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

The Canals of Canada

by John P. Heisler


The military records in the Public Archives of Canada commonly known as the "C" series provide indispensable source material for any study of the origins and construction of the early canals along the St. Lawrence, Ottawa and Rideau rivers. Consisting largely of official correspondence carried on by officers of the Royal Engineers, the material illustrates some of the problems encountered in construction and some of the administrative difficulties which arose, it also indicates the methods used in financing construction, in awarding contracts prepared by the Commissariat Departmental Quebec, and the difficulty often encountered in acquiring land through which to build the waterway.

Another important source of information found in the Public Archives on the subject of early canals is the series CO42. This series consists of the official correspondence and enclosures from the governors, lieutenant governors and administrators of Quebec, Lower Canada, Upper Canada and the United Province of Canada. Here one finds information on a wide range of subjects concerning the colony, including canals and inland waterways. Other pertinent series of records in the Public Archives are WO1 in which volumes 861 and 567 contain material relating to the transfer of the Rideau and Ottawa canals to the provincial government, and Admiralty Supplementary 4 which relates to the proposed Grand River Canal, 1820-1824.

Papers on subjects connected with the duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers provide good material relating to the construction of a few canals. Volumes 1 to 4 contain information on the Rideau Canal indicating why it was constructed; the size and construction of the locks, gates, dams, preliminary arrangements and commencement of work; advantages obtained by the use of locks and dams; state of the work at various times; detailed description of the works along the entire line; prices of work and materials; rates of pay to mechanics, expense of undertaking; military and commercial usefulness of the canal, and the tolls collected. Volume 5 includes Lieutenant Colonel George Phillpotts' celebrated and informative Report on the Canal Navigation of the Canadas. Volume 8 contains an important document relating to the projected Baie Verte canal: Report on a Survey of a Line for a Canal to unite the Bay of Fundy with the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in 1842, by Captain Crawley, R. E. This volume also provides a reliable index to the first seven volumes.

The provincial statutes of Upper and Lower Canada and the journals of the assemblies of the two provinces contain the legislation pertaining to inland navigation and indicate the petitions received, the resolutions and bills introduced on the subject of canals, and the committees formed to discuss and consider the construction of waterways. Especially useful are the appendices to the journals which contain the reports of select committees on canals along with engineers' survey reports on specific routes.

In 1838 the imperial government authorized Lord Durham, shortly after his arrival in Canada, to have a survey of the whole water route from Lake Erie to tidewater made by a competent engineer. Durham selected for the job Lieutenant Colonel George Phillpotts of the Royal Engineers and formerly chief engineer of the Cornwall Canal. Phillpotts' reports of 31 December 1839 and 3 August 1840 on the inland navigation of the Canadas are among the most valuable documents ever prepared on Canadian canals, providing as they do a wealth of information on the subject. In them Phillpotts presented a detailed study of the military, economic and social importance of the waterways for a viable Canadian community.

Following the union of the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841, all canals other than the ordnance canals on the Ottawa and Rideau rivers were placed under the control of the Board of Works. The ordnance canals (Carillon, Chute-à-Blondeau, Oresville and Rideau), constructed by the imperial government and managed by imperial authority, were not transferred to the Canadian government until 1886. In the following year they were placed under the control of the Department of Public Works. The annual reports of the department are a useful source and especially so is the report of 1867, the last one issued by the old Province of Canada, containing a wealth of information on all aspects of Canadian canals in the pre-confederation period. Throughout the period of union, 1841-1867, the provincial statutes of Canada and the journals of the legislative assembly of Canada and appendices contain legislation and valuable reports on canals and inland waterways. Equally deserving of mention are the Merritt papers in the Public Archives which abound in manuscript material relating to canals and to the Welland Canal in particular and which extend over the first half of the 19th century. Finally one cannot conclude a brief treatment of source material on canals before 1867 without mentioning the ever useful H. A. Innis and A. R. M. Lower, Select Documents in Canadian Economic History, 1783-1885, and G. M. Craig, Early Travellers in the Canadas, 1791-1867.

Following confederation an "Act respecting the Public Works of Canada" (31 Vic., C. 12) placed under the control of the Minister of Public Works all the canals and their works on navigable rivers constructed by the provincial governments previous to 1 July 1867. This Act remained in force until 1879. In that year the Department of Public Works was divided into two departments. Section 4 of "An Act respecting the offices of Receiver General and Minister of Public Works" (42 Vic., D. 7) stated that "the present Department of Public Works shall be divided into two departments, to be presided over and managed by two Ministers: one of these said Ministers shall be designated as Minister of Railways and Canals and the other as Minister of Public Works." Section 5 went on to state that "the Minister of Railways and Canals shall have the management, charge and direction of railways . . . and of all canals and works and property appertaining or incident thereto." From this time on the department's annual reports provided information relating to construction, enlargement, improvement, traffic, expenses and revenues of all canals.

Disturbed by the inadequate performance of the St. Lawrence route in relation to western trade, the Canadian government in 1870 appointed a Canal Commission, respecting the inland navigation of the Dominion of Canada. The commission's report appeared the following year and ranks with Phillpotts' reports as one of the most informative statements ever made on the subject. This detailed study of Canadian, inland navigation depicts the crucial role such navigation must play in the newly formed confederation.

In 1903, the Canadian government, realizing that the shipment of western grain was the most urgent transportation problem of the day, set up a Royal Commission on Transportation. The commission considered every possible artery by which the products of the West could reach ocean navigation. Its report in 1908 is another of the key documents relating to the crucial role of canals in the transportation facilities of Canada.

One further source of information deserves mention. The pamphlet collection of the Public Archives contains an abundance of contemporary material relating to canals (see Catalogue of Pamphlets in the Public Archives of Canada, 1497-1932 [Ottawa, King's Printer, 1931-32], 2 vols.). This material consists of survey reports of engineers; reports, plans, surveys and correspondence ordered by the legislative assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada; reports of select committees of the legislative assemblies on canals; speeches on the subject of canals delivered in the House of Commons; series of pamphlets issued in furtherance of a specific project, and reports of surveys and estimates of costs of specific projects made by the Department of Public Works. As one would expect, these pamphlets are of uneven quality but they provide useful source material.

Documentary Primary Sources

Canada. Public Archives.
MG1, Archives des Colonies.

MG11, Public Record Office: Colonial Office Papers, Series CO42 and Q series.

MG12, Admiralty. War Office and Foreign Office Papers; Section A (Admiralty); Section B (War Office); WO55 (Ordnance Miscellanea, 1740-1863), Vol. 284, Report of Richard Eaton and J. S. Eliot on canals in Canada, 1840.

MG17, Religious Archives, Section A, Lettres de l'abbé Tronson, 1672-99.

MG18, Pre-Conquest Papers, H25, Robinson Collection, 1832-1899, Vol. 2; H41, François Dollier de Casson, 1689-1694.

MG21, Transcripts from Papers in the British Museum, Section G. Haldimand Papers.

MG24, Pre-Confederation Manuscripts. E1, Merritt Papers, 1778-1892; E2, Rideau Canal Lands, 1818-49; E3, Welland Canal, 1823-28; E5, Shubenacadie Canal, Nova Scotia, 1826-90; E6, John Mactaggart, 1827-28; I2, Robert Wilkins.

RG1, Executive Council, Canada, 1764-1867; Section E, Phillpotts' first and second reports on the inland navigation of the Canadas, 31 December 1839 and 3 August 1840.

RG8, Civil and Provincial Secretaries' Offices, Canada West, 1788-1867, Section A, Upper Canada Sundries, 1766-1840.

RG7, Governor General's Office, Section G1, Despatches, 1784-1909.

RG8, British Military and Naval Records, C series (British Military Records).

RG11, Department of Public Works. Series I, Lachine Canal Navigation Company, 1819-21; Commissioners for the Lachine Canal, 1821-42; Commission for the improvement of the Richelieu River, 1829-96; Welland Canal Company, 1828-46; Commission for the Improvement of the Navigation of the Inland Water of the Newcastle District, 1837-41; Commission for the Improvement of the River Trent, 1837-41, Series II, Records of the Office of the Chairman of the Board of Works, 1839-46.

Printed Primary Sources

Bishop, Olga Bernice
Publications of the Government of the Province of Canada, 1841-1867. National Library of Canada, Ottawa, 1963.

Buffalo Republican,
Buffalo, N.Y.

Canada. Bureau of Statistics.
The Canada Year Book, 1954; 1955; 1956; 1960; 1964; 1966. Queen's Printer, Ottawa.

Canada. Canal Commission.
. . . A Letter to the Hon. the Secretary of State from the Canal Commission Respecting the Improvement of the Inland Navigation of the Dominion of Canada. Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1871.

Canada. Department of Public Works.
General Report of the Department of Public Works, 1867-1882. Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1883.

Georgian Bay Ship Canal, Report upon Survey with Plans and Estimates of Cost, 1908. King's Printer, Ottawa, 1909.

Canada. Department of Railways and Canals.
Annual Reports of the Minister of Railways and Canals for the Fiscal Years 1884-1925, Ottawa.

The Canals of Canada under the Jurisdiction of the Department of Railways and Canals, 1931. King's Printer, Ottawa, 1931.

The Welland Ship Canal between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie 1913-1932 (Reprint of articles appearing In "Engineering" during the years 1929, 1930 and 1931, by Major P. J. Cowan). Printed by order of the Hon. Minister of Railways and Canals, London, 1938.

Canada. Department of Trade and Commerce. Economic Research Division.
The St. Lawrence Waterway and the Canadian Economy, Ottawa, 1951.

Canada. Department of Transport. General Engineering Branch.
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Deep Waterway, Ottawa, 1949.

Canada. Laws, Statutes, etc.
Statutes of Canada, 1867-1967, Ottawa.

Canada. Parliament.
House of Commons Debates, 1867-1914, Ottawa. Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Consider the Practicability and Propriety of Constructing a Ship Canal between the Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario, via Lake Simcoe. Queen's Printer, Quebec, 1864. Also published as Appendix No. 2 Journals of the Legislative Assembly, 1864.

Return to an Address from the Legislative Assembly of the 28th ultimo. For a copy of Mr. Jarvis' Report relative to the Survey of the Proposed Caughnawaga Canal, and the Amount of the Coat of such Surveys as submitted by the said Engineer (Mr. Jarvis). Quebec, 20 March 1858.

Canada. Parliament. House of Commons.
Return to an Address from the Legislative Assembly to His Excellency the Governor General, dated the 5th Instant, praying His Excellency to be pleased to cause to be laid before the House, a Return of the recent Survey and Report of the Engineers on the Ottawa Ship Canal, 1860.

Canada (Province)
Annual Reports of the Department of Public Works, 1841-1867.

Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, 1841-1867.

Provincial Statutes of Canada, 1841-1867.

Canada. Public Archives.
Report of the Public Archives. Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1890.

Canada. Royal Commission on Coasting Trade.
Report, 9 December 1957. Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1988.

Canada. Royal Commission on Transportation.
Report of the Royal Commission on Transportation, 1903-1908, King's Printer, Ottawa, 1906.

Craig, Gerald M.
Early Travellers in the Canadas, 1791-1867, Macmillan, Toronto, 1988.

Great Britain. Corps of Royal Engineers.
Papers on Subjects connected with the Duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers . . . 1839-76, J. Weale, London, 1839-76, 10 vols.

Great Britain, Laws, Statutes, etc.
Statutes at Large, United Kingdom.

Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons.
Canada Canals, Return to an Order of the Honourable House of Commons dated 3 February 1832; — for, Copies or Extracts of Correspondence between the Board of Ordnance and Officers under their Orders in Canada; and of any Reports from them since the Date of the last Papers presented to the House, Respecting the Progress of the Canal Communications In that Country, and the Past and Prospective Expenditure thereon; and any Correspondence with the Treasury and Colonial Office on the same Subject, Ordered by the House of Commons to be Printed, 30 May 1832.

Innis, H. A. and A. R. M. Lower
Select Documents in Canadian Economic History, 1783-1885, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1933.

Lower Canada. House of Assembly.
Journals of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada to 1840.

Lower Canada. Laws, Statutes, etc.
The Provincial Statutes of Lower Canada to 1840.

Mactaggart, John

Three Years in Canada: An Account of the actual State of the Country in 1826-7-8, Henry Colburn, London, 1829, 2 vols.

Shanly, W.
Report of W. Shanly, C. E., to the Directors of the Caughnawaga Ship Canal Co'y. Penny, Wilson & Co., Montreal, 1874.

Shubenacadie Canal Company
The Charter and Bye Laws of the Shubenacadie Canal Company with the Acts of the General Assembly of Nova Scotia, Relating to the Canal, Printed by Order of the Board of Directors, Halifax, 1829.

Smith, Marcus
Report on the Montreal, Ottawa and Georgian Bay Canal, by Marcus Smith, M. Inst., C.E., October 1st, 1895. Thorburn & Co., Ottawa, 1898.

St. Lawrence Waterway Project
1. Correspondence Between the Governments of Canada and the United States, 1927-28, 2. Report of the Canadian National Advisory Committee, 1928, etc, 3. Orders in Council Referring to the Supreme Court of Canada Certain Questions as to Water Power Rights of the Dominion and the Province. King's Printer, Ottawa, 1928.

The Colonial Advocate
No. 6, Published Sept. 27th, 1824. containing an Essay on Canals and Inland Navigation, and the Reports to the President and Directors of the Welland Canal Company of Messrs. Francis Hall, James Clowes, and Nathan Roberts, Engineers Employed to Survey a Line of Canal to connect Lakes Erie and Ontario. William L. Mackenzie, Queenston, U.C., 1824.

The Empire.

The Mail.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Authority
Annual Report, 1959. Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1960.

United States. Deep Waterways Commission.
Report of the United States Deep Waterways Commission, prepared at Detroit, Michigan, December 18-22, 1896, by the Commissioners James B. Angell, John I. Russel, Lyman E. Cooley. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1897.

Upper Canada. House of Assembly.
Journals of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada to 1840, Report of the Committee of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada relative to the Welland Canal, with the letter of J. B. Yates, Esq. to said Committee; Some Editorial Articles from the Patriot, a Newspaper edited by Thomas Dalton, Esq. . . . . Lyon, Toronto, 1834.

Upper Canada. Laws, Statutes, etc.
Statutes of Upper Canada to 1840.

Secondary Sources

Aitken, Hugh G. J.
The Welland Canal Company; A Study in Canadian Enterprise. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1984.

Bonin, R.
"Le canal Lachine sous le régime français." Le Bulletin des Recherches Historiques, Vol. 42 (May 1936), pp. 268-99, Lévis.

Bourne, Kenneth
Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967.

Bullock, F. J.
Ships and the Seaway. J. M. Dent, Toronto, 1989.

Baie Verte Canal, Synopsis of Reports on Baie Verte Canal from 1822 to 1874. B. Taylor, Ottawa, 1874.

Careless, J. M. S.
The Union of the Canadas; The Growth of Canadian Institutions, 1841-1867. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1967.

Chambly Canal Centenary
Chambly Canal, Hundredth Anniversary . . . . Comp. René l'Heureux, Chambly, 1943.

Cowan, Helen I.
British Emigration to British North America; The First Hundred Years. Rev. and enl. ed. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1961.

Craig, Gerald M.
Upper Canada; The Formative Years, 1784-1841. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1963.

Creighton, Donald G.
The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760-1850. Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1937.

Easterbrook, W. T. and H. G. J. Aitken
Canadian Economic History. Macmillan, Toronto, 1986.

Eccles, W. J.
Canada under Louis XIV, 1663-1701. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1964.

Encyclopedia Canadians.
Grolier, Toronto, 1965, 10 vols.

Hill, H. P.
"The Construction of the Rideau Canal, 1826-32," Ontario Historical Society, Papers and Records, Vol. 22 (1928), pp. 177-24, Toronto.

Ingram, George C.
A History of Coteau du Lac. National Historic Sites Service, Manuscript on file, Ottawa, 1968.

Keefer, Thomas Coltrin
The Canals of Canada: Their Prospects and Influence. A. R. Armour, Montreal, 1880.

The Canals of Canada (read before the Royal Society of Canada, 1893), Gazette Printing Co., Montreal, 1894. Reprinted from Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada for the year 1893, Vol. II, Sect, 3, pp. 28-80.

The Old Welland Canal and the Man who made it. James Hope & Sons, Ottawa, 1911.

Legget, Robert
Rideau Waterway. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1964.

Moulton, H. G., C. S. Morgan and A. L. Lee
The St. Lawrence Navigation and Power Project. The Brookings Institute, Washington, 1929.

Ottawa. Board of Trade
The Canal Policy of the Dominion of Canada. 1872.

Payne, Robert
The Canal Builders; The Story of Canal Engineers through the Ages. Macmillan, New York, 1989.

Petrie, F. J.
"First Welland Canal opened back in 1829," Inland Seas, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 1969), pp. 62-3, Cleveland.

Richards, T.
"Proposals for the Chatham Ship Canal, 1887-1893," Inland Seas, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Fall 1968), pp. 202-9, Cleveland.

Ross, John
Inland Navigation, with Suggestions as to the Sufficiency of a Depth of Fourteen Feet in the St. Lawrence Canals, and the Practicability of Extending the Navigation Westward from Lake Superior, through the North-West Territories, to the Head of the Saskatchewan, by John Ross, Contractor, Niagara Fails, February, 1895.

Shortt, Adam, ed.
Canada and its Provinces; A History of the Canadian People and their Institutions, by One Hundred Associates. Publishers Association of Canada, Toronto, 1913, 23 vols, Vols. 4, 5, 8, 10, 17.

Treadwell, Charles P., comp.
Arguments in Favour of the Ottawa and Georgian Bay Ship Canal; the Shortest, Safest, and Cheapest Route to the Ocean from the Great West, through Canadian Territory; and the only Certain Means of Reviving and Restoring the Trade of United Canada. Ottawa City, Canada West, 1886.

Tucker, Gilbert Norman
The Canadian Commercial Revolution, 1845-1851. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1936.


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