I know, the Rideau Canal isn’t an unknown attraction. After all, it is one of the most popular attraction in Ottawa, especially in winter when thousands and thousands of skaters take advantage of its 7.8 kilometres long skating rink. Almost everybody knows that the Rideau Canal links Ottawa to Kingston through a series of locks and that it is a significant landmark in the area.
But I think the presence of the canal is a bit taken for granted. Even I, who considered myself an history buff, have been skating a lot of times on the canal without asking myself some questions on its history. Why was it built? And by whom?
Since I have long wanted to visit Merrickville (one of the villages along the canal), I told myself that it would be a nice opportunity to learn more on the history of the Rideau Canal.
The construction of the canal began around 1826. While we still had in mind the Americans failed attempt to invade Canada, there were plans to create a bypass way to St. Lawrence River, which was considered too close to the US borders. A route between Kingston (on the shores of Lake Ontario) and the Ottawa River was chosen. Colonel John By was commissioned to lead the project.
But it was not an easy undertaking. The canal had to go through an area that was still wild and untouched, marshy and difficult to get to. Almost 50% of the canal builders died of malaria (yes, you are reading this right, malaria). Nevertheless, the project was completed five years later, and boats could now navigate on this 200-kilometres long waterway.
Villages and cities sprouted along the canal shores, such as Bytown at its eastern end, named in honour of the colonel (and today known as Ottawa). Ironically, Colonel By ended his life in disgrace, since he had to appear in front of the martial court to answer some questions on the significant project cost overruns.
The canal was never used in a military way. In the 1930s, the government even considered the idea of closing it down. Finally, it was preserved, and these preservation efforts earned the site to be recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2007. And it’s easy to understand why: the canal is still historically intact, even its locks are still activated by hand.
In Merrickville, the heritage of the canal is still present. The masons who worked on its construction left behind them beautiful stone houses that are still standing today. Near the canal, you can also find a military blockhouse built to defend the canal in the event of an attack (there are four along the canal, but the one in Merrickville is the biggest). The blockhouse in Merrickville is now a museum, which can be visited to learn more about the military life of the time.