Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 10
by Barbara A. Humphreys
Defensive Buildings of the Canal
Since the Rideau Canal was essentially a military operation built for defence, any permanent accommodation designed to service it had also to be of a defensive nature. This included houses built for the lockmasters who were stationed along the canal to keep it operational in times of peace as well as war. As a result of this dual demand of service and defence, a type of "semi-military" canal architecture was developed, a style particularly evident in the design of the blockhouses.
The blockhouses, according to Colonel By's original proposal, were to be erected at 22 stations along the canal to be used by the lockmasters and the men doing general maintenance duty. Colonel By also intended that they "serve as secure depots in time of war for provisions, ammunition and small arms, for the militia, as large villages are forming at every station where there are locks buildings."6 However, it was decided that this scheme was unduly elaborate and that the siting of such blockhouses would not necessarily be convenient locations for lockmasters houses. Consequently, only four blockhouses were completed, at Merrickville, The Narrows, Newboro and Kingston Mills.
For the lockmasters houses a money-saving compromise was reached whereby it was agreed that following the completion of the canal the lockmasters would take over the buildings erected by the contractors for their own use during the construction period, the cost being divided equally between the contractors and the government. This scheme provided houses only where originally built by the contractor for his own use and their location of course had no relation to the defence or maintenance of the canal, nor were they constructed as defensible buildings. None of the buildings so obtained appear to have survived; it is highly probable that they were few in number and of frame construction.
Following the Rebellion of 1837 and again during the 1844-46 Oregon boundary dispute, considerable apprehension was felt over the lack of existing protection for the canal. As a result, additional lockmasters houses and squared timber guardhouses were erected, both of a defensible type.
Only three guardhouses were apparently built at Jones Falls, at the Whitefish Dam and at Ottawa none of which survive. Lockmasters' houses were built at a number of stations and some 11 remain. Most have been extensively altered but largely by additions, so the original defensible construction can still be discerned. The location of some of them, commanding a view of the canal in both directions, indicates as well their planned importance in the defence system of the canal.
The style and construction of the blockhouses were quite clearly established by Colonel By and the Royal Engineers. In his letter of 15 March 1830 to General Mann, Colonel By described the blockhouses he intended to build,
The blockhouses were constructed as Colonel By had specified, the lower section having four-foot-thick walls of stone and upper walls built of squared timber, originally tin covered. Like the blockhouse at Newboro (Fig. 85), they were all approximately 24 feet by 24 feet at the base with an 18-inch overhang except for Merrickville which was more than twice as large, being 50 feet square with an 18-inch overhang (Fig. 86).
Originally the only openings on the ground floor were ventilation slits of an ingenious design, having an interior core or baffle of stone. Access to the building was by means of an exterior stairway to the upper floor level. Consequently, while they seem admirably designed for their primary purpose defence of the canal they were probably not very convenient buildings to live in. Nevertheless, even the smallest of them was intended to house 20 men and they did serve as lockmasters houses as well.
All four of these blockhouses survive and all have been restored to some extent. The only one now in use (1972) is the Merrickville structure which houses a local museum.
The design of the lockmasters houses was apparently based on the standards set down in 1845 by the Royal Engineers in a circular concerning defensible buildings wherein it was stated that
The directive further states that the flanking requirements could be satisfied in the case of small buildings by the provision of a projecting porch, to be enclosed on one-storey buildings but with no entry through it. The buildings which survive show a compromise with these requirements. Loopholes were provided but were not always seven feet from the ground and porches served as entranceways as well.
The lockmasters houses were of uniform design, roughly square in plan and one storey high with a hip roof. Like the blockhouses they were built of stone and covered with tin and some, though not all, were provided with musket loops. Presumably the thickness of the walls was considered to be an adequate provision for defence in those buildings where loop-holes were not provided. One of the few lockmasters houses to survive in its original form can be seen at Davis Lock (Fig. 87).
A number of the other surviving lockmasters houses have had second storeys added and all have had the loop-holes blocked in with stone or wood. Nevertheless, like the house at Chaffeys Locks (Fig. 88), despite additions and blocking of musket loops, they still show their original form, including the projecting porch. The houses all serve as residences for lock staff, offices or summer cottages.
In addition to the blockhouses and lockmasters houses, service buildings were erected at various stations along the canal. The only surviving one recorded is the old forge at Jones Falls. This structure was built of stone and the brick forge is still intact (Figs. 89, 90).
The semi-military canal architecture represented by the blockhouses, lockmasters' houses and service buildings is unusual and very distinctive in style. The original design of the lockmasters houses produced simple but attractive small houses, and the blockhouses were interesting examples of the "Form Follows Function" thesis of the School of the Bauhaus that was so popular 100 years later. Functionally if not always aesthetically attractive, these buildings represent an integral and interesting part of the architecture of the Rideau Canal.