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

The Canals of Canada

by John P. Heisler

Canal Construction in New France


Though the French did little toward the improvement of inland navigation in Canada prior to 1760, this was not, as we shall see, due to any lack of interest in the subject by officials at Quebec or Versailles. In the case of fur, one of the staple products of New France which was high in value in relation to its weight, transport costs were not a crucial factor; the staple found an easy outlet through the Ottawa River. New France's concentration of energies and financial resources upon a single staple product, however, hindered attempts to build up a more diversified economy. Lacking this economy, which would have required improved transportation, there was no overpowering pressure on the government of New France to undertake the costly construction of canals about Montreal.

This does not mean that the construction of canals was neither considered nor attempted: quite the reverse. The Sulpicians, who were the seigneurs of the island of Montreal, initiated the improvement of inland navigation. In 1680 the superior, Dollier de Casson, proposed, as had others, to build a canal from Lake St. Louis to a small lake on the island out of which flowed the St. Pierre River, which paralleled the St. Lawrence and flowed into it near the centre of Montreal. Such a canal would serve as a source of power and improve water communication. By diverting water from Lake St. Louis the canal would not only increase the flow of the St. Pierre, thereby allowing water-mills to be built, but it would also provide a safe water route for canoes around the dangerous rapids at Lachine. However, Dollier de Casson's proposal proved to be stillborn. His superior in Paris refused to allow the undertaking owing to lack of funds.

Dollier de Casson, nevertheless, refused to be discouraged. A decade later, a greatly increased population in the Montreal district created a pressing need for mills. But labour, always a scarce commodity in New France, was required for the canal project. We find, therefore, an ordinance, dated 5 June 1689 and signed by the intendant, Bochart de Champigny, declaring that the inhabitants of Lachine who had failed to pay their seigneurial dues to the Sulpicians should discharge their obligations by working for the seminary.1

Along with the ordinance appeared a public notice, bearing the same date as the ordinance and signed by Dollier de Casson, declaring that the debtors were to proceed with pick and axe to clear the Little St. Pierre River.2 Work began a week later on the first canal in North America. Dollier de Casson estimated that it would take only two months to complete the work. This estimate proved hopelessly unrealistic. Two months later came the savage Iroquois attack on Lachine and the devastation wreaked on this whole district by the Indians affected its life and growth for many years and put a stop to any canal construction.3

Yet Dollier de Casson still clung to his dream. Eight years later he began to dig a canal to facilitate communication between Lachine and Montreal.4 As has already been pointed out, such a canal would not only avoid the very dangerous Lachine Rapids which took an annual toll in lives, boats and canoes, but would allow the construction on it of much needed mills to serve the seminary and local inhabitants. In 1700, therefore, Dollier de Casson let the contract for excavation of a canal extending from Lake St. Pierre to a point above the worst part of the Lachine Rapids. It was to be about a mile in length, 12 feet wide at the surface of the ground, with a depth of 18 inches at the point of lowest water in the St. Lawrence. Work was begun in the autumn of 1700 but the contract was never completed. Dollier de Casson died in October of the following year at the same time the contractor became bankrupt.5 He had, however, made a good start on the work. All that remained to do was a cut three or four feet deep for a distance of less than one-half mile. But the Sulpicians had already spent 20,000 livres on the project and their resources simply did not allow for its completion.6


In March 1703, René-Charles de Breslay, a Sulpician, was named parish priest of Sault-Saint-Louis at the extremity of Montreal Island. He soon expressed the need to complete the work begun by Dollier de Casson.7 At the same time the French authorities became interested in the project and gave some thought to finishing the job. In 1706, Governor Rigaud de Vaudreuil and Intendant Raudot informed the home government that they had commissioned Sieur de Beaucours, an engineer and highly respected officer, to inspect the unfinished canal and report on the feasibility and probable cost of completing it. At the same time the governor and intendant stressed the favourable effect which a navigable canal would have on the economy of the Montreal district. They also added that should the Crown be prepared to undertake the work, the Seminary of St. Sulpice would contribute an additional 5,000 livres to help defray expenses.8 In his instructions to the governor the following year (1707), Louis XIV expressed his pleasure at receiving Beaucour's report while at the same time declaring his inability to incur such an additional expenditure at that time. The King suggested that the project be held over till peacetime unless, of course, some way could be found to proceed with it without involving any cost to the Crown.9 We know that Louis XIV took a keen interest in canals. The Languedoc Canal, which he opened with great pomp and ceremony in 1681, was one of the great achievements of his reign. A fantastic undertaking for its time, this canal extended 144 miles and is still in use today. Also during the reign, Vauban drew up plans for a system of canals to link all parts of France in one great water-route network.

1 Lieutenant Colonel John By (1779-1836), military engineer. By served in Canada, 1802-11, at which time he worked on fortifications and constructed a canal on the St. Lawrence. He returned to Canada in 1826 to build the Rideau Canal which was completed in 1832. (Public Archives of Canada.)

It was about this time (1707) that a marble quarry was discovered some 50 miles above Montreal and some 3 miles from the Long Sault on the Ottawa River.10 As a result, we find Louis XIV writing to Intendant Bégon in 1714 to say that he had received a specimen piece of this marble from M. de Breslay who urged upon the King the completion of the canal project in order that this quarry might be worked and the large blocks transported by boat down the St. Lawrence. The King took the position, however, that the product did not appear of sufficiently good quality to warrant the great expense involved in finishing the waterway.11 Late in the same year Intendant Bégon wrote to the minister at Versailles that persons visiting the quarry had assured him that the product was of good quality, but that the expense involved in transporting it by road would be prohibitive while at the same time it would not be possible to transport it down the river by boats sufficiently large to carry the huge blocks. The intendant was inclined to see the Seminary of St. Sulpice behind all schemes put forward for the completion of the canal. The seminary's purpose, according to the intendant, was to furnish sufficient water to their mill at Montreal which, except in springtime, always faced the threat of a water shortage. Moreover, Bégon again expressed the great difficulty in finding sufficient labour to do the job.12


In 1717, Chaussegros de Léry, a French civil engineer, reported that only about one-quarter of the old canal remained to be finished.13 The question of completing it, however, was again deferred till 1732. In that year M. François Chèze of the Sulpician seminary charged Chaussegros de Léry to prepare plans and reports and both Governor Beauharnois and Intendant Hocquart tried once again to interest the home government in the project.14 In his letter of 17 March 1733 to these officials, the minister of marine wrote that while he fully understood the advantages such a canal would bestow on the colony and was prepared to urge its construction to the King, before doing so he must have more detailed information regarding the work and an accurate estimate of the expense involved.15 Chaussegros de Léry made a thorough investigation of the project, finding out what had already been done, deciding what remained to be done, and preparing an accurate estimate of cost. The officials of New France hoped that Chaussegros de Léry's report would decide the question once and for all; whether to complete the project or to abandon it. Following an intensive study of the situation in which he planned a canal involving locks, Chaussegros de Léry submitted a pessimistic report.16 He found that the amount of work required to be done would be more difficult and the expense involved would be greater than anyone had suspected. A cut, a league in length and six feet deep, would have to be made through solid rock. To complete the work would cost 255,000 livres. He also encountered the perennial shortage of labour for such work. And finally, the straitened financial condition of the French treasury throughout the 18th century precluded any serious attempt to complete the canal at Lachine.


In the light of what was to follow, this short study is significant for it indicates, at the very beginning of canal construction in Canada, some of the problems to be encountered later when a vast programme of construction got under way. Nearly everyone — government, businessmen and general public — was convinced of the necessity to improve waterways. Canals were often started as local projects supported by private individuals or institutions prepared to spend money. But money was always scarce. Almost invariably the actual cost greatly exceeded the original estimate, whereupon more money would be spent in the hope of salvaging the original investment. Moreover, there was often a scarcity of labour for such work. And finally, when private enterprise faltered an attempt would be made to involve the government.

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