A century standing by

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On a warm summer day in 1985, Pammy’s great3grandson* looked on as Elmer MacKay, solicitor general of Canada, inaugurated the recently established museum of prison artifacts at Kingston Penitentiary, on the occasion of that cruel dungeon’s sesquicentennial. He was a member of the ministerial party because he had co-authored a history of KP. A hundred and fifty years before, on June 1, 1835, Matthew Tavender became Inmate Number One, sentenced to three years for grand larceny. Tavender and the convicts who followed him inside were forced into labour gangs that would greatly expand the fortress-like prison on the shore of Lake Ontario, but the earliest work on the massive stone building was done by local tradesmen. (A generation later the ancient stone walls would give up their last inmates at the instigation of Elmer’s son, Peter MacKay, minister of justice. KP, which overlooks the harbour where the sailing events were hosted during the 1976 Olympics, was one of the oldest prisons in continuous use in the world when it closed finally on September 30, 2013.)

+ For an explanation of the convention designating various generations of Pammy’s family, see About Rideau Canal And All That on the bar above.

In Kingston, the local workers who knew best how to work with stone were those who had just finished the Rideau Canal. The new pen, destined to be still in use in the twenty first century, wasn’t the only lucrative construction contract in those days in Kingston. Fort Henry, which commands the city’s entrance heights was — is — an imposing fortification. Some of the last Martello Towers ever built are in Kingston. It was a bit late for these defensive forts when they went up — another example of the military preparing for its last war — but they still stand tall for tourists. These were massive works of construction and times were good in Kingston, which in another half-dozen years would be the first capital of what would become Canada and where the young John Alexander Macdonald was entering upon a legal career, his thought not yet turned to politics. It was a bonanza for stone workers. Good times would come again for their descendants in the 1860s with work on Parliament buildings for the new country then being born. In the meantime they built many great houses along the Rideau corridor between the first Canadian capital (Kingston 1841) to the one we have now (Ottawa 1867), including the official residences on Sussex Drive for prime minister and governor general.

Many of the stone workers were among or had been trained by those who came to work on the canal in 1826. There were two companies of Royal Sappers and Miners recruited to assist Lt. Col. John By (right) in his great task, a complement of a hundred and sixty two men. Fifty seven were lost to accident, disease and desertion through the six years of construction. When the work was finished, seventy one of those remaining accepted hundred acre grants of land and settled along the corridor of the canal, planting outposts of settlement where none existed. And then there were the lucky few who got the land and a job as well. But few were as fortunate as William (Pammy) Fleming, who got all of that and the lady too.

Everything Jim Simmons owned was sold after he was killed in a blasting accident on the canal at Newboro in 1830. His wardrobe and kit and ‘necessaries’ went to provide some relief to his family.  Pammy, who had been a friend and fellow bricklayer among the sappers, bought a pair of regimental trousers for twelve shillings. Elizabeth Simmons, mother of a girl and seven-year old Jim Jr., received thirteen pounds, eight shillings, ninepence. Not a fortune but a tidy sum and with a widow’s pension from the military Elizabeth could bide her time. There was no shortage of suitors. There were many more men than women in Upper Canada. Women could choose. She waited two years, until it was sure that the colonel would give Pammy the job at Chaffey’s Lock. He wasn’t a big man, just five and a half feet tall, but strong. (It wasn’t a time of tall men, then or for a long time after. The mean height of a company of British soldiers en route to India in 1865 was 5’5. Winston Churchill, who was almost a teenager when Pammy died in 1887, was well short of 5’7.) He hadn’t been a non-com. Sergeants and corporals were getting preference for canal jobs. But Pammy was made an acting corporal before discharge. And she knew he had one of the essential requirements. Pammy could read and he could write, one of the few who could.

In his survey of the Rideau route in 1826 John MacTaggart, Colonel By’s clerk of works, wrote that at Chaffey’s “I am not ashamed to own that I was more puzzled to know how to act, than on any other part of the route.” This was because MacTaggart wanted to bypass the mills that Sam Chaffey and his brother had built on both banks near a waterfall of thirteen feet. It would be too expensive to expropriate the distillery and the grist, carding and sawmills that the Chaffeys had put up in the six years they had been in the area. “High banks on either side of the river, and mills choking up that river, seemed to defy the science of engineering to pass them with the Canal . . .”

But the problem would be resolved by tragic circumstance just a year later when Sam Chaffey died of malaria. His widow decided to sell the millworks and two hundred acres of land to Colonel By for two thousand pounds. His brother Ben had already departed for the United States and the family spread later to Australia, producing significant memorials wherever they settled. They are inveterate builders. One of Sam’s nephews was back at Chaffey’s in 1872 to construct a stone gristmill.

The contract to remove the mills and build a lock with nine feet of lift and a twenty foot high dam went to John Sheriff & Co. The project became known as Haggart’s Job after Sheriff’s partner, “a jolly bachelor of that name, well known for convivial hospitality to all travellers by this route.” Another year, another tragedy, when John Sheriff succumbed to malaria in 1828, along with several labourers on the lock.

Over the six year construction period more than five hundred men and an unknown number of women and children at and near the canal works died of malaria. It was a disease that had been present in eastern North America for many years. The mosquito that transmitted it could and did live here. But it was groupings of people that helped to spread the disease. In construction camps one worker to another was a zip for a mosquito. No one escaped, from Colonel By down through the ranks to the wives and children of workers. Everyone suffered. During the “sickly month” of August, six out of ten workers took to their beds with terrible pain, stomach upset, vomiting and general debility. The only known antimalarial treatment was quinine but it was quite rare and very expensive. It was hard to get in Canada and few had it. The old Chaffey’s graveyard is said to contain the remains of more unrecognized malaria victims than any other. (In the picture, Mary Anne Chaffey’s plot is fenced in, with fieldstones and headstones in the distance marking early graves where wood crosses have rotted away.)

But the work continued. And what a work it was that the colonel had conceived. To build the canal, John By had two options. The conventional and proven option was to use excavated channels of considerable length to link existing waterways that were navigable, bypassing falls, rapids, swamps and rocky shallows. By dismissed this approach as being too expensive and time-consuming, given the terrain, geology and configuration of the lakes and rivers.

Through what would be called “a fundamental stroke of creative genius” he envisioned another option, the relatively untried technology called ‘slackwater’. It would use a large number of embankments and high dams to inundate shallows, swamps, and rapids, creating a series of basins deep enough to navigate the full length of the canal. This dramatically reduced the need to excavate channels. Costs and construction time were greatly contained and compressed.

Slackwater techniques had never been attempted in North America near the complexity of what By conceived to join the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers into a corridor linking the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario. This would become the swiftest route of the day from Montreal, where most British troops were stationed, to the frontier opposite the United States at Kingston. It was the threat from the U.S. that By was addressing. He never forgot that. Speed was essential. His Corps of Royal Engineers designed an ingenious system to exercise unprecedented control over water levels. They included seventy four dams and forty seven locks at twenty four lock stations, allowing vessels to ascend eighty five metres to the summit of the canal from the Ottawa River, and then descend fifty metres to Lake Ontario.

Part of By’s genius was his foresight in planning for the future dominance of steamboats. The specs for the canal that he was given called for locks just sufficient to pass durham boats, flat-bottomed vessels propelled by sail or oars. By sought and got authorization to build larger locks able to accommodate the bigger boats that would use the emerging technology of steam power.

“It is the best preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America,” UNESCO wrote in designating the canal a World Heritage Site. “It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early nineteenth century to remain operational along its original line with most of its original structures intact.”

Once built, with what even today would be considered blazing speed, the problem became one of operations. By’s final task before departure was to ensure that key posts along the waterway were filled with the best candidates available. Literacy was a prime requirement for a lockmaster, but not the only one. They are outlined by Ed Bebee in his original and masterful portrayal of the workers who have kept the canal operating almost the way it was built for almost two centuries. His book is entitled Invisible Army: Hard Times, Heartbreak and Heritage, and he writes:

“What were the qualifications to be a lockmaster? First, military experience, generally as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), either Corporal or Sergeant; second the ability to read and write, because of the flood of written orders and the extensive record-keeping; third, basic arithmetic and some sense of book-keeping to be able to manage the accounts of tolls and local rents; fourth, robust good health; fifth, ‘steadiness’, which could mean anything. Sobriety was not a requirement, as soon became evident.”

Canal jobs were the pick of the province. The Army built the canal. The Army owned the canal. There was nothing more stable in all of Canada than the British Army. The pay was not bad and it came in cash, a rare perk in an economy that operated almost entirely on barter and long-term credit. Pammy was a lucky man and knew it the year the widow and the colonel said yes. It was 1832.

Lockmasters initially got housing (or materials to build their own) and permanent lock labourers had small houses or stayed in dormitories at larger stations. Garden plots were also provided. Lockmasters and workers were strictly admonished to avoid political partisanship and even voting. They were front line public servants and expected to behave as such. Patronage was endemic in the early days of colonial semi-self-government. The Rideau Canal was one of the few major generators of jobs and contracts in eastern Ontario. Politicians were very much aware of the opportunities. The local MP, or the defeated candidate if his party happened to be in power, would provide a list of acceptable candidates.

Pammy and his bride Elizabeth (later Gammy) had little time to consider their circumstances in those first months at Chaffey’s, after the military had departed and the first ceremonial passage was through the lock, en route from Kingston to Bytown. Colonel By and his family were joined by aides and dignitaries aboard the canal tug Pumper, renamed Rideau for the journey, greeted all along the great waterway he had built with rousing cheers that fell not far short of adulation. In this place and time he had made a wonder of the modern world. The people along the Rideau corridor, some who had been his soldiers and many who had worked on the canal, sensed greatness. Sadly, he was to fall victim to bureaucrats and petty politics on his return to Britain, his world-class achievement never celebrated by the British, whose taxes had paid for it.

The Pumper, built for Robert Drummond, one of the primary canal contractors, would be followed through the years by a succession of maintenance tugs well into the twentieth century. The longest lasting and most famous was Loretta, whose captain into the 1930s was Pammy’s grandson. Captain Ned, Kate’s brother, also had captained the Rideau King (left), one of the passenger steamers owned by his brother-in-law. For many years the Rideau King and Rideau Queen, with their musical steam whistles that could be heard for miles, provided a luxurious cruise along the beautifully crafted waterway between two of Ontario’s principal population centres. He was known as the ‘poet laureate’ within the family. When tied up overnight at a station along the waterway, the sweet sound of Captain Ned’s violin would often swell from Loretta’s deck and fill the summer evening all around.

In 1832 the population of York (Toronto) was 5,000, Kingston was 4,200 and Bytown (Ottawa), which hadn’t existed six years earlier, was 3,200. It was the beginning of urban society but not yet an urban economy. As one merchant wrote, “No one here can do business and obtain payment short of a year’s credit.” Almost all sales to farmers were on credit. They had no cash until the crops were harvested. Some debts were settled by a merchant buying land and having debtors supply labour or materials to erect a house or building.

Pammy, who built a ‘log house’ for his family when he arrived, was paid the lockmaster’s wage of $0.80 per day. The days were long, sometimes stretching through the nights and into new days. A lot of labour and time went to stretching the salary. There was a plot to grow vegetables. The potato was a staple of the daily diet, which made for hardship in the mid 1840s when a blight struck. Ireland was being devastated at the same time by this crop failure but the famine that prevailed there was in no way repeated here. Canadians were survivors in the toughest climate of the new world. They kept a cow, pigs and chickens. Fish were plentiful as were venison, ducks, muskrat. Drowned logs or trees from the surrounding forest were fuel for winter fires. They might have been colonists, or even colonials, but they weren’t landless peasants so weakened by life as the 20,000 Irish who died of disease and malnutrition on their way to Canada in 1847, one out of five who sailed.

In the colony the Rideau Canal was about to become an economic lifeline. It would get busier and busier, day and night, week after week, month on month until ice checked the flow. Ultimately, of course, the onset of a navigable St, Lawrence and the railroad combined to overpower the canal as a commercial route. But for a century the scene was the one described by an anonymous writer at Newboro, quoted by Robert Legget in Rideau Waterway. The canal was “crowded with boats carrying the produce of the country and bringing in such goods as were needed and the growing prosperity of the country could afford. City of Ottawa, Rideau King and Rideau Queen were some of the boats that carried passengers and freight and looked to one in their day like monsters of marine architecture. Tugs were towing 2, 3 and 4 barges; about 40 sailing scows carried out wood, lumber, pressed hay, grain, horses, cheese, whatever the country had to sell and brought in goods the merchants sold, the implements that were needed, the foodstuffs not grown in this climate and furnished employment to hundreds of men. Rafts of squared timber and of rough logs running up to hundreds of lock bands, built up with cook and bunk houses, stables for horses gouged by 20 or 30 men made their slow way to mills and market every year and left behind a fire menace. I have seen the men at work without a break for over sixty hours. They slept on the grass while the locks were filling and ate their meals that were brought to them sitting on a swing bar. They worked 24 hours a day, slept when they could. At first the lockmen were paid 60 cents a day for 71/2 months each year. Later their pay was raised to $1 a day and there never was a time when there was any trouble getting men to work on the lock.”

It was non-stop “when the horn blew we’d lock ‘em through” twenty four hours a day, seven days a week until 1871, after which Sunday was allowed off. Sleep between lockages was often snatched on a cot on the lockmaster’s porch. The biggest problem were the “blue barges” of logs, huge flotillas of lumber that had to be passed through the lock bit-by-bit, hour-after-hour.

For more than seven months a year there was no shortage of activity or company at the station. But in the winter it was thoroughly isolated. Distances to Kingston or even Elgin, a few miles away, were over trails rather than roads. The few people in the area had to make do with one another’s company. Pammy’s house, the largest around, was often the centre for euchre games, Christmas parties and impromptu dancing. “One of the high spots during the winter,” Melinda Warren writes in Hearth and Heritage: History of Chaffey’s Lock and Area, “would be when the carpentry crew came. The crew, of about twelve members, would camp at the station, sleeping on bunks in the storehouse. This work force was provided with their own cook, for a crew could live at the lock site for sometimes two months, building a new set of gates or a new dock. Because of their long stay they would become temporary members of the small communities. They provided a friendly diversion from long winter boredom. At night when the day’s work was done the crew, Lockmen and families would sit around the wood stove; stories and homemade bread in abundance. When the families retired for the evening, more stories and other ‘refreshments’ would be in greater abundance!

“It was a special time for the Lock Station when this crew came. The empty space which the crew left in the community when they moved on, would soon be filled by hard work to prepare for the new navigation season; and later new faces to relate the past winter’s tales to. . .”

Lockstations were strengthened in 1837-38 in response to rebellion troubles in both provinces (Upper and Lower Canada at that time, to become Canada West and East in 1841 and Ontario and Quebec in 1867) that pointed to the susceptibility of canal works to attack. Government durham boats loaded with ammunition and troops were passing through. Lock workers were called out to train with the militia. A report in Pammy’s hand describes “the loyal men who turned out to defend the lock and other works at Chaffey’s, Rideau Canal, on the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th of July, 1838,” when the lock was menaced by sympathizers with the rebellion in Upper Canada. Under Pammy’s command twenty seven volunteers, including fifteen-year-old stepson James Simmons Jr., mounted sentries and patrolled the area to deter aggression.

Captain Billy, Pammy’s son, in 1890.

In the meantime Pammy and Elizabeth had a son William in 1833. As a boy he became a lake sailor and earned his captain’s papers at an early age. He would eventually be the first master of the Rideau Queen, owned by his son-in-law, and become widely known along the Rideau as Captain Billy.

As word spread of employment possibilities, good farmland and world class sport fishing at Chaffey’s, immigrant families began to arrive, many of them fleeing the famine in Ireland. Among these were the Doyles, who arrived from near Dublin in 1830 with an infant daughter. Young Billy and Margaret Doyle grew up together and just before Christmas 1854 they eloped and married. Elopement was necessary because the English Protestant Flemings and Irish Catholic Doyles were not ready mixers. They had to get over it eventually though as Captain Billy and his bride made passionate use of the long winters over the next two decades to produce five sons and three daughters, most born in a little log cabin on a section of Pammy’s property. The first born, Mary, married Captain Dan Noonan, who owned the Rideau Navigation Company. Henry, the second, became the third Chaffey’s lockmaster. A younger brother, Edward, would succeed Captain Billy as master of the Rideau Queen and earn his own local fame as Captain Ned.

Kate, christened Catharine, was the third, born in 1859. At nineteen she married James O’Brien, fifteen years older, the only son of Little Ned O’Brien, who had arrived in Chaffey’s from Ireland in 1840. Little Ned’s property would become the core of Queen’s University’s Biological Station (pictured) on Opinicon Lake a century later, where Pammy’s great3grandson Roberto would one day pursue studies toward his doctorate in zoology.

Jim O’Brien, who had been a lakeboat captain, tried farming at Chaffey’s as he and Kate started the family that would eventually number eight girls and five boys. But in less than a decade that toil was abandoned and they picked up and left for Montreal, the first ever of the family to move from Chaffey’s. Jim would be a milkdealer at first, then a grocer, and died in 1925. Kate would live to ninety nine in 1958 with the patience and quiet acceptance of the poker player and lifelong fisher she was.

The log cabin they were born and raised in had long outlived its comfort level by the time Captain Billy got around to building a proper home for his fast growing brood. Margaret would reminisce years later about the day in 1870 when the house was ready and what a pleasure it had been “to walk down the hill carrying baby Charles and take my family into our new home.”

And what a home it was. It’s described in a remarkable family manuscript written by Pammy’s great-granddaughter Catherine in 1975. Catherine was born at Chaffey’s in 1899 and knew Captain Billy intimately. They lived in the 1870 house together while she was growing up. Pammy had died a dozen years before but his memory lived strong in the neighbourhood where there were many old friends and much family. Catherine writes of the times, the neighbourhood, the customs, schools, entertainments, home life for the girls and the boys, a full and telling evocation of what it was to grow up and live at Chaffey’s Lock through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The manuscript is contained in the privately printed genealogical masterwork by Pammy’s great2grandson, James, entitled The Fleming Family Tree. Suffice to say the new home for Captain Billy and family was “the nicest and largest farm house in the community” with an iron roof, room to house a three-generation family of ten and an annex with a winter kitchen. It was still in use more than a hundred years after going up and may be still.

It was in this context that Pammy got the name he was universally known by, and which has descended to a property at Chaffey’s still referred to as Pammy’s Farm. A fourth generation grandson once suggested that it was derived from the derogatory slang for Englishman, ‘pommy’. This was impossible. Pammy was a man of respect in the county around Elgin. He had been discharged an acting corporal. There were very few field promotions in the two companies of sappers and miners of the Royal Engineers working with Lt. Col. By on the building of the Rideau Canal. Pammy was the Lockmaster at Chaffey’s, in command of a link on a vital waterway, holding one of the few permanent, paying jobs in the colony. He wouldn’t have been dissed by his neighbours.

Then, there were hundreds of demobbed sappers after the work was finished. Could Pammy have been a generally used nickname? Well no. Finally, there’s no record of the word ‘pommy’ being used before 1912, and then primarily in Australia. That’s well after Pammy’s day and far away. So how did he come by that nickname? For anyone with grandkids, it’s clear enough.  Pammy (William Fleming) had only one natural son, Billy. But he had eight grandchildren, all born at Chaffey’s, all within hailing distance for most of his life. He lived with one of his grandsons and family in later years. It was these kids who called him Pammy, an easy childish mangling of Papa or Grandpa. One after another they made it stick. Only they would have been innocent enough, and well enough loved, to have dared. For Pammy was far from a figure of fun. He had an aristocratic bent and, according to family account, in retirement “always dressed in a swallow tail coat, wore a high silk hat and carried a cane.”

A one storey, defensible lockmaster’s house was built in 1844 and after a dozen years in the log house Pammy, Gammy and family were finally able to move in. It was completely renovated in 1894-85 for their grandson Henry, another of Kate’s brothers, who was the third lockmaster at Chaffey’s. A second storey was added and a wood frame back kitchen. This house (pictured) is now a museum. Chaffey’s was a Fleming family fief for a century. After retiring in 1856, Pammy was succeeded by his stepson, Jim, who served until 1894. There was some fuss when grandson Henry got the next appointment. Patronage was alleged. Henry was dismissed in December 1896 but rehired three months later. He’d hold the job for more than three decades.

As Ed Bebee writes in Invisible Army, “An affable lockmaster with thirty-five years service at a popular station met a lot of people. When his family is there for generations, then relationships run deep.” Henry was such a person.

A combination of age (65 in 1922) and years of service (39) meant that Henry would most likely retire in the early 1920s. Knowing he’d have to move from the Lockmaster’s house, he wanted to acquire a property nearby where he could build a home. He wanted to get it at a good price and avoid an auction that might increase it, particularly since the CNR had built a station at Chaffey’s and local land prices had soared. So he wrote his good acquaintance, George Buskard, private secretary to Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, enquiring casually after family members and enclosing a sketch of the land he wanted. Within a day, enquiries on Henry’s behalf were dispatched on prime ministerial letterhead. The sale transpired as he had wished, helped by an Order-in-Council that designated him the buyer and sidetracked any other potential bidder. Perhaps most remarkably, the government had changed in the interim. Mr. Meighen had been replaced by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. But the change hadn’t bothered Henry. Rather, he lobbied again to have his retirement postponed. He wasn’t finally succeeded as Lockmaster until 1929. The family had held the job just three years shy of a century from the day Pammy got it from Colonel By.

James and Kate O’Brien. First to leave Chaffey’s, Pammy’s granddaughter Catharine (Kate) Fleming was the motherlink of the clan with thirteen children in Montreal. She lived to ninety nine.

After 1847, when work on the St. Lawrence River canals was completed, the Rideau system gradually lost its commercial prominence, though it long remained a gracious and comfortable route for passengers on the Rideau Queen, Rideau King and their like that plied regularly between Kingston and Ottawa. Until today the Rideau Canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains a destination for boats and yachts from near and far as well as the focal point for local festivals in summer and, never forget, the largest skating rink in the world in winter.

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