Canada’s Capital Canal

P1030602I attended a conference in Ottawa, Canada recently and was completely enamored with this capital city which consistently ranks very high on quality of life polls. Its history as a city goes back only to 1826 when a village called Bytown rose on the southern bank of the Ottawa River, at the mouth of the Rideau River. The settlement was named for Colonel John By who came to the area to oversee the construction of the Rideau Canal, an engineering marvel completed in 1832 to connect Montreal with Kingston.

In 1855 Bytown became “Ottawa,” an Algonquin Indian word meaning “to trade” and several years later Queen Victoria was asked to choose a capital city for the province of Canada. She selected Ottawa. Historians give various reasons for this decision, including the city’s location mid-way between Toronto and Quebec City, its abundance of transportation routes, and its defensible location. Its position across the river from French-speaking Quebec province makes it an ideal spot for the capital of this bi-lingual country.

P1030592The Parliament buildings sits high on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River and are an impressive example of  Gothic revival architecture.

P1030599Yet, grand as Parliament hill is, the historic site that most interested me is the Rideau Canal (French for “curtain”).  Stretching through the heart of the city, it is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a triumph of engineering. While the original purpose of the canal was to protect military movement in Canada’s interior and provide a secure supply route, the canal’s commercial value was quickly realized. It became the commercial lifeline for the port of Montreal and the highway for thousands of immigrants moving to Upper Canada. The canal travels through 126 miles (202 kilometers) of lakes, and other natural waterways, and about 12 miles (19 km) of the route is manmade. Most of the 47 masonry locks on the canal are hand-operated.

P1030598The oldest stone building in Ottawa is the former Commissariat building for the Rideau Canal built in 1827. It sits just down the hill from Parliament and next to a magnificent flight of eight locks providing a lift of 79 feet (24 m). Today it houses the Bytown Museum.

My memories of the canal go back twenty years to a winter trip over the holidays when the temperature was about -4 degrees F (-20 C). canal_3_mg_0559It was just after Christmas and one of the world’s largest skating rinks was open for business. Each winter about 4.8 miles of the canal running through the center of Ottawa are cleared and become a skater’s paradise. People skate to work and buy hot drinks and beaver tails (pastries) from stands set up on the ice. I grew up skating on ponds in Pennsylvania and the opportunity to skate on this wonder of almost five miles was incredible. Someday I will return in winter to skate on the Rideau Canal and to eat a beaver tail.

For more history about the canal:

Per Bob’s comment below, here’s one of the most profound signs I’ve seen… talking about two museums in Ottawa, but much deeper.


About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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5 Responses to Canada’s Capital Canal

  1. Not at all surprised at how highly it ranks for quality of life! I found it so friendly to walkers and cyclists, and full of intriguing sites and businesses all over the city. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Bob Beatty says:

    I agree that Ottawa was a fascinating city and “oh so close” to Quebec as well. The historic buildings were great but of course I thought the Canadian War Museum was an absolute highlight. Wondering why the world’s most unintentionally profound sign didn’t make your “best of Ottawa” post?

  3. Bob Beatty says:

    My post should have said and being “oh so close” to Quebec was a bonus–knocking off two Canadian provinces in one visit for me!

  4. Jay Blossom says:

    I never cared to visit Ottawa, but now I do! Especially in winter!

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