Chambly Canal National Historic Site of Canada

With Pick and Shovel

In 1829, the government of Lower Canada appointed commissioners to supervise the building of the canal. The commissioners were all businessmen from the Richelieu region. On September 5, 1831, the commissioners granted the construction contract to a group of American and Canadian businessmen, among them the Andres brothers from Chambly.

Image of ten workmen with horses and carts, in the process of widening the Lachine Canal. Canal excavations at Montreal.
© National Archives of Canada / C-061471

Building of the canal began at once but had to be stopped in 1834 because of financial difficulties. Work resumed in 1841 with new contractors, to be completed in 1843. An estimated 500 to 1 000 men worked on the building of the canal during these years of arduous toil.

Steam engines were not the source of energy used for the construction: the canal was built entirely by hand. First came diggers, who excavated the ground using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Then came specialized workmen like masons, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Last but not least, there were men who attended to the horses.

Young workman rebuilding a dock of the Chambly Canal in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (detail). Young workman rebuilding a dock of the Chambly Canal in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, in 1931 (detail).
© National Archives of Canada / PA-085845

In one day, four diggers could dig an average of 3 to 4 cu. yd. (2.3 to 3 m3) of stone or 6 to 7 cu. yd. (4.6 to 5.35 m3) of clay. How exhausting! The newspaper La Minerve of June 8, 1843, reported: "Horses were collapsing under the task, which must therefore be regarded as beyond human endurance".

Gunpowder was also used to dynamite rock. It took two days to drill a hole that was then filled with this explosive. The dynamited earth and rock were then hauled away in horse-drawn carts.

The living conditions for the workmen, most of them immigrants, were harsh. In the early days of the building work, they toiled 12 hours a day, from 5 in the morning until 7 at night, with an hour for lunch and an hour for supper. In 1840, their workday was shortened to 10 hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Workers lived in huts 12 ft. per 12 ft. (14 m2). These huts provided by the contractors, crammed in 12 people to a hut. In addition to paying rent to the contractors, the workers were paid with coupons that generally could be redeemed only at stores owned by the contractors. This system resulted in many disputes. Workers complained about the exorbitant prices charged for supplies and other items. Confrontations occurred.

Despite all the problems, on June 9, 1843, the very first boat to use the canal, the steamer "Quebec" with its cargo of lard, left Saint-Jean bound for the capital.