The Rideau Canal, opened for navigation in 1832, is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. In 1826, Lt. Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers was assigned to create a navigable waterway from Kingston to Ottawa through a wilderness of rough bush, swamps, and rocky terrain. Five years later, in the fall of 1831, one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century was essentially complete. The Rideau Canal is one of North America’s most beautiful navigable waterways, with exquisite stonemasonry admired to this day.

The canal was designed by Colonel By and built, for the most part, by independent contractors under the supervision of Colonel By and his staff of Royal Engineers. The work was done by hand. Hundreds of Irish and French Canadian labourers, Scottish and French-Canadian stonemasons, tradesmen such as masons, blacksmiths and carpenters, and British Sappers & Miners battled the Canadian wilderness, nineteenth century working conditions and malaria to complete this wonder of a canal system in less than six years. It is guesstimated that about 1,000 men and family members died during the six years of construction, about half of those from malaria, the other half from other diseases and work related accidents (which were low for the era for a project of this magnitude).

The beautiful arched dam at Jones Falls and the four locks (three locks, a turning basin, and a fourth lock, with a total lift of 60 feet ) are one of the engineering triumphs of the Rideau Canal. The dam was one of the first of its kind. Spanning 350 feet and rising 60 feet, it was the largest such structure in North America. One of the jewels of the Rideau, Jones Falls is a “must see” for visitors.

Narrows Lock and Blockhouse - 1841
Narrows Lock and Blockhouse – 1841

The Battle of Waterloo and Perth
If you’ve heard of the Battle of Waterloo, then you remember the Duke of Wellington. After the War of 1812, he laid out a defense strategy for Upper Canada. Forts, towers, blockhouses, navigable waterways, and settlements of trained, loyal settlers were the key elements of this strategy. Perth, established in 1816, was one of the first such settlements. A brief journey to Perth up the Tay Canal starts at Beveridge Lock, on Lower Rideau Lake.

Perth was the social, judicial and administrative centre for the Rideau Corridor away from the border with the U.S. Large, elegant homes of brick and stone, built for military officers, hosted genteel dinner parties – but guests had to bring their own chairs. Upper Canada’s Last Fatal Duel, fought by two law students, Robert Lyon and John Wilson, over the honour of a local belle, took place in Perth on June 13, 1833. Mr. Lyon was on the losing end of the exchange. See The Last Duel in Upper Canada (external website)

The Ferry of No Return
The original road from Brockville to Perth, crossed Rideau Lake at Oliver’s Ferry (now known as Rideau Ferry). The ferry crossing was named after a man named Oliver who set up a ferry to take people across this narrow spot in the lake. A tale is told that Mr. Oliver had an unusual habit of refusing to transport passengers after dark, instead he would put them up in his house. His neighbours though, seldom saw the travellers in the morning. Several travellers did not make their destination and it was assumed at the time that they were victims of highway robbers.

Many years later, when a bridge was built to replace the ferry, Oliver’s house had to be torn down. It is said that in the walls and under the floorboards of additions Oliver had made to the original house, human skeletons were found. It seems that many of Oliver’s late night guests never left. While that tale is fiction, Mr. Oliver did meet with a rather abrupt end, shot through the heart by a neighbour in a dispute over trespassing cows. See Skeletons Under the Floor (external website).

As the Years Passed By

A rowing skiff and the Rideau Queen - early 1900s
A rowing skiff and the Rideau Queen – Early 1900s
Queen’s University Archives

Although the Rideau served a military deterence role, part of the reason it was built, its primary use in its first few years was as a travelway for new immigrants heading into Upper Canada and for commercial trade. By the late 19th century, the Rideau Canal was changing into a recreational waterway, famous for its bass fishing. Lodges and guides developed a thriving business, which continues to this day. In 1925 the heritage value to Canada of the Rideau Canal was recognized with its designation as a National Historic Site of Canada.

By the 1950s, the Rideau became the waterway that visitors enjoy today, a recreational paradise. Cottages dot the shorelines, and boats of all sizes cruise the lakes and canals.

The Rideau Canal System is run by Parks Canada, who maintain the original spirit, even operating the locks by hand. A tour of the Rideau Canal system is a must.

Learn More Rideau History:

The Books Section of our website lists several books that are still in print detailing the fascinating history of the Rideau Canal.

Visit the History section of www.rideau-info.com for all sorts of Rideau history.

Those interested in detailed research history of the Rideau Canal may wish to look at the detailed research reports we’ve digitized as part of our Resources of the Rideau project. These, and other research reports are available as free PDF downloads on ParksCanadaHistory.com