New Ottawa bridge should honour builders of the Rideau Canal

Corktown Bridge would honour labourers who built one of Canada's greatest landmarks


Ottawa (29 August 2006) - The Ottawa District Labour Council and the Bytown Museum are campaigning to have a new $5-million pedestrian crossing over Ottawa's famous Rideau Canal called The Corktown Bridge.

The bridge is due to open this fall and will be officially named in the new year.

Corktown was the boistrous tent and lean-to shantytown inhabited by largely Irish workers who built the 200-kilometre long canal system during an intense six-year construction period between 1826 and 1832. French Canadian labourers also played an important role.

The 340,000-member National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is supporting the campaign.

"The Rideau Canal is one of Canada's great landmarks," says NUPGE president James Clancy. "This would be a wonderful way to honour the contribution to our nation made by these workers and their families. They played a vital role. It would be a fitting tribute."

Lt.-Col. John By

The Irish labourers suffered the most during the canal's construction, mainly because so many were new immigrants to Canada – unprepared for the harsh elements and exhausting work. Construction was pushed relentlessly to completion by Lt.-Col John By, a hard-driving British military engineer.

Approximately 5,000 labourers and 2,000 craftsmen worked 14-16 hour days to dredge the intricate and enduring system of canals and locks that stretches from Parliament Hill in Ottawa to Kingston on the St. Lawrence River.

More than 500 workers are estimated to have died during the six-year construction period, many victims of swamp fever borne by mosquitoes. A memorial in their honour stands about one kilometre north of the new bridge. Dedicated in 2003, and also a project of the labour council and other local groups, it is located between Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier Hotel.

Mainly pick and shovel labourers, the workers were victims of frequent accidents. Some died from explosives used for blasting. Others were swept away by swollen river waters. Most lie buried in unmarked graves. Other workers were victims of contractors who failed to pay them or were gouged at company stores.

Squatters' camp

Corktown was a squatters' camp on government land, stretching from the site of the modern-day National Arts Centre to Somerset St., where the new footbridge crosses from the University of Ottawa in Sandy Hill. A boisterous enclave of taverns and red light houses, it was dismantled in the 1850s as inhabitants acquired land elsewhere and settled into the community.

Ken Clavette of the labour council says "The Corktown Bridge" would be an appropriate change from the traditional practice of naming new structures after political and community leaders.

Steve Dezort of the Bytown Museum agrees. "It's often the prominent people in history, the leaders and the prime ministers who are remembered, but a lot of these working class people, their stories have been lost," Dezort says. "We thought it would be a good chance to tell one of the stories of Bytown and have it commemorated."

The City of Ottawa says a public naming process will be conducted this fall, giving all groups and individuals a chance to take part. A decision is expected early in the new year. 

Rideau Canal facts:

  • The Rideau Canal system is nearly 200 kilometres long. It was built between 1826 and 1832.
  • Originally built for military purposes, it functions today as a thriving recreational waterway.
  • 20 kilometres is actual canal; the rest is lakes and rivers.
  • The canal includes 47 locks and 18 dams.
  • 5,000 labourers and 2,000 craftsmen worked 14-16 hours, six days a week, to build it.
  • Shantytowns existed at both ends of the system - Bytown and Kingston.
  • Three work stoppages occurred in 1827 to protest the harsh working conditions.
  • No records were kept of construction deaths but the number is estimated at more than 500. Many more suffered injuries. NUPGE

More information:Honouring those who perished building the Rideau Canal