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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

Builders Along the Rideau

The first buildings in the Rideau Corridor were most probably of log, hastily erected by owners or by neighbourly "bees." The plans were basic, the building small, the necessary materials at hand, and it took no great skill to erect at least an adequate shelter of this kind. Many of these rather crudely built cabins were replaced as soon as possible by a larger and more permanent type of accommodation, usually of stone.

The Loyalists brought with them to Upper Canada a long tradition and skill in building, both in wood and stone, but the expressed preference for stone in the Rideau Corridor is indicative of the influence of the Irish and Scottish immigrants, the ready availability of the material and the presence in the area of skilled stone-masons even before the building of the canal had commenced. Stone houses such as the Eager place in Heckston, the Harris-Radenhurst-Inderwicke house in Perth and the William Merrick house in Merrickville were all built and occupied before 1826, the year the canal was begun. However, the disproportionately large number of stone houses erected in the Rideau Corridor between 1830 and 1860 undoubtedly was due in large measure to the stone-masons who arrived in the area to work on the Rideau Canal, or learned their trade in so doing and stayed on to build houses when the canal was finished. Some, like those who built the Kelly house in Wolford township in the 1830s, had no choice: they were so indebted to Mr. Kelly for their room and board while working on the canal that they were obliged to discharge their debt by building him a house.

While it is a reasonable assumption that many of the stone houses were built by the canal stone-masons, it has not been possible as yet to actually substantiate this assumption (except in a few cases) or even to associate particular builders' names with very many of the buildings. Nor has evidence yet been found as to the origin of the plans or designs used, even in those isolated cases where the builder is known, such as Samuel Langford who worked in Merrickville in the 1850s building two of the Merrick houses, or J. Acton who built his house and the nearby church at Acton Corners: Since there were several carpenters' and builders' handbooks available in Great Britain and the United States at the time, it can be assumed that some of these were imported to Canada and used as guidebooks for house construction. A number of these, such as The Carpenter's Assistant by William Brown, The American Builder's Companion by Asher Benjamin, The Architecture of Country Houses by Andrew Jackson Downing, Louden's Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture, and Batty Langley's The City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs are known to have been in libraries of various Mechanics Institutes before 1870.3 Nonetheless, the buildings in question show little evidence of extensive copying of details from any one source. On the contrary, a very small number of all the houses recorded were found to be identical in detail, and except for a very few instances the houses having identical details were built after 1840 when planing mills were established and mass-produced millwork was becoming available. (Prior to about 1840 mill-sawn framing lumber was obtainable but the carpenter usually was still obliged to manufacture all sash, doors and trim on the site, and apparently to his own design.) The plans and designs, then, seem simply to have been evolved by the owner and builder, inevitably reflecting his origins as well as the current style of the period or area, with their ultimate success due to the intuitively fine sense of scale and proportion displayed in the design and the skilled craftsman ship displayed in its execution.

Not knowing their names, we must honour the builders as a group. They have left a lasting memorial in these plain but well-proportioned, simple but sturdy buildings. "Good building hath three Conditions — Commodity, Firmness and Delight."4 The early builders of the Rideau Corridor followed that maxim well.

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