Life After the Canal

When the canal was officially opened in the spring of 1832, thousands of tradesmen and labourers were left without work. While some of Bytown’s labour force relocated to neighbouring towns, or even travelled back to their native countries, many tried to transfer their skills to the booming timber trade. By 1829, the Ottawa Valley produced over one million cubic feet (28,000 cubic metres) of lumber annually. The timber industry had once been dominated by French-Canadian workers since its foundation by wealthy Hull industrialist Philomen Wright in the early 1800s, but with its newly expanded workforce the local lumber industry grew exponentially, becoming renowned worldwide for its innovative techniques.

Points of Interest

Photograph showing men hewing felled timberEnlarge

[Source: Hewing felled timber, operations of McFadden & Gillies, Jocko River, Ont. W. D Watt, Booth family album, W.D. Watt/Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1979-208 NPC, PA-121799]

Hewing Felled Timber

Bytown was central to the booming nineteenth-century lumber trade, and when the canal was completed, an influx of new labourers helped expand this industry even further. Thanks to the successful innovations of Hull lumber baron Philemon Wright, the Bytown area became known for its excellent timber products, including square and eventually sawn lumber made of red and white pine. As depicted here, these two lumbermen are hewing an enormous log that was typical in size of the timber being harvested and squared for trade.

Photograph showing a timber raft in front of the Parliament BuildingsEnlarge

[Source: Timber raft in front of Parliament Buildings, Ottawa River. A. Henderson, Views of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1981-156 NPC, PA-149793]

Timber Raft on the Ottawa River

Long before the canal project was initiated-and continuing long after its construction was complete-the Ottawa River was used extensively by timber and fur traders. As shown here, enormous rafts were constructed by shantymen, some with 30 or 40 wooden houses built upon them to house workers. In 1842, Charles Dickens witnessed similar rafts on the St. Lawrence River, referring to them in American Notes as “nautical streets.”


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[Source: Ottawa, Canada West, – Upper Town, looking west. Wightman fonds, Library and Archives Canada published holdings project, Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2956658, C-010386; Ottawa City, Canada West (Upper Town). Edwin Whitefield, Charles Berkeley Powell fonds. Library and Archives Canada, accession number R11188-2, C-000601]

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View Showing Upper Bytown

Although the Rideau Canal did not serve its original military purpose, it did breathe new economic life into Upper and Lower Canada. As Bytown grew, so too did the diversity of work available to those who lived there. A mere 50 years later, the town would look very different than it did prior to the construction of the canal.

Living Conditions«