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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 10

The Architectural Heritage of the Rideau Corridor

by Barbara A. Humphreys


The first settlement of a permanent nature in the Rideau Corridor was made in the late 18th century by United Empire Loyalists seeking refuge from the United States following the War of Independence. Settlement in Canada at that time was made doubly attractive by land grants offered by the British government as a reward for loyal services during the war. As a result many hundreds of British Americans arrived in Upper Canada, bringing with them very few material goods but a great deal of experience in frontier living. For a number of years the Loyalists constituted the bulk of the population along the Rideau, but about 1820 a great wave of immigration to Upper Canada began from England, Ireland and Scotland. Peaking in the early 1830s, this was to continue until 1850, and in its course it "completely changed the nature of the British North American Colonies, swamping the old Loyalist and American communities with Irishmen, Scotchmen and Englishmen new to the New World and its ways."1

The first community to be established in the area was Kingston, chosen as a naval base in 1792. Burritts Rapids and Merrickville followed, both founded by Loyalists as mill-sites in 1793 and 1794 respectively. In 1816 Perth was founded by a group of settlers from Scotland and a large number of discharged soldiers from both Scotland and Canada. Richmond, another community originated by disbanded soldiers, was established in 1818. Consequently when the Rideau Canal was begun in 1826 there were already a few communities established along the chosen route.

The decision to build the canal was made following the War of 1812 when it became obvious that an alternate route between Kingston and Montreal would be essential in the event of further hostilities. Though it was constructed primarily for defence, the canal also provided a line of communication through the wilderness that existed between pioneer farms and communities. In the course of events which followed, it was this secondary purpose that was actually served, as the canal was never called into active military use. The canal aided in the opening of new sections of Upper Canada and encouraged settlement; it fostered the development of some communities such as Bytown (Ottawa), whose importance partially stemmed from its position as the terminal point of the canal, and it stimulated and assisted the development of trade in the area.

The canal was completed in 1832 and the surrounding area thrived and developed for the next 30 years. The coming of the railways in the late 1850s, however, marked the beginning of gradual curtailment of commercial traffic on the canal and the steady decline of the small communities originally dependent on it, although during the last quarter of the 19th century the canal continued to be an important passenger route. Ironically, the freight on the canal during this time consisted largely of coal being shipped to service the CPR divisional point established at Smith's Falls.

The canal actually continued to serve until 1935 in an increasingly limited way for transportation of both passengers and freight. Some of the smaller towns retained their importance as rural centres but growth was largely concentrated around those communities served by the railroad — Smith's Falls, Kemptville and Perth.

In recent years interest in the canal has been renewed with recognition of its possibilities as a scenic and recreational waterway and of the charm and potential of the stone houses in the Rideau area. Recognized, too, is the canal's historical importance in the development of Upper Canada and the great engineering feat displayed by its construction under the most primitive conditions. This recognition is a timely one, for as Robert Legget has said,

The Waterway is certainly a national asset of unusual value not only because of its historical significance, being a true "national historic monument" even though spread over 120 miles, but also because of the singular beauty of its course and of the convenient access it gives to many inviting lakes and much pleasant country-side.2

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