What a chance is Hazel, what wonders to behold

I’m much looking forward to holding Hazel, my great-granddaughter born on Sunday, also the birthday of her cousin Olivia from Yellowknife, who was here last week and walked with me beside the canal as we usually do and I told the story of Jim Simmons, who helped build the canal but died on the works. They are second cousins, actually. Olivia, my granddaughter, and Hazel are a generation apart. Both owe their lives to Jim, as do I and many, many others. I myself have more than two dozen heirs and counting.

Jim Simmons was in the 7th company of Royal Sappers and Miners that came with Lt. Col. By to design and construct the Rideau Canal, which had been conceived by no less a military commander than the Duke of Wellington as a measure of defence and defiance against the Americans, who were hurled back in the War of 1812 but it had been a close thing. England was in charge at the time until Canada got strong enough to look after itself. The canal was meant to tighten the connection between Montreal and Kingston so that troops could move quickly between them.

Jim was born in 1792. He stood five and a half feet tall with fair complexion, dark hair and his eyes were grey. He had been in this special unit of the Royal Engineers for a decade already and had brought his wife Elizabeth and son James Jr. out from England.

Canal building with pick and shovel was backbreaking toil that Royal sappers left largely to Irish immigrant and French Canadian labour. But the soldiers were involved in clearing major obstructions and other tricky maneuvers, particularly the use of explosives. Dynamite had not been invented. Gunpowder was unpredictable. On May 29, 1830, at Newboro Lake where the engineers had encountered stubborn bedrock near Lock 36, Jim Simmons set a charge but didn’t scramble fast enough. He was caught by the blast, one of twenty two sappers to lose their lives during construction, half of whom are buried at Newboro.

Widow Elizabeth put Jim’s ‘necessaries’ up for auction and accepted a bid of twelve shillings by William Fleming for ‘a pair of Regimental trousers’. The trousers would have been a good fit. Though he was ten years younger, William was the same size as Jim at five and a half feet. She could hardly fail to notice that and perhaps it seemed comfortable. William was also a sapper and like Jim was one of the few who could read and write. Within a couple of years Col. By would appoint William Fleming lockmaster at Chaffey’s. There Elizabeth Simmons would join him, they would marry and become my great-great-great grandparents. Lockmaster at Chaffey’s from 1832 to 1857, William was succeeded by his stepson, James Simmons Jr., 1857–1894. James Jr. was related too, on his mother’s side, but if his dad had survived I wouldn’t have happened, nor would Hazel.

I’ll remember when I’m holding her that one’s misadventure in this life can be another’s good fortune and that chance can be as telling as choice. By chance, for instance, William Fleming’s eyes were hazel. I kid you not.