Famous Scot - Thomas McKay (1792 - 1855) - Builder of Ottawa

By John DeVries (original published in the Ottawa Construction Comment Spring/Summer 2004)

If asked to put together an Ottawa "All-Star" team of builders from the last two centuries, Thomas McKay would likely be selected as Team Captain based on his considerable contribution to the start of the City of Ottawa.

Colonel John By

To tell the story of Thomas McKay, one must start with Colonel John By arriving at the settlement of Hull on September 21, 1826. The British Government had tasked Colonel By with the responsibility of overseeing Canada's first mega project - the construction of a 13-mile water communication route from the Ottawa River to Kingston.

Colonel By arrived in Hull because there simply was no community of Ottawa to speak of in 1826. In fact, settlements in the new colony were still small, Quebec City have a population of only 22, 101; Montreal 22,356; Kingston 2,849 and York (as Toronto was to be known for some time yet) only 1, 677.

Colonel By's immediate priority was to select the best place to dig the entrance to the canal at the Ottawa River. Looking across the river from Hull on September 21, 1826, Colonel By's view was less than enticing - rocky cliffs and a shady forest of mainly beech and hemlock. In the townships of Nepean and Gloucester were six houses and a few log cabins.

Colonel By's choice of a deep cutting to be named Entrance Bay was approved formally by Lord Dalhousie, Governor-in-Chief of British North America, on September 26, 1826 when the Governor arrived to approve the final plans for the canal project. Lord Dalhousie concluded his visit by presenting Colonel By with a letter of authorization to proceed with the canal project. This letter, which is still in the records, may well be regarded as that on which the city of Ottawa was founded. This authorization laid the foundation for a bustling community that was unlike any other in Upper Canada and which sprang up literally overnight out of the wilderness.

Thomas McKay

Born in Perth, Scotland, in 1792, Thomas McKay began his career as a stonemason's apprentice. In 1817 he and his wife, Anne Christine Crichton, emigrated to Canada, settling in Montreal where he formed a partnership with another Scottish stonemason, John Redpath.

Both gentlemen, with their skilled mason workforce, earned considerable recognition and respect for their role in building the Lachine Canal in the early 1820s. With this success, it was inevitable that Colonel John By would search out these accomplished stonemason contractors in August of 1826 to discuss the Rideau Canal works.

The Union Bridge

Obviously Thomas McKay made an impact on Colonel By; immediately after Lord Dalhousie's approval on September 26, Thomas McKay was given a key contract for the necessary preliminary work - the "Union Bridge" across the Ottawa River at the Chaudiere Falls that would provide access from Hull to the site for the canal works. McKay's masonry contract was for the stone arches that were the first two of the right spans that comprised the bridge.

Considering the magnitude of the task, the limitations in materials and equipment, and the hazardous working conditions under which the project was realized, the construction of the "Union Bridge" was a major accomplishment. It is interesting to note that Colonel By established a toll for crossing the bridge - Ottawa's first infrastructure user fee!

The Commissary Building

At the end of November 1826, Colonel By awarded a contract to Thomas McKay to erect a commissary building beside the locks leading up from the Entrance Bay, and another building on the opposite site of the locks, to house workshops for carpenters, masons and smiths, as well as administration offices.

The commissary building took only six months to complete. All materials, stone, mortar, and timber used in the building came from the surrounding area and the joints were fastened with dowels - no nails were used anywhere in the entire structure. Ottawa's oldest existing stone structure, it still stands today and houses the Bytown Museum - a tribute to the craftsmanship of McKay's Scottish stonemasons.

While building the commissariat building, McKay also constructed Colonel By's residence, a beautiful, two-story dwelling that stood behind the present Chateau Laurier Hotel. The site was called the Colonel's Hill but became known as Major's Hill when By's successor, Major Bolton, moved into the house in 1932.

Controversy erupts

In the spring of 1827, controversy erupted over tenders for the first eight locks up from the Ottawa River. Every offer submitted to Colonel By was higher than he anticipated, so he refused all of them and advertised a second time. To his consternation, the lowest offers from the locks came from American contractors. After negotiating, the colonel was about to accept a tender from Walter Fenlon, when Thomas McKay lowered his bid. Since Colonel By had already recommended Fenlon to Lord Dalbousie, the Superintendent sent McKay to Quebec City to plead his case. Carrying a letter from Colonel John stating that McKay was a skilled mason, while Fenlon was only an excavator, McKay won the contract. In the future, Colonel By and Lord Dalhousie agreed, each contract would be considered on its merits, not solely on cost. It is interesting to note that some 175 years later, the Federal PWGSC is debating just such a procurement policy change.

Apart from their size and the complexity of the masony work, there was nothing spectacular about the building of the flight of locks. It is said that Thomas McKay's original contract prive was based on the use of stone to be quarried at Hull, but after the work had started, he got permission to use the limestone found in the cliffs adjacent to the locks. This can be confirmed by examining the original stonework and the rock on the cliffs near the level of the Ottawa River. The sand for the mortarcame from the mouth of the Gatineau River and the cement came from the limestone quarry that was opened up for this purpose in the forest behind the settlement of Hull. Initially the cut stones were set together in a dry state but it was soon found that some form of mortar connection was essential. So the stones in place were 'grouted" together in a manner which has many modern applications, using a long grouting tube into which a slurry of cement, sand and water was poured. McKay and his crew completed the locks by 1830.

Thomas McKay became attached to Bytown, as it became known, and he was the only one of all the major contractors on the Canal to stay on and make his residence there.

New Edinburgh

With his profits from the construction, McKay invested in property, purchasing 1,100 acres on the east side of the Rideau Falls, an area he viewed as potential industrial land, and named it New Edinburgh in 1833.

McKay encouraged other Scotsmen to settle in his village and before long he had established an impressive industrial complex which ultimately included two large sawmills, a gristmill, a cloth factory and facilities for manufacturing laths, shingles, stoves, sashes and doors. New Edinburg developed into a flourishing community with a number of fine stone buildings, built by McKay, and leased to commercial establishments. Several of the streets in this area still bear the names of McKay family members.

The Castle

By 1837, McKay was a wealthy man. That year, near the junction of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers, he and his most skilled masons began construction of his own mansion, known locally as "The Castle". A commodious limestone structure with eleven rooms, the Castle accommodated many prominent visitors, whom the McKays entertained with gracious hospitality. It still stands today and is known by the original name - Rideau Hall - given to it by McKay clearly as an indication of his close association with the Waterway.

The residence of Canada's Governor-General is yet another legacy of the Rideau Canal to Canada. Since the original purchase in 1868, the house was greatly expanded for use as a vice-regal mansion, but the original structure still remains.

One wonders how many Canadians today realize that the first home of the country was once the residence of a Rideau Canal contractor, that its main fabric was built by masons who laboured on the Canal, and in all probability, on the entrance locks which are so familiar a sight to all Ottawa residents.

For some years after the completion of the Rideau Canal, McKay continued his work as a masonry contractor. One of his best-known structures was the first Court House for Bytown completed in 1842.

McKay was also responsible for bringing the first railway to Ottawa, or rather to New Edinburgh. He saw to it that the first line to the Ottawa area came in to a station on Sussex Street. Into this little Terminal the first train steamed on Christmas Day, 1854.

McKay was elected as representative of Russell County in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada and served from 1834 to 1841. Following the Act of Union, he was appointed to the Legislative Council of the United Canadas and served there with distinction from 1841 to his death from cancer in 1855.

Within a 30-year period, Thomas McKay proved himself to be a great man with many varied and pub-spirited interests, in addition to being an unusually good masonry contractor. He was a true builder of Ottawa.

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