Editor’s Note: This is the third 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.
Portland is a small village located on Big Rideau Lake and adjacent to Highway 15. Portland boasts two full-service marinas and is one of the main gateways for visitors to access Big Rideau Lake. There are a variety of places to stay in the area. Both boat tours and boat rentals are available in town.
In addition to boating, there are many things for the landlubber to do and see in the Portland area. The Cataraqui all-season trail passes just a bit east of town, golf courses are located nearby, one of the local B&Bs offer horseback riding, and cheese lovers will want to visit the Forfar dairy store, located just a few kilometres south of town.
Portland is one of the early settlements along the Rideau. Although land was granted in the area of Portland in 1801, it was not until the early 1820s that a community started to grow in the location of the present-day town. An 1818 map shows a trail leading to the location which is named “Old Landing.” An 1828 map also shows it as “Old Landing” with more of a substantial road leading to it (a road built in 1816). Local history credits the first settler on the village site as being Ami Chipman (b.1807, son of Heman Chipman). An 1830 map shows a “small settlement” in this location. The name of the small community was changed to Portland in 1833, in honour of William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, the 3rd Duke of Portland. The name Portland comes from the Isle of Portland, which lies offshore from Weymouth in Dorset, England.
Portland remained a centre of commerce through the 1800s, serving the commercial boat traffic that plied the Rideau. The business directory for 1866-67 listed coopers, hotel keepers, storekeepers, blacksmiths, wagon makers, mitten makers, a watch maker, a miller, and a dentist. When commercial activity along the Rideau slowed down in the early 1900s, the main activity in Portland became a service centre for local residents, including the many people starting to cottage on Big Rideau Lake. This remains Portland’s raison d’être to this day.
There are several interesting buildings to see in Portland. These include the Emmanuel Anglican Church located on the height of land at the south end of town which was built in 1862. It was expanded in 1885 and in 1897 a tower with a bell was added. Today it is the Emmanuel Heritage Centre run by the Portland on the Rideau Historical Society.
About Smiths Falls
Smiths Falls is a full-service community, located about halfway between Ottawa and Kingston. With a population of 9,000, it is the largest community in the Rideau Corridor. Smiths Falls offers a full range of services for the visitor including restaurants (including most “brand name” fast food outlets), a wide variety of stores, and much more. There are many available accommodations in Smiths Falls including inns, motels and B&Bs. Boaters will find ample dockage at Victoria Park, just a few minutes walk away from the centre of town.
There are lots of interesting sites to see in Smiths Falls. Prominent among these are the Rideau Canal Visitor Information Centre, the Railway Museum and the Heritage House Museum.
Another favourite pastime is watching the boats lock through the Rideau Canal locks. Smiths Falls hosts three lock stations, Smiths Falls Detached (1 lock), Smiths Falls Combined (1 lock) and Old Slys (2 locks). The central lock station, the Smiths Falls Combined Lock, was built in 1972-73, replacing a flight of three, now unused, locks. It boasts the greatest single lock lift on the Rideau Canal system, 7.9 metres (26 feet).
Smiths Falls provides the opportunity for many local recreation activities. There are several parks located in the town and two nearby golf courses. The town also has two arenas, a squash/curling club, tennis courts and more.
There is an event taking place in Smiths Falls almost every weekend throughout the summer months.
Originally known as Smyth’s Falls, it was named after Thomas Smyth, a United Empire Loyalist who received a 400-acre land grant in the area in 1786. Smyth did nothing with the land and in 1810 he mortgaged it to a man in Boston. In 1823, Smyth built a sawmill at Smyth’s Falls, but he never lived there, choosing to stay in Elizabethtown Township on the St. Lawrence and also at Burritts Rapids. Apparently the mortgage, which Smyth thought had been paid, had not, and in 1824 his ownership of the land was contested. Smyth lost the court case and the land was sold in 1825 to Charles Jones (of Jones Falls fame) who immediately sold it at a profit to Abel Russell Ward.
It was Ward who in 1826 was the first to move into the area and actively start to build a settlement. The building of the Rideau Canal, completed in 1832, greatly expanded the settlement. Now called Wardsville, it became the hub of commerce in the region. In 1836 the name of St. Francis was proposed, but most residents had reverted to using the original name of Smyth’s Falls, or Smiths Falls as it was now known.
In 1882 the village council wanted a new name. Rideau City and Atironda were put forward but the residents resisted, preferring the commonly used “Smiths Falls.” The town was incorporated in 1883. A clerical error at that time in Toronto resulted in the registration of the name as Smith’s Falls. That error was rectified in 1968, officially recognizing the long-standing use of the town’s name as Smiths Falls.
In the late 1800s, the railroad came to town. Rail transportation was taking over from water transportation and Smiths Falls benefited by becoming the hub of rail traffic in the region. A direct rail link was made from Smiths Falls to Montreal. The Canadian Northern Railway station, built in 1914, is now the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario. The last passenger train to stop at that station was in 1979. Today there is a small VIA Rail station at the north end of town. CPR used to have a train station here, but it was closed in 2011 and re-purposed as the Station Theatre.
One of the historic buildings in town is the Heritage House Museum. It was built in 1862 by Joshua Bates, a prominent miller and merchant. In 1977 the building was purchased by the Town of Smiths Falls and returned to its 19th Century glory. The Rideau Canal Visitor Information Centre is housed in an interesting building, part of the Woods Mill complex, established on Wards Island in the 1840s. The current stone buildings were built in 1887. Purchased by Parks Canada in 1981, the complex underwent extensive renovations. In 1991 the eastern half of the complex became the Rideau Canal Office of Parks Canada and the granary section became the Rideau Canal Museum. The museum was changed into the Rideau Canal Visitor Information Centre in 2012.
For more information about Smiths Falls read, “Smiths Falls: A Social History of the Men and Women in a Rideau Canal Community, 1794-1994” by Glenn J. Lockwood.
Merrickville, known as the Jewel of the Rideau, is a thriving community and a very popular destination spot for visitors coming by either land or water. The many stone buildings in town have been restored to their former glory and are now populated by a variety of shops. Those interested in arts, crafts, antiques or collectibles will find Merrickville to be a treasure trove of opportunity.
The village itself is a wonderful place to tour. It previously won the Communities in Bloom award for the Prettiest Village in Canada. A major feature in the village is the set of three locks on the Rideau Canal as it passes through town. You will find these adjacent to the blockhouse, built in 1832 to guard the locks. The blockhouse features a moat and drawbridge and it is open to the public. The locks operate today just as they did in 1832. Just across the bridge over the locks you will find the Industrial Heritage Complex Museum, the site of some of the original mills. In addition to in town shopping and sight seeing, there are several golf courses located in the area. Stop by The Depot, located on the waterfront in Blockhouse Park. It is a Rideau Canal interpretive centre run by Friends of the Rideau. There are a variety of accommodations available in or near Merrickville.
The first settler into the area was Roger Stevens who, in 1790, with his wife Polly and their three young children started to homestead on the shores of the Rideau River, near the border of Montague and Marlborough townships. Roger built a sawmill at the site of the “Great Falls” (today’s Merrickville). He drowned in the fall of 1793, apparently having sold his sawmill and property to William Mirick prior to his death. It doesn’t appear that Mirick did much with the sawmill at that time, likely because there was some issues with Mirick’s ownership. But by 1802/03 Mirick had settled here with his family and either rebuilt the original sawmill or built a new one and had also constructed a grist mill. In 1804 William Mirick received full title to much of the land that underlies present day Merrickville (he received another grant for more land in Merrickville in 1810).
The small community that had developed around the mills was known as Mirick’s, Mirrick’s or Merrick’s Mills. Mirick is the original Welsh spelling of this branch of the family. The post office, established in 1829, used the name Merrickville. However, the names Mirick/Mirrick and Merrick were used alternately. In 1860 the village was incorporated as Mirickville. In May 1862 the spelling was formally changed to Merrickville. The Mirick family also changed its name to Merrick at that time.
In 1815, Merrick’s Mills was connected to the St. Lawrence by a road extending from Prescott. However, given the condition of roads of that day, the primary means of transport was still by water. The building of the Rideau Canal was a boon for Merrickville. It was to be the site of three locks. These locks were positioned to the south of the main river and falls, in an excavated cut, so as not to disrupt the existing mills. A.C. Stevens was granted the contract for the lock work. Initial clearing was done in 1827, but it was not until 1828 that significant rock work was started.
When the canal opened in 1832 Merrickville thrived on the new commerce it generated. Goods could now be easily shipped to and from Kingston and Montreal. By the time of village incorporation in 1860, the population had grown to almost 1,000. The railroad, connecting Montreal to Toronto, reached Merrickville in 1887 and allowed a healthy commerce to continue.
By the early 20th Century, Merrickville, like many rural communities, was in decline. The population was decreasing as the young left town to seek work in urban centres. In the 1970s and 1980s Merrickville underwent a transformation. The lovely architecture of the town was an obvious tourist attraction. Work was done to preserve and enhance the historic values of the village. Businesses shifted to catering for the tourist trade, making Merrickville into what it is today.
Merrickville hosts many historic buildings. It has more buildings classified under the Ontario Heritage Act than any other village of its size in the province. The most distinctive is the Blockhouse, built in 1832, the largest along the Rideau Canal. In 1939 the Merrickville Blockhouse was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. It is a now a museum, open to public viewing. The Depot, located just upstream from the Blockhouse, was built in about 1868. The main mill industrial area is on an island on the north side of the bridge over the Rideau locks. Destroyed by fire, only the foundations remain, but Parks Canada has an interesting interpretation area describing the area’s past glory. Continuing father north, you will encounter an operating foundry (open to visitors), the oldest continuously operated foundry in Ontario. The buildings that house the present-day Alloy Foundry date to the mid-1800s. Aylings Boatyards is housed in mill buildings built in the mid-1800s by William Pearson and William Henry Magee.
Continuing on the north side of the river, there are several heritage buildings. William Mirick’s third house, located at 129 Mill Street was built sometime between 1821 and 1839. It attests to William Mirick’s prosperity. The Merrick Tavern located at 106 Mill Street, now a private residence, is one of the earliest surviving buildings in Merrickville.
For detailed information about the history of Merrickville, read “Merrickville, Jewel on the Rideau” by Larry Turner, 1995.
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.