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National Historic Site of Canada

The Rideau Canal was officially designated a National Historic Site of Canada on May 15, 1925 with that designation expanded upon in 1967 and 2011.

Back in June 1924 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) declared "that the commencement of the Rideau Canal is in the opinion of this Board a matter of national importance, and that it should be suitably commemorated at the centennial anniversary at Ottawa, in 1926."

On May 15, 1925, the HSMBC declared that "the construction of the Rideau Canal be declared an event of national importance." This is the official NHS designation date. The plaquing of this designation was done in 1926.

This original NHS designation was triggered by the 1926 centennial of the start of the Rideau Canal. It was another centennial, that of Canada in 1967, that triggered an expanded NHS designation which laid the framework for the takeover of the Rideau Canal by Parks Canada in 1972. In October 1967, the HSMBC:
"reaffirmed its recommendation that the Rideau Canal is of national historical importance, and further resolved as follows:

The Board recommends to the Minister that:
  • the entire lock system of the Rideau Canal including Locks, blockhouses, dams, weirs and original lockmasters' houses be declared of national historical significance.

  • a National Historic Park be established to embrace all these structures and interpret the Canal System.

  • the Minister should assume such responsibilities for the policies of Canal maintenance and operation as may be necessary to maintain the existing structures and preserve the unique historical environment of the Canal System."
In 2011, in the wake of the 2007 UNESCO World Heritage Site designation of the Rideau Canal and with increasing awareness of the human role and cost in constructing the canal, a large expansion of the Rideau's NHS designation was done. In December 2011:

"The Board recommended that the Rideau Canal is of national historic significance because:
  • built between 1826 and 1832, it is the best preserved canal from the great canal-building era in North America that is still fully operational: its historic structures and environment speak to its ingenious design, construction, and military purpose, as well as to its social and economic functions;

  • it exemplifies cutting edge canal design due to Lieutenant-Colonel John By’s innovative “slackwater” approach, which created a navigable route from natural waterways and lakes on a scale previously unseen in North America, and because it was one of the first canals in the world engineered specifically for steam-powered vessels;

  • its construction through more than 200 kilometers of bush, swamps, and lakes was a monumental feat. Each year, as many as 5,000-6,000 workmen assembled at over two-dozen worksites. The great majority of the labourers were Irish and French Canadian toiling under the supervision of contractors and the Royal Engineers. Working primarily with hand tools and in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, these labourers and skilled craftsmen, such as Scottish stonemasons, endured disease and injury, with large numbers dying during the canal’s construction;

  • in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when relations with the United States were tense, it was built to serve as a military canal and represented a fundamental component of Britain’s defences in the interior of North America, safeguarding the supply lines between Montréal and Lake Ontario by providing an alternative and more defensible route to that along the St. Lawrence River;

  • it contributed significantly to the social and economic development of Upper Canada / Ontario prior to 1850, when it was a key artery for the movement of goods and people in and out of the colony. After that time, it continued to be of local commercial importance until the 1930s; since then it has served as a popular recreational route."

The above is the current National Historic Site designation wording for the Rideau Canal. Thanks to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada for providing me with the full details of the Rideau's designations over time.

For more information see the Parks Canada page:
Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada



In addition to the Rideau Canal's designation as a National Historic Site of Canada:

On May 29, 1839 the Merrickville Blockhouse was designated a National Historic Site of Canada because it is considered a fine example of the best type of blockhouses erected for the defence of the Rideau Canal in about 1832. In 1967 the designation was expanded to note that its heritage value lies in its illustration of relatively large, 19th-century British designed blockhouse. Built in 1832-33, it is associated with the construction of the Rideau Canal waterway and the defence of Canada.

Note: the Merrickville Blockhouse received a separate NHS designation since in 1839 only the Rideau Canal proper had been designated, not the associated canal structures. In 1967, that changed with an expanded designation of the Rideau Canal to include all associated structures, including all the blockhouses, but the Merrickville Blockhouse already had a separate NHS designation. So it is presently part of the Rideau Canal's NHS designation in addition to having its own NHS designation.

On June 7, 1954, Lieutenant-Colonel John By was designated a Person of National Historic Significance by the HSMBC  because he is one of the greatest early engineers in Canada who built the Rideau Canal.

Note: the above is the 1954 HSMBC wording. Today it might be rephrased to "he is one of the greatest early engineers in Canada who designed and supervised the construction of the Rideau Canal" The 2011 expanded designation of the Rideau Canal recognized that it was a large human effort involving many groups of people (although the 2011 designation is still a bit incorrect in that regard).


The 2013 version of the NHS plaque at Jones Falls

"Built between 1826 and 1832, the Rideau Canal is the best-preserved, fully operational example from North America's great canal-building era. Lieutenant-Colonel John By's innovative design was based on a "slackwater" system that linked lakes and rivers on a scale unprecedented in North America. The result was one of the first canals in the world engineered for steam-powered vessels. Its construction though more than 200 kilometres of bush, swamps, and lakes was a monumental feat. Each year, as many as 5,000 workers, mainly Irish immigrants and French Canadians, toiled under the supervision of civil contractors and the Royal Engineers. Working in extremely difficult conditions they endured injury and disease, and hundreds died. This fortified waterway was intended as a safe military supply route between Montréal and Lake Ontario by providing an alternative to the St. Lawrence River. It chiefly served as a key artery for moving goods and people until the 1850s and became a popular recreational destination in the 20th century. The Rideau Canal was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2007."

- Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada



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©1996-- Ken W. Watson