This Week in History


Building the Rideau Canal

This story was initially published in 2002

On May 24, 1832, Lieutenant-Colonel John By officially opened the Rideau Canal. Its construction, with 47 locks and 52 dams connecting the Ottawa River with Kingston on Lake Ontario, was an outstanding engineering achievement.

Lt.-Col. By watching the building of the Rideau Canal, 1826

Lt.-Col. By watching the building of the
Rideau Canal, 1826

© LAC / 1972-26-795

At the conclusion of the War of 1812 it was apparent that no secure military supply line to Upper Canada (now Ontario) existed. The Americans had threatened to damage the St. Lawrence River supply route, so a canal route through the interior was suggested. However, it was not until 1825 when a commission of British Royal Engineers reported on British North American defences, that the construction of the Rideau Canal was recommended.

Lieutenant-Colonel John By arrived and began surveying the canal route in 1826. He discovered that locks larger than originally planned were needed because he wanted a canal that could accommodate small naval steam vessels. It took until 1828 to receive permission to build larger locks because the British Treasury did not want to spend more than necessary.

To build the canal, By overcame 202 km of rivers, lakes and creeks, flowing in various directions and at different elevations through a heavily forested and almost entirely uninhabited wilderness. Relying almost completely on manual labour, 5000 men were employed during construction. Several of the contractors were highly experienced stone masons and excavators, but others proved unreliable and inexperienced, causing costly delays. Yet using an innovative technique — employing high dams to flood the rivers to a navigable depth to minimize the need for heavy rock excavation work — the canal was completed.

Kingston Mills Locks, Rideau Canal

Kingston Mills Locks, Rideau Canal
© LAC / 1979-12-23 / R.W. Henwood, Montréal

Soon after By returned to England. Expecting to receive praise for his accomplishment he was instead rebuked by the British Treasury for the amount of money he had spent. By faced accusations of misspent funds and of disobeying orders. In private, his superiors supported him, but in public they remained silent. By died a disappointed man in 1834.

The Rideau Canal was an important commercial waterway until 1849, when deep-water locks on the St. Lawrence River were completed. The canal lost its military significance when the American threat disappeared, but steamboats continued to provide passenger and freight service to local communities until the 1930s. As more roads and the railway developed, pleasure boats and canoes used the canal exclusively.

Though never gaining the recognition he deserved at home, in Canada Lieutenant-Colonel John By is a person of national historic significance. The Rideau Canal is a national historic site of Canada.

For more information visit the Rideau Canal National Historic Site.

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