Lieutenant-Colonel John By, Royal Engineers, 1779-1836After a modestly successful military career, John By was given an assignment the he might well have believed would bring him promotion and renown. He came from modest origins and, while competent, had never achieved the heights of success. He is in some ways a typical professional soldier of the Napoleonic Era. He died in obscurity. So why is he remembered today?
He was assigned to design an entirely navigable waterway to serve as a supply line between Montreal and Kingston using the Rideau and Ottawa rivers. It was to be cut 126 miles through a wilderness of forest, swamps, and rocky terrain far enough removed from the Saint Lawrence River to be easily defended in case of invasion by the Americans to the south. For By, it didn’t work out as he hoped. For Canada, By’s canal is a treasure.
Born at Lambeth in 1779, to a family of watermen, By entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolrich, in 1797 and was commissioned two years later. Initially commissioned to the artillery, he transferred to the Royal Engineers later that year. He served in Plymouth for two years before being sent to Canada in 1802 where he worked on the first small locks on the Saint Lawrence and on the citadel at Quebec. Beginning in late 1810 he served under Wellington in the Peninsula but was recalled in 1812 when the Inspector General of Fortifications, Lt. General Gother Mann, appointed him commanding engineer of the new Royal Gunpowder Mills. After Waterloo, the need for engineers lessened, and By retired.John By was 47 when he was called out of retirement to build the canal. There’s every reason to believe he jumped at it. The Duke of Wellington is said to have chosen him specifically, but the orders came from General Mann who had also been his commanding officer during his previous stay in Canada. Both men had confidence with him at the beginning.
Never one to take the easy or obvious way, By began making controversial decisions almost immediately upon arrival in 1826. Instead of setting up housekeeping in Kingston, which already boasted not only a fort and navy base, but also a growing town, he moved his family and set up at the mouth of the Ottawa where there were at most a half dozen households. Even as the Royal Engineers began laying out the plans for the waterway, By laid out plans for a town to be called Bytown to house his headquarters, his home, barracks, and housing for workers. His town is now called Ottawa and is the capital of Canada.
There had been earlier surveys of the country, and some recommendations for much more modest plans than those ultimately carried out. By resurveyed and determined to lay out the waterway using the Rideau River and lakes, canalizing the route where needed, building locks and dams along the way. Contract labor began clearing land that winter.The single most important decision was to build the locks and canals wide and deep enough to handle the new naval steamships. The original, narrower plans were designed for typical river craft such as Durham boats. In spite of opposition in London, a compromise plan dictated only slightly smaller construction. Building for steam power is typical of By’s far-sighted approach.
In six years By, the engineers, and the contractors had managed the project, with most of the work done by hand by primarily Irish and French workers. They built approximately 50 dams, 47 locks, and blockhouses for defense. The Stone Dam at Jones Falls was the third largest dam in the world when it was built. The eight massive locks at Bytown are still a wonder, and, yes, it accommodated navel steamships. An estimated 1000 men died in the process. By himself contracted malaria, probably as a result of his insistence on inspecting work camps himself. He demanded money for a hospital and housing, and his requests were not always well received.
In May 1832 John By was able to sail through the locks by steamship, his work essentially finished. It appears he planned to settle permanently in Bytown, but it was not to be. Precisely at the time of his great triumph, a move was underfoot in London to remove him. He received notice in August:
My Lords further desire that Colonel By may be forthwith ordered to return to this country, that he may be called upon to afford such explanation as My Lords may consider necessary upon this important subject.
The “important subject” was cost overruns and questionable permissions. The committee that examined him grudgingly allowed that the work had been done with care and that most of the cost was unavoidable, but in the end they issued a reprimand for allegedly unauthorized expenditures, which he denied. Instead of the commendations he expected, By was forced out. He struggled to clear his name unsuccessfully. In failing health, he retired to his home in Sussex. Even as he lay ill, his wife continued to write to people begging for help removing the stigma which she believe contributed to his decline. He died, probably of malaria, in 1836.
And the canal? It never served the military purpose for which it was intended, but it opened Ontario to settlement and served as a commercial highway throughout the nineteenth century. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely used for recreation, and those pesky Americans are welcome to come up and enjoy the still functioning locks and canals.
Want to know more? Try these.
The Virtual Museum of Canada http://bit.ly/2ej9lzX
The Rideau Canal World Heritage Site http://www.rideau-info.com/canal/tales/bye-by.html
The Bytown Museum http://www.bytownmuseum.com/en/engr.html
Robert Passfield, Military Paternalism. https://books.google.com/books?id=CSTSAQAAQBAJ
To celebrate the launch, Caroline will give a copy of one of her Dangerous Series books to one randomly selected person who comments. The winner can choose from the books found here:
About The Renegade Wife
Betrayed by his cousin and the woman he loved, Rand Wheatly fled England, his dreams of a loving family shattered. He clings to his solitude in an isolated cabin in Upper Canada. Returning from a business trip to find a widow and two children squatting in his house, he flies into a rage. He wants her gone, but her children are sick and injured, and his heart is not as hard as he likes to pretend.
Meggy Blair harbors a secret, and she’ll do whatever it takes to keep her children safe. She’d hopes to hide with her Ojibwa grandmother, if she can find the woman and her people. She doesn’t expect to find shelter with a quiet, solitary man, a man who lowers his defensive walls enough to let Meggy and her children in.
Their idyllic interlude is shattered when Meggy’s brutal husband appears to claim his children. She isn’t a widow, but a wife, a woman who betrayed the man she was supposed to love, just as Rand’s sweetheart betrayed him. He soon discovers why Meggy is on the run, but time is running out. To save them all, Rand must return and face his demons.
“Let go of her, Blair, or I’ll shoot you like the dog you are. God knows you deserve it.” For untold minutes all Rand heard was the wind in the trees, and Lena’s whimper behind Pratt’s back. Even Meggy seemed to hold her breath.
Blair let go of her arm so suddenly she stumbled before running back to her children. “The slut and her children are mine, Wheatly, and that makes you a thief.”
“Get on your horse, Blair, and get out of here before I change my mind and shoot you anyway. You too, Pratt.”
Rand kept his pistol aimed at Blair while the men mounted and turn their horses to the lane. Pratt and Martin galloped up the hill and into the woods, but Blair turned half way up and pointed back at Meggy hugging the children in Rand’s doorway.
“They’re mine, Wheatly. I have a writ. I’ll be back with the magistrate and the deputy to have you jailed for resisting. Won’t your fancy relatives like that?” He turned and galloped off.
Rand eased back the hammer of his pistol, when the men cleared the trees. He slid it into a holster, jumped down, and ran to Meggy and the children, pulling all of them into an embrace. Meggy began to weep almost as soon as his hand came around her back, pulling her close with Lena between them and Drew in the crook of his arm.
“You might have killed him, and then where would we be?” she sobbed.
“You would be safe from him.”
“And you would be in jail or worse.”
He didn’t deny it. He kissed the top of her head and down her cheek.
About the Author
Award winning author Caroline Warfield has been many things: traveler, librarian, poet, raiser of children, bird watcher, Internet and Web services manager, conference speaker, indexer, tech writer, genealogist—even a nun. She reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows while she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.
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I must admit to preferring Ottawa to Bytown. Such a great post thank you.
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Yes, it’s a much better name. The man did have ambition.
Love this excerpt of The Renegade Wife. Sounds like a great story.
Thank you! You’re very kind.
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Oh, thank you very much for doing that.
So much great information- Thanks! The book sounds fantastic 🙂
Thank you! Kind words warm my heart.
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