Groups hope to revive sport of canoeing on the Rideau

Members of the Smiths Falls Canoe Club are shown in this early 20th century photo from the collection of Heritage House Museum.
Posted on: April 10, 2017

Chris Must

Canoeing, a sport which was all the rage during the Rideau Canal’s hey day as a recreational paradise around the turn of the century, may be headed for a rebirth in this area.

John Festarini, Parks Canada’s associate director for Ontario waterways, told the directors of the Rideau Roundtable at their annual meeting in Smiths Falls April 5, that one of the goals of the new management plan for the Rideau Canal is to make it a “world class paddling destination.”

Other efforts to promote paddling in the area include the annual Rideau Paddlefest, a day of voyageur canoe racing, which is set for June 18 this year. One of the directors of the Rideau Roundtable, renowned long-distance paddler Max Finkelstein, said the group’s involvement in Paddlefest is an investment “to bring back a culture of voyageur canoe racing to Eastern Ontario.”

The sport of canoeing will also be front and centre during Canada 150 celebrations. A voyageur canoe brigade including 140 paddlers will be passing through Smiths Falls this summer on its way up the Rideau from Kingston to Ottawa. The group will spend the night in Smiths Falls on June 27, and will participate in a celebratory event at Centennial Park.

“We’re now an official sesquicentennial event,” said Finkelstein.

Ingrid Bron, economic and tourism coordinator for the town of Smiths Falls, shared the history of the town’s original canoe club in a presentation of material drawn from the collections of the Heritage House Museum.

Toward the end of the 19th century, said Bron, a trend towards recreation and cottaging began to emerge along the 202-km Rideau Canal, even drawing summer residents from New York state. The rise of new industries included shipbuilding, which began as early as 1873 and produced leisure steamers and yachts used by local residents.

At the same time, canoeing also gained popularity among both men and women in local communities.

A historical account in the collection of the Canadian Canoe Museum states that, “In the early years of the 20th century, on countless summer evenings across North America, the waterways were full of young men and women chatting, courting, paddling and sometimes canoodling as they sought a little quiet time together afloat.”

A canoe club (which is still operating today) was founded in Carleton Place in 1893. A similar club started up in Smiths Falls a few years later. “This was a really active group,” said Bron. The club even built a large clubhouse right on the water, of which photographs showing it decorated with a large Union Jack during a regatta are still in the Heritage House collection.

Inter-club competition inevitably followed. The first Canadian Canoe Championships were held Aug. 4, 1900. The Smiths Falls Canoe Club joined the Canadian Canoe Association’s northern division the following year, and in 1902 a Smiths Falls men’s team won the Dominion Championships in a meet in Carleton Place. “This was a momentous moment for the club that led to the clubhouse construction,” said Bron. The club was located on the west end of Lock Island at the Jones Lock, known today as the Detached Lock.

The club proved to be short-lived, however. It began to decline soon after its founding when four men died in drowning accidents on the Rideau. The sport did enjoy a revival in the 1920s, when a war canoe race team was started by the Frost & Wood Athletic Club.