About this Project

Heritage Passages: Bytown and the Rideau Canal documents the political origins, construction, and early influence of Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. When Lt. Col. John By arrived in Canada from England, his first major planning decision was to reject the two proposed sites for the northern canal entrance, one near Richmond’s Landing, the other near Rideau Falls. One has to wonder how the construction of the canal and the surrounding community of Bytown might have unfolded had he chosen differently.

The history of the canal likewise varies depending upon where one starts to dig. The story of the canal’s construction has been told countless times, but it is a story based on fragmentary records, maps, letters, and drawings dispersed across museums and archives in several cities, including Ottawa, nearby Merrickville, Montreal, and Toronto, with some materials located as far away as Edinburgh, Scotland. Exploring these repositories involves extensive travel and reproduction fees that are beyond the average researcher’s ability.

Heritage Passages gathers together reproductions of archival holdings pertaining to the Ottawa Locks of the Rideau Canal and early Bytown from locations around the world. Many of these documents have been digitized and published here for the first time. Our exhibit includes English-language material from the Carleton University Archives and Research Collections, the Bytown Museum, the McCord Museum, the Archives of Ontario, Library and Archives Canada, Parks Canada, the National Archives of Scotland, and the UK National Archives. While there is no way of knowing how many artifacts remain to be discovered, authenticated, and documented, we have strived to provide the most comprehensive collection to date. Our goal is to encourage students, historians, and canal enthusiasts alike to dig through our online archive, make their own discoveries, and write their own histories that will add to our growing knowledge of this national icon.

To that end, the exhibit comprises several additional interactive features that offer new perspectives on the canal’s origins and influence. The original structures that housed Lt. Col. By and his corps of engineers on Barrack Hill are no longer standing, and few tools or other artifacts remain from the construction of this engineering marvel. We have recreated these architectural structures and the surrounding landscape using a unique protocol developed by the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS) that combines data from terrestrial laser scanning and on-site measurements with archival material, including original land surveys and engineering drawings, architectural drawings of the principal buildings constructed for the Royal Sappers and Miners and Royal Engineers, and period watercolour paintings and prints that show the general character of Bytown. These detailed 3D models synthesize much of the fragmentary information that we have about how the canal area looked and functioned at different stages of its construction.

Because we worked primarily from archival material, the detail and accuracy of the various components of the models vary depending on the sources available. For instance, our access to By’s original drawings allowed us to develop a very detailed model of the eight lock stations. By contrast, our main references for Upper and Lower Town consisted of paintings and lithographs, so the model of these two areas was constructed with less detail. The overall aesthetic character of the digital models also reflects the nature of the archival materials. Many of the textures used on the model are hand painted, and the palette is consistent with the watercolour paintings and ink washes that serve as our only visual records of the period. This process required weeks of painstaking work, with our team effectively painting the digital model.

The canal’s breathtaking natural beauty and architecture attract millions of visitors annually. To enrich their experience of the site, we have also made many of the documents and models in our exhibit available through an “augmented reality” application for mobile smart phones that brings the past off the screen and out into the world. Created with innovative spatial storytelling software developed at the Carleton Hyperlab, the Heritage Passages mobile app responds to its user’s location and pattern of movement along the canal site, offering a personal guided tour of our digital archives and reconstructions. By allowing these artifacts to be experienced in their original context, our app provides visitors with a first-hand appreciation of how the area’s landscape and social impact have changed over time.

We hope that, by offering multiple modes and sites of interaction, Heritage Passages will contribute to new understandings and appreciations of this important Canadian landmark.