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Rideau Boom Years:
British Immigration to Upper Canada, 1832-46

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 formerly 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 very important role the Rideau Canal played in safely transporting tens of thousands of immigrants into Upper Canada in the 1830s and 1840s. The article taken from the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of "Rideau Reflections" - the newsletter of Friends of the Rideau.
- Ken Watson

Largely unrecognized, one of the most valuable contributions of the Rideau waterway to the longer term development of inland British North America was its role in immigration, which spanned the 1830s and 1840s. As Helen Cowan wrote in her monumental study 80 years ago, never before had anything as representative of British society left her shores, and in such numbers. It was the age of the Great Migration, and coincidentally the Rideau route was available just at the right time. Although some immigrants chose to settle in Bytown and along the route to Kingston, the majority of our ancestors journeyed on to the western parts of the province. There, they counterbalanced the dominantly ‘American’ population, which had moved into Upper Canada before the War of 1812. By mid century, Canada was never so British.

Before the completion of the Rideau, the immigrant passage along the upper St. Lawrence, requiring at least four portages, was “tedious and irksome”. The roads were generally “the most wretched imaginable” and the jolting “nearly insufferable”. Immigrant officials despaired that the misery and associated costs would stem the flow inland or divert settlement to the United States. Traveler’s accounts published back home advised that, “for emigrants with large families and cumbersome luggage, destined for the upper province…the Rideau Canal is their only proper route”.

For a while in the earlier 1830s, the two routes competed in this business, but by 1840 the immigration pattern had become clear: 12,000 had passed through Bytown, while only 350 had landed in Kingston from the St. Lawrence. The immigrant sheds at Cornwall and Prescott fell into disuse.

During these years - when coincidentally the Rideau had become established as the linchpin in a thriving trans-Atlantic trading system - double the shipping capacity had to be supplied to Kingston for transshipment of bulk commodities such as grain and potash for export. Fortuitous timing. For with the influx of immigrants reaching its climax by the mid 1840’s, those otherwise half-empty, westward-bound barges became populated with the folk who were to settle inland. They filled up the ‘backwoods’ of Ontario by 1850, and made the union of Canada possible within a generation. In 1843, one of the peak years, of the more than 44,000 immigrants that landed in the Maritimes and Quebec, 30,000 moved to Upper Canada via the Rideau. To put this in perspective, more than ten times the population of Bytown passed through that community in a single navigation season!

Jones Falls in the 1830s
Durham boats passing through Jones Falls in the 1830s
This painting shows two Durham boats passing through Jones Falls. “Jones Falls” by Philip John Bainbrigge, c.1838, Library and Archives Canada, 1983-47-44

While it is true that in the earlier days conditions on some of the open, overcrowded barges caused discontent, the chief immigrant agent could report by 1844 that, “the facility and comfort” of the voyage to Great Lakes ports had become “rather an excursion of pleasure, than a serious undertaking”. The cost, moreover, was dropping, owing to competition among the forwarding companies. In fact the charge for the leg from Bytown to Kingston was less than one-third of that from Kingston to Toronto in 1842. At the same time the cost of transportation by land was almost prohibitive, about four times greater. Nor was the price factor academic. British immigrants might have been attracted south of the border by the cheaper Champlain route.

It is interesting, finally, from the viewpoint of those British officials who had been trying to make the canal cover its operating expenses, that this most important service contributed not a whit. There had never been any toll charged on immigrants carried in barges! Yet it is a recurring theme throughout so much of its history that the Rideau’s usefulness was seldom reflected in its ledger books. (Perhaps another reason why the Rideau Route was never the darling of the ‘bean counters’ of any generation!)

Thus did the Rideau play a pivotal part in populating Upper Canada during one of the most important decades before Confederation. Even as railroads were to build the country westward in the generations after Confederation, so had the locks and dams of Col. By’s great work, in this earlier period. Naturally, the Rideau abruptly lost its dominance in this trade with the completion of the St. Lawrence canals in 1847. By that time, however, the high-water mark of immigration was past. Serendipitously, the Rideau had performed a most valuable service in the settlement of Ontario, unheralded to this day.

Somewhere in the mind’s eye, one can still see the starched, British military silhouette of its builder rising again to salute his masterwork that, in this role too, when called upon, had done its duty.

© 2008 Robert B. Sneyd

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