from malaria, bitten by mosquitoes in the swampy forests, and half died of diseases such as small pox and dysentery. Family members also succumbed to disease.
- Twenty-four lockstations were built, with lockmasters available to raise and lower the boat traffic through a total of 47 sets of locks. Time to get through a set of locks – about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Colonel By, several of his officers and his family were the first to travel the newly-opened Rideau Canal on May 24, 1832 in a vessel named Rideau. Visiting at the small communities sprung up along the way, the trip took five days from Kingston to Ottawa.
One hundred and seventy five years later, the Rideau River and the locks are still a main route for boat travellers, cruising and canoeing the beautifully scenic Rideau River from Kingston to Ottawa. While repaired and refurbished as decades passed, the locks are still the magnificent original constructions that Colonel By and his team created.
On June 28, 2007 the Rideau Canal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Congratulations!
Source for information about the Rideau Canal waterway:
This article first appeared on Suite101.com. © Susanna McLeod