Monday, August 7, 2023

Col. John By Day

In Ontario, the first Monday of August is a holiday. Each municipality calls it after some historically significant person to that area. 

 After the war of 1812, the British military felt there was a need to be able to move goods from Kingston, ON to Montreal, QC without risking the loss of goods to the Americans.  They called Lt. Col. John By out of retirement to oversee the construction of a canal, from Kingston to the Ottawa River. 

The Rideau Canal is an engineering triumph of its time. It was completed in 1832.  The canal is 202 km long, much of it dug by hand, It is the best preserved canal of its type in North America. It is still in use, after 190 years, and the equipment is largely unchanged. It was named a National Historic Site in 1925, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Many years ago, as a newly graduated Engineer, I was hired by Parks Canada as a Canals Engineer. I wasn't there for long, but I became very familiar with the canal. It is still a very special place for me and I try to visit a lock station or two, every summer. 

We took my grandson, on Friday, to Hartwells Lock Station. This is a hidden gem in the city. Over the years, the city has grown up around it, but the lock station remains much as it was in the 1800's.

The boats are lifted or lowered 6.5 metres in these two locks. Each lock is 41 metres by 10 metres. In this picture the men are standing at the top of the upper lock, looking downstream. It looks like we are in the middle of the countryside.

This is Carleton University, which is just on the other side of the lock basin. There are walking and bikeways along this part of the canal.

If you click on this picture to make it bigger, you can see a couple of cyclists lifting their bikes up to walk them across the top of the lock gate. You can also see the waste weir on the right side, that carries excess water to the river under the pathways and the road. We did get to see 4 boats lock through, while we were there. The lock gates are still operated by hand, with 4 Parks Canada staff cranking the gates open and shut. 

Today, in Ottawa, we celebrate Col. By Day. Without the canal, Ottawa would not have been made the capital city of Canada. The presence of the canal made the city a safe place from possible invasion. Of course, the railway replaced boats as the means of transportation to Ottawa. The canal is now a recreational waterway (and the home of the world's largest outdoor skating rink). 

P.S. When I worked in Canals Engineering, I didn't get the day off, because I worked in Gatineau, across the Ottawa River, in Quebec. It isn't a holiday in Quebec.


  1. Well, that's interesting! I know of the Rideau Canal, but not its early history.....and I imagine a budding engineer would find the workings fascinating.

  2. Canals are indeed a masterful engineering undertaking.And to think this was dug by hand, that would take so long, and way before the days of adequate protective warm clothing, gloves, thermal underwear and thickly lined boots. Not to mention all the new digital devices they use today for depth, rise and fall and whatever else they have to work out.Brave construction workers back then.And even more interesting to know you were a Canal Engineer.Enjoy the memories.

  3. Canals and locks are always interesting to see, lovely that the Colonel is still remembered. xx

  4. Thank you for the background info. So much stuff I didn't know.

  5. Thanks for a delightful read that brought back memories! When I was in university I worked 3 summers at Merrywood, a camp run by the Ontario Society for Crippled Children (that was 50 years ago; hence the name). It was located near Perth and Port Elmsley (sp?) and not far from Smith's Falls. I remember on days off going to Smith's Falls and seeing the canal locks there. I also dated a fellow at Carleton U. and when I visited in the winter a gang of us would skate on the canal from the university downtown, have a steamed pudding and hot chocolate at the Lord Elgin Hotel, and skate back. Later in my life a dear cousin moved to Ottawa to an apartment near the Hog's Back; we walked around the canal when I visited -- and I ran an Avon Women's Marathon there in 1982...part of the route was along the canal -- and my cousin came out to watch me pass near her apartment!