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

The Canals of Canada

by John P. Heisler

Problems in the Construction of Canals: Land and Contracts



One of the most tedious and troublesome aspects of canal construction was the acquiring of land through which to build the waterway. In the case of the Rideau, getting land proved to be the most time-consuming and unrewarding of the duties which devolved on Colonel By. From the very beginning he realized that it would be a major and ticklish problem and he wrote to the lieutenant governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland, about it on 2 January 1827.1 Maitland had already received communications from the British government and from the governor-in-chief, Lord Dalhousie, requesting him to afford By every aid and assistance within his power in procuring the required land.2 In his letter to Maitland, By expressed the belief that judging from the difficulty he had encountered in obtaining information relative to the proprietors of the land through which he proposed to cut the canal, the work could not progress as rapidly as the British government desired without some regulative Act authorizing him to take possession of any amount of land which he might require. By believed that "a Bill to that effect will meet with less opposition before the line of Canal is correctly ascertained, than when each individual can judge of the advantages or disadvantages he, or his neighbours, may sustain from the proposed Canal."3 Maitland apparently acted quickly. On 17 February 1827, the legislature of Upper Canada passed the Rideau Canal Act.4

Although the canal was for the British government, the Act gave to Colonel By, as a representative of the King, "all the powers which the Upper Canada government would have possessed had it undertaken the work."5 The first section of the Act stipulated that the officer employed by His Majesty to superintend the work was authorized to set out and ascertain such parts of the country through which the canal was to pass, as he shall think necessary and proper for making the said Canal, Locks, Aqueducts, Tunnels and all such other improvements, matters and conveniences as he shall think proper and necessary for making, effecting and preserving, improving, completing and using in the said navigation."6 The third section of the Act declared that "such parts and portions of land or lands covered with water, as may be so ascertained and set out, by the Officer employed by His Majesty, as necessary to be occupied for the purposes of the said Canal, and also such parts and portions as may upon any alteration or deviation from the line originally laid out for the said Canal, be ascertained and set out as necessary for the purposes thereof shall be forever thereafter vested in His Majesty."7

By could therefore demand any land he required for the Rideau Canal. The provincial statute stipulated, however, that the arbitrators for fixing the value of the lots taken could not be appointed till the canal was completed. Accordingly, some proprietors were reluctant to dispose of their land though it was perfectly clear that there would be no difficulty in adjusting eventually the claims of the proprietors, if By could show that the land he had taken was required for carrying on the work.8 At the same time, By could make an immediate purchase of the land required for the canal provided this could be done on reasonable terms.9 Previous to closing any such bargain, however, he was required to make a special report accompanied by a regular survey for His Majesty's consideration. For example, on 31 March 1829,10 the military secretary informed the commanding Royal Engineer in Canada that after perusing the documents relating to the purchase of certain lots of land in the vicinity of the Hog's Back on the Rideau River belonging to R. D. Fraser and Dr. Munro, His Excellency approved of the purchase made by Colonel By of the front of Fraser's two lots containing about 45 acres for the sum of £400 sterling. Later in September,11 a similar communication between the same two officers contained His Excellency's approval to purchase Dr. Munro's land comprising 900 acres for £1,000 sterling and the remainder of Fraser's land comprising 455 acres for £380 sterling. Since the Hog's Back was a leading feature of the canal, the government needed land there on which to construct defence works at a future time and to settle on it a loyal population interested in protecting the dam and canal. By recommended the granting of small lots of from 25 to 30 acres to persons employed in constructing the canal who were desirous of becoming settlers, provided their settlements were 400 yards from the dams or locks.12

By found that some proprietors eventually altered their opinions regarding the sale of land to the government and were willing to accept the true value of their land, instead of asking for ten times its worth, provided they were allowed to lease such parts of the property as were not required for the public service.13 The government's main purpose for retaining the land was to prevent claims for damages as the canal became enlarged by the wear and tear of steamboats using it. The government also wished to retain the land in order to prevent the erection of buildings in the line of fire of defence works which it might be found necessary to erect in order to protect embankments from being destroyed by an enemy.14 By was satisfied to lease such portions as were not required immediately, under such restrictions as to enable the government to resume the whole at any time it might require.15 Moreover, in many cases, By was able to make an advantageous bargain only through purchasing the whole estate and then granting a 30-year lease to the proprietor who paid the annual rent of 5 per cent on the whole purchase price without any deduction being made for such portions as were taken for the public service.16 For example, Allen McLean preferred to accept £2,000 for the whole of his estate consisting of 2,500 acres instead of the £4,000 he claimed for damages.17 He was granted a lease of such parts as were not required for the public service. By cited this bargain with McLean as an example of the great utility of property on the line of the Rideau Canal and the objection which proprietors on the line of the canal had to the possibility of others enjoying the advantages which they considered to be their right. By found that offering the proprietors a lease on the said land at moderate terms dissipated unpleasant feeling and lessened their demands. Indeed he believed that this practice reduced by one-half the sum the government would otherwise have had to pay.18

Yet legal disputes did at times occur with landed proprietors wishing to profit unduly by selling land for the canal. One such dispute with Nicholas Sparks involved 88 acres of land which By expropriated in the spring of 1827.19 The greater part of this land was required to form a reservoir to supply the first eight locks with water, and the remainder of the land was required to form works for the defence of the said locks along with wharves, quays and landing places. Section 9 of the Canal Act declared that "in estimating the claim of any individual to compensation for property taken, or for damage done under the authority of this Act, the Arbitrators or Jury assessing such damages shall take into their consideration, the benefit likely to accrue to such individual from the construction of the said Canal, by its enhancing the value of his property or producing other advantages." By learned that Sparks had purchased from Mr. Burrows in 1823 the land in question, being part of 200 acres with a small house and £10 worth of furniture, for the whole of which he paid only £85. Now Sparks was asking £600 per acre in consequence of the increased valuation the canal had given to the surrounding area.20

When By first arrived on the site in September, 1826, no improvements had taken place on this property except the clearing of a few acres and the building of a smiths' house and shop near the location which By selected for the entrance of the eight locks. He appraised the house and shop and offered to give £250 for them and to allow the proprietor to occupy them for a period of 5 years rent free. But no title to the buildings was produced and so no purchase took place. Sparks urged By to pay him for the 88 acres taken for the use of the canal, and By offered Sparks £1 per acre and payment for all clearing, fencing or whatever other expenses Sparks may have laid out on such land. Sparks, however, refused to accept this offer and insisted on receiving £600 per acre. By declined to give Sparks this amount conceiving it to be an unreasonable and exorbitant demand. By finally called upon the attorney general of Upper Canada to defend the action Sparks was determined to bring against him.21

In standing up to Sparks, By had the full support of Colonel E. W. Durnford, commanding Royal Engineer in Canada. This officer wrote to the military secretary on 25 June 1829,

I have to express my regret that Mr. Sparks should have demanded so enormously for this property when the whole operations that Government had entrusted Lt. Col. By to execute have been so prodigiously beneficial to Mr. Sparks as well as most if not all others from whom property will be of necessity taken in furtherance of the Rideau Canal. I think it is my duty to make these observations in order, if His Excellency approves thereof, he may impress them upon the Committee in any instructions he plans to give them.22

Whereupon on 2 July the military secretary wrote to Sir John Colborne, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada:

Adverting to the letter which I had the honor to address to Your Excellency on the 13th Ultimo, upon the formation of a Committee to appraise the land required for the Rideau Canal, I am directed by the Commander of the Forces, to acquaint Your Excellency, that the Commanding Royal Engineer has nominated Captain Piper as the Officer of the Royal Engineers recommended to be placed upon that Committee. I am at the same time commanded to transmit to Your Excellency copies of reports from the Commanding Engineer and from Lieutenant Colonel By upon the land belonging to Mr. Sparks acquired for the service in question the substance of which His Excellency will be pleased to impress upon the minds of the Committee.23

In another case William Needham claimed for damages for injury to his land from the Rideau Canal. In this instance, By directed J. Hagerman, the ordnance solicitor for the Rideau Canal, to write to Needham desiring to be informed of the lowest terms he was willing to take for his property, or for compensation for damages occasioned by the rising of the water in Cataraqui Creek by the dam at Kingston Mills. Needm asked £800 for the property in question, which By valued at £400. Later Needham became more exorbitant in his demands stating that his crop of turnips would produce 4,000 bushels per acre and valued them at 1s. per bushel. As he had three acres of turnips, according to his calculation, it would take £600 to pay for that crop alone. On examining the said three acres, By found that it did not appear that 100 bushels could be obtained off the land. Thereupon By accused Needham of attempting to impose on the government and said that he would have nothing more to do with Needham who must lay his claims before a jury at the completion of the canal as stipulated by the Rideau Canal Act. At the same time By declared that he considered it to be his duty to settle Needham's claim the moment Needham would accept an equitable price.24 Sometime later, Hagerman received from J. Cartwright of Kingston, solicitor for Needham, a statement of claim for damages to the amount of £545.12.0. Accompanying the statement was a certificate from Messrs. Tuttle and Marks, who were acquainted with Needham's land, stating that the various items listed in the claim were just and reasonable. Cartwright pointed out that had Needham accepted By's offer of £400 last fall, it would have been of more actual benefit to him than the £545.12.0. he was now asking. In consequence of not receiving satisfaction for his damages, Needham had been imprisoned upwards of three months, his cattle had been seized and sold under executions, his family dispersed and his business totally ruined. He was now in a state of want with demands accumulated by costs still unsatisfied which he could have settled had he accepted the settlement in the fall. Needham's lawyer now wished for a settlement which would pay Needham's debts and secure his release from prison.25

In July 1831 Colonel By reported to his superiors in Quebec that there was a piece of land held by Peter Cornish of which Edward McCrae, the original proprietor, was extremely anxious to assume possession for the sole reason of claiming heavy damages for the water of the Rideau Canal overflowing the greater part of it.26 Cornish's power of purchase would cease next September unless it was completed by that time. But Cornish had not the means of completing the purchase and had offered it to the ordnance for £150. By proposed that the ordnance should purchase from Cornish in order to prevent McCrae from bringing an action against the government for damages, and this was done.27

The Royal Navy was also among the claimants for damages. In 1830 Commodore Barrie at Kingston wrote to By that "the Naval Department will look to the Ordnance Department for the Payment of all damages done to the said property (at Kingston Mills) by the Ordnance Department."28

Lands taken for the Rideau Canal could not be let or leased without the concurrence of the commander of the forces or the ordnance officers at Quebec. In one case, lots Nos. 34, 35, 36, 37 and parts of 39 and 40 containing about 1,000 acres were purchased from Cornelius Phillips in the township of North Cower for the sum of £200. Ordnance then requested permission to let to James, Patrick, Edmond and Michael Murphy, for the sum of 12s. per annum as a rent for 60 acres of the land now shared and a further sum of 1s. per annum for every acre which might hereafter be cleared at their expense. Ordnance believed that this arrangement was for the benefit of the government.29

Sometimes By became involved in legal disputes when removing intruders from lands of which he had taken possession. The question was: How much land could he take? The attorney general of Upper Canada filed writs of Information of Intention, until the right be determined in a court of law, against persons who repossessed themselves of lands set apart and required, in By's opinion, for the use of the canal. He desired to take lands at certain points in order to fortify the canal and the attorney general maintained that if By would in the words of the Rideau Canal Act "set out and ascertain" some given site where he thought such a work most necessary, and taking as little ground as possible, then he, the attorney general, would file an Information for By against any person who intruded upon it.30


The construction of the Ottawa canals led to claims for damages from property owners adjacent to them. By virtue of an order in council passed in 1829, the Crown resumed additional land at the Carillon.31 The whole area between the canal and the river was taken in order to prevent obstructions and nuisances in the vicinity of the locks. However, no more land was taken from the proprietors than was necessary for the purposes of the canal and no land was taken which might be required for purposes of defence. Quite naturally demands for compensation arose from the proprietors of the resumed lands. The government therefore appointed Mr. Brown of Beauharnois to act as its arbitrator in settling the claims.32 He visited the Carillon in October, 1830, where he met with considerable hostility from the closely knit group of local proprietors mutually determined to extract excessive compensation from the government. Brown thereupon deemed it useless to proceed any further in his attempt to arrive at an equitable settlement of claims and promptly left the scene.33 In the following year a fresh order in council was passed for the resumption of such land as was required but not sanctioned by the former order, as well as for the relinquishment of such land as was before included but was not now required. Renewed demands for compensation were now made by the proprietors who entered a suit for damages in the Court of Kings Bench at Montreal. Whereupon the court ordered an arbitration of the dispute and in the spring of 1832 the proprietors obtained a favourable judgement.34

Tedious and protracted claims for damages were forthcoming from the proprietors at the Chute-à-Blondeau. Simon Fraser of Terrebonne claimed for damages done to his property by the construction of the canal.35 Concomitant claims were also made by James Fuller and Solomon French who had purchased lots from Fraser. In October, 1830, Mr. Brown, following his unsuccessful attempt at arbitration at the Carillon, accompanied Colonel DuVernet, commander of the Ottawa canals, to the Chute-à-Blondeau, where he met with Solomon French. French's demand for compensation appeared to Brown unreasonable and, being unable to find an impartial person on the spot to call as a third arbiter, he suspended the whole business.36 In 1834 the ordnance paymaster of the Ottawa canals informed Fraser that the government was ready to pay him and the other two gentlemen the sum of £129.12.6 for the land.37 Fuller and French, however, were really more interested than Fraser in this final settlement, and they would not agree to so small a sum as compensation for the loss they had sustained.38 Thereupon, Fraser, after consulting with Fuller and French, decided not to accept the money offered by the ordnance paymaster believing that to do so would make him liable in action for damages to Messrs. Fuller and French for injury done to their property.39 Fraser decided to submit the matter once again to the governor-in-chief.40 A few months later in March, 1835, Fuller expressed his case in a letter to the ordnance office.41 He had had his mill site examined several times by competent persons who had estimated it as worth £2,000. At one time he had built a lime kiln and had made preparations for building a mill. This work, however, had been suspended in consequence of the construction of the canal. He therefore had to construct these works at another location where his trade was confined and crippled through lack of water. Construction of the canal had thus broken up his mill and tan works. After stipulating what he was ready to accept in the way of compensation, Fuller went on to say that had the Ottawa canals been used exclusively for "military works of defence, he should have little to say, but it was notorious that these canals were used by the government for purposes of trade and profit."42 He expressed his belief that "no Court of Justice under the Crown would permit the property of the subject to be taken from him and applied to such uses."43 The matter should, according to Fuller, undergo a proper legal investigation and the question be decided upon by a jury. Fraser could not dispose of or compromise Fuller's rights nor had Fraser received any money for the land taken at the Chute-à-Blondeau. This fact continued to perplex the authorities. On 15 May 1835,44 Colonel Nicolls, commanding Royal Engineer in Canada, informed the commander-in-chief of the forces that though Simon Fraser had been notified several times that payment for the land taken by the Crown was awaiting him, he had not yet called upon the ordnance paymaster to receive it.

There was also a claim regarding the Grenville Canal from a proprietor, Claude Greece.45 On 10 June 1829, this gentleman complained to Colonel DuVernet, commanding officer of the Ottawa canals, that the water from the canal leaked through the banks so as to cause the destruction of his crops and to render useless a considerable and valuable area of land. When Greece first detected the leakage he set about cutting temporary drains which did not help much, and as a result aquatic weeds soon grew where formerly had been crops of wheat. Greece complained that other parts of his land, which were previously sound and dry, were now always under water whenever the canal was full. He said that this injurious effect often attended canals unless very great care was taken in the formation of their banks. He maintained that it was customary in England for those who constructed canals to secure, by ditches parallel to them, the property of the persons through whose lands they passed. Greece, however, found that little was being done by Colonel DuVernet to remedy the situation. He therefore placed his complaint before Lord Aylmer stating that "although the Crown has a reserved Right for Military Canals, that the King's subject may not materially suffer through their leakage, and that Your Lordship will be pleased to permit that some competent and impartial person do in the opening of the season inspect the damage complained of, and order such relief by Drainage or otherwise as the circumstances require." Colonel DuVernet's opinion, based on his knowledge of the ground and the survey taken before the canal was cut, was that the annoyance Greece complained of did not altogether result from the leakage of the canal bank but from the natural lowness of the land. He actually believed the Greece property, as well as that of the other proprietors similarly situated along the Grenville Canal, must be greatly improved rather than injured by the said canal.46 Greece died shortly following his petition to Aylmer, whereupon his heirs made a claim, which seems to have been granted, for a considerable piece of vacant land in compensation for that which they maintained the canal rendered unfit for agriculture.


"An Act for making a Navigable Canal from the neighbourhood of Montreal to the parish of Lachine" (1 Geo. IV, C.6),47 provided for the appointment of commissioners to superintend the construction of the work. Once appointed the commissioners lost no time in choosing a committee to confer, at Côte St. Paul, with the proprietors along the line of the canal regarding the purchase of land required for the waterway.48 On 8 June 1821, the committee reported that the proprietors would propose no price but would willingly agree to the appointment of arbitrators to make an evaluation of such grounds.49 Three days later, the proprietors came to the canal office and the arbitrators for evaluation of their grounds were then appointed: Hugh Brodie and Paschal LaChappelle on the part of the canal commissioners, and Joseph Alard and James Milne on the part of the proprietors.50 These gentlemen were farmers, resident in the parishes of Montreal and Lachine, and not interested in any lands through which the canal was to pass. The arbitrators were empowered to appoint an umpire. It was agreed that once the arbitrators were appointed both parties would abide by their award and that of the umpire in cases wherein they might differ in opinion.51

On 14 June 1821, a meeting took place at Lachine of the commissioners, secretary, engineer, proprietors of land and the arbitrators. On this occasion the arbitrators chose N. B. Doucet, notary public, as umpire.52 The commissioners suggested that the first task of the arbitrators was to define the evaluations of damages which might be incurred by needful removal of buildings, orchards, gardens or some other cause.53 Persons present at this meeting went to view the proposed line of the canal by Côte St. Paul where the arbitrators began their examination of the several properties pointed out to them. Once made, the award or decision of the arbitrators for evaluation of the ground was transmitted to the Court of King's Bench, as directed by the Act.54 The decision was also conveyed to the interested proprietor.

Early in August the proprietors made applications for payment of lands to be taken for the canal. The engineer was directed to make a return of the breadth of each man's property. Meantime part payment was to be made leaving the residue of payment until the canal should be completed and the precise quantities of ground finally required and taken were ascertained.55

Though the commissioners believed that the arbitrators had acted conscientiously in their valuations, these were higher than had been expected.56 Even so, some proprietors were so selfish and greedy that they expressed dissatisfaction with the appraisal of their lands. Whereupon the commissioners became alarmed at the probable magnitude of the claims and awards which might be made for the value of the property. The commissioners believed that the proprietors "would be awarded too much as the current of feeling runs too strongly in favor of claimants, at the expense of the public interests."57

The first projection of the Lachine Canal had intended to place the terminus at the foot of the current Ste. Marie with a branch running from the main line to a point on the river near the actual entrance. But the prices asked for land were at the time considered so exorbitant that it was deemed necessary to shorten the canal and change the location of the terminus. This was done by the Act cited above (1 Geo. IV, C.6). Yet the importance of continuing the canal to the lower location was so apparent that two years later, in 1823, an Act was passed which directed that measures should be taken to ascertain the value of the land required in obedience to this Act.58 The canal commissioners then appointed Messrs. Julius Quesnel and Thomas Phillips commissioners to obtain the required information.59 These gentlemen reported that the proposed extension would pass through 87 different properties; that the value of the land amounted to £12,547, and the value of the houses amounted to £3,821 making in all £16,368. They strongly urged the purchase of the land with a view to future extension of the canal.60 The suggestion, however, was not carried out.

Through their inflated prices for land, some of the proprietors, therefore, determined the eventual route of the Lachine Canal. As finally constructed, the lower entrance was comparatively high up the river near the foot of the rapids with a swift current to be overcome before it could be reached and entered. Had the canal been extended to some 2-1/4 miles below the final terminus to the foot of St. Mary's current, as was originally intended, the canal would have entered into a body of still water and the whole Port of Montreal, instead of lying in a current as it did when the Lachine Canal was finally completed, would have possessed an improved body of water.61


By the provisions of the Act incorporating "The Welland Canal Company" (4 Geo. IV, C.17),62 the directors of the company were

empowered to contract, compound, compromise and agree, with the owners and occupiers of any land through or upon which they may determine to cut and construct the said intended Canal, with all necessary and convenient locks, towing-paths and other erections and constructions contemplated by this Act, to be cut, erected, constructed and built, either for the absolute purchase of so much of the said land as they shall require for the purposes of the said Company, or for the damages which he, she or they, shall and may be entitled to recover from the said company in consequence of said intended canal.

No sooner had construction begun than claims for damages poured in to the company from proprietors along the course of the canal from the Welland River to Lake Ontario.63 Thereupon, in accordance with the provisions of the Act passed on 30 January 1826 (7 Geo. IV, C.19),64 an arbitration was held at St. Catharines in August of that year to determine the amount of damages to be paid by the company. With the exception of a very few individuals (one and only one claim was quickly settled for the sum of £600), all persons with claims in respect to that portion of the canal from the Welland River to Lake Ontario submitted them to the arbitrators. The final award directed the company to pay damages amounting on the whole to £1,794.65

Meantime the directors of the company had applied to the lieutenant governor for a grant of crown land comprising roughly 13,000 acres in the township of Wainfleet on that part of the canal which was to connect the Grand River with the Welland. In their memorial for this grant of land the directors pointed out that thus far the British government had given no support to their undertaking, whereas the granting of the petition would not only indicate the interest that the imperial government took in the canal company's success but would also increase the value of the company's stock, thereby making it easier to sell. The directors also pointed out in their memorial that the value of landed property to the west of the projected canal would increase and the Crown, with lands in that area, would benefit.66 Whereupon the lieutenant governor, at the solicitation of the directors, forwarded to Lord Bathurst the memorial for the grant of an extensive tract of land. The final grant of 13,400 acres proved to be most fortunately situated, the line of canal running nearly through the centre of it.67

Finally, the Act of 20 January 1826 stipulated how the value of any mill site which the company required to purchase would be ascertained in the event of disagreement between company and proprietor. In such a case arbitrators were to be appointed and these would not only assess the value of the mill site but were empowered to decide whether the person owning the site could be compelled to part with it to the company.


The Chambly Canal, in permitting water communication between Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River at Sorel, was an important part of the St. Lawrence waterway. From 1787 on, commercial and political reasons were advanced for the construction of this canal;68 to these, the War of 1812 added a military one. Finally in 1827 the Province of Lower Canada made an appropriation for improving the Richelieu navigation and undertook the work itself.69 Commissioners were appointed in 1829 to carry out the scheme70 and the following year work was commenced at St. Ours, 14 miles above Sorel. Once appointed, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners for the Chambly Canal transmitted to the commander of the forces a plan for that portion of the government ground at Chambly that would be required for the canal.71 Whereupon the commander of the forces requested the commanding Royal Engineer in Canada to send an officer of his department to Chambly to contact the commissioners for determining the boundaries of land belonging to the Crown which would be required for the proposed canal.72 This land had actually been transferred to the Board of Ordnance and was in the keeping and custody of the board's officers of which the commanding Royal Engineer in Canada was one.73 The engineer officer sent to contact the commissioners was to delineate the land required for the proposed canal, on the plan furnished by the commissioners, for the approval of the commander of the forces. This was done and the required land placed at the disposal of the canal commissioners.74 From then till 1841, work on this canal was carried on in a very unsystematic way and it remained for the Board of Works, formed after the union, to complete the undertaking.



The awarding of contracts to persons prepared to undertake the work was an important aspect of canal construction. The spring of 1827 found Colonel By in Montreal busily engaged in this task. Local newspapers carried a notice explaining how the awarding of contracts was to be done. "It is best to allow no contractor to have anything to do with them (the Works) be his cash or consequence what they may, unless he is well known as a practical artist, competent for what he professes."75 The notice also summarized the work to be done as follows: "The works of the Rideau Canal seem to divide themselves into the following great branches; building and finishing of locks of heavy masonry; framing aqueducts and bridges of wood." The government, it was further explained, would supply spirits, provisions and camp equipment; engage surgeons furnished with necessary medicines, and station a subaltern's command of 60 soldiers near each contract work.76

Each contract was an agreement between the commissary general of His Majesty's forces in Canada, for and on behalf of the Crown, and the named contractor who guaranteed to carry out the stipulated work for the unit sums noted in the document. In one contract the unit prices were 4s. per cubic yard for rock evacuation and 1s. per cubic yard for earth. The contractor was paid these prices for each of the units noted. Engineers would measure the total amount of work completed and the quantity multiplied by the unit price would give the total due the contractor. The contractors on the Rideau Canal and elsewhere, instead of receiving cash, accepted drafts on Montreal which they disposed of at a premium for bank notes, the drafts being payable in dollars on presentation.77 Prior to leaving Montreal in the spring of 1827 to take up his residence on the bank of the Ottawa, By had the satisfaction of knowing that all the main contracts had been awarded. The minor ones that remained were granted by the middle of the summer.78

During the summer of 1827 actual work was started on the canal. By informed General Mann that he had a good portion of the work contracted for at moderate prices.79 He allowed no man to contract for more work than he could execute in three years.80 Mr. Pennyfether had contracted to excavate the first eight locks from the Ottawa River and to complete the work by 1 August 1827; however, it was found impracticable to finish the excavation by that time due to a great number of springs which created more work and consequently an unavoidable delay.81 Thomas Mackay, the practical man who built the locks in the Lachine Canal, contracted to build the masonry of the first eight locks and to complete them in two years from the date of signing the contract. However, he too was unable to finish them in that time due to the same unavoidable cause as Mr. Pennyfether's.82 Mr. Fenelon contracted to clear and excavate the canal from the first eight locks to the north side of Dows Great Swamp. He also contracted to excavate and form the canal from Dows Great Swamp to the Hog's Back, chiefly rock excavation, forming an aqueduct bridge 20 feet long across Peters Gully, excavating and constructing three locks each of 10 feet lift, and forming a dam of arched key work across the Rideau River 240 feet wide and 40 feet high.83 This dam was to convert 7 miles of rapids into a sheet of still water and thereby save the expense of excavating the canal for that distance. Mr. Henderson contracted to cut a drain from the Beaver Meadow to the Rideau River to drain the swamps through which the canal had to pass. This work was expected to be completed in August. This gentleman also contracted to form a mound of earth across Dows Great Swamp and to construct the canal on the top of this mound.84 Mr. Phillips, a Montreal mason, opened quarries at the foot of the Black Rapids in order to construct a dam across the Rideau River 280 feet wide, 10 feet high and a lock of 10 feet lift. This dam would throw back the water and form a sheet of still water 5 miles long which would complete the canal to the foot of Long Island Rapids where By proposed to construct locks of 8 feet lift each and a dam across the Rideau 158 feet wide and 24 feet high. This would throw back the water 3 miles, convert that length of rapid into still water and give an uninterrupted navigation for 23 miles to Colonel Burritt's house on the banks of the Rideau 44 miles from the Ottawa and 144 feet above the river.85

By also informed Mann that he intended to perform by day-work, and under the immediate supervision of himself and his officers, all the piling of the foundations and laying of the stones forming the coffer-dams and waste weirs. He reported that the large blocks of hard grey limestone, granite and sandstone that the various quarries produced would enable him to erect both desirable and ornamental works. In conclusion By expressed his anxious waiting for the arrival of the second company of Royal Sappers and Miners.86 Two companies had been raised in England especially for work on the canal, each consisting of 81 men. The 15th company arrived on the site on 1 June 1827; the 7th company on 17 September. These two companies were amply employed in constructing lock gates, sluices, waste weirs and stone bridges across the canal.

22 Plan of the proposed route of the Welland ship canal. (Sessional Paper No. 20, 1914.) (click on image for a PDF version)

23 The Sault Ste. Marie Canal and locks. From the Dominion Illustrated, 22 August 1891. (Public Archives of Canada.)

In March 1828 By received from General Mann a letter suggesting that he try to prevent as far as possible incurring any expense upon the canal beyond what it had been intended to grant in that year, and to limit his engagements in contracts.87 The letter did not reach By, however, before all the contracts for the masonry of various locks, the construction of the different dams, and the clearing, grubbing and excavating had been accepted and closed by the deputy commissary general at Montreal on 1 February. Up to now, By had acted on the assumption that he should press the work to the utmost. Upon receiving Mann's letter he discharged all his civilian carpenters, smiths, labourers and squad masters. At the same time, he asked the contractors not to increase their expenditures while promising to prolong the period for completing the contracts. The contractors, however, resisted this idea. By feared that there would be great difficulty in getting the contractors to slow down for they believed that the quicker they did the work the greater their profit. When By suggested that they take a longer time to complete their contracts, the contractors replied that they could finish them in one year but that if they were interrupted they would incur great losses and should therefore demand damages. By, however, was not unduly alarmed by this threat. He felt that most of the contractors would find it difficult enough to execute all the works they had undertaken in the time allowed them by their contracts.88 He decided that not to give them any pretence for delaying the work, as by so doing they would claim damages, would be the surest way of keeping down the expense. He reasoned that by withholding his issues of cash strictly to the terms of their contracts, the contractors would not proceed as rapidly as they had intended.89

Contracts awarded for the work were prepared by the Commissariat Department at Quebec and not by Colonel By. He had no control over the amount of work done by the contractors each year. The contracts provided that the contractors should be paid as the work progressed on a unit basis, that is to say, so much per cubic yard for excavating earth or rock. The masonry work in connection with the locks and the dams was similarly treated. Many of the contractors discovered that their figures were much too low, and in consequence found they were losing money and discontinued their contracts, thus causing delay. Or, By would have to remove them from the project they had started because of unsatisfactory progress. Though the provisions in the contract clearly spelled out the contractor's responsibility, yet By was continually besieged by those who had failed, or by their creditors.90


In July, 1825, construction on the Welland Canal was begun in earnest after agreements were signed with the contractors which called for the completion of the Welland River-Lake Ontario section by August, 1827. Two months later work was begun on the Deep Cut, and by the end of 1825 excavation was in progress at a number of points along the line. Following are the names of the original contractors on the Welland Canal with their sections.91 These were numbered from the Welland River and varied in length according to the depth of cutting and amount of work. At first the directors had complete confidence in the contractors who were described as being "persons as eligible in all respects as they think the Board could have met with. . . . They have exhibited a knowledge of their several descriptions of work and have practised to this time a regularity, economy and a persevering industry in the conduct of it, which it is believed have not often been excelled."92 It was not long, however, before the directors were to learn that such overwhelming confidence was in some cases badly misplaced.


No 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (the Deep Cut)Messrs. Beach, Ward and Hovey

7Kennedy and Company

8James Simpson

9, 10Hall Davis

11, 12, 15,16, 20, 24, 25Wallace Bell, Thomas Griffiths, William Richardson, Nicholas Walton, Joseph Carr

13William Simpson

14, 17, 18,19, 21, 22John Gooding, Levi Taylor, Richard Hathaway, ______ Sayer

23James Simpson

26, 27Davis and Simpson

28Hannan and Company

29, 30Houg and Company

31Davis and Simpson

32Gooding, Houg, Biglow and Jones

33Porter and Donaldson

34John Tembrock

35Beach, Ward and Hovey

The HarbourBeach, Ward and Hovey

The LocksOliver Philps and Company

It was perceived in the early stages of construction that to proceed with the dispatch which the contractors pressed upon the company, and which it was evidently the interest of the latter to facilitate, would demand a larger expenditure than could be provided for from the existing funds. At the same time it was strongly urged upon the directors by the principal stockholders that no necessary expense should be spared in procuring engineers "of competent ability and of known character." Accordingly, early in the season of 1826, Alfred Barrett, long employed on the Erie Canal, was engaged as the principal resident engineer under whose immediate and constant superintendence the whole of the work proceeded. David Thomas, the principal engineer, was engaged at an annual salary to visit and report on the state and progress of the work and to suggest any improvements on the original design.93

During 1826 considerable progress was made. By October, 330,704 cubic yards had been excavated out of an estimated total of 1,457,238, and 202,707 yards of embarkment had been completed leaving 155,445 yards still to be constructed. Of the first section which commenced at the Welland River and was 66 chains in length, one-half was completed, the towing path finished and the water let in. The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth sections formed the Deep Cut where the greater part of the labour force was concentrated. Here just under half of the excavation was completed and bottom land had been reached at one point. On the 5-mile section descending the escarpment, four locks were completed by the end of the year except for their gates. It was believed that the St. Catharines-Lake Ontario section with the layer locks would be navigable during the following season. The full amount of capital stock not being subscribed, the directors at this time did not proceed to contract for the western section of the canal leading from the Welland to the Grand River. Later, however, as the necessary funds became available, the directors let contracts for that part of the work since it was apparent that neither the company nor the public would reap the full benefit of the Welland project until that part of the canal was finished.94

By September, 1827, work was so far advanced on the northern, or Lake Ontario-Welland River section, and the necessary funds being available, tenders were called for the southern or Grand River section. Contracts for this section were let to Messrs. Manson, Simpson and Company on 4 October, and a beginning was made on the slow job of draining the swamp. By December, however, work on this section was halted through financial difficulties but not before 72,000 cubic yards of earth had been removed and drainage ditches carried into the swamp for three or four miles.95 Meanwhile the American contractors who had undertaken the Deep Cut, Messrs. Beach, Ward and Hovey, expressed their inability to carry on the work any further at the contract price. They were bankrupt and could not possibly meet the specified date for completion.96 At the same time, the section from St. Catharines to Lake Ontario was already in use. Only the Deep Cut remained unfinished and was the one obstacle to the completion of the canal.

When the 1828 season opened all energies were concentrated on the Deep Cut. Philps the contractor and Barrett the engineer recommenced the work late in April. By October two sections of the cutting were completed.97 If the Deep Cut could be finished by the end of the year, then the first two sections of the canal from Lake Ontario to the Niagara River could be opened for traffic in 1829. However, suddenly on 9 November the banks of the Deep Cut collapsed. This disaster meant a complete stoppage of work. The real source of trouble lay in the fact that excavation of the bottom of the cutting had reached a bed of loose sand and as soon as the level was reached and water allowed to enter, the sand was carried away in the form of silt and the high banks were undermined.98

The original plan for the canal had now to be changed. Instead of using the Welland River as a feeder, which necessitated lowering the level of the Deep Cut to the level of that river, now impossible because of the sand, a new feeder had to be found to bring in a supply of water at a higher level, thus enabling the bottom level of the Deep Cut to be raised. The directors now called upon James Geddes, an experienced engineer, for assistance, and he along with Barrett ran new surveys in November and December. The engineers found the key to the situation in the Grand River section which depended on Lake Erie, not the Welland River, for its water supply. However, the level of the Lake Erie above the sand level in the Deep Cut was not sufficient to give the desired 8-foot level, even if the feeder were brought in directly from the lake. In their reports submitted early in 1829 the engineers, therefore, proposed to build a dam across the mouth of the Grand River to raise the water 5 feet above Lake Erie. Then a long cutting could be made direct from this reservoir to the Deep Cut passing over the Welland River, the original feeder, by an aqueduct. They could by this plan bring in a supply of water to provide a depth of 8 feet in the Deep Cut. Henceforth the whole canal from the mouth of the Twelve Mile Creek to the Grand River estuary would be from the hydraulic point of view one system, the effective operation of which depended primarily on the Grand River dam, the long feeder from Grand River to the Deep Cut, and the aqueduct over the Welland River. The new plan necessitated additional locks at each end of the Deep Cut, two at the south end to enable vessels to pass from the canal to the Welland River and two at the north end to connect the new higher level in the Deep Cut with the old level from that point to Lake Ontario.99

On 31 January 1829, the new feeder line extending from the Deep Cut to the Grand River was put under contract. But construction did not begin until early in May. Work on the final location of the Grand River dam began early in June. Progress on the line of the feeder was delayed by illness among the labourers in the marsh sections. These delays were a serious matter. The company was near the end of its financial resources and the provincial government would extend financial assistance only if the canal was open for traffic in the following season. Meanwhile work was carried on by hasty makeshift credit arrangements. "Each contractor agreed to accept partial payment for work done in proportion to the means at the disposal of the company. Normal contracting procedure was discarded to permit concentration of labor and equipment on sections where the work was lagging, particularly on the line of the Grand River feeder."100 On 30 November, two schooners finally passed through the canal from Lake Ontario to Buffalo Harbor.101

This passage, however, was symbolic only. Much work yet remained to be done on the canal. Especially was this the case in respect to its wooden locks, some few of which were badly constructed in the first place owing to fraud on the part of the contractors.


The commissioners responsible for the construction of the Lachine Canal were appointed on 26 May 1821.102 They took the first step toward the execution of their duties with the nomination of Mr. Richardson as their chairman on 4 June. A week later, the commissioners inserted in the newspapers an advertisement for contractors to excavate the canal allowing until 30 June for submitting tenders, which time was afterwards extended to 5 July.103 On 25 June, Thomas Phillips, one of the commissioners, stated that he would tender for the excavation contract and he therefore wished to resign, it being distinctly understood that no person acting as a commissioner could, directly or indirectly, become a contractor. Phillips' resignation was immediately accepted by the commissioners and he was allowed to tender the same as any other person.104

On 6 July the tenders for excavation were opened. Explanations of some points not sufficiently explicit were found to be necessary. Such explanations being made, the proposals of Andrew White, Stanley Bagg, Thomas Phillips and Oliver Wait, with the offer of John Fry and Abner Bagg as their securities, were accepted for the whole line of the canal. The rates were as follows:105

Excavation in earth of all descriptions8-1/2d. per cu. yd.
Extra-cutting in earth of all descriptions7d. per cu. yd.
Excavation in rock of all descriptions3s. 3d. per cu. yd.
Extra-cutting in rock of all descriptions3s. per cu. yd.

"Extra-cutting" meant what was done, whether in rock or earth, above the level of the towing path of the canal.

The commissioners found that although some of the tenders had apparently lower costs, they were for short distances where there was no rock, and consequently putting the price at a low rate had no substantial practical meaning. The object of the commissioners was to obtain firm prices for the whole work, including the different descriptions of it, in order to know what the total cost would be. They also wished to avoid, if possible, any collision and dispute likely to result from a variety of unconnected contractors.106

Those who had taken the excavation contract were persons of considerable property and so were their securities. The contract stipulated that the contractors undertook all risks and expenses arising from water getting into the works or other accidents. Upon the same principle, a contract was afterwards made with the contractors, it having been previously advertised, for making fences between the canal and contiguous grounds in order to protect those grounds from injury and to protect the commissioners against claims for damage thereto. The cost of this fence according to a prescribed specification of its height, materials and mode of construction was 50 shillings per arpent in length, including gates, and keeping the same in repairs until the canal was finished.107

24 A whaleback type of vessel for bulk cargo transport in the Sault Ste. Marie canal. This class of ship originated in the Great Lakes. (Public Archives of Canada.)

25 Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, about 1897. (Public Archives of Canada.)

On 15 October, an advertisement was published for tenders to be made on or before 17 November for furnishing stones fit for the locks. However, information having been obtained that there was a quantity of stone at Caughnawaga of excellent quality, the engineer was directed to examine the same and, his report being favourable, measures were taken for obtaining His Excellency's consent to procure that stone on the usual terms, it being upon the property of the Indians. This occasioned some delay and consequent alteration in tenders, the original ones planning to use the quarries near Montreal.108

The commissioners finally accepted the tender of Thomas MacKay, a professional stone-cutter and mason, with James Leslie as his security, at the rate of 5-1/2d. per cubic foot of gray stone, fit for cutting, deliverable at the quarry for different kinds required for the locks, and 30s. per toise for stones adopted for the foundations and the backing; reserving for the excavation contractors the right of furnishing according to agreement such stone applicable to locks as should be found in the bed of the canal upon payment to them at the same rate as to the stone contractor, and deducting therefrom the allowance they received for excavation of rock.109

Excavation proceeded rapidly in summer but it was not practicable to proceed with it in winter. The quarrying and cutting of stone at Caughnawaga, however, went on during the winter.110

When the canal was opened for traffic in August, 1824, the contractor for cutting the stone claimed a large balance due him which the commissioners refused to pay. Thereupon the matter in dispute was referred to arbitration. The contractor's accounts for quarrying and cutting the stone were handed over to the arbitrators who gave as their award that the sum of £501.12.4 was to be deducted from the contractor's claim leaving a balance due him of £2,079.1.5 toward finishing the locks, building houses for the toll collectors and completing other necessary works.111


A word might be said about the contracting for repair work to be done on the military canals along the St. Lawrence. The British government owned these canals, received revenue from them and had the responsibility of keeping them in repair.112 In this matter, however, friction developed between the commissary and engineer departments. The system of placing the military canals at Coteau du Lac, Split Rock and the Cascades in the charge of the commissariat while the responsibility for their good repair was thrown on the engineer department was bad in theory and worse in practice. It was the source of keeping the two departments in continual conflict for many years.113 In 1832 the captain of Royal Engineers in Montreal complained of being treated as a subordinate officer by the deputy commissary general there. And the following year the commanding Royal Engineer in Canada at Quebec complained of being treated in a similar manner by the commissary general. From the commanding Royal Engineer's point of view, the only solution was for the commander of the forces to direct the commissary general to have all the estimates executed under commissariat on the canals, along with their revenues and repairs, put entirely into the hands of the ordnance like those of the Rideau and Ottawa.114

Some military authorities in Canada believed that the provincial legislature of Lower Canada might be disposed to consider a proposal for purchasing these canals. These same authorities, however, also believed that the province's offer to purchase would not amount to more than £15,000 — a sum bearing no relation to their value or revenue which was about £2,500 annually in 1832 and increasing rapidly.115 The only way by which the British government might have effected this transfer at less sacrifice would have been in the settlement of any outstanding account wherein the Province of Lower Canada might have had a claim against the British government and consented to receive these canals in payment at a fair valuation.116


In his speech at the opening of the session on 4 February 1817, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada urged that the water communication below Prescott deserved the serious consideration of the legislature.117 The following year a joint commission, consisting of Messrs. Thomas Clark and James Crooks for Upper Canada and Messrs. George Gordon and Joseph Papineau for Lower Canada, reported that improvements were necessary at several places along the St. Lawrence. They recommended that canals should be built with dimensions of not less than 90 feet long by 12 feet breadth in the clear at an estimated cost of $600,000.118

In 1826, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada transmitted to the legislature a report on the subject made by Samuel Clowes119 Four years later another examination of the inland navigation was made by Alfred Barrett who reported that all the obstructions existing to the navigation between Lake St. Francis and Lake Ontario might be removed so as to allow the passage of Durham boats drawing four feet of water for the sum of £45,198 ($180,792) and of steamboats and schooners for the sum of £173,648 ($694,592).120

In 1832 the House of Assembly of Upper Canada resolved "That the public interest requires that the navigation of the River St. Lawrence should be improved so as to admit of navigation by vessels drawing nine feet of water, and that it is expedient to commence such improvements with as little delay as practicable, between Cornwall and the head of the Long Sault Rapids."121 Accordingly a Bill was passed appropriating the sum of £90,000 ($280,000). In 1833 a commission was appointed to carry out this project.122 Benjamin Wright was employed as principal engineer and John B. Mills as his assistant. One of the conditions of the Act was that the Cornwall Canal should be commenced and finished before any of the other projected works leading to Lake Ontario should be undertaken.123 Wright was also employed by the government of Lower Canada to make the survey of the lower canals on a scale to correspond with the canals surveyed for Upper Canada.

In 1833 these engineers reported that the following canals were necessary for establishing a communication between Lakes St. Francis and Ontario: Long Sault (Cornwall Canal), Farran's Point, Rapide Plat, Point Cardinal and Les Galops. The estimated cost for the construction was £323,616 ($1,294,464). Adding to this the cost of the land, the estimated cost in round numbers was £350,000 (1.4 million).124

Commissioners appointed to superintend the construction of the Cornwall Canal hired Benjamin Wright as consulting engineer and J. B. Mills as resident engineer. The professional services of Captain Cole, R.E., and of Messrs. Geddes and Fleming were also retained. Tenders were received on 6 July 1834, and the construction undertaken at various rates.125 The following year the price of labour and provisions had risen so high that the commissioners were induced to add 10 per cent to the prices agreed upon with the contractors. And in 1836, owing to the same causes, the additional allowance was increased to 30 per cent.126 In that year, Mills, the resident engineer, resigned and Captain Phillpotts, R.E., was appointed in his place. The next three years were difficult ones for the canal commissioners. Political unrest, commercial depression and exorbitant demands for damages to property resulted in the suspension of construction and the discharge of professional personnel connected with the engineer's department.

In his general report on inland navigation in 1839, Phillpotts estimated the cost of completing the Cornwall Canal at £57,300 ($278,860).127 At the time of union, the estimated expenditure on this canal up to 31 December 1838 amounted to £354,203 ($1,416,812) and, it was believed that a further sum of £57,671 ($230,685) was required to complete the works.128


In the years immediately following the War of 1812, the necessity of opening a water communication between the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain was fully discussed. In 1818 the legislature of Lower Canada passed a Bill granting to a company the right of forming a canal so as to connect the navigation of the lake with the basin at Chambly and avoid the Chambly rapids. The Act prescribed that the locks should not be less than 20 feet in breadth and of a sufficient depth to admit vessels drawing 5 feet of water. The company's capital was limited to £45,000 ($180,000) and the canal was to be completed with in seven years.129 Thereupon the company ordered the necessary surveys and designs and informed the legislature that the cost of construction would far exceed the capital authorized to be raised for the purpose. Hence the company asked for authority to increase its capital. By 1823 construction had still not yet begun and it was clear that the company would forfeit its rights under the clause in their Act which prescribed that the canal should be completed within seven years. A new Act was therefore passed appropriating £50,000 ($200,000) for the construction of the canal.130 Commissioners were finally appointed in 1829;131 necessary surveys were immediately proceeded with, and in October, 1831, the works were commenced by contractors who undertook the whole for £46,218 ($184,872). As it turned out, the contractors took the work at very low prices and were soon in financial difficulties. The commissioners made several advances to the contractors to try and keep the work going but to no avail. In the autumn of 1835 the work was entirely suspended. Whereupon the commissioners reported to the provincial government that, along with the £66,000 already expended on the canal, an additional sum of £28,000 ($112,000) was required to finish it.132 A Bill granting this sum failed to obtain the governor's assent.133 In the years from 1836 to 1839 the works were maintained by means of small sums of money advanced to the commissioners by the government in anticipation of future grants. In 1840 the commissioners were authorized to borrow a sum of £35,000 ($140,000)134 and the works were resumed, but again difficulties with the contractors resulted in little progress, and this was the unfinished state of the canal at the time of the union.

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