History of Construction Industry

Military engineers constructed the first public works, tiny locks, at the rapids on the Soulanges section of the St Lawrence River. These locks were started in 1779 by a British regiment, the Royal Engineers, for Governor Haldimand.

Cariboo Road
The Cariboo Road in BC was one of the most remarkable engineering achievements in early transportation in Canada (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-8077).
Construction Workers, 1912
Sewer construction on Stachan Ave, Toronto, 1912 (courtesy City of Toronto Archives).
Grand Trunk Railway
Construction gang in the 1870s reducing an embankment (courtesy PAO).

Construction Industry, History of

The first permanent structures at PORT-ROYAL were erected in 1605 by French artisans using local materials. In 1607 the first water mill in North America was erected nearby (on the L'Equille River) to assist with the grinding of the first locally grown corn. Engineering construction therefore began at the same time as residential construction and agriculture. For almost 200 years, the limited settlements of New France and Acadia were served by simple wooden structures. Small water mills or windmills provided power. Simple trails had to suffice as ROADS. Masonry construction was used occasionally in the few better houses and some churches but was mainly confined to military FORTIFICATIONS such as LOUISBOURG and PRINCE OF WALES FORT.

Military engineers constructed the first public works, tiny locks, at the rapids on the Soulanges section of the St Lawrence River. These locks were started in 1779 by a British regiment, the Royal Engineers, for Governor Haldimand. The first major public work to be started in Canada was the Grenville Canal on the Ottawa River, begun in 1819 and ready for use in 1834. The canal was built by another British regiment, the Royal Staff Corps, as part of the alternative military route from Montréal to Kingston, Ontario, demanded after the War of 1812.

The main part of the alternate route was the RIDEAU CANAL, a 200 km waterway from Bytown [Ottawa] to Kingston with 47 locks and 50 dams. It was built by hand in just 5 working seasons (1826-32) by civilian contractors and 2 companies of the Royal Sappers and Miners (UK) working under the direction of the Royal Engineers. It is still used as originally constructed.

The construction of the whole canal, but especially that of its great arched dam at Jones Falls, was a stupendous achievement for the time. It was also significant in that all major works were built under contract, employing essentially the same contracting system that is in use today. The Royal Engineers made great contributions to the development of Canada (the CARIBOO ROAD in BC is one of their most remarkable achievements), but as development increased with the coming of RAILWAYS civil (ie, civilian) engineers assumed responsibility for design and Canadian contractors steadily increased their capability.

The great era of railway building began in the 1850s. A leading British contractor worked on the GRAND TRUNK PACIFIC RAILWAY, but Canadian contractors were wholly responsible for building the INTERCOLONIAL RAILWAY (1868-76) from Halifax to Montréal and later the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY, finished in 1885. The skill of Canadian contractors is shown by the Hoosac Tunnel, Mass (built 1868-74), still the longest railway tunnel east of the Mississippi. The increasing maturity of the profession was indicated by the establishment of builders' associations in Halifax (1862) and Toronto (1867).

The opening in 1860 of the Victoria Bridge across the St Lawrence River at Montréal was a noteworthy event in Canadian construction. Steam pile drivers were used to build the piers; steam-operated rock drills replaced laborious hand drilling; and steam shovels effected great changes in excavation. Mass concrete started to replace masonry, at first as Canadian-made "natural cements," which were replaced before the end of the century by portland cement (also made in Canada). The wrought iron used for the first tubular superstructure of the Victoria Bridge was replaced by structural steel at the turn of the century. Thus the main modern building materials and construction equipment were in use by the turn of the century; further construction advances were in scale rather than in kind, except for the relatively recent switch from steam to internal combustion engines for motive power.

Canal construction inevitably looms large in the history of Canadian construction because of the importance of waterways in the national economy. The fourth WELLAND CANAL, opened in 1932 after a limited start in 1913, with locks of the same size as those of the modern ST LAWRENCE SEAWAY, was another outstanding achievement. The twin-flight locks at Thorold, Ontario, have long been world-famous. This gigantic structure of mass concrete, with its 6 locks, is almost a kilometre long, yet it was contracted for by one notable Canadian construction firm.

Canadian contractors have introduced major innovations in many fields. Canadian hydroelectric power plants are among the largest in the world and often were built in remote locations where logistics were of supreme importance (see CHURCHILL FALLS; JAMES BAY PROJECT). Canadians have made some major innovations in BRIDGE construction and have used special skills in constructing buildings in confined working areas within cities. The Canadian climate has provided its own challenges and winter construction practices in this country are known and respected around the world. Outstanding work has also been done in road construction, often in isolated areas (eg, ALASKA HIGHWAY). At the start of WWII, a unique contribution of the Royal Canadian Engineers was the building of a bypass road in Surrey, England, at a speed previously unknown in the UK. The wheel had turned full circle.