This year Ottawa’s Colonel By Day – Civic Holiday Monday – falls on what would be our city’s founder’s 238th birthday! In addition to the Museum’s 100th anniversary, Canada’s 150th anniversary, and the 10th anniversary of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we have even more reason to celebrate!
John By, son of George By and Mary Brian, was born in the borough of Lambeth, Greater London, on August 7, 1779. Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps in the customs service, By attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, obtaining a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in August of 1799, soon after transferring to the Royal Engineers. By served at Plymouth and obtained the rank of First Lieutenant before being ordered to the Canadas in 1802, where he worked on the defences at Quebec as well as the construction of a canal near Île des Cascades.
With the outbreak of the Peninsular War, By was engaged in the siege of Badajoz, Spain in 1811 before returning to England the following year to take charge of the gunpowder works Waltham Abbey. After his first wife, Elizabeth Baines, died childless, he took a second wife, marrying Esther March in 1818. They would have two daughters: Esther and Harriet Martha.
In March of 1826, now Lieutenant-Colonel John By was selected by General Gother Mann, Inspector General of Fortifications, to supervise the construction of a new military canal linking the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario via the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers. By returned to Canada in May of that year and set about engaging contractors and labourers, and was later joined – at his request – by two companies of Sappers and Miners, and officers of the Royal Engineers. Construction of the Rideau Canal took five working seasons, and was the largest engineering project in the British Empire.
In May of 1832 By and his family boarded the steamship Pumper (renamed Rideau in honour of the occasion) for the inaugural journey though the completed canal. However, his achievements were soon overshadowed by his recall to England to answer for overspending. By, adamant that the canal’s locks be enlarged to accommodate steamships, and encouraged by the words of Wellington to “not wait for Parliamentary Grants, but to proceed with all despatch…” was to become a scapegoat for an overstretched government. Despite latent support from his fellow officers, By was publically reprimanded; his reputation all but ruined.
Lieutenant-Colonel John By, demoralized, retired to his residence at Shernfold Park, where he passed away on February 1, 1836.
Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Historical Society of Ottawa, By’s reputation was restored, his achievements celebrated, and he is now fondly remembered not only as the builder of the impressive Rideau Canal, but also as the founder of what would become our nation’s capital.
Happy Birthday Colonel By!