They planned it around the canal, then as now the most singular feature of a capital rich in monuments. They gave it to the improvement commission to manage, which became the Federal District Commission, which became the National Capital Commission (NCC), which today is the principal real estate owner in the national capital region, with 1,400 properties, including the homes of the prime minister and governor general, four hundred and seventy square kilometers of greenbelt and parkland, and an annual budget pushing a hundred and fifty million dollars.
The canal of which I speak is the canal that gave the Yanks pause. They had jumped us twice in thirty years. Some Americans thought their manifest destiny was to own and occupy the whole of the continent. George Washington sent a general to take Montreal, “not to plunder but to protect you” in one of the earliest campaigns of the American revolutionary war. President Jefferson (1801-1809) said they had only to march to take us over, and President Madison (1809-1817) set troops marching to do just that in 1812. Twice bitten, Canada had ample reason to be shy.
The Rideau Canal was one of the most spectacular engineering feats of the nineteenth century. Carved through a wilderness at considerable loss of life to work accidents and disease, at an incredibly low cost that nevertheless prompted a parliamentary enquiry, it was a measure of defence and defiance. Along with Fort Henry and a handful of defensive Martello towers that had emerged from the Napoleonic Wars, which defend its southern end at Kingston, the canal was the clearest statement possible at the time that no effort would be spared by Great Britain, no cost would be too high, no sacrifice too great, to defend Canada if the Americans were to try again their vicious incursion of 1812-15.
No less a military genius than Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, victor on the field at Waterloo in June 1815 not long after the nastiness in North America had ended, understood this all too well. When the decision was made to proceed with the canal he was serving as Master General of the Ordnance. He picked the man to build it. John By had been with him in the peninsular war. Wellington became prime minister during the years it took to finish the canal.
Dug by hand and heart and pick and shovel through hundreds of miles of wildlands and swamp, some so malodorous that breath of it could bring on fever, even death, the canal was a sign of determination so emphatic that America had to believe that Great Britain was serious. The motherland would rush in reinforcements and die on the ramparts in defence of Canada, outpost of empire, if attacked. In fact it had not been much more than a calculated bluff. England was stretched thin with European wars and colonial commitments. In only a few years it would be desperate to pull out of colonies that were costly to govern from across an ocean. It gambled that Americans would forget about Canada after a while if it wasn’t fighting Britain, which it had been doing off and on for a half century. It was a winning strategy. Before long Americans were consumed with their civil war catastrophe. The bluff would never be called.
The Rideau Canal, meanwhile, became a key lifeline in the fast growing colony about to become a country. Bob Sneyd tells the story in a masterful thesis at the UofT. But for Mr. Sneyd, who has made his life and his living on the waterway, it might well have been forgotten that the canal was the way of choice for decades for commerce and other traffic between the major cities and two provinces that then existed. The St. Lawrence hadn’t yet been tamed. Barges could shoot the rapids going downstream, but it was a job-and-a-half to get them back upstream. Steam power alone couldn’t beat the current. The best that could be done was to drag small barges, eight to fourteen tons, up the rapids by oxen and horses.
Upper Canadians 175 years ago believed that the Rideau Canal would do more for the commercial strength of the country than anything since its origin. Even as Col By and his family were aboard ship on their return voyage to London, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Colborne announced at the opening of the legislature that a “profitable return” could be expected and in a resolution a week later, the assembly agreed that the new canal would be of “great national benefit.” Waterborne commerce, as Mr. Sneyd reports in The Role of the Rideau Waterway, 1826-1856, immediately found and followed the easiest, cheapest and safest route. A triangular pattern soon emerged. Imported British manufactured goods were transferred from ocean-going ships to barges in Montreal. They were then towed by steamboats up the Ottawa, through the Rideau, and transshipped to lake schooners at Kingston. In turn, those bulk staples destined for British and European ports were reloaded from schooners to barges and run directly down the St Lawrence to Montreal shooting rapids on the way. Two years after the canal’s opening, three quarters of westbound traffic was using the route, given its cost and security advantage over the St Lawrence, where surly Americans had cannon on their side of the river. The 1830s wasn’t a great decade for the young Canadian economy. Political upset and armed uprisings were disruptive. But one million bushels of wheat and eight tons of flour were being shipped through the canal by 1840. It was clear that it had become the vital link in inter-provincial trade.
The Rideau Canal also carried hordes of European immigrants fleeing famine and oppression for a better life in Canada. The canal was the reason for Ottawa, which became the capital. The canal was a technological wonder for the age, foreshadowing and inspiring ages of technology to come that would awe the world more than once. And the Rideau canal brought William (Pammy) Fleming from Old Swinford in Worcestershire, not far from Birmingham, a city that would drive the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.
Pammy’s father was a nailer. It had been a decent craft from Roman times, even earlier. There were four nailers among the craftsmen counted in the 1665 Canadian census. But those times were over and nailers were pretty well done for in Birmingham, workshop of the world and city of a thousand trades. Nails would always be essential for fastening materials together, for building things. For centuries they had been fashioned by hand, one at a time, and that work had provided sufficiently for a nailer and his family. Now there were machines that spit them out by the hundreds of thousands. With no future in the family craft, Pammy enlisted. The army sent him here to help By build the canal. The colonel would prove to be a genius. He was an artist of an engineer who would use muscle and blasting powder to sculpt for the ages a waterscape surpassing nature. Pammy was a sapper, obeyed orders, kept his mouth shut, angling to come out of it alive. Many wouldn’t.
Among the Canadian supervisors and contractors on canal construction first generation Scots were prominent, if not predominant. Redpath, Drummond and McKay, who took on frontier construction challenges to build the locks, are names that resonate even today as nation builders, physically, politically and commercially. Skilled workers such as masons, carpenters and blacksmiths were mostly a mix of British, Scottish, Irish and French Canadians. Unskilled workers were Irish not long off the boats — the largest ethnic contingent and most difficult to manage, then and later — and French Canadians. They would wield axe, pick and shovel, push barrows, pump water, clear brush.
John MacTaggart was there as clerk of works and gives a vivid description of the hazards. “Even in their spade and pickaxe business, the [men] receive dreadful accidents; as excavating in a wilderness is quite a different thing from doing that kind of labour in a cleared country. Thus they have to pool in, as the tactics of the art go — that is, dig beneath the roots of trees, which not infrequently fall down and smother them. . . Some of them . . . would take jobs of quarrying from contractors, because they thought there were good wages for this work, never thinking that they did not understand the business. Of course many of them were blasted to pieces by their own shots, others killed by stones falling on them. I have seen heads, arms and legs, blown in all directions . . .”
Unusual as it was for any of these heads to belong to the men of the Royal Sappers and Miners, the soldiers were not totally immune. A blasting accident on May 29, 1830, killed Pammy’s friend and fellow bricklayer of the seventh company, Jim Simmons, at Newboro. Six men of the seventh and fifteenth companies died in the work on the waterway. Another twenty two died of malaria or cholera, which at times came on so violently that whole camps and villages were decimated.