If the Walls Had Ears…

History at The Rideau Canoe Club

By Iris Winston

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the banks of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa were dotted with wooden boathouses. Among them, at the point that Queen Elizabeth Driveway and Fifth Avenue meet, was an impressive three-storey, turreted frame building — the boathouse owned by the Rideau Aquatic Club. This was the original name of the Rideau Canoe Club. The foundations of the now-defunct marina are still visible at low water.

Despite the aquatic club’s name, members took part in such land-based sports as tennis as well as water activities such as canoeing and motorboating. In fact, from its founding in 1902 through to the 1930s, the club was a focal point for a variety of athletic and recreational activities, winning a number of championships along the way.

“Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the three main clubs in Ottawa were the Britannia Boating Club — which is now a yacht club — the Rideau Aquatic Club and the Ottawa-New EdinburghCanoe Club,” says Mike Scott, the commodore of the club from 1961 to 1985 and the author of A Century of Paddling, the history of the Rideau Canoe Club. “People from the area used to hang around the clubs because they had hockey teams and baseball teams and they were the place to be. Some of Rideau’s athletes played hockey and went to the national level when they played for the Memorial Cup in 1926. It was really high quality at that time.”

Successes associated with the club frequently included provincial and national championships in such sports as hockey, football and basketball, as well as championships related to water sports. One of the big wins on water through these years was in 1936, when club member Frank Amyot won the gold medal for the 1,000-metre single-blade canoe event at the Olympic Games in Germany. He was the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal in paddling.

Since its beginnings, the club has offered training and provided competition at all levels in the Olympic sport of flat-water sprint canoeing and kayaking. Today, the training programs also include instruction and opportunities to participate in other paddle sports such as sprint, recreational and dragon boat programs.

John Dillon, the son of the man who was the clubhouse caretaker between 1925 and 1933, recalls that his family lived in the clubhouse through those summers.

“Our living quarters were on the top floor,” he writes, noting that there were two bedrooms and a dining room and that there was a wood stove in the kitchen. “The motorboat section burnt down during the early 30s.The club finally fell because the water was left in the canal one year and the ice destroyed enough pilings that the building was demolished. The lower section (water level) was the canoe storage area along with a canteen. The main floor was a large hall and many dances were held there. A veranda ran along outside the dance area. Near where the restaurant was located there was a grass area. There was also a gasoline pump at the water’s edge. It was one of the old types that had a large glass top which was filled by pulling the handle on the side.”

Mike says that, in 1944, the federal government’s Department of Transport was repairing a lock by the Château Laurier. “They decided in the spring to let the water out of the canal, so that they could repair the lock. Rideau members advised the department that if they lowered the water, the club would sink into the canal. That is what happened. The boathouse went under the water.”

Through the years of the Second World War, with many of its members focused on the war effort, the club almost shut down. However, in 1946, shortly after the war ended, the club reorganized as the Rideau Canoe Club and, in the next year, moved to its current location at Mooney’s Bay adjacent to a set of locks on the Rideau Canal.

At that time, says Mike, “There were no other buildings around and Hog’s Back was on the outskirts of the city. The club put up a little building with room for about five boats. The club was pretty well-known in Ottawa and had quite a bit of drag and ended up with a lease on the property — which belongs to the National Capital Commission — and we’ve been there ever since.”

Further construction was completed in 1980 with support from all levels of government (the City of Ottawa, the National Capital Commission, the Province of Ontario and Parks Canada). As well as the clubhouse, the Rideau Canoe Club’s facilities include five boat bays, a repair shop and two other boat-storage buildings set back from the water.

In June 2009, the club announced that it was to receive $1.8 million in federal, provincial, and municipal funding for an expansion project, with additional contributions from club members. By September 2010, the expansion and renovations were completed. The enlarged facility can now accommodate more programming for educational and day-camp operations and training for athletes from beginners to Olympians. The facility is also fully accessible to visitors and athletes with disabilities. Designated a national training centre by Canoe- Kayak Canada, the Rideau Canoe Club hosts athletes in training from around the world. The club is generally recognized as one of the top canoe clubs in Canada.

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