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The Rideau Canal, opened for navigation in 1832, is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. In 1826, Lt. Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers was assigned to create a navigable waterway from Kingston to Ottawa through a wilderness of rough bush, swamps, and rocky terrain. Five years later, in the fall of 1831, one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century was essentially complete. The Rideau Canal is one of North America's most beautiful navigable waterways, with exquisite stonemasonry admired to this day.

The canal was designed by Colonel By and built, for the most part, by independent contractors under the supervision of Colonel By and his staff of Royal Engineers. The work was done by hand. 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. It is guesstimated that about 1,000 men died during the six years of contruction, about half of those from malaria, the other half from other diseases and work related accidents.

The beautiful arched dam at Jones Falls and the four locks ( three locks, a turning basin, and a fourth lock, with a total lift of 60 feet ) are one of the engineering triumphs of the Rideau Canal. The dam was one of the first of its kind. Spanning 350 feet and rising 62 feet, it was the largest such structure in North America. One of the jewels of the Rideau, Jones Falls is a "must see" for visitors.

Narrows Lock - 1841
Narrows Lock and Blockhouse - 1841

The Battle of Waterloo and Perth

If you've heard of the Battle of Waterloo, then you remember the Duke of Wellington. After the War of 1812, he laid out a defense strategy for Upper Canada. Forts, towers, blockhouses, navigable waterways, and settlements of trained, loyal settlers were the key elements of this strategy. Perth was the first such settlement. A brief journey to Perth up the Tay Canal starts at Beveridge Lock, between Rideau Ferry and Poonamalie.

Perth was the social, judicial and administrative centre for the Rideau Corridor away from the border. Large, elegant homes of brick and stone, built by military officers, hosted genteel dinner parties - but guests had to bring their own chairs. Canada's Last Fatal Duel, fought by two law students, Robert Lyon and John Wilson, over the honour of a local belle, took place in Perth on June 13, 1833. Mr. Lyon was on the losing end of the exchange.

The Ferry of No Return

The original road from Brockville to Perth, crossed the Rideau at Oliver's Ferry (now known as Rideau Ferry). The ferry crossing was named after a man named Oliver who set up a ferry to take people across Rideau Lake. Mr. Oliver had an unusual habit of refusing to transport passengers after dark, instead he would put them up in his house. His neighbours though, seldom saw the travellers in the morning. Several travellers did not make their destination and it was assumed at the time that they were victims of highway robbers.

It was many years later that the truth was revealed. When a bridge was built to replace the ferry, Oliver's house had to be torn down. It is said that in the walls and under the floorboards of additions Oliver had made to the original house, human skeletons were found. It seems that many of Oliver's late night guests never left. (story adapted from the Parks Canada Rideau Canal Edukit)

As the Years Passed By

Skiff and Rideau Queen
A rowing skiff and the Rideau Queen - early 1900s.
Queen's University Archives
Although the Rideau served a military deterence role, part of the reason it was built, its primary use in its first few years was as a travelway for new immigrants and for commercial trade. By the late 19th century, the Rideau was changing into a recreational waterway, famous for its bass fishing. Lodges and guides developed a thriving business, which continues to this day.

By the 1950s, the Rideau became the waterway that visitors enjoy today, a recreational paradise. Cottages dot the shorelines, and boats of all sizes cruise the lakes and canals.

The Rideau Canal System is run by Parks Canada, who maintain the original spirit, even operating the locks by hand. A tour of the Rideau Canal system is a must.

Learn More History:
The Sales Section of our website offers many books detailing the fascinating history of the Rideau Canal.

Those interested in detailed research history of the Rideau Canal may wish to look at our Resources of the Rideau project.

Friends of the Rideau
P.O. Box 1232, Stn. Main
Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, K7A 5C7

email: info@rideaufriends.com

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