They are, rather appropriately, the three most political rivers in the land. Taken together, they embody settlement, the economy, the first great spending scandal, the first tax revolt … And, of course, the nation’s capital. It is not by accident that the positioning of Bytown, later to become Ottawa, was where the three rivers — the Ottawa, the Gatineau, and the Rideau — converge, their waters becoming one as the current heads south and east to join the St. Lawrence River and, eventually, reaches the Atlantic Ocean.
It was the Ottawa River that allowed First Nations’ travel and hunting routes from the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, the Ottawa that took the European explorers to the Mattawa River and then west, the Ottawa that made fur and timber possible and then became the original highway for settlement.
Yet the Ottawa has been described as “the greatest unknown river in the world.” Commuters using the Chaudière Bridge as they move between Ottawa on the Ontario side and Gatineau on the Quebec side do not even notice the spectacular falls — considered a sacred place by Algonquins — where, in 1860, more than 20,000 loyal citizens cheered the Prince of Wales as he flew through the Chaudière slide on a timber crib guided by expert rivermen.
Being relatively unknown, however, can be seen as a blessing for those privileged to enjoy the Ottawa River’s long stretches of near wilderness, its fabulous whitewater challenges, as well as fishing, sailing, beaches and, closer to Ottawa and Gatineau, fabulous bicycle and walking paths that follow its eastern and western shorelines.
Even less known is the Gatineau River, which is not only the cleanest and the least inhabited of the three but has a lesser-known place in Canadian history: a tax revolt that was put down by the extraordinary act of sending in the army.
It happened at Brennan’s Hill in late 1895. For 15 years, the hardscrabble farmers and settlers of the area — largely of Irish descent — had refused to pay their taxes. They had fled Ireland to escape overlords and oppression, they argued, and damned if they were going to let it happen again here.
They threw one bailiff in a root cellar and locked him there for two days. When a policeman showed up at a farm owned by a Miss O’Rourke, said to be all of $2.35 in arrears, she grabbed a stick of firewood and chased him down the lane, vowing if he showed up again, she’d pour boiling water over him.
The Battle of Brennan’s Hill came to an end when federal authorities decided to dispatch the army — 120 soldiers “armed to the teeth,” according to a headline in the Nov. 14, 1895, Ottawa Evening Journal.
The army reached the nearby village of Low, pitched tents, and in a very Canadian ending, the revolution came to a close with everyone paying up — even Miss O’Rourke — and apologizing for the inconvenience.
The Rideau River, on the other hand, is world-famous. Its 47-lock canal system, running between Kingston’s Old Fort Henry and Ottawa, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
That would have stunned Col. John By, builder of the canal and founder of Bytown, the rough-and-tumble lumber town that, in 1857, would be Queen Victoria’s surprise choice to serve as capital of the North American colony.
By, an officer of the Corps of Royal Engineers, was sent here in 1826 to complete a project that grew out of British nervousness concerning its southern neighbour on the continent. The United States had been through a war with Britain that had ended only a dozen years earlier. British strategists believed a canal could be built along the Rideau waterway that would allow for military transport well away from the American border.
By arrived at a budget projection — £169,000 — that seemed plucked out of thin air. He was immediately doubtful it could be done for that cost but went ahead anyway.
By was a brilliant, demanding engineer subject to arbitrary decisions, from the location of the first eight locks — he believed the high ground near present- day Château Laurier would be easier to defend — to widening the canal beyond what had been recommended. Today’s boaters are grateful for the widening, but London was outraged at what they saw as cost overruns.
Within the first year of construction, the Duke of Wellington — yes, the very same who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo — was saying, “It appears to me that Lieut. Colonel By has lost sight of the Plan and Estimates.” It was an extraordinary feat to build the canal through so much swampland. By employed as many as 6,000 labourers a year, mostly poor Irish and French, and it is estimated up to 1,000 died from accidents and malaria. By himself came down twice with the disease they called “bad air,” but he refused to quit.
So they fired him. In late spring of 1832, just as By was finishing up, the British Treasury decided to take “immediate steps for removing Colonel By … and for placing some competent person in charge of those works.”
The canal had been completed at a cost of £777,146. In 2012, Parks Canada estimated the replacement value of the assets of the Rideau Canal system at nearly $1 billion. Today, more than 1 million visitors a year come to enjoy the Rideau waterway, cottaging on the lakes in the system, boating through bucolic countryside and charming villages and, in winter, skating on the world’s largest rink.
By, of course, could know none of this. Twice British authorities held inquiries into the so-called financial scandal but could find nothing for which he could actually be charged. He felt “dreadfully illused,” and with him barely 56 and clearly dying, both he and his wife petitioned the government for “some public distinction as will show that my character as a soldier is without stain, and that I have not lost the confidence or good opinion of my Government.” He got nothing — in Britain. In Canada, however, he has a statue in Major’s Hill Park and world recognition from UNESCO for what they call “a masterpiece of human creative genius.”