Today the Rideau is a serene waterway conveying pleasure craft, but recreation was far from the minds of its creators. The canal was built to protect Canada from an American invasion. That threat became reality during the War of 1812, which proved how vulnerable the St. Lawrence lifeline was to attack from the south. At the end of the war in 1815 the Royal Engineers arrived to explore a route through the Rideau Lakes. But the plan rattled around in the British bureaucracy until 1826, when the Duke of Wellington became prime minister and pushed it through.
It might have been Wellington himself who chose the remarkable man to undertake one of the biggest challenges ever given to an engineer. Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers had served with distinction in Wellington’s forces in the Peninsular War (1808-1814).
Just charting the proposed route proved challenging enough, for the surveyors counted themselves lucky to get back alive. The arduous work was done almost entirely by hand. Bare-footed men dug the soil with picks and shovels, and wheeled it away in handbarrows. To blast the rock they had to drill the holes with hand chisels, plugging them with gunpowder.
Blasting and felling trees was perilous work but by far the greatest threat to the workers turned out to be something that Canadians associate only with the tropics: malaria.
The men called it “swamp fever" and it thrived in the humid conditions and poor sanitation. How many died is not known but so many men were sick in the summer of 1828 that work had to be shut down for weeks on end. The foul conditions at Cranberry Marsh were the worst. The nauseous air was like “that of a cadaverous animal." Colonel By himself was struck down by the fever and barely survived.
Since there was little local population in which to find labourers, Colonel By had to bring some 2000 men from Ireland. Most of them stayed, giving the Ottawa Valley its distinctive Irish character. They were paid as little as two shillings a day.
When finished, the waterway included 47 masonry locks and 52 dams. Colonel By showed a genius for innovation with these dams, which he built to create slack-water lakes of navigable depth above them. None was more challenging than the dam at Hog’s Back, near Ottawa. The first contractor declared it impossible and gave up. The Sappers took over and completed it but on April 3, 1829 an ice jam swept it away. A second dam was destroyed next spring but By said that he would build it and rebuild it and make it stand if he had to build it of half-crown pieces.
The lock gates were built by small teams of carpenters for about 100 pounds, a ridiculously low sum in our terms but reasonable considering the highest-paid workers were paid 7 shillings a day, labourers as little as 2 shillings.
The final touches were put on the canal in the winter of 1831-32. On May 24, 1832 Colonel By took his family and some of his officers to Kingston, boarded a little vessel renamed the Rideau, followed the canal through Smiths Falls and on the 29th triumphantly entered the locks at Bytown, the future capital of Canada named in his honour.
Colonel By received no honour in his home country. In fact he was publicly humiliated for overspending on the canal and not a soul spoke up in his defence. He returned to England in late 1832 a broken man in poor health. He died only three years later. The citizens of Canada however held him in high regard. At a dinner in his honour in Montreal the speaker praised his successful accomplishment in the face of inestimable difficulties and his display of “a moral courage and undaunted spirit." James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.