Well, aren't we all a-twitter with a sense of our importance on the world stage. The front pages of our local newspaper have been front and centre of late with news that Ottawa's Rideau Canal has been nominated for heritage status by the United Nation's World Heritage Committee. Actually, it's anticipated that approval is on the near horizon.
The 21-nation body appears to be convinced that the Rideau Canal's history, geography and the technological advance that it represents in a then-hostile geography makes it truly remarkable and a likely candidate for world heritage status. This will be, post-approval, Canada's 14th designated world heritage site. So, good on us. Eh?
True, this was an engineering feat of great foresight and boldness for its time, well over a century ago. The original intent behind the building of the canal was to keep Canada's borders and its population safe from a potential invasion by its neighbour, the United States. Planning commenced for the Ottawa-to-Kingston canal in the 1820s. At that time the British, which ruled the Dominion of Canada looked for a way to bypass the St.Lawrence River in the event of a conflict like the War of 1812.
The canal was completed by 1832, completing six years of labour, supervised by Lt.-Col. John By and the Royal Engineers. Ottawa was in fact, named Bytown in honour of Lt.Col. By, before it was designated by Queen Victoria as the capital of Canada, and re-named Ottawa. It was difficult, miserable work to complete the canals, and many of the workers died in the attempt. Ottawa was a malarial swamp in part at the time, and many of the workers contracted malaria.
Today the canal, which stretches down the middle of the city, is a great recreational playground. The locks are lifted in the summer months and pleasure craft enjoy boating down it. In the winter months when the level of the canal is deliberately lowered, the water freezes over, the National Capital Commission carefully grooms the resulting ice, and we have what is proudly billed as the "longest skating rink in the world", drawing masses of tourists, and encouraging some government workers to skate from home to work and back again.
Not to take any pride away from the potential of Canada's 14th world heritage site designation through the United Nations, nor the great technical feat accomplished one hundred years ago in swamp-infested, malarial-emerging Ottawa by the work invested in the Canal through the labour of Irish immigrants under the watchful eye of Colonel John By, but it's instructive to look to history and the building of canals and waterways.
Six hundred years ago and even earlier, engineering feats of great foresight and boldness in scope and technical advance were being advocated, their economies of construction weighed, and the enterprises either rejected as improbable, or too expensive to pursue - or embarked upon. The construction of the Rideau Canal originally envisioned as a defensive move against the encroaching armies of the U.S. into sovereign Canada, had its earlier counterparts.
None less an historic genius than Leonardo da Vinci turned his attention to an impending disaster hanging over Venice with the potential invasion of Turkish troops. Leonardo da Vinci determined that such an invasion involved crossing the Isonzo River; he planned to build a zigzag dam diverting the course of the river, planning sluices on the Isonzo: "The more muddied the water is, the more it weighs, and the more it weighs the faster it moves in its descent; and the faster a body moves the harder it hits its object."
Later, in peacetime Florence, he proposed that the lower Arno River should be regulated from above Florence and a canal cut from it to pass through Prato, Pistoia and Serravalle, emptying into the sea through the Stagno marshes. Leonardo enumerated an entire list of industries that would benefit by the canal: corn mills, silk-spinning mills giving large employment; ribbon-weaving sheds, forges, mills for grinding saltpetre, knife-grinding works, paper mills, water-driven potters' wheels, fulling mills, water-driven saws and arms-polishing factories.
Later Leonardo busied himself with canalization work in Lombardy. The use of locks was already known as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century. In a period of five years over fifty miles of canals were built, with twenty-five locks. Leonardo made improvements in the design of locks, drawing them with cheek gates in the middle of the 15th century, providing them with various devices for closing; sometimes lifted by two chains wound on a windlass fixed on the bank; others designed with a trapdoor moved by an oblique draw-bar or made to tip by heavily laden vessels.
How's that for historical perspective and creative genius?
Labels: Realities, Whoops