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Respectable Ditch

Respectable Ditch: A History of the Trent-Severn Waterway, 1833-1920

Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 472
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  • Book Info
    Respectable Ditch
    Book Description:

    Canada's leaders were key participants. Governor-generals, from Sir Guy Carleton, who ordered the first survey, to Lord Syndenham, who cancelled construction in 1841, were intimately involved in the project. For nearly a century every prime minister, from Francis Hincks, who tried to sell the decaying locks and dams, through John A. Macdonald, who revived the scheme, to Robert Borden, who finally completed it, was caught up in this most persistent public project. But the most important participants were countless little-known Canadians who, for one reason or another, promoted the scheme and doggedly pushed it to a conclusion. This is their story.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6133-5
    Subjects: Transportation Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. Photo sections
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Photo sections
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiv-xiv)

    • CHAPTER ONE James Bethune’s Waterway
      (pp. 3-13)

      On the afternoon of 1 June 1833, somewhere in the frontier town of Peterborough, Upper Canada, probably at the back of Bethune’s store on the corner of Charlotte and Water streets, six men sat down at a table. Spread out in front of them was a map of the Newcastle District. Beside the map were two sealed envelopes. In the envelopes were tenders for constructing a wooden lock at the shallow rapids where Sturgeon Lake drained into Pigeon Lake, called “Bobcajionunk” by the Indians but corrupted to “Bobcaygeon” by white men.

      When the men opened the envelopes and chose one...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Bobcaygeon Lock
      (pp. 14-20)

      The first Bobcaygeon lock was a disaster. Although the principle of a hydraulic lift lock is simple, construction of the one at Bobcaygeon proved more difficult and more costly than either Bethune or the inexperienced contractors realized. The lock itself was well enough built, but because of engineering errors and serious miscalculations in water levels, the contractors could not get water into it and for four years the lock remained totally useless.

      A hydraulic lift lock (the prototype was invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century) is designed in such a way as to create a step between...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Question of Routes
      (pp. 21-35)

      Bethune’s precipitate move to develop a private transportation network through the Back Lakes triggered intense public reaction in the district. His initial success aroused a spate of anger, jealousy, and competition which, in turn, produced an avalanche of petitions and a series of “moves” instigated by groups that desired a transportation route, especially from Lake Ontario to Rice Lake, that would be advantageous to themselves.

      First, there were the farmers, mill owners, and lumberers who lived along the Trent River; they saw the Trent as the only logical access to Rice Lake. They wanted the waterway principally because the farmers...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Improvements on the Inland Waters
      (pp. 36-53)

      The fact that two separate pieces of canal legislation were passed in 1837, each establishing its own board of commissioners, each funded differently, and each authorizing improvements on widely separated portions of the natural waterway, indicates that, from the beginning, there was no settled policy with regard to building a Trent canal. The eventuality of a through waterway from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron existed only in the mind of Nichol Hugh Baird, who recommended it to the lieutenant-governor, and in the aspirations of the residents along the route who were encouraged by Baird’s recommendation. But the lieutenant-governor did not...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Improvements on the River Trent
      (pp. 54-60)

      The preambles to the acts authorizing improvements on the Trent River and on the inland waters made clear the limited purpose of the act, and consequently the extent of government policy with respect to a Trent waterway. The Trent River act authorized only a line of communication “between the waters of the Bay of Quinte and Rice Lake,” because such communication was alleged to be important to the “agricultural and commercial interests of the Province.”¹ There was no mention of a through waterway to Lake Huron; no commitment to a Trent canal. Indeed, although accepting the eventuality of navigable communication...

    • CHAPTER SIX Stoppage of the Works
      (pp. 61-70)

      The first indication that the Trent River improvements were running into financial difficulties came on 23 March 1838, the same day the lieutenant-governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, departed from Toronto, leaving a financial mess for his successor, Sir George Arthur, to straighten out. On that day, perhaps at the public farewell arranged for Sir Francis at Toronto Harbour, J.H. Dunn apprised George S. Boulton “of the circumstances and of the difficulties in which the finances of the province [were] involved in connection with this [the Trent River improvements] and other public works.”¹ It seems that the commissioners had drawn only...

  8. PART TWO THE UNION YEARS:: 1841 – 67

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Hamilton Killaly and the Board of Works
      (pp. 73-87)

      Vigorous reform movements culminating in rebellion in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1837 had made clear to the British government the necessity of solving the problems of government in the Canadian provinces. To this end, the British prime minister appointed the Earl of Durham governor-general of all of British North America with responsibility for calming the unrest in the provinces and reporting the causes of the grievances. Upon returning to Britain in 1839, Durham issued his famous report.

      The man sent to Canada, succeeding Durham as governor-general and charged with responsibility for implementing as much of Durham’s report as...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Timber Slides
      (pp. 88-94)

      The timber slides were enormous structures that took longer to build than the locks. They were used in the spring timber run of 1845 but were not finally finished until 1846. It was much later before the lumbermen and the inexperienced slide masters learned how to use them properly. Consequently the slides were for many years a subject of much contention, not only among the dissatisfied lumbermen, but also among those who had advocated locks and resented the construction of slides instead.

      The Trent timber slides were originally Baird’s idea. Realizing that there was little chance of full financial support...

    • CHAPTER NINE The Lumbermen’s Committee
      (pp. 95-105)

      On 1 October 1850, an advertisement appeared in local newspapers offering for sale the locks, dams, slides, roads, and water powers – all the improvements recently completed in the Newcastle District. Previously, the Board of Works had offered to sell the works, including the bridges on the Trent River and the Port Hope and Whitby toll roads, to the county council of Peterborough and other municipal governments. They refused to buy them. Having failed to sell the works to the municipalities, the board was now offering them for sale to any corporation, private or public, that was willing to buy...

    • CHAPTER TEN The Union Locks
      (pp. 106-120)

      Having completed the five locks in 1844, more for political reasons than for navigation purposes, the Board of Works proceeded to neglect them – but not before the residents of the district tried one more time to induce the government to complete the Trent River navigation. Many argued that it had been unreasonable to cancel the Trent improvements on the basis of Baird’s plans and estimates alone. It was claimed that there were cheaper and safer routes than the one following the course of the river that Baird had recommended. In fact, some attributed blame for cancellation of the scheme...


    • CHAPTER ELEVEN The Ontario Locks
      (pp. 131-142)

      It was logical that after 1867 the new government of Ontario would direct its attention to the Trent watershed, and it was natural that the residents of the area would turn to the provincial government for transportation facilities that the previous Union government had been reluctant to provide. Ontario’s interest in the waterway was an outcome of its settlement policy and timber regulation.

      One of the first major policy decisions taken by the Ontario government, headed by Sandfield Macdonald, was to increase the population of the province. To this end the Free Grant and Homesteads Act was passed in 1868,...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE A Crucial Debate
      (pp. 143-154)

      In July 1881, Mossom Boyd wrote enthusiastically to his old friend and neighbour Thomas Need, then retired and living in Nottingham, England: “The most important event as effects us is the resumption of the old scheme which was at one time so dear to you. The Canadian government have earnestly taken in hand the construction of the Trent Valley Navigation and engineers are at work. About three years will probably see it completed.”¹

      That Mossom Boyd,² who had lived and lumbered on the Trent water-way since 1834 and now owned a fleet of steamers, was so thoroughly convinced of the...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN A Barge Canal
      (pp. 155-166)

      While admitting that the question of preservation of the internal line of navigation as public policy was not within the scope of its inquiry, the Commons committee that examined the transfer of property to Ontario craftily wrote a statement into its report of May 1874 suggesting that such a policy was worthy of consideration. Although reviving the Trent canal scheme was the furthest thing from Sir John A. Macdonald’s mind, the fact that he had accepted the committee’s report and rescinded the transfer order led many to believe that he might be induced to consider such a policy. Thus interest...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN Buckhorn, Burleigh, and Fenelon Falls
      (pp. 167-180)

      A few days after the 1882 election was called, Rubidge was instructed to make detailed surveys at Burleigh Chute, Buckhorn Rapids, and Fenelon Falls and to prepare plans and specifications for the works before 10 August. Then, on the eve of the election, a call for tenders was posted, signalling a wish by the government to enter a pact with the voters: canal construction in exchange for votes. Rubidge having completed the surveys and the works having been located on time, albeit “with much difficulty,”¹ and the electorate having kept its side of the bargain by returning Conservatives in all...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Tom S. Rubidge
      (pp. 181-192)

      Between 1878 and the outbreak of the First World War, two main issues dominated federal politics in the Peterborough area: the National Policy of protection for secondary industry and completion of the Trent Canal. During John A. Macdonald’s years in office (and in opposition), Peterborough had begun to develop many small industries which demanded protection against cheap manufactured goods coming from the United States; the Trent canal, offering the possibility of cheap transportation, was seen as a corollary to protectionism. Both were needed, it was thought, if Peterborough’s industries were to survive. Although Macdonald received support from Peterborough’s business community...

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Trent Valley Canal Commission
      (pp. 193-204)

      The idea for the Trent Valley Canal Commission originated with James Stevenson. An old friend of Macdonald’s and one of the shrewdest politicians to serve Peterborough West, Stevenson, following his election victory in 1887, served simultaneously as mayor of Peterborough, chairman of the board of education, and member of Parliament. Although a supporter of the canal, Stevenson had a realistic appreciation of the dilemma confronting the government because of it: local politicians, in both parties all along the line, were vigorously promoting the scheme, but the rest of the country, including most of the government’s own engineers, was opposed. Stevenson...

  10. PART FOUR THE LAURIER YEARS:: 1896 – 1911

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Conversion of Wilfrid Laurier
      (pp. 207-220)

      Liberal politicians had been waiting for years for an opportunity to mine the rich vein of political patronage that was the Trent canal but that for a generation had been staked out by Conservatives. Laurier’s victory in 1896 gave the Liberals their big chance, although only two were elected in Trent canal ridings: George McHugh, a farmer from Ops township, who won Victoria South, and John Lang, another farmer, who captured Peterborough East. Since Lang sat as an Independent-Liberal, it was into the hands of party stalwart George McHugh that the privilege of dispensing patronage fell. McHugh’s immediate objective was...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN The Peterborough-Lakefield Division
      (pp. 221-228)

      The Peterborough-Lakefield division, when finished, would provide a navigable stretch of waterway from Little Lake to Lakefield, thus opening up a continuous line of navigation for 126 miles, from Healey Falls to Balsam Lake. Construction on the division involved canalizing a 9-mile stretch of the Otonabee River, which formed what Baird described as the “the most serious obstruction on the whole route.”¹

      Engineers had long disagreed on the best method to overcome the series of rapids and falls over which the Otonabee River tumbled as it dropped 144 feet between Lake Katchewanooka and Little Lake. Baird had observed that the...

    • CHAPTER NINETEEN The Hydraulic Lift Lock
      (pp. 229-239)

      Ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, canal engineers had been attempting to create a device for lifting a vessel from one level to another without consuming the large quantity of water required to operate the standard locks invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century. The trouble with ordinary locks is that a whole lock-full of water, whether used to raise or lower a vessel, flows in one direction only and is lost forever. If the supply of water at the summit of a canal is limited, the water will eventually be used up and navigation will...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY The Simcoe – Balsam Lake Division
      (pp. 240-255)

      The Simcoe – Balsam Lake division was built concurrent with the Peterborough-Lakefield division but, because of construction delays and political skulduggery, was not completed until three years after Peterborough-Lakefield. The 17-mile-long division required joining the two drainage systems in the natural waterway that became the Trent canal: the Trent drainage, which has its headwaters in the highlands of Haliburton and flows eastwards into Lake Ontario, and the Severn River, which drains the water of Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching into Georgian Bay to the west. Originally all of post-glacial Lake Algonquin (of which Lake Simcoe is an isolated remnant) drained...

      (pp. 256-274)

      Few public servants have ever been treated more disgracefully by a government than R.B. Rogers was in 1906. A civil engineer who served the departments of Public Works and Railways and Canals faithfully for nearly 25 years, Rogers was known and respected by his professional colleagues in many parts of the world for his unique and historic contribution to civil engineering, especially in concrete construction. His innovative concrete lock was the admiration of engineers who came to examine it from nearly every developed country in the world, including the designer of the prototype lock at Anderton. This unique structure gave...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Mulock’s Madness
      (pp. 275-295)

      At the same time as Rogers was being asked to resign in 1906 because of alleged responsibility for the small repair bills for the hydraulic lift locks at Peterborough, the Liberal government was planning to waste over a million dollars to build what the Hon. A.B. Aylesworth would later call a “perpetual monument to government folly.”¹ Known officially as the Holland River division, a proposed extension of the Trent canal from Lake Simcoe to Aurora by way of the east branch of the Holland River had many names: the Newmarket canal, the Holland River canal, Aylesworth’s canal, Our Ditch, the...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Hydroelectric Power and the Port Hope Canal
      (pp. 296-306)

      While Sir William Mulock was “playing politics” with the Trent canal at Newmarket, the Port Hope outlet was becoming a major political issue at the eastern end. Ostensibly the issue was the decades-old one of whether a canal through Port Hope was cheaper, and therefore more desirable, than a canal down the Trent River. But beneath the canal question was a much larger issue: hydroelectric generation and who was going to control it.

      By 1904 there was a growing movement in energy-starved Ontario for public ownership and control of hydroelectric power generation, by then seen clearly as the solution to...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR The Ontario – Rice Lake Division
      (pp. 307-327)

      One of the ironies associated with the protracted public works project known as the Trent valley canal was the quickness with which plans were executed, once the interminable political problems that separated construction periods were solved. Engineers moved quickly when the green light was given by the politicians, which usually happened just before elections. Thus the ink was barely dry on Wilfrid Laurier’s signature authorizing the Trent River route when A.J. Grant was ordered to get his engineers and draftsmen busy on construction plans and specifications so that tenders could be called. The Hydro Electric Power Commission was by then...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE Kerry and Culverwell
      (pp. 328-348)

      Messrs Kerry and Culverwell have been standing off stage, prompting the raconteur of this Trent canal story since chapter 21. It is now time for them to come out to tell the behind-the-scenes story of how hydroelectric power was developed on the Trent River and to reveal how they became two of the first victims – but not losers – in Canada’s twentieth-century shift from a free market to a mixed economy. At first fierce competitors for water power rights on the Trent, Kerry and Culverwell were forced by the dominion government to join forces and later, coerced by the...

  11. PART FIVE THE BORDEN YEARS:: 1911 – 20

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX The Western Outlet
      (pp. 359-372)

      It was fitting that the Conservative and Unionist governments of Sir Robert Borden (1911 – 20) should complete the canal that had been revived and pursued by the Conservatives under Sir John A. Macdonald but toyed with for 15 years by the Liberals, who did not want it in the first place. Within days of taking office in 1911, Frank Cochrane, Borden’s minister of railways and canals, stopped construction of the Holland River extension, committed his government to completion of the contracts let by the Liberals on the Trent River, and initiated work on the Severn River division, the final...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN The Port Severn Lock
      (pp. 373-384)

      E.J. Walsh chose the historic village of Port Severn, at the mouth of the Severn River, as the outlet for the canal. There he planned to build a 1,605-foot-long dam across the four channels that emptied into Georgian Bay. This dam would create a navigable reach extending eight miles up river, through Little Lake and Gloucester Pool to the Big Chute. The dammed-up water would drown out the natural four-foot fall at the Little Chute and, with the removal of some large boulders, would make this section fully navigable. A lock with a lift of 14 feet would be built...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT The Marine Railways
      (pp. 385-397)

      For contract purposes the Severn River division was divided into three sections. A contract for section 2 was awarded to the Inland Construction Company on 23 April 1914, and a contract for the work on section 3 was signed by the Randolph Macdonald Company on 4 August. A few hours after the latter document was executed, Britain’s 24-hour ultimatum to Germany to stop the invasion of Belgium had expired. At 6 p.m. Ottawa time, the British Empire was at war. Had the Canadian government anticipated the extent of the country’s involvement in the conflagration that started that evening, it is...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE The Couchiching Lock
      (pp. 398-406)

      As the First World War neared an end, it became clear that the government would have to find employment for returning soldiers and for the thousands of immigrants expected to enter Canada after the war. Accordingly, a decision was taken in the spring of 1918 to resume work on sections 2 and 3, suspended in 1917, and to let a contract for section 1. The Department of Railways and Canals included $500,000 for this purpose in its estimates, which were approved reluctantly by Parliament in May. Section 1 included a good deal of rock excavation for the bypass canal at...

  12. APPENDIX Major Construction Projects on the Trent Canal
    (pp. 407-410)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 411-432)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 433-440)
  15. Index
    (pp. 441-455)