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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 8

The Canals of Canada

by John P. Heisler


The development of transportation and communication is one of the epic and continuing themes in Canadian history. Any account of it must depict man's conquest over nature — of his attempt to survive in an area of vast distances, small population and few goods. Such an account must also show the economic, political and social considerations, along with imperial and foreign relations, which influenced this development. In this work it is intended to consider but one aspect of this vast theme; the significant role played by canals in the development of transportation and communication in Canada. Such development was in response to the challenge posed from the beginning of Canadian civilization by the critical problems of time and space. Such development also determined the creation of a viable society in Canada.


From the earliest times rivers have been the veins of any political or economic area. Man depended upon rivers for food, power and transport. By themselves, however, rivers were not always able to serve fully the needs of man. Hence canals were dug and used to tame the river, to irrigate the land and to improve inland navigation. The early canals in Egypt, Babylonia and China were probably built for drainage or irrigation and the use of these ditches for transportation may have been accidental. However, with economic growth and political expansion, better waterways were built to facilitate commerce and increase the power of emerging empires. We know how the Egyptians were obsessed with canal building and how the Egyptian ruler Sesostris III built a canal 200 feet long by 75 feet wide and 26 feet deep for the express purpose of providing a direct waterway for the conquest of Nubia. Herodotus de scribed how the whole of Assyria was interlaced with canals. Nebuchadnezzar the ruler of the resurgent Babylonian Empire, restored canals in the Fertile Crescent about 600 B.C. and, through good water management, there developed a thriving pastoral and agrarian economy in this area. Sometime later in 510 B.C. Darius the Great proposed the rebuilding of the Nelo-Red Sea canal, the historical origins of which are lost, linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Chinese history mentions a system of waterways which became the Grand Canal of China as early as the 6th century B.C. The Grand Canal is thought to have been 600 miles long by the 8th century, and it is usually believed that this canal was completed by the ruler Kublai Khan in the 13th century.

The Greek city states, deeply involved in commerce, appreciated the value of canals in maritime trade by maintaining the Levkas Canal, originally cut in 640 B.C. to separate the peninsula of Levkas from the mainland, and by their attempts to cut through the isthmus of Corinth. Later, the Romans were, from the beginning of their history, great canal builders. At first they constructed canals when draining vast marshlands. After a time, however, Rome devoted all its engineering skill to the problem of canal building when faced with tremendous problems of communication. In Gaul, the Fossa Mariana improved navigation from the Rhône River to the Mediterranean (102 B.C.), in Britain, the Exe River was canalized and the Fosse Dyke was built from the Trent River to Lincoln on the Wetham River. In Egypt and North Africa the Romans used careful water management to reclaim miles of desert. Rome's decline in strong administration and efficiency coincided with a decay of her irrigation and navigation canals.

During the Middle Ages, following the collapse of Roman authority, a harrassed and politically decentralized Europe still retained an interest in artificial waterways, in the 5th century a navigable channel was built from Mentone, near Ravenna, to the sea. In the 12th century, Henry I of England reputedly deepened the Fosse Dyke. With the revival of trade after the year 1000, the Low Countries were a natural centre for the development of waterways and in medieval Spain the Moors built canals in Granada.

The mercantile era which followed the Renaissance in European history witnessed an increasing interest in canals. This was the period of the emerging centralized national state, the commercial revolution and the expansion of Europe overseas. All these movements and events contributed to a revival of canal construction. Elizabethan England built the well-known Exeter Canal between 1564 and 1566. The France of Louis XIV built the Languedoc Canal, which connected the Bay of Biscay with the Mediterranean and was regarded as the pioneer of canals of modern Europe. Seventeenth-century England made some progress in rendering some of the larger rivers navigable but did little in constructing canals until the middle of the 18th century. Then in 1759, the Duke of Bridgewater obtained a charter to construct a canal between Manchester and his collieries at Worsley and this was opened for traffic two years later. The event heralded a period of great activity in canal construction.


It seems likely that from the very beginning of his existence in North America the white man thought about canals; the Atlantic coastline, deeply indented with rivers flowing to the sea, would suggest waterways, natural and artificial, indeed, scarcely had a permanent foothold been gained on the new continent before Miles Standish in 1623, while in charge of the New Plymouth defenses, "dreamed of cutting a canal through the isthmus of Cape Cod" thereby allowing the English to reach the Dutch for trading at the head of Buzzards Bay. Later in 1680, August Hemen, Lord of Bohemia Manor, considered seriously "the construction of a canal to connect the Delaware and Chesapeake bays."1 in the 18th century Cadwallader Colden, surveyor of the Province of New York, realized in 1724 that a canal could be dug between the Hudson River at Albany and Lake Erie at Buffalo. When finally constructed 100 years later, this 360-mile canal contributed more than anything else toward making New York the most powerful state in the American union. In the period of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin became interested in the possibility of a complicated canal system which would bring wealth to Philadelphia: in particular a Susquehanna-Schuylkill canal. At the same time George Washington considered the feasibility of joining the Potomac and Ohio rivers, thereby binding the hinterland to the coastal regions. Though little came of these dreams, they do indicate man's preoccupation with the problems of time and space and his probable response to them.


Before proceeding to treat in detail the subject of Canadian canals, brief mention might be made here of the principal routes of Canadian inland navigation at the time of confederation; namely, the St. Lawrence navigation, the Montreal-Kingston route via the Ottawa River, and the Richelieu and Lake Champlain navigation, along with canals designed to overcome the natural obstacles located on these routes.

Along the St. Lawrence navigation, extending from the Strait of Belle Isle to Fond du Lac at the head of Lake Superior, were located the Lachine, the Beauharnois, the Cornwall, the Williamsburg and the Welland canals. The total distance of this navigation was 2,384 statute miles, and the total length of the canals along this route was 70-83/100 miles with a total lockage of 536-1/2 feet through 54 locks. Also located along the St. Lawrence navigation was the Sault Ste. Marie Canal constructed to avoid the St. Marys Fails and Rapids. This canal, located on the American side of the river, united Lake Huron and Lake Superior, thereby opening navigation to the west end of Lake Superior.

Up the St. Lawrence as far as Lake St. Peter there was a navigable channel for all vessels until, toward the middle of the 19th century, dredging had to be done in parts of the lake to enable large ocean vessels to reach Montreal. Immediately above Montreal were the St. Louis Rapids, the necessity of surmounting which gave rise to the construction of the Lachine Canal. This canal located on the island of Montreal was 8-1/2 miles long and extended from the city to the village of Lachine. It was opened in August, 1824. Next came the Beauharnois Canal, a distance of 15-1/4 miles from the Lachine across Lake St. Louis. This canal was situated on the south side of the St. Lawrence and did not follow the bank of the river but ran some distance inland. It connected Lake St. Louis with Lake St. Francis and extended for 11-1/4 miles. Within its length the Beauharnois overcame three rapids: the first met with in ascending the river was called "The Cascades," the second "The Cedars" and the third "The Coteau." These rapids themselves only occupied a length of about 7 miles and the two intervening spaces were easily navigated. Previous to the construction of the Beauharnois Canal, which was opened in August, 1845, the navigation between Lake St. Louis and Lake St. Francis was effected for many years by means of four short canals. Three of these were built to avoid the Cascades and were located on the north side of the St. Lawrence at the "Faucelle," the "Trou du Moulin" and at "Split Rock." The next canal in ascending the St. Lawrence was the Cornwall Canal, completed in 1843, its distance from the head of the Beauharnois Canal through Lake St. Francis was 32-3/4 miles. This canal, which overcame the Long Sault Rapids, was 11-3/4 miles long and followed the northern shore of the St. Lawrence. Next were the three small canals of Farran's Point, the Rapide Flat and the Galops, known collectively as the Williamsburg Canals. The distance from the head of the Cornwall Canal to the foot of the Farran's Point Canal was 5 miles. The canal, which was three-fourths of a mile long, extended from the foot to the head of the rapids at Farran's Point and lay on the north side of the river. Completed in October, 1847, it was used principally by vessels ascending the river while descending vessels avoided the canal, running the rapids safely. From the head of Farran's Point Canal to the foot of the Rapide Plat Canal was a distance of 10-1/2 miles. This canal, located on the north shore, overcame the Rapide Plat rapids and was 5 miles long. It was opened to traffic in 1846. Four and one-half miles farther up the St. Lawrence was the Galops Canal opened in November, 1846, extending for 7-5/8 miles on the north side of the river and avoiding the rapids at Iroquois Point, Point Cardinal and the Galops.

The distance from the head of the Galops Canal following the channel of the St. Lawrence and through Lake Ontario to Port Dalhousie, at the foot of the Welland Canal, was 236-3/8 miles. This canal was constructed to avoid the most formidable obstacle of them all — the falls of Niagara. The main line of the Welland extended from Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario to Port Colborne on Lake Erie, a distance of 27-1/2 miles, and was completed in March, 1833. From Port Colborne on Lake Erie to the entrance of Lake Superior, no impediment to navigation occurred. But on the St. Marys River, guarding the entrance to the largest of the Great Lakes, are the St. Marys Falls and Rapids. Here is the last of the obstructions to the navigation on the St. Lawrence system and here, too, was built, by the Americans in 1855, the last canal necessary to open navigation to the head of the system at the west end of Lake Superior. Finally, in concluding this brief description of the St. Lawrence navigation mention might be made of the Burlington Bay Canal, completed in 1832, a branch of the main line of this navigation enabling vessels to reach Hamilton.

The second line of navigation extended from Montreal to Kingston, passing up the Ottawa River as far as the town of Ottawa. The distance between Montreal and Kingston by this line was 241-1/2 miles. The canals on this route, after leaving the Lachine, were Ste. Anne (known as the Ste. Anne Lock), the Carillon, the Chute-à-Blondeau, the Grenville and the Rideau. The united length of these canals was 142-7/8 miles, including the Lachine Canal, and the lockage in going from Montreal to Kingston was 578-1/4 feet (i.e., 401-1/4 feet rise and 177 feet fail, during seasons of high water). Flowing from the northwest, the Ottawa River was divided into four distinct channels at its junction with the St. Lawrence by a cluster of large islands. These in order of size were the island of Montreal, Ile-Jésus and Ile-Perrot. Two of the channels flowed on either side of Ile-Perrot, which lay between Vaudreuil and the head of the island of Montreal and discharged into the expansion of the St. Lawrence called Lake St. Louis. The two other channels were formed by Ile-Jésus, lying north of the island of Montreal, and joined the St. Lawrence at the foot of these islands. Immediately before passing into the St. Lawrence through these four channels, the Ottawa River spread out into a wide space called the Lake of Two Mountains. Here the waters were about three feet higher than the waters of Lake St. Louis. Hence the waters running through the two channels round Ile-Perrot had considerable force and formed a succession of small rapids. In the channel running between Ile-Perrot and the head of the island of Montreal the rapid was opposite the village of Ste. Anne and the Ste. Anne Lock was designed to overcome this rapid. The works, completed in June, 1843, were 1/8-mile long. From the head of the Lachine Canal through Lake St. Louis to the lock of Ste. Anne was 15 miles. Proceeding from the lock at Ste. Anne through the Lake of Two Mountains and up the Ottawa River for a short distance, one reached the Ordnance or Military Canals. These canals, comprising the Carillon, the Chute-à-Blondeau, the Grenville and the Rideau, were constructed by the imperial government before 1832 and for years afterwards were managed by imperial authority. From the lock at Ste. Anne to the foot of the Carillon following the line of navigation was 27 miles. This canal, which overcame the Carillon rapids, was constructed on the northern bank of the foot of the river and was 2-1/8 miles long. The distance from the head of the Carillon Canal to the foot of the Chute-à-Blondeau was 4 miles. This canal also lay on the north side of the river and avoided the Chute-à-Blondeau. One-eighth of a mile in length, it cut through solid rock. Nearly one and one-half miles separated the head of Chute-à-Blondeau Canal and the foot of the Grenville Canal. Again lying on the north shore of the river, this canal was 5-3/4 miles long and carried navigation round the Long Sault Rapids. Above Grenville, at the head of the Grenville Canal, the Ottawa River was navigable for a distance of 56 miles to Ottawa. The Rideau Canal commencing at Ottawa and terminating at Kingston, at the foot of Lake Ontario, connected the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence and lakes. From Montreal to Ottawa by water was 120 miles; from Montreal to Kingston by the St. Lawrence was 178 miles and from Ottawa to Kingston by the Rideau Canal was 126-1/4 miles. Constructed for military purposes, the Rideau might also be called the Rideau and Cataraqui navigation since it consisted in the conversion of the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers into a continuous navigable channel.

Draining an area of 1,550 square miles the Rideau River discharged over a perpendicular falls of about 45 feet into the Ottawa. This fails necessitated an artificial entrance to its waters by canal in order to connect it with the Ottawa River for navigation. The Cataraqui, drawing a basin of 200 square miles, emptied into the St. Lawrence at Kingston. Extending along the waterway from Ottawa to Kingston was a series of 24 dams elevating the waters. There were also waste and regulating weirs. The whole length of the short canals not including the locks was 16-1/2 miles. Finally, the River Tay, on which is situated the town of Perth, about 7 miles from the river mouth, might be considered as a branch of the Rideau falling into the Rideau at the foot of Lower Rideau Lake.

The third line of navigation was designed with a view to placing the St. Lawrence in communication with Lake Champlain and the American system of canals which led to the Hudson River and New York City. Boats leaving Canadian waters for New York or intermediate ports on this line entered the mouth of the Richelieu River at Sorel, on the St. Lawrence, 46 miles below Montreal. From Sorel boats ascended the Richelieu for 14 miles to St. Ours where they were lifted 5 feet. Here the lock and dam retained the waters of the river thereby giving a depth of not less than 7 feet as far as the lower entrance of the Chambly Canal located 32 miles further up the Richelieu at the village of Chambly. This canal, constructed to avoid the Chambly Rapids, was an extension of the navigation afforded by the St. Ours dam. It ran from the Chambly basin up to St. John, a town 12 miles farther up the river. In the space of these 12 miles the boats were raised 74 feet by lockage. After traversing the Richelieu for another 27 miles the boats arrived at the Canadian frontier which was at a line crossing the outlet of Lake Champlain. Navigating the entire length of Lake Champlain the boats then entered the Champlain Canal, an American work. Proceeding on through this canal and a few miles of the Erie, the boats reached Albany where they entered the Hudson River and descended along it to New York City.


From the foregoing brief historical outline it seems that inland water navigation influenced the general course of economic development. There is a connection between the construction of canals and the commercial or maritime states, as well as a connection between the neglect of inland navigation and the agrarian or essentially iand states. Both the Persian and Roman empires had alternate periods of canal construction and neglect of canals coinciding with periods of change in the character and extent of their territories. There would also appear to be a relationship between a keen interest in canals and the existence of an efficient centralizing administration. And finally, canal building might be considered one of the life-giving works of man, since in various societies from earliest times to the present canals have played a major role in the creation of wealth.2

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