The Rideau Canal (French: Canal Rideau), also known as the Rideau Waterway, connects the city of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on the Ottawa River to the city of Kingston, Ontario on Lake Ontario. The canal was opened in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the United States and is still in use today, with most of its original structures intact. The canal system uses sections of major rivers, including the Rideau and the Cataraqui, as well as some lakes. It is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America, and in 2007, it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is operated today by Parks Canada as a recreational waterway. The locks on the system open for navigation in mid-May and close in mid-October.
The construction of the Rideau Canal was a preventative military measure undertaken after a report that during the War of 1812 the United States had intended to invade the British colony of Upper Canada via the St. Lawrence, which would have severed the lifeline between Montreal and Kingston. In this period, the British built a number of other canals (Grenville, Chute-à-Blondeau and Carillon Canals, all along the Ottawa River), as well as a number of forts (Citadel Hill, La Citadelle, and Fort Henry) to impede and deter any future American invasions of Canadian territory.
The initial purpose of the Rideau Canal was military, as it was intended to provide a secure supply and communications route between Montreal and the British naval base in Kingston, Ontario. Westward from Montreal, travel would proceed along the Ottawa River to Bytown (now Ottawa), then southwest via the canal to Kingston and out into Lake Ontario. The objective was to bypass the stretch of the St. Lawrence River bordering New York State; a route which would have left British supply ships vulnerable to an attack, or a blockade of the St. Lawrence.
The canal also served a commercial purpose. The Rideau Canal was easier to navigate than the St. Lawrence River, due to the series of rapids between Montreal and Kingston. As a result, the Rideau Canal became a busy commercial artery from Montreal to the Great Lakes. However, by 1849, the rapids of the St. Lawrence had been tamed by a series of locks and commercial shippers were quick to switch to this more direct route.
The construction of the canal was supervised by Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. Private contractors such as future sugar refining entrepreneur John Redpath, Thomas McKay, Robert Drummond, Thomas Phillips, Andrew White and others were responsible for much of the construction, and the majority of the actual work was done by thousands of Irish and French-Canadian labourers.
The canal work started in 1826, and it took a total of 6 years to complete by 1832. The final cost of its construction was £822,000. Given the unexpected cost overruns, John By was recalled to London and questioned by a parliamentary committee before being cleared of any wrongdoing.
Once the canal was constructed, no further military engagements took place between Canada and the United States. Although the Rideau Canal never had to be used as a military supply route, it played a pivotal role in the early development of Canada. Prior to the locks being completed on the St. Lawrence in the late 1840s, the Rideau served as the main travel route for immigrants heading westward into Upper Canada, and for heavy goods (timber, minerals, grain) from Canada's hinterland heading east to Montreal. Tens of thousands of British immigrants travelled the Rideau in this period. Hundreds of barge loads of goods were shipped each year along the Rideau, allowing Montreal to compete commercially, in the 1830s and 40s, with New York (which had the Erie Canal), as a major North American export port.
As many as a thousand of the workers died from malaria, other diseases and accidents. Most deaths were from disease, principally complications from malaria (P. vivax), which was endemic in Ontario within the range of the Anopheles mosquito, and other diseases of the day. Accidents were fairly rare for a project of this magnitude, in 1827 there were 7 accidental deaths recorded. Inquests were held for each accidental death. The men, women and children that died were buried in local cemeteries, either burial grounds set up near work sites or existing local cemeteries. Funerals were held for the workers and the graves marked with wooden markers (which have since rotted away - leading to a misconception that workers were buried in unmarked graves).
Some of the dead remain unidentified as they had no known relatives in Upper Canada. Memorials to the fallen labourers have been erected along the canal route, most recently the Celtic Cross memorials in Ottawa, Kingston and Chaffeys Lock. The first memorial on the Rideau Canal acknowledging deaths among the labour force was erected in 1993 by the Kingston and District Labour Council and the Ontario Heritage Foundation at Kingston Mills.
There are three canal era cemeteries that are open to the public today: Chaffey's Cemetery and Memory Wall at Chaffey's Lock—this cemetery was used from 1825 to the late 19th century; the Old Presbyterian Cemetery near Newboro - used from 1828 to the 1940s; and McGuigan Cemetery near Merrickville - used from the early 19th century (c. 1805) to the late 1890s.
In 1925 the Rideau Canal was designated a National Historic Site of Canada (plaqued in 1926 and again in 1962).
In 2000 the Rideau Waterway was designated a Canadian Heritage River in recognition of its outstanding historical and recreational values.
In 2007 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognizing it as a work of human creative genius. The Rideau Canal was recognized as the best preserved example of a slack water canal in North America demonstrating the use of European slackwater technology in North America on a large scale. It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century that remains operational along its original line with most of its original structures intact. It was also recognized as an extensive, well preserved and significant example of a canal which was used for military purposes linked to a significant stage in human history - that of the fight to control the north of the American continent.
A plaque was erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board at Jones Falls Lockstation commemorating Lieutenant Colonel John By, Royal Engineer, the superintending engineer in charge of the construction of the Rideau Canal. The plaque notes that the 123-mile long Rideau Canal, built as a military route and incorporating 47 locks, 16 lakes, two rivers, and a 360-foot-long (110 m), 60-foot-high (18 m) dam at Jones Falls (Jones Falls Dam), was completed in 1832.
The 202 kilometres (125 miles) of the Rideau Canal incorporate sections of the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers, as well as several lakes, including the Lower, Upper and Big Rideau lakes. About 19 kilometres (12 miles) of the route is man-made. Communities along the waterway include Ottawa, Manotick, Kars, Burritts Rapids, Merrickville, Smiths Falls, Rideau Ferry, Portland, Westport, Newboro, Seeleys Bay and Kingston. Communities connected by navigable waterways to the Rideau Canal include Kemptville and Perth.
Today, only pleasure craft make use of the Rideau Canal. Boat tours of the canal are offered in the city of Ottawa, Merrickville, and at Chaffeys Lock. Recreational boaters can make use of it to travel between Ottawa and Kingston with ease. Most of the locks are still hand-operated. There are a total of 45 locks at 23 stations along the Canal, plus two locks at the entrance to the Tay Canal (leading to Perth). The lock stations are:
- Ottawa Locks (1-8)
- Hartwells Locks (9-10)
- Hog's Back Locks (11-12)
- Black Rapids Lock (13)
- Long Island Locks (14-16)
- Burritts Rapids Lock (17)
- Lower Nicholsons Lock (18)
- Upper Nicholsons Lock (19)
- Clowes Lock (20)
- Merrickville Locks (21-23)
- Kilmarnock Lock (24)
- Edmonds Lock (25)
- Old Slys Locks (26-27)
- Smiths Falls Combined Lock (29a(1))
- Smiths Falls Detached Lock (31)
- Poonamalie Lock (32)
- Lower Beveridges Lock (33 - Tay Canal)
- Upper Beveridges Lock (34 - Tay Canal)
- (Rideau) Narrows Lock (35)
- Newboro Lock (36)
- Chaffey's Lock (37)
- Davis Lock (38)
- Jones Falls Locks (39-42)
- Upper Brewers Locks (43-44)
- Lower Brewers Lock (45)
- Kingston Mills Locks (46-49)
In normal operations the canal can handle boats up to 27.4 m (90 ft) in length, 7.9 m (26 ft) in width, and 6.7 m (22 ft) in height with a draft of up to 1.5 m (5 ft) (boats drafting over 1.2 m (4 feet) are asked to contact the Rideau Canal Office of Parks Canada prior to their trip). In special circumstances a boat up to 33.5 m (110 ft) in length by 9.1 m (30 ft) in width can be handled.
In winter, a section of the Rideau Canal passing through central Ottawa becomes officially the world's largest skating rink. The cleared length is 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) and has the equivalent surface area of 90 Olympic hockey rinks. It runs from the Hartwell locks at Carleton University to the locks between the Parliament Buildings and the Château Laurier, including Dow's Lake in between. It serves as a popular tourist attraction and recreational area and is also the focus of the Winterlude festival in Ottawa. Beaver Tails, a fried dough pastry, are sold along with other snacks and beverages, in kiosks on the skateway. In January 2008, Winnipeg, Manitoba achieved the record of the world's longest skating rink at a length of 8.54 kilometres, but with a width of only 2 to 3 metres wide, on its Assiniboine River and Red River at The Forks. In response, the Rideau Canal was rebranded as "the world's largest skating rink".
Although some residents of Ottawa had been using the canal as an impromptu skating surface for years, the official use of the canal as a skateway and tourist attraction is a more recent innovation. In fact, as recently as the 1970s, the city government of Ottawa considered paving over the canal in order to make an expressway. The federal government's ownership of the canal, however, prevented the city from pursuing this proposal. When Doug Fullerton was appointed chair of the National Capital Commission, he proposed a recreational corridor around the canal, including the winter skateway between Carleton University and Confederation Park. The plan was implemented on January 18, 1971, despite opposition by city council, and 50,000 people skated on the canal on the first weekend. City councillor and author Clive Doucet credits this transformation of the canal with reinvigorating the communities of the Glebe, Old Ottawa East and Old Ottawa South.
It has been reported that the National Hockey League's Ottawa Senators are exploring the possibility of playing a regular season game outdoors on the Rideau Canal, using temporary bleachers for the spectators.
Rideau Canal Festival
The Rideau Canal Festival is a festival that takes place in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada annually on the Civic long weekend in August. In 2011 the dates will be July 28-August 1. The festival program of activities focuses on 3 main themes: Rideau Heritage, active lifestyle, and World Heritage/Environment. The festival celebrates the Rideau Canal with a flotilla, tours of the canal, art and photo exhibits, music, and bike tours.