Martin: On Colonel By Day, A Brief History of an Unacclaimed Hero

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While Colonel By Day was first proclaimed in 1996, after the merger, the Ottawa Council reaffirmed the August civil holiday as Colonel By Day in 2009.

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Most know that John By was the British soldier charged with building our beloved Rideau Canal, but when he landed in Quebec City in May 1826 to begin the project, he was hardly unfamiliar with the Canadas. 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 credited as the founder of Ottawa-Hull, although that credit may be better due to Philemon Wright, an American-born farmer and businessman who regularly logs across the Ottawa River even before the war. floated from 1812. However, it was By’s efforts that really put Wright’s small settlement on the map.

Without the good Colonel’s contribution, Bytown, renamed Ottawa in 1855, might never have grown into a viable township, much less a township worthy of capital status. The selection of a head house for the county government was a perpetual debate in the colonial legislature and was settled only after Queen Victoria’s choice of Ottawa in 1857 was ratified by the county parliament in 1859.

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site primarily used for recreational boating, the Rideau Canal was first designed to address the major vulnerability in military supply lines between Montreal and Kingston that was made apparent during the War of 1812. To connect the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario, Lt. -Col. Needed by a workforce of some 2,000, many brought from Ireland especially for the arduous task. Hundreds of workers suffered horrific injuries and death during six years of construction. The greatest agony, caused by regular outbreaks of malaria, then called ‘swamp fever’, afflicted even himself. Work was also regularly interrupted by workers’ strikes, caused not only by illness and injury, but also by poor wages and general working conditions in Canada’s backcountry.

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The 202km monumental project, with its 47 brick-built 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 reason and less evidence, By was subjected to several government investigations and accused of recklessly overspending on the massive infrastructure project. Sacrificed in the change of political partisanship in Reform-era Britain, By died a broken man – his achievements were not greeted and his reputation irreparably tarnished.

Today, Ottawa is routinely ranked among the best cities to live, work and raise a family, so let’s take a moment this August long weekend as we head to our cottages and campgrounds, not just for Colonel By but to the thousands of engineers, miners, militias and workers who have 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.

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