Getting Started

The ceremonial first stone of the Rideau Canal project was laid on August 16, 1826, by famous Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Due to ongoing difficulties surveying and planning the project, however, land clearing did not officially commence for several weeks. On September 21, 1826, Lady Dalhousie was given the honour of turning the first sod at Entrance Valley, and the task of clearing the densely forested land in preparation for the Bytown locks was officially underway. While it would be another year before the Governor General was invited to see the first foundations put into place – a two-tonne slab marking the beginnings of the construction of the Bytown Locks – the atmosphere was full of anticipation and good cheer. Makeshift fireworks were set off in the form of small dynamite explosions, and festive parties were held to mark the start of what would become one of Canada’s earliest and most ambitious architectural endeavours.

Points of Interest

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[Source: Felling axe head (34H453-1), Parks Canada, Ontario Service Centre.]

Duration: 15 seconds
Download "Clearing Entrance Valley" (.mp4 852 KB) View the transcript of this video.

Clearing Entrance Valley

The area surrounding the potential construction site was littered with massive trees and shrubs that needed to be cleared. The same French-Canadian axe men and lumberjacks who were involved in clearing land for earlier surveys of the region were once again called upon to help prepare Entrance Valley for the building of the canal. The above video features an axe head acquired from an archaeological dig of a site near Entrance Valley. The portion of the axe head remaining would have fit around the handle of the axe (the blade is broken off).

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Sketch of lumberjacks near Old Sly’sEnlarge

[Source: Near Old Sly’s, Rideau. James Pattison Cockburn fonds, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1989-262-32, C-012607]

Uprooting Tree Stumps

While large timbers could be dragged down with oxen, uprooting stumps often required excavating underneath the tree roots followed by the use of dynamite. Known as “pooling in,” this was an extremely dangerous job. Even an experienced blaster could have difficulties accurately anticipating the size of the resulting explosion, and many workers suffered from serious injuries or died as a result of miscalculations. The painting above depicts a forest near Old Sly’s on the Rideau route, with massive tree stumps in the foreground.

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Sketch of men clearing the landEnlarge

[Source: Clearing Land about 1825. Charles William Jefferys, Imperial Oil Collection series, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1972-26-730, C-073549]

Removing Timber from the Site

Clearing the land would have been physically demanding work. Although machinery existed which would have been useful in the canal’s construction, taking advantage of the abundance of labourers willing to work for minimal wages ultimately made more economic sense to those overseeing the project. The above illustration shows several men manually hauling tree trunks and debris from the site. Two oxen are also visible in the background.

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Portrait of Thomas McKayEnlarge

[Source: Thomas McKay, builder of Rideau Hall and Earnscliffe,. Unknown Photographer, Alexander Scott fonds, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1977-137 NPC, PA-125208]

Scottish Mason Thomas McKay

In 1827, Lt. Col. By awarded John Pennefeather the contract to oversee the excavation of the Bytown Locks, and awarded the masonry portion to Thomas McKay and John Redpath. McKay, a Scottish mason and experienced canal builder, had already earned a reputation as a reliable contractor during the construction of the Lachine Canal a few years earlier. Postings for additional labourers and masons to carry out the work on the eight locks began to appear in Montreal in 1827.

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