Richard Birdsall Rogers
A Visionary for the Trent-Severn Waterway
Portrait of R.B. Rogers at graduation from McGill (1878)
© Courtesy Trent University Archives
Born in Peterborough January 1857 to a prominent merchant family, R.B. Rogers attended McGill, graduating with a degree in Civil and Mechanical Engineering. He was appointed superintendent of the Trent Valley Canal (as it was then known) in 1884. Rogers provided both his technical expertise in managing the construction work at various lock stations and his skill in promoting a vision of the waterway as a viable commercial route linking Georgian Bay with Lake Ontario. Rogers suggested the innovative use of hydraulic lift locks to expedite the movement of canal barges and recommended concrete for their construction. Work on the Peterborough Lift Lock began in 1896 and was finished eight years later. Despite being heralded as an engineering marvel at the official opening, Rogers was soon facing criticism over the design and construction of the Peterborough Lift Lock. Henry Holgate was appointed by the government to investigate allegations of faulty design and poor supervision by Rogers. The highly critical report by Holgate resulted in Rogers being forced to submit his resignation as superintendent of the Trent Canal. Rogers had a young family to provide for and shortly after his resignation was hired as the manager of the Northumberland Paper Mill in Campbellford. In 1908 he formed a partnership with William Dennon and successfully bid on Section #2 from Glen Miller to Frankford of the Lake Ontario to Rice Lake Division of the Trent Canal. He thus has the distinction of being both an engineer responsible for designing and managing the Waterway as well as being a contractor actually building a section of the canal.
Rogers continued to lobby the government to redress the unfair blight on his reputation that resulted from the Holgate report. With the election of the Conservatives under Robert Borden in 1911 he managed to get the Minister to authorize an independent review. This report by distinguished Engineer Charles Keefer fully exonerated Rogers and placed the blame for the controversy over the building of the lift lock on politics rather than engineering, because of Rogers’ know affiliation with the Conservative Party. This vindication was unfortunately coloured when Rogers was asked to pay for the cost of Keefer’s work.
Rogers died 1927 still bitter over the unfair treatment he received from the government for his outstanding work in designing the world class Peterborough Lift Lock and his innovative use of concrete which he perfected through his own experimentation and study of lift locks overseas. Richard Birdsall Rogers was truly a visionary and leader in the storied history of the Trent-Severn Waterway.