4.0 Historic and Geographic Context

Preliminary surveys of the Rideau-Cataraqui waterways were first commissioned by the British military during the War of 1812 because of concern that the vital supply line along the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Kingston was vulnerable to interdiction by the Americans. It was not until 1826, however, that the decision was made to construct this inland route. The Canal was built by civilian labor but it was a military project from beginning to end. The construction was wholly financed by the British Treasury and it was engineered and supervised by  Lt.-Colonel John By, Royal Engineers [R.E.].

While the Canal’s defensive buildings remained unfinished, the system opened to through navigation in May 1832 - less than six years since construction began. In its time the Rideau Canal was considered a remarkable engineering achievement. Unlike most North American canals of the period, the Rideau’s engineering works were constructed primarily of stone masonry and it was the first canal system in the world designed to accommodate steamboats. Furthermore, the Canal route ran through a remote, wilderness region which had challenged the builders with a host of engineering and logistical problems.

The Merrickville Blockhouse was the largest of the defensible structures built along the Canal and the most impressive of the four blockhouses. It was the first of the blockhouses built and most closely followed By’s own design. A single gun port was built into each wall of the masonry lower storey for mounting a cannon, and all four sides of the timber upper storey had openings for small-arms fire. Loopholes, called machicolations, were also cut in the underside of the overhang to enable the defenders to fire at any attackers reaching the walls. The upper storey of the blockhouse housed the lockmaster and his family. In the event of war, the blockhouse was intended to be a mustering point for local militia, a supply depot where provisions, munition and arms could be stored, and a strong defensive position for repelling anyone attempting to destroy the Canal structures. It served a military function only once, in the aftermath of the 1837 Rebellion, when it was taken over temporarily by the 34th Regiment. In 1908-9, the impending collapse of the roof necessitated the removal of the second storey but in 1960-65 it was restored to its former appearance. The Blockhouse currently houses a museum about the history of the blockhouse itself and the local area, managed by the Merrickville and District Historical Society. 

For 16 years the Rideau Canal served as the primary transportation route from Lower Canada to Upper Canada. During this period several defensive structures including the Merrickville Blockhouse were completed. With the completion of the first St. Lawrence River canals in 1848, however, the Rideau’s commercial importance declined. The St. Lawrence route was shorter, faster and less expensive than the Ottawa-Rideau-Cataraqui route and while the Rideau continued to serve an important regional function after 1848, its significance as a part of the national canal system was gone. The British Board of Ordnance continued its ownership and operation of the Canal until 1855, when the system was signed over to the colonial government of Canada. The Canal’s military period was over.

While the military usefulness of the Canal was never tested in war, the Rideau played a significant role in the development of eastern Ontario. The waterway facilitated extensive logging, lumbering and milling operations in the region through the 19th century. Much of the wealth and development in this part of eastern Ontario was directly attributable to the logging and lumbering enterprises. Immigration, settlement and agricultural development in the Rideau-Cataraqui corridor was accelerated because of the benefits that the waterway offered pioneer settlers. The Canal fostered the emergence of industrial centers of surprising scale at places such as Merrickville and Smith Falls. The City of Ottawa, originally known as Bytown, traces its origins and urban patterns to the Canal builders and the commerce generated by Canal traffic.

By the turn of the century, excursion tours and recreational activities assumed increasing economic importance along the lakes and rivers of the system. By the early 1960s, all commercial traffic was gone and the Rideau Canal had become a recreational waterway. Today, the Rideau Canal is the cohesive link through a 200 kilometer corridor which is characterized by a variety of lockstations, canal structures, urban and agricultural landscapes, built heritage districts, wetlands, woodlands, scenic areas and shore-lands which collectively create the Canal’s unique and varied historical environment.

While the corridor landscape has changed considerably since the British military signed over control of the system in 1855, many character-defining features remain from the early period. Most original engineering works remain in situ and operational and over half of the military buildings survive. The lockstations maintain much of their original configuration and many of retain their mid-nineteenth century character. Whether located in an urban center, a rural village, an agricultural setting, or cottage country, the lockstations provide a sense of integrated continuity along the entire route.
Whereas the Canal structures are the most obvious features of the system, the Rideau Canal is more than the sum of its engineering works and masonry buildings. The construction of the Canal and the opening of through navigation held far-reaching implications for the natural and human history of the corridor. The transportation corridor, created and defined by the Rideau Canal, represents a rich and varied landscape which is an integral value of the system.

The natural environment of the Rideau Canal corridor - woodlands, wetlands, islands and waters - represent significant components of the region’s present-day ecosystem. One of the most visible remnants of Canal construction on the corridor landscape are the drowned lands. Although the thousands of hectares of drowned lands exist today as natural features, most are human made, the result of the slack water system the engineers employed to flood the shallows and create the navigation route. These drowned lands represent significant aspects of the corridor’s natural environment as well as being directly linked to the Canal construction.

The extensive wetlands between Merrickville and Lower Rideau Lake resulted from Canal construction as did many of the wetlands south of Jones Falls down through the River Styx. Numerous lakes along the system were created or substantially enlarged by the Canal builders including lakes such as:  Dows, Upper Rideau,  Newboro, Opinicon, Whitefish, Cranberry and Colonel By.

In contrast to the natural and rural settings that characterize much of the Canal environment, the relationship between the Canal and the two large urban centers of Kingston and Ottawa presents a very different landscape. The expansion of the city of Ottawa and its attendant suburban growth south along the Rideau River to Kars has effected considerable change on this section of the Canal landscape. But if modern urban development is a dominant feature here, such change has not altered the evidence of the fundamental link between the Canal and the city of Ottawa. The city’s initial layout and early development are directly tied to the construction and operation of the Canal in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the center of the city today, the Canal remains a key feature in a remarkable heritage setting that speaks not only to the evolutionary stages of Ottawa from its construction camp origins to modern capital city, but to the nation’s history as well. Both physically and symbolically, the Canal remains central to the nation’s capital.

In Kingston harbour, the southern terminus of the waterway, the landscape speaks most dramatically to the military origins of the Rideau Canal. Here, overlooking the Canal and harbor, sits Fort Henry, the largest fortification built in colonial Canada west of Quebec City. This citadel, along with the four surviving  Martello Towers that dot the harbor, were a defense system built to protect the harbor and the access to the Canal. Today, the tangible interrelationship of the Canal and the Kingston Fortifications is a remarkable survivor on the heritage landscape.

Although substantially smaller than either Kingston or Ottawa, the town of Smiths Falls and the village of Newboro trace their origins to the Canal’s construction and the opening of navigation. Other communities such as Kingston Mills, Chaffey’s Lock, Merrickville, and Burritt’s Rapids existed as small settlements and mill sites prior to the Canal. Since the later 1820s, however,  the histories of these communities are closely interwoven with the waterway particularly through their associated lockstations.

Today, the Rideau Canal is an historic transportation corridor linking together diverse natural and cultural elements along its route and in doing so links the past to the present.

The Level One Resources: The Resources that Symbolize or Represent the National Significance of the Site.

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