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The Rideau Canal

A poem by John Morrison

The Rideau Canal

The curtain it falls so majestic and proud
Such a natural wonder, so gracious a shroud
As if a powerful train of glory transcends
As a continuous fall at the Outaouais end

A fire alights from the south it will spread
To the north like a plague through the heart it has bled
With a mawkish like cry for freedom and joy
But freedom’s last chance was a fraudulent ploy

From a flicker of flame to a firestorm bred
Death escalates through a life cycle of dread
And taming this shrew with her penchant for blood
Was a foolish man’s bait for poor Madison’s club

Yet the fire would spread in a binominal scene
From a spark it did roar with a devilish scream
From Niagara on east, to a Forty Mile Creek
On a nondescript farm and a Chateauguay sneak

From Queenstown to Lundy, Detroit and the Thames
The Boxer and Enterprise, surrender of Maine
Through Ohio and Plattsburg to a Moravian town
The war it did rage for Miss Liberty’s crown

Cities would fall and the towns they would burn
First Newark then York; it was Washington’s turn
War’s firebrand eyes thrust farther to yield
And finally burn in an Orleans field

What came but a draw in this foolish man’s quest
For power and glory were such meaningless guests
Whatever the gain from the lives that were lost
For the hawkish bent men who lied at great cost

And the curtain still fell so majestic and proud
As if sensing the chaos, so soothing its sound
Like the rapturous strains of a torrent transcends
To emerge as a call at the Outaouais end


The years fell away and the anger did wane
Rush-Baggot would calm such a petulant strain
An American age brought prosperity’s peace
As a confidant pace of change was unleashed

But the land to the north so upright and proud
Was paranoid still to the south’s freedom sound
A country that sang of security’s calm
Now stands all alone ‘gainst a threatening psalm

Yet this land full of lakes and rivers and streams
Was a natural course for a military dream
For fear set in stride a magnificent quest
To build a canal that was strategically blessed

While the mighty St Laurence was a natural draw
It was fraught with real danger from its currents and falls
And upstream it ran from a thunderous roar
Too close to the south with its threatening core

And the Ottawa ran to St Laurence’s call
To strike from the north and a western landfall
An historical route that opened the west
Where the traders would meet at the curtain for rest

But two rivers did run from a common high ground
To the south and the north from Lake Rideau their sound
From the shallows and falls through the marshes and swamps
From King’s town to Wright’s town, two rivers as one

To build a canal through this wilderness screams
Of the madness and curse of this military dream
A task so immense, so daunting and brash
That only the British could fathom this task

Yet the British did find a man of the Corp
A Wellington man from the Peninsula War
A man who had held the Canadian Shield
So right for this task with indefatigable zeal

John By was a Colonel and a leader of men
Ahead of his time and a genius, well bred
An engineer’s man with a passionate streak
For simplicity’s beauty with its functional speak

By’s orders to build a navigable path
From the Ottawa south to Ontario’s wrath
To rise from a bay named the Entrance - way crept
Up: flight after flight, like some nautical step

A plan was developed and the contracts were signed
Engineering made simple with symmetrical lines
Pure genius at work with a heavenly hand
To guide and instruct such a magnanimous man

With Drummond and Redpath, Phillips, MacKay
Canadian contractors, strong men of their day
These artists of stone were men of their word
So forthright and loyal to the Colonel’s accord

The sappers and miners and mason’s stones lay
Stonecutters and woodmen, all of the trades
For comfort, their spirit; their love of the crown
Romantic and colourful, these men of the realm

But the marvelous work that was soon to unfold
Was dependent upon the poor labourer’s code
The back wrenching work to clear out the land
And dig such a ditch with just spades in their hands

Such men from hard times, forever were cursed
To fight for survival and work through their thirst
Through backbreaking strains as their calloused hands scream
They toiled and they toiled for this military dream

The Frenchmen held sway with their skill and savvy
So noble these men and their role as navvies
Independent of mind with a will to succeed
Just pride in their work and their songs and their deeds

But an Irishman’s fate to arrive at this place
To rescue one’s life from some wretched like fate
The scourge of the earth in the Englishman’s eye
Forgotten at home, all severed their ties

For a pestilence spread to drive them afar
From an emerald isle to this devil’s back yard
Though beauty may rest on the eye from beyond
A hellish nightmare was reality’s song

Just rags on their backs with their wives by their side
With children so weak from starvation and pride
A thousand would fall from a dengueish like hue
And die from this work’s laborious flu

Poor brothers would cry as their graves had been marked
So blind to the danger and the peril from sparks
As the powder was set with a magical link
Their lives were extinguished from the death blast’s cruel drink

Yet the lakes and the streams, swift water, rock falls
Were captured and tamed by the engineer’s call
Magnificent feats what By would achieve
In this harsh, hellish wilderness was hard to conceive

The entrance way blessed by a protestant prayer
The first stone was set by John Franklin with care
Not mindful as yet that his greatness was cast
To die in the Arctic from an arctic cold blast

With the work underway, six years to progress
The locks were completed and the dams were well dressed
Through steamy hot summers, through sweat and death’s fear
Through winter’s ice jams; hell’s nightmare those years

The curse of Hog’s Back; an Isthmus scourge
The tranquility of Chaffey’s; Long Island was purged
At Burritt’s and Black, these rapids were tamed
And Merrickville’s beauty, a religious refrain

With names like Poonamalie, with its cedar incense
An Indian aura in a wilderness sense
Opinicon’s names and a Cranberry fog
The curse of the labourer to die in this bog

The dam at the falls known locally as Jones
Such a testament to its magnificent stone
Block upon block in a crescent like stance
Like a rampart of genius, an engineer’s dance

The locks and the dams, wastewater and weirs
The cut at the entrance, eight steps to the piers
The breadth of this work remains unfathomable, sealed
As a masterpiece set in the Canadian Shield


The threat from the south was all but contained
For the status quo boundary was all that was gained
From the firestorm set in those years long ago
Extinguished for good as a friendship would grow

Poor tragedy’s mark on this cornerstone lay
On the heart of a man who kept the Rideau at bay
Called back by a King who questioned his deed
A question of funds from some zealot to heed

An inquiry would set the tone through the years
To diminish By’s feats; he was ignored by his peers
His spirit would die from his countrymen’s chill
And not from the bog or the Isthmus ills

Yet his legacy stands for our nation to see
A wonderment still, a magnificent deed
To balance such beauty and a functional stream
Through a Canadian wilderness with just minimal means

But the jewel in the crown of this engineer’s quest
Was not the canal or a technical best
For a town had been born in the Outaouais scene
In this land full of lakes and rivers and streams

By the Barracks Hill shanty near the Sapper’s stone bend
A magnificent tower of peace would ascend
From a lower town swamp to an upper town’s view
A great city would grow with great values imbued

For this capital’s crown of achievement remains
From the peaceful green flow of the Rideau, contained
The seeds of a city and a national theme
To build a great country with the freedom to dream

And the curtain still falls, so majestic and proud
Like a sentinel’s call or a passionate bow
For the genius who toiled on the Outaouais scene
And left such a mark with his beautiful stream

© John Morrison, June 2007
Mill Bay, British Columbia

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©1996- Ken W. Watson