Waterway Through the Woods
By : Dennis Stein
Ontario contains by far one of the most beautiful waterways in North America, and the only continuously operated canal system on the continent. The Rideau Canal, with 47 locks, spans 202 km of lakes between Kingston at the foot of Lake Ontario, and Ottawa.
The canal was designed and engineered by Leiutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers, charged with the daunting task of finding a safe passage for British ships from Montreal to the Great Lakes, out of range of the american guns after the war of 1812. Begun in 1827, and opened in May of 1832, the rideau is one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century, its exquisite stonemasonry and buildings standing today just as they were when the canal opened. The Rideau begins in the Ottawa river, rising 275 ft, through 35 locks to the summit at Upper Rideau Lake, and then descending 166 ft. through another 14 locks to Kingston. During the war of 1812, when naval strengths were a continuous issue, a secure supply route between Montreal and Kingston was a must, and thousands of labourers were contracted to perform the massive construction of 45 locks, (plus 2 locks on the Tay canal), and 52 control dams. The conditions were hard, with many men dying of malaria. Some of the areas between locks had to be flooded to achieve the 5 foot uniform depth that the canal was designed for, and the control dams accomplished this task, including the dam at Hog's Back, which suffered three collapses before it was able to be completed. All of the work was done by hand, through virgin forest, swamps, and wilderness with few roads, and fewer settlements. Pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows were used for excavation, and powder was used to blast in some areas. The large stones which line the locks and dams were cut mostly by French Canadian stonemasons, and lowered into place by simple hand cranes. Despite cost overruns, 2000 men per year worked to complete the Rideau Canal in a few short years, accomodating ships as long as 90 ft. It takes from 4 to 6 days to travel the complete waterway, and picnic sites with full facilities have been established by Parks Canada at many sites along the system. Original blockhouse buildings, which were built along to route to defend the canal against attack, still stand today.