Editor’s Note: This is the second instalment in a multi-part series of stories spotlighting the communities of the Rideau Canal.
By Ken Watson
What sets the Rideau apart from other lakes and river systems is its rich history. The oldest continuously operated canal in North America, the locks work today much as they did when first opened in 1832. The canal, built in a wild frontier of lakes, rivers and swamps is an engineering marvel and a testament to human genius, sacrifice, and perseverance.
For a number of years I’ve been compiling the histories of communities in the Rideau corridor for posting to several websites I operate. This information is a consolidation of those histories, with communities listed from south to north along the route.
About Chaffey’s Lock
Is it Chaffeys Locks, Chaffeys Lock or Chaffey’s Lock? The official name of the community is Chaffeys Locks but locals prefer the use of Chaffey’s Lock. The lockstation at this location is known as Chaffeys Lock.
Chaffey’s Lock is located on the Rideau Canal between Opinicon and Indian lakes. It is accessible from Highway 15 via Chaffeys Lock Road, CR.9. It is a small community that grew up around the Rideau lockstation at this location. Today you’ll find two marinas, one with a liquor store, a restaurant, pub, ice cream shop, and a museum.
The restaurant, pub and ice cream shop are all part of the Opinicon, formerly a hotel and resort. Adjacent to the lock you’ll find the Lockmaster’s House Museum operated by the Chaffey’s Lock and Area Heritage Society. The Cataraqui Trail, part of the Trans-Canada trail system, crosses over the Rideau Canal, on the old iron railway bridge at this location. There is also the short Marion Dunn Trail that leads from the community hall to the Chaffey’s Lock Cemetery.
In 1820, brothers Samuel and Benjamin Chaffey erected a sawmill here. In 1822 Samuel started building other mills and by 1826 had a sawmill, grist mill, carding mill and a distillery in operation.
The original plan for the Rideau Canal in this area called for two detached locks with one of those in a bypass channel that would allow the mills to continue operating. This proved impossible and in the end, Colonel By bought out the mills. Samuel Chaffey had died in 1827 and there was some delay as his widow, Mary Ann, and his brother Benjamin, disputed the ownership of the mills. That was settled in October 1829 and the mills were removed in 1830 and a single lock was built in the middle of the channel. The contractor for the site was John Sheriff & Co. Sheriff died and his partner John Haggart completed the job. One traveller commented that this spot was known as Haggart’s Job, “as under the management of a jolly bachelor of that name, well known for convivial hospitality to all travellers by this route.”
There was no community at this site after the completion of the canal, just the lockstaff resided here. In 1844, a single storey defensible lockmaster’s house was built (the second storey was added in 1894/95). In 1872, John Chaffey, a nephew of Samuel Chaffey, built a gristmill, the same one that can still be seen today (although now with a wooden rather than stone front due to flood damage early in the 20th Century). This was the start of the community. In 1884, a kingpost truss wooden bridge was built across the lock.
In about 1899, Lockmaster William Fleming acquired the property the Opinicon sits on today. He built a tourist lodge in this location. In about 1902, William Laishley bought the property, added a wing to the building and called it Idylwild. He operated it as a tourist resort until 1904 when he sold it to a fishing club from Youngstown, Ohio, which operated it as a private club known as the “Opinicon Club.” In 1921 it was purchased by Mae and William Phillips of Pittsburgh who turned it back into a public tourist resort. The Opinicon had many years of glory as a resort. Today it has been restored by Fiona McKean and her husband Tobi Lutke, Shopify founder, and is operated as a restaurant and pub.
In 1912, the Canadian Northern Railway came to Chaffeys and built the iron railway bridge, part of their Montreal to Ottawa to Toronto line. The tracks were lifted in the early 1990s and, in 2000, it became a crossing for the Cataraqui Trail, part of the Trans-Canada Trail system.
During WWI, a convalescent hospital was built on Fettercairn Island (today’s Richardson Island) in Indian Lake. Injured and shell-shocked troops arrived by train to Chaffeys and were boated to the island to enjoy the recuperative relaxation powers of the Rideau.
The early development of tourism was due to the tremendous fishing in the surrounding lakes, particularly for largemouth bass. In the 20th Century, Chaffey’s became a central hub for the Rideau fishing guiding industry.
Newboro, a small community located on County Road 42, is a popular destination spot for anglers wishing to land one of the big largemouth bass that populate Newboro Lake. It is also a popular stop for boaters since Newboro is located adjacent to the Newboro lockstation of the Rideau Canal. It’s a good spot to restock supplies or have a quiet lunch or dinner at one of the local restaurants or Inns.
Newboro hosts one of the four blockhouses built by Colonel John By to protect the Rideau. Whether you come by boat or by car, the lockstation is a nice place to stop, get out, and stretch your legs. Also, check out the Newboro Loon, located in “downtown” Newboro.
Newboro is one of the few communities that arose as a direct result of the building of the Rideau Canal. Originally known as “The Isthmus,” it marks the watershed divide between waters flowing north to Ottawa and those flowing south to Kingston. Colonel By faced a significant challenge here, he needed to blast a canal cut through hard rock, in order to join Mud Lake (now Newboro Lake) with Rideau Lake. The original plan did not call for a lock at Newboro. There were going to be two locks at Chaffey’s Mills, sufficient to raise the water level to that of Rideau Lake. However, more detailed surveys of Mud Lake showed that this could not be done, the only solution was to put in a lock at The Isthmus.
The building of the canal at The Isthmus was a major battle with nature. During the original survey of the area, no borings had been done, so the hard rock underlying the area came as a surprise. The two contractors, Hartwell and Stevenson, were forced to abandon their contracts. By, in 1829, put the work directly under the command of the 7th Company of Royal Miners and Sappers. In 1830, there were 62 military personnel and 270 labourers stationed at The Isthmus. Malaria, then called “Lake Fever,” attacked most of the men during the first week of August. The “sickly season” as it was known, was usually over by early September. In 1830, some 250 of the 330 men at the site were sick with fever and 14 died. An equal number of women and children on the site were also affected by malaria.
In addition to the building of the lock at The Isthmus, an additional alteration was made to the original plan, that of adding a lock and a dam at a narrowing of Rideau Lake. Surveys showed that the west end of Rideau Lake could be raised by five feet. So Narrows Lock was built, raising the water level of Upper Rideau Lake, and reducing the depth of the required rock excavation in the Newboro canal cut.
During the construction of the canal, some 60 log buildings sprang up. Many were built to house the workers, but some were built by merchants near the bridge over the canal cut, taking advantage of the captive market. This was the start of the village of Newboro.
After the construction of the canal, the community at The Isthmus was called New Borough and in 1836 the post office built there shortened it to ‘Newboro.’ It was incorporated as a village in 1876.
Newboro served as a service centre for commercial boat traffic plying goods up and down the Rideau. By 1850 it had a population of 300. The stone bridge abutments that boat travellers see in the canal cut were built in the late 1800s. One was for the B&W Railway, built from Brockville to Westport, and completed in 1888. The other was for the original highway through the area. The highway was re-aligned in 1952 and a new concrete bridge was constructed. In 1953, the railway closed and the bridge was removed.
Westport, a quiet little village with a population of about 700, is a very popular destination spot for tourists due to the number of interesting shops in the town. Whether you come by boat or by car, you will find that Westport caters to most of your needs. Situated at the head of Upper Rideau Lake, Westport has rolling farmland to the south and more rugged terrain, in the form of Foley Mountain, to the north. In addition to public docking facilities, Westport offers a full range of land-based accommodations.
There is a lot to do and see in Westport. There are many interesting shops, two local golf courses and swimming beaches. The nature enthusiast will want to visit Foley Mountain Conservation Area, which offers a great view of Westport, as well as provides for many opportunities for hiking and nature viewing. The Rideau Trail, extending from Kingston to Ottawa, runs through the Foley Mountain Conservation Area.
Events in Westport include the “WestPorch” music festival, which debuted last September.
The first settlers to the Westport area arrived in the period between 1810 and 1820. The land on which Westport now sits was originally granted by the Crown to a Mr. Hunter, but he never settled in the area, and it passed through several hands before being purchased by Reuben Sherwood in 1817. Some of this land was later purchased by the Stoddard and Manhard families. The small community that was beginning to grow was known at that time as Head of the Lake. In 1828, Stoddard built a sawmill and in 1829 the Manhards built a sawmill and gristmill. It became known at that time as ‘Manhard’s Mills.’
It was two local merchants, Aaron Chambers and Lewis Cameron, who in 1841, named the village Westport, the name reflecting its location at the west end of Upper Rideau Lake. The village of Westport was incorporated in 1904.
Westport remained a thriving commercial centre through the 19th Century and into the 20th Century. The building of the Rideau Canal allowed goods to be shipped north to Ottawa and south to Kingston by water. In 1882, an entrepreneur named R.G. Harvey proposed an ambitious project to build a railway from Brockville to Sault Ste. Marie. The project ran out of money after the section from Brockville to Westport had been completed in 1888. The Brockville-Westport line (B&W) moved goods, mail and people to and from the St. Lawrence and Westport. The rail line also brought tourists north to Westport, starting a now century-old tradition of Westport as a tourist destination. The last train travelled the B&W line in 1952.
Ken Watson is the author of four books about the history of the Rideau Canal and one all about paddling the Rideau Canal (which includes a lot of history). He also edited and produced the 1839 to 1850 journal of Lockmaster Peter Sweeney
(The Sweeney Diary).
To learn more about his publications visit Rideau-info.com/canal/books.html.