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Ken W. Watson

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2010 edition of Rideau Reflections, the newsletter of the Friends of the Rideau (

In this mythconception article I'm going to tackle some of the erroneous present-day notions about the death of workers during the construction of the Rideau Canal. The specific mythconceptions in this article are that workers were buried without ceremony (funerals were held), in unmarked graves (they were marked with wooden markers), and that dangerous working conditions led to many deaths (far fewer deaths than supposed and inquests were held for all of these). So lets look at the details.

We'll start with the numbers. No one knows for sure how many people died during the construction of the Rideau Canal. Today we use a round number of 1,000, but that's really only a guess. We do know that the vast majority died of disease, principally malaria (mythconceptions about this were dealt with in Malaria - A Rideau Mythconception).

Exaggeration of the numbers started early. In 1833, Captain J.E. Alexander wrote in describing a trip he took along the Rideau in the fall of 1831, “Then comes the dreadful swamp called Cranberry Marsh, 18 miles long and two broad, where some thousand stout labourers have met their death of regular yellow fever.” The fact that there wasn't any yellow fever didn't deter the good Captain from producing a nice bit of prose. In fairness, he was was probably told this by his travelling companions, while travelling through this gloomy (drowned forests) part of the Rideau, in reference to the first big outbreak of malaria in 1828, vastly escallating the number of actual deaths (less than a thousand men actually got sick, far fewer (less than 30) died.

The numbers continued to inflate. The August 4, 1948 edition of the Ottawa Citizen reported that “Cranberry Marsh extracted a toll of many thousands of lives.” Even more recently (2007), also in the Ottawa Citizen, it stated in reference to the deaths of Sappers and Miners at Newboro “that [they] died in such numbers that they were buried in unmarked graves beside the labourers.” We do have a very specific reality check on that statement, since we know that in total, 22 Sappers and Miners died (16 from disease, 6 from accidents) and that several of those deaths didn't occur at Newboro. So if we assumed that half died at Newboro then “died in such numbers” = 11.

Often quoted is John MacTaggart's book Three Years in Canada published in 1829. In describing the early attempts at blasting he wrote “Of course, many of them were blasted to pieces by their own shots, others killed by stones falling on them. I have seen heads, arms, and legs, blown about in all directions.” This leads to visions of mass destruction. We must keep in mind with MacTaggart's lurid description that he was writing a book meant to be saleable, and that, if we assume that he wasn't exaggerating, he was describing the exceptions to the rule. We have a reality check on this one with the records of A.J. Christie, who was hired to provide medical care along the Rideau in 1827. In the period from May to December 1827, 10 men died of disease (this was before malaria took hold in 1828) and 7 from accidents.

The Montreal Herald stated in its December 15, 1827 edition, in reporting the deaths of two labourers from a cave-in, that "Two have been before this killed by blasts … and one killed by a tree falling on him." So yes, men were killed by accidents (for instance, five Sappers and Miners died of blasting accidents during the entire construction period) - but not in mass numbers.

When someone died by accident, an inquest into the death was held (this was the law). We have reports about some of these inquests. One was with regard to the death of Patrick Sweeney, a construction labourer at Old Sly's. He drowned while trying to swim across the Rideau River to obtain another bottle of whiskey. He was inebriated when he made the attempt. In the August 1831 inquest into his death, the coroner stated: "When last seen alive, he was going down with a bottle or flask in his mouth." But his story doesn't end there. His grave was dug by William Ferguson, a fellow labourer. Ferguson, “after returning from the funeral, expired in the open streets at Smiths' Falls, in the arms of his fellow workmen.” The jury in the inquest into his death concluded that it “was caused by intemperance.”

We have in the preceding description a specific reference to a funeral. Another is described by Captain J.E. Alexander during a visit to Kingston Mills in 1829. “Whilst viewing the extensive works at the entrance valley, enclosed with lofty granite cliffs, covered with birch and pine, a funeral passed us, consisting of several light two-wheeled waggons, each drawn by a span of horses. Women and men sat in three rows in these primitive conveyances, and the coffin, covered with a white sheet, lay among the straw of the leading one.”

When they were buried, as was common practice, a wooden marker was placed on the grave. In only a very few instances could the time and expense be afforded for the creation of a headstone (today we only have a couple of surviving examples in the McGuigan Cemetery, located near Merrickville). The wooden markers would have lasted a few decades before rotting into the ground, leaving no evidence today. This lack of visible headstones and the use of fieldstones (which did survive) as adjunct grave markers to the wooden markers has led to the current mythconception that everyone was buried in unmarked graves.

Mcguigan Cemetery - photo by Ken W. Watson
McGuigan Cemetery

In fact, not only are the wooden markers gone, most of the canal era cemeteries have been lost to time. One of the more interesting examples is when the canal era burial ground at Jones Falls was chosen for a new gravel pit in the 1950s (long after any memory of its existence was gone). The unearthing of skeletons soon gave the work crew a clue that they were digging in the wrong place (and the work was quickly stopped) - but that's another story (See A Grave Revealing in the Tales of the Rideau section).

There is no denying that the building of the Rideau Canal was a monumental human effort and that many died during construction. We do however have to put it in the context of the day, the number of deaths was not out of the ordinary for such a project (for instance, the building of the Erie Canal saw a similar death toll). Colonel By went far above and beyond his mandate in trying to look after the welfare of the workers. Most of the deaths were from disease (surviving records indicate that about 500 men died from malaria alone), the causes and proper treatments poorly understood at the time.

Why should we care? Because these mythconceptions reflect badly on the building of the Rideau Canal. They also reflect badly, and inappropriately, on the character of the man in charge of construction, Lt. Colonel John By. A few months ago, while visiting my mother, she mentioned that a friend had watched a recent documentary about the building of the Rideau Canal. Her friend's comment after watching the show was that "the workers were treated like slaves." That simply isn't true.

We know the media motto that "if it bleeds, it leads" and there certainly has been a tendency, mostly in ignorance of the true facts (sometimes deliberate), to exaggerate the human cost of construction. The building of the Rideau Canal was a very difficult job, it extracted a human toll, but it was also done following all the civilized mores of the day.

- Ken Watson

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©1996- Ken W. Watson