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The Capital Builders - Part II

Updated: Feb 28

Bridging the divide*

The Union Bridge by Thomas Burrowes 1827

The State of the Unions

ON the morning of September 26, 1826, John Mactaggart [1] entered the dining room of the Columbia Hotel at the appointed hour and was surprised to see Lord Dalhousie, Philemon Wright and Col. By already seated.

Greeting them cordially, he sat down and the four men began an animated discussion about the schedule for building the Union Bridge - the bridge that would unite the two provinces of Canada, Lower and Upper.

It had been decided that a bridge over the Ottawa River at the Chaudière Falls would be essential for the delivery of all the provisions, supplies and labourers needed to build the Rideau Canal. All would have to be offloaded in Wright's Town when they arrived from Montreal because, at this time, the opposite side of the river was an utter wilderness. There were no docks, no storehouses, no barracks, no housing for the hundreds of labourers that would be working there. All of that would be built later.

Thomas McKay LAC
John Redpath, McCord Museum

The four were soon joined by master-masons Thomas McKay and John Redpath who had arrived together on the Union of the Ottawa steam ship that morning. Mactaggart greeted Thomas McKay warmly.

'Mac' - as Mactaggart called him - was a good chap, a man "who built the locks of the Lachine Canal ... a good practical mason, who scorns to slim any work: this is to my liking, as I canna suffer slimming and shuffling on any account."

John Redpath was, himself, as good a mason as he was a businessman. Redpath worked together with McKay on the Lachine canal but he would eventually build the first sugar refinery in the Province of Canada. As a result, his name would be well-known to every homemaker in the country.

Col. By informed the men that the building must commence as soon as possible, before the frost set in. Lord Dalhousie heartily agreed, saying "ln the strongest terms, I approve of your suggestion to build bridges at the broken rocks and islands here. The advantages are obvious and the expense a trifle, as preparatory to the great work you are appointed to superintend. If any sanction is thought necessary, I now give it in the fullest possible manner."[2]

The decision was made to start the next day and the men adjourned to the hotel's great room with its magnificent vaulted ceiling, a room well-suited for the magnitude of the project they were about to begin.

They were joined by another as the plans were spread out on a long table. John Burrows [3], the engineer who had drawn them up, began explaining the details and it became clear to all what it would take to build the largest bridge in the country.

Within minutes after the meeting, Philemon Wright and his sons Tiberius, Ruggles and Christopher got to work, gathering as many labourers from the Township for the work to begin the next day.

Plan & Elevation of Bridges by John Burrows, engineer, surveyor and Clerk of the Works, 1827

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Cantilever bridge over the Lost Channel by W.H. Bartlett

THE PLAN was to span the smaller gaps between the many islands at the falls first. On the north side of the river, two stone arches and a three-arch cantilever wooden bridge had to be built. On the south side, they would build a wooden arch bridge over the Rafting Channel and a cantilever arch bridge over the Lost Channel - Mactaggart believed that "this arch will have the most beautiful situation of the whole".

Only after those seven arches were built could they then tackle the most difficult section that would span the main channel of the Big Kettle falls, with the difficulty being not just the 212-foot width but also the depth of the water. At the planning session, Mactaggart told the men that "a sounding-line hath not yet found a bottom at 300 feet deep."

Later on, when back in England, Mactaggart, a gifted writer, would give a fanciful description of the difficulties they faced:

"The arches are to curve between a chain of rocky islands, directly over the magnificent and splendid Falls of Chaudiere! Behold but the scene, look at the mass of waters coming smoking over the shelving precipices, formed of the hardest horizontal strata of laminated limestone: down they tumble, in some places more than one hundred feet, into the cauldrons or kettles beneath; where, instead of their furiously driving, as you may imagine, down the channel, they in some instances vanish fairly, work their way through subterranean passages, and come up boiling white half a mile down the river. It has been told me by one of my countrymen here, that a cow one morning tumbled into the Little Kettle, or Chaudière, and came up again at Fox Point, ten miles down the river ; and on my inquiring if she came up alive, he exclaimed, with all the water kelpie enthusiasm of his own old Scotland, 'That she did sae; she came up rowting, and lived fat and fu' for years after.' But, to lay joking aside, this bridge, if we manage to build and finish it off' as we ought, will surpass almost any other in the world as a wonderful piece of superstructure."

There was work ordered to be done on the Timber Channel at this same time; work that was requested by Wright, granted by Lord Dalhousie and to be managed by Col. By and his engineers. Again, Mactaggart described it:

"We are also busy forming a channel through the rapids, for the sake of the raftsmen. This is done by building two strong dams, and deepening what is called a dry snie. Can this word snie, for a channel, be French, or Indian? I am inclined to think the latter."[4]

The first arch

The Stone Cutters by Gustave Courbet

THE VERY next morning, under Philemon Wright's direction five stonecutters began to cut the blocks of limestone at Wright's quarry, which was situated about 2 miles north of the falls (Today, where the Guertin Arena in Hull is located).

Wright had been told to bring blocks that measured 3 feet by 12 inches thick. The blocks were crudely dressed in the quarry, and afterwards drawn by sledge to the bridge by both oxen and horses.

The falsework used for supporting a stone arch

At the same time, Thomas McKay and Thomas Burrowes, overseer of the works, directed the stone placement for the abutments of the arch at the first (north) channel. The abutments would provide support for the wood centres (aka falsework) that would, in turn, provide support for the voussoirs (stones of the arch). Once completed, the centres would be removed.

The centres were hastily and crudely built with whatever cedar and pine that could be found near the falls. When the blocks arrived, they were moved into their courses by the masons with crowbars and according to Burrowes, "... simply scrappled with a hammer and laid in the mortar". The result of the crude wooden falsework, the thin stone blocks and the scrappling, combined to create a disaster.

On October 30, the first arch was considered to be complete and McKay proceeded to strike the Centres. A few hammer-blows should have been all that was necessary to remove the falsework but it would not budge. The greater part of it had crushed into the heads of the cedar posts. McKay ordered the men to cut the posts, a job that took all day.

At 7 pm., Mactaggart arrived to inspect the work. The north posts were almost completely cut but the arch itself seemed to be sagging under its unsupported weight on the one side, threatening the collapse of the whole structure. Mactaggart ordered the quick removal of the south posts to prevent that from happening but no one dared venture beneath the cracking centres. A rope was tied to the larger post and the men heaved to no effect. Writing his Observations later, Burrowes describes the scene:

"From the top of the Arch a large cedar post was then slung by its middle and used as a battering-ram; several of the supports being knocked out, and the Arch appeared to come to its bearing. The masonry had a tolerable appearance. except that the mortar was constantly dropping from the interstices of the stone by the Arch coming together. The ram was then slung on the east aide of the bridge and a small post near the northeast corner knocked away; when the entire remaining parts of the centering fell with a tremendous crash, leaving the whole of the Arch free. The workmen set up a shout of exultation but it was only too evident that the masonry would soon follow the Centres. In a few seconds it broke at the northeast hance (curved contour) - the rent running thence to the opposite side and forming three distinct portions of about equal magnitude and came down upon the fragments of the Centres with a horrible Crash. At the moment the Arch fell Mr. John McTaggart (sic), Mr. MacKay. Mr. John Burrows and Self were standing upon a flat piece of rock immediately below the bridge, and not more than twelve feet from the side of it. Providentially, none of us were struck by the flying pieces of broken timber. The mortar that had fallen from the Arch made the water of the Little Kettle white as milk and the splash from it ruined our clothing. Whatever Mr. McTaggart's real sentiments may have been, he appeared to make light of the matter; for, after we bad wiped the mortar or grout off our faces, he exclaimed: 'Egad, boys! We maun e'en big her up again.' Doubtless he said this to cheer up Mr. MacKay, who stood appalled. We then returned to the Hotel for Breakfast, after which Mr. MacKay hastened to Montreal to impart the disastrous tidings to Lieut.-Col. By, who gave orders to have the work recommenced forthwith."

McKay was crestfallen but even before he could deliver Col. By's orders, Philemon Wright and his sons urged Mactaggart, Thomas Burrowes and John Burrows to draw up new plans that would "increase the Versed-sine (the rise of the arch of a bridge) to 16 1/2 feet. Accordingly, the centres would be framed on a better principle, quarries of better stone were sought for and found, and the Voissures (sic) or Arch-stones would be hammer-picked or dressed to the proper radius."

Arch no. 3 seen in Photo of Wood-piling Grounds at Chaudière Fallls by William Topley 1880 LAC 012528

Reconstruction of the new arch began, and under Wright's direction, it was decided that it was already too cold for mortar and must therefore be dry-stone construction - meaning no mortar would be used - a plan that McKay strenuously opposed, according to Mactaggart.

The work began, nonetheless, and it was performed in the middle of one of the coldest winters. Nonetheless, without any injuries or frostbite, the arch was completed on January 11, 1827, when the centres were struck. The arch stayed put, not moving an inch - and it still stands today, known as Arch #3.

McKay had been impressed enough by the result that he agreed that the next arch would be built in the same manner. So in the springtime, work began on the second stone arch and then on the bridges over the channels of the south side of the river. The main channel would be the last one to be tackled.

*The date, event and people in this account are real. Although written in the historical fiction genre, the purpose is to animate an historical event that was seminal to the founding myth of Canada's Capital and give life to the people involved. The personalities, their reflections and their characteristics are based wholly on the personal accounts written by John Mactaggart (Three Years in Canada, Vol I and II), the written account by Thomas Burrowes (Observations) , and the personal letters of the Philemon Wright and family (The Wright Papers, LAC).

FOR PART III, click here.


[1] John Mactaggart was an engineer and author who was hired by Lieut.-Col. John By as the first Clerk of the Works for the Rideau Canal project. (click here for more info)

[2] From the account entitled Observations by Thomas Burrowes, surveyor, engineer, overseer of works and artist. Excerpts of his writings were taken from Ottawa Past and Present by A.H.D. Ross. (click here for more info)

[3] John Burrows (Honey) surveyor, engineer, artist, and politician; eventually replaces Mactaggart as Clerk of the Works of the Rideau Canal. He is also the man who sold his property to Nicholas Sparks for 95 pounds. (click here for more info)

[4] The word snie appears to originate in the Ottawa Valley. It is the word used for a small channel between two islands. Mactaggart's first guess was correct: the word comes from the French words chenail or chenal, which translates to channel. The English-speaker would typically pronounce it shneye. (click here for more info)

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