By’s Recall

Throughout construction, Lt. Col. By established himself as a man of integrity and honour, and earned a strong reputation with the people he worked alongside. He took great pride in knowing that “his” canal, for all its delays, was twice the size and completed twice as fast as any other canals of the period. By’s reputation with his superiors, however, was jeopardized by the erratic actions of the canal’s former clerk, a young Englishman named Henry Burgess. Burgess was dismissed in March of 1830 due to countless episodes of insubordination, intoxication, and unacceptable work habits. When By denied his request to be reinstated, Burgess notified the Governor-in-Chief that By had misappropriated public funds during the canal’s construction. The Board of Ordnance felt obligated to investigate further, and By was ordered to return to England in 1832 to face disciplinary action. Instead of the grand praise and knighthood he had once anticipated, By faced humiliating charges. In the end, he was exonerated but heartbroken, and died shortly thereafter, on February 1, 1836, while still in England.

Points of Interest

Portrait of Lt. Col. John ByEnlarge

Source: By, John, 1832. Unknown Artist, Kingston Picture Collection, Queen’s University Archives, accession number V23 P-58

Portrait of Lt. Col. John By

As a member of the Royal Engineers, a branch of the British military that provided engineering and technical support, Lt. Col. John By assumed the position of Superintending Engineer to the Rideau Canal. As such, By was not only responsible for overseeing the creation of the canal in its entirety, but also would eventually become the target of blame when the canal’s final cost far exceeded the Board of Ordnance’s estimates.

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Source: Letter from N.A. Barid, in Montreal concerning his situation on the Rideau Canal, 1828. National Archives of Scotland. GD45/3/458. (reproduction #NAS02024 GD45-3-458-00840); Letter from N.A. Barid, in Montreal concerning his situation on the Rideau Canal, 1828. National Archives of Scotland. GD45/3/458. (reproduction #NAS02024 GD45-3-458-00839).

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Support from By’s Colleagues

Despite the criticism he faced in England, Lt. Col. By left a lasting impression on those he worked alongside during his five years in Canada. The statements in this letter, from some of By’s colleagues, were brought forth as evidence during his trial in 1832. This particular letter (dated October 6, 1832) from George Auldijo, the chairman for the Committee of Trade and Merchants of Montreal, praises By for his “magnificent work” on the construction of the canal.

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Source: “Letter from N.A. Barid, in Montreal concerning his situation on the Rideau Canal”, 1828. National Archives of Scotland. GD45/3/458. (reproduction #NAS02024 GD45-3-458-00832); “Letter from N.A. Barid, in Montreal concerning his situation on the Rideau Canal”, 1828. National Archives of Scotland. GD45/3/458. (reproduction #NAS02024 GD45-3-458-00832V).

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Character Statement from Citizens of Brockville

During a public meeting held in November 1832, the citizens of Brockville praised Lt. Col. By for his “genius” in overcoming the obstacles of canal building in Upper Canada. This character statement would be examined during By’s trial, where many friends and former colleagues came forward in his defence.

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Source: Maule Family / Earl of Dalhousie fonds. “36 plans and abstract of the estimate of expenditure of the Rideau Canal”, 1828. National Archives of Scotland. GD45/3/9.

Duration: 35 seconds
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Estimate of Canal Construction Costs

Shown here is an estimate for canal construction costs broken down by individual locks. This letter is dated May 5, 1828, and is signed by Lt. Col. By. At that time, he estimated that the cost of construction would be £475,200. However, when construction was completed in 1831, total expenditures were over £800,000.

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