Property Disputes

The Vesting Act of 1821, passed by the British government, was applied in Bytown and gave the Ordnance Department legal title to all military property. Because the military realized that it could not be applied outside of Great Britain, the Rideau Canal Act was passed in February 1827 in an attempt to retain the property titles for the lands surrounding the canal. The Rideau Canal Act allowed Lt. Col. By to take land deemed necessary for the construction of the canal and control the sale or leasing of government-owned property. Private landowners who objected to the act could do nothing to stop the expropriation of their property, and several citizens filed lawsuits on the basis that it was unfair and illegal. Perhaps the best-documented property disputes are those of Irish immigrant and entrepreneur Nicholas Sparks and farmer Peter Cornish. In both cases, By claimed that he reserved the right to repossess parts of the land which were needed for the construction of the canal – a decision that ultimately cost some early landowners their investments and even their livelihoods.

Points of Interest

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[Source: Library and Archives Canada, MG-13-WO55, volume 15, pages 50-51]

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Demarcating Lot Dividers

When Lt. Col. By first began to plot the land necessary for the canal’s construction, he understood that many property owners might get upset. In this letter written to General Mann, dated April 3, 1830, he outlined several steps that had been taken in order to ensure that frustrations and legal disputes were minimized. The letter states that he had hired a sworn surveyor of the province, Mr. Jonias Richey, to survey land purchased by the government. Richey was to place special stones (hand-drawn in the letter) to act as lot dividers, thus eliminating any ambiguity over land lots.

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[Source: Library and Archives Canada, MG-13-WO44, Volume 16, pages 376-392]

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Peter Cornish Property Disputes

While Nicholas Sparks owned a great deal of land in Bytown, Peter Cornish had only a small plot. In his letters to the Office of Ordnance, which began in December of 1834, Cornish explained that several years earlier, Lt. Col. By had prevented him from frapping, or securing, his oak timber down the Ottawa River and thus from “realizing certain large profits.” The canal’s intersection with the farmer’s land caused appreciable loss, resulting in his inability to pay taxes and leading to his subsequent imprisonment. In the end, Cornish suffered three years in prison for his debts, and died a short time after his release.

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[Source: ‘Unknown Artist,“Land Belonging to Nicholas Sparks”, The National Archives of the UK, MPHH1-459 (1)]

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Nicholas Sparks Property Disputes

Using the powers of the Rideau Act in 1827, Lt. Col. By obtained 104 acres (42 hectares) of land owned by Nicholas Sparks, which is outlined in this map (the canal to the east, Bank Street to the west, Wellington Street to the north, and Laurier Street to the south). Long after the canal was completed, the Board of Ordnance held on to the land in case they decided to fortify it in the future. When it became apparent that no major military camp would be established, it was subdivided for other government uses. Legal action ensued as Sparks argued that the original terms of the Rideau Act allowed the acquisition of land for the canal, but not for military purposes. Sparks got some-but not all-of his land back by 1848, and it eventually grew into a strong business district in the heart of Upper Town.

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