A sightseeing boat, General Brock III, passes through an Upper Beveridges lock.
Story by Jane Cassie, Images by Brent Cassie
What unique waterway bridges two Canadian cities, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of the most beautiful places on earth? Answer: Ontario’s Rideau Canal. The 202 km/126 mile channel flows continuously from Kingston to Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, just as it did when built back in 1832. The series of lakes, rivers and dams are linked by 47 locks at 24 stations, most of which are still operated by winches, chains and manpower. Although many people choose to explore this aquatic route from a cruiser or kayak, there are plenty of cyclists and sedans that parallel the route along the back roads. My husband, Brent, and I took two days to enjoy both perspectives, a journey back in time.
We begin at Black Rapids, a lock station 10 km south of Ottawa where the Rideau stretches peacefully beyond. It is easy to conjure up bygone days when steamships plied these waters. It is equally hard to imagine that jets are taking off just 3 km away. Being close to Ottawa International Airport, our rental car agency, and the riverside Monterey Inn, makes this station a great starting point.
The leisurely Rideau Heritage Route is laced with lock stations, townships and peek-a-boo water views. We check out the gristmills at Manotick, ice cream at Kars General Store, and shops in Merrickville, where everything from artisan treasures to kitchen pleasures spill onto its narrow streets. For savory mustards, Mrs. McGarrigle’s is a must-try!
Mrs. McGarrigle’s shop in Merrickville sells savory home-made mustards.
Twenty kilometers west is Smiths Falls, the largest community on the corridor. As well as being the main railway hub from the 1800’s to 1979, it was Canada’s Hershey’s (chocolate) Capital and home to Stanley Tools. Over the past few years, both conglomerates have unfortunately closed left town, but Smith Falls is energetically embracing its “Heart of the Rideau” slogan to try to draw more visitors to the area. Not so with our final town of the day. Perth is both prosperous and storybook pretty. Nestled into the heart of this 200-year-old hamlet is Perth Manor Boutique Hotel, an elegant boutique hotel with deep roots, bountiful breakfasts and great hospitality. We book a night in the John Wilson room and snooze in the same space that A.Y. Jackson, a respected artist and member of Canada’s famous Group of Seven artists, once slept.
Historic Perth Manor bedroom where Canadian artist, A.Y. Jackson, once slept.
Canada’s Newest UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Rideau Canal is a monumental early 19th-century construction covering 202 km of the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers from Ottawa south to Kingston Harbor on Lake Ontario. It was built primarily for strategic military purposes at a time when Great Britain and the United States vied for control of the region. The site, one of the first canals to be designed specifically for steam-powered vessels, also features an ensemble of fortifications.
It is the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America, demonstrating the use of this European technology on a large scale. It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century to remain operational along its original line with most of its structures intact. The Rideau Canal was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2007.
With more than a dozen years of touring experience under his epaulettes, Captain Andy Neeteson, operator of 1000 Islands & Seaway Cruises, knows every Rideau tidbit and treasure. We give the car a break, board the General Brock III with fifty other sightseers for a six hour, lunch-included tour.
“The Rideau is a story of hopes and dreams, disappointment and tragedy,” he states, as we ply effortlessly by campgrounds and posh homes that pepper the canal’s reed-choked shoreline. “It’s also an epic part of Canada’s heritage.”
Captain Andy Neeteson tells us every historical tid-bit along the way.
We discover that after the War of 1812, British mastermind, Colonel John By, was commissioned to oversee the construction of this canal, a defensible waterway that could be used in the event of an American invasion. He designed gated chambers (locks) so that boats could navigate the varying water elevations. When filled, the vessels would float up to a higher level. When drained, they’d descend to a lower one. And neighboring weirs would deal with any excess. Over the day we test out this bathtub theory at six locks — rising in some, sinking in others, a ten-minute process that moves a few hundred thousand gallons of water. And beyond every park-like station, we’re treated to new ventures and vistas: white-capped trout-filled lakes, marshy bird-loving wetlands and tranquil sliver-thin canals – etched out of limestone and granite-hard Canadian Shield stone. It’s an aquatic route of untarnished beauty with a colorful past.
The boat tour passes a lakeside wetland teaming with birds.
“As brilliant as Colonel By was, he couldn’t manage this feat on his own,” Andy continues. “Hordes of unemployed Irish arrived armed with axes, picks and shovels — all for two shillings of pay a day. Little did they know what they were in for.”
Long work days, frigid winters and atrocious conditions would have been challenging enough in this untamed wilderness. Add malaria, dysentery and unruly dynamite to the mix and it certainly raised the death toll. In spite of the trials and tragedy, in just five years, a determined Colonel By completed the task — yet all for naught. The threat of war had then passed and there was no longer any need for the passage. And when By disclosed that he had spent five times more than the initial budget, he became a laughing stock – right to his grave. If he could only see our appreciative faces now!
Back on dry land, our final destination is Jones Falls, one of the largest engineering marvels en route. Four locks need to be navigated at this station to conquer the water levels that span eighteen meters. “I can see why they used to call it Long Falls,” my husband says as we walk around the sheer-sided pools.
A blacksmith shop, lockmaster’s home, and visitor center are featured along with a self-guided tour. Topping it off (or holding it back) is the stone arch dam that supports the powerful force of Sand Lake. This amazing wall of limestone spans 107 meters, is 19.5 meters high and was coined by its creators as the “Seventh Wonder Of The World.” The concave shape also has an unusual acoustic quality, dubbing it as The Whispering Wall. I prove there’s truth to this fact while quietly sharing a secret with my husband who’s standing a hundred meters away.
Whispering Wall was optimistically coined by its creators as the Seventh Wonder Of The World.
History also lives on at nearby Hotel Kenney, the yellow clapboard beauty that has been welcoming guests to its shoreline locale since 1877. We book a night in one of the comfy lakeshore rooms. While enjoying a little down time, great food and legendary service, we take still another step back in time!
Rideau Heritage Route, www.rideauheritageroute.ca. There is an excellent map to follow the route taken by the Cassies.
1000 Islands & Seaway Cruises, www.1000islandscruises.com: A full-day cruise includes 5½ to 6½ hours cruising aboard modern twin-deck vessels, complimentary morning coffee service, a sumptuous buffet lunch, ‘live’ Captain’s commentary and return ground transportation to the port of embarkation. Fee is CAD$75 for adults, seniors and students. Two-Day Excursions include two days of cruising with shipboard lunches, overnight accommodations plus dinner and breakfast and all land transfers.
There is an annual Rideau Canal Festival, www.rideaucanalfestival.ca, with dates set for late July or early August. Locks of fun for everyone!
Other historical must-visits along the Rideau:
Doner Studio at the Mill: This is not your everyday mill! Randal Doner’s handcrafted metal sculptures and whimsical garden art unite with a museum full of memorabilia at this historic 1865 grist mill located at Lower Brewers Lock.
Rideau Canal Museum: You will find more historical facts and photos of the Rideau at this comprehensive five-floor depository,
Bytown Museum: If you start or end your Rideau journey in Canada’s capital, it is worth a visit to Colonel By’s former army supply depot and oldest stone building in Ottawa is worth a visit.
Lockmaster’s House Museum: Heritage has also been preserved at this site. Check out the single lane swing bridge, grist mill and cemetery while there. Open from June to September.
Since 1996, Jane and Brent Cassie’s articles and photographs have appeared in more than 5,000 newspapers and magazines. As well as being co-owner/editor of Travel Writers’ Tales www.travelwriterstales.com. Jane is a member of SATW and TMAC, and past President of the BC Association of Travel Writers. www.janecassie.com.
Caption left: On their Rideau Canal exploration, the Cassies stayed at the lakefront Hotel Kenney built in 1877.