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Building of the Rideau

Between 1826 and 1832, an old Indian canoe route along the Rideau and Cataraqui Rivers was transformed at the command of the British government from untamed wilderness rivers and lakes into the Rideau Canal Waterway. The purpose of this remarkable engineering achievement was to provide the British army with a safe route for supplying its inland garrisons, avoiding the direct but exposed route along the St. Lawrence River which had been threatened during the War of 1812.

The canal was designed by Lt. Colonel John By of the British Royal Engineers. It was built, for the most part, by independent contractors under the supervision of Colonel By and his staff. Hundreds of Irish and French Canadian labourers, Scottish stonemasons, and British Sappers & Miners battled the Canadian wilderness, nineteenth century working conditions and malaria to complete this wonder of a canal system in less than six years.

The Rideau is a unique part of our Canadian Heritage, linking our old national capital of Kingston, with our new national capital of Ottawa. In 1926 the Rideau Canal was designated a National Historic Site. In 2000 it was designated a Canadian Heritage River. It remains the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America, still operating today much as it did when first opened in 1832.

Work actually began on taming the rivers in 1827. Colonel By and a small contingent of Royal Engineer officers designed the Rideau Canal and supervised the project. The actual construction work was contracted out to private individuals. Most of the locks and dams were built of stone quarried on site, while the necessary iron fixtures were forged by local blacksmiths.

The labourers who dug the lock pits, hauled the stones, and built the dams and locks were drawn from two main sources. Many came from the only major populated area in the country, the French-Canadian settlements of Lower Canada. Still others were recruited from the boatloads of immigrants - mostly from Ireland - who were beginning to arrive in Canada in ever-increasing numbers. Tragically, new recruits were always needed to replace workers who died from malaria, contracted in the many swamps along the route.