In the early history of Canada, the rivers were our highways. Voyageurs, ships and settlers moved along our rivers to get where they needed to go. The importance of rivers can be seen in the fact that when the Hudson’s Bay Company received its Royal Charter in 1670, it was given all the land that drained into Hudson’s Bay. Without the rivers, the fur trade would simply not exist.
The problem was that rivers came with dangers and few things were more dangerous than the rapids. One place where this was especially true was at the Lachine Rapids. These rapids along the St. Lawrence River between the island of Montreal and the south shore were first seen by a European when Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535, sailing up the river in the belief that he had found the Northwest Passage. In 1611, Samuel de Champlain would name the rapids Sault Saint Louis after a teenaged crewman named Louis who drowned there. This name would be used for two centuries until the name became the Lachine Rapids, after the community of Lachine that was located nearby. That community, whose name would lend itself to the future canal, came from the French term for China, la chine, because of the original belief that the river was the Northwest Passage to China.
As the area became settled by the French, on land granted by the King of France, attempts were made to build a canal to bypass the rapids as early as 1689 when the French Colonial government and others began the effort. Parts of the canal were dug, but it did not get beyond that initial stage. Unfortunately, the attack on Lachine by the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars, something I covered in an earlier episode, put an end to the project. Another attempt would be made in 1700, but this would fail due to a lack of funds. The plan for this attempt was to have the canal be 12 feet wide, with the canal being 18 inches in depth at its lowest. Work started, but never completed but if it had been finished it would have been used primarily by canoes.
In 1780, another attempt was made with short cuttings available for canoes but it did not go beyond this.
This first attempts, and the rest of the attempts, over the course of the next 130 years would end in failure.
In 1804, a canal three feet in depth at the shoreline of the rapids was built, allowing for very small boats to slightly bypass the rapids. In 1805, 4,000 Pounds, 869,000 Pounds today, was put forward by the government to improve the Lachine Rapids by removing them as an obstacle to navigation. This attempt would prove futile though.
It would not be until a Scottish immigrant named John Redpath, who was part of a consortium that included John Richardson as a chairman and Thomas McKay, who was the contractor with Redpath, that a functional canal was built. Funding came from the recently formed Bank of Montreal for the project.
The consortium would open the new canal in 1825.
Let’s look at these men before we move forward.
John Redpath was born in 1796 in Scotland, the son of a farm worker and his second wife. In 1816, he would arrive in Quebec City with nearly no money, and walked barefoot to Montreal. There, he he used the experience he had as a stonemason to get work and would help install the first oil street lamps in the city. Within a few years, he was running his own construction business and that would lead him to helping to build the canal. With the success of the canal project, Redpath would get more work and would built the Norte Dame Basilica and the first buildings of McGill University. In 1833, he was asked to sit on the Board of Directors of the Bank of Montreal, a position he would hold for the next 36 years. From 1840 to 1843, he was on Montreal City Council and would cede land that became Drummond Street, which was named for his second wife, Jane Drummond. He would found Redpath Sugar in 1854, which became a major employer in Montreal and operates to this day. Within a few years of its creation, the sugar refinery was exporting 7,000 tons of raw sugar. He would pass away at the age of 72 or 73 in 1869.
John Richardson was born in 1794 in England and after working for his uncle’s fur trading firm, he would find his way to North America and eventually Montreal. In Montreal, he would help to form the XY Company that became part of the North West Company, and would co-found the Bank of Montreal. He would run for political office in 1792 and win, and would serve, off an on, until 1808. He would serve as the president of the Natural History Society of Montreal and he was the first president of the Montreal General Hospital. He would pass away in 1831 at the age of 76 or 77.
Before moving on to the next person, I want to note that John Richardson had spent years trying to get a canal built at the Lachine Rapids. In the Provincial Parliament of 1795, a bill was introduced by Richardson to construct a canal and turnpike at Lachine.
Thomas McKay was born on Sept. 1, 1792 in Scotland and would emigrate to Canada in 1817 and settle in Montreal. Soon after, he partnered with John Redpath to do the masonry work on Lachine Canal. Following the canal, he would help to build the Union Bridge, and would help to build Rideau Canal in Bytown, which would become Ottawa eventually. By 1837, still living in Ottawa, he would become quite wealthy and buy 1,100 acres of land where he would build a mansion for himself in 1838. This would become Rideau Hall and is now the official home of the Governor General. He would serve on city council and be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada, serving from 1834 to 1841. From 1841 to 1855, the year of his death, he was on the Legislative Council of the United Province of Canada.
So, back to the canal after a brief foray into the men who helped build it.
Prior to the successful building of the canal, passengers and freight had to portage about 15 kilometres from the Port of Montreal to Lachine so they could resume the trip by boat.
Planning for the canal and the raising of funds began in 1815 when Sir George Prevost, the Governor of Lower Canada, passed an act for work to begin, allocating $25,000 for the construction, or $2.2 million today. The planning would continue until 1819 when a joint stock company was formed with $600,000, amounting to $52 million today. With efforts to gain more financing failing, the government established a commission to begin the work. Roughly 500 workers, most Irish immigrants who would settle in the area near the canal over the years, began to get ready to work.
On July 17, 1821, work began on the canal with Thomas Burnett serving as the chief engineer and Richardson as the construction engineer.
The original canal would run for 14 kilometres and had seven locks, with each lock being 30 metres long, six metres wide and 1.5 metres deep. After four years of work, the canal opened and the future of Montreal was changed forever. It would quickly become a major port in North America, often the first stop for new settlers and before long Montreal had grown to become one of the most important cities on the continent. This original canal allowed for small flat-bottomed boats to journey through the canal, but this would prove to be inadequate as time went on.
By the time work was completed, it had cost $438,404, or $41.2 million today.
The St. Lawrence canal system was a project begun by the British military following the War of 1812 in order to transport troops and supplies to the Great Lakes in order to protect the Canadian border following the war. An interesting fact about the Lachine Canal is that it was the first work not to be built by military troops, with the merchants of Montreal building the canal instead.
At the time, the toll cost was $1.50 to $500 depending on the size of the boats going through. Goods going through the canal were subject to tariffs as well, charging two cents for a barrel of flour, three cents for a hog or calf and 12 cents each for cattle. Passengers paid the same amount as cattle, 12 cents.
While the canal did help, many merchants and leaders in Montreal were unhappy with the fact that it did not meet the wants of the local trade. On Nov. 3, 1831, a notice was published in the Quebec Gazette stating,
“Public notice is hereby given that the undersigned and others will apply to the Legislature of this Province as its ensuing session for the privilege to form a Joint Stock Company for the purpose of making a canal, locks and basis in such places as they may find necessary for useful navigation from the Lake of Two Mountains to the waters of Lachine and from the foot of the current St. Mary, with a branch to the port of Montreal should they see fit.”
In 1832, roughly 1,500 boats would make their way through the canal. By 1835, the canal would be free of tolls.
Despite the leaders of the community banding together, it would not be until 1843 that it was decided that the canal had to be deepened to allow for these heavier ships. In addition, hydraulic power was introduced at the canal. This was a huge change for the area around the canal as more and more businesses came to the area to take advantage of the hydro power provided there. Workers then settled near the factories they worked at and the population around the canal exploded in size.
Five new locks were built, each measuring 61 metres long, 13.5 metres wide and 2.7 metres deep, replacing the original seven locks.
The work on this first expansion began in 1843. One worker during that year was a stonemason by the name of Alexander Mackenzie. Three decades later, he would become the first Liberal Prime Minister of Canada.
Social tensions would cause delays with the expansion and in June of that year, the bloodiest labour conflict in Canadian history to that point would erupt. Over the course of 20 days, canal workers would clash with owners, leaving several dead and many injured.
Nonetheless, work would begin again.
Work would finish on the canal expansion in 1848, although some sources say it was 1849. The enlargement cost $2.1 million, or $268 million today.
The government had been dealing with a severe depression and funds were tight. As a result, a private company was given the project to finance and build.
This change in the canal would have a major impact on the surrounding area. The canal was no longer just a means to bypass the rapids. It now allowed the Lachine Canal area to become a major industrial region for the city. With the deepening of the canal, the upper St. Lawrence was also opened up to more navigation and the trade industry in Montreal increased heavily. With the canal growing in use, many communities popped up around it including Griffintown, as working class immigrants flooded into the city for work. Thanks to this change in the canal, the population of the city grew from 18,767 in 1821, the year the first canal work was started, to 40,356 in 1841. By the end of the century, the population was 325,000.
In 1847, work also began on the Montreal and Lachine Railroad, which was built to deal with the increased industrial development in the area.
In 1863, a second enlargement of the canal began, with work continuing until 1884 when the locks were lengthened to 82 metres and deepened to 4.3 metres. This enlargement would cost $6.5 million, or $755 million today.
Between 1840 and 1950, the canal would see 600 industrial firms established around it, which employed 25 per cent of the people in the city.
From 1880 to 1940, the canal was at its height in use and 20 per cent of the workforce of Montreal were employed at the factories along the canal. In 1929 alone, 15,000 ships used the canal on an annual basis.
The canal also provided electricity to early Montreal. In 1903, the Lachine Rapids Hydraulic and Land Company provided 12,000 electrical horsepower for use in Montreal.
The canal was a major part of Montreal’s industry and trade network for nearly 150 years and was operated heavily until 1950 when the expanding industrial industries in the area meant that the canal could not handle the increase in vessel size. By the second half of the 20th century things began to change for the canal. The St. Lawrence Seaway was opened in 1959 and the canal would close to shipping in 1970. The Seaway had locks that were 223 metres long, 24 metres wide and 9.1 metres deep and could handle larger vessels from the Atlantic that the Lachine Canal could not.
The lower section of the canal would be filled in between 1965 and 1967.
In 2002, the canal itself would reopen for boaters and the canal itself would become the Lachine Canal National Historic Site of Canada in 1996, complete with a visitors centre. In 1977, a bike path was created to run along the canal, and in 2009 it was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the top 10 urban bike paths in the entire world.
Information comes from Wikipedia, Parks Canada, the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America, St Lawrence Piks Seaway History, Canadian Encyclopedia, Montreal 1535 – 1914 Volume II, Our Old Montreal, Montreal and Vicinity: Being A History Of Old Town, Old Montreal.