With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, thoughts are turning to all things Irish. But did you know that the Rideau Lakes community is awash in Irish heritage? Not only did Irish workers risk their lives to build the Rideau Canal, but Irish immigrants started settling here to farm, labour, worship and build communities more than two centuries ago.
This Irish heritage is honoured with historical sites throughout the region. Read on to plan a visit to seasonal landmarks that recall the Irish Heritage in Rideau Lakes.
Mission on the Mountain
As Irish immigrants began to call Rideau Lakes home, travelling priests provided religious services to the community. The first Catholic church in the township was built off of Parish Road in 1840 on land donated by an immigrant hailing from Northern Ireland. The log structure became known as the Mission on the Mountain. Now, surrounded by serene evergreen forest, a large stone cross stands at the site to commemorate the church, associated school and its Irish heritage.
Royal Sappers and Miners Cemetery
The Royal Sappers and Miners were a group of skilled craftsmen from Ireland, England and Scotland who supported the development of the Rideau Canal. According to a plaque in their memory at Newboro, the Royal Sappers and Miners comprised of 160 skilled craftsmen and labourers under the Royal Engineers. The 7th Company transferred to help in the completion of the canal at the Isthmus, the only section beyond Bytown built under direct military supervision. Fun fact: the height of land at the Isthmus - the area around what later became Newboro – had to be excavated to link two watersheds. According to Rideau Lakes website, “This cut, through Precambrian bedrock, presented one of the greatest challenges of the Rideau Canal construction. Its completion came at the cost of the lives of labourers, as well as soldiers from the 7th Company of Royal Sappers and Miners, who died as a result of accidents and malaria. Nevertheless, these soldiers and labourers, along with their families, formed another influx of residents, some of whom settled in North Crosby.” Discover more about the Royal Sappers and Miners here.
Due to the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s, Irish families were suffering and leaving the country in large numbers. A significant number of Irish immigrants landed in the Rideau Lakes region. Many were able to stay with family and friends as they rebuilt their lives however some came without land or contacts. At this time, the Mountain was unsettled and provided a temporary home for some. Unfortunately, this rocky terrain was unfamiliar for the settlers and some did not make it. However, others settled on rich farmland elsewhere in Rideau Lakes and thrived – starting some of the most successful and prosperous farms in the township. Several of these early stone and wooden farm houses are still serving as residences, especially on the fertile land between Newboro and Westport.
Celtic Cross and Irish labour
It has been recognized that Irish labour built the Rideau Canal. According to Rideau historian, Ken Watson, about half to two-thirds of the labour force that built the Canal were immigrant Irish. As such, the Celtic cross appears in several places throughout the township, but most prominently in Chaffey’s Lock. A large Celtic Cross stands near the community hall in Chaffey’s Lock, in memory and recognition of the canal workers who lost their lives building the Rideau Canal. In fact, a plaque at the cemetery nearby to honour Irish workers in Chaffey’s reads, “This half-acre cemetery became the final resting place for many Irish immigrants who died at Chaffey’s Mills during construction of the Rideau Canal. Chaffey’s Mills was one of several locks and canal construction sites where malaria, a disease not understood then, devastated the labour force. During the late summers of each year from 1828 to 1832 up to 95 per cent of the workers were stricken. Most of these Irish immigrants had no family or ties here… no record exists today of their names to enable us to honour them as individuals who helped build this country… this plaque is dedicated to the memory and contribution of those brave Irish immigrants.”
Irish Family Names of Rideau Lakes
Some familiar names in Rideau Lakes date back to the early 1800s and are Irish in origin! In the book, “Hub of the Rideau” by Susan Warren, we learn that the majority of European settlers to South Crosby in 1817 appear to have been Irish Protestant yeoman, many from the County Wexford. At least six local families including Shaw, Singleton, Jacobs, Leggett, and Stedmans arrived in 1818. The following year, the Sly and Cannon families arrived. By the mid-1820s, several more Irish families had put down roots in Rideau Lakes.
John Johnston, an Irish stonemason, was drawn by the construction of the Rideau Canal during the 1820s. The Youngs, Basses, Stouts, Cavanaghs and Morrises were all part of this second wave of immigration. These family names are still prominent in present-day Rideau Lakes. Explore more information and photos about Irish Roots of North Crosby.
Interested in learning more about the fascinating Irish history of Rideau Lakes? Check out the Rideau Lakes Historical Societies or visit the Rideau Lakes Public Library. Don’t forget to go green in Rideau Lakes this St. Patrick’s Day!