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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23

Blockhouses in Canada, 1749-1841: A Comparative Report and Catalogue

by Richard J. Young

Part I: A Comparative Study

Blockhouses and the Defence of River Communications

The whole period of blockhouse construction in Canada was one in which travel, commerce, and military communications and campaigns proceeded mainly along water routes. Exploration, the fur trade and settlement followed these natural roads into the interior. Territorial boundaries were, for the most part, defined by military control of the waterways. Not unnaturally, the majority of the fortifications built by the British in Canada defended water routes.

By the Treaty of Paris in 1763 England gained possession of the French empire in North America above the Louisiana Territory. Military occupation and control of this empire was accomplished simply by garrisoning the old French forts and by pursuing a policy of alliances with the Indians. The administration of this wilderness and the control of the territory centred in Quebec. Until well into the 19th century, British military strategists believed firmly that the security of British North America rested on the retention of Quebec. Quebec's security rested on the one hand upon maintaining British naval supremacy and on the other upon a system of forts south and west of the St. Lawrence.

Blockhouses, either as isolated works or in support of river batteries, were used extensively to fortify the routes of potential invasion of Quebec. They served as small advance posts to major fortifications, and as intermediate strategic defences between larger works. The posts guarded narrow river channels, portages, small harbours and canals. Small bodies of troops at these posts were intended to harass an enemy as he approached and to spoil his timetable. They could evacuate their own positions quickly if they had to. The posts also helped to maintain long routes of communication, and provided arms depots and rallying points for the local militia.

Four types will be used to illustrate the use of blockhouses: first, the blockhouses built on the rivers south of Quebec and Montreal during the American Revolution; second, the fortifications built between Montreal and Kingston in the War of 1812; third, blockhouses built on the Saint John River in the years 1812-14, and fourth, the fortification of the Rideau Canal in the years 1831-32.

Lower Canada, 1778-83

The rapid advance of the Americans against Montreal and Quebec along the Hudson River-Lake George-Lake Champlain route in 1775 jolted the British into their first serious consideration of the inadequacies of their frontier defences. With the arrival of reinforcements from England in 1776, Carleton drove the depleted American forces into retreat, but in the campaigns of 1776 and 1777 Carleton could do little more than re-establish his control over the head of Lake Champlain. The myth of the superiority of British forces had been shattered in those two years. When Sir Frederick Haldimand replaced Carleton as commander-in-chief in 1778, he focused his attention on strengthening fortifications. The major military activity in Lower Canada for the remainder of the war was defensive — the consolidation of routes of supply and communication, the improvement of frontier forts and the beginning of a temporary citadel at Quebec.

Immediately after he assumed command, Haldimand (with the energetic co-operation of his chief engineer, Major William Twiss) undertook the defensive measures he considered necessary for the security of the province. A fort on Carleton Island, near the entrance to Lake Ontario, was begun in the summer of 1778. Twiss also occupied himself with rebuilding and reconsidering the fortifications at Ile-aux-Noix, Saint-Jean and Chambly. A major stores depot and barracks was begun at Sorel. In answer to Lord Germain's sanguine request that a citadel should be built at Quebec, Haldimand wrote,

I shall not fail to take the proper steps for erecting a Citadel at Quebec in such situation as Assisted by the Engineers I shall be able to judge is most Advantageous.., but I think it, in the mean time, necessary to inform your Lordship, that the indispensable works carrying on for the Security of the Frontiers, which I conceive to be the most immediately requisite — furnish much more Employment than, with the Troops under my Command, can possibly be executed this year.1

This posture of defence continued throughout the war, the steady improvement of the four forts on the Richelieu continuing until 1783.

Two blockhouses were built along the Richelieu route during Haldimand's command. The first to be constructed was on the east side of the river, opposite Fort Saint-Jean where rapids ended the boat transport from Lake Champlain. The blockhouse was begun in the summer of 1778. In October of the same year, a parapet of earth was raised around it and a deep ditch was dug around the whole. An abatis was thrown up on the other side of the ditch and the woods were cleared for 200 yards around the post.2 The blockhouse protected the east side of the river, and the detachment posted there patrolled the paths and roads behind it.

8 Plan and section of The Narrows blockhouse, Rideau Canal, 1825. (Public Archives of Canada.)

9 Fort Wellington, 1891. (Public Archives of Canada.)

During the winter of 1778-79, a sawmill was built on the Lacolle River, about a mile from the Richelieu, to provide planks and boards for the improvements being made to Ile-aux-Noix, Saint-Jean and Chambly.3 It had been intended to build a defence for the sawmill at the time it was built, but other pressing matters delayed this until the autumn of 1781, when a blockhouse was built to protect the sawmill and provide barracks for the workmen employed there.4 A lighthouse was constructed at the same time to relay messages between Pointe-aux-Fer and Ile-aux-Noix, both of which could be seen from the eminence on which the blockhouse and lighthouse stood.

Strengthening the posts on the Richelieu route was Haldimand's most pressing care, but not his only one. In an attempt to keep American agents from entering the villages on the south shore of the St. Lawrence and stirring up dissent, Haldimand established a blockhouse on the Yamaska River in 1778.5 It was located about six miles below the first forks in the Yamaska, near the wide cart road leading to Saint-Charles.6 Fourteen men were stationed at the post to protect the communication and to observe the French and Indian inhabitants. Twiss explained to Haldimand that "there are from 59 to 70 Inhabitants who are exceedingly well armed, and certainly were by no means Friends to Government, as well as very disobedient to the Capt. of Militia."7

In September 1779, Haldimand received information that the Americans were cutting a road to Missisquoi Bay at the northern end of Lake Champlain. The governor wrote Germain, informed him of these developments, and stated that the rebels "will probably invade the Province from above by Lake Champlain, by the Rivers Yamaska and St. Francis, all these avenues and there are others into it, are well known to them, and which ever Route they take, they are sure in finding a number of Friends ready to assist them."8 A year later, Haldimand decided that the solitary blockhouse on the Yamaska was not enough to guard that approach. He ordered Captain Twiss to construct another blockhouse farther up the river toward Missisquoi Bay.9 In an earlier instruction to Twiss on the subject of the new blockhouse, the governor stated that he wished "to preserve it a frontier Post, therefore Permanent, which you will consider in the construction of it."10

The situation chosen by Twiss for the new work was on the west side of the river at the bottom of the rapids on the Yamaska, about 21 miles up-river from the lower blockhouse. The new blockhouse was to stand on a hill 30 feet high overlooking Ile-à-l'Ail. The forest was cleared 250 yards from its site, and the small island was cleared to provide a garden for the troops.11 In December 1781, Twiss visited the post and reported that "the Work is exceedingly well finished, and by having a bomb-proof cellar, and being surrounded with a picketting and glacis, may be considered a Post of considerable defense."12

Earlier in the war, Haldimand had expressed concern about the unfortified Kennebec-Chaudière route to Quebec. He was determined to prevent a repetition of Arnold's success in bringing troops to the outskirts of Quebec by that route in 1775. To remedy the defenceless state of the river, the governor ordered a picketed blockhouse to be built at the upper part of the settlements. A detachment of Loyalists and a company of the 34th Regiment were ordered to the area in October 1778 to build and garrison the work.13 No further information has been discovered about the location or disposition of the blockhouse.

Haldimand was also extremely concerned about the speedy reinforcement with both men and supplies of the western posts in the event of an attack from Lake Ontario. In 1778 the governor ordered Twiss to establish a post at Carleton Island to protect the communications and speed supplies to the western forts. A year later Twiss was again sent to the St. Lawrence west of Montreal, this time to supervise the construction of a canal around the Coteau rapids.14 Twiss planned improvements to the canal, and also built two blockhouses to defend it. They stood on the land side of the canal and were two storeys high, loopholed, machicolated and built in the form of a trapezoid. In December 1779 Twiss reported that the post on the canal was "secure against any Attack of Musquetry."15

10 Madawaska blockhouse. (Public Archives of Canada.)

11 Madawaska blockhouse. (Public Archives of Canada.)

The Kingston to Montreal Route, 1812-14

By the outbreak of the War of 1812, American expansion west of the Alleghenies had proceeded to such an extent that an enemy invasion of Canada from Lake Ontario was a very real possibility. Moreover, with the Loyalist settlement of Upper Canada, the British were no longer defending only the fur-trade posts west of Montreal. Complete neglect of the defences of the frontier posts exposed the long line of communication and supply to an easy interruption by American raiding parties. The extensive road system built by the Americans in upper New York meant that a large army on the Niagara River, Oswego and Sackets Harbor could be easily supplied. The British, who had few troops to spare from their European entanglements, wanted only an early end to the war and from the beginning settled for a defensive strategy in Upper and Lower Canada. Even this was difficult to implement in the western territory; the neglect of the frontier forts was responsible.

In the course of the war, the British commander-in-chief, Sir George Prevost, met this new threat on Lake Ontario with two measures. First, he strengthened Kingston's garrison, beginning a substantial fort there and establishing a very busy naval yard and shipbuilding works to achieve naval superiority on the Great Lakes. Second, he constructed a series of blockhouses and batteries along the St. Lawrence at intermediate, critical points between Montreal and Kingston. The line of defences along this stretch of the St. Lawrence River was evolved for three reasons: protection of the batteaux convoys by which all supplies to the upper posts had to travel; protection of towns and villages against American raiding parties, and harassment of a major American invasion along this route, if the British lost control of Lake Ontario. In the latter case, the British believed that if the Americans were delayed, the invasion would fail. A large army could not be sustained by living off the land and the American troops would gradually withdraw. This assessment was borne out when Wilkinson's invasion failed in 1813.

The first and most important defensive position above Montreal was the Coteau rapids. The canal and blockhouses built by Twiss in 1779 for its defence still existed, but because of the increase in wartime traffic through the canal and its greater importance as a defensive situation, both the waterway and its defences were considerably improved during the War of 1812. Lieutenant Colonel Bruyeres, the Commanding Royal Engineer in Canada, recommended, after he inspected the post in December 1812,"A Block House on the Point to contain 200 Men, also to enclose, and entrench the position; to be armed with two 12 pounders."16 A large octagonal blockhouse was finished by 1 June 1814. A battery was constructed on the point of land toward the river. The two blockhouses on the opposite side of the canal and the other buildings erected there were entrenched with ditch, palisades and abatis.17

Bruyeres had also recommended in his letter to Prevost that a blockhouse to contain 40 men and a battery in front of it should be constructed on Prison Island. This island was located on the opposite bank of the Coteau rapids. A blockhouse and buildings for prisoners of war had been built there during the American Revolution, but they were in total decay.18 The works which Bruyeres recommended were begun in the spring of 1813.19 The defences erected at the canal and on Prison Island provided a considerable obstacle to an enemy passing up or down the dangerous rapids.

Also at Bruyeres' suggestion, a blockhouse was constructed at the mouth of the Raisin River in 1813. This was the next post up-river from the Coteau rapids, at a point where the St. Lawrence broadens out. The blockhouse was established to provide protection to batteaux stopping there, and also to defend the shore road and bridge crossing the Raisin River. Lieutenant Colonel Nicolls recommended in 1814 that two 12-pounder carronades be mounted on the blockhouse, which had no ordnance.20

Two miles above Cornwall, a little below French Point, the St. Lawrence narrows considerably. Nicolls, in a report to Prevost after a tour of inspection in December 1814, considered this spot (called the Widow Barnhart's) a perfect place for preventing an enemy from passing down-river. Nicolls wrote to Prevost

that ground rises gradually to about 250 from the River... A work might be constructed for land defence, and I think to commence here by a River Battery of 4 18 prs. and building Blockhouse Barracks for the Troops, would be the best protection for Cornwall on this side.21

A little farther up-river at Point Iroquois, Nicolls discovered an other height of land which perfectly commanded the river passage. Since the high ground was too extensive to be occupied by a single work, the Commanding Royal Engineer recommended the construction of "two Redoubts with a large Blockhouse within each and a River Battery."22 Nicolls considered his suggestions for permanent works at the Widow Barnhart's and Point Iroquois the most immediately necessary for defence which could be taken between Montreal and Kingston. He communicated his opinions to Lieutenant General Drummond at Kingston who agreed. Orders were given immediately for the requisition of materials from the commissariat for the three blockhouses.23 The works were probably begun in the early spring of 1815, but by the time Nicolls had finished his tour of inspection, the war had ended, and the works he had recommended were never completed. These proposals illustrate how blockhouses and batteries might have been used effectively for the protection of river communications.

At Chimney Island, opposite the town of Johnston, a blockhouse was built late in 1814. Earlier in the year, a parapet had been raised at the lower end of the island. The current ran fast between the island and the town, and Nicolls considered the position suitable for a blockhouse and battery. During his tour in December 1814, he ordered Captain Gaugreben to build a blockhouse immediately, to finish the parapet and to construct ten platforms for artillery.24

The town of Prescott is situated at the end of the long series of rapids which begin at Lake St. Francis. It was at Prescott that provisions were transferred from small batteaux to larger ones for the remainder of the journey to Kingston. Opposite Prescott stood the large American town of Ogdensburg, New York. From this town American raiding parties attacked settlements along the Canadian side of the river throughout the war. Lieutenant Colonel Bruyeres, in his report to Prevost in January 1813, opined that Prescott was "the essential point to be first strengthened."25 A battery had been erected on the shore near the town. Bruyeres informed Prevost that he had instructed Captain Gaugreben "to erect without delay a Block House on a small commanding spot in the rear of the present Battery which it will completely protect."26 The blockhouse erected there was a large, square one-storey structure. The roof was made bombproof and may have mounted ordnance. The blockhouse stood in the centre of a square earthen redoubt and served as barracks for a large garrison.27 Lieutenant Colonel Nicolls visited the post shortly after it was completed, and described the fort to Prevost as

a great mass of earth badly put together: a work here may be an object as near the head of the Rapids and commencement of using small Vessels; in other respects, the site is not judicious as concerns the land and the breadth of the River is too great to prevent the passing of boats.28

The blockhouse and redoubt stood about where the present Fort Wellington is located.

Bridge Island, at the eastern extremity of the Thousand Islands, was fortified with a blockhouse in the spring of 1814. Lieutenant Colonel Drummond ordered the blockhouse to be built in May 1814.29 The blockhouse was large enough to hold a company of soldiers, and mounted a 12-pound carronade and a six-pound iron gun in the upper storey. An 18-pounder on a traversing platform stood in advance of the blockhouse. Thirty soldiers of the 57th Regiment were stationed there with six artillerymen in 1814.30 When Nicolls visited the post in December 1814, the fort had not been picketed in. He suggested to the commander of the detachment that surprise of the post be prevented by erecting an abatis around the perimeter of the island. Bridge Island was a normal stopping place for batteaux moving up and down the river.

Captain Forsyth's daring and destructive raid on Gananoque in September 1812 amply demonstrated to the British command the vulnerability of these frontier towns and of the communication by land and water. In Forsyth's raid, the bridge over the Gananoque River had been destroyed and the arms and munitions stored in the town were seized. Construction of a blockhouse to protect the harbour and the new bridge was begun in January 1813.31 A plan of Gananoque drawn in 1815 shows the large blockhouse surrounded by an octagonal log parapet and beyond it, square picketing. Nicolls, in his report to Prevost, described the ordnance mounted in the blockhouse as "two 12-pr. Carronades, 2-4 and 1-3 pr."32 Gananoque blockhouse was the last fortified post on the St. Lawrence until Kingston.

The Saint John River, 1812-14

In 1812 there were only two major towns in New Brunswick: Fredericton, the inland capital, and Saint John, the port at the mouth of the Saint John River. The only defences in the province at the beginning of the War of 1812 were at Saint John. They consisted of a few small shore batteries and the dilapidated Fort Howe above the town. Fredericton was considered indefensible. During the war, the existing defences at Saint John were strengthened, and several new, temporary works were erected. Because of the superiority of the British navy and the relative strategic insignificance of Saint John, the defences erected to protect the harbour and town were neither elaborate nor strong: they merely provided security against small, predatory attacks.

There was a strategy already set out, should Saint John be attacked. If the troops were forced to retreat, they were to embark on the Saint John River in a flotilla of boats. They were to take up positions in their retreat up-river to retard or prevent enemy pursuit.33 To facilitate this defence of the river and to protect the communication between Saint John and Fredericton, two blockhouses and a battery were established in 1813 along the river. Political motives influenced the decision to construct these works. As Lieutenant Colonel Nicolls explained to Governor Sherbrooke,

These Works, I recommend as much in a Political, as Military Point of view — they would become Rendezvous for the Militia, as well as afford Lodgement for the small Detachments of the Regulars, at present at those Places, and would have the Beneficial Effect of giving confidence to the Natives, at a cheap rate, and show them that it is intended to defend every Avenue to the Province as long as possible.34

Oromocto blockhouse was built, as Nicolls had recommended, in 1813. The blockhouse was located 22 miles below Fredericton on the right bank of the river. Here the Oromocto River joined the Saint John and a road began which led to St. Andrews and Magaguadavic. The post was established to protect both the river and the road.35

The second location which Nicolls chose for a post on the Saint John River was Worden's Ferry. At this point, about 30 miles above Saint John, the river narrowed to 400 yards.36 The blockhouse and battery constructed here in 1813 effectively commanded the river and the shore road on the opposite side. The road in question was the principal land communication between Saint John and Fredericton. A semicircular earthwork battery was constructed about 150 yards in the rear of the battery on a commanding height. Two four-pounders were mounted in the upper storey of the blockhouse.37

12 View of Fort Edward on the Piziquid River, Nova Scotia, 1753, by Capt. John Hamilton. (Public Archives of Canada.)

Rideau Canal Blockhouses, 1831-32

The Rideau Canal system was developed as an alternative to the St. Lawrence for the transportation of military supplies between Montreal and Kingston. The experience gained during the War of 1812 demonstrated to the British authorities that, if the western posts and settlements were to be maintained, a naval superiority on Lake Ontario was essential to preserve the extended line of communication and supply. During the war Kingston had been considerably strengthened with troops, and its harbour had become the naval and shipbuilding base for the provincial marine.

Kingston was the crucial link in the long line of communication between Quebec and Lake Superior. The St. Lawrence route was so exposed to the populated American border that an interruption of communications, supplies and the movement of troops could be made at will almost anywhere along the river. Consequently the British military had to find an alternative route. The Ottawa-Rideau river connection, if the necessary canals were built, perfectly suited the need. Between 1826 and 1832 the construction of the Rideau Canal went forward under the general supervision of Lieutenant Colonel John By, R.E.

The canal system, when completed, was a 123.5-mile route including a total of 47 locks. Its major strategic feature was that it ran perpendicularly away from the American border. But the fortification of such a large area proved as problematical as that of the St. Lawrence route itself. Obviously the locks which created the artificial waterway were the most vulnerable to destruction. Colonel Nicolls (he had been promoted in 1825 and had become the Commanding Royal Engineer in Canada) outlined the problem to Roger Byham, the Secretary to the Board of Ordnance:

To protect in all its parts, from an enterprising Enemy, about 30 miles distant, a Line of Water Communication 148 [sic] miles long in which there are 47 Locks, and various long Dams, from 10 to 63 feet high, and to which a small number of men, in a few hours, may do more damage than could be made good again, during the summer season (little can be done in this way in Winter) is a matter of no trifling consideration, especially when endeavouring to prevent the expense of protection exceeding what the object would justify.38

In 1828, a committee appointed to consider a variety of matters relating to the works on the canal had recommended for defensive purposes only

Lock Houses (which will serve as a rendezvous for Militia) as well secure protection against small numbers, until the general settlement of the Country will identify the preservation of the Navigation with the property and interests of the neighbouring Inhabitants; will assist in the general defense, and will point out clearly the expediency, nature, and situation of more important Works.39

The committee instructed By to purchase the necessary land for these houses. It had previously (in 1827) directed him to construct the "Lock Masters Houses in such a manner, and in such a situation, that they may become defensible Guard Houses, and a protection to the Locks and Dams at the several Stations."40

Colonel By did not consider small lockmaster's houses sufficient defence for the canal. In 1840 he wrote to Gother Mann, the Inspector General of Fortifications, that he had postponed the erection of defensible guardhouses until his own proposal for building blockhouses at all the locks was considered. By recommended the construction of a total of 22 large blockhouses, one to defend each of the strategic points. The blockhouses could also serve as lockmasters' houses and quarters for the labourers. He described the works he proposed.

The lower part of these blockhouses I propose building of stone, there being a sufficient quantity remaining at each station from the rock excavation to enable that part to be built of masonry, with walls four feet thick, at the same price as timber. These walls would support strong flooring beams, with a layer of masonry, to render the lower stories fire-proof and nearly bomb-proof, as shown by the Section. The roofs and timber work I propose covering with tin, which will render these buildings very durable and difficult to destroy by fire, as tin remains free from rust in this climate upwards of sixty years. I am therefore most respectfully of opinion, that these blockhouses would lend much to the general strength of that part of the country, and recommend the forming a square redoubt round each, which would add much to their formidable appearance, and serve as mustering for the militia of the surrounding country. These block-houses are proposed on a large scale, that they may serve as secure depots in time of war for provisions, ammunition and small arms, for the militia, as large villages are forming at every station where there are locks building.41

By's proposal was rejected because of the exorbitant cost which would have been necessary to complete the works. Despite the Board of Ordnance's reluctance to vote funds for the defence of the canal, By undertook on his own responsibility the erection of five blockhouses in 1831.42 The largest one, at Merrickville, measured 50 feet square in the lower storey, and was intended to contain 36 men in barracks. The walls of its lower storey were of stone, three feet thick. This blockhouse was constructed on the principles, proportion and design which By had suggested to Mann in 1830 as being the proper defence for all the important positions along the canal. Four other blockhouses were begun in 1832, one each at Kingston Mills, The Narrows, Burritts Rapids and The Isthmus. They all resembled each other but the one at Burritts Rapids was completed only to the first storey. They were built on a smaller scale (28 feet square) than the one at Merrickville, but on principles similar to those utilized in the large blockhouse. They were intended as permanent works, and care was taken in their construction. The lower storey of each, built of stone with three-foot-thick walls, was used as a store for ordnance, arms and ammunition. The upper storeys were built of hewn square timber, loopholed and machicolated. The upper floors usually served as lodgings for the lockmaster and, occasionally, for the labourers.

Many of the remaining strategic points along the canal route were later fortified with the "defensible Lockmasters houses" as originally planned. The buildings were one-storey loopholed stone or log structures.

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