Reviews / Comptes rendus - Passfield, Robert W. Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Passfield, Robert W. Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History

Norman R. Ball
Public Archives of Canada
Passfield, Robert W. Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside in association with Parks Canada, 1982. 184 pp., ill., maps. (Issued also in French under title: Construction du Canal Rideau.) Hardbound $24.95, ISBN 0-88902-706-4.

1 Robert W. Passfield's Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History is a well-researched and welcome addition to the growing body of literature relating to the history of technology in Canada. The author is an historian working for Parks Canada, the agency now responsible for the Rideau Canal and co-publisher of "this book to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the building of the Rideau Canal. It traces the efforts of the British Army Ordnance Department to bring the canal into being and tells how Lieutenant Colonel John By struggled to complete the project in the face of a forbidding landscape and a cost-conscious, sometimes hostile government in London" (p. 7).

2 Building The Rideau Canal is not divided into chapters per se. The first two major sections consist of two essays (pp. 13-35) dealing with origin and construction respectively. Aside from an epilogue and brief bibliography the remainder of the book consists of numerous one- or two-page essays, each commenting on one of a multitude of lock site illustrations and a lesser number of engineering drawings. Essays dealing with the lock sites are presented in their order of appearance from Ottawa to Kingston.

3 The first two major sections ably describe the canal in terms of contemporary needs, construction, and varying attitudes towards the project. What some now regard solely as a recreational waterway, a quaint relic of past boondoggles, was in fact part of a comprehensive defensive network and a means of dealing with pressing problems relating to the high cost of moving men and materials.

4 Books on the history of Canadian technology are rare and the author is to be commended for successfully discussing the operation of the canal, construction problems and, in particular, for his sensible explanations of cost overruns, design changes, and problems in estimating costs. There is also good use of original drawings from various archives although they are not as effective as they might have been.

5 Building The Rideau Canal is an important book which surpasses other published works on the Rideau Canal. Richly deserved praise notwithstanding, the reviewer felt that it could have been better. There are no footnotes, an unacceptable absence in a piece of significant historical research. The writing and organization do not do justice to the author's knowledge and research experience. The format has made the story too fragmented and disjointed. Much of the book is organized around reproductions of original drawings with text limited to what will fit on the opposing page and the room beneath the picture. In addition, the pictures are arranged to present a lock site by lock site history of the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston. The linear route-oriented approach has an obvious advantage in that it should help boost local sales and local pride; each lock or settlement has its own page. The disadvantage is that various problems, techniques and issues are not brought together enough for the synthesis which is one mark of good historical writing. Thematic essays or conventional chapters would have offered more scope for the historian. The decision to eschew almost entirely modern drawings has weakened the book. Historical drawings should have been supplemented by modern drawings to explain the technology. The use of both types would have made a more readable and satisfying book. The reviewer's criticisms of Building The Rideau Canal should be kept in perspective; they a re overshadowed by the author's achievements in researching and writing the book and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in local or transportation history.

Norman R. Ball