Loss and Locks: The Dark Side of the Rideau Canal


The Rideau Canal: the perfect place to have a picnic, take an evening stroll, or see a ghost. When most people think of the world-famous waterway, they conjure up images of Beavertails and ice skates or the leaf-strewn bike paths along the sparkling water. What some may not realize is that the Canal claimed many lives during its construction, making it the perfect place for paranormal activity.

Building of the Rideau Canal began in 1826 under the direction of Colonel John By, leading to the formation of Bytown—now Ottawa. It is estimated that 2,000-4,000 men worked on the Canal per year. Bush, swamp, and rock made construction difficult and the dangerous work and unhygienic living conditions contributed to approximately 1,000 deaths between 1826 and the waterway’s opening in 1832. Disease was the biggest cause of death, particularly malaria.  For more detailed information, read “History of the Rideau Canal”.

To accommodate these deaths, cemeteries were built close to the worksites.  Three are still accessible to the public; the rest have disappeared over the years. While it is safe to assume that graves would have been relocated before new construction began, the recent discovery of bodies near Queen Street hints otherwise. How many other bodies unknowingly lie below us? I think about the times that I’ve taken a book and spent blissful afternoons lounging under trees. Perhaps those solitary outings were not as solitary as I thought.

I have spent many hours along this iconic landmark and I have yet to experience anything paranormal but several ghost stories have popped up since its existence.


An old supply manager, Duncan McNab, and Colonel By himself reportedly haunt the former supply storehouse and treasury—now the Bytown Museum. Both visitors and staff have reported odd occurrences such as the sound of children crying, men’s voices, winking dolls and rattling doors.

Not all Canal-related deaths occurred during its construction. Davy Davidson was murdered after pack peddlers who were travelling along the canal invaded his home on Lake Opinicon—a lake that was formed during the building of the waterway. It was a grizzly murder but it’s rumoured that Davidson’s spirit is friendly. Several people have claimed to see the ghost canoeing across the lake.

The Rideau Canal is a beautiful feat of engineering and should be enjoyed by those who visit it but we should remember the sacrifice that was put into its construction. Next time you're admiring it, keep your eyes open and your senses alert; your peaceful walk might turn into a paranormal experience. 


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Michelle Savage is a second-year Professional Writing student at Algonquin College who is hoping to turn her love of writing into a career. When she’s not buried in a book, she can be found on her yoga mat, on a hiking trail, or exploring one of Ottawa’s museums.