Thomas Mackay: The most famous Ottawan no one knows about.

Thomas Mackay: The Laird of Rideau Hall and the Founding of Ottawa
Author: Alastair Sweeny
Publisher: University of Ottawa Press
Paper ISBN: 9780776636788

In 1792 Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe invited American Loyalists north to speed up colonisation. Thomas Mackay: The Laird of Rideau Hall and the Founding of Ottawa is a must-read history of the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada that tells the stories of these and other settlers who saw a glimmer of opportunity in this new land and went above and beyond to realize their vision.

After the British victories in the American War of 1812 (and their subsequent defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815), the British government wanted to ensure the security of the colonies from the Americans, who were known allies of the French. They also directed the British Royal Navy to look for alternate sources of timber and hemp for their fleet. These two factors led to the building of infrastructure, namely canals, to facilitate the transport of goods from the interior to Quebec and onto ships bound for England. It also opened safe supply roots to Lower Canada, namely Kingston.

By the time Thomas Mackay arrived in Montreal in 1817 with his wife and family, Boston native and empire loyalist Philemon Wright and his sons had been moving timber from Wrightstown (now Gatineau, Quebec) down the Ottawa River through the treacherous Lachine Rapids, all the way to Quebec City for over a decade.  

Mackay had cut his teeth apprenticing as a stonemason alongside his father in Scotland and quickly found work as a stonemason in Montreal. His work on Fort Lennox for Lord Wellington led to him being asked to bid on the Lachine Canal and then the Rideau Canal.

Thomas Mackay: The Laird of Rideau Hall and the Founding of Ottawa is much more than the life of Thomas Mackay and his vision for Bytown as the capital. Familiar to Ottawans by the names of streets in the capital — Richmond, Scott, By, Bell, Byron, Elgin, Dalhousie, Wellington, and many more — Alastair Sweeny tells the stories of the men behind the names and their contribution to Bytown. 

And then there is the incredible story of the “booty” of Spanish silver. Captured by the British Navy during wars against France and Spain, the bullion was held at the citadels in Halifax, Quebec, and at an Ordnance depot on Saint-Helen’s Island in Montreal.

Sweeny’s research uncovered the spurious charges levied against Lieutenant-Colonel John By, famous for overseeing the construction of the Rideau Canal, from the British Parliament for cost overruns in the building of the Rideau Canal were nothing but a political move. It turns out that the stores of silver bullions covered the canal expenditures. It is a great shame that Colonel By never received acclaim for his incredible achievement in his day.

Thomas Mackay worked directly with Colonel By. Both men had reputations for being perfectionists while also treating their workers with respect.

Mackay’s achievements are extensive: builder, legislator, militia leader, founding trustee of Queens, founder of New Edinburgh, and the list goes on and on. Sadly, the Mackay name was not passed down in Ottawa. Even though he was father to sixteen children, Mackay and his wife lost all but three of their daughters to diseases and drownings.  

However, Thomas Mackay lives on in the craftsmanship of the structures he built almost 200 years ago: the incredible curved locks at the entrance to the Rideau Canal; Ottawa’s oldest stone building, the Bytown Museum (1826), originally built as a supply depot; Rideau Hall, the Mackay family home and an architectural marvel of its time; Earnscliffe, once home to John A Macdonald.

Thomas Mackay: The Laird of Rideau Hall and the Founding of Ottawa is a highly enjoyable read. Sweeney brings the characters to life and enthralls the reader with his passion for the history of Thomas Mackay and Canada’s capital city.

Thomas Mackay: The Laird of Rideau Hall and the Founding of Ottawa is available for sale at the University of Ottawa Press and your favourite Ottawa independent bookstore.