Rideau Canal

The Rideau Canal is North America’s oldest continuously-operated canal and marks Sandy Hill’s western boundary. It is no exaggeration to say that Ottawa owes its birth to the Canal as there was no settlement in the area before its construction started in 1826[1]. Originally-built as a military supply route between Upper and Lower Canada to avoid the St Lawrence River that was vulnerable to American attack, the Canal remains a remarkable engineering feat. Built in what was then a trackless wilderness, it rises 88 metres from the Ottawa River to the height of land before descending 50 metres to Kingston. It includes 45 locks over its 202 kilometer length and several dams, among them what was then North America’s highest, at Jones Falls. Far from being celebrated for these achievements, its chief architect, Colonel By, returned to England in disgrace because of the Canal’s large cost overruns.

[1] Sir John Franklin, the famous explorer, laid the Canal’s ceremonial first stone in August 1827 as he happened to be in Bytown on his way back from his second Arctic expedition, down the Mackenzie River.

These labourers built a turn basin where the National Arts Centre and the Ottawa Congress Centre (the Shaw Centre) now stand to allow boats to turn around after unloading their cargo. Anticipating one of the Canal’s present recreational uses, the public skated on this turn basin as early as 1876. The east side of this turn basin was filled in when J. R. Booth extended his railway north to Confederation Square at the turn of the 20th Century. The rail lines were replaced in the1950s by the Colonel By Driveway as part of the implementation of the Gréber Plan to beautify the National Capital.


In days of yore, within a call

Of where stands now the City Hall,

A village built of mud and wood,

In all its glory, Corkstown stood,

Two rows of cabins in the swamp –

Begirt by ponds and vapors damp

And aromatic cedar trees

Who’s branches caught the passing breeze –

Stretched upward on the western side,

Of the “Deep Cut,” where then were plied

The spade and pickaxe side by side;

William Pittman Lett[1], Corkstown, 1874

Republished by the Historical Society of Ottawa, 1979.

[1] Lett was appointed Ottawa’s first City Clerk in 1855, a position he held for 36 years.

Provisioning and housing the Canal’s workforce during its construction represented an enormous challenge: at its peak, the Canal employed some 4,000 men, a number that greatly exceeded the population of Upper Canada’s largest city at the time (Kingston). Much of the labour who built the Canal’s northern reaches, including the section in Sandy Hill, were recently-arrived destitute Irish immigrant labourers, many of whom were sick, under-nourished and dressed in rags. As they could not afford to clothe themselves adequately, let alone rent lodgings, Colonel By let them squat on the Canal’s right of way “on the edge of a cedar swamp, surrounded by a heavily-forested wilderness, and plagued by swarms of black flies and mosquitoes” (Passfield, 2013). Such was Sandy Hill in the 1820s and the memory of this informal workcamp in preserved today in the name of the Corktown bridge crossing the Canal at Somerset St. Difficult work conditions, combined with the labourers’ poor health, contributed to many deaths from malaria, dysentery and work accidents: it is estimated that one in ten Corktown residents died in the first two years on the job.


After the Canal’s military and commercial importance waned, the City lived uneasily with this federal transportation infrastructure for many years. Ottawa’s good citizens were offended by the fact that some men and boys went swimming in the Canal without bathing trunks. To preserve the sanctity of the Lord’s Day, the Canal was closed to boat traffic on Sundays for several decades (boats carrying mail and “works of charity” were exempted as was all traffic towards the end of the shipping season). In 1914, the City tried to save money by requesting that the minimum headroom of new bridges over the Canal be lowered. That request was denied because it would have precluded most commercial traffic.


The Canal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.