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Rideau Boom Years: Commercial Success
Robert B. Sneyd

Robert B. Sneyd completed a Master of Arts thesis at the University of Toronto on the topic of the Rideau Canal. The thesis was titled “The Role of the Rideau Waterway, 1826-1856.” The extensive research that went into this thesis makes Bob the definitive expert on this fascinating period of Rideau history. So while some so called “experts” have erroneously called the Rideau Canal a failure, Bob, through high quality research, has clearly demonstrated that the canal was in fact a success. The canal went far beyond its original mandate to provide a safe military supply route to the naval base at Kingston - it played a pivotal role in the early development of our nation by being a very successful Canadian commercial water route and by being the main route used to safely deliver tens of thousands of loyal British immigrants into Upper Canada.

Bob was the the President and CEO of the Centre for Sustainable Watersheds in Portland, Ontario and has been extremely active with various Rideau environmental initiatives (many instigated and organized by Bob).

In this article, Bob takes a fascinating look at the early commercial role of the Rideau Canal. The article taken from the Fall 2007 issue of "Rideau Reflections" - the newsletter of Friends of the Rideau.
- Ken Watson

Transportation is civilization, it has been said. Certainly for Canada, transportation has been the stuff of building this country in every age. The Rideau was completed in the middle of the canal-building era, barely a generation before construction frenzy turned to railroads.

The story of its initial role as a vital transportation artery is, above all, paradoxical: of Britain’s largest overseas military expenditure, becoming a vital component in the development of the North American economy. For its first 20 years the military canal was caught up in a world of commerce, when it became the linchpin of a grand trans Atlantic and North American trading system. Yet it is a story that has been largely neglected for 175 years. The North American economy was shifting to new staples such as potash, flour and grains, for export to European markets. How could the proud, old Canadian trading system---focused on the St. Lawrence River and organized in Montreal---compete with that more favoured Erie Canal, with its year-round rival port of New York?

The unimproved upper St. Lawrence was a burdensome and costly voyage at best---a tedious 12-day journey, fraught with danger---and at an exorbitant cost that virtually gave New York control of the growing western trade in these bulk, staple products.

How was it, then, that this somewhat roundabout, “backwoods” military canal to Lake Ontario saved the day, to enable the Canadian system to play such a prominent role in international trade? Simply put, waterborne commerce followed the easiest, cheapest and safest route. A triangular pattern soon emerged. Imported British manufactured goods were transferred from the ocean-going ships to barges in Montreal. They were then towed by steamboats up the Ottawa River to Bytown, through the Rideau, and transhipped to lake schooners at Kingston. The heavy, cumbersome products destined for British and European ports were, in turn, reloaded from those schooners to the barges, and run directly down the St. Lawrence to Montreal, shooting the rapids along the way.

What made the Rideau route indispensable was the fact that those large steamboats – the biggest ones built expressly for the Rideau, thanks to John By’s foresight and insistence on building larger locks -- were powerful enough to tow a string of as many as 12 barges, of up to 200-ton capacity, to Kingston. Just what the staple trade needed! Without the availability of such craft in Kingston, that export trade would have been bottlenecked there, and surely routed the American way through the Erie to New York, avoiding Kingston altogether.

By 1834, given its cost and security advantage over the St. Lawrence, 75 percent of westward traffic was using the military route. Merchandise volume quadrupled over the last half of the decade, while it was evident that the Rideau was supplying all the barges for the down-trade. In spite of the sluggish times in this decade, it was clear that the Rideau had become the vital link in inter-provincial trade. Even the rumour of an interruption in the trade prompted an Upper Canada cabinet minister to write the Lieutenant-Governor of the “serious inconvenience” and “diminished confidence” of forwarders should navigation be impeded. Had a dam broken down, the interruption would have been “ruinous to half the commercial interests of the country”, testified Hamilton Killaly, the chairman of Canada’s Board of Works.

By 1840, just when prevailing economic conditions were becoming most opportune, the Rideau was launched into the six years of its greatest boom in international trade. Six forwarding companies were now engaged in the trade, led by McPherson and Crane, with 11 steamboats, and 45 barges averaging 90 tons. Together, the other five companies ran 10 steamers and 90 barges. Over a 210-day season in 1841, 1,650 vessels passed through the waterway. It was not uncommon for a lock station to pass five steamboats a day, each towing from five to eight barges. A typical entry in the journals at Jones Falls showed the steamer Margaret passing every second day, in its busy shuttle service between Bytown and Kingston.

Davis Lock in 1840
Davis Lock in 1840
This 1840 painting shows five barges full of immigrants and cargo. These barges have just passed through Davis Lock and are being poled to the steamship Bytown (which has already locked through) that will tow them to the next lockstation. Lock, Dam &c at Davis' Mill; Barges passing from the Lock to the Steamboat "Bytown", by Thomas Burrowes, 1840. Archives of Ontario, C 1-0-0-0-50.

The Montreal and Kingston boards of trade lobbied for the maintenance of low tolls, pointing out that the broad economic interests of the Canadas were interwoven with the carrying trade and dependent on transportation facilities. Higher tolls would in effect divert commerce through the Erie to New York, and “strike a blow at the prosperity of United Canada,[from] which it may never recover”. Could there have been a more insightful, dramatic statement by contemporaries of the degree to which the Rideau route had become the keystone in the ‘commercial empire of the St. Lawrence’?

At the same time, it should be remembered that British preferential tariffs worked to Montreal’s advantage: American wheat transported in British ships, or ground in Canadian mills, entered the British market at the lower Canadian rates.

The 1842 season was busier than ever along the Rideau. It was not uncommon to pass four or five steamboats a day, with their barges. The trade brooked no delay; lock workers were on call day and night. On June 6 at Jones Falls, for example, the canalmen worked ten hours during the day and five at night. Again in 1845, the route continued its now familiar function as a key link in international Canadian trade. It turned out to be the year of its largest revenue, almost 13,000 pounds. Profits since 1843 had totaled 5000 pounds!

1846 marked the end of an era for the imperial canal even as, coincidentally, it marked the collapse of the old colonial system that had supported it over the past two decades. Gone were the old preferential tariffs with Britain’s adoption of free trade. The adolescent Canada was being thrust out of her parental home, just at the time she had gained political independence, with the culmination of its long struggle for responsible government that same year.

It is a fitting epitaph on this remarkable, if forgotten or unknown story, to reflect on the words of none other than the Master-General of the British Ordnance, Sir George Murray. In retrospect, ever since the 1820s, he confided in a letter to his Board in December of 1844, he had always seen the Rideau primarily as a commercial work:

“The general and daily purposes of that line of Navigation are commercial; and it is that Interest which has the most constant and most urgent motive for its maintenance and its good management.”

Perhaps these words remain as good as any summation of the Rideau’s central economic significance during this most crucial epoch in Canada’s development. Can we, then, use them in 2007 to support a more comprehensive understanding and sense of gratitude of our now treasured waterway, as we move forward in the next 25 years toward the canal’s bicentenary?

© 2007 Robert B. Sneyd

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