Thomas McKay: The Forgotten Founder of Ottawa – Part 1

“[It is] almost inconceivable that such a man should have found no biographer so far,” wrote Francis J. Audet in 1932.
“The extraordinary success of his ventures [is] a striking proof of what may be done in Canada by an enterprising man who applies himself diligently to his task. If he became a rich man, it was not by chance, but by dint of hard work intelligently pursued. It is by such men that empires are built.”
While, since 1932, a few biographies of the man Audet referred to – Thomas McKay – have been penned, there remains an astounding ignorance concerning him. Today, McKay is known to very few Canadians, even to those residing in the city he developed: Ottawa, the capital of Canada. 
Yet he was a ‘Founding Father’, as it were, of Canada. 
It is a genuine tragedy that such a man should fade into the past, for it is Thomas McKay who is responsible for many of the locations in Ottawa that attract thousands of visitors yearly–including Rideau Hall, Earnscliffe, the Rideau Locks, and the Bytown Museum.
Thomas McKay (pronounced /ma kī/, sometimes spelled Mackay) was born in Perth, Scotland, on September 1, 1792.  Very little is known about McKay’s early years, save that while still young he became an apprentice under a mason.

Building a Marvel

McKay married Ann Critchon in 1813, when he was 21; and four years later, the couple immigrated to Montreal. In 1821, at the age of 29, McKay landed his first big project – the construction of Montreal’s Lachine Canal. He worked on this site with John Redpath, whom you may recognize as the founder of the famous Redpath Sugar.


In 1826, the 34 year old McKay won the masonry contract for a new project in the National Capital Region of Ottawa-Gatineau. This project was the building of the Rideau Canal system as a link between the Ottawa River and Lake Ontario.  He worked under Colonel John By, the chief engineer of the project. An interesting story is told on how Colonel By and McKay met. Andrew Wilson writes in A history of old Bytown and vicinity, now the city of Ottawa :
The Colonel, when superintending the building of the Sappers’ Bridge, and when they were about finishing the bridge, they were placing the keystone of the bridge in its place (they had tried to fit it in its place several times but did not succeed), one of the bystanders cried out: “Stop a little, and I’ll fit it in its place,” and suiting the action to the word, this stranger took hold of the stone and fitted it in its place.


This stranger is said to be none other than the afterwards Hon. Thomas McKay, of Rideau Hall, New Edinburgh. The Colonel being a man of quick perceptions saw at a glance that he was the man to build the Locks in that place, and shortly afterwards gave him the contract [1].”
McKay was a shrewd businessman. He convinced John By to quarry stone from the site of the Rideau River for use in the building of the locks instead of transporting them across the Ottawa River from Hull.
This saved on construction costs and was a more profitable move for him as a contractor. This decision resulted in a picturesque rock wall which falls away from Major’s Hill Park at the top, to the lawn at the side of the locks. 



McKay built the span of eight locks, all ten feet tall at the mouth of the Rideau River where it flows into the Ottawa River. This was an unprecedented feat, considering the technology of the time.
The first building McKay constructed for the building of the locks is the Commissariat building (1827), which was built to house military and canal supplies for the building of the canal.
It currently houses the Bytown Museum and is the oldest stone building in Ottawa. 
William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-009220
During a ‘slow’ period of work on the Rideau Locks, and not wanting to lose his skilled labourers,  McKay and his crew worked on other projects, including Ottawa’s St. Andrews’ Presbyterian Church (1828), which still stands today at the corner of Kent and Wellington Streets.


After the completion of the Rideau Locks project in 1832, from which he apparently made £30,000 [2], McKay and his partner, John Redpath, were given an engraved silver cup by Colonel John By in recognition of their work. 
McKay settled in Bytown (named in honour of Colonel By) which is now called Ottawa.

Developing a Capital

McKay had moved his family to Bytown in 1827 when he started working on the Rideau Canal. In 1829, he began acquiring property and developing other spin-off business ventures around the site of the Rideau Falls which is a set of twin falls 30’ high, east of the locks.
The Falls generated enough power to construct various mills. First he constructed a sawmill in 1832. This was at the height of the lumber boom era when logs regularly floated down the Ottawa River on the way to Montreal. 
Next he built an expansive flour mill on the opposite bank in 1833, followed by a bakery the following year. Four years later he built a distillery and a cloth factory which used power-generated looms, thus producing award-winning fabrics. 


McKay had invested in purchasing timber licenses (timber limits) which he enlarged in 1843. By 1846 he enlarged his timber license by purchasing a limit on the Gatineau River and formed a partnership with his son-in-law John McKinnon. Soon, he built another sawmill and expanded into spin-off products like doors, window sashes, shingles and blinds.


But he needed to find an easy way to get his products to a wider market south of the border. So with some support from Boston businessmen, he supported the first railway in Ottawa, incorporated in 1850, which ran from Bytown to Prescott (just opposite Ogdensburg NY). This railway did not last and by 1852 the partnership with his son-in-law ended. 

(To be continued)

Author’s Note: This article was co-authored by Natalie Myers and Lynette Bloedow, owner of ChristianRoots Canada.

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