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Rideau River History

posted May 20, 2016, 7:20 AM by Hector Carranco
Have you ever thought about this water we paddle on. Where it comes from and how it came to be this way – a perfect 1-km race course, and a flat 6.6 paddle to the Black Rapids lock station. If the Rideau Canoe Club had been built here 200 years ago, it would more likely have been a slalom club.  Of course, all this changed in 1826 when the British Army decided to build a water route connecting what is now Ottawa, which at that time was a remote spot in the wilderness across the river from the recently established  town of Hull (now Gatineau),  to the city of Kingston on Lake Ontario. The British Army’s Royal Engineers (also known as the Sappers and Miners)  built it to provide a circuitous but safe travel route for ships and barges to transport troops and food from Montreal to Kingston that avoided  the St. Lawrence River and the cannons of the Americans - Just in case war broke out between the US and the British colonies, which seemed likely in those days. 

Colonel John By was tasked with this job, and he did it in only six years, with picks, shovels, mules,  and gunpowder.  He got the job done, got a city named after him for a while (Bytown),  but ended up going over budget and only four years after completing  the most amazing construction project on the continent, he died in disgrace. Today, his accomplishments are celebrated as a World Heritage site, A Canadian Heritage River, and as an incredible engineering feat.  The Rideau is the only canal left in the world from this era that still works, using the original hand-operated system of locks and winches to allow the passage of boats.  

The brilliant engineering mind of the good Colonel changed the waterscape we all paddle on at the RCC. Before he got here, the section  of river then flowing by our club  was a series of shallow rapids stretching all the way from Hogs Back to Black Rapids (where there was a much bigger rapid!)  In winter, when the lower water levels brings some of the rapids back into life – about 1.5 km upstream, we get a glimpse of how the river would have looked.

In front of today’s club house would have been the start of Three Rock Rapids. A ridge of limestone that the river cut through gave rise to the name “Hogs Back”, since in the imaginations of early visitors to the site it looked like the backbone of a pig.  Just upstream, and now under the water of Mooney’s Bay, was another set of rapids – then called Three Island Rapids. 

There were no “Hogs Back Falls” then. The falls that are such a popular place today were created  when Colonel By ordered the construction of a dam at the top of Three Rock Rapids. That dam raised the water level just over 13 metres and flooded all the rapids between Hogs Back and Black Rapids, turning a fast-flowing river into a long flat-water pond – a perfect sprint paddling course!  The good Colonel almost lost his life there when the first dam was washed away in spring flood, right from under his feet! He scrambled to shore as the rocks and earth crumbled out from below his feet.  
Drawing by Thomas Burrows, just after the collapse of the first dam at Hogs Back in 1830. You can still see the jumbled, broken rocks below the dam today. Archives of Ontario

Today, thousands of people drive their cars each day on Hogs Back road, which follows along the top of the dam that almost cost Colonel By his life. No one even notices that they are driving across a dam.  The bicycle path runs along the front edge of the dam. Photographers taking pictures of the races are standing on the earth and clay used to construct the leading edge of the dam. If you scramble down the hill on the other  (north) side of Hogs Back Road, you can still see the broken rock used to build the first dam that got washed away.  Just to the east is the weir – the spillway for the river, now forced into a new (new as of 1830, anyway) channel that tumbles over Hogs Back Falls. The rapids below the falls  appear as they did before the construction of the dam. 

So the next time you paddle on the river, think about the water, and the hopes and dreams of those who came before, of fortunes won and fortunes lost, and lives lost, to make the water flat. Think about getting sucked down Three Rock Rapids in a canoe, as the Billings family, one of the area’s first settlers,  did in 1814 (there was no portage, but at least there also wasn’t a Hog's Back Falls). 

And the railway bridge you paddle under – built in 1913.

Sources; Legget, Robert, Rideau Waterwa1955
www.rideau-info.com (ken watson’s excellent  website on everything there is to know about the Rideau!)
Mark Scriver running Hogs Back Falls