Category: Lachine Canal

Stanley Bagg and the Lachine Canal Part 3: Contractor to the British Army

When Stanley Bagg signed a contract to excavate the Lachine Canal in 1821, it was the largest and most complex job he had ever taken on. Although he was just 33 years old, this Montreal entrepreneur and his business partners had gained enough experience from a series of projects for the British Army that they were able to land the contract of a lifetime.

Stanley Bagg, 1788-1853

Stanley Bagg was born in Massachusetts in 1788 and moved to Lower Canada with his family around 1795. He grew up in La Prairie, where his father ran an inn, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. In 1810, when he was 22, Stanley and his father opened the Mile End Tavern at a crossroads just north of the city. The tavern was a great place to make business contacts, and by this time, Stanley was already selling firewood to the British Army.

The army played a huge role in Montreal’s economy at that time. Britain had reorganized its defences of British North America after the American Revolution. In the past, a fort on the cliffs of Quebec City overlooking the St. Lawrence River had protected the colony from attack. Now there was a long southern border to defend and Montreal played a key role in protecting its own location, and in moving troops and equipment to Upper Canada. The army needed firewood to keep its soldiers warm, fresh beef and flour to feed them, and people with horses, carts and bateaux (flat-bottomed river boats) to help with transportation. Large and medium-sized local suppliers bid against each other for these contracts, then usually subcontracted the work to smaller enterprises.

The outbreak of war with the United States in 1812 led to a boost in military spending and provided Stanley with his first big business opportunity. In December 1813, he and business partner Oliver Wait signed a contract to transport sixty long guns (cannons) from Montreal to Kingston, on Lake Ontario.

The contract paid well, but it was a risky undertaking, not only because of the danger posed by the enemy; if they failed to deliver the cannons safely and on time, they would be penalized. The fact that the job was to be done in winter posed an additional challenge. Normally, goods were transported on the water, but the St. Lawrence marked the border between the U.S. and Canada for much of the distance between the two cities, so the cannons were transported on the winter road, hidden from the enemy by the trees. Stanley and Oliver subcontracted the task to others, and the cannons arrived intact.  

Over the next several years, Stanley was involved in a variety of projects. He and Oliver transported several large anchors to Kingston for the military, and Stanley contracted to sell beef to the army (the meat was supplied by his future father-in-law, butcher John Clark,) but most of his activities were in the civilian sphere. He ran the tavern and the farm on which it was located; he bought, sold and rented buildings in and around Montreal; he had a share in a steamboat called Car of Commerce; and he was a partner in an unsuccessful dry goods business. For fun, he built a race track near the tavern. Then, in 1818, he placed a notice in the newspaper indicating he planned to move to Upper Canada and sell all his properties in Montreal.

A year later, he had discarded that idea and seized new contracting opportunities with the army. Stanley got married in Montreal on August 9, 1819. Five days later, he and Oliver Wait signed a contract with the army’s engineers to level Montreal’s Citadel Hill. The citadel, where arms and ammunition had been stored since the days of New France, was located in a heavily populated area of the city. The army realized this was dangerous and decided to demolish the building and level the hill. Stanley and Oliver contracted to remove 48,000 cubic yards of earth from the hill and dump it into a hollow area nearby.  

Parks Canada tour guide, Fort Lennox

The army replaced the old citadel with two new forts, with construction beginning simultaneously in 1819. Stanley, with Oliver Wait and two other partners, Andrew White and Thomas Phillips, worked on both projects.

Fort Lennox

One of the forts was on Saint Helen’s Island, in the St. Lawrence River near the port, well located to protect the city from an attack by the Americans. The initial phase of this three-year construction project included a blockhouse, powder magazine and storehouses. In the summer of 1821, Bagg and Wait obtained a series of contracts to supply 300,000 bricks and 5,000 cartloads of sand, as well as large amounts of stone, lime, pine, oak and cedar for the new fort.

The other project, Fort Lennox, was on Île aux Noix, on the Richelieu River not far from Lake Champlain and the American border. The French had also used Île aux Noix to defend New France, but the old fortifications were no longer adequate. Stanley and his partners agreed to provide timber and other construction materials for Fort Lennox.

They had not completed these contracts when, in the summer of 1821, there was a call for tenders to excavate the Lachine Canal. The foursome (Bagg, Wait, White and Phillips) were not canal builders, but neither was anyone else in Montreal. What they did have was the experience managing people and moving material required for this huge project.  

See also


The main source of this material about the army is an unpublished article by Sherry Olson and Jean-Claude Robert, “Wheelbarrows for His Majesty: the Commissariat and its Contractors in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal.” The authors based their research on contracts and agreements, many of which were handled by notary Henry Griffin. The agreement to transport guns is the act of Griffin 187-372, 9 December 1813. For the contract regarding the levelling of Citadel Hill, see Griffin 187-2745, 14 August 1819.  You can search the indexes to notarial documents online at Many acts have now been digitized.

Olson, Professor Emeritus of Geography at McGill University, became familiar with the Bagg family while researching a book about the demographics of 19th century Montreal. Written with co-author Patricia Thornton of Concordia University, the book is Peopling the North American City, Montreal 1840-1900. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

During the War of 1812, anyone who had been born in the United States and wanted to remain in British North America had to swear an oath of allegiance to the king, or leave. Both Bagg and Wait were American-born, so they must have been very trustworthy subjects of His Majesty to be allowed to transport arms.

To see a cannon of the type that Bagg and Wait contracted to transport, check out In this video, a 24-pounder long gun is loaded and fired in a demonstration at Fort Wellington, Prescott, Ontario, however, the comments below suggest that the boom in the demonstration was disappointing.

On March 7, 1818, the Montreal Herald ran an ad in which Stanley Bagg announced he was leaving for Upper Canada and wanted to sell his investments and settle his accounts in Montreal.  The ad is near the top left of the page.,962917&dq=stanley+bagg+montreal&hl=en   I do not know why he wanted to leave, or what made him change his plans.

The Stewart Museum, in the former arsenal of the fort on St. Helen’s Island, is now closed and its collection has been moved to the McCord Museum in downtown Montreal. In the 1960s, Île Sainte-Hélène was one of the sites of Montreal’s world’s fair, Expo 67.  The island is now home to Parc Jean-Drapeau.

Fort Lennox National Historic Site, less than an hour from Montreal, is also a great destination for a family outing. Take a picnic. See Also of interest is Andre Charbonneau’s book The Fortifications of Île aux Noix: a portrait of the defensive strategy on the Upper Richelieu Border in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Ottawa: National Historic Sites, Parks Canada, 1994.

Stanley Bagg and the Lachine Canal. Part 2: Rocks and Water

Lachine Rapids; JH photo

When Stanley Bagg and his business partners began excavating a canal around the Lachine Rapids near Montreal in 1821, they had to deal with more rock and water than they had bargained for. 

The Lachine Rapids are a short stretch of white water and submerged rocks in the St. Lawrence River that impede shipping between the port of Montreal and the Great Lakes. According to the legislation that authorized the project, the 14.5-kilometre canal was to be five feet (1.5 metres) deep. On the surface, it was to be forty feet (12 metres) wide so that the long, narrow Durham boats that transported goods and passengers on the river could pass each other. There was to be a towpath beside the water so horses could pull the boats, since it would be impractical to use sails. 

The locks were the most impressive part of the project. There was a regulating lock near the canal’s entrance at Lake St. Louis (a broad stretch of the river upstream from the rapids) to allow water into the canal. The other six locks between Lachine and the port raised and lowered boats a total of 13.7 metres. This was nothing compared with the 560-kilometre long Erie Canal, or the Welland Canal with its 90-metre drop over 42 kilometres, but what set the Lachine Canal apart was the fact that all the locks were built of stone, rather than wood, 1.8 metres thick and sealed to prevent leaks. “Nowhere else in North America, or even Britain (with one exception) had locks as large and as solidly built as those on the Lachine ever been constructed,”1 historian Gerald Tulchinksy wrote.

The main contractors, Thomas Phillips, Andrew White, Oliver Wait and Stanley Bagg, were responsible for excavating the canal. Their contract included building the locks and constructing two impressive stone bridges and numerous wooden footbridges so the farmers whose land was crossed by the canal could reach their fields. They had a separate contract to build fences which were supposed to keep grazing cows from damaging the canal banks and workers from scavenging firewood in the nearby farmers’ orchards. 

The contractors subcontracted some of the work. For the rest, they hired masons, carpenters, foremen and hundreds of day labourers equipped with picks and shovels, the majority of whom were recent immigrants from Ireland. Horses helped with the heavy hauling. 

As treasurer, Stanley Bagg recorded the employees’ pay and kept the account books that listed purchases such as timber and tools.  

The canal was designed by Thomas Burnett, a British engineer who had canal building experience in England, but who died before this project was finished. The ten commissioners who had been named by the government to oversee the project visited the work site frequently and met with project leader Phillips whenever problems arose. 

Spring flooding was the first major problem the contractors encountered, and it delayed the start of the construction season year after year. The water came mainly from the St. Lawrence River. (This is not an issue today because a dam near Cornwall, Ontario regulates the water level.) In addition, runoff from snow on the Island of Montreal collected in the low, swampy area near the canal’s route. This meant work usually could not start until July, and generally wrapped up around October. 

Although some work went on in winter, progress was difficult once the ground was frozen. Soon after they started digging, the contractors discovered a huge area of hard, igneous rock that had to be blasted to make way for the canal, but the men the contractors had engaged to supply gunpowder (one of whom was Stanley Bagg’s brother, Abner,) had difficulty getting hold of it. On October 24, 1822, Abner wrote, “I have just had a most terrible letter from them [the contractors] on the subject, in which they say that no less than 400 men must stop working this day for want of gunpowder….” 2

The delays worried the commissioners. On May 19, 1823, they formally notified the contractors “of the heavy responsibility to which they will be liable if the construction of the aforesaid [masonry] works be delayed by their default, and therefore that their utmost exertion is required to effect the rock excavation to its full depth along the middle of the canal ….” 3

Another problem arose when they reached the St. Pierre River, also known as the Little River. Normally it was nothing more than a small stream, but it turned into a torrent in the spring of 1824, washing away part of the newly built canal embankment. To prevent further damage, the contractors dug a basin to accumulate some of the spring runoff and they built a tunnel for the St. Pierre to run beneath the canal. 

1834 map of island of Montreal and Lachine Canal

All these difficulties were unexpected, and costs skyrocketed. The initial estimate was 78,000 pounds; the final cost came to 107,000 pounds. When the money ran low in 1823 and the government balked at spending more, commission chairman John Richardson arranged a loan from the Bank of Montreal. Eventually, the government funding came through, but the uncertainty must have been of special concern to Bagg, the man who paid the bills.

Part way through the project, the commissioners persuaded the government to approve a shorter and less expensive route. The commissioners decided that the bid from Bagg and his partners for the new section of the canal and a wharf was too high, so someone else did that work.  

By August 1824, 11 kilometres of the canal were finished and the waterway opened to commercial navigation as far as the fourth lock. Other builders continued working on the project into 1826, but as far as Bagg and his partners were concerned, the contract was essentially complete in 1825.

This must have been an intense period of Bagg’s life, with dawn to dusk activity during the construction season and year-round worries. He lived near Lachine in the summers since his own house was on Saint Lawrence Street, far from the work site. Furthermore, his task as treasurer must have been challenging: this was the first time such a large civilian project, with so many employees, had been undertaken in Canada. 

a stretch of the original Lachine Canal. JH photo

Meanwhile, ever the entrepreneur looking for additional ways to make money, Bagg also owned a store in Lachine where employees could buy beer, rum and a few groceries. He and several partners also owned a bakery that provided bread to the workers. In addition, the contractors provided bunkhouse accommodations in Lachine for some of the day labourers.

In the end, this massive undertaking was a success. “The competence of the engineer, foremen, labourers and skilled hands in building a substantial canal is attested by the fact that it lasted more than twenty years,” observed Tulchinsky. “No major repairs or alterations were necessary and the Lachine Canal proved adequate for handling the growing volume of traffic to and from the Great Lakes region.”4 It carried thousands of new immigrants toward the interior of the continent, and commodities such as grain, flour, salted pork, ash and timber. In the summer, proud Montrealers took cruises on the canal and strolled along its banks. 

Eventually, in the 1840s, a larger canal was built alongside the old one to handle the increased traffic; then the cows and orchards disappeared, and industries grew up along its banks.  Stanley Bagg and his colleagues could be proud of their accomplishment, but Bagg never took on another project of this scope, working primarily as a timber merchant for the rest of his life.

Photo credits

Carte de l’ile de Montreal, Jobin, 1834, BAnQ,


  1. Gerald Tulchinsky,“The Construction of the First Lachine Canal, 1815-1826” thesis, 1960, McGill University Department of History, Montreal, p. 77.
  2. “Abner Bagg Letterbook, Oct 1821-Sept 1825” P070/A5,1, Bagg Family Fonds, McCord Museum, Montreal.
  3. “Lachine Canal Commission,1821-1842”, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
  4. Tulchinsky. ibid. p. 109.


For the background to this story, see the previous post: Janice Hamilton, Writing Up the Ancestors,

Once again, I am indebted to historian Gerald Tulchinsky for his master’s thesis on the construction of the canal. He later wrote a book called The River Barons: Montreal businessmen and the growth of industry and transportation, 1837-53, University of Toronto Press, 1977. 

Today, the Lachine Canal is a popular spot for walking, bicycling and recreational boating, and many of the former industrial buildings along its banks have been converted to condos. For more information, see Parks Canada’s website about the Lachine Canal National Historic Site, There is another interesting and well-illustrated article about the canal at This subject may be of special interest to people whose ancestors found employment on the canal, or in the nearby factories.

In my next post, I will describe the jobs Stanley Bagg (my three-times great-grandfather) did for the British army with his frequent business partner Oliver Wait prior to obtaining the canal contract.