Thematic Guides - Rideau Canal

This guide consists of specific and general archival references as well as a selected bibliography on the construction, operation and maintenance of the Rideau Canal. References are divided into two periods: construction and post-construction.

The Rideau Canal was built as an alternative military route to protect against American invasions. Over 200 kilometres long, the canal links the Ottawa River at Ottawa with Lake Ontario in Kingston. Work began in 1826 under the guidance of British Royal Engineer Colonel John By. When finished in 1832, the canal was considered a monumental accomplishment and a wonder of engineering. In the process, however, thousands of workers died of malaria while working in the difficult and inhospitable terrain.

This guide was created in September 1988 and revised in December 2000.

1. Archival References

Government Records

Records of the Executive Council (RG 1)

Construction Period, 1826-1832:

  • Executive Council records, office reports and register
    (RG 1 E12)
  • Correspondence concerning limiting the period for claims for damage occasioned by the construction of the Rideau Canal
    (RG 1 E3, vol. 59, pp. 127-128, 163-164;)
    (RG 1 E3, vol. 8, pp.12-28;)
    (RG 1 E3, vol. 46, pp.198-215;)
    (RG 1 E3, vol. 59, pp. 61-69, 181-192;)
    (RG 1 E3, vol. 73, pp. 209-214, 222-225.)

Records of the Provincial and Civil Secretaries' Offices; Upper Canada and Canada West (RG 5 )

Construction Period, 1826-1832:

  • Civil Secretary's correspondence, Upper Canada sundries
    (RG 5 A1)

British Military and Naval Records (RG 8)

Construction Period, 1826-1832:

  • Military correspondence on the construction of the canal. Volumes are indexed by name and geographic location though references generally are to senior supervisory staff.
    (RG 8 IC, vols. 38-62;):
    (RG 8 IC, vol. 244, reel C-2847.)
  • British military and naval records
    (RG 8 C, vols. 43-50)
    Military correspondence on the construction of the canal.

Post-Construction Period, 1832-:

  • Military correspondence, Rideau Canal, 1832-1856
    (RG 8, volumes are indexed by name of correspondent)

Records of the Department of Public Works (RG 11)

The Department of Public Works, which was created in 1839, kept selected records on the construction of the Rideau Canal from other earlier government departments.

Construction Period, 1826-1832:

  • Construction records
    (RG 11, vol. 94-95, PWC)
  • Ottawa Journal clipping
    (RG 11 B4, vol. 2991, E3/8, p. 12-28)
    (RG 11 B4, vol. 2991, E3/88, p. 56-63)
    (RG 11 B4, vol. 2991, E3/73, p. 203-227)
    (RG 11 B4, vol. 2991, E3/59, p. 59-69, 181-192, 127-128 and 163-164)
    (RG 11 B4, vol. 2991, E3/46, p. 198-215)

Records of the Department of Transport (RG 12)

The Department of Transport began operating the Rideau Canal in 1936 when the Department of the Marine merged with the Department of Railways and Canals.

Construction Period, 1826-1832:

  • General files
    (RG 12, vols. 503-504, file 1864-1925)
  • Rideau Canal accounts
    (RG 19 A3, vol. 26)

Records of the Department of the Interior (RG 15)

Post-Construction Period, 1832-:

  • Ordnance and Admiralty Lands Branch, 1821-1947
    (RG 15 IV)

Contains British ordnance officer's records, which consist of correspondence, agreements, lists of leases and deeds, bailiffs' reports, copies of provincial statutes, ordnances, etc., arranged under the following headings:

  • Bytown lots, 1833-1856
    (RG 15, vols. 1656-1665)
  • Rideau Canal lands and mill sites, 1847-1856
    (RG 15, vols. 1666-1669)
    Contains correspondence from individuals living either on ordnance land or adjacent to it. Much personal information.
  • Rideau Canal damage claims and arbitration, 1830-1847
    (RG 15, vols. 1670-1676)
  • Rideau Canal and Ottawa lands, 1843
    (RG 15, vol. 1680)
    Contains a list of all the ordnance property along the Rideau whether purchased, acquired by arbitration or set by the Royal Engineer Department for Rideau Canal purposes. Comments on individual lots are also available.
  • Report by George Adams on Rideau Canal land, 1842
    (RG 15, vol. 1681)
    Contains a return of lands purchased, reserved or appropriated for building, maintaining and using the Rideau Canal for the Transport of Naval and Military Stores, for the security and defence and for promoting the agricultural and commercial interests of the province. Notes on individual lots and their owners are also available.
  • Schedule of ordnance lands, 1836-1877
    (RG 15, vol. 1737, North Gower, 1863-1868)
    (RG 15, vol. 1737, Nepean Township, 1850)
    (RG 15, vol. 1737, Wolford and Montague Townships, 1836)
    (RG 15, vol. 1737, Gloucester Township, 1862)
    (RG 15, vol. 1737, Elmsley Township and Smith Falls, 1860)
  • (RG 15, vol. 1738, Marlboroughland, Land and Crosby Townships, 1862)
    (RG 15, vol. 1738, Kingston, Pittsburg and Storrington Township, 1862) (These schedules provide a list of lands by township and include name, occupation, the state of the land, what, if any, were the disputes associated with the lot and what were the Board's recommendations for resolving the issue.)

Records of the Department of Railways and Canals (RG 43)

The Department of Railways and Canals was responsible for the operation of the Rideau Canal from 1832-1936, after which it came under the control of the new Department of Transport.

Series CI.1: Canal records; Office of the Superintending Engineer

Post-Construction Period, 1832-:

  • Letterbooks, 1861-1936
    The records in this series consist of letterbooks containing the outgoing correspondence of the Superintending Engineer, Rideau Canal, relating to all aspects of administration, maintenance and operations of the canal. The letterbooks are individually indexed.
  • Registers and indexes, 1878-1934
  • Official inspections, 1898-1900
    This small series, compiled in the Office of the Superintending Engineer, consists of a record book containing reports and copies of correspondence, descriptions of mill sites, and diagrams and legal documents relating to power sites on the canal system.
  • General records, 1857-1915
    This series consists of various records and documents relating to the Rideau Canal, including paylists for lockmasters and labourers, 1857-1865; a statement of salaries and proposed increases, 1884; a list of barges and steamers, 1906; a collection of forms acknowledging and recognizing the rights of the Crown on leased canal lands, 1903-1911; and final estimates for two contracts awarded to John O'Toole for work on the Tay Canal, 1891-1892, and for construction of a retaining dam at Merrickville, 1915.
  • Tay Canal, 1884-1885, 1887

Series C2: Rideau Canal lock records, 1834-1964

Post-Construction Period, 1832-:

These records include such items as lockmasters' journals, returns of stores and equipment, copies of correspondence, sums received and labourers paid, checklist of labourers and wages and general correspondence.

  • Black Rapids, 1837-1950
  • Long Island, 1843-1877, 1912-193
  • Nicholson's, 1837-1936
  • Clowes, 1876-1899, 1908-1912, 1920-1938
  • Merrickville, 1834-1837, 1846-1882, 1885-1939
  • Kilmarnock, 1899-1914
  • Edmond's, 1899-1934
  • Old Slys, 1850-1857
  • Poonamalie, 1839-1875, 1904-1942
  • Smiths Falls, 1872-1880
  • Narrows, 1834-1931
  • Newboro, 1840-1908, 1910-1911
  • Davis, 1869-1957
  • Jones Falls, 1834-1923
  • Upper Brewers, 1846-1877, 1882-1885, 1899-1964
  • Lower Brewers, 1846-1860
  • Kingston Mills, 1848-1937

Selected Private Records

Construction Period, 1826-1832:

  • Historical Society of Ottawa
    (MG 9 D8-68)
    Contains a small collection of records for the locks at Burritt's Rapids, Chaffey's and Poonamalie.
  • Military correspondence
    (MG 13, WO 44, vols. 15-32)
    Also on the construction period, though these volumes have no indexes.
  • War Office, ordonance miscellanea, engineer papers
    (MG 13, WO 55, vols. 868-869)
  • Royal Hospital Chelsea Soldiers Documents
    (MG 13, WO 97, vols. 1148-1152)
    Contain attestations and discharge papers for the personnel in the companies of sappers and miners of those soldiers discharged with pension. The documents are annotated to give a record of service and all, except a few of the very earliest, give place of birth, age on enlistment and details of physique and appearance.
  • Royal Hospital Chelsea Regiment Registers
    (MG 13, WO 120, vols. 49-50, reel l B-5707 and vols. 67-68, reel B-5713)
    Contains pension information for Chelsea pensioners (sappers and miners). They are organized by the regiment the soldier last served with and by their admission date to hospital.
  • Hill Collection; contains Christie Papers, 1828-1832
    (MG 24, I9)
    Including his medical records detailing treatment of canal workers in 1827.
  • John Mactaggart Papers
    (MG 24 E6)
    Small collection of papers on his work as Chief Civilian Clerk on the Rideau Canal, 1827-1828.
  • Wright Family Papers
    (MG 24 D8)
    Contain details on the Wright family's work on the Rideau Canal, including workers lists for construction of Dows Lake embankment.
  • Dalhousie Monuments
    (MG 24 A12)
  • Andrew Drummond Papers
    (MG 29 A24)
    These papers contain information on Robert Drummond, contractor of Kingston Mills and other sites and John Redpath.
  • Andrew Drummond Papers
    (MG 29 D6)
    Contains some information on Robert Drummond, contractor for Kingston Mills and other sites.
  • Andrew Merrilees Collection
    (MG 31 A10)
    This collection contains original records from: Lower Brewer's lockmaster, Mills lockmaster, Merrickville lockmaster and Old Sly's lockmaster, 1834-1880

Post-Construction Period, 1832-:

  • War Office transcripts, Rideau Canal and defence
    (MG 12B, vols. 537, 552, 555 and 558, reels B-3067 to B-3069 and B-3074 to B-3077)
  • Correspondence by officers in charge of various works to the Ordnance Office, including returns, plans and material on the Rideau Canal
    (MG 12B, vols. 15-16 and 18-27, reels B-217 to B-218 and B-1294 to B-1300)

Other Selected References

Lockmasters Journals
Most are held in the records of the Department of Railways and Canals (RG 43); others are in the Rideau Canal Collection (MG 24 E2), and in the Andrew Audubon Merrilees Fonds (MG 31 A10). The journals document day to day activity at lock sites, including information on employees and correspondence with the canal's administrators.

Detailed information on Rideau Canal expenditures, especially between 1890 and 1920 (lists of staff employees, contract employees, etc.) can be found in the Published Annual Reports, Records of the Office of the Auditor General (RG 58)

Selected Archival Reference in other Archives

Archives of Ontario

  • Baird Papers
    The Baird papers contain the diaries and papers of Nicol Baird, Chief Civilian Clerk of Works who replaced MacTaggart in 1828.
  • McMartin Papers
    These document activities of Alexander McMartin of Martins Town, near Cornwall, an excavation contractor on the Rideau Canal.

Queen's University Archives

  • Benjamin Trett Papers
    Contains ledgers, letterbooks and correspondence.

McCord Museum

  • Redpath Papers
    These papers document the activities of Montreal contractor John Redpath.

2. Selected Bibliography

Construction of the Rideau Canal:

Bush, Edward F. The Builders of the Rideau Canal, 1826-32. Manuscript Report Series No. 185, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1976 (This work is a study of the men, both soldiers and civilians, who built the Rideau Canal. In addition to an excellent bibliography, there are numerous appendices which include examples of paylists, nominal lists, requisitions and land petitions submitted by discharged soldiers.)

Cate, Adrian G. The Rideau: A Pictorial History of the Waterway. Besancourt Publishers, Brockville, 1981

Connolly, T.W.J. The History of the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners. London: Longman, Brown, Thomas W.J. Green and Longmans, 1855, 2 vols.

Cross, Michael. "'The Shiners' War: Social Violence in the Ottawa Valley in the 1930's," in Canadian Historical Review. 54 (1973), pp. 1-26

Crowder, Norman K., ed. Early Ottawa Valley Records. Ottawa Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society, Publication No. 88-6

De Jonge, James. The Military Establishment at Bytown, 1826-56. Microfiche Report Series No. 109, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1983

Legget, Robert F. Rideau Waterway. Second edition, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986 (The standard history of the Rideau Canal. Contains a good index and several useful appendices as well as a limited bibliography.)

Legget, Robert F. John By: Builder of the Rideau Canal, Founder of Ottawa. Ottawa: Historical Society of Ottawa, 1982

Lockwood, Glenn J. "The Pattern of Settlement in Eastern Ontario, 1784-1875," in Families. Volume 30, No. 4, pp. 235-257

McKenna, Katherine M.J. Working Life at the Isthmus, Rideau Canal, During Its Construction, 1827-31: The Human Cost of a Public Work. Microfiche Report Series No. 34, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1981

McKenna, Katherine M.J. Human Cost of a Public Work. Microfiche Report Series No. 34, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1981

Osborne, Brian. "The Artist as Historical Commentator: Thomas Burrowes and the Rideau Canal," in Archivaria. Vol. 12 (Winter 1983-84), pp. 40-59

Passfield, Robert. Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History. Don Mills, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1982

Passfield, Robert. Canal Lock Design and Construction: The Rideau Canal Experience, 1826-1982. Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1983

Passfield, Robert. Engineering the Defence of the Canadas: Lt. Colonel John By and the Rideau Canal. Microfiche Report Series No. 425, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1980

Peck, Mary E. From War to Winterlude - 150 Years of the Rideau Canal. Public Archives of Canada, 1982 (Catalogue created by the Public Archives of Canada to accompany an exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the building of the canal. Contains a variety of documents, maps, drawing and sketches pertaining to the canal. Most are from the collection of Library and Archives Canada.)

Price, Karen. Construction History of the Rideau Canal. Microfiche Report Series No. 193, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1976

Thomas, W.J. Green and Longmans. 1855, 2 vols.

Valentine, Jaime. Supplying the Rideau: Workers, Provisions and Health Care During the Construction of the Rideau Canal, 1826-32. Microfiche Report Series No. 249, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1985

Wylie, William. "Poverty, Distress and Disease: Labour and the Construction of the Rideau Canal, 1826-32," in Labour/Le Travailleur. (Spring 1983), pp. 7-29

Welch, Edwin, ed. Sights and Surveys: two diarists on the Rideau. MacTaggart and Burrows, Historical Society of Ottawa, 1979 (Eye witness accounts by two men, John MacTaggart and John Burrows who made the survey for the Rideau Canal in 1826 and 1827.)

Operation and Maintenance of the Rideau Canal:

Annual Reports for the Rideau Canal; published; consult Library and Archives Canada
1867-1879; see Department of Public Works Annual Report
1879-1935; see Department of Railways and Canals Annual Report
1935-1972; see Department of Transport Annual Report
The annual reports do not contain references to names, but do document the scope of repair and operations activities each year.

Bush, Edward F. Commercial Navigation on the Rideau Canal, 1832-1961. Ottawa, National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, 1981, 288 p.

George, Victor Alan. The Rideau Corridor: The Effect of a Canal System on a Frontier Region, 1832-1895. M.A. thesis, Queen's University, 1982, 234 p. (microfilm reel TC-12997)

McMillan, Ruth. The Rideau Canal Before 1900. Ottawa, Historical Society of Ottawa, 1991, 30 p.

Osborne, Brian S. and Swainson, Donald. The Rideau Navigation, 1832-1972: Its Operation, Maintenance and Management. 2 vols., Microfiche Report Series No. 191, Parks Canada, 1985 (Provides an overview history of Rideau operations and maintenance.)

Tulloch, Judith. The Rideau Canal: Defence, Transport and Recreation. History and Archaeology/Histoire et archéologie, No. 50, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1981 (Contains information on specific lockmasters and lock labourers, 1832-1914.)

Turner, Larry. Rideau Canal Work Vessels. Ottawa, Parks Canada, 1987

Turner, Larry. Hartwells Lock Station: Operation, Maintenance and Repair with Special Reference to the Skilled Workmen in Lock Gate Construction. Microfiche Report Series No. 115, Parks Canada, 1984 (Discusses evolution and composition of carpenter gangs.)

Turner, Larry. Rideau Canal Bibliography, 1972-1992. Smiths Falls, Friends of the Rideau Canal, 1992, 37 p.

Turner, Larry. Rideau Canal Work Vessels. Microfiche Report Series No. 294, Parks Canada, 1987 (Detailed history of work vessels and principal staff members.)

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