Rideau Canal, Cycling. Biking

A brief history of the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

If you’re coming to Ottawa, a visit to the historic Rideau Canal is a must! Snaking and making its way gracefully through Ottawa’s charming downtown core, “the canal” as it’s known locally, is the heart beat of Canada’s Capital in any season.

In the warmer months, the canal is a haven for walkers, runners, in-line skaters and cyclists, who stroll along its scenic, rolling green banks. It is also a beautiful, flowing waterway connecting Kingston, Ontario, to Ottawa, which is used regularly by boaters and paddlers alike. 

Whether it is tourists out on a scenic walk or a guided boat cruise, or a local resident out for a morning run, the canal is always buzzing with activity on a bright sunny day. Built between 1826 and 1832 by Colonel John By of the British Royal Engineers, the stone-walled canal received a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2007 and is the only such site in the entire province of Ontario!

Having to dig and clear through the savage Canadian wilderness over six long years, about 1,000 workers perished during the waterway’s construction from malaria or accidents, and were buried along its picturesque banks. Of the 202 kilometres (126 miles) stretching from Kingston to Ottawa, 19 kilometres (12 miles) of the canal is man-made and was dug out by hand. The canal with its 45 locks located in various Ontario communities, was originally built for a military purpose to establish a secure supply and communications route between Montreal, Québec and Kingston. 

Built as a reaction to the infamous War of 1812, it was the hope at the time, that the canal would keep vulnerable British supply ships away from the American New York border. But by its completion in 1832, no further conflicts arose between the United States and Canada, which consequently turned the new canal into a commercial shipping route and finally, into the pleasure boat waterway we know today. 

According to UNESCO, as a World Heritage Site, the Rideau Canal represents a “masterpiece of creative genius” and meets the 10 different criteria needed to secure such a prestigious designation. The canal is “the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America, demonstrating the use of this European technology on a large scale,” UNESCO says. It is also the only canal dating back to the nineteenth century “North American canal-building era” to remain operational with most of its original structures intact.

The Rideau Canal now attracts people from all over the world who are drawn to its urban beauty, its historical significance and its modern recreational uses. To find out how you can explore this unique waterway any time of year – by land, water or ice – visit our Different ways to experience the Rideau Canal in Ottawa webpage.

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