About 100 people attended a celebration of the 125th anniversary of the official opening of the Murray Canal on Saturday, October 18, 2014.
Organized by the Murray Canal Organization in partnership with History Lives Here Inc., the event was developed to mark the anniversary year with a celebration of this historic site. The volunteer organizers hope to make the event an annual one tied closely to other regional activities such as the development of the Macdonald Heritage Trail to be launched in 2015, and the Macdonald Project of Prince Edward County, which will install a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Sir John A. Macdonald in downtown Picton on Canada Day 2015. Next year is the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth and celebrations are planned across the country.
Macdonald’s was Canada’s first prime minister and remains the area’s most famous citizen. He spent much of his early years in the Quinte area living in Napanee, Hay Bay, and Picton, and often reflected fondly on his years as a “Quinte Boy”. The new Macdonald Heritage Trail will link sites stretching from Kingston through Napanee, Bath, Hay Bay, Prince Edward County, Belleville and Quinte West – including the Murray Canal – through a visitor site map to be made available next year.
Sir John A. Macdonald actually opened the Murray Canal twice – once on October 6th, 1886 for its preliminary opening and again on April 14th, 1889 when it officially opened to marine traffic. For those who attended this last ceremony, the event must have been a special day as the project took nearly 100 years to complete.
In the first days of Loyalist settlement in the 1790s, land was set aside for its construction with an additional 3,000 acres to be sold to pay for the project. Over the decades, war with the Americans and the constant threat to shipping and sailors off the dangerous shores of Prince Edward County, kept the issue of the canal construction front and centre in area politics. But while there were many surveys of the proposed canal route – there were at least five surveys undertaken in 1824, 1833, 1837, 1845, 1866 and 1881- there was no construction. Over time, the threat of war with the United States subsided, and steamships replaced the great age of sail. Railways were the rage, and the issue of constructing a canal to link Presqu’ile Bay with the Bay of Quinte remained a largely local concern. Infighting among local groups over the canal route didn’t help matters.
Still construction of the canal remained a persistent concern championed by the timber industry and local politicians like James Biggar, and Joseph Keeler, the MPs for Northumberland and Mackenzie Bowell of Belleville, a minister in the Macdonald governments. Their lobbying efforts paid off and work started on the canal project in August 1882, and after many challenges and delays, the canal opened in the spring of 1889. One hundred vessels passed through the 8.5 kilometre canal in its first year of operation. Upon completion, the canal project had cost $1,272,470 to build – about $32.6 million in current dollars. Today, the Murray Canal remains a safe and scenic route for boaters and an important part of our history.