The stories you’ll find here begin with William ‘Pammy’ Fleming, a sapper* with England’s Royal Engineers, who came to help build the Rideau Canal and stayed to help run it. They continue with some episodes from the lives of the Canadian family he started.
The history of Canada would be an entirely different history were it not for the Rideau Canal.There might not even be a Canada. In the early 1800s the Canal was a visible deterrent to American invasion, which had happened twice in the previous half century. And Ottawa would not be the capital. Ottawa might not be here if not for the Canal. Now a a world heritage site recognized by UNESCO, the Rideau Canal was a cornerstone of a crucial quarter century of economic and population growth, and political development. It is truly a wondrous waterway and the families spawned in the making of it have touched and been touched by much of what has made Canada today one of the best if not the very best of all the countries in the world to live in.
As we approach the duocentennial of the War of 1812, bicentennial of the birth of John A. Macdonald (2015), sesquicentennial of confederation (2017), duocentennial of the start of the Rideau Canal and settlement of Ottawa/Bytown (2026), the question arises. How did we get here from a wilderness dense with forest in summer and frozen in winter in just two centuries? Two hundred years is fast, lifetimes of three family members, two in some families.
The Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston set the foundation. It is a critical component that, to say the least, doesn’t leap to mind. The Canal has slipped from the national consciousness as smoothly as it has transformed itself into a tourist waterway. But the Canal is still with us. And we are still here. These two facts are intimately connected. The Canal held off American aggression, which had escalated twice to war, until the threat subsided. The Canal provided an interprovincial traffic link for goods and waves of immigrants until work on the St. Lawrence opened that route. And the Canal established the site of the national capital.
An explosion of high tech enterprise dominated Ottawa’s economy in the last quarter of the twentieth century, branding it Silicon Valley North, lifting it to the rank of a world recognized cluster of digital and telecom output. It was the culmination of centuries of engineering excellence in Ottawa, building on By’s example. Tom Ahearn and Warren Soper incorporated their firm to deliver pioneering telegraph and telephone services in 1881, just five years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Ahearn is credited with the invention of the electric cooking stove, though it was primarily a heater for the streetcars in use by the Ottawa Electric Railway that Ahearn & Soper started in 1891. Tom “Carbide” Willson discovered an economically efficient process for creating calcium carbide, used in the production of acetylene gas. He sold the patent to Union Carbide but built a carbide plant in Ottawa, where he was the first person to own an automobile.
The history of engineering and innovation in Ottawa stretches back through the founding of the National Research Council in 1916, where both the Academy Award and the Nobel Prize are cultivated, prior to the first engineering classes at the University of Ottawa in 1874, to its astonishing beginnings under command of the genius who crafted a marvel of design and transport from a vast, virgin landscape. Employing technology at the edge of what was understood, innovating and improvising where necessary, Lieutenant Colonel John By built the waterway better than anybody knew, for the ages.
Distinguishing the generations: The convention ‘great2granddaughter’ indicates the fourth generation of descendants from William ‘Pammy’ Fleming (his great-great-granddaughter), ‘great3grandson’ indicates the fifth generation of descendants (great-great-great grandson), etc. The easiest way to understand it is to see the subscript digit as the actual number of ‘greats’ in the relationship.
* Sappers build bridges and clear obstacles for advancing troops. Their modern role was famously depicted in this passage from William Manchester’s definitive biography of Winston Churchill, describing the attack at El Alamein of the British Eighth Army across a six mile front where “sappers cleared narrow paths just wide enough to accommodate tank treads through the half million land mines Rommel had buried at his front.”