Building the Rideau Canal


The Rideau Canal was built between 1826 and 1832 in the wake of The War of 1812 to bypass the American border along the St. Lawrence River. Stretching from Ottawa to Kingston, it later became a trade route and today is used for recreation. It was built primarily by "navvies" who came from Ireland and Lower Canada. An estimated one thousand of these labourers died. The Irish in particular suffered terribly as most were newly-arrived immigrants and unprepared for the elements.

The labourers were exhausted by long hours of work and weakened by hunger. They and their families suffered under horrendous living conditions. During the "sick season", they were very susceptible to a malaria-like disease commonly known as the time as swamp fever. The disease was carried by mosquitoes in late summer and early fall in the swamps between Newboro and Kingston, where most of the fever deaths occurred.

Many of the thousand of pick-and-shovel labourers lost their lives in accidents caused by the explosives used to blast rock. Others were swept away by fast-flowing water or mudslides while clearing the banks of the large trees which bordered the route. Most of these men were quickly buried in unmarked graves without benefit of a religious ceremony. At times, labourers were not paid by the contractor for work done. They were then gouged by high prices at the contractor's store and left without adequate resources to pay for medical care or maintain a basic standard of living.

The Rideau Canal has been a source of wealth and pleasure for many, but it would never have been built without the navvies.  Unfortunately, they are rarely acknowledged.










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