Reviews / Comptes rendus - Robert Legget, Ottawa River Canals and the Defence of British North America

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Robert Legget, Ottawa River Canals and the Defence of British North America

Robert W. Passfield
National Historic Parks and Sites, Environment Canada
Robert Legget. Ottawa River Canals and the Defence of British North American. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. 308 pp., ill. Cloth $35.00, ISBN 0-8020-5794-2.

1 Robert Legget's Ottawa River Canals is a popular history that will appeal to canal enthusiasts and readers interested in Canadian engineering. Academics will find the book of lesser interest owing to its anecdotal tone and lack of any sustained thesis. The author's stated aim is to tell "the full story of the Ottawa River canals" within "its proper historical perspective." He sees the canals as significant both militarily, as part of the vital interior Ottawa-Rideau transport system on which the defence of British North America rested, and in Canadian engineering history, being "Canada's first major public works."

2 The first chapter, a prologue, summarizes critical events of the Napoleonic Wars, the causes of the War of 1812 and military transport problems on the St. Lawrence River. A second chapter describes the geography of the projected Ottawa-Rideau route, early surveys and explorations, existing modes of river transport and the beginnings of settlement, and introduces the Royal Staff Corps. Readers interested in further information on the Rideau Canal are then referred to the author's related work, Rideau Waterway (1955).

3 Subsequent chapters focus on the construction and operation of the Ottawa canals, and their successors through to 1963. Of the three original military canals, the Grenville Canal, built (1819-31) by the Royal Staff Corps under Captain Henry DuVernet, is well treated, but the Chute à Blondeau (1829-33) and Carillon (1830-33) canals, built by contractors under Royal Staff Corps supervision, receive a sketchy treatment. Included is a brief account of the Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue Canal built (1841-43) by the Canadian Board of Works at the confluence of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. The operations of the military canals under the British Army Ordnance Department (1834-56) and Canadian control (1856-1963) is commented on, as well as the canal enlargements of the 1870s and 1880s and the Hydro-Québec dam and high-lift lock erected at Carillon (1959-63), flooding out the earlier canals.

4 An epilogue describes the few canal remnants, provides directions to each site and elaborates on the significance of the Ottawa canals as "public works." First-rate maps and a judicious selection of historical photographs augment the text. Appendices provide a brief history of the little-known Royal Staff Corps, a listing of its canal project personnel, annual canal traffic statistics and a brief history of the related, but abortive, Georgian Bay Ship Canal project.

5 This is a highly readable book, a chronological narrative enlivened with vivid description, anecdotes and travellers' comments. It yields a good history of the canals' construction, but less so of their commercial operation. There is surprisingly little technical detail other than on rock excavation methods.

6 The author laments, and rightly so, the dearth of primary source material on the original Ottawa military canals, and makes full use of the major source, RG8, Series C, British Army and Naval Records. But for the subsequent period, a great deal of material has been ignored: viz. RG 11, Public Works, for the 1841-79 period; RG43, Railways and Canals, for the period after 1879; and the Annual Reports of DPW and DRC. Secondary research has been confined mostly to books and government reports, ignoring pertinent periodical literature. Moreover, there is little analysis of canal freight statistics or assessment of the Ottawa canals in the broader national canals system. As a result, one major significance of the Ottawa canals is missed. After mid-century, the Ottawa canals were an integral part of a major commercial canal network by which huge volumes of sawn lumber were barged from the Chaudière Falls mills, via the Ottawa, Lachine, Richelieu River and Erie canals, to the lumber markets of New York.

7 The claim that the Ottawa military canals are "Canada's first major public works" and "the place where modern Canadian civil engineering really began," is rather tenuous based solely on the 1819 project commencement date and dismissal of earlier smaller scale projects. Such a claim might better be made for the Lachine Canal, built (1821-24) by the province of Lower Canada for commercial purposes, whereas the Ottawa canals were a military project, built primarily for military purposes. The Lachine Canal engineers subsequently worked on other Canadian canal projects; the Royal Staff Corps engineers returned to Britain. Moreover, the Lachine Canal was all but completed when lock masonry work commenced on the Ottawa military canals.

8 Although by no means "the full story" of the Ottawa canals, the author has produced a worthwhile book contributing to our knowledge of the subject.