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The Capital Builders - Part I

Updated: Feb 28

The Curious Cast that Created Canada's Capital*

Wright's Town 1830 by Thomas Burrowes. The Columbia Hotel with its four chimneys, is on the right and The White House, with five, can be seen on the right edge.

Steaming up the Ottawa

LEAVING Grenville-sur-la-Rouge on the sparkling morning of September 24, 1826, thirty-five year-old John Mactaggart found himself standing at the bow of the Union of the Grand steamboat, breathing deeply the fresh scent of the pine and hemlock that carpeted the vast Ottawa Valley, feeling the moist air rush by his face and exhilarated to see the beautiful wild country passing by. A voracious reader, he had so loved to read of the exploits of North American rummagers [1] and now, here he was about to embark on the rummager's life himself.

The steamboat was a marvel, built by Philemon Wright Jr., in partnership with Thomas Mears, just a few short years before. Thirty-eight metres long, 9 metres wide, powered by a 28-horsepower engine, and with a draught of only 47 centimetres, it could easily carry people and cargo in the warm seasons up and down the Grand River. The ship plied the river between Grenville and Columbia Falls village, the town known to everyone as Wright's Town.

Detail from Entrance to the Rideau Canal, 1838 by Philip John Bainbridge, showing what is likely the only image of the Union of the Grand (Ottawa River)

Mactaggart was not a huge fan of these "stinkpot" vessels, but he could certainly appreciate how the steamer turned an arduous three-day paddle into a somewhat luxurious one-day cruise upriver. He was also quite aware that the Union was certainly going to make his new job a thousand times easier than it would be without it; John Mactaggart was to be tasked with verifying the viability of the route for conducting the Rideau River into the Ottawa by canal.

The job would never have been his, had it not been for the Union, which provided the necessary link that would allow for the transport of untold number of labourers and supplies that would be required to build the Rideau Canal - the largest engineering project that the British Empire had ever undertaken, indeed, that the world had ever seen.

Early on, years ago, Mactaggart had attended his “favourite natural classes” in England but he bored easily and soon left, choosing to wander Scotland instead. At some time he must have apprenticed to "learn the engineering", as he put it, and excelled enough to earn a recommendation to Lieutenant-Colonel John By for the post of Clerk of Works on the Rideau Canal project.

But this morning, he was just happy to be hypnotized by the glide through the water and delight in the thrill of being a stranger in a strange land.

His reverie was soon interrupted by the sound of voices that he instantly recognized from introductions the day before. Mactaggart froze at the sight of the two gentlemen sauntering slowly towards him embroiled in deep discussion and he only managed to utter a feeble "Good morning, Sirs" that barely got noticed at first.

In rarefied company

Lord Dalhousie, 1829-1830 National Gallery of Canada

THE FIRST man to acknowledge him with a quick nod was General George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie, governor-in-chief of British North America, no less. Then, Mactaggart's new boss, Colonel By, turned his intent gaze from the Governor and replied warmly "An amazing country, don't you think Mr. Mactaggart? We have a chance to take a breath before we get down to it. Enjoy your sail." And with that, the two men turned to each other to continue their discourse.

Colonel John By, 1830, LAC

The three men had an appointment the next day to meet with Squire Philemon Wright of the Township of Hull to begin planning for the building of the canal as Wright was to be one of the principal contractor/suppliers for the project.

Philemon Wright by John James

Standing there on the deck of the steamer, Mactaggart could not then know just how much Col. By and the man he was about to meet on the morrow, Philemon Wright, would influence his life, from then on.

The Old Squire, as many fondly referred to him, had by this time built a very comfortable town by the great Chaudière Falls. He had named his town Columbia Falls but everyone who knew its history, called it Wright's Town because Philemon and his son, Philemon Jr., had everything to do with every part of its creation.

The town had mills, foundries, tanneries, bakeries, distilleries and some of the largest and most productive farms in Canada. It also boasted of having the finest hotel west of Montreal - The Columbia Hotel - [2] which is certainly possible considering that both Kingston and York (later, Toronto) were but villages themselves at that time. [3]

Abigail Wright

No matter, because Squire Wright insisted, nonetheless, that the three travellers would be hosted by Philemon and his wife Abigail at their elegant manse by the Falls. As a former New-Englander, Philemon loved to poke fun at himself by referring to it as The White House.[4]

A greeting, as befits the King's emissary

Wright's Town, 1825 by Maj. GA Elliott , showing the steamboat landing and the Columbia Hotel in the village.

THE UNION docked at the Township's steamboat wharf early in the morning but a fair sized crowd had already gathered to see the arrival of the Governor's party.

As the Governor appeared on the gangplank, followed by the Colonel and Mactaggart, the crowd let out a lusty Huzzah, and waved little Union flags that were handmade for the event while a small band played God Save the King.

There was also a reception party to greet them as they stepped onto the landing. Philemon and Abigail were there, of course, followed by a fair complement of their family. Tiberius - now the eldest son since his brother Philemon's death, five years before - was there with wife and children, as were his brothers Ruggles and Christopher and daughters Abigail and Christiana, all with families in tow.

Mactaggart was mightily impressed with the welcome and shook every hand, introducing himself to everyone, and feeling mightily impressed with himself, for all the fuss that was made.

The Governor accompanied Philemon and Abigail in carriage, while Mactaggart rode with Col. By. The Colonel, himself fairly glowing with pride, was quite chatty for the duration of the ride into town as the villagers walked along behind the carriages cheering. They hearkened the peal of the town bell announcing the approach of the carriages.

Wright's New Stone Store 1850 by James D. Duncan

Passing by the Columbia Hotel they arrived at the common and stopped before what appeared to be a Town Hall; a beautiful stone building adorned with a handsome bell tower. Mactaggart would learn later that this was the Storehouse [5] from which the entire Township received its goods. Later, it would be the depot from which the Canal would be provisioned.

As the King's flag was raised in the common, a cannon salvo was let loose in their honour. The Governor was truly beaming, as were Philemon, Abigail and every last one of the Wrights. There would have been few towns in all of Canada that could have prepared a finer greeting.

The White House

The Wright-Locke House in Woburn MA, The White House was almost a perfect copy

THE CARRIAGES left the common and crossed the bridge at Brewery Creek. It was a fine Fall day all in all, warm, sunny and the leaves were displaying the glory of the season. Just up the hill stood the White House, surrounded by the most beautiful fence of fine stonework. Trees lined the driveway and beautiful arrangements of wild flowers in ornamental gardens were surrounded by immaculate lawns.

The guests were escorted by the Squire to their accommodations and told that a luncheon would soon be served in the gardens. Little time was spent refreshing themselves and the luncheon was spent getting acquainted.

Mactaggart enjoyed chatting with Mrs. Wright during lunch as he was seated next to her. She was an elegant woman, if not beautiful, but quite intense and proud about her household and the efforts it took for her and her husband to create all that they are surrounded by out of the wilderness.

It had reached his ears that Abigail Wright was made of stern stuff; a true pioneer woman who ran the town when her husband attended business in Montréal and Québec City. For the first years, at least, the small community relied solely on Abigail to teach the children, heal the sick and injured and even tend to the souls through prayer meetings and Sunday school. However, he found her to be an excellent lunch partner, conversant on many subjects and quite charming.

After lunch, the men went for a walk to more closely inspect the Falls. The sound of them was, of course, ever-present and from the gardens of the White House your eye was drawn back to them until you could see little else. Mactaggart had read the report of the Surveyor-General who wrote that they are only rivalled in Canada by the mighty Falls of the Niagara. Today, he found it hard to believe that any falls could rival these.

This was the place where Col. By informed Mactaggart that his first engineering task as Clerk of the Works was to oversee the construction of a bridge across the river at the Falls. Philemon Wright and Col. By had recommended the bridging project to Lord Dalhousie, who had heartily endorsed it. Wright was to be the principal contractor for the supplies and the provisions that will be required for building both the bridge, to be named the Union Bridge, and the canal, to be named the Rideau. Lord Dalhousie also informed the party of a meeting to be held in two days at the Columbia Hotel, after the steamboat returns. Two others would join them to prepare planning. The first was Master-mason Thomas McKay and John Redpath, both of whom had been greatly involved in the completion of the Lachine Canal the year before.

Seeing the excited, nervous look on the men's faces, Lord Dalhousie gave a hearty laugh and clapped both men on the back, saying: "We will talk more over whisky and cigars after dinner tonight." All four fell into silence as they gazed at the thundering cataract and pondered the immensity of the herculean tasks ahead.

FOR PART II, click here.

Chaudière Falls, Ottawa River, Upper Canada (Ottawa, Ontario), Ingrey, C. (Firm, London) 1830, Toronto Public Library


*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) and the personal letters of the Philemon Wright and family (The Wright Papers, LAC).


[1] With great fondness, Mactaggart uses the term "rummaging" to describe the act of thoroughly investigating a place; it's his romantic description of Voyageurs explorations in Canada.

[2] In his report submitted to the Assembly of Lower-Canada in 1824, Philemon describes the Columbia Hotel that he built in 1820. He writes: Built a large House called ·the Columbia Hotel, 40 feet by 83 with four Stacks of Chimneys, and eighteen fireplaces, three Story high on the front, this House is upon a large scale with two handsome Arched Chambers, and well finished off; painted and railed in front with seats and trees planted for the accommodation of public travellers, cost me about £2200.

[3] In 1826, Hull has 800 inhabitants; Kingston has 2,849 and York has 1,677.

[4] In his 1824 report, Philemon describes The White House that he built in 1818. He writes: Built a large dwelling House about 150 Rod from the Falls upon a height of Ground which as soon as finished, I removed into, and placed one of my Sons in the one I had just left, to take charge of the Falls Store &c. This House was 40 feet square, two Stories high, Kitchen to the same 24 feet by 48 with five stacks of chimneys at the-expense of about £2000, with Sheds adjoining the same, Barn, &c. This House is enclosed with a handsome railed fence, and the Grounds planted with ornamental trees of different kinds, Elm, English Poplar, Rock Maple and Butternut.

[5] The most prominent building on the Ottawa River, until Ottawa took shape, was a building that is somewhat cloaked in mystery. It is described by several people in various ways:

  • It is identified as Wright's Tavern in the famous 1823 painting, below, by Henry DuVernet (He was the engineer responsible for building the Ottawa River canals, click here for his biography).

  • While building it in 1819, Philemon Jr. referred to it as the New Stone Store in his letters to his father in Montreal, and John Burrows, mapmaker, gives it that name as well.

  • In his book, John Mactaggart writes: He kept an extensive store, and supplied the traders with timber and fur, of which they stood in need.

  • In his 1824 report, Philemon Sr. describes the store built in 1819 without much information about its purpose. He writes: I also built a Stone building say 40 by 41 - 22 feet high with lofts, the Stone Wall hewed on three sides of the building, which cost me about £1000

  • In his 1824 report, Philemon writes that he built a dwelling House and Store at the Falls in 1810. Its exact location is unknown.

Philemon reports building three log houses at the Falls, one in 1801, another in 1806 and a third in 1813. One of Philemon's ledgers lists the names & purchases at his store starting in 1801. Equal mentions are made of a tavern (H. DuVernet), a distillery (P Wright), a Meetinghouse (J. Bouchette) and a Masonic Lodge (Mactaggart) but their locations are not. It is distinctly possible that the New Stone Store replaced one of the three log houses. Originally, the log houses likely served all of the purposes of those buildings mentioned. One of the log houses can be seen in DuVernet's painting on the left, and a visual record of the inside of one of those log cabins may very well be what is seen in the painting below, by Patti Jack, entitled The Inside of a Log Cabin at the Chaudière Falls most likely painted before the Great Hull Fire of 1900.

The Inside of a Log Cabin at the Chaudière Falls c.1900 by Patti Jack, Bytown Museum
A View of the Mill and Tavern of Philemon Wright at the Chaudière Falls, Hull by Henry DuVernet 1823 LAC

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Excellent article. I find the story of the early days of Hull fascinating. Great read!

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