Engineering the Canal - Part 1

Following the War of 1812, the British were concerned about the threat of invasion from the south by the new American nation. For this reason, they commissioned Lt. Col John By to construct a canal in defence of Canada.

Originally, the canal was simply to serve as a defensive mechanism for the transportation of men on a waterway far away from the St. Lawrence River and supplies in Canada. The canal was to link Ottawa and Kingston.

With considerable foresight, Col. By petitioned his office in London to build a wider canal than initially planned, in order that the new, wider steam vessels would also be accommodated, and hopefully foster settlement and economic development.

Lieutenant Colonel John By,
The Building of the Rideau Canal and the Founding of Ottawa

Lieutenant Colonel John By, one of Canada's greatest engineers was born into a family of Thames watermen, in Lambeth England, and was baptised on August 10th, 1779, the second son of George and Mary Brian By. Their home was the quiet parish of St.Mary Lambeth, near London, England. Male members of the By family had traditionally been engaged in the Customs service, but John broke with tradition, and at the age of sixteen in 1797, entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. In 1799, he was commissioned to the Royal Engineers. Promoted more or less regularly, By had achieved the rank of First Lieutenant at the time of his first posting to Canada in 1802. While in Canada, he worked on the first set of small locks on the St.Lawrence River at Les Cèdres and on the fortifications of Québec. He remained in Canada nine years.


Why the Canal was Built

Soon after John By left Québec, at the end of 1810, the irritations which had been developing between the United States of America and Great Britain so incensed President Madison that he persuaded the U.S. Congress to declare war upon Great Britain. If there had been a trans-Atlantic cable then in existence, the war would not have started since the British Parliament had removed the major irritants two days before Congress took action. News had to travel across the Atlantic by sailing ship. War was therefore declared on 18 June 1812. This war, known as the War of 1812, proved to be an indecisive conflict but did involve serious fighting between the U.S. and British forces. Naval fighting took place on Lake Ontario and along the Atlantic seaboard. Regular British troops, assisted by Canadian volunteers fought in both Upper and Lower Canada, fighting in which the fortress of Kingston, with its naval dockyard, was vital to the success of British arms.

The war was officially terminated by the Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve 1814, but fighting continued for another two weeks, the last battle being fought near New Orleans, again because of the slowness of communications across the Atlantic. Despite the peace treaty, tempers remained hot on both sides of the Canada-United States border; records of the time show that there was a general feeling that hostilities would break out again. In view of this, the British military leaders at Kingston strongly urged that an alternative route between Montréal and Kingston must be found. Everything required for the maintenance and safety of Kingston had to be brought up the St.Lawrence in small bateaux or canoes, with difficult navigation through rapids up to Prescott and then smooth sailing until Lake Ontario was reached- but in international waters. One brigade of boats was ambushed there from the U.S. shore. This could be explained because there were no access roads to the American shore but it was found that the United States planned to rectify this before fighting broke out again.

An alternative route did exist, parts of which had been used by Indians for thousands of years. It involved coming up the Ottawa River, instead of the St.Lawrence, from Lake St.Louis. The rapids at Ste. Anne de Bellevue would have to be circumvented by a small lock. Just below Hawkesbury of today, there was a stretch of rough water extending to Pointe Fortune, twelve miles downstream; this would also have to be bypassed. Then came a smooth sail of about sixty miles up to the great barrier of the Chaudière. Just below these falls. The Rideau could be traversed, however, with portages at its many rapids and into the Rideau Lakes. A portage led from Rideau Lake into smaller lakes from which the Cataraqui River flowed down to Kingston, with many rapids on the way.

Nothing was done until the Duke of Richmond arrived at Québec in August 1818 to hold office as Governor in Chief. Within three months he had sent to the British Government a brilliant review of the measures necessary for the defence of British North America. He also arranged for a detailed survey of the twelve miles of rough water near Hawkesbury to be made, so that the best way of circumventing the rough water could be developed. The survey was made by an officer of the Royal Staff Corps, a company of which was then engaged on repair an maintenance work on the little locks in the Soulanges section of the St. Lawrence. To the orders of the Duke of Richmond, this company moved up to the Ottawa in the early summer of 1819 to make a start at the building of what would come to be known as the 'Ottawa River Canals'.



Selection of John By

John By came to his position highly recommended. General Mann did not hesitate to select John By to his eminent position. He had been his commanding officer at the start of his engineering experience when both were in Canada in the early years of the century. General Mann would have known about his active service in the Peninsular War, his confidence being indicated by his appointment of the young captain, in 1812, as engineer in charge of the new armament factory at Enfield Lock. This was an extensive and costly building operation urgently needed. As has already been seen, John By had the facility operating little more than twelve months after the start of work, an impressive performance, evidencing his capacity for management and command. The new assignment, was, all the same, a tremendous responsibility for this man of 47 to be asked to shoulder since the Rideau Canal would be, when complete, one of the most extensive and costly undertakings ever carried out up to that time by the Corps of Royal Engineers.



The Canal

The word canal connotes to many an artificial waterway, possibly in a murky industrial atmosphere, linking up natural waterways such as rivers. Only about eighteen miles of the Rideau Canal consists of two natural watercourse, the Rideau and the Cataraqui Rivers, suitably "canalised". This word implies the drowning-out of each of the rapids on the two rivers by the building of a dam across the river, below each rapid, of such a height that the water it retains will be at the right level for providing for smooth sailing up to the entrance to the next upstream lock. The effective height of each dam will equal the previous drop in water level down the rapid which it drowns out; this same distance will be that by which vessels passing the dam must be raised by the accompanying lock, usually built as an integral part of the dam.

The ingenious device of a lock, probably invented by the Chinese, consists essentially of a main watertight chamber, closed at each end by pairs of mitred gates, the mitres facing upstream. The depth of water at the lower gate must be sufficient to allow vessels to sail into the lock chamber when the lower gates are open and the upper gates close. Once the vessel is in the lock, the lower gates are closed and water is admitted into the lock chamber from above the lock and dam. The chamber will gradually be filled, raising the vessel in it. When the water in the lock is at the same level as that retained by the dam, the upper gates can be opened and the vessel can sail out, proceeding upstream to the downstream gate of the next lock when the whole procedure is repeated. The Rideau Canal in the true sense of the word is not a canal.



Colonel By: The Man for the Job

At the end of 1811, By returned to England and was promoted to the rank of Captain. He served briefly under Wellington in the Peninsular War of Spain and Portugal. Early in 1812, he was appointed engineer officer for the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Faversham and supervised construction of a military small-arms factory at Enfield Lock. Soon after the victory at Waterloo, the general economic pressures in England were great and the government temporarily retired By. During this forced retirement, on December 2 1824, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

Early in the spring of 1826, Col. By having been selected to design and carry out a military water communication free of obstruction and safe from attack by the United States, proceeded to Canada without delay to oversee the construction of the Rideau Canal. If there was any doubt in his mind as to whether he could accomplish this enormous task, he did not show it. Confident in his ability he must have felt honoured to be entrusted with an important job such as this. Little did he know that six years later upon his return to England expecting to be commended for a job well done, he would find himself, instead, the centre of controversy.

In an unexplored part of the country, where the only mode of progress was the Indian canoe, with a department to be organised, workmen to be instructed, and many difficulties to be overcome, By constructed a remarkable work- The Rideau Canal. This waterway stretched 130 miles through unbroken wilderness of marshes, lakes, forests, rivers, and streams. These wetlands were the breeding grounds for mosquitoes which could drive the toughest man to madness. Malaria was a constant threat to workers.

The man for the job had to have excellent health, plenty of courage and perseverance and a belief in himself. The man for the job was John By. One of his associates, John MacTaggart, described Col.By as a:

"man who encountered all privations with wonderful patience and good humour. He could sleep soundly anywhere and eat anything, even raw pork."

Colonel is described as tall, dark-haired, with a ruddy complexion, a daring soldier who had acquitted himself admirably in several military engagements, without regard to personal danger.



The Undertaking

On his arrival in Canada, he surveyed the inland route up the Ottawa river to the Rideau, and thence by the Rideau Lake and Cataraqui River, to Kingston on Lake Ontario. He chose for his headquarters, a position near the mouth of the proposed canal near the Chaudière falls of the Ottawa River. On this site, the canal was to ascend eighty-two feet by a succession of eight locks through a chasm. This is also where he built a house in the bush, there being at that time only two or three log huts at Nepean Point. A town sprang up, jokingly at first referred to but later named Bytown.



The Decision

A small group of men, gathered on the north bank of the Ottawa not far from the Chaudière Falls, were engaged in a lively discussion while looking toward a high limestone cliff covered with dense forest. It was a warm sunny day with a gentle westerly breeze. The time was about two o'clock in the afternoon of September 21, 1826, and the place, the outskirts of the village of Wrightsville, founded in the spring of 1800 by the American settler, Philemon Wright. One of the men looking at the bluffs was that same Philemon Wright. The other three had just arrived from Montréal, having received orders to build a canal that would link the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario. The men were Colonel John By, Thomas McKay and Lieutenant Henry Pooley. Colonel By had been selected by the Imperial Government of Britain to take charge of construction of the waterway.

In May 1827, once the survey plans and estimates were approved by the home government, By was asked to push the work forward as rapidly as possible, without having to wait for the usual annual appropriations of money. Two companies of Sappers and Miners were at his disposal, a regular staff for the works organised, barracks and a hospital were built in stone near the site. The decision by the British government to construct the canal was to have a resounding impact on the settlement near the mouth of the Rideau River. This decision laid the foundation for a bustling community that was unlike any other in Upper Canada, which almost sprang up overnight. Building lots in the new village were eagerly taken up as soon as they had been designated, by farmers, entrepreneurs, labourers, tradesmen and speculators. Houses, shops, taverns and stores soon replaced the tall trees of the forest. A steady stream of labourers arriving at the canal site in search of jobs swelled the village population to 1000 within the first two years. French Canadian lumbermen, Irish, Scottish, English and American immigrants, all converged on Bytown at the same time and the incompatibility of their various cultures and attitudes was to be the key factor for the unique character of the emerging community. The canal was opened in the spring of 1832, when the steamer Pumper passed through from Bytown to Kingston. The total length of navigation is 126 1/4 miles, with forty-seven locks and a total lockage of 446 1/4 feet. The work proved to be much more expensive than had been anticipated; for although the building materials were close at hand, the excavations had to be made in a soil full of springs interspersed with masses of erratic rock. When the British government demanded explanations, By recommended that additional money should be granted to increase the size of the locks and build them in stone instead of wood. Colonel's Fanshawe and Lewis were sent as commissioners from England to report on the subject and adopted By's views. Both colonels agreed with By's decision and we should be grateful that the go-ahead was given.

Bytown quickly became an important place and the centre of a vast lumber trade. After the union of Upper and Lower Canada, Bytown's name changed to Ottawa; in August 1858 it became the capital of the united provinces, and in 1867, the capital of the Dominion of Canada.

The cost of the Rideau Canal - about 800,000 pounds - was so much above the original estimate that British House of Commons appointed a committee to investigate the matter. By was recalled and arrived in England in November 1832. The committee admitted that the works were carried out with care and economy, concluded their report with a strong expression of regret at the excess of the expenditure over the estimate. By, who had expected commendation on the completion of this magnificent work in so short a time, under so many difficulties, and at a cost by no means extravagant, felt himself dreadfully ill-used, and never recovered from the disappointment. His health failing, he was placed on the unemployment list a second time, and died at his residence, Shernfold Park, near Frant, Sussex, on 1 February 1836.

By married twice, his first wife, Elizabeth Baines, having died childless early in his career. Not much is known about Elizabeth, whether or not she accompanied him on his first trip to Canada or whether she remained in England during his exploit. There is no documentary proof in bibles, diaries, etc. His second wife was Esther March of Harley Street, London, and granddaughter of John Raymond Barker of Fairford Park, Gloucestershire, by whom he left two daughters; Esther (1820-1848), who married in 1838 the Hon. Percy Ashburnham (1799-1881), second son of the third earl; and Harriet Martha (1822-1842), unmarried.

Former home of Lieutenant Colonel John By,
The Builder of the Rideau Canal and the Founder of Ottawa

Col. By and his family moved into this country estate, near the village of Frant in Sussex in 1819. It seems that the By's planned a quiet retirement in this placid rural setting. However, duty called and they left Shernfold Park for Canada and the Rideau Canal in 1826. They returned in 1832 where both John and Esther lived out the rest of their lives.




By Family Home in Major's Hill Park

Lt. Colonel By's house, on Major's Hill in Bytown, was the official residence of the Supervising Engineer of the canal works.

During Lt. Colonel By's occupancy, the area was known as "the Colonel's Hill," but became "Major's Hill" when Major Daniel Bolton succeeded John By and moved into the house in 1832.

The house was destroyed by fire in 1849. The ruins were eventually covered over and the area became park land. The exact location of Lt. Colonel By's house remained a mystery for over one hundred years.

The photo on the right shows a model of the By Family home in Major's Hill Park, as it appeared circa 1830. This model is on display in the Bytown Museum.

Archeological remains of Colonel By's home in Major's Hills Park

In 1972, National Capital Commission historian Dr. Mary Burns undertook investigations in Major's Hill Park to determine the site of Lt. Colonel John By's house. The foundations of a structure were located under the ground surface, and preliminary excavation was begun in the fall of the year. Limited documentary evidence exists regarding the structure itself. There are sketches, and descriptions in letters written by visitors, but the only photographic evidence remaining is an 1861 view of the ruins of the house. The archaeological investigation, therefore, provided valuable evidence as to the construction and layout of the building. Excavations revealed that the house was a two storey structure, 13.3 metres long (North-South) by 6.7 metres wide (East-West), which stood on a rough stone and masonry foundation. It is not certain whether the upper storey walls were built entirely of stone, as were the walls of the main floor, or were of wood. It is probable that the building was completed in the spring or summer of 1827. The restored foundation stands today in Major's Hill Park near the Lt. Colonel By monument.

By Family Home in England circa 1970

Col. By's daughter Esther married into the prestigious Ashburnham family. The Ashburnhams renovated Shernfold Park later in the nineteenth century. In the 1970s, it was converted into apartments and is still standing today.




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