Canada’s 19th-century canals continue to be decent make-work projects


The Rideau Canal, 175 years young last year, has a kid brother not too far away named The Tay Canal.  Far smaller than the Rideau, which winds its way from Ottawa to Kingston, the Tay extends just 9.8 kilometers from Beveridge Bay on Lower Rideau Lake to a pretty turning basin in the heart of the town of Perth.  (The Tay River, by the way, is much longer than the canal.)

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Last year Parks Canada, which operates both the Rideau and Tay Canals as recreational waterways, announced plans for some serious restoration work on Perth’s Beckwith Street Bridge.  Built in 1889 it is a swing bridge and the oldest on the canal.  Little has been done so far, other than opening the bridge and leaving it open (creating a year-long detour).  Federal infrastructure grants of $700 thousand were announced last year. Unfortunately one of the key heritage bridge engineers has been sick and follow-up inspections show the cost will at least be  double the first estimates but Stephen Harper’s MP in the area, Scott Reid, announced another $1.4 million for the work to resume, which it did a week or so ago as crews removed the swing span from its pivoting base.

(Reid kayaked into the Perth Basin with Mayor John Fenik, pointing out that one of the less expensive but popular parts of the announcement is the installation of lower docks along the canal for canoeists and kayakers.)

The wood decking of the bridge (in effect the road) will be replaced, steel repaired and a steel coating applied to the bridge. There will also be some mechanical work on the bridge’s moving parts. It is hoped all will be completed this fall.

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Today’s Tay is actually the second canal.  The first was built between 1831 and 1834 but was begun in a huff when The Rideau Canal’s Col. John By would not consider building a branch canal along the Tay.  The small company which persisted could not make a go of it financially so maintenance could not be kept up.  In 1865 several locks were destroyed by logs and the canal’s operations were suspended.

With no navigation between Perth and the Rideau, residents got after the long-serving local member of Parliament for South Lanark, John G. Haggart.  Belatedly he became the Minister of Railways and Canals from 1892 to 1896, due to the work he set out to do.

Haggart helped launch feasibility studies of Tay Canal improvements in 1881. The existing canal had been taken over by the federal government, giving it the flexibility to make whatever improvements it chose. Two routes were suggested, one following the existing route, the second focusing on a canal cut through a swampy area to Beveridge Bay.

Despite lobbying by the residents of Port Elmsley, who looked forward to the boat traffic coming through their hamlet, the route that would take the canal from Perth to Beveridge Bay was ultimately selected.

Beveridge Locks, Tay Canal

The locks were built, between 1885 and 1887, to the same standards as those on the Rideau.  They also wanted to make sure the canal was deep enough so dredging, and an expansion of the Perth basin, were slowly completed by 1891.  Haggart went on to  become the Minister of Railways and Canals from 1892 to 1896.

This plaque, a tribute to Minister Haggart and his father – a man of firsts in his own right –  stands on the front lawn of the beautiful Haggart home in Perth:

John Haggart, a Scottish stone mason, came to Canada in the 1820’s and worked on the Welland and Rideau Canals.  In 1832 he purchased this property which included the Perth settlement’s first mill and established a milling complex.  He built this house in 1837, an early hip-roofed Regency design in stone.  In 1854 the property passed to his son John Graham Haggart.  A vigorous politician, the younger Haggart was mayor of Perth before serving some forty years as Member of Parliament for South Lanark.  He was Postmaster-General, 1888-92, Minister of Railways and Canals, 1892-96, leader of the Ontario Conservatives in the House, and a top contender for the party leadership in 1895.  He died in Ottawa in 1913.

Erected by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, Ministry of Culture and Recreation

Haggart’s name has lived on with his canal nicknamed by some “Haggart’s Ditch”.

John Haggart’s grave in The Old Burying Ground on Craig Street in Perth

(Sources for this historical section: Wikipedia and rideau-info.com)

Haggart home 4 Haggart Dam