Communication Breakdown

Lt. Col. John By was the person put in charge of all major decisions regarding canal size, cost, labour, and organization; his ultimate control over the project, however, was very much limited by the financial resources allotted to him by his superiors. The British Treasury funded the construction of the Rideau Canal to secure colonial interests, but its Board of Ordnance kept a tight hold on the purse strings. By’s suggestions for improvements and extensions to existing plans were often dismissed outright for financial reasons; lengthy delays between correspondences also led to frequent misunderstandings and other costly mistakes. With each letter taking two months or longer to travel the necessary 5,000 km, not to mention the Board of Ordnance’s lengthy review process, By’s appeals would often arrive even as further restrictions were already in transit from London. By’s proposal for larger locks, for instance, was sent when orders to decrease the locks’ size were already en route back to Canada. When the Board of Ordnance finally approved larger locks, construction was already underway, and workers were forced to demolish the new masonry in order to begin again. The debate over the size of the locks stretched over more than a year because of these delays and miscommunications, much to the frustration of all involved.

Points of Interest

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Source: Library and Archives Canada, MG-13-WO55, volume 44, page 202; Library and Archives Canada, MG-13-WO44, volume 18, page 107; Library and Archives Canada, RG 8, volume 44, page 202

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By’s Correspondence with the Board of Ordnance

These three letters give a clear insight into the challenges of planning the Rideau Canal when mail delivery was plagued by delays. Sent to General Mann and the Board of Ordnance on July 13, 1826 – but not received until August By’s first letter argued for larger locks. By was unaware that the Board of Ordnance had already sent a letter on June 21 with firm instructions to begin the project at the original approved size, which he would not receive until September. So began a year-long battle as letters went back and forth, while more studies and estimates were drawn up. In the third letter shown here, dated November 1, 1827, By sent his final proposal along with his revised estimates to be presented in person by Lt. Pooley, in the hopes that the fully briefed lieutenant could convince the board of By’s preferred design.


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Source: “Royal Engineers Building” [Animation]. Dr. Stephen Fai. Carleton Immersive Media Studio. 2012.

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Royal Engineers Building

In addition to storing building materials, tools, and other hardware, the Royal Engineers Office also served as the headquarters for the Rideau Canal project in its entirety. The second floor of the building was divided into offices for Lt. Col. By’s engineering staff. Any drawings, plans, specifications, or correspondence related to the construction would have been prepared on site.

Sketch of a steamboat docked at the wharf at Entrance BayEnlarge

Source: John Henry Walker (1831-1899). © McCord Museum. M930.50.7.868. Print. Rideau Canal.

Delays in Delivery

Every letter sent between Bytown and London had to make the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean by ship – a trip often made longer by poor weather conditions and other delays. Once these ships finally arrived in a major port, letters were still slow to reach their final destination. For example, Montreal was the closest major port to Bytown, and the journey meant that letters from London were often further delayed before landing in Col. By’s hands.

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