Bytown and the Rideau Canal
Heritage Passages is a dynamic exhibition that presents an architectural history of the "mouth" or Entrance Valley of the Rideau Canal. Focusing on the development of the Bytown Locks from the arrival of Colonel John By in 1826 to the incorporation of the City of Ottawa in 1855, the exhibition allows visitors to explore parallels between the political, industrial, and civic forces that helped shape the future capital of Canada and the Rideau Canal – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When Lt. Col. John By, Chief Engineer of the Rideau Canal, first arrived in Canada in 1826, the Ottawa area looked very different from the bustling capital city region of today. Tasked with the responsibility of constructing a canal waterway over 200 km to the town of Kingston, he and his team first had to deal with the many thick forests, fast-moving rivers, and cedar swamps that stood in their way.
While the Rideau Canal is widely regarded as a peaceful Canadian symbol of leisure and recreation, it was originally a British military defence project, initiated in the spring of 1827. In order to defend their last remaining North American stronghold, the British military decided a canal was needed to ensure the safe and efficient transport of soldiers and supplies in the event of war. Undertaking such a difficult project soon proved a battle in its own right.
The Rideau Canal was an immense architectural undertaking by any standards. The complexities involved in orchestrating teams of engineers, labourers, contractors, and artisans – many from different cultural backgrounds – presented one challenge; erecting the infrastructure necessary to complete the project, using only the most basic tools and raw materials available to the region, presented another altogether.
While many labourers lost their lives to construction accidents – often as a result of mishandling dynamite and heavy excavation materials – disease was by far the biggest killer during the building of the Rideau Canal. Malaria, smallpox, charbon (anthrax), dysentery, and cholera were just a few of the dangers faced by Bytown labourers and their families each day. In the end, disease claimed as many as 500 lives by the time the project was completed.
The Rideau Canal could not have been built without the hundreds of labourers who poured into Bytown during its construction. As Bytown’s population swelled with each wave of immigration, social class, kinship, economic circumstances, and the physical placement of the canal itself influenced the shape and culture of the soon-to-be capital city of Canada.
When Lt. Col. By first chose Entrance Valley as a prospective British military headquarters in 1826, he had no way of knowing his decision would have a significant impact on Canada’s social and political future. With the canal at its centre, By’s plans for the new military base and supporting community began to emerge. Growing from a small settlement into a brawling frontier town, a commercial hub, and eventually the capital of Canada, Ottawa has a rich history that was built from the canal up.
The construction of the Rideau Canal brought together people from Upper and Lower Canada, England, Scotland, and Ireland. Workers of similar backgrounds and affiliations quickly banded together, and while their alliances were useful in providing camaraderie and protection during tough times, they also heightened tension between groups. Frequent episodes of violence and civil unrest would eventually come under control, but young Bytown’s future as a quiet and peaceful government community was by no means assured.
About this Project
Heritage Passages: Bytown and the Rideau Canal documents the political origins, construction, and early influence of Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. When Lt. Col. John By arrived in Canada from England, his first major planning decision was to reject the two proposed sites for the northern canal entrance, one near Richmond’s Landing, the other near Rideau Falls. One has to wonder how the construction of the canal and the surrounding community of Bytown might have unfolded had he chosen differently.
Whether you are studying the Rideau Canal’s construction and early history, its use as a conduit for commercial endeavours, or its eventual transformation into a hub for tourism, your research will benefit from the inclusion of primary source materials. A trip to an archives or library will open the door to the past by giving you access to evidence and documents that will help make historical events feel more tangible and real. It may also result in a better-quality paper or product, as the inclusion of primary source material in your work demonstrates research initiative, and often results in content and insights distinct from those of your peers.