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A Very Brief History of the Tay Canal

The year 2009 marked the 175th Anniversary of the completion of the first Tay Canal, which ran from Perth to Port Elmsley, where it connected to the Rideau Canal system. That this first Tay Canal was built at all is a tribute to the vision and perseverance of a few area entrepreneurs, who came forward when the government of the day forgot its promise to provide better access to outside markets for local produce. However, planning and building such a major project for a new town was not without its problems, and both the first and second canals are the source of many good stories. The characters involved were no less interesting – from Colonel By, to the son of Benedict Arnold, federal ministers, and even pirates.

Rideau Steamers at Perth The project to build the canal was, above all, a commercial venture and the Tay Navigation Company was established to sell shares to build it, and to develop the turning basin at Perth. The basin was paid from the proceeds of the sale of lots beside the canal, on Cockburn Island.

The first Tay Canal opened in 1834, only two years after the government-led (and well-funded) Rideau Canal system. It consisted of five rubble locks and adjoining dams, located between its origin at Port Elmsley and the Town. Three of the locks were close together near the beginning, and the fourth several miles upstream. Despite its less-than-optimum quality, it did open up transportation and markets for the area. Eventually, however, canal fees not being adequate to maintain it, the canal structures began to deteriorate, and for a period it served only log rafts. In the 1860s, a movement began to re-build it, with government funding. This time the lower portion of the canal was re-routed to Beveridge Bay, by-passing the traditional entry to the Tay system at Port Elmsley, and requiring only one set of locks.

(The sources of this history are ‘History of the Tay Canal’, by Susan Code, and ‘The First Tay Canal’, by H. R. Morgan. The source of picture: Perth Museum)

For more a more extended history see : History of the First Tay Canal

The Present

Today, the ten kilometre long Tay Canal is a little-known gem for recreation boaters, canoeists, fishers, hunters, wildlife watchers – and tow path hikers. The trip begins with a short dug canal section beginning at Beveridge Locks; from there boats pass through the wide, provincially significant Tay marsh, which offers great bird watching; the upper segment to Perth is a narrow, quiet waterway that takes one back 175 years to the early canal. In Perth, facilities are available for boaters to dock at both the Last Duel Park and, upstream, for boats less than about six feet high, the Perth Basin dock. The Last Duel Park offers overnight facilities and a camp ground.

For more information about travelling the Tay Canal see: A Trip up the Tay Canal

The upper Tay watershed is a major contributor to the Tay and Rideau Canals water levels by virtue of the reservoir created at Bobs & Crow lakes, in 1871, by the Bolingbroke Dam.

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Perth, the Capital of the District of Dalhousie; from the N-East bank of the River Tay - painting by Thomas Burrowes, 1828, Archives of Ontario, I0002141

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