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Capital Builders: Lt.-Col John By, spending scapegoat


“Zealous and distinguished in his profession, tender and affectionate as a husband and a father, charitable and pious as a Christian, beloved by his family and lamented by the poor, he resigned his soul to his Maker, in a full reliance on the merits of his blessed Redeemer, on the 1st February 1836, aged 53 years, after a long and painful illness brought on by his indefatigable zeal and devotion in the service of his King and Country, in Upper Canada.”
– 
Inscription on a memorial to Lt.-Col. John By, erected by his wife Esther in the Church of St. Alban in Frant, England.

Lt.-Col. John By’s death in England in 1836 was an ignoble end to a life unfairly stripped of its due recognition. Four years earlier, By had completed work on the Rideau Canal, among North America’s most impressive feats of civil engineering. He had also founded and laid out a town — Bytown — that would become the nation’s capital. Yet instead of retiring with the knighthood he perhaps hoped for, By endured his final days under a cloud of impropriety shaped by unfounded accusations and political expedience.

Had he lived longer, By would have witnessed a further erosion of his legacy: Colonel’s Hill, where his house overlooked the canal, was renamed Major’s Hill Park for By’s replacement, Maj. Daniel Bolton. In 1855, Bytown was renamed Ottawa. In 1926, a small granite base for a statue of By was unveiled, but it would be 45 years before any statue appeared.

Statue of Lt-Col John By in Majors Hill Park.

The 202-kilometre Rideau Canal was built between 1826 and 1832 in the tense aftermath of the War of 1812 as an alternate military supply route between Upper and Lower Canada, should American forces blockade the St. Lawrence River between Kingston and Montreal. Its almost 50 locks (some now combined) raise watercraft 83 metres from the Ottawa River to Newboro, then lower them 50 metres to Lake Ontario and Kingston.

“By’s greatest contribution to the Canal,” wrote Mark Andrews in For King and Country, his 1998 biography of By, “and the reason for which he should be highly regarded, comes from his ability to mobilize, direct, and instill a desire to succeed in all those who were involved. Under his direction and guidance, the officers, contractors and workers overcame almost insurmountable obstacles in a wilderness environment and managed to complete the work in five short construction seasons.”

In September 1826, as he stood at Entrance Valley on the south side of the Ottawa River where the first lock was to be built, By faced a task every bit as daunting as the high cliffs that surrounded him. The unforgiving bedrock and clay soaring in front of him gave way to miles and miles of precambrian rock, mosquito-infested swampland and thick forests, all wrapped in extreme climates that alternately baked and froze workers.

This painting by Canadian Charles W. Jefferys (1869-1951), entitled Colonel John By, shows the Royal Engineer directing early construction on the Rideau Canal in 1826. Beside him is Thomas McKay.

The task itself was extremely dangerous. An estimated 1,000 men died during construction of the canal, most from disease, including about 500 of malaria. During the worst months of 1830, for example, from August through mid-September, almost 800 of the 1,300 men employed in the southern portion of the canal contracted malaria. Twenty-seven of them died, as did 13 women and 15 children.

Detail from a map drawn by Lt. Col. John By in January 1821, showing Ottawa (then Bytown) and the proposed Rideau Canal.

Additionally, many workers died in blasting explosions or were crushed by falling rocks or trees. John MacTaggart, then clerk of works for the canal, wrote, “I have seen heads, arms, and legs, blown in all directions; and it is vain for overseers to warn them of their danger, for they will pay no attention.” A half-acre parcel of land in what is now downtown Ottawa became a cemetery for canal workers, as did other sites along its route.

Colonel John By

As daunting as these challengers were, By’s troubles began even before his 1826 appointment as superintending engineer for the canal. A year earlier,

The Smyth Commission’s estimate for the canal’s construction — £169,000 after adjustments for larger locks — was approved by Britain. By expressed concern that the estimate was inadequate, and his own first detailed estimate, in 1827, was close to £475,000. By was meticulous and transparent in his accounting and estimates as the project eventually reached £822,000, but the initial figure forever haunted him as the marker by which costs were measured.

By, meanwhile, worked for, and answered to, the Ordnance Department, the engineering and fortifications branch of the British military. Ordnance made annual requests to Parliament for project funding, but it was decided to source the canal work by contract, rather than have it done by Ordnance itself. According to historian Ken W. Watson, this improved efficiency and costs, but as contracts were typically awarded for an entire project and not on a year-by-year basis, By was instructed by Ordnance to simply plough ahead without concern for the annual parliamentary grants. Yet when By was later recalled to England to face charges that he had wilfully deceived Parliament, Ordnance remained largely silent on the matter, lest blame fall its way.

By’s reputation had already suffered a major blow when, in 1830, Henry Howard Burgess, a clerk in the canal’s engineering office whom By had fired for repeated instances of insubordination and drunkenness, accused By of misuse of public funds. A Court of Inquiry fully exonerated By, but the charge left an indelible mark. 

A perfect political storm was brewing. In 1830, a new government was elected in Britain, ending almost a quarter-century of Tory rule. While historians agree that construction of the canal would likely never have been approved by any government had its actual costs been known at the start, the newly elected Whigs decided to make By the whipping boy for what they saw as the problems of previous governments.

On Friday, May 25, 1832, his canal completed, Lt.-Col. John By, his wife, Esther, and their two daughters, were aboard the 24-metre steamboat Pumper – renamed Rideau for the occasion – enjoying an inaugural cruise on the canal from Kingston to Ottawa. At various locks along his journey, crowds gathered to cheer as cannons thundered.

That same day, a clerk in London wrote a memorandum, or minute, following a meeting of the Lord Commissioners of the British Treasury, noting By’s supposedly unauthorized cost overruns and demanding his recall and dismissal. 

By received his recall on Aug. 11, 1832, unaware that Parliament had asked for his removal, or that a parliamentary committee had already heard testimony on cost overruns. He was never afforded the chance to defend himself to Parliament. Notably, however, at every hearing held over the six years he was in charge, By had been repeatedly exonerated of any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, on Sept. 1, 1832, he handed command of the canal over to Maj. Bolton and soon set sail for England.

Efforts to clear his name were futile. In 1833, By wrote to Gen. Robert Pilkington, Inspector General of Fortifications, asking that he be honoured with “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.” There is no record of Pilkington acting on By’s request.

In early 1836, By suffered a stroke and, three days later, resigned his soul to his maker. His wife resigned hers two years after that, while their daughters followed in 1842 and 1848. Both of By’s granddaughters died as youngsters. Within two decades of the canal’s completion, By’s branch of his family tree was extinguished. With no one championing his legacy, recognition for his accomplishments was slow in coming.

In 1915, two blocks from the demolished Sappers Bridge, the cornerstone of which was laid by By in 1827, were erected in Major’s Hill Park in his honour, and in 1925 the Rideau Canal was designated a National Historic Site.

In 1954, Colonel By Drive was named, and By was designated a National Historic Person by Canada’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board. The following year, a fountain dedicated to By – now located in Confederation Park – was unveiled. Buildings, a school and the local civic holiday in August have subsequently been named for him, and a postage stamp bearing his likeness was issued in 1979.

In 1971, 135 years after his death, a statue of Lt.-Col. John By, located in Major’s Hill Park, was finally erected, while UNESCO in 2007 designated the canal a world heritage site, noting that it meets the organization’s first criteria: “to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.”

Slowly, by increments, the capital is reclaiming one of its greatest builders.

 The Rideau Canal celebrated its 175th  anniversary in 2007

bdeachman@postmedia.com

Detail from a map drawn by Lt. Col. John By in January 1821, showing Ottawa (then Bytown) and the proposed Rideau Canal.

A John By Timeline

1779: Born in Lambeth, England to George and Mary By.

1799: Graduates from the Royal Military Academy and is transferred to the Royal Engineers.

1801: Marries Elizabeth Johnson Baines.

1802: Posted to Quebec City, and the following year begins reconstruction of the Cascades Canal on the St. Lawrence River.

1811: Takes part in the Peninsular War in Portugal.

1812: Posted to the gunpowder works at Waltham Abbey, near London.

1814: Elizabeth By dies.

1818: Marries Esther March. The couple has two daughters.

1826: Construction of the Rideau Canal is approved. By, appointed Commanding Royal Engineer, moves to Canada. Construction begins in the fall.

1828: The Kempt Commission approves By’s expanded plan for the canal.

1831-32: A parliamentary committee in London investigates cost overruns for the canal. Meanwhile, a Bytown court hears and dismisses charges of misappropriation against By.

1832: The Rideau Canal is completed. By is ordered back to Britain.

1836: By dies, Feb. 1, in Frant, after suffering a stroke.

MYSTERY OF THE AGE(S)

Not much is known of John By’s personal life. Even the precise year of his birth is the subject of some debate.

Records indicate that his parents, George and Mary, baptized a son, John, in Lambeth, England on Aug. 10, 1779. The Royal Engineers, meanwhile, listed By’s year of birth as 1781, while the memorial inscription authorized by his second wife, Esther, at the Bys’ church, indicates he was born in 1782 or ’83.

Biographer Mark Andrews argued in favour of the date promoted by By’s wife, suggesting that the 1779 baptism record may have been for an earlier sibling, also named John, who died in infancy; it was not uncommon then for parents to re-use given names, and an affidavit prepared in the 1850s by a neighbour of the Bys states that five By children died in infancy. Records from Lambeth also show a John By being buried there in 1775.

Most sources, however, including The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and historian Robert Legget, use the 1779 date. Grant Vogl, collections and exhibitions manager at the Bytown Museum, agrees, suggesting that Esther, By’s second wife, simply didn’t know his exact age.





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