Parliament Hill was 19th century military headquarters for Rideau Canal construction

Article / August 29, 2019 / Project number: 19-2010

Note: to view additional photos, click the photo under Image Gallery.

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — Although Parliament Hill may now bring to mind the Parliament Buildings, the Peace Tower, the Changing of the Guard ceremony and the Canada Day fireworks, it was once called Barrack Hill and was the headquarters for the construction of the Rideau Canal.

For the past few years, a series of archaeological digs have uncovered remarkably well-preserved remains of military buildings and a huge number of artifacts from that time almost 200 years ago.

The archaeological work is taking place as part of the Centre Block Rehabilitation Project (CBRP) overseen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC). It is one of the largest and most complex heritage projects of its type ever undertaken and is expected to take at least 10 years.

“It’s standard practice to perform archeological studies before excavation takes place to make sure no potentially valuable artifacts are damaged or destroyed,” said Stephen Jarrett, the Archaeology Project Manager and Lead Archaeologist.

The most recent dig, which began in May 2019, is the excavation of the guardhouse and other smaller buildings on the eastern side of the Hill. The dig is expected to continue until at least October of this year.

Hidden beneath green lawns, flowerbeds and statues for almost two centuries, the ruins are yielding many artifacts each day under the careful hands of between 10 to 14 archeologists. Items found include regimental buttons, coins, shako plates that adorned cylindrical military hats, pieces of crockery, beef and fish bones, an intact ceramic container the size of a beer bottle that held ink for a quill pen, and even children’s marbles.  

“This is a unique opportunity to work on one of the most important national historic sites in Canada, said Mr. Jarrett. It also has a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site designation.

Final planning for the series of digs on the grounds of Parliament Hill began in 2017.

The archeological team dug trenches in July 2018, and their first major find was the barracks. Next, they located the powder magazine and cookhouse. The archeological studies for these was completed in 2018.

Well-preserved guardhouse located

In 2019, a dig for the guardhouse began. Mr. Jarrett said it is remarkably well-preserved. There was concern that it would have suffered damage from modern-day infrastructure projects, but this was not the case.

Although they had archival plans to guide them, there were a few surprises. “We found an extension to the guard house that was not in the plans. It was added during the 1850s,” said Mr. Jarrett.

The basement and first floor foundations of the guardhouse have been carefully dug out from the soil and brought back into the light after being demolished to make way for the Parliament Buildings. The foundations were built from irregularly sized stones quarried further east on the Hill.

“The building had three levels: a basement, first floor and second floor,” he noted. “The second floor was the hospital which served the canal workers and the army people,” he said. He also pointed out three small square jail cells, which were likely the first in Ottawa when it was still called Bytown.

He said the building was founded directly on the bedrock. “You can still see striations from the glaciers that moved southeast across the land.”

Possible future tourist site

Will the dig site be buried again once the search for valuable artifacts is complete?

“It is being considered as a permanent tourist attraction but this is still under review,” said Asha-Rani Boucher-Sharma, PSPC Senior Project Manager in charge of the Assessment Program of the CBRP.

She described how the team removed part of the guardhouse structure and electronically mapped it so that it could be rebuilt precisely as it was.

In July 2019, the dig was open for public tours on two weekends, prompting the idea of a permanent visitor experience site.

Although it isn’t known when the buildings were demolished to make way for the Parliament Buildings, it was probably during the 1860s. Some of the Barrack Hill buildings were still in use during and shortly after construction of the new complex. Only 34 years after the completion of the canal, the Parliament Buildings were completed. It is likely that some of the original stone was re-purposed for the new buildings.

How Barrack Hill came to be

Between 1827 and 1858, Barrack Hill was the site where Lieutenant-Colonel John By and the British Royal Engineers had their military quarters. They designed the Rideau Canal and supervised its construction.

The Engineers were supported by two British Army construction companies, the 7th and the 15th Royal Sappers and Miners, comprised of about 160 skilled craftsmen and soldiers with extensive construction experience. They, in turn, oversaw more than 6,000 labourers during the construction.

They constructed several buildings on the Hill, including three barracks, a guardhouse, a cookhouse and a hospital. These structures served as the headquarters for the six-year period that it took to build the Rideau Canal and were in use for about 30 years.

A brief history of the Rideau Canal construction

The Canal was originally built following the War of 1812 for a military purpose: to provide an alternate supply route from Montreal to Kingston during a time when the only other route, the St. Lawrence Seaway, was vulnerable to attack from the American side.

That attack never came, and today, the Rideau Canal is known today for pleasure boating in summer and as one of the longest skating rinks in the world in winter.

The first shovelful was turned in the fall of 1826 and by the time the final stone was in place a mere six years later in the spring of 1832, more than 202 kilometres of earth and rock had been moved using explosives, picks, shovels, wheelbarrows – and plenty of sweat and blood.

The Canal was built by more than 6,000 labourers, many of them Irish immigrants and French Canadians. An estimated 1,000 died from blasting accidents, rock falls and malaria so bad that work often ground to a halt in late summer due to widespread illness. Even LCol By suffered from malaria on more than one occasion.

Following the completion of the Canal, about 70 members of the Sappers and Miners remained in Canada, with some serving as lockmasters along the canal.

To comment on this article, visit the Canadian Army's Facebook Notes

Date modified: