When it came to surveying the Canadian wilderness, what would have taken one day in Great Britain took at least three or four days in Canada. European surveying techniques at the time used a theodolite – an instrument used to measure distance and elevation by establishing a grid of fixed points. Such techniques, however, were less suited to the hostile Canadian weather and terrain conditions. In order to accurately measure swampy areas, for example, surveyors at times had to wait and revisit them after the water and soft ground froze. Unfortunately, this often meant that the theodolite also froze solid, rendering it unusable. In other areas, the dense canopy of forest was so thick that they were forced to work in darkness or by candlelight.

Points of Interest

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[Source: Surveyor’s Carrying Case , 1852- 1870, brass & wood, Bytown Museum, O57; Surveyor’s Eyepiece, 1852- 1870, brass & glass, Bytown Museum, O50; Surveyor’s Tripod, 1852- 1870, wood & leather, Bytown Museum, O146]

Duration: 15 seconds
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Survey Equipment and Techniques

The surveying process required measuring a baseline of 100 feet (30 metres), which proved futile in the dense brush unless time and energy were put into clearing a straight path. Eventually surveyors started taking “flying levels,” a method better suited to the Canadian landscape. This technique involved one man pacing out a distance through the bush and lighting a candle. Once the surveyor found the candlelight through the theodolite, he would blast a horn or call out the order to stay in that place. With the light in view and a straight line achieved, measurements could be taken.

Painting of Upper Rideau LakeEnlarge

[Source: Archives of Ontario, C 1-0-0-0-34. Thomas Burrowes fonds. Upper Rideau Lake [1830]]

Navigating an Unknown Land

Surveyors frequently got lost in the interior wilderness, consisting as it did of indistinguishable small lakes and heavily wooded areas. As John MacTaggart recounted in his memoirs, during their 1823 survey his team frequently strayed off course, even becoming hopelessly lost at times. On one such occasion,

“we hallooed out frequently as loud as we could, but no one heard us. We were sometime answered by the owl … The sun arose … and taking our bearings by the sun, the compass being useless, I found we were returning as we had come the day before; we therefore lay to, to strike the course. While doing so we heard the report of a musket at a distance … It was an Indian shooting wild duck. We all felt rejoiced to see him … engaged him as a guide and he brought us out.”


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[Source: Sketch from Montreal to Lake Ontario [1794]. Thomas Burrowes fonds. Archives of Ontario, B-39]

Duration: 16 seconds
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Survey Results

William Chewitt created this map of the potential Rideau Canal route in 1794, based on Lt. French’s sketches during his 1783 survey. Although the canal’s final path would differ somewhat from this template, it began to take shape thanks to the maps created from Lt. French’s early explorations.


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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: 56 seconds
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1827 Canal Survey

John MacTaggart, Clerk of the Works, along with John Burrows conducted a detailed survey of the proposed route of the Rideau Canal in 1827. The final route, largely based on the recommendations of previous surveys, had to be finalized and approved by Lt. Col. By, who was still arguing for a wider lock system. In order to resolve the size issue, a committee led by Sir James Kempt toured the proposed canal route with Lt. Col. By in the spring of 1828. This map shows the route they travelled. 

Selecting Entrance Valley» The Canadian Wilderness«