PART II OF VI: 'Ottawa was the canal'


Written by BEN RAYNER
Photography by JEFF BASSETT
Ottawa Sun
 OTTAWA -- "This is where it all begins."
 Acting Ottawa lockmaster Guy Theriault, the man who oversees operations at the Ottawa Locks -- the Rideau Canal's largest, and arguably most famous, lock station -- is right, as they say, on so many levels.
 Not only do the eight locks, forming a gentle aquatic staircase down the 24-metre (80-ft.) drop between the gothic spires of Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier to the Ottawa River, constitute the entranceway to the 202-km canal, they're also quite literally where the city we now know as Ottawa began.
 Considered by many canal enthusiasts to be Col. John By's crowning achievement, the Ottawa Locks draw 500,000 land-based visitors from mid-May to Labor Day every year.
 And it's easy to see why. The locks and their immaculately landscaped surroundings provide not only a welcome splash of quiet green space in the heart of Ottawa's high-traffic downtown, but stand in full view of lots of geographic and architectural eye candy, including the National Gallery of Canada, Nepean Point and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
 "It's sort of the crown jewel of the parks service," says Theriault, who has abandoned his locking duties this particular afternoon for the less enviable task of preparing a monthly revenue statement. "It's a very high-profile lock station."
 But for all the pedestrian traffic they attract, he notes, a comparatively modest number of boats actually pass through the locks.
 The Ottawa Locks admit a steady stream of boaters entering the canal system from Quebec "They're our number-one clients," remarks Theriault, but Canadians and Americans cruising down from Lake Ontario, Kingston and the more southerly regions of the Rideau corridor tend to stop at the top end of the locks.
 Many prefer to moor for the night along the "grey line" provided behind the Ottawa Conference Centre and head home in the morning instead of making the lengthy descent to the Ottawa -- a task that can consume upwards of 90 minutes, depending upon the amount of traffic passing through.
 Mind you, it could be they're just scared off: With eight locks jammed into a space about a kilometre-long, the station serves as a fairly intensive training ground for anyone unacquainted with the process of locking boats.
 But despite the graphic tales of collisions and capsizings heaped upon novice boaters making their first approach to a set of locks, locking isn't quite the nightmare some make it out to be.
 All that's required of boaters is to rope their crafts in snugly against the stone walls and sit patiently -- very patiently -- as the sluice gates in the lock doors open and water flows in or out until it finds its own level. Nothing to worry about, although if panic sets in, there's always a lockmaster, canalman or summer student on hand to toss errant boats a line or to talk nervous seafarers through the process.
 It's a simple procedure -- one that's worked fine for 165 years -- but one which nevertheless consistently fascinates the hordes of canal watchers lining the stone walls of the locks.
 "Every day we get the same questions," says Theriault. "People think we just do this for historical interpretation. They don't realize we actually get boats through here."
Sun sets over the Ottawa locks where the Ottawa River flows into the canal. Those with keen eyes will spot Quebec in the backdrop.

 They should have come around in 1832.
 "Ottawa was the canal," says Gordon Cullingham, a local historian who produced Talking Up The Rideau -- an audio-cassette tour for motorists of the 23 lock stations between Ottawa and Kingston -- with his wife, playwright Janet Irwin. "The canal created Ottawa, or Bytown."
 When By first arrived in Ottawa on Sept. 21,1826, with an order from the British government to construct the Rideau Canal as a secure corridor for supplies and troops heading into the heart of Canada, he also had orders to draft plans for a town at its entrance point.
 It wasn't an easy task, by any means. "Downtown Ottawa" in those days was hardly the stately, European-flavored city centre we're used to, but rather a daunting series of beaver meadows, dank swamps and impassable stretches of wilderness. Philomen Wright had managed to carve a decently sized community - Wrightstown, now Hull - out of the untamed land across the river, but on this side there was nothing.
 "It was really an absolute wilderness," says Cullingham. "So By had to start from scratch. I never cease to marvel at that enterprise. When he came in here with Lord Dalhousie, there was nothing here -- a few farmers and a mill at every falls, roughly. And the first thing he encounters is this huge rise out of the Ottawa River. And he just gets through that and he's into Dow's Great Swamp, which was impenetrable."
 Nevertheless, By and his men went ahead and slapped the time-honored British grid system of settlement atop the swamps and woods. Within a year, two distinct communities - Upper Town and Lower Town, on the west and east sides of the first canal cut, respectively - had sprung up and were collectively being referred to as Bytown by the locals.
 Still, work on the original canal site around which Bytown prospered was a nightmare. The walls of the lock stations repeatedly collapsed, and 10 workers were killed blasting the Rideau's path from the Ottawa River uphill. To top it off, the first three locks constructed had to be ripped out and rebuilt at their current dimensions - 9.9 m by 40 m (33 ft. by 134 ft.) - when By finally convinced the British government to let him construct a canal system big enough to accommodate steamships on the grounds that it would boost trade in Upper Canada.
 He was right, and in the years following the canal's completion in 1832 it was "a pretty gung-ho time" in Bytown, Cullingham observes. The city became a major port on the Rideau trade route between Montreal and the Canadian interior, as boats laden with everything from lumber and liquor to cheese, coal and iron ore passed through town.
 The great heyday of the Rideau came to a swift end by 1850, with the completion of canals that allowed boat traffic to circumvent the rapids on the more convenient St. Lawrence Seaway. By the time the Prescott-Bytown railway was completed in 1855, the canal's future status as a recreational waterway was all but cemented.
 Thus, passenger steamers had replaced freighters on the canal by the time rough-and-tumble Bytown -- renamed Ottawa in 1848 in an attempt to shed what historian Robert Haig once called its well-deserved reputation as "the most feared community in all North America" -- came up for consideration as Canada's new capital.
 "Of some importance as affecting the popularity of the choice," Sir Edmund Head, governor general of Canada, wrote to Queen Victoria in 1857, "is the fact that the Rideau Canal, now handed over to the provincial government, would probably increase its traffic and become more productive by the transfer of the seat of government to Ottawa. At present this great work is a dead loss as far as money is concerned."
 Or, as another historian, Gene Bodzin put it: "If the Parliament Buildings bring tourists here, it was the Rideau Canal that brought the Parliament Buildings."
 All that remains of the canal's bustling past in Ottawa -- aside from the technology of the locks themselves -- is the old Commissariat Building, built in 1827 and home to the Bytown Museum since 1955. Ottawa's oldest stone building, once a storehouse for everything from whiskey and gunpowder to the canal workers' salaries, now serves as a memorial to By and his achievements.
 "The memorial was a long time coming. By's ambitious project wound up costing much more than the initial budget of 169,000 pounds agreed to by the British Parliament, eventually running up a bill in the neighborhood of 776,000 pounds. Charges he'd ignored orders to limit expenditures and that he'd spent money irresponsibly were levelled against him, and the British government refused to recognize By with any sort of honor for his achievement.
 His health destroyed by six years of hard work and illness in the wilds of Canada, the heartbroken colonel suffered two strokes in 1834 and remained an invalid until his death two years later at the age of 56.
 Fittingly, a statue of John By -- the man who made the canal, and by extension Ottawa itself, a reality in the first place -- still surveys the Ottawa Locks from the cliff's edge in Major's Hill Park.
 The last passenger steamer pulled out of Ottawa in 1935, and aside from pleasure traffic, the only boats you're likely to see carrying passengers through town on the canal these days are owned by tour companies like Paul's Boat Lines.
 Dan Duhamel's father, Paul, launched the tour operation in 1933 as a small canoe-and-rowboat-rental operation based at the Hog's Back marina. But by 1946, practicality led him to expand the business to include tour boats on the Rideau Canal.
 "People would come down and ask him to take them up to Black Rapids," explains Duhamel, perched between cruises in the shade along the mooring line behind the Ottawa Conference Centre. "The requests got bigger and bigger, and he thought 'Why don't I get a bigger boat?'"
 The tour operation moved to its present downtown location -- in the same spot once occupied by a turning basin for steamships on their way in and out of Ottawa -- three years later. Duhamel, who took control of the business when his father died in 1975, now has three boats cruising regularly up and down the 6.5-km stretch of the canal between the Ottawa Locks and Dow's Lake.
 Over the years, Paul's Boat Lines has given prime ministers, royalty and celebrities like Walter Matthau, Lee Majors and Barbara Eden a quick history of the Rideau system and a canal's-eye view of such local landmarks as the National Arts Centre, Lansdowne Park and the Chateau Laurier.
 "It's been our way of life," says Duhamel. "It raised five families."
 And while business has yet to fully recover from its brush with the recession of the early 1990s, Duhamel is confident things will eventually turn around.
 "It's a beautiful waterway, and it hasn't been exploited to its fullest potential," he says. "It's a natural resource that a lot of people haven't discovered yet."
Canoe enthusiasts James Smith and Andre Nimigan paddle near the Bank St. Bridge. The canal hosts all varieties of boats.

 A cruise up the canal with Paul's Boat Lines wraps up in one of By's engineering marvels: Dow's Lake, which until 1830 remained Dow's Great Swamp, a mosquito-ridden hellhole described by surveyor John MacTaggart upon his initial expedition there in Christmas 1826 as "one of the most dismal places in the wilderness."
 It's hard to believe the glassy lake on the edge of the Experimental Farm was once a dreaded patch of swampland where outbreaks of "swamp fever," or malaria, were common during the canal's construction. But in fact, the prospects of cutting a canal through the swamp looked so dreadful to MacTaggart that his first report to By suggested building a massive wooden aqueduct to carry ships across it.
 By's solution was much simpler. To save money and effort, he simply dammed the branch of the Rideau that used to run north where Preston St. is today and flooded the swamp. He applied the same logic to tame the rapids at Hog's Back Falls -- and, indeed, wherever he encountered rough water along the canal route.
 Rather than dig around rough water and other obstacles blocking passage on the existing river systems, he proposed drowning them by building dams at various points to raise the water to an appropriate level. Locks would then be built at each dam site to raise or lower boats into each segment of the canal.
 The 14-metre drop in the Rideau River at Hog's Back was a tough one to dam, though. Two dams collapsed at the site -- one in 1829 as By was fleeing for his life along the top -- before the one that stands to this day was finally completed.
 Mooney's Bay, south of Hog's Back, marks the point where the Rideau Canal and the Rideau River become one and the same, ending the first leg of only 29 km of artificial canal cuts dug between Ottawa and Kingston. It's also where boaters bid farewell to the area that benefitted most from the canal's construction.
 But while Ottawa may have forgotten the debt it owes the Rideau, the communities lying on its banks up ahead certainly haven't.

  • Part 1: The Canal
  • Part 3: Shooting the rapids
  • Part 4: Smiths Falls
  • Part 5: Westport
  • Part 6: Kingston

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