Chaffey's Lock and Area Heritage Society
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Neil A. Patterson

The name Rideau Canal and Chaffey’s Lock immediately bring to mind a picture of peaceful lakes and a quite and charming little hamlet. Graceful boats and gliding canoes filled with happy people leisurely enjoying a warm summer day. Not a thought is given to any terrifying menace that lurks in waiting.

A hundred and seventy five years ago this was not the case. Mosquitos carried deadly malaria to the unknowing Irish immigrants who provided the pick and shovel labour building the canal. Hundreds of swamps and small streams existed before the dams were built that created the beautiful cottage lined lakes that now cover the area.

Malaria was thought to be a fever caused by bad air, a disease not understood until 1838. After that date, it was known that the mosquito biting a person who was carrying the disease passed the infection to their fertilized eggs. Each mosquito that hatched was a carrier and when it bit someone else the disease was passed on. It is hypothesized that malaria was brought to Canada by British troops during the War of 1812/14 as it began to appear around York (Toronto) at that time. Malaria continued in Canada until the last case was reported in the late 1800s.

The large amount of marsh land along the Rideau route had always been a mass breeding ground for mosquitos and when malaria was introduced into their system, they became killers of plaque proportion. The contractors labour force living in tents and then in poorly constructed huts were the target of the mosquitos. Add to this, the fact that the disease was unknown and prevention and treatment was unavailable or misguided at best. The result was the large number of grave sites of these workers that have been discovered.

A few hundred meters from the lock at Chaffey’s is a fenced off half acre of land containing rows of unmarked stones. These rows of stones are all similar in size and cut from the same stone quarried in Elgin and hauled by oxen to Chaffey’s for the construction of the lock and dam. They stand just beyond the wrought iron fence which encloses the graves of Samuel Chaffey and his wife Mary Ann. Little was known about their significance.

Several years ago, in an effort to ascertain the extent these stones, the Chaffey’s Lock and Area Heritage Society began brush cutting and clearing years of fallen trees and brush from the area. Over that summer, with the aid of a ground sonar unit, it was established that 79 graves existed in the area that had been cleaned. Then came the hardest task, who were in these graves. Research began to reveal that the number of labourers who worked on the canal construction and died of malaria was horrendous.

Chaffey’s Lock was originally settled in 1822 by Samuel Chaffey and was then known as Chaffey’s Mills. On the falls between the lakes he constructed a saw mill and distillery on one bank and carding mill and grist mill on the other. The land purchase was for 200 acres and was located on both sides of the stream. A drawing in 1827 by Thomas Burrowes indicates just how large a complex Samuel had built. Unfortunately, while returning from what is now called Ottawa, he died on July 26, 1827. Samuel had made the trip to secure a contract for construction of part of the newly undertaken Rideau Canal. The Brockville Recorder and Advertiser lists his funeral under the heading of, “At Chaffey’s Mills”. He was interred in the family burial ground near his father-in-law, Joseph Poole, who had been laid to rest on September 12, 1825. Samuel was one of the first, of what became hundreds, that died of malaria.

Construction of the Canal at the Chaffey’s site began in 1828 and that summer the fever struck the workers. In the third week of August, 11 men died of the dreaded fever. John Sheriff, the contractor, had 81 workers and 70 of them were listed on the time sheets as off the job sick with the fever. In September 1828, a report from the Isthmus (now Newboro) states, “ 12 dead at the Isthmus (,) two contractors have only 4 men at work and the remainder to (too) ill to work”. The following notice appeared in the October 2, 1828, Montreal Gazette, “ At Chaffey’s Mills, near Brockville, on the 23rd ultimo, John Sheriff, esq., Contractor on the Rideau Canal. Mr. S.’s death was occasioned by the prevailing fever”. The fever, actually malaria, was thought to be caused by bad air and that one person could infect another. For that reason, bodies were put in the ground immediately with little or no ceremony. Several letters in The Governor General, Lord Dalhousie”s files, mention the disposal of bodies of the fever victims, by putting them in the ground immediately.

Deaths were occurring so rapidly that in the fall of 1828, the Ordinance Department set up ½ acres of land from the Military Reserves as burial locations at lock construction sites between The Isthmus and Kingston Mills. An 1828 Ordinance Map shows that this burial plot at Chaffey’s Mills was the same location as the Chaffey family plot.

In a letter dated March 10, 1829, from Bishop Macdonell of Kingston to Bishop Plessis of Quebec, he states, “The need for something for the Mission of Brockville and Prescott, because of the large number of Catholics being interred from the fever on the Rideau Canal without proper rights and burial”. Father John Macdonald of Perth tried to do the best he could under the circumstances. The fever victims were buried before he even knew about them. However, there are numerous items in the Perth Parish Registry for 1828 to 1832, where masses were said for persons who had died in Crosby. This is both North and South Crosby Townships and it is not possible to define at which location those that died worked. It could have been Chaffey’s, Davis, Jones Falls, the Isthmus or the Narrows, all of which are in Crosby.

Col. John By, the man in charge of the Rideau project tried to alleviate the problem of the bad air around each of the construction jobs by cutting all of the trees back 250 feet from each site. This actually made matters worse as pools of ground water formed and provided more locations for mosquitos to hatch. The fever deaths continued to rise. It became so bad that persons recovering from the fever would run away from the job as soon as they got strong enough, not even waiting for their pay. They probably died somewhere else as once it is in your blood, malaria is a recurring disease.

The new contractor for Chaffey’s Mills after Sheriff’s death was John Haggart. He, Robert Drummond, at Kingston Mills and John Redpath, at Jones Falls were hard pressed to keep enough men on the job to complete the work. Advertisements for labourers ran continuously in the British Whig, Brockville Recorder and the Montreal Gazette. The three men hired Peter Robinson to act as their agent and acquire the needed manpower. He made two trips to Ireland and returned with several hundred men each time. Whether recruited in Ireland or at the immigration docks, the offer of 2 shillings and 6 pence per day enticed new bodies to replace the ones that had fallen.

The Rev. William Bell of Perth, made several trips to Kingston along the line of the canal construction. His diary’s portray the hardship and disease he encountered. His description of the Irish immigrants sleeping 6 to 8 in a tent with a dirt floor and with little exception, no blankets. Col. By withheld some of the contractors payment to buy blankets for those poor unfortunates. In an August 1830, entry, Bell describes the large number of huts at Kingston Mills inhabited by Irish labourers. He states that, “the Irish immigrant supplied much of the pick-and-shovel labour”. During these trips he observed that hospitals, doctors and medicines were not provided by the contractors for their workers. Two hospitals were established, but these were for the military only.

Col. By wrote to Col. Durnford, regarding the stationing of 12-man military detachments at each work site to protect stores and property. He began to expect trouble as he stated, “with the lower class of Irish”. By felt that they might start taking what they needed that was not supplied by the contractor. However, nothing happened and the detachments were not required.

During the 4 year construction period, between 2500 and 4000 men worked on the canal each year. Helen Cowan in, “British Immigration to North America” cites the figure of 2700 for the total work force on the Rideau in 1829. The largest single group making up this total were from Ireland. After the completion of the canal, General Sir Richard Bonnycastle, British Military Commander in Kingston, wrote to Lord John Russell about some of Col. By’s problems with the construction the Rideau. He states that one of the major holdups, was the fever and that 500 workers died during the construction of the Isthmus, Chaffey’s Mills, Jones Falls and Kingston Mills, including those that died in Cranberry Marsh.

These facts clearly show that the cemetery at Chaffey’s Lock was the final resting place for a large number of malaria victims who died while building the Rideau Canal. Most of them, were men who had left Ireland with the intent of making enough money to send for their wives and families. Families that never heard from them again.

To learn more about malaria on the Rideau please visit:

Chaffey's Lock and Area Heritage Society
1724 Chaffey's Lock Road, RR1
Elgin, Ontario K0G 1E0
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