How Devil Lake Almost Became Part of the Rideau Canal

Residents and users of Devil Lake appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the lake. Much of this exists because of the large amount of shoreline owned by the Crown and Frontenac Provincial Park, and by the fact that the lake is landlocked, in turn limiting the size of boats in the lake. Imagine if you can what it would be like today if Devil Lake were part of the Rideau Canal system. In fact, it almost was. This segment will describe efforts put forward in the late 1800s and again in the early 1900s to do just that, and what happened to those proposals.

By the late-19th century, because of increasing difficulties being encountered to maintain adequate water levels to permit unobstructed boat traffic through the system, especially during dry months, Rideau Canal officials were actively examining new reserves of water for the Rideau, including the building or repair of dams at the feeder lakes including Devil and Buck Lakes. There were several proposals put forward for the extension of the Canal to benefit the region served by the Rideau including opening up a large area of the countryside for agricultural development, to stabilize the water supply of the Rideau, and to serve the interests of the Gananoque Water and Power Company. These included a plan to connect Morton, Ontario with Lake Ontario, by means of channels and locks linking Lower Beverley Lake, Charleston Lake, and the Gananoque River. 

Gorge Route

The campaign for improvements of the Gananoque system was connected with a second proposal. This was a proposal to construct another Canal extension, west from Newboro Lake to Knowlton Lake in Frontenac County, first passing through Devil Lake. The proposed extension would add 86 miles to the Rideau Canal system, from Bedford Mills through Devil, Little Mud (now Kingsford), Desert, and Birch Lakes. While much of the land north of Kingston was rich in resources, it was largely inaccessible to road and rail. Promoters of this second Canal extension believed it would both increase the supply of water for the Rideau, as well as open the area for development. A study requested by the Department of Railways and Canals Canada (the federal organization then responsible for the Rideau Canal) was completed by February 1884. The proposed main connection would be through a set of two combined locks, with a waste weir alongside them, at Bedford Mills. These two locks would be required to overcome the 29-foot drop through 300 feet in the waterfall there. In addition, the construction of the locks would necessitate the removal of the Tett brothers’ dam and mills at the site. From there, the 17-mile route via creeks linking Devil, Little Mud, Desert, and Knowlton Lakes would require at least one more lock, with a 14-foot lift (through the site of “Tett’s old dam” at the head of Devil Lake, linking Devil and Desert Lakes through Little Mud Lake), together with considerable dredging and rock-cuts. Branch canals were also considered for connections with Otter Lake and Canoe Lake. A map accompanying this segment shows the entirety of these two proposed extensions. After more than a year of study, the then-Superintendent of the Rideau Canal, Fred Wise, acknowledged that the waterway would be of great benefit to the area, but he maintained that the cost was all out of proportion to anticipated returns.

Ravine Route

Another study of the Devil Lake extension was commissioned in 1904, largely promoted by a businessman in Kingston who owned a large feldspar mine on Desert Lake. He claimed that shipping the mineral would be much less costly than his current operation in which the mineral, once extracted, was then conveyed by horse-and-wagon to the lake, where it was ferried by tug-and-scow across Desert Lake. It was loaded onto a tramway, and from there hauled by horses to the Kingston & Pembroke Railway line. There were many other operating and potential mines in the region which could potentially benefit from the extension as well. There were also advocates in the City of Kingston, who claimed large quantities of cordwood used for home heating could be harvested and transported to the city in a convenient manner. The study, which was completed in 1905, suggested two alternate routes through Bedford Mills. One, called the “Gorge route”, was similar to the 1884 study with two locks through the waterfall, and would still require the removal of the sawmill, grist mill, and grain elevator owned by the Tetts, who now wanted considerable compensation. The alternate route was called the “Ravine route”. The principal difference between the two routes was that the Ravine Route would follow a shallow back-water creek that was used by the Tetts for piling slabs. This route would require about 800 feet of dredging through the slabs, as well as 600 feet of excavation through rock. The Ravine Route, which was straighter and estimated to be less costly than the Gorge Route, would also enter Devil Lake through two locks, but these would be constructed a half mile to the west of the proposed Gorge Route entrance where the Tetts’ mills were situated. Beyond Devil Lake, the route was common to both routes. Again, the project fell through, as the various cost estimates appeared to be excessive.

Knowing now that these proposals failed, the relief that must be felt by those of us who have come to appreciate the lack of large boat traffic, the commercial uses of the land, and the loss of tranquility we know today, is obvious. What was obvious to others was the fact that the proposed rationale for the proposals would have proven to be flawed as well. As Queen’s University Professor of History Brian Osborne observed in his article in “Rideau Reflections”, a newsletter of the Friends of the Rideau: 

“Rideau Canal Devil Lake Extension. Sketch Plan Of Lakes, and Works Proposed To Complete the Navigation”, April 5, 1905, NMC 54172 2/2

“Despite 30 years of pressure from local industrialists, speculators, county councils, and the Kingston Board of Trade, the Devil Lake project never got beyond the paper world of maps and tables. Thus, even though the mining industry throughout Kingston’s back-country functioned well into the 20th century, it did so without the benefit of the proposed Devil Lake – Rideau navigation system. Moreover, had it been constructed, it would have tapped that region’s water supply at a time when it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Rideau system needed to protect that essential resource. This was to be the focus when planners revisited the lakes in the Rideau watershed a generation later.”

John Gray

Map of the two proposed extensions: Brian S. Osborne & Donald Swainson, Kingston Building on the Past, Butternut Press, Westport, ON, 1988

Map of the entire proposed route through Devil Lake dated 1905: Parks Canada

Two maps of the alternate routes through Bedford Mills dated 1905: Library and Archives Canada

1 Brian S. Osborne, “A Devil of a Problem”, published in “Rideau Reflections” By-ways #19, (newsletter of the Friends of the Rideau), Fall 2005