The Lost Silver Of Hartwells Locks
During the construction of the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston in 1826-1832, thousands of workers employed by the British to build this massive feat of engineering were paid in Yankee Silver Half Dollars, part of the war indemnity paid by the United States to Great Britain after the War of 1812. This money was sent to the canal district in kegs from Montreal.
These vast amounts of silver coins were transported in barrels to paymasters cabins along the canal route, one being at Jones Falls, another at Smiths Falls, and another one at Hartwells Locks. Hartwells Locks lies just on the southern end of Dow’s Lake in Ottawa near Carleton University.
The paymasters cabins were storage facilities and dispensaries for wages, and due to some “untrustworthy” men among the ranks of the paymasters and those that delivered the silver, coins mysteriously vanished and were apparently buried to be recovered later by the persons who hid them. This legend was substantiated by a retiring Hartwells lockmaster in 1953, Alan Moses, who claimed “a great deal of money was stolen from the paymasters house, an old log cabin across the canal from the lockmasters house”.
He claimed he was going to find the lost silver after his retirement from the locks. No one knows if he ever found the silver or if it lies there still waiting to be discovered. Currently a single Yankee Half Dollar from the 1820s is worth about $200-$600 and contains 90% pure silver.
Using an old sketch painting of the area from 1845 that shows the lockmasters house and the paymaster cabins, I was able to sketch out how the area may have looked in 1845 compared to a present day Bing Maps aerial image. You can see where the Paymaster cabins would have been and what is there now. It seems the Engineering Buildings of the University have since covered the area and a new building has been constructed nearby. It is unclear if any archeological discoveries were made during the excavation of these buildings.
The Lockmaster’s house, which still stands at Hartwells Locks, is one of the oldest buildings in Ottawa and is a concealed fortress structure. Built around 1826 when the canal started construction, this two story building was made out of stone as a defensive structure to protect the locks in case of attack. The stone fort was later covered in clapboard siding to protect it from the elements and is how it looks today.
Along with the tales of the buried silver dollars and a concealed stone fort, Hartwells Locks also had a bywash to carry overflow water to the Rideau River across what is now Carleton University. Originally built as a weir to carry water out of the locks during operation, the channel was an open creek that cut across the land to the east of the locks and emptied into the nearby river.
A sluice gate was used at the side of the locks that regulated the weir waters, and is still visible to this day. The open weir was still in operation into the 1950s but was later adapted to run underground and diverted with culverts when the campus of Carleton University took over and developed the land in the early 1960s.
Does the lost silver of Hartwells locks still lie underground waiting to be uncovered or did the retired lockmaster find it and quietly retire to a villa in the Bahamas with what he found? Whatever the case, there is still the concealed stone fort and an underground channel that remains a hidden reminder of the fascinating canal history of the area known as Hartwells Locks.