From war and hardship to pleasure cruising: Thoughts on Colonel By Day

Yesterday most Canadians celebrated a civic holiday. Not every Canadian (some provinces don’t have a long weekend in August) and not all for the same reason.

Because there is no specific occasion for a holiday in August (other than it’s really great to have a long weekend in the summer) provinces and municipalities have creative licence. In British Columbia, it is British Columbia Day. (Okay, maybe not so creative.) In Alberta it’s Heritage Day. (Better, if a little vague.) In Toronto it’s Simcoe Day. (For John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.) Here in Ottawa we designate the weekend as Bytown Days and Monday specifically as Colonel By Day.

The locks on the Rideau Canal.

The locks on the Rideau Canal.

Ottawa’s original name was Bytown, in honour of Lieutenant Colonel John By. Colonel By, a military engineer, was the first city planner, and he laid out plans for the area that has become our downtown core. He oversaw the construction of the first bridge across the Ottawa River, a vital link between the provinces of Ontario and Québec. Most famously, he engineered and supervised the building of the Rideau Canal and the lock system that connects the Ottawa River to the Rideau River. (Here in Ottawa, Rideau is pronounced REE-deau, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Pronounce it Ri-DEAU and we’ll know you’re not from here.)

Canadians first had the notion that a navigable trade route other than the St. Lawrence River might be a good idea after the war of 1812, when American/Canadian relations were a little more fraught. At the time, the unquestioned need to maintain water transportation avenues that could be protected from American attack made the prospect of carving through 125 miles of bush and swamp and rock seem not only possible but imperative.

For six years, thousands of Irish and French Canadian labourers and skilled stonemasons endured hellish working and living conditions with high incidents of accidents, disease and death to build the canal and the lock system. Malaria, of all things, was a major threat. They did it because they needed the work to survive, and they believed that their labours would ensure the survival of future generations.

These days we are at peace with the United States. These days our supplies travel by airplane or highway or train. These days, the trade route that Colonel By envisioned, that water transportation link that people lost their lives over, is a place for pleasure only. In the summer yachts fill the locks and cruise the canal.

Pleasure craft on the Rideau Canal.

Pleasure craft on the Rideau Canal.

In the winter skaters laugh as they glide way between Beavertail stands.

Rideau Canal Skateway

Rideau Canal Skateway

I wonder, what would Colonel By think of how we use his creation today? I walk beside the canal and the locks on my lunch breaks in downtown Ottawa. As I stroll in peaceful, malaria-free Ottawa,  I imagine Colonel By surveying his city from his vantage point on the great cliff at Major’s Hill Park where his house used to stand. I envision his stiff British bearing as he peers down to watch us walk and bike and boat in the same area where men suffered and died.

I wonder if Colonel By, a man who lived in harsh times, would despair at how we luxuriously and thoughtlessly take his engineering marvel for granted. Perhaps he would scowl over our carefree abandon. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would commend us all for shaping our city into one of safety and freedom. Maybe he would give us a rousing Hurrah! for creating a vibrant, economically progressive, multicultural and compassionate city to honour his name.


Read more Rideau Canal history here:


About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on August 2, 2016, in Arlene Smith, Arlene Somerton Smith, Gratitude, Just for Fun and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the history lesson Arlene, I didn’t know about Colonel By

  2. Beautifully said. And it’s a pleasure just to look at it and appreciate both the hard work that went into it, but the beauty, the strength, and the symmetry of the good Canadian granite from which it is constructed. Good job, Colonel.

  3. Thank you for sharing some of Ottawa’s history with us. I was slightly familiar with bits and pieces of Colonel By’s story but you brought it all together in a most interesting manner.

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