The history of The Rideau Canal 

The Rideau canal is a water way that stretches 202 kilometres though a chain of lakes, rivers and canals, linking Canada’s capital; Ottawa to the history rich city of Kingston on Lake Ontario. It was Queen Victoria that decided that the capital of Canada should be Ottawa. The Rideau canal is a world heritage site and a rare instance of a canal built primarily for strategic military purposes.


The waterway was built between 1826 and 1832. The construction was supervised by Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. For over a century, In the wake of the war in 1812, the British decided to build a canal that would bypass the St. Lawrence river to protect this military supply route, because, up until then, Canada’s prosperity relied on trade flowing along the St. Lawrence river. The canal was built as an additional supply chain to ensure safe passage between Montreal and Kingston. This new route was to go westward from Montreal along the St Lawrence river, north along the Ottawa river to the mouth of the Rideau river - later the site of Bytown (named after Lieutenant-Colonel John By and now called Ottawa). The majority of the work was done by Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian labourers.


Who was Lieutenant Colonel John By?

Lieutenant Colonel John By (7 August 1779 - 1 February 1836) was a British military engineer. He is remembered in Canada (specifically Ottawa) for his supervision in the construction of the Rideau canal. At the age of 13 he was admitted to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England. He graduated from the academy in 1799. He was posted to Canada in 1802 to help improve the St Lawrence river’s suitability as a shipping route. He went back to England in 1811, before serving in the Napoleonic wars. In 1826 he was asked to return to Canada after he had retired from his military duties to supervise the building work of the canal and the worker’s camp that was later to become the town of Bytown. In recognition of his achievement, John By said "An undertaking of great magnitude and importance, the successful accomplishment of which, in so comparatively short a period, notwithstanding the unheard of unestimable difficulties and impediments which had to be encountered and surmounted, in an almost unexplored and uninhabited wilderness … evinced on your part a moral courage and an undaunted spirit and combination of science and management equally exciting our admiration and deserving our praise."


After the war of 1812, Information was received about the United States’ premeditated attack and plan to invade the British Colony of Upper Canada. To guard against this attack, the British proceeded to construct a number of defences against the Americans.

Colonel By decided to make a Slack water canal, a more efficient choice as it was cost effective and needs less workers to construct. A Slack water canal connects existing rivers and lakes, making it a much more systematic decision.


Since the canal was built, there have been no further military engagements or attacks between Canada and the United States. The Rideau canal was therefore never used militarily but it played a pivotal and important role in the early development of Canada by encouraging shipping, trade and settlement of upper Canada by lots of immigrants, including Irish, Scottish and Spanish nationalities. The canal was easier to navigate than the St Lawrence river because of the number of rapids in between Montreal and Kingston.


The final cost of the canal construction was £822,804 including land purchase, because of the unexpected cost overrun, John By was recalled to London and was forced to retire.