While Colonel By Day was first declared in 1996, the post-merger Ottawa Council affirmed the August civic holiday on Monday as Colonel By Day in 2009.
Most know that John By was the British military man tasked with building our beloved Rideau Canal, but when he landed in Quebec City in May 1826 to start the project, he was unfamiliar with Canada. Beginning in 1802, By spent several years developing Quebec’s defenses, earning several promotions in rank along the way.
Born in Lambeth, England, in 1779, By is sometimes regarded as the founder of Ottawa-Hull, though that honor might better belong to Philemon Wright, an American-born farmer and businessman who regularly hauled lumber around the world. the Ottawa River even before the war. 1812. However, it was By’s efforts that really put Wright’s little settlement on the map.
Without the good colonel’s contribution, Bytown, renamed Ottawa in 1855, might never have become a viable township, much less one worthy of contention for capital city status. The selection of a principal seat for the province’s government was a perennial debate in the colonial legislature and was only resolved after the province’s parliament ratified Ottawa’s election of Queen Victoria in 1857 in 1859.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and used primarily for pleasure cruises, the Rideau Canal was first designed to address the great vulnerability in the military supply lines between Montreal and Kingston that became apparent during the War of 1812. To link the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario, Lt. -Column. Por required a workforce of some 2,000 men, many brought from Ireland specifically for the arduous task. Hundreds of workers suffered horrific injuries and death during six years of construction. The greatest torment, caused by regular bouts of malaria, then called “swamp fever”, even struck him himself. Work was also regularly interrupted by worker strikes instigated not only by illness and injury, but also by poor pay and general working conditions in rural Canada.
The monumental 202 km project, with its 47 masonry locks and 52 dams, was successfully completed in 1832, but instead of returning a triumphant hero, By was received in England under a cloud of suspicion and contempt. With little cause and less evidence, By was subjected to several government investigations and accused of recklessly spending on the huge infrastructure project. Sacrificed on the altar of political partisanship in reform-era Britain, By died a broken man: his achievements went unacclaimed and his reputation irreparably tarnished.
Today, Ottawa is routinely ranked among the best cities to live, work and raise a family, so this long weekend in August, as we head to our cabins and campsites, let’s take a moment not just for Colonel By but to the thousands of engineers, miners, militiamen and workers who made our great city possible.
David C. Martin is a historian and writer focused on bringing historical background and context to contemporary political and cultural headlines.