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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 8

The Canals of Canada

by John P. Heisler

Canals and the Defence of the Canadas, 1763-1841


The Peace of Paris in 1763 left Britain in possession of the eastern half of the North American continent stretching from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Very quickly the government of the new Province of Canada became concerned with the problems of transportation and communication. The immediate demand was for improved transportation on the Great Lakes where fur had to be transported eastward and bulky supplies of flour, corn and pork carried westward from the agricultural centres about Detroit and Niagara to Michilimackinac. In time a few government and privately owned vessels came to handle the commerce which developed on the lakes. In 1777, however, Carleton, as a war measure, prohibited the navigation of private vessels on these waters. The government now seized all vessels on Lakes Ontario and Erie and goods could only be transported in the King's vessels from Carleton Island to Niagara and from there to Detroit, at which place the goods were unloaded from the vessels and placed in the forts. This procedure made it less likely that such goods might be conveyed to the enemy. Upon becoming governor-in-chief in 1778, Haldimand continued this policy, believing that if the transport of any merchandise on the Great Lakes except in the King's vessels was permitted, a door would be opened for clandestine illicit commerce hurtful to the province. He feared that a great part of the furs from the upper country would reach the American states by small rivers running from the lakes, and he especially feared a flow of furs from the upper country directly to Albany by the great route of the Oswego. Haldimand believed that everything possible must be done to prevent the Americans from reaching into the interior parts of the country and making contact with Indians friendly to the British, resulting eventually in the former supplanting the latter in the fur trade.1

Meanwhile, government stores and merchant goods jammed up and put a great strain on the small provincial marine. At the same time, an even greater strain was put on the weakest link of the long inland navigation route from Montreal to Michilimackinac; namely, the freighting done by corvee along the rapids of the upper St. Lawrence between Montreal and Lake Ontario. This freighting became yearly more burdensome as trade increased with the upper posts, though the greater part of this work was done in the early spring and fall, thereby leaving the men time to work on the farms. Both the need of corvee and the hatred engendered by this legacy of the French regime gave much concern to the British governors.2

The passage of the St. Lawrence River, between the Island of Montreal in Lake St. Louis and the broadening waters of Lake Ontario in the lower reaches of Lake St. Francis, was hindered by a narrowing of the river to a series of strong rapids at three locations: the Cascades, a few miles from the port of Montreal; the Cedars, some 25 miles up-river, and at Coteau du Lac near the entrance to Lake St. Francis. The rapids at Coteau du Lac were the narrowest and swiftest, and their influence upon the restriction of military and commercial movement the most important. Water transport was confined to difficult and dangerous passage by canoe or the smallest of boats. This meant that heavy cargo was required to be portaged overland and transhipped at the small ports on Lake Ontario.

In 1779, Haldimand ordered a reassessment of the fortifications, defensive and engineering works under his command. To assist in the work he called upon Lieutenant Twiss, commanding Royal Engineer in Canada, for consultation and reconnaissance. At the same time, April 1779, Haldimand charged Colonel Thomas Carleton, younger brother of Sir Guy and commander of the city and garrison of Montreal, to increase "the flow of goods to the upper outposts" of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. The following month found the governor-in-chief coming to the conclusion that the "upper outposts" were more likely to be attacked than were the southern parts of the province. He, therefore, became keenly concerned about the transportation of provisions to reinforce the posts along the St. Lawrence to the west and into the Great Lakes.

During the early summer of 1779 Haldimand, in consultation with Twiss and possibly Carleton, formed a plan for the construction of a fortified canal across a narrow peninsula of land at Coteau du Lac, on the north side of the St. Lawrence, in order to by-pass the swift waters of the rapids at that place. The military need for the work was well established. It is also considered possible that private commercial and business interests in the upper lakes, deprived of the use of merchant vessels on the orders of Carleton, compelled the consideration of canals. But regardless of reason, the construction of a small canal at the Coteau was to have considerable military and commercial value.3


Work on the four short military canals on the St. Lawrence was begun in 1779 under the direction of Captain Twiss. They were built by the government to overcome the rapids at the Cascades and Cedars. Once the work got under way Cornish miners were brought from England to do the rock-cutting. The following is a brief description of these canals found in Canada and its Provinces.

The first canal situated at the Faucille Rapids, a short distance above Cascades Point, was 400 feet long and 6 feet wide and was equipped with one lock. The second, of the same width, was at the Trou du Moulin near the mill owned by the Baron de Lengueuil. It consisted of a cut some 200 feet long, unprovided with locks. At Split Rock Rapid advantage was taken of a natural opening through the rocky shore, known as the Split Rock. This passage was 200 feet long and was equipped with one lock, the sides of which were formed by the natural walls of the channel. The last and most important cutting was at Coteau du Lac. It had three locks and was 900 feet long by 7 feet in width. This series of Canals was thus about 1700 feet in length, with five stone locks, each six feet wide with the exception of those at Coteau du Lac which were seven feet. The locks had a depth of two and a half feet in the mitre sills, and were designed for bateau or normal small boats carrying from thirty to forty barrels of flour.4

2 The eight locks of the Rideau Canal, Bytown, about 1828, a sketch by E. C. Frome. On the left is the office of the Royal Engineers; centre foreground, the Commasariat Stores building. The bridge above the last hook is the Sappers Bridge. (Royal Commonwealth Society)

Much correspondence passed between governor and engineer as the work progressed. Writing to Haldimand on 2 December 1779,5 Twiss stated that the work at Coteau du Lac would greatly advance the transport to the upper country by making it the easy passage for batteaux and that he hoped to complete the work at Coteau by the following summer. Construction, however, did not proceed as quickly as expected. On 5 June 1780,6 Twiss wrote that he would soon have more workmen on the job and thus possibly complete construction of the Coteau locks by the end of September. Experience had already forced him to change the plan of construction and instead of having timber sides they were to be built of masonry. Twiss believed that the locks at Coteau du Lac would prove "as useful as any in the world." Finally, on 15 February 1781,7 he informed Haldimand that the canal at Coteau was now complete and in good order and so situated that it could not be destroyed by ice. On the opening of the canal at Coteau du Lac, and to assist in the transport of cargo, the Commissariat Department raised a company of batteau men under the command of Captain Herkimer and stationed a detachment there supplementing the military engineers and artificers engaged in construction of the canal and fortified post.

In his letter of 15 February 1781,8 Twiss warned that many difficulties still remained in the navigation about the Cedars. Haldimand, believing that the canals would prove of great advantage to the merchants and that it was important that the whole expense should not fall on the government, instructed Twiss to speak to the merchants on this point. Thereupon, Twiss attended a meeting of the merchants whose goods passed through the Coteau Canal and informed them of Haldimand's belief that each batteau belonging to a private person should pay a toll. The merchants cheerfully accepted this idea, consenting to pay 10 shillings for each batteau passing through the locks. Twiss expected that such a toll would produce from £100 to £160 per annum and thereby hoped that the cost of improvement on the canals would fall lightly on the government.9 The amount of toll collected during the season of 1781 was £ On 19 September 1782, Twiss reported that the locks at the Cascades were built; that two pairs of doors were hung though part of the floor and sluices still remained to be finished.11 He assured the governor, however, that loaded batteaux would pass through in six or seven days, though a great quantity of stone must still be brought and laid on the outside to secure the work against ice. At the Little Rocks, Twiss found that six Cornish miners had done good work to open a large channel close to the shore through which "loaded bateaux will pass without difficulty and without the expense of floodgates." The Cornishmen were also working on the canal at the Trou du Moulin near the mill owned by the Baron de Longueuil and at the Buisson. Twiss concluded his report by stating that at Coteau du Lac the walls of the locks required painting since they were not yet as waterproof as they should have been.

A year later on 23 August 1783, Twiss reported good progress of the work and assured the governor that the whole would be completed about 30 September at which time he proposed to discharge the workmen.12 He directed that the canal at the Baron de Longueuil's be finished while at the same time insisting that the baron pay a part of the expense. Tolls received during the year at the several locks totaled £175.15.0. And Twiss went on to add that "when the lock at Split Rock is finished, the toll upon each bateau will be 25 shillings" which would most likely amount to £325 currency annually in tolls. He believed this to be an ample sum to pay all persons employed on the canals as well as all expenses necessary to keep them in good repair. Boats in the King's service, would of course pass free. At the time of their completion, about 260 craft annually used the canals. They were always considered as a military line of communication and their principal use prior to the formation of the Rideau Canal was for the passage of batteaux belonging to the Commissariat Department.

In 1800, Colonel Gother Mann of the Royal Engineers was authorized to make a report on these canals.13 He found them to be in bad condition. He also found that, due to a fall in the water level of the river along with an increase in the size of the craft using it, drastic alterations were required in the construction of the locks. The visible fall in the water level he attributed to the clearing of land for settlement which caused many small streams to nearly dry up and, while not as yet of any great consequence, the fall would undoubtedly continue with increased settlement and development of the country. The increase in the size of craft using the river Mann attributed to the merchants who found it advantageous to enlarge the dimensions of their boats navigating between Montreal and Kingston. As a result of these two factors, the present locks and canals were not only deficient in depth of water but were also too narrow. This caused the larger boats to pass through only with difficulty, part of their load having to be taken out which meant additional labour and delay. Mann stressed the great convenience of the canals, when in a proper state, to government and commercial interests especially in relation to Upper Canada. He believed that the toll arising from improved canals would justify and repay the expense involved in substantial repairs and required improvements. He estimated the amount of toll at £600 per annum and increasing yearly, and held that improved canals and larger boats passing through them justified an increase in rates.

Mann proceeded in his report to treat each lock separately, indicating its present condition, the repairs and alterations necessary, and the probable expense involved. At Coteau du Lac he found the walls of the locks defective, the gates and sluices decayed, and the locks so narrow that the batteaux passed only with greatest difficulty. His proposals were, besides a thorough repair job, to enlarge the opening of the gates, to widen the canal by 2 feet and the locks 4 feet, and to deepen the canal by 1-1/2 feet. With these alterations the canal could handle the biggest loaded batteaux and boats of large dimensions, even when the river was low. He estimated the cost of these repairs and improvements would be £882 currency. At Split Rock, Mann found the lock in fair condition but with the same defects in point of dimensions. He proposed, therefore, to deepen the lock 2 feet and enlarge it 4 feet and deepen the channel leading to it. Cost of repairs and improvements he estimated at £364 currency. The locks and canals at Mill Rapid and Cascades he found to be in such bad condition and to require such extensive repairs as to be nearly equivalent to rebuilding them. Ice had done great damage here and in the past maintenance costs had been extremely high. Mann therefore advised that a new canal be built to avoid both rapids and he estimated the cost of such a work at £2,881. He recommended temporary repairs to the two existing canals and suggested that they be used during the construction of the new one in order to prevent interruption to navigation.

As a result of Mann's report, some improvements were made though, because of the expense involved and the unlikelihood of repayment through tolls, these improvements were not as extensive as he proposed. In 1804, the locks at Coteau du Lac and Split Rock were partially rebuilt and a new canal about half a mile in length with three locks, six feet in width between the posts of the gates, was constructed at the foot of the Cascades instead of the old locks at the "Faucelle" and the "Trou du Moulin." Writing to the military secretary on 16 January 1805,14 Captain R. H. Bruyères of the Royal Engineers gave a detailed account of the work on the new canal and on 7 March 1805,15 he estimated that its construction would cost an additional £472 above Mann's estimate. Additional expenditure was due principally to the difficulties encountered in rock-cutting, excavating the rock, and constructing masonry below water level. Other difficulties had arisen, not the least of which was a shortage of labour. Whenever manpower was needed for removing large stones or more frequently to clear the water from the canal after heavy rains, the artificers had to assist the labourers, which naturally retarded their progress. Moreover, it would seem that Mann in his report had not been fully aware of, and had not made sufficient allowance for, the great difficulty and expense involved in keeping the work free from water. Despite these difficulties the canal was completed in 1805.

A St. Lawrence waterway, navigable for small war and supply vessels up to the Great Lakes, afforded the inhabitants of the Canadas a considerable degree of military security since it enabled Britain to protect the Canadas with comparative ease. Without such a waterway defence of the Canadas would be difficult. The War of 1812 drove this lesson home. At that time, no less an authority than the Duke of Wellington declared that naval superiority on the lakes was a prerequisite to a successful land war.16 The military authorities responsible for the defence of the Canadas were made acutely aware of the problem when the transport difficulties encountered during the War of 1812 impressed upon them the necessity of having unimpeded communication with the frontier of Upper Canada. In 1814 the commissary general addressed a long memorandum to the governor-in-chief and commander of the forces, Sir George Prevost, warning him that

The difficulties experienced in the transport of Stores and Provisions during the last Season for the construction, armament and equipment of His Majesty's Ships on Lake Ontario for the supply of Troops in Upper Canada imperiously demand that means be properly devised for a certain conveyance of the innumerable Articles necessary for maintaining in that Province the great and increasingly Naval and Military Forces requisite for its defence.17

He proceeded to point out that the cartage from Montreal to Lachine was extremely burdensome — that no less than 15 to 18 thousand loads of public stores were carted during the season to Lachine and much of this work was done by farmers called from their lands to perform it. The commissary general further pointed out that the batteau men for the transport from Lachine to Kingston were ordered on corvee from the parishes, that the severity of the service caused many to refuse to obey the orders to report, and caused others to desert from the batteaux en route. Moreover, since it was the opinion of the crown lawyers that these men could not legally be convicted, the commissary general suggested that to effect the great improvement in the navigation would require considerable expense and labour and that "the practicability of making a canal between Montreal and Lachine should be immediately ascertained."18

3 Map showing the St. Lawrence, Ottawa, Rideau and Richelieu canals. (Annual Report, 1894-95, Dept. of Railways and Canals.) (click on image for a PDF version)

4 The first eight locks of the Rideau Canal, Bytown, 1830. (Public Archives of Canada.)


With the close of the American Revolution, the British government faced the problem of finding suitable locations for the settlement of disbanded soldiers and Loyalists moving northward into what is today the Province of Ontario. In 1783 parties were sent forth to explore the country on either side of the Ottawa River. One of these was led by Lieutenant Jones who travelled up the north side of the Ottawa as far as Chaudière Falls before crossing the river and returning along the south bank to Montreal. Another party led by Lieutenant French came up the south side of the Ottawa; portaged at Rideau Falls on 2 October 1783; proceeded along the Rideau to its source in the Rideau Lakes; portaged to the Gananoque River; sailed down it to the St. Lawrence, and returned to Montreal. In his exploring, French had traversed the general line of the present Rideau Canal and had shown that a through route existed between the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence. His report19 proved to be "the first written record of the Rideau Waterway." Though nothing was done in the way of settlement as a result of these reports, it is possible that the feasibility of utilizing the Rideau River as a military canal route between Montreal and Kingston was brought to the attention of the British government around 1790.

The War of 1812 demonstrated to the British in London and Canada the vital importance for all military operations, offensive and defensive, of improving communications in the Canadas and in particular to taking special measures to command the lakes and inland waters. During the war the Americans threatened to interfere with communications between Lower and Upper Canada along the St. Lawrence River system which was practically incapable of defence in time of war." Consequently, British military leaders gave serious thought to an alternative water communication between the two provinces.20 The most obvious route was by way of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers. "Even before the end of the fighting, Sir George Prevost, commander of the British forces, had written to Lieutenant General Sir George Drummond at Kingston enclosing plans for a Rideau system and asking for comments upon these plans and for further information."21 Drummond sought the opinions of three local and experienced officers before replying that such a project would involve immense difficulties and expense.22

A few months after receiving Prevost's letter and plans relating to a Rideau waterway system, Drummond received from Lord Bathurst, Secretary for War and the Colonies, instructions dated 10 October 1815, to "get estimates of expense of the Lachine Canal and of the Ottawa and Rideau being navigable, in order that His Majesty's Government may decide as to the propriety of undertaking these works, each separately or simultaneously."23 Apparently the British government intended to consider the entire question of navigation from Montreal to Kingston of which the Rideau Canal was a substantial part. Drummond passed the instructions over to Lieutenant Colonel G. Nicolls, commanding Royal Engineer in Canada. Nicolls was directed to send an officer to explore and report upon the feasibility of the route between Kingston and the Ottawa River. Lieutenant Joshua Jebb was selected for this task. He was instructed: "(1) to follow up the course of the Cataroque from Kingston Mills, and keeping a northerly direction to penetrate into Rideau Lake, and descend the river which flows from it to the confluence with the Ottawa; (2) to return up the river as far as the mouth of Irish Creek, and trace the waters of which it is the outlet to their source, and from them to follow up the best communication he could find to Kingston Mills, or to the Gananoqui, and suggest any temporary expedients for improving the navigation so as to render it available for batteaux; and (3) to take note of the country with a view to its being deemed eligible or otherwise for the establishment of military settlements."24 Jebb completed his work in the late spring of 1816. In his report he stated that the establishment of a water route between Kingston and Ottawa by means of the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers was practicable; that both routes examined by him were acceptable but that he preferred the shorter one by way of Irish Creek.25 Nothing further, however, was done following the receipt of Jebb's report with regard to the Rideau Canal until 1821.

Meanwhile the British government continued to show keen interest in military communication. Bathurst wrote to the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in 1816, regarding the Rideau project, that His Majesty's government was "most desirous that preparatory measures should be taken for the performance of this important work."26 The home government was urged to undertake this work by the wartime naval commander on the lakes who wrote, on 30 May 1815, about the necessity of a naval squadron along with "a large military and naval establishment and a secure passage for supplies by opening up the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers."27 At the same time, the Duke of Richmond, a distinguished soldier and governor-in-chief of British North America (1818-1819), was much concerned with defence measures and strongly favoured the Rideau project stating that "the possession of the St. Lawrence above Cornwall for the conveyance of reinforcements or stores ought not to be ours for three days after the commencement of hostilities."28 In his remarks Richmond emphasized the necessity of delaying tactics against the enemy so as to give time for reinforcements and supplies to arrive from England. For this, defence works and improved lines of communication were a necessity along with a cooperative and enthusiastic militia.29 Richmond had served under Wellington at Waterloo and was partly responsible for the active interest which the Iron Duke, as master of the ordnance and therefore involved in all operations of the British Army, took in the Ottawa-Rideau project. Wellington addressed a strong memorandum to Bathurst in 1819 stressing its importance.30


In the previous year (1818), Captain J. F. Mann of the Royal Engineers had surveyed the Ottawa River and found its navigation impeded by the rapids at Carillon and Grenville. He therefore recommended the construction of three canals with locks between Carillon and Grenville in order to overcome a fall in the river of nearly 60 feet. Mann estimated that construction of these canals — Carillon the lowest, Grenville the highest and Chute-à-Blondeau the intermediate one — would cost the British government £16,740.31 The three canals were designed by the imperial authorities in 1819 on the scale of the Lachine Canal and construction was commenced the same year under the direction of the Royal Engineers at Grenville, midway between Montreal and the Rideau River. The locks were 106-1/2 feet in length by 19-1/2 feet in the chamber with 6 feet of water. Unfortunately, the Grenville contained a small lock of 106-5/6 feet by 19-1/4 feet which determined the size of the vessels that would be used on the Ottawa-Rideau waterway. Later in 1828 before their construction was completed, it was decided to increase the size of these canals in order that they resemble more closely those on the Rideau. The construction of these canals on the Ottawa was necessary in implementing the imperial government's decision for an interior route between Montreal and Kingston via the Ottawa and Rideau rivers which could serve as a "military water highway" in any future war with the United States.32


It has already been pointed out how during the War of 1812 due to transport difficulties it was a great strain to get stores and provisions through to the naval and military forces in Upper Canada, thereby threatening the continued existence in that province of the forces required for its defence. Writing to the governor-in-chief and commander of the forces in November 1814, the commissary general had urged, as a step in ameliorating the difficulty, that "the practicability of making a Canal between Montreal and Lachine should be immediately ascertained by scientific men."33 This was not the first time that attention had been focused on the need of a canal at the Lachine Rapids. As early as 1791 the increase in trade between Upper and Lower Canada had indicated the need of such a canal as an essential link in the navigation of the St. Lawrence. In that year, Adam Lymburner, a Quebec merchant, urged the building of such a canal pointing out that the costs of carting Upper Canadian goods past the rapids would "fall very heavy on the produce of the lands."34 Five years later John Richardson introduced in the Lower Canada House of Assembly a bill for the construction of a Lachine Canal.35 His premature proposal, however, was dropped due to a general lack of interest. The project was left in abeyance until the commissary general's memorandum again raised the question, whereupon the government decided to act quickly in the matter. In January 1815, shortly before the cessation of hostilities, the Lower Canada House of Assembly received a message stating that:

His Majesty's Government having in contemplation the speedy opening of a Canal from the neighbourhood of the Town of Montreal to Lachine, His Excellency the Governor in Chief recommends the subject to the early consideration of the House Assembly, and that they will grant such supply and other Legislative provision as they may deem expedient to assist in carrying into execution so important an object and whereas the execution of such a project will greatly benefit His Majesty's service, ameliorate the Internal Communications of this Province and thereby tend generally to the encouragement of the agriculture and commerce thereof.36

The legislature of Lower Canada responded to this appeal with "An Act to grant an Aid to His Majesty to assist in opening a Canal from the neighbourhood of Montreal to Lachine and further to provide for facilitating the execution of the same."37 The sum of £25,000 was appropriated for the purpose and three commissioners were appointed and entrusted with the execution of the work.

Captain Samuel Romilly of the Royal Engineers now studied the project, made a survey, estimated costs and submitted his report in 1817.38 He found that the navigation of the St. Lawrence from Montreal to Lachine, a distance of about 10 miles, was very difficult owing to the rapid current and the shallowness of particular parts. A strong current called St. Mary's extended for 2 miles below the town of Montreal at the foot of which vessels were detained frequently for weeks till they got a wind sufficiently strong to enable them to stem the current. Romlily estimated the cost of a canal with a depth of 3 feet of water and capable of passing Durham boats 60 feet long, 13 feet 6 inches wide and drawing 2 feet 6 inches of water at slightly over £46,000 Halifax currency (at that date £36,800 sterling). From his point of view the greatest objection to such a canal was that the stagnant water in it would freeze some time before the river and therefore the canal would cease to be navigable for several weeks before the St. Lawrence closed to navigation. Romilly's estimate of costs was almost twice the figure of £25,000 appropriated for the project. The prospects of the canal being constructed under government direction therefore did not seem bright. At the same time the British government had now focused its attention on the construction of the Rideau Canal. Nevertheless, the imperial authorities, preoccupied as they were at this time with the problem of defence and the survival of British power in North America, were prepared to give financial assistance should the Province of Lower Canada shoulder the responsibility of constructing the canal since it was an important link, not only in the St. Lawrence route, but in the Ottawa-Rideau system as well.39

Following the unsuccessful attempt of a private company to construct the canal, the Province of Lower Canada undertook to complete the work.40 The first sod was turned in July 1821 and the canal was opened in August 1824. The final cost of £109,601 greatly exceeded the original estimates and of this amount all but a £10,000 aid by the British government was contributed by the province. This aid of £10,000 was granted on condition that free passage be granted to military stores and to all boats in His Majesty's service.41


In 1821 at a time when the Erie and Lachine canals were under construction, the government of Upper Canada moved to improve the internal navigation of the province. An Act was passed appointing commissioners to report on the subject.42 "The commission, headed by the Hon. John Macaulay of Kingston, worked for four years."43 Though it concentrated its attention on major obstacles like Niagara Falls and the rapids of the St. Lawrence, the commission did find time to consider the Rideau waterway. It engaged Samuel Clowes, an experienced civil engineer, to make surveys of this route. He submitted a detailed report in April 1824.44 In it he pointed out that lack of an adequate water supply and an excessive amount of required cutting decided him to abandon the alternate route by way of Irish Creek. Instead he prepared estimates for canals with three different sizes of locks all using the route followed by the canal of today. Clowes estimates for a large canal and locks to a very modest one ranged in cost from £230,705 to £62,258. These figures, even for that time, were wholly unrealistic for "the cost of a canal system almost 130 miles long with 47 locks having a total lift of over 400 feet."45 The reports of the Macaulay Commission were placed before a joint committee of the legislature for its consideration and were published in April 1825. The commission's final report on the proposed Rideau Canal referred to the military aspects of it and made an interesting reference to the need of the canal as affording a means of local communication for the military settlements.46

During the summer of 1825 the governor-in-chief submitted the Macaulay Commission's report to the military authorities in London. Immediately the British government offered a loan of £70,000 to assist with the construction of the Rideau Canal if Upper Canada would undertake the work.47 The Upper Canada legislature, however, being convinced that the Ottawa-Rideau route could never compete commercially with the St. Lawrence, favoured improving the latter route. The legislature, therefore, decided not to act on any of Clowes plans and declined the loan offered by the British government.48

Though unable to come to an agreement with the Province of Upper Canada on the project of the Rideau Canal, the British government considered it too important, from a military point of view, to be abandoned. In 1825, Wellington appointed a commission of military engineers headed by Major General Sir James Carmichael Smyth with Lieutenant Colonel Sir George Hoste and Major Harris as the other members, to visit Canada and report on the defence of the country.49 Ordered to report on the feasibility of Clowes plan for the Rideau Canal, the commission traversed the entire route and approved of it. However, the commission questioned the correctness of Clowes estimates and reported that an additional £20,000 would be required to allow for the increased size of locks (108 feet long by 20 feet wide with a depth of 5 feet) in order to permit gunboats to pass. The commission estimated that the cost would therefore be £169,000. At the same time, the commission attempted without success to work out some cooperative financial arrangement with the Province of Upper Canada regarding the cost of the project. In this respect, the commission made the following report to Wellington:

In compliance with Your Grace's command, we have endeavoured to ascertain what assistance, if any, could be procured from the Provincial Government towards carrying out this important work.... We regret, however, to say that there does not appear to be the slightest chance of any pecuniary aid from the Province of Upper Canada. The settlers are very poor and the Province still in its infancy.... Excepting it is undertaken by His Majesty's Government we are afraid it will never be executed. Companies are forming and cheap and temporary expedients are likely to be resorted to for improving navigation of the St. Lawrence in order to enable the produce from Lake Ontario to be forwarded to Montreal and Quebec, with less trouble and risk than at present. The important advantages of such a communication in the rear of the frontier are not likely to be appreciated by the bulk of the inhabitants of the Province; nor is it probable that for the attainment of a remote good they will agree to any tax or immediate pecuniary loss.50

Wellington, at this time, pressed upon the British government the recommendations of the Smyth Commission for the improvement of communications and the building of fortifications.

I do not entertain the smallest doubt that if the communications and works proposed by the Committee are carried into execution, His Majesty's dominions in North America ought to be, and would be effectually defended and secured against any attempt to be made upon them hereafter by the United States, however formidable their power, and this without any material demand upon the military resources of the country.51

However, as it turned out, the application of the Smyth Commission's recommendations, by a pessimistic and parsimonious government, was hesitant and piecemeal. The British government decided though to undertake the construction of the Rideau waterway. This decision was based upon the Smyth Commission's ridiculously low and completely unrealistic estimate of £169,000.

On 10 March 1826, the Board of Ordnance requested General Gother Mann, Inspector General of Fortifications, to select a competent officer of engineers to be sent out to Canada to take charge of the construction of the Rideau Canal. Before departing for Canada this officer was to consult with Smyth who was experienced in the particular duties to be performed and knowledgeable on the subject of the Rideau waterway. Smyth was to draft the proper instructions for the officer selected to undertake this duty.52 Upon receiving this communication from the Board of Ordnance, Mann selected Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers to take charge of this work.53

A few days later, Mann received from Smyth a long memorandum, dated 14 March 1826, pertaining to the construction of the canal.54 In this memorandum Smyth expressed ideas and afforded information which he believed might be useful to By. The object of the Rideau project, according to Smyth, was to create an uninterrupted water communication from Lake Ontario to the Ottawa River. The undertaking was to form part of a waterway system which included the Lachine and Grenville canals. The locks of the Rideau were to be of the same length and breadth as those of the Lachine and Grenville, namely 108 feet in length and 20 feet in breadth. Smyth expected that strong representations would be made to By from the principal merchants to terminate the canal at the Gananoque River instead of Kingston on Lake Ontario. This mercantile point of view must not under any circumstances be accepted. Smyth stated that the British government had in mind the circulation of gunboats between Montreal and Kingston and military considerations therefore dictated that the canal must end at the latter place. He recommended that By prepare himself for the task by reading Jebb's report, a copy of Clowes report and his three estimates, and also the reports of the commissioners employed in constructing the Erie Canal, published by the Americans. Smyth believed that these American reports contained a good deal of valuable information pertaining to the great quantities of water which in the spring could injure the canal if not guarded against by culverts and waste weirs along with details as to the method of excavating the canal and constructing necessary dams. Smyth further recommended that By go over the work of the Lachine Canal in the company of the commissioners of Lower Canada under whose direction this valuable undertaking had been constructed. This work Smyth believed to be better executed and more substantial than the American Erie Canal. A study of the Lachine work would afford By much information as to price and cost of materials, workmanship and labour. Smyth went on to say that in his opinion it would be found more economical and more expeditious to build the whole of the proposed canal by contract. The Americans had built the entire Erie Canal that way. By's attention was also drawn to the necessity of taking sufficient land on points of the canal nearest to Kingston which from their proximity to Lake Ontario might eventually require Martello towers or batteries to protect the embankments and docks from being destroyed by a landing of the enemy. And finally Smyth foresaw By's need of a detailed letter from the Colonial Office to the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada whose assistance would be required to facilitate by an Act of the legislature or otherwise procuring or purchasing the land necessary for the waterway as soon as By should have ascertained the required boundaries and extent.

5 A pencil sketch of the Rideau Canal by John Burrows. (Public Archives of Canada.)

On 13 July 1826, shortly following his arrival in Canada, By sent a dispatch to Mann in which he strongly recommended the formation of an uninterrupted steamboat navigation from Quebec to Lake Superior by enlarging the locks of the projected Rideau Canal so as to allow the passage of steamboats then being built for the navigation of the Great Lakes.55 These boats measured from 110 to 130 feet in length and from 40 to 50 feet in width and drew 8 feet of water when loaded. Use of such vessels would give Britain possession of the trade on the borders of the lakes and completely nullify the strong efforts the Americans were making to dominate this trade by constructing canals. This lakes area with its immense population would, according to By, serve as a great outlet for British manufactured goods. Moreover, canals enlarged to accommodate the new steamboats, each of which could carry 12-pounders and 700 men with ease, would give Britain military domination of the lakes by allowing for the concentration quickly of troops at any point. Canada would then be perfectly secure from attack. By advised also the opening through enlarged locks of the Richelieu River to allow steamboats to enter Lake Champlain and thereby secure for Quebec the commerce from that part of Canada and of the United States bordering on the lake. He believed further that the government needed not only to deepen and make practicable by locks the north passage round the island of Montreal but also to give access to Lake Ontario by what he called "a trifling work at the Falls of St. Mary's." Once the through communication to the Great Lakes was improved the Lachine Canal would not be sufficient to pass 1/100 part of the western trade. By considered this "of no consequence as the bulk of that trade would pass on the North side of Montreal to Three Rivers which being the first road stay in the St. Lawrence will eventually become the general rendezvous for shipping." In the same dispatch he suggested that the Rideau Canal could not possibly be built for £169,000 as estimated by the Smyth Commission. Though he had not been over the ground, By was sure, from the information he had, that it would cost at least £400,000.

Writing to Mann on 23 August 1826, Smyth opposed in the strongest terms By's proposals, especially the need for enlarged canals 50 feet wide.56 Smyth's principal idea regarding the Rideau Canal was that it would provide for safe military transport to Upper Canada in time of war. Commercial considerations were of little interest to him. He did, however, hope that tolls would eventually be derived from the canal and that the settlers and farmers would use the canal to pass the boats in which they navigated Lake Ontario, the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence. According to Smyth, "a canal of 20 feet breadth of lock will pass gunboats the craft of the country and will pay for its construction." And again: "I do not see any benefit to be derived from a greater breadth without corresponding depth. Locks of 20 feet in breadth will afford every advantage; a larger canal will never pay; and cost a prodigious sum and will not afford corresponding advantages." Finally Smyth showed a complete disdain for commercial considerations by concluding that "It does not appear to me that Lieutenant Colonel By has taken a judicious view of the military features of the defences of Canada in proposing to improve the navigation of the river from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence. If he could add to the impediments, it would in my opinion be more advantageous to His Majesty's Service." From Smyth's point of view Canadian canals were to be constructed by the British government for purely military purposes.

Upon learning of Smyth's criticism of the views expressed in his dispatch of 13 July, By sent another one to Mann on 6 December 1826 in which he answered some of Smyth's criticism and once again emphasized the need for a steamship navigation through the canals of Canada along with enlarged locks to accommodate these vessels.57 By pointed out that the commercial intercourse between Upper and Lower Canada by the sole route of the St. Lawrence meant passing through waters over which the Americans claimed jurisdiction; namely, the navigable channel of the St. Lawrence in the neighbourhood of Cornwall. This meant that the Americans could stop boats and rafts on their passage to Lower Canada or impose on them substantial duties as they chose, thereby inhibiting at pleasure Upper Canada's communication with the seaports and rendering the St. Lawrence a precarious highway for commerce. He informed Mann that the trade between the two provinces was carried in scows and rafts which were loaded with flour, potash, staves and so on, and generally had one Durham boat accompanying five or six of them. The merchants sold not only their produce but also the scows and rafts at Quebec or Montreal returning with their fresh purchase of merchandize in the Durham boat. To prevent this critical trade from being interrupted by the Americans, By urged that the Rideau Canal should be of sufficient dimensions to allow these scows and rafts to pass through it. He strongly recommended therefore, that the locks should be formed 50 feet wide and 150 feet long and only 5 feet deep; the depth of the Grenville and Lachine canals was quite sufficient for the timber trade. By believed that the enlargement of the locks would add about £50,000 to the estimate. He felt it was probable that the whole trade of Lakes Erie and Ontario would eventually have to pass through the Rideau. Observing that the bulk of the trade of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers was carried on in steamboats as well as scows, it became, according to By, a matter of great importance both from a mercantile and military point of view that they should have every facility of movement. In his proposed plan this would be obtained as well as a decided advantage gained by the use of steamboats in the still water of the rivers and lakes. By went on to inform Mann that he continually received opinions of mercantile men engaged in trade. These men insisted that the locks should be constructed on a large scale instead of the 20 feet wide and 108 feet long which they claimed was too short and narrow for their boats. In conclusion By recommended that the lock and cut proposed at Ste. Anne's Rapid should be 50 feet wide and 150 feet long. The work should be commenced immediately and he felt it should be completed in one season. The expense of it would be repaid by the saving that would accrue in the transport of stores and tools required for the Grenville and Rideau canals. These articles could then be unloaded at Quebec and conveyed at once to the Grenville Canal without any cartage.

In the early fall of 1826, By made his initial visit to the site of the proposed canal. Proceeding up the Ottawa River he landed at the little settlement of Hull on 21 September. At the same time, the governor-in-chief of British North America, the Earl of Dalhousie, travelled to Hull and together the two men decided that the entrance of the canal into the Ottawa River should be in a little bay protected from the winds, about one-half mile from the Chaudière Falls.58 That done, By instructed John Mactaggart, who had been sent from England to be the chief of works on the project, to survey alternate routes for the start of the canal, following which Mactaggart was to proceed throughout the whole route and report upon it. His long report of 3 August 1827 contained a detailed description of the canal route as well as a description of the country through which it would be built.59 Before returning to Montreal in the late fall of 1826, By arranged for one piece of necessary work; namely, the construction of a bridge across the Ottawa River at the Chaudière Falls. This would provide access to the canal from Hull. At the same time, By also arranged for the laying out of his headquarters with the erection of buildings on the land on the high banks of the river previously purchased by the British government.60 The spring of 1827 found By in Montreal busily engaged in the final planning. That done he left Montreal to take up his residence on the banks of the Ottawa. In May, he traversed the whole route of the canal for the first time and during the summer actual work was started.61 As finally constructed, the locks were 134 feet long by 33 feet wide with a depth of 5 feet.62 The work was completed in May 1832 when a small vessel, renamed the Rideau for the occasion and with By on board, sailed from Kingston to "the wharf at the head of the flight of locks at Bytown."63 Hereafter the Ottawa-Rideau system was considered to be a first-rate military line of communication.


We have seen how the War of 1812 demonstrated the need of an alternative water communication between Upper and Lower Canada and how the imperial government adopted and developed the Ottawa-Rideau waterway as an answer to that need. The War of 1812 also demonstrated the strategic need of a canal across the Niagara peninsula the lack of which had meant, during the war, the laborious transport overland of military supplies to the Detroit frontier as well as the maintenance of separate fleets on Lakes Ontario and Erie. At the same time events had shown that naval supremacy on the lakes was indispensable to military success on land.

We find, therefore, that following the war interest in canal construction was shared by imperial strategists with the agriculturalists and merchants of Upper and Lower Canada. During the session of 1818 a joint address of the two Houses of Assembly declared for the improvement of navigation of the St. Lawrence to and from Montreal as "essential to the interests of each province in a commercial and to our parent country in a political view."64 Commissioners were appointed by each province to confer together on the improvement of internal navigation, and the joint report submitted by them in October 1818 declared such improvements to be essential to the prosperity of each province in time of peace and to their security in time of war.65 Within a week of the presentation of this report the Assembly of Upper Canada received a petition from the inhabitants of the war-ravaged District of Niagara containing a plan to connect Lakes Erie and Ontario by a canal.

Your Petitioners, viewing the great benefits these provinces will derive from having a Canal made between Lakes Erie and Ontario, having examined the Report on levelling the land between Chippewa [sic] and the source of the Twelve Mile Creek, and have every reason to believe that a communication can be effected at a trifling expense, from the accompanying plan which will be submitted to Your Honourable Body: From the source of the Twelve Mile Creek where the excavation will end, to the brow of the Mountain at Captain Du Coo's [sic] is a gentle descent, not a lock will be necessary; after descending the Falls it will be necessary to make locks to pass four or five Milidams, and the navigation will be complete for boats to Lake Ontario.

The grand object of the American people appears to be opening a navigation with Lake Erie; which design our canal, if effected soon, will counteract; and take down the whole of the produce from the Western country.

Your Petitioners, therefore, beg that you will appoint some scientific men to view the country between Chippewa [sic] and Lake Ontario and adopt such measures for carrying the above objects into effect as you in your wisdom may deem meet.66

Upon considering the petition a committee of the whole House referred it to a select committee of four members who reported that "a canal cut agreeably to the plan proposed by the petitioners would be a great benefit to the commercial interests of the province and ought to be encouraged by every means of furtherance by Your Honourable House."67 The committee also implied in its report that the canal project should be handled by a private company. At the same time a joint address of two houses prayed for the appropriation of a portion of the "waste lands of the Crown for the purpose of improving the navigation of the River St. Lawrence and for cutting canals through this Province" and an act was passed appropriating £2,000 for making surveys of that river, and other purposes.68 However, no measure was taken to provide this money.

Writing to Bathurst in December, 1818, Sir Peregrine Maitland reported that "there are at present 80 schooners employed in navigating Lake Erie, vessels capable of carrying in the event of war either one or two guns of the larger calibre, of these not more than ten belong to, or are navigated by, subjects of His Majesty." At the same time, in transmitting the joint address of the two houses for the grant of Crown lands for the improvement of navigation, Maitland remarked that the reserves should not be alienated as that would materially "injure the interests of the Crown."69

We have noted previously that in 1821 a select committee of the legislature of Upper Canada appointed three commissioners to report on the internal navigation of the province and that the commissioners engaged the Clowes brothers as engineers to make surveys and explorations. During this period official policy concerning the improvement of internal navigation was greatly influenced by official fear of American invasion. Hence we find that the select committee of 1821 recommended when referring to the Niagara project that "a work of this description should not be on an exposed frontier but should be wherever circumstances admit of it, inland."70 The commissioners apparently accepted this directive and their report in 1823 on the Niagara project recommended a canal 62 miles long from Burlington Bay to Grand River.71 Such a long, expensive and difficult route had the one advantage that it was not on an exposed frontier. Clearly military considerations outweighed commercial ones. The justification for canals built by governments was the extent to which they contributed to the security of the provinces.

By this date, Upper Canada faced the prospect of an American canal between Lakes Erie and Ontario: hence there was a feeling of urgency concerning the construction of a Canadian canal between the lakes. Instead of being undertaken as a government work, however, a joint stock company was formed in 1824 called the Welland Canal Company,72 and ground was broken the same year. A detailed account of the construction of the Welland Canal appears elsewhere in this work. All that need be said here are a few words about the route and dimensions of the canal and locks. The original plan was to build a canal 4 feet deep from the Welland River to Lake Ontario suitable only for boats of less than 40 tons burden. It was intended that the canal pass by means of a tunnel through the high ridge of land separating the two watersheds. The rapid descent from the brow of this elevation was to be made by an inclined railway. From the railway another canal was to extend to Twelve Mile Creek from which entrance could be obtained to Lake Ontario. The upper reach of the canal was to be supplied with water from the Welland River.

At first the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada and other colonial authorities were filled with doubt and suspicion regarding the work for they had the mistaken belief that the directors had decided on Niagara as the Lake Ontario terminus and this location was on the frontier. This mistaken belief had caused Maitland to recommend to Bathurst that the company's application for a grant of land should be opposed. "If the Canal were conducted into Lake Ontario — a secure line of communication for troops — is entirely lost. Your Lordship may perhaps be disposed to doubt — whether the assistance now prayed for from the Government be conceded or not."73 The grant was refused. There was also a second reason for the lack of official favour; namely, the large amount of American capital invested in the Welland Canal Company.

No sooner had construction commenced than both shareholders and colonial authorities began to pressure the company for enlargement of the proposed dimensions. The former urged that "We ought to keep in view sloop as well as boat navigation in order to render the stock valuable." The latter were disturbed that a 4-foot canal would be unable to accommodate gunboats and would not permit the movement of naval vessels from one lake to the other. In 1825 the Smyth Commission reported to the Duke of Wellington that the Welland Canal would "materially assist in the defence of this (the Niagara) frontier,"74 provided it was constructed on a large enough scale.

It was now becoming apparent that for the smooth construction of the canal on an enlarged scale the company would require the cooperation of the colonial authorities. Such cooperation could possibly be achieved by giving the authorities more influence in company management. It was also hoped that some way might be found of "minimizing the threat of American influence without sacrificing the assistance of American capital." Application was therefore made to the legislature for a new charter and this was granted in April 1825.75 This new Act of Incorporation allowed for an increase of capital to £200,000 and a new scheme was adopted providing for a canal of larger dimensions having wooden locks 110 feet long and 22 feet wide with 8 feet of water. The route of the canal was to be from Lake Ontario to the Welland River, which was to be utilized as far as the outlet into the Niagara River. Vessels would then ascend the swift current of the Niagara to Lake Erie. The canal was to be 26 feet wide at the bottom and 58 feet at the surface of the water except in the part through the ridge of land separating the two watersheds and known as the "Deep Cut" where there was to be a width of only 15 feet at the bottom. These dimensions would enable the canal to accommodate the schooners and sloops then navigating the lakes. By this time the lieutenant governor had become sympathetic to the scheme after the northern terminus had been shifted to the mouth of Twelve Mile Creek. Haunted by the fear of invasion, it seems clear that to the naval and military officers the major consideration was the construction of safe harbours and naval bases near the head of Lake Ontario and on Lake Erie and an inland line of communication between them.

It was expected that the canal would be formally opened for navigation in 1828, but on 9 November of that year the banks of the Deep Cut collapsed.76 The cut was 1-3/4 miles long through clay resting on an insecure bottom. The engineers had excavated it to a depth ranging from 30 to 56 feet. In order to overcome the difficulties at the Deep Cut, it was decided to raise the summit land of the canal nearly 16 feet and take the supply of water from the Grand River by means of a feeder 20-3/4 miles long instead of from the Welland River. The feeder was itself a navigable canal being 5 feet deep and having a surface width of 40 feet. In order to raise the waters of the Grand River sufficiently to supply this feeder it was decided to build a dam across it near the mouth. Changes in the route provoked objections. The most serious opposition came from the British naval commander, Commodore Barrie.77 He was strongly against the proposed Grand River dam, arguing that it would destroy any possibility of using the estuary as a naval base. He insisted that the dam be constructed not less than 18 miles upstream. The company objected to lengthening an already lengthy feeder thereby adding greatly to the cost. Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne thereupon offered a compromise solution declaring that the dam be built not less than 2 miles upstream. The river was finally dammed five miles from the mouth and a cutting made from there to the feeder. After the slide at the Deep Cut work was pushed ahead rapidly and a year later the canal was formally opened. On 27 November 1829, two schooners, the Anne and Jane from Youngstown, New York, and the R. H. Boughton from York started through the canal from Port Dalhousie and after cutting through ice, in some places three inches thick, arrived at Buffalo on 2 December.78

6 Map showing the Trent Navigation and Murray Canal. (Annual Report, 1894-95, Dept. of Railways and Canals) (click on image for a PDF version)

7 The lock at the First Rapids, Rideau Canal, a pencil sketch by John Burrows, 1832. (Public Archives of Canada.)

8 Burritt's Lock, looking up, by John Burrows, 1832. The blockhouse is representative of defensive measures taken to protect the locks. (Public Archives of Canada.)

Though two small ships had passed from one lake to the other by means of the canal, the directors were not satisfied with this partial completion of their plans. Due to the accumulation of ice, the portion of the Niagara River from the point where the Welland entered it to Lake Erie was not navigable for several weeks after lake navigation began. Moreover, the current of the Niagara was swift and vessels from the head of Lake Erie had to get around the Niagara peninsula, a considerable distance out of their way, to gain entrance to the canal. The directors therefore decided to connect the canal with Lake Erie at Port Colborne. In order to accomplish this task the capital stock of the company was increased to £250,000 and the government of Upper Canada gave a loan of £50,000.79 The work was completed in March 1833. Altogether there were 40 wooden locks, the smallest of which was 110 feet long by 22 feet wide with a depth of 8 feet of water. There was now a direct line of navigation from Port Colborne on Lake Erie to Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario, a distance of only 28 miles.

The abortive rebellions of 1837 led the imperial government to appoint Lord Durham as governor general of all British North America. Shortly after his arrival in Canada in 1838, Durham recommended to Lord Glenelg, the colonial secretary, that the canal system of the Canadas should be completed with the aid of imperial credit if necessary. To this suggestion Glenelg replied that though the imperial government could give no immediate pledge of funds for expenditure on Canadian canals, Durham was authorized to have a survey of the whole route from Lake Erie to tidewater made by a competent officer of the Royal Engineers.80 Lieutenant Colonel Phillpotts, formerly chief engineer of the Cornwall Canal, was selected for the job.81 He examined the Welland Canal and in his report of 31 December 1839, Phillpotts emphasized the canal's commercial value since he considered that its importance from a military and naval point of view was sufficiently obvious and had already been brought to the attention of the imperial government. He could not, however, refrain from remarking that:

I am of opinion that it will be very inexpedient for Her Majesty's Government to follow the limited plan of the Welland Canal Company as I feel quite satisfied that before the Canal could be completed according to that plan, the necessity of making the Locks large enough for steam navigation would be come evident, even for commercial purposes; but in the event of its being required for military operations, in which point of view it must be more especially regarded if assumed by the Government, there cannot be a question on the subject.

I have, therefore, as directed in my instructions, drawn up my Report with this view, as it is most important that in the event of any misunderstanding with the United States our vessels of war on Lake Ontario, which can be fitted out at Kingston without difficulty and to any extent, should be able to pass up to Lake Erie, where we have no Naval Establishment of any kind for the purpose.82

And there the matter rested until the Act of Union of 1840, in joining the two provinces, effected an increase in their joint resources and thereby enabled them to deal comprehensively with their waterway problem.


The War of 1812 had shown that the St. Lawrence River, interrupted by rapids and forming part of the boundary between the Canadas and the United States, was both inefficient and highly vulnerable as a means of military communication between the two provinces. With the conclusion of the war it was realized that the navigation of the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario to the sea needed to be improved. In 1817 the breadth of the military canals at the Cascades, Split Rock and Coteau du Lac was doubled and their depth increased to 3-1/2 feet in order to admit Durham boats and large-sized batteaux capable of carrying 100 barrels of flour.

But even these improvements did not long meet the needs of the traffic. In 1831 the Royal Engineers' office in Montreal drew up a set of estimates of (1) probable expense to widen and reconstruct the several locks and canals at the Cascades, Split Rock and Coteau du Lac, and (2) probable expense to construct a set of new locks and line of canal parallel to those existing at these points.83 In a letter dated 23 February 1833, the commissary general expressed his concern regarding some of the difficulties and problems relating to the canals on the St. Lawrence.84 He pointed out that the military locks were situated between Lakes St. Francis and St. Louis but the whole of the navigation was full of obstacles and that these were only partially overcome by the locks which consisted of three at the Cascades, two at the Split Rock and three at Coteau du Lac, including the guard locks at each place, and with dimensions sufficient only to admit boats of 12-foot beam. He went on to say that at the Cedars there were several obstacles near the Coteau where the boats were towed up by horses or bullocks and for about 6 miles were obliged to unload half or more of their cargos which were conveyed in carts. These locks were badly or hastily constructed in the first place and were now in a dilapidated condition. The commissary general held that since the imperial government retained possession of the military locks it had the responsibility of maintaining them in good repair so as to keep the passage open and not interrupt communication between the two provinces. He felt that repairs on them should be as limited as possible at the same time providing for the security of the communication.

The imperial government retained control over the works at the Cascades and Coteau du Lac in order to insure the transportation of public stores and troops. However, in 1833 the propriety of such control was questioned by the Hon. John Macaulay, one of the commissioners of Upper Canada for the improvement of the St. Lawrence.85 He felt that since the canals were now used chiefly for commercial purposes the imperial government would possibly relinquish control over them to the provinces provided a suitable agreement could be worked out for the transportation of public stores and troops. Moreover, Macaulay believed that these canals would be better managed by a civil than by a military board of directors. No transfer of ownership or control occurred, however, prior to 1841.

At the same time as the commissary general expressed his concern regarding the difficulties and problems relating to the canals on the St. Lawrence, the legislature of Upper Canada passed "An Act granting to His Majesty a sum of money to be raised by debentures for the improvement of the navigation of the St. Lawrence."86 The Act stipulated that it was expedient to raise a sum of money by way of a loan for this purpose. The receiver general was therefore authorized to raise £70,000 by debentures. At the same time commissioners were appointed whose duty it was to obtain a survey or surveys and a plan or plans of improvements to be made in the navigation between Prescott and the eastern extremity of the province by canals and locks. The commissioners were to prepare estimates of expense, award contracts, and fix tolls on any finished part of the improvements.87 Immediately following his appointment, one of the commissioners wrote on 27 February 1833 to Alexander Stewart in Lower Canada, a leading advocate in that province of the improvement of the river navigation, expressing his hope that the two provinces would act harmoniously together in this matter.88

The canals projected by Upper and Lower Canada at this time were planned under one direction and formed virtually a single scheme. The American engineer, Benjamin Wright, advised both provinces and J. B. Mills made the surveys. The plans called for canals of 9 feet depth throughout; locks 9 feet deep, 55 feet wide and 200 feet long. The gross estimates for the works in Upper Canada came to £350,000. The cost of improvements in Lower Canada was expected to total at least £235,782.89

As previously mentioned, the breadth of the canals at Cascades and Coteau du Lac had been doubled and their depth increased to 3-1/2 feet in 1817. This improvement, however, did not long meet the needs of the traffic. In 1834, Mills, while in the employ of Lower Canada, submitted three plans all of which contemplated works on the north side of the river. The plan which Mills recommended called for the building of three short canals and the utilization of the two calm navigable stretches of water between the rapids.90 The Lower Canada assembly approved the plan but no further action was taken at that time. In the following year Alexander Stevenson submitted a plan for building a canal at less cost on the south shore, and further plans for a south shore canal were presented in 1836.91 But again nothing was done. The Rebellion of 1837 along with the financial depression at that time held up construction. Moreover, the imperial government appeared reluctant to encourage any improvements in the navigation of this vulnerable stretch of the St. Lawrence. In 1839 when Lieutenant Colonel Phillpotts made his report to Lord Durham, he conceded that a canal on the south shore would cost less than one on the north shore but he considered the former undesirable from a military point of view and therefore adhered to Mills' plan of 1834.92 Here one is reminded of Smyth's criticism of By's suggestion regarding the improvement of the Richelieu River route. Apparently, "military engineers were suspicious of a canal which could not be defended in time of war."


While still on the subject of canals and the defence of the Canadas, one might add more about the imperial government's attitude toward the construction of Canadian canals. At times the conflict between defence and convenience was difficult to resolve. The possibility of an American attack so permeated the thinking of military minds that some authorities were inclined to view with misgiving the construction of such necessary and beneficial works as the St. Lawrence, Welland and Chambly canals. But not so the Duke of Wellington. When giving evidence before the House of Commons select committee in March 1828 he was asked "what would be the probability of defending Canada if neither the water communication nor the works mentioned in these estimates were executed?" His reply was:

I should say that the defence of Canada would be impossible. I have never been in that country, but I must add that I have been astonished that the officers of the army and navy employed in that country were able to defend those provinces last war; and I can attribute their having been able to defend them as they did only to the inexperience of the officers of the United States in the operations of war, and possibly likewise to the difficulty which they must have found in stationing their forces as they ought to have done upon the right bank of the St. Lawrence.93

In his strategic thinking regarding Canada, Wellington wrote off the offensive as being impractical and foolhardy. He hoped, however, that the improvement of the interior lines of communication would enable the British to pass both armed and naval forces from lake to lake asserting local superiority wherever they went.

Throughout this period the poor, underpopulated, and exposed communities of Upper and Lower Canada looked to the imperial government for military protection against the United States in the form of British garrisons and gunboats. British power was their one guarantee of survival against their aggressive, strong and confident neighbour. Like the military authorities, many of the people residing in the Canadas could not and dared not forget the War of 1812.

The impracticability of a major land attack across the rough terrain of the New Brunswick border coupled with naval superiority ensured to Britain command of the St. Lawrence as far as Quebec. Beyond this point, however, large warships could not navigate, while frigates could not reach beyond Montreal. By 1840 the improvements to the St. Lawrence canals permitted the passage of small steamers but not any useful warship. It was clear that in the event of hostilities the Americans were bound to cut the river certainly above Montreal and possibly below it by commanding the passage on the south bank if not by actual invasion. To the rear, of course, was the Rideau and Ottawa canal system but this was designed to carry military stores and troops and could pass only small gunboats. Britain's naval power, therefore, could not be brought to bear on the lakes. Reliance had to be placed on what could be done locally, It seems clear that Britain's principal weakness at this time in regard to the defence of the Canadas was due primarily to the great difficulty in overcoming distance.

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