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.
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.
workman rebuilding a dock of the Chambly Canal in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, in
© 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.