Friday, 24 July 2015




Over the last 12 weeks, I have become intimately acquainted with one particular 19th century gentleman: Colonel By. No, this is not a modern version of Outlander (sorry). In truth, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be the Program Intern at the BYTOWN MUSEUM in Ottawa this summer. The museum is housed in the Commissariat Building, the oldest stone structure in Ottawa. It was built at the beginning of the construction of the Rideau Canal in the mid-1820s beside the first set of locks that join the Canal and the Ottawa River. Today is my final day at the museum and this is also my final post for Musings before the blog takes an August hiatus so the hardworking contributors who make it such a success can have a much-deserved rest. Therefore, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to shine the Walk of Fame spotlight on the man Ottawa owes its greatness to and who oversaw the building of the structure that would come to house an exceptional community museum.

A photograph of a bust of Colonel By in the BYTOWN MUSEUM's collection. Source.

Today, the BYTOWN MUSEUM honours the history of the capital of our country, from the region’s first peoples to the present day. In 1827, when it’s current home was erected, the Rideau Canal project was just getting off the ground under the supervision of Royal Engineer Lieutenant-Colonel John By, who was born in 1779 in England and received a military education there. The settlement that sprung up around the Canal was first called Bytown after – you guessed it – the Colonel. The waterway was a reaction to the War of 1812, as there was a prevalent fear that the United States of America would stage an invasion into Canada, and soldiers required easy access to the Great Lakes through Kingston, the settlement on the opposite end of the 202-kilometre Canal. The Commissariat was needed to store supplies, ammunition, and money, so it was one of the first structures By built.

If I know anything about certain readers of this article (hello brilliant Bytown Museum staff!), it is that they all know Colonel By quite well, so I wanted to present some facts about him in a way that could serve as a general knowledge test, just to shake things up. Inspired by comedian Jimmy Fallon’s popular “True Confessions” sketches, you are asked to puzzle out whether each statement is a fact or a falsehood. A key at the end of the article will indicate the correct answers. Good luck!

The Commissariat Building is tucked alongside the Entrance Locks to the left of Parliament. Photo: Madeline Smolarz


1. The word "Bytown" was first used by Colonel By in reference to the village that would become Ottawa in 1827.

2. The Earl of Dalhousie acquired the land on which the Commissariat Building is constructed and gave it to Colonel By.

3. Sir John Franklin of the famed lost Arctic expedition was invited by Colonel By to lay the cornerstone of the third of the eight locks at the entrance to the Rideau Canal.

4. In recognition of his hard work and significant contribution to the development of Ottawa, Colonel By was a highly respected figure throughout his entire life and after his death.

5. Before serving as superintendent of the building of the Rideau Canal, Colonel By put his military education to use by serving in the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal.

6. Sleigh Bay - the dip in the Ottawa River where the entrance to the Rideau Locks is located - was chosen by Colonel By.

7. The watercolour silhouette portrait below from the BYTOWN MUSEUM's collection by an unknown artist was dedicated to Colonel By's wife Esther.

A silhouette portrait of Colonel By. Source.

8. Colonel By commissioned a residence for himself and his wife to be built on the eastern hill overlooking Sleigh Bay so it would be ready before he arrived in 1826.

9. During the building of a particularly difficult dam a few kilometres from the entrance locks, By was almost washed away when it developed a leak and collapsed.

10. Travel by canoe, though the easiest form of aquatic transportation at the time, was something Colonel By despised and he avoided it at all costs.


1. Falsehood - The letter in which By calls the settlement at the mouth of the Rideau Canal "Bytown" for the first time was written in July 1829.

2. Fact- The Earl purchased a total of 415 acres from Hugh Fraser in 1823 and handed it over to Colonel By to serve as a site for the first set of locks of a canal.

3. Fact - Franklin canoed down the Ottawa River in August 1827 after one of his visits to the Arctic prior to his ill-fated voyage, and By asked him to stay to officiate the laying of a cornerstone.

4. Falsehood - By actually died in disgrace in England, having left Bytown in the early 1830s after being accused of copious overspending and mismanagement during the Rideau Canal project.

5. Fact - The Peninsular War was a 7-year conflict between the allies of Britain, Spain, and Portugal against Napoleon's Empire, and many British soldiers including By himself fought the French abroad.

6. Falsehood - The inlet also known as Entrance Bay was chosen by two men: Colonel By and his staunch supporter Lord Dalhousie.

A beautiful early depiction of Sleigh / Entrance Bay and the first eight locks of the Rideau Canal. Source.

7. Falsehood - In John By's own hand, this silhouette is dedicated to Robert Drummond, one of the five civilian contractors from Montréal commissioned to do the masonry of the Rideau Canal.

8. Falsehood - By's home was constructed after his arrival on the hill now called Major's Hill Park. He and his wife Esther likely lived in an inn until it was prepared.

9. Fact - The dam at Hogs Back was nearly completed in April 1829. However, as By stood upon it one day, he narrowly escaped when it suddenly fell apart. It took two more years to complete the dam.

10. Falsehood - By thoroughly enjoyed canoeing, whether on the Ottawa River or  the Rideau Canal route. His assistant John MacTaggart even observed him running dangerous rapids.

A very warm thank you to the BYTOWN MUSEUM staff who have made me feel so welcome the past twelve weeks and who have taught me not only everything they know about Col. By, but also the power of a dedicated and supportive team. I will miss you all dearly.

The magnificent Bytown Museum Team at the end of Canada Day. Source.

Sources Consulted

Carlile, Janet, Lily Kiltun, Steven C. McNeil, Rosemarie L. Tovell, and René Villeneuve. 2011. Hidden Treasures from the BYTOWN MUSEUM. Ottawa, Ontario: The Bytown Museum.

Hirsch, R. Forbes. 1982. The Commissariat: Survivor of the Bytown Era. Ottawa, Ontario: Historical Society of Ottawa.

Schliesmann, Paul. 2010. The Rideau Canal: A Historical Guide. Louisville, Kentucky: Four Colour Imports.

Serré, Robert. 2011. Bytown at Your Fingertips / Bytown en toutes lettres. Ottawa, Ontario: The Bytown Museum.

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