Following the war of 1812 between the United States and Britain (Canada), the English had a significant strategic problem. The movement of goods from Kingston to Montreal were at great risk since the St. Lawrence Seaway was highly vulnerable to attack by the Americans. An alternate route was crucial to guarantee commerce and the expansion of Upper Canada. The Rideau Canal was conceived to be that alternate route.
In 1826, Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers was dispensed to plan the canal and to oversee its construction. Lt. Col. By met a harsh challenge head-on, to build a pilotable canal between the Ottawa River and Kingston, through what was at the time a wilderness of rough bush, swamps, and rock terrain, funded by an awkward system of British parliamentary grants.
During the Fall of 1826, Lt. Col. By began by staging the area for the Ottawa locks. Construction for the rest of the canal began in 1827. In 1832, the bulk of the construction was essentially completed.
Today, we enjoy the Rideau Canal Waterway for recreational activities. But, in the early 1800s it was a critical and vital means of transportation to bring goods to market by boat and barge. The Rideau Canal Waterway is 202 kilometres, using 49 locks, with 11 waterway areas stretching from Kingston north to Ottawa. It is a Canadian National Historic Site and Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The canal is a vacationer’s paradise. Regardless of how you choose to travel, by road or by water, there is no shortage of excellent camping sites along the waterway. I took my motorhome to discover the richness of the Rideau Canal. Even with a larger class A motorhome, I had lots of suitable campsites to consider. Here are three noteworthy campgrounds that offered utmost access to the canal and to the villages and towns that line its route. There are perhaps more than 20 RV camping venues for you to explore on your visit to the Rideau Canal.
Victoria Park is adjacent to the canal and located in downtown Smith’s Falls. You are just steps away from restaurants, cafes, shops, banks, farmers’ market, and more. Or walk the other way to find large stores and amenities like groceries, hardware, fast foods, and spirits. The 50+ serviced campsites offer 30-amp power and fresh water hook-ups with a centralized pump-out facility. Laundry facilities and showers are available as are clean washrooms and a tourist information centre. All are included in the nightly fees. Every site has a quality oversized picnic table ideal for reading the local newspaper or sharing a BBQ dinner with the whole family. The free Wi-Fi is prized too.
More than half of the sites are waterfront, meaning I was able to nose my RV to within a few feet of the canal for an amazing view out the windscreen. Note: closing the drapes overnight is important or else you risk exposing yourself after an onboard shower and frightening the boaters who temporarily tie up in front of your RV while waiting for the first passage of the day. Locks are at both ends of the campsite row, so it is easy to enjoy watching the pleasure craft move past as they journey up or down stream. Since it is a downtown park setting, there are places for children to play, run, and somersault endlessly, or for adults to walk your dog, or picnic under shaded pavilions. Within an easy walk of less then 200 metres, local children splash, dive, and swim at a safe beach area. A local steam train museum is just 500 metres away to provide amazing photography opportunities as you recall the generation of cargo transportation that shifted the role of the waterway from barges to pleasure craft. A bright yellow vintage Harvard training airplane is mounted on a pedestal in the park to commemorate the WWII training done at the nearby airport. Smiths Falls holds a special place in the history of transportation.
The campsites have been realigned for 2018 to be wider and permit better integration of the trees between the sites that provide protection from the sunny days. There are 30 finger docks for boaters who are transiting the canal that complements to the overall ambience.
While there are lots of class A, B, and C motorhomes, you will also see travel trailers and fifth wheel units using the sites. During the summer months, it is not unusual for folks who ride long distances on bicycles to stop and pitch tents at Victoria Park overnight as they venture down the country roads. So, every type of camping is welcome here.
This was my fifth full week during the past 10 years to make use of these facilities and they have improved every time. I used this site as my base and rented a car to adventure around the canal and southeastern Ontario.
The Merrickville Lion’s Club operate a wonderful 36-site campground that is alongside the Rideau Canal and in the heart of the village. It is a delightful spot to stay for a night, or even a week. Open from May to October this campground is ideal for all ages. It can easily accommodate any size and type of RV, including tents, on deep and wide sites that edge up to the canal stream. With 30-amp electricity and fresh water hook-ups, picnic tables, secured and clean toilets and showers, RV dump, firewood, internet, as well as being pet friendly and offering its own boat launch, it is the location of this hidden gem that makes it so charming. Ideally situated in the centre of the village, this campground offers easy access to the locks, park, and shops. Everything is within a relaxed walking distance. Yet it is also secluded, so a perfectly quiet spot to rest, read, or contemplate life.
Just 15 kilometres upstream on the Rideau Canal from Smith’s Falls, Merrickville offers a dramatically difference experience. The Village of Merrickville is a holdback to the mid to late 1800s composed of fantastic architecture hand-built with fieldstone masonry. Most buildings in the village date from this period.
The notable Merrickville Blockhouse Museum should not be missed. About 100 metres from the campground entrance, next to the locks, it was built in 1832-33 as a fortification to house up to 50 troops in response to the possibility of a future crisis with the United States.
The blockhouse is the second largest in Canada and is one of four existing on the Rideau Canal of the 20 originally planned to protect the waterway. It is the largest defensible structure on the waterway. The blockhouse is made from rubble stone and limestone mortar. The walls are four feet thick at the base and taper to three feet thick towards the second story. It has a drawbridge and a dry moat to enhance its security. While built for military purposes, it saw very little action. Children will be thrilled to climb inside this fortress and spot the approaching enemy from the gun and cannon ports. For most of its history, the blockhouse served as a residence for the lock-masters, and then later as a storehouse. Occasionally, it has served as a church and a schoolhouse, and today it is a museum.
For those more interested in luxury while camping, the Rideau Acres Campgrounds might be best for you. It is downstream closer to Kingston with easy access from the 401 Highway. Rideau Acres is a very large, beautiful, privately-owned family campground located just 10 minutes from downtown Kingston.
Swim in their outdoor pool or spend the day at the lake. They report excellent fishing, and offer boat rentals, horseshoes, Frisbee golf, mini putt, basketball, and many other activities including scenic hiking and walking trails for your enjoyment. It is a complete destination in its own right.
Rideau Acres features large spacious campsites with gravel pads. They have 30-amp and 50-amp full service sites available with pull thru driveways. With large campsites, clean washrooms, hot showers, clean laundromat, boat ramp and docking facilities, it is ideal for any purpose. The large recreational centre makes is perfect for group and rally camping too.
It offers groceries, and RV and trailer rentals on site. Boat and canoe rentals provide access to the waterways for fishing. Mini Golf is available too. They offer LP gas and RV supplies as well as firewood.
Besides all the campground amenities, the Rideau Acres Campground location allows easy access to Kingston for tours of historic Fort Henry, the famous 1000 Islands, and the notorious Kingston Penitentiary. On rainy days, the proximity to the City of Kingston offers restaurants, museums, art galleries, shopping centres, movie theatres, and more.
An estimated 2000 men worked on the construction of the canal at 20 works sites. About 50% of the workforce was Irish Protestant, mostly recent immigrants, 40% were French Canadian Catholics, and the remaining 10% were of Scottish descent and provided the skilled masons work. Lt. Col. By had an additional 170 men composed of two corps of Royal Sappers and Miners. The troops were needed to keep the peace between the Protestants and the Catholics. The miners were experts in explosives and earthwork and provided supervision of the labourers.
The environment was harsh, and of the 2000 labourers, 500 are said to have died of malaria. During the summer of 1828, work was halted for six weeks due to malaria. These figures do not include the wives and families who often lived nearby the workcamps.
It is hard to fathom the challenges that these workers experienced to bring us this amazing playground that we appreciate today.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site Rideau Canal Waterway is North America’s best preserved slackwater canal, and the only canal from the great 19th century canal building era that still operates along its original route and with most of its unique structures intact. This engineering marvel and its fortifications helped find a balance of power when Great Britain and the United States vied for control of the North American continent. Today, it is yours to enjoy.
About the Author:
Michael J Martin is a communication technology consultant, licenced pilot, sailor, and passionate amateur photographer. He lives in Toronto with his wife Candy and their dogs. They own a 36’ Holiday Rambler diesel pusher coach and the entire family loves time together in the motorhome.
Parks Canada. (2009). Merrickville Lockstation: Walking Tour Industry and Canals. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
Watson, K. (2018). Rideau Canal: World Heritage Site. Retrieved July 31, 2018 from, http://www.rideau-info.com/canal/history/hist-canal.html