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The Capital Builders - Part IV

Updated: Feb 28

A Capital Route-Canal

Plan of the line of the Rideau Canal Lt. Col. By Commanding Royal Engineer. John By, 1829. LAC

AS OUR high-school history classes told us, the Rideau Canal came to be because the War of 1812 had clearly illustrated how vulnerable the St. Lawrence River's ports and shipping were to any possible American incursions. The Crown sought a safer, inland route for shipping that would connect the Ottawa River to Kingston via the Rideau River.

What wasn't told to us in those history classes were, perhaps, two more significant details:

  1. How could Col. By build a canal in the wilderness with only Royal Engineers and a bunch of illiterate, rowdy, Irish immigrants? CLUE #1: as discussed in Parts I-III of this blog, he didn't! The Crown knew that there was a ton of stuff already in place that would make it possible to plan such a mega-project, not the least of which was the expertise to be found in Wright's Town itself.

  2. Was hiding from the Americans the only reason for building the Rideau Canal? CLUE #2: Check out this 1827 map, below, where it's written: "Line of proposed Canal from the Chaudiere Lake to the point of junction with the Rideau Canal in Dow's Great Swamp - 6 miles."

Sketch of the route of the Rideau Canal from Canal Bay in the Ottawa to the foot of the Black rapids, Henry Pooley, 3 March 1827

So, the Crown obviously had much bigger plans than just protecting an Ottawa River to Kingston route. In fact, from the map we can see that once the Rideau Canal (Phase 1) was built, Phase 2 of the plan was to create a navigational canal route that would ultimately connect the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers through to Lake Nipissing, and then follow down the French River all the way to Georgian Bay, thereby connecting Montreal to the deep interior of the country through a completely protected interior route.

As a sidebar, the oft-forgotten story of the Ottawa-Georgian Bay Canal is worth telling to add context. Excavation of the first section was begun in 1854 at Chats Falls. where there was to be a 4.5 km long canal composed of six locks (Rideau Canal's entrance has eight locks).

The contract was awarded to Ruggles Wright, John Egan and Joseph Aumond and close to $500,000 was invested- a fortune at that time. 500 men were employed and tons of gunpowder was used to blow a canal through the limestone, but in 1856, work was halted due to cost overruns and technical difficulties. The canal was only 15m away from Chats Lake and completion. Traces of the canal are still visible today in the Black Bay and Pontiac Bay areas.

Old Canal near Quyon Qc.

At the turn of the next century, the project was briefly discussed, and this map created, but the plan never got off the drawing board.

Proposed Georgian Bay ship canal route. Department of Public Works, Canada. 1907

The canal-craze in the early 19th century occurred because the railways were still a long way off. Canals were seen as the solution for the increasing problem of getting manufactured goods to market.

What the pieces were that curiously came into place for the building of the Rideau Canal, however, requires a brief ramble through that history.

The Canal Age - the sums of ditches

IN THE late 18th century - once the Americans got that messy revolution out of the way - canal-building began in a big way in the American colonies. Overseas, England had ushered in a new phase of industrial activity by creating many canals, starting with the completion of the Bridgewater Canal in 1776. So, with the abundance of rivers on this side of the pond, it was only natural that the idea would be quickly imported to North America.

The first major canal to be built in the States was the Middlesex Canal, begun in 1793 and completed in 1803 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at a cost of $500,000. This new waterway through the heart of Massachusetts leading to the port of Boston, created a revolution in transportation of goods and revived Boston's sagging commerce as a port city.

It wasn't long after Boston's revival that New York did the same, beginning construction of the Erie Canal in 1817, completing it in 1825 at a cost of about $7 million.

Engraving of a batteau and a Durham Boat by Philip Lord Jr. 1810
Erie Canal Packet Boat

Those two canals were little more than large ditches dug in the earth, no more than 12 feet wide in places and averaged 5 feet in depth. They allowed batteaux, Durham boats, flatboats and barges up to 1.1 m in draft to be pulled by horses and mules walking on the towpath. Passengers were ferried in Packet Boats, that had equally as little draft as the barges but also had cabins and many comfortable amenities on board.

The Rideau Canal's locks were first planned to be 33m long by 6m wide but Col. By argued the point that they should be able to accommodate the new naval steamboats. He won the argument and plans were altered to make the locks 41m long by 10m wide. The original estimate for the Rideau Canal was £ 474,000, the new lock size increased that to £ 576,757 but the actual final cost was £ 822,804. Col. By, would eventually pay a high price for that overrun.

Curious Capital Connections

THE MIDDLESEX CANAL forms interesting connections to our Rideau Canal - another addition to the Capital's Curious History.

Col. Loammi Baldwin

The first of those connections is that, once built, the Middlesex Canal ran right through the heart of Woburn, flowing just 2.4 km from the farm of Philemon Wright when he was still living there. It was largely dug by the Massachusetts farmers who were living along its length. Did 33-year-old Philemon take part in its construction? A fair question, I think ... but considering that Philemon's neighbour and former commanding officer, Col. Loammi Baldwin, was responsible for the construction of the Middlesex Canal, and that Philemon's family was one of the pre-eminent (founding) families in Woburn, he likely did.

Lime Kiln in Hinterbruhl by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller 1845

The second connection is that when Col. By and his Royal Engineers begin building the entrance locks and canal at the Ottawa River, it is Philemon Wright & Sons that become the main supplier of the hydraulic cement that would be used to make the locks watertight. So, how would a self-described farmer have any knowledge of the manufacture of hydraulic cement, a very recent invention in the industrial world of the early 19th century?

In answer to that question, one of the first things Wright built in his village was limekilns.[1] As a pioneer farmer, he was obviously fully aware of the process of manufacturing quicklime for making plaster, fertilizer ... and mortar! So, Philemon was at least making mortar from the beginning of the settlement period. But hydraulic cement?

Cementing a proposition - the birthplace of a Canadian industry

HYDRAULIC CEMENT hardens when water is added. Its use dates back to the Romans who simply gathered volcanic ashes and mixed with lime. Because many of their monuments, buildings and ports built 2000 years ago are still standing today, many in the 18th century were seeking to discover the process that had been lost to history.

Harwich, England

In 1796 Englishman James Parker "rediscovered" the process and patented what he aptly called "Roman" cement. It quickly gained popularity and by 1832 there were five factories around Harwich, England, producing Roman cement. Later, in the 1850s, Roman cement would be replaced by the new industry standard called Portland cement, patented by Joseph Aspdin and perfected by his son William.

A little (ahem) digging into the history of the Middlesex Canal tells us that Loammi Baldwin - considered to be the Father of Civil Engineering in America - adapted hydraulic cement for use on the canal.[2] His cement was initially used to build the three locks between the northern canal terminus and the Merrimack River.

Then, in preparation for the Erie Canal project, a man named Canvass White traveled to England to study their canal systems. While there, he learned about making Roman cement and improved the process, naming his product Rosendale cement. This was used in the construction of their locks.

Now back to the Rideau Canal and our friend John Mactaggart, Clerk of the Works and leading engineer for the project. As construction on the Union Bridge and the Rideau Canal was to begin, Mactaggart would rely on Philemon Wright and his limekilns to supply much of the mortar he would need. Some cement was imported in barrels from the States and from Harwich, England, but Mactaggart soon realized that the Wrights' cement was much better and certainly fresher.

Maj. Gen. Edward Charles Frome

Royal Engineer, Lieutenant Edward Charles Frome – later, Surveyor-General of South Australia & Mauritius – stated in his report, "the cement was made from a stone quarried on the opposite side of the Ottawa, which, being burnt and ground very fine, proved a better water-cement than some obtained from the States, and far superior to the Harwich cement, which was nearly spoilt before it reached the Canal."

Philemon's association with Loammi Baldwin may have gotten him an early recipe for good cement but by 1830, before the Canal was completed, Philemon began selling a new product after he received a secretive letter from a Charles Wright in Hubbardston Mass. in which Charles tells Philemon about some industrial process that he controlled, and then offering it to Philemon to be operated by the water-power at the Chaudière Falls.

Ruggles Wright

In the personal papers of Ruggles Wright, there is a document - dated 1830 - that is entitled Instructions for the manufacture of Roman Cement. The Wrights had obviously improved on their original recipe and gave the new product a name of its own: Hull Cement. [3]

Charles Brown Wright

Ruggles' son, Charles Brown, would eventually take over the manufacturing of Hull Cement and the company that he created - C.B. Wright & Sons - would eventually merge with others in 1903, to become the International Portland Cement Company, which stakes the claim of having given birth to Canada's cement-making industry.

Looking at the history of what and how cement was produced to build the Rideau Canal and the Union Bridge, I think it may be safe to say that Philemon Wright and Sons rightly deserve to wear that corporate badge of honour.

Wright & Co. Hull Qc. LAC

Dam Wright!

AS TO when Philemon acquired all of his knowledge building with stone, we have his association with Loammi Baldwin and the Middlesex Canal, but we also have Thomas Burrowes' account of the building of the first arch of the Union Bridge to give us a very good insight. In Burrowes' account, you'll remember, not only does Philemon convince Mactaggart to rebuild the arch after the first one collapsed, but he convinces him that a dry-stone arch (with no mortar) will withstand both the icy weather and the spring floods at the Chaudière Falls.

As well, it must be said that during the construction of the Canal, two major dams were planned by Col. By. One was to be a huge embankment/dam that would turn Dow's Great Swamp into a navigable lake, the other was a larger dam at Three Rock Rapids (today known as Hog's Back) in order to flood the Rideau River and make it navigable all the way to the lower level of Black's Rapids.[4]

Two attempts were made by contractor Walter Fenlon to dam Hog's Back, but both collapsed and washed away. However, both times a temporary cofferdam had been built by Philemon Wright to hold back the waters while Fenlon built the dam, and both times the cofferdam had held. Col. By decided that the dam would be built by adapting Wright's structure and that Wright would also build the embankment at Dow's Lake.

How is it possible that Wright could outthink the engineers on dam building?

Again, we have only to read Philemon's 1824 report to the Lower Canada Assembly. In it, Philemon describes the stone dam he built at the mouth of the Little Chaudière Falls: "1820: Built ... two new Mills - one a Saw Mill, the other a Grist Mill at the expense of £1600, with an expensive Stone Dam to convey the water to the said Mills, 13 hundred feet long, 20 feet broad and ten feet deep, the walls upon each side are built with the best and largest Quarry Stone, the whole of the Stone rough-faced on the front sides, the insides of the walls filled up with pounded Stone ; this is the finest Piece of Stonework in North America, as is supposed by many ; some of the Stones required ten yoke of Oxen, to draw them to the spot, cost was about 2000 Pounds."

It should be noted that one of the earliest buildings Wright built for the community was a Masonic Lodge for which he was Master Mason. Philemon was a Freemason at a time when freemasonry was still very closely linked to the craft of masonry.

That stone dam still stands today, just as the first arch of the bridge (known as Arch #3) that he built.

NEXT: THE END - in so many more ways than one ...

FOR PART V, THE EPI(B)LOGUE, click here.

Detail of Wright's Stone Dam and the 1st arch from 'Plan and Section of the Chaudiere Falls Ottawa River', Thomas Burrowes, 1830


[1] "A lime kiln is used to produce quicklime through the calcination of limestone (calcium carbonate). This reaction takes place at 900 °C but a temperature around 1000 °C is usually used to make the reaction proceed quickly. Quicklime was used to make plaster and mortar for building construction." (For more information, click here)

"Early-19th-century farmers built kilns for their own or local use either on a lot near the limestone quarry or on a woodlot, depending on the owner's judgment whether to carry the stone or the fuel to the kiln." (For more information, click here)

Limekilns in the early 1800s could burn 6 to 30 tons of rock in a 7-day cycle. Lime would be added in along with wood and burned. Wood had to be added through the sides for three or four days to keep the heat up. The oven then needed a cool-down period before the lime could be removed.

Wright's Town - John Burrows (Jan 26, 1824) BANQ CN301,S49,D3441

In this 1824 map of Wright's Town by John Burrows (signed by Philemon Wright) the "Dryhouse and lyme kilmns" (sic) are identified.

There were at least eight lime kilns in Wright's Town when the Rideau Canal construction began.

Lime Kiln and Dry house,1840

[2] "Baldwin manufactured this material by grinding “trass” very fine and mixing it with lime and sand. “Trass” is a volcanic stone that the Middlesex Canal Company imported from the Dutch West Indies. Finding a source of volcanic stone in the western world, importing it, developing a good working process, constructing the canal locks, and recording the formula was a definite contribution. Years later his formula appeared in civil engineering books, thus this may have been the first use of hydraulic cement in the USA." (For more info, click here and here)

"The construction of the Erie Canal in New York marked a turning point in the history of canal construction in the United States ... One of the engineers hired for the canal was Canvass White ... Before construction started, he took it upon himself to travel to England and study their canal systems.  While there he learned much about hydraulic cement.  This was used in the construction of their locks." (For more info, click here)

[3] "Because of the lack of a local hydraulic lime and the high cost of importing Harwich Cement, the decision was made to use lime mortar for laying the stonework of the locks and Harwich Cement only for pointing. Ruggles Wright, one of the contractors working on the canal, saw the need for a cheap, easily obtained, hydraulic lime, and he began to look for a suitable stone. In the summer of 1829, Wright sent to Colonel Durnford, the Commanding Royal Engineer in the Canadas, a specimen of what he believed to be a water lime, with the request that Durnford test it and suggest the best method of manufacturing cement from this rock. By the following year, Wright was offering to supply up to 2000 bushels of water lime to the Royal Engineers at 5s. 6d. per bushel (the price of the barrels not included). Wright's Hull Cement replaced Harwich Cement for pointing the stonework of the locks and was used to lay the stonework of some of the Entrance Valley locks and to grout the masonry of those already built." From: Substance and Practice. Building Technology and the Royal Engineers in Canada, by Elizabeth Vincent; Studies in Archaeology, Architecture, and History; National Historic Sites, Parks Service; Environment Canada; 1993. pgs. 38-39

[4] For a detailed history of the Hog's Back Dam, click here. For a detailed history of the Dow's Lake embankment, click here. and here.

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Very interesting. Added much to my knowledge of the stonework around Ottawa and up-river. Thanks.

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