Boomers like to drive, so a road trip visiting the locks and blockhouses along the Rideau Canal seemed in order for our recent long weekend…
Blockhouse at Kingston Mills, Ontario, southern entrance to the Rideau Canal
The canal was built shortly after the War of 1812 (yeah, the one where the Canucks and Brits burnt down the White House, sacked Detroit, and generally kicked American butt.) It opened in 1832, making it the oldest continuously operating canal in North America. Colonel John By was in charge of what was the biggest engineering project in the British Empire at that time.
The canal is really a series of canals, dams, and locks connecting lakes between Lake Ontario and Ottawa. The idea was to ensure a way of moving troops from Montreal to Lake Ontario without passing too close to American forts along the St. Lawrence River. Today it is only used by pleasure craft.
Since its purpose was military defense, Colonel By built four fortified blockhouses at strategic points along the 202 km route. These blockhouses, consisting of a stone ground floor with no entry, sometimes a second stone floor, and an overhanging wooden upper floor with gun ports all around, including pointing down and out at the bridge that allows entry to the second floor door, never saw actual battle. The closest they came was during the MacKenzie Rebellion of 1837.
Today the entire canal route is a UNESCO World Heritage site – and deservedly so, as its scenery rivals any European schloss for beauty and history.
One of the most scenic spots is the locks at Jones Falls, where Colonel By built a gorge-spanning dam 18.6 m high and 106.6 m wide entirely out of hand-hewn stone blocks. It was then the tallest dam in North America and third in the world; many considered it the seventh wonder of the modern world.
Merrickville is a lovely town along the canal route, and boasts one of the best blockhouses, which is now a museum (admission is free, but donations are welcome).
And Ottawa, selected by Queen Victoria as the capital of Canada in 1866 in large part because of its connected but defensible position at the north end of the canal, hosts the Bytown Museum. Dedicated to the early history of the lumber town that became the Nation’s Capital, it occupies Colonel By’s commissary, sandwiched between Parliament Hill and the magnificent train of locks that mark the gateway between the canal and the Ottawa River.