From Defence to Trade

By the time the Rideau Canal was completed in 1832, the hostility between Canada and the United States had almost entirely dissipated. By’s plans for a permanent military fortification on Barrack Hill were abandoned midway through construction, and as the canal’s military necessity dwindled, it was forced to take on new uses to remain relevant. Instead of ferrying military supplies and personnel, the canal became an accessible and efficient route for transporting civilians, commercial goods, and natural resources. Tolls were introduced to help support ongoing maintenance efforts as the waterway had become a prosperous trade and timber route. Recreation and boating culture began to flourish, and today more than 80,000 boats pass through the canal annually.

Points of Interest

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Source: John By, “Plan of the Ground & Proposed Military Works on the West Side of the First Eight Locks”, 1831, Library and Archives Canada, H1/440/Ottawa/1831 (5 sections), NMC 17423; Unknown Artist, “Endorsed: Plan for Fortifying the Hill above the Entrance Valley of the Rideau Canal at Bytown (now Parliament Hill, Ottawa)”, [1831], Library and Archives Canada, NMC-0005249; “By’s Plans to Fortify Barrack Hill” [Animation]. Dr. Stephen Fai. Carleton Immersive Media Studio. 2012.

Duration: 31 seconds
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By’s Plans to Fortify Barrack Hill

In these ambitious plans, Lt. Col. By used existing government-owned land to plan a potential fortification for Bytown. He integrated existing barracks, adding bomb-proof casements, massive storage facilities, and ramparts in case of land attack-all at a projected cost of £205,450. In the end, the effort was put into the fortification of Kingston instead, and Bytown would assume only a minor military role.


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Source: Jones Falls, Rideau Canal, Upper Canada. Philip John Bainbrigge fonds, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1983-47-44, C-011835

Duration: 11 seconds
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Rideau Canal as Military Route

Despite being constructed as a means of defence, the canal was used only a handful of times for specific military purposes. This image depicts one such occasion, showing a company of Royal Marines travelling the canal by Durham boat (a wooden flat bottom boat that could be navigated in either direction thanks to its two tapered ends) to get to Kingston. Many of these soldiers would have defended Canada against American invasion in the Battle of the Windmill.

Photograph of the Rideau King steamboat passing through the locks Enlarge

Source: Rideau King. Unknown Photographer, A.E. Young collection and other views of North America, 1858-1958 (formerly Series B), Andrew Merrilees / Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1980-149 NPC, PA-142355

Steamboats Passing Through the Rideau Canal

Lt. Col. By’s foresight to push for locks big enough to accommodate larger vessels allowed the canal to be used by many steamships for decades to come, including the S. S. Pumper, Rideau Queen, and Rideau King. In the hope of recovering some of the canal’s exorbitant construction costs, tolls were introduced on June 4, 1833, for all items boarding the steamers and barges, including liquor, tobacco, butter, lard, and even civilian passengers. In 1834, similar tolls were introduced for timber travelling the waterway; these tolls were short-lived, however, and came nowhere near earning back the hundreds of thousands of pounds in construction overages.

Painting of Barracks Hill and the Ottawa River at BytownEnlarge

Source: View of Barrack Hill and the Ottawa River at Bytown (Ottawa). Edmund Willoughby Sewell, Edmund Willoughby Sewell collection, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1991-120-3, C-011047

The Military’s Lasting Impression on Bytown

Although Bytown did not become the military stronghold By initially envisioned, the military continued to play an active role in shaping the fabric of Bytown long after the canal was completed. The Ordnance Department still owned and leased land to residents in the area surrounding Entrance Valley and Lower Town, and the military garrison that would come to occupy Barrack Hill remained a visible landmark for many years. As a reliable economic and social pillar, the military community would purchase fuel, food, and living amenities from local Bytown businesses. Military officers were also highly active in the social, religious, and civic life of the community.

By’s Recall«