Rideau Canal - History

History

  • An engraving of the Rideau Canal locks at Bytown

  • 1845 painting of the canal and Lower Town by Thomas Burrowes

  • The lock at Lower Brewers nearing completion in 1831 by Thomas Burrowes

  • Brewer's Lower Mill - view down the Cataraqui Creek and clearing made for the Rideau Canal, 1829 by Thomas Burrowes

  • View on the Cataraqui Creek, Brewer's Upper Mills in the background, 1830 by Thomas Burrowes

See also: History of Ottawa

The construction of the Rideau Canal was a preventive military measure undertaken after a report that during the War of 1812 the United States had intended to invade the British colony of Upper Canada via the St. Lawrence, which would have severed the lifeline between Montreal and Kingston. The British built a number of other canals (Grenville, Chute-à-Blondeau and Carillon Canals, all along the Ottawa River) as well as a number of forts (Citadel Hill, La Citadelle, and Fort Henry) to impede and deter any future American invasions of Canadian territory.

The initial purpose of the Rideau Canal was military, as it was intended to provide a secure supply and communications route between Montreal and the British naval base in Kingston. Westward from Montreal, travel would proceed along the Ottawa River to Bytown (now Ottawa), then southwest via the canal to Kingston and out into Lake Ontario. The objective was to bypass the stretch of the St. Lawrence River bordering New York; a route which would have left British supply ships vulnerable to an attack or a blockade of the St. Lawrence.

The canal also served a commercial purpose. The Rideau Canal was easier to navigate than the St. Lawrence River because of the series of rapids between Montreal and Kingston. As a result, the Rideau Canal became a busy commercial artery from Montreal to the Great Lakes. However, by 1849, the rapids of the St. Lawrence had been tamed by a series of locks, and commercial shippers were quick to switch to this more direct route.

The construction of the canal was supervised by Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. Private contractors such as future sugar refining entrepreneur John Redpath, Thomas McKay, Robert Drummond, Thomas Phillips, Andrew White and others were responsible for much of the construction, and the majority of the actual work was done by thousands of Irish and French-Canadian labourers.

The canal work started in 1826, and it took a total of 6 years to complete by 1832. The final cost of its construction was £822,000. Given the unexpected cost overruns, John By was recalled to London and questioned by a parliamentary committee before being cleared of any wrongdoing.

Once the canal was constructed, no further military engagements took place between Canada and the United States. Although the Rideau Canal never had to be used as a military supply route, it played a pivotal role in the early development of Canada. Prior to the locks being completed on the St. Lawrence in the late 1840s, the Rideau served as the main travel route for immigrants heading westward into Upper Canada and for heavy goods (timber, minerals, grain) from Canada's hinterland heading east to Montreal. Tens of thousands of British immigrants travelled the Rideau in this period. Hundreds of barge loads of goods were shipped each year along the Rideau, allowing Montreal to compete commercially in the 1830s and 40s with New York (which had the Erie Canal) as a major North American port.

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