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The Capital Builders - Epi(b)logue

Updated: May 25, 2023

The Inglorious End of Two Glorious Men

Funeral of Andre Cailloux in New Orleans, July 29, 1863 - Harper's Weekly

Engineer, Overseer of the Rideau Canal Laid to Rest

OBIT - John Mactaggart, Esq., on Friday, Jan. 8., at his residence in Wright's Town L.C., of Brogue Kirkcudbright, CIVIL ENGINEER AND CLERK OF THE WORKS of the ROYAL ENGINEERS, aged 37 years, son of James McTaggart and Mary Sproat.

He was a kind and affectionate son; an accomplished civil engineer; author and poet, and a sincere and warm friend.

Handpicked by LIEUT.-COL. JOHN BY, Mr. Mactaggart was the overseer of the building of the UNION BRIDGE and he confirmed the route of the RIDEAU CANAL, and for this, the citizens of BYTOWN owe him a significant debt of gratitude.

John Mactaggart's funeral at St. James Anglican Church in Wright's Town was attended by former GOVERNOR OF BRITISH NORTH AMERICA, Sir George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie, COL. BY, many members of the ROYAL ENGINEERS and great numbers of the residents of Bytown and Wright's Town. Mr. Mactaggart was laid to rest in a place of honour at St. James Cemetery in Wright's Town.


Founder of Bytown Laid to Rest with Full Military Honours

OBIT - LIEUTENANT-COLONEL John By of the ROYAL ENGINEERS, at his residence in the town that bears his name, aged 56 years, son of the late George By and Mary Bryan. He has left a widow, Esther March, and two daughters, Harriet and Esther, to lament his loss. While serving in Canada, He worked on the defenses of Quebec; was founder of BYTOWN, was builder of the UNION BRIDGE and the RIDEAU CANAL. He was a loyal and faithful soldier in the KING'S COMMAND; a kind and affectionate husband and parent; and a sincere and warm friend.

Having entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich (London), he obtained a commission on 1 Aug. 1799 as a second lieutenant in the ROYAL ARTILLERY, but transferred to the ROYAL ENGINEERS on December 20. He participated with distinction in the Peninsular War, taking part in the sieges of Badajoz, Spain, in 1811.

Lieutenant-Colonel John By, who died February 1, was brought to his place of rest with the largest Military Funeral ever held in the Ottawa Valley. His funeral took place in the Barrack Hill Chapel, attended by the GOVERNOR OF BRITISH NORTH AMERICA, Archibald Acheson, 2nd Earl of Gosford, LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR OF UPPER CANADA, Sir Francis Bond Head, the Company of the ROYAL ENGINEERS, the 15th Company of the ROYAL SAPPERS AND MINERS and many eminent citizens of Bytown and Wright's Town. Today, his mortal remains were transported by Gun carriage escorted by cavalry in full dress uniform and deposited in a place of prominence in St. James Cemetery, where he received a 19-gun salute.


THOSE TWO obituaries were never written and the funerals described never occurred. In a better world, they would have, but once the Canal was built, both men were back overseas and died, with little fanfare on the opposite side of the ocean.

How could that be, considering that both men had accomplished great things in the service of their King? The answer to that is ... complicated. So, let's begin with:

John Mactaggart

WHEN John Mactaggart first arrived in Wright's Town to take charge as the overseer of the monumental project to build the Rideau Canal, he was excited. He was certainly looking forward to taking on his new responsibilities but as a young man of 35 years, he was mostly enthralled with the idea of exploring this new world - rummaging, as he loved to call it.

He got the opportunity to rummage up the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes. As the Canadian Dictionary of Biographies tells us: "He reveled in his rambles, satisfying his appetite for social and natural history, and executed many incidental projects such as reporting on the Welland Canal (the design and construction of which he criticized severely), the Burlington Bay Canal, and the plans for a dockyard at Kingston."

He wrote several articles for the Montreal Herald, while in Canada that resulted in his nomination to the Natural History Society of Montreal. His two masterworks, though, were written in Scotland, Three Years in Canada: An Account of the Actual State of the Country in 1826-7-8 and the Scottish Gallovedian Encyclopedia - The Original, Antiquated, and Natural Curiosities of the South of Scotland, written in 1824. They are both gems. Three Years in Canada by itself is a historical record of the birth of the Capital unlike any other - and a true snapshot of the country at a seminal moment in time.

But the Rideau Canal was his main preoccupation. In his own words, he wrote, "Every man to his business; and this being mine in Canada, of course I am more at home on this than on any other subject. It claimed the greater part of my attention while in the country, and by confining me to it, prevented me from exploring much which I should otherwise have done; yet, by this very confinement, I was better enabled to examine things minutely; and the statements about to be given, will form safe data for various deductions, which may be applied to the whole of North America."

In short order after his arrival in the Ottawa Valley, Mactaggart was rummaging through the thickets and swamps that covered the land between the Ottawa River and Black's Rapids. His recommendations were adopted, the path of the Canal that we see today through Ottawa was the path chosen, and all of this done while he oversaw the building of the Union Bridge - a bridge of his design - as well as the laying down of all the infrastructure needed to build the canal.

When describing the exploration of the route that led to Dow's Great Swamp, Mactaggart wrote that it was "a place which cost us much trouble to explore, owing to the cold weather, thick brush-wood, and the waters in the swamp not being strong enough to bear a person properly." He and eight companions - three Royal Engineers, three axemen and two porters - tried to get through the 6.5 km in early November but finding the swampy ground to be virtually impassable, they had to wait until the frost had solidified the ground enough to walk on - and even then, found it to be a tough slog.

Mactaggart would have to repeat a similar slog throughout the summer of 1827, as he would verify the entire route of the canal from the Ottawa River to Kingston through forest, bogs, swamps and lakes. As has been documented many times, the swamps were a breeding ground for malaria and Mactaggart would not be spared several bouts of 'swamp fever'. Although he would recover from each bout, the cumulative result proved to be somewhat debilitating.

Mactaggart returned overseas because of the toll on his health but history left one black mark on his record, the result of which was that recognition for his contributions has been diminished: He was dismissed as Clerk of the Works on the orders of Governor Sir James Kempt for “being drunk on duty.” The relevance of that charge, however, is in serious doubt - at least with this author.

Col. By, himself, felt no need to offer Mactaggart anything other than praise. In his letter of recommendation, written to General Mann, Inspector-General of Fortifications, Board of Ordnance, in 1828, he wrote:

"SIR, I have the honour to state, for the information of his Lordship the Master-General, and Right Honourable and Honourable Board, that Mr. Mactaggart, Clerk of Works at the Rideau Canal, is so much recovered of a dangerous fever, as to enable him to return to England according to order. And I beg leave to report, that I have found him a man of strong natural abilities, well grounded in the practical part of his profession, and a zealous, hard-working man in the field. I most respectfully recommend him to your protection and that of the Honourable Board. He is fond of research, and of exploring this untracked country; his reports are faithful, and I have always found him a man of honour and integrity."

Another letter from Bishop Alexander MacDonnell, Catholic Bishop of Upper Canada, states:

" SIR, The warm zeal which you have displayed in forwarding the improvements of the Canadas since you have been at the head of the Colonial department, induces me to believe that it would not be unacceptable to you, Sir, to recommend the bearer, Mr. Mactaggart, to your notice, as, perhaps, the ablest practical engineer and geologist, and the properest person that has ever been in these Provinces for exploring the natural productions and latent resources of the country.

In recommending Mr. Mactaggart, I rely much more on the testimony of Colonel By, of the Royal Engineers, and other gentlemen of superior talents and science in those branches, who have spoken highly of him to me, than on my own judgment."

John Mactaggart returned to his beloved town of Borgue, Kirkcudbrightshire in the Galloway region of Scotland and died two short years later on the 8th January 1830, aged 38 years. He is buried in his family plot in the old Senwick Kirkyard in Galloway, with his parents and siblings. Notably, six of his nine siblings also died at very young ages. [1]

In his Scottish Gallovedian Encyclopedia, John Mactaggart wrote the following poem, which tells us that although his end came far too early, he rests eternally in the place that he had chosen:

When I am dead, may they their hoary bard

Clap i'the mools o' Senwick's lane kirk yard;

Aside the auld gude friens wha mony a day

Took pity on my haffets growing grey,

And at my head set up an auld sea sclate,

Wi' thae words on't, coined in my curious pate-

"Here Hackston lies, Borgue's lourat mony a year

"Without his saul - whar's it, we canna hear;

"He liked rhyme, was fond o' the wee drap,

"And now he sleeps as sound as ony tap." [2]

McTaggart family memorial at Senwick Kirkyard, Galloway, Scotland
Senwick Kirkyard, Galloway, Scotland

Lieutenant Colonel John By

“It is a pity that doing one's best does not always answer.”

- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

THERE is no need to go over the whole history of the creation of the Canal to know that it was a marvel of engineering in its day; an innovative, complex, multi-stage construction project that was implemented in a hazardous and difficult wilderness - a wilderness from which he, like the many men who worked under his charge, contracted malaria and like them, was to suffer many health concerns as a result.

It was under Col. By's able command that the Canal was built, but it was also under his command that the Union Bridge was built and that the design of the city itself was laid out.

Nonetheless, at the Canal's completion, in 1832, Colonel By was faced with a recall to Britain. There can be little doubt that he had wanted to stay in Canada, because he had bought 600 acres behind Nicholas Sparks' property that covered the area that stretches today from Bronson to the Rideau River. He never got to do that.

Under the newly elected Reform government in Britain, British Treasury ordered Col. By's removal from command, and his recall to England in May of 1832.

The final cost of the Canal totaled £ 822,804, when the first amount approved had been £ 576,757. However, that first estimate did not include any costs for any of the military works along the canal. By's final submission of £ 777,146 to the Board of Ordnance in 1832, was quite close to the final estimate he had submitted in 1831 but the rise in the final amount was mostly due to the cost of land acquisition settlements.

The members of the new Reform government were furious at the previous government's decision to authorize the completion of the project regardless of the amounts that had been first approved. The Reformers were very much against spending British tax dollars on defense projects for the colonies.

Sir James Kempt - a man who would be named Governor to replace Lord Dalhousie - had made an official tour of the Canal in 1828 and his report made a number of recommendations which "signally failed to check escalating costs and the lavishness with which By continued to spend the British taxpayers’ money." [3] Col. By was being blamed for defying Parliament when, in fact, the responsibility for the overruns lay with the Board of Ordnance; he was being railroaded in the worst kind of political game: scapegoating.

Ultimately, John By was exonerated in every hearing held in the matter, but the damage to his reputation was done. Normally, a commander responsible for the successful completion of such a project would have been knighted but no formal commendation ever came his way.

John By's failing health, a result of his slogs through swamps in Canada, combined with the sadness of this rough treatment, hastened his death. He died in the small town of Frant, England on Feb. 1, 1836 at the age of 57 and was buried in the St. Alban's Cemetery, with no fanfare. [4]

Tragically - but perhaps mercifully - his bereaved family would not have to suffer the dishonour for long. His wife Esther died two years later in Feb. 1838. His youngest daughter, Harriet died in 1842 at the tender age of 21. His eldest daughter, Esther married and had two daughters, but both died as young children. Esther died at 29. John By’s older brother, George, died without issue in 1840. His younger brother, Henry, married and had two children but Henry died in 1852, predeceased by his sons who had both died without issue by 1847. So, by the mid-1800s, there were no family members left to remember and promote the incredible achievements of John By.

Until 1954, the only honour granted to Col. By in Ottawa, the city he founded, was his name engraved on a cube of granite in Majors Hill Park. It had been installed in 1932 and was supposed to be the base of a statue that was never installed. Up to that point, even the park itself, where he had built his happy home, was named in honour of Major Bolton - the officer who had replaced him there.

Today, Col. By has had that promised statue put on that granite pedestal in the Park and the City honours him in various ways but all of the honours he now receives cannot ever erase the pain and misery that he must have endured at the end of his life. An inglorious end for a glorious man.

St. Alban Cemetery - Frant UK by Susan MS
Col. By's memorial in St. Alban Cemetery, Frant, UK by Susan MS
Lieut. Col. John By in Majors Hill Park

[1] John spelled his last name, Mactaggart. The inscription on the family memorial bench in Senwick Kirkyard, however, spells it McTaggart. It reads:

In memory of James McTaggart, who died at Torrs of Kirkcudbright on the 21st of January 1832, aged 75 years. And his wife, Mary Sproat, who died 29th May 1829, aged 57 years. Also of the following, their children: Mary who died March 1817, aged 7 years. Margaret, who died 14th April 1817, aged 21 years. Isabella, who died 17th July 1829, aged 34 years. John, who died 8th January 1830, aged 32 years.(sic) Alexander, who died 13th May 1833, aged 29 years. Also James McTaggart, who died 17th August 1847, aged 46 years. Isaac McTaggart, who died at Ottawa City, Upper Canada, 18th Dec, 1864, aged 57 years.* Also William McTaggart, who died at Underwood on 5th May 1868, aged 52 years. Also Eliza Cunningham, spouse to George McTaggart, who died at Overlaw,6th October 1872, aged 55 years. Also George McTaggart, of Overlaw, who died at Castle Douglas, November 19th 1878, aged 74 years.

*A CURIOUS HISTORY ANECDOTE: Isaac McTaggart lived and worked in Ottawa on Vittoria St. as a Civil Engineer and Surveyor, the same profession as his brother, John. Isaac and his wife Anna Maria Stevenson had a daughter, Jessie, who married Norman W. Bethune, son of Norman Bethune Sr.

Norman Bethune Sr. (1789–1848) was a King's Auctioneer in Montreal with his kinsman Alexander Henry (the great explorer). Bethune also owned a commercial forwarding agency at Lachine for batteaux and Durham boats of the St. Lawrence route to the Great Lakes. He married Margaret Kittson, whose father was the stepson of Alexander Henry.

Norman Bethune Sr. was the great-granduncle of the celebrated Dr. Norman Bethune.

Isaac McTaggart was buried in Sandy Hill Cemetery when he died and, at a later time, his remains were transferred to Beechwood Cemetery.

[2] His poem in old Scots, translates roughly in English to:

When I am dead, may they put their old poet

Into the broken earth of Senwick's lane churchyard;

Beside the old, good friends who many a day

Took pity on my affects, growing grey,

And at my head set up an old headstone,

With the words on it, coined in my curious head -

"Here Hackston* lies, Borgue's laureate many a year

"Without his soul - where is it, we cannot know;

"He liked rhyme, was fond of the wee drop,**

"And now he sleeps as sound as any head (or spout)." ***

* Meaning "an old warrior" - reference is to David Hackston, a militant Scottish Covenantor.

** The "wee drap" is the same as a "wee dram" or 'a shot' of scotch, especially. Mactaggart liked scotch!

*** Mactaggart is making a pun: his use of tap, here, can mean either head or, referencing the line right before, a spout or spigot used to dispense liquor.

[4] The memorial, erected by his wife Esther in St. Alban’s Church, reflects her sadness at the terrible treatment he received. It reads:

Sacred to the memory of

Lieutenant Colonel John By, Royal Engineers

of Shernfold Park in this parish.

Zealous and distinguished in his profession,

tender and affectionate as a husband and a father,

and lamented by the poor, he resigned his soul to his Maker,

in a full reliance on the merits of his blessed Redeemer,

on 1st. February 1836, aged 53 years,*

after a long and painful illness,

brought on by his indefatigable zeal and devotion in the service

of his King and Country, in Upper Canada

* There is some confusion about John's date of birth. His memorial plaque in Frant indicates that it was 1783.

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