Living Conditions

While most residents of Upper Town lived in comfortable stone houses built on high and dry land, the labourers of Lower Town subsisted in cramped, makeshift timber housing, erected hastily in a drained cedar swamp. The little money labourers could earn working on the canal was needed to keep warm, stay fed, and indulge in the odd recreational activity – landownership was simply not an option at this time. When it wasn’t being given out for free as an incentive to keep working under difficult circumstances, whisky was purchased in vast quantities to help dull the drudgery and hardship of the daily routine-the average canal worker purchased no less than a gallon (4 litres) each week. Such indulgences, however, did nothing to prevent disease from spreading through the cramped, unsanitary shanties where most workers dwelled, particularly in the spring and summer months.

Points of Interest

Drawing satirizing the harsh reality of Canadian winters for new immigrantsEnlarge

[Source: The Emigrants’ Welcome to Canada. J. Cruikshank, W.H. Coverdale collection of Canadiana Manoir Richelieu collection, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1970-188-2056, C-041067]

The Emigrants’ Welcome to Canada

Most Irish labourers arrived in Canada with clothing woefully inadequate for the harsh climate, often clad in what surveyor John MacTaggart described as “breeches that bind at the knee and stockings.” Such attire made the Irish easily distinguishable from the better-prepared French Canadians and British, many of who wore linen shirts, vests, jackets, mittens, headgear, and appropriate boots. The illustration above, titled “The Emigrants’ Welcome to Canada” and published in London, England, by O. Hodgson, satirizes the harsh Canadian winters.

Painting of a lumbermen’s shanty on the Ottawa RiverEnlarge

[Source: Joachim’s Portage, Lumberer’s Shanty on the Ottawa River. Philip John Bainbrigge fonds, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1983-47-47, C-011838]

Lumber Shanty on the Ottawa River

Harsh living conditions weren’t just confined to Bytown during the canal’s construction. As one observer noted during a voyage down the Rideau River to Kingston in October of 1827: “There is scarcely a hut or log-house here but is filled with sick and needy, who are suffering, not only from Disease, but also from Hunger, and from almost every other misery concomitant upon the want of the common necessaries of life.”

Painting of Lower Bytown from the East Bank of the Deep CutEnlarge

[Source: Lower Bytown, from the East Bank of the Deep-cut, Rideau [1845]. Thomas Burrowes fonds. Archives of Ontario, C 1-0-0-0-12.]

Corktown and Lower Bytown

Some of the poorer Irish immigrants set up their own crude community of mud huts and shanties along the banks of the canal, which came to be known as Corktown after Cork, the Irish city of origin for most of its residents. Since the settlement technically constituted squatting on government land, it was demolished multiple times before Lt. Col. By finally relented and allowed residents to stay free of charge. A pedestrian bridge, the Corktown Footbridge, now marks the spot along the canal where the temporary community was located.

Photograph showing men waiting for dinner in the cook’s shanty at a logging camp in the Ottawa ValleyEnlarge

[Source: Waiting for dinner in the cook shanty at a logging camp in the Ottawa Valley, Harmer William Morell / Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1966-033 NPC , PA-131963]

Men Waiting for Dinner in the Cook Shanty

Labourers’ shanties were cramped, overcrowded dwellings ill-equipped to serve the needs of their occupants. While fireplaces were needed for cooking, they tended to fill the shanties with smoke, necessitating a drafty opening in the roof for ventilation. Beds in these shanties were often little more than straw-cushioned planks, with multiple men struggling to sleep on a single plank. As this photo illustrates, shanties continued to be used by timbermen after the construction of the canal was completed.

Life After the Canal» Working Conditions«