Skip To Content
The locks where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River. Photo: Tom Bastin/Flickr.

613 Geotours: Route Canal

By Bruce Burwell on September 1, 2020

This week’s geotour starts and ends where the Rideau Canal enters the Ottawa River, just below the Château Laurier. The tour will feature a moderate walk or bike ride between two provinces and reveal the history of why the Rideau Canal ends where it does. The building of the canal 200 years ago jump-started the development of Ottawa, and its route helps define the city we know today.

Start at the Celtic Cross memorial on the east side of the lowest lock. The Cross is a memorial to the approximately 1,000 workers who died during the building of the canal. Stay close to the river and climb up the steep road towards the Alexandra Bridge above you. No one will laugh if you have to get off your bike and walk it up the hill.

The Celtic Cross commemorates those who died while building the canal. Photo: Shankar S./Flickr.

At the top of the hill you can head out onto the Alexandra Bridge. Or, if it’s a nice day and you deserve a libation, you are only a few feet away from Tavern On The Hill with some of Ottawa’s best views. Head over the Alexandra Bridge and stop in the middle to savour the amazing vista up and down the river. Once you’ve changed provinces, stay on the path and go towards the river in front of the Canadian Museum of History. At this point, if you’re on a bicycle, keep biking to the Portage Bridge. You’ll pass the Carbide Willson Mill on Victoria Island before hanging a left from the Portage Bridge towards the base of Parliament Hill. If you are walking, it would be shorter to retrace your steps back over the Alexandra.

Once you are back at the Celtic Cross, ponder the following: Why did the builders of the Rideau Canal choose to join it to the Ottawa River here? There are eight locks between the river and where the canal goes under Wellington Street. Surely, this would not have been the easiest location to terminate the canal. And indeed it wasn’t. A shorter and easier route would have been to build the canal from Hog’s Back to Dow’s Lake (known as Dow’s Great Swamp at the time) and then take it straight down the current Preston Street to a point on the river downstream of Chaudière Falls. I’ve lived in Ottawa most of my life and only recently found out why this route wasn’t used.

The lowest lock. Photo: Stuart Williams/Flickr.

Back in 1820, the planning for the building of the canal was just starting. Lord Dalhousie was the Governor of British North America and was considering the exact route of the canal. At a fateful dinner on the night of August 27, 1820, Dalhousie was talking with military officers about the route and advised them to look out for land for sale in the current area of LeBreton Flats. The thought was that the canal would come from “Dow’s Great Swamp” and join the river around the flats. However, one of the officers, Captain John LeBreton, used this information to buy the land cheap and then offered it for sale to the government at a 600 per cent profit.

Dalhousie was not impressed and refused to buy the land from LeBreton. Instead, he acquired the land near Parliament Hill and routed the canal quite a bit east of its original plan. This doubled the canal’s length between Hog’s Back Falls and the river and added greatly to the cost, since a large rock cut was necessary near Bronson Ave.

Doesn’t look easy, does it? Photo: Tom Bastin/Flickr.

Imagine how different Ottawa would be today if the shorter route had been taken. No Italian restaurants on Preston Street! No canal running outside Lansdowne Park! Probably the whole downtown core would have been displaced to the west on LeBreton Flats. A greedy developer changed the entire layout of Ottawa with just one attempted land deal.