With more designated heritage buildings than any other Ontario community of its size, Merrickville is a Victorian oasis idyllically situated along the historic Rideau Canal. It’s a community that celebrates its history and embraces the slower pace of life which that history represents. You can’t help yourself; soon after arriving, you find yourself lulled into a sedate, more tranquil state-of-mind. That’s part of Merrickville’s undeniable charm.
Merrickville is among the oldest, most historic communities in Ontario. In 1791, United Empire Loyalist William Merrick, a resident of New York who sided with the Crown during the American Revolution and was consequently cast out when Britain lost the war, was granted 200 acres of land in Eastern Ontario. Thanks to the resourcefulness of Merrick and other founding fathers, and to the economic benefit of water-powered mills built along the river, Merrickville was soon a thriving village.
Further growth came when the Rideau Canal was completed in 1832. The canal, linking Ottawa and Kingston, was envisioned for purely strategic reasons at a time when tensions between Britain and the United States were still high. The St. Lawrence River had proven vulnerable to interdiction during the War of 1812, leaving Kingston isolated at times. The 202 km Rideau Canal, however, built inland and well away from the US border, would be secure from such interference. As events turned out, the canal was never needed in wartime and its greatest boon was in moving commercial goods. Communities along its route, such as Merrickville, boomed economically.
At one time Merrickville boasted over 50 water-powered industries, including a gristmill, sawmill, tannery, cheese factory, creamery, blacksmith and ironworks shops, and textile and woolen mills. Today only Alloy Foundry, the oldest operating foundry in Canada, remains. Dating back to 1840, the stone building is situated on the banks of the Rideau River and now incorporates a foundry shop, Village Metalsmiths. Adjacent to it, preserved in a park-like setting, one finds the haunting ruins of the other past industrial works. A Parks Canada industrial exhibit details the actual location of these one-time businesses, each of which were important in their own way to Merrickville’s prosperity in the 19th century.
Homes built by the Merricks provide lodging for 21st century village families. Over 100 heritage and historic properties still line the village streets. Meticulously preserved these buildings not only reflect the era in which they were built, but the character of the people who built, worked and lived in them and those who lovingly restored them. The Merrickville Historical Society’s website (merrickvillehistory.org) contains an engaging overview of the village’s history as well as a walking tour that points out over a dozen heritage sites of interest.
Guests can find comfortable accommodations in a number of these historic homes. For a charming blend of heritage and elegance, stay at Baldachin Inn, a circa 1860 heritage designated building located at the very centre of Merrickville and overlooking the historic Rideau Canal. The Baldachin Inn’s restaurant offers traditional European-style cuisine in a setting that is one of Ontario’s few heritage interiors, most notably due to its original 19th century stained glass.
The Rideau Canal, a monument of early 19th-century engineering and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a site in its own right. The locks of the Rideau Canal are fascinating to watch and operate today just like they did over 175 years ago. Strolling along its banks, you almost feel propelled back to the Old World of yesteryear.
Iconic to Merrickville, and a must-see attraction, is its historic blockhouse. A National Historic Site of Canada, this miniature fortress was built in 1832 by Lt. Col. John By for the protection of the Rideau Canal in the case of war with America. It was the largest in a chain of four such blockhouses, and the only one remaining today. Its strength is evident event today: the first floor has four-foot thick stone walls, the second floor and roof are made of sturdy beams using the rare post-and-beam method portholes, and the roof is clad in non-combustible tin, and gun ports from which cannons and muskets would rain fire down upon attackers line the walls. Never called upon in war, it nonetheless reassured settlers of protection in the event of an enemy attack and became, in time, a village landmark. The Merrickville Blockhouse was restored by Parks Canada in the 1960s and today houses an impressive collection of artifacts tracing the history of the community so that it once again plays a central part in Merrickville’s identity.
In addition to its historic charm, Merrickville is renowned for its boutiques. Its charming, Victorian streetscape is lined with shops filled with one-of-a-kind items made by local artists and artisans—their unique talents are on display at studios where craftsmen demonstrate their trade as well as sell their wares—as well as antique shops, numerous restaurants and cafes, and quaint shops selling products from around the world. If you’re at all a foodie you won’t to miss Mrs. McGarrigle’s Fine Food Shop, known for its award-winning mustards and chutneys, as well as for its tastings, demos, and selection of kitchenware.
Merrickville is, for good reason, known as the Jewel of the Rideau. With an unbeatable blend of history and elegance, visiting this little village is truly an enriching experience.
Written By: Andrew Hind