Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History


184 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 0-88902-706-4




Reviewed by Dean Tudor

Dean Tudor is a journalism professor at the Ryerson Polytechnical
Institute and founding editor of the CBRA.


Both of these books deal with the same theme: celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Rideau Canal. In actual fact, the system is really a waterway and not a canal: only 16.5 miles of it is artificial and that is mostly near Ottawa. The system has 446.25 feet of locks linked by lakes and streams, totalling 47 locks and 18 dams.

The Passfield book concentrates on the actual building and clearing of the system for military defense, a key component of the Duke of Wellington’s plans for the defence of Canada (a defence that was entirely lacking, as the War of 1812 showed). But it was never used in a military sense; it was mainly used for commercial transport and interior settlement because of an incomplete lock system on the Ottawa River. During the nineteenth century, then, it became a major steamboat waterway. Passfield’s account is mainly historical, detailing Lt. Col. John By’s efforts to fight both the rough swampy landscape and a penny-pinching, far-away government. The route of the book is from Ottawa to Kingston, with sections on military and financial histories, the Rideau River itself, engineering the Canal, and the Cataraqui River. Seventy-three watercolours are presented (46 in colour) and these are contemporary, being produced by the Royal Engineers and the military topographers of the day. Drawings, sketches, and maps complete the illustrative matter, all drawn from nine sources such as the Royal Ontario Museum, the Public Records Office in London, the Scottish Records Office in Edinburgh, and so forth. The pictures, all sourced, were chosen for their content and not for their artistic value: they generally show the locksites, with some landscapes and settlements.

The Peek book has two drawbacks: it is in both of our official languages, in parallel columns (this eats up a lot of space); and all of the illustrations are in black and white. But then, the scope is larger and the price is right. Peek’s book is an account of an archival exhibition that celebrated 150 years of the Rideau Canal. The exhibition had the original documents, mostly from the Public Archives (handwritten letters, drawings, charts, maps, watercolours), plus 40 slides of early maps and watercolours, and it travelled and was displayed in the various communities along the route of the Canal. Peek’s book is the catalogue of the exhibit. There are 109 items, all numbered and sourced and sized (in centimetres), covering the whole range of the years — the “Winterlude” in the title is a winter celebration in Ottawa, and a picture from the February 1982 Winterlude concludes the book. Textual material is in three parts: the military defence (the early projected use that never materialized); the commerce and industry since the Canal opened in 1832; and recreational use, particularly after 1870, when the U.S. was secured by the Civil War and commerce had declined. There is a lot of fascinating history in these two books; libraries will want both.


Passfield, Robert W., “Building the Rideau Canal: A Pictorial History,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,