The early history of Canada is filled with individuals whose names, through enterprising spirit or acts of bravery, became associated with entire regions; Colonel John By was one such man. A key figure in the founding of Ottawa, John By was born in Lambeth, England, in 1779, to a family of watermen on the Thames. However, he decided to take a different path and in 1799 joined the Engineers at Plymouth; his career advanced rapidly from then on. He first traveled to Canada in 1802, where he worked on a canal at Les Cèdres in Quebec; he then returned to England in 1810 to serve under Wellington in the Peninsular War. Two decades of unremitting warfare had left the British Treasury diminished and the Army vastly inflated; as a result By, along with hundreds of other officers, was dropped from the payroll following Waterloo. However, his reputation as an engineer remained strong, and his name was at the top of the list when the Rideau Canal began construction in 1826.
The idea for the Rideau Canal was born out of the chaos of the War of 1812; the principal shipping route between Kingston and Montreal at the time, the St. Lawrence River, had been shown to be fundamentally unsafe in the event of further conflict with the Americans. As a result, attention turned to the Ottawa River as a potential replacement. The River was perfectly navigable with canoes and better protected than the St, Lawrence, but commercial vessels fared poorly among its many rapids. A canal was therefore needed, and Colonel By was chosen for the top job. The Rideau Canal was among the largest and most costly projects yet undertaken by the Royal Corps of Engineers, so By had his work cut out for him. Nevertheless, he was determined to succeed, as a description of his personality written by John MacTaggart makes abundantly clear: he was a “man who encountered all privations with wonderful patience and good humour. He could sleep soundly anywhere and eat anything, even raw pork.” Succeed he did; the canal was completed in only six years, and in the spring of 1832 the steamer Pumper successfully navigated its length from Bytown (as the area surrounding By’s headquarters had become known) to Kingston.
Nevertheless, By was not toasted by London for this achievement; the Canal wound up costing 800,000 pounds, well over the assigned budget, and despite sympathetic testimony By found that he was to take the fall. A parliamentary committee set up to investigate the matter partially cleared him, but he never entirely overcame the stain on his reputation and died two years later in 1836, by all accounts a broken man. However, he remains a key figure in the founding of Ottawa, and one who is, at the very least, remembered by the city which once bore his name. I hope you all enjoyed this post, and have a wonderful day!
How did By tame the swamp- and how are swamps tamed at all? Find out in part 3.
1 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “John By.” Last modified March 2015.
2 Encyclopedia Britannica. “John By.” Last modified April 2015.
3 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “John By.” Last modified March 2015.
4 The Bytown Museum. “Engineering the Canal- Part 1.” Last modified 2013.
5 The Bytown Museum. “Engineering the Canal- Part 1.” Last modified 2013.
6 The Bytown Museum. “Engineering the Canal- Part 1.” Last modified 2013.
7 The Bytown Museum. “Engineering the Canal- Part 1.” Last modified 2013.
8 The Bytown Museum. “Engineering the Canal- Part 1.” Last modified 2013.
9 The Bytown Museum. “Engineering the Canal- Part 1.” Last modified 2013.