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The History of Cornwall's "RCAFA Building"

Appeared in Le Journal March 12th 2014.

The Caretakers Home in 1882.
Photo Credit:
Heritage Cornwall Archives.

The construction of the Cornwall Canal began in 1834 and was completed eight years later, in 1842. The canal stretched 11.5 miles from Cornwall to Dickinson’s Landing. Its purpose was to bypass the treacherous Long Sault Rapids.


The “RCAFA building” as we know it today, was originally used to house the Canal Lockmaster and his family. The canal superintendent was responsible for the upgrading, maintenance, and efficient operation of the series of locks which bypassed the Long Sault rapids. Employment as a canal worker was well respected, often political and at the higher levels of employment, permanent positions were held. Some Superintendents include Mr. Godfrey, who remained Canal Lockmaster from November 1842 until September 1849, Duncan A. Macdonald from September 1849 to July 1st 1889, and Alexander P. Ross who started that same day.


The first residence was built in 1866 by the government. It ended up being completely rebuilt in 1872, at the cost of $3,456, to better suit the Canal Lockmaster’s needs. The building was designed by Thomas S. Scott in July 1871, an architect from Ottawa. One year later, the building that still stands proudly today, would be completed.


The Canal Lockmasters house was built of the same materials as the Stormont Mill, a structure that once stood adjacent to the Canal Lockmaster’s Home. The buildings matched, both built with red bricks, outlined by a yellow brick trim. The Stormont Mill was founded in 1870, by the Gault Brothers, and destroyed by fire in 1875. Five years later, the Gaults built a new mill which operated until 1959 as part of Canadian Cottons Ltd. The fire escape located on the current RCAFA building, is a remnant of this Mill. The fire escape ladder was salvaged from the fire, moved, and placed on the current building.


In front of the current structure, sits the Silver Star Jet. The jet was donated to the club, in April 1974. It is a 1974-T33 Jet, created in 1954. It is the first of its kind. This jet can even be linked historically to Cornwall. Multiple Cornwall citizens have taken their flight training with the R.C.A.F in this jet.


In 1958, following the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the canal was closed. Owing to a lack of useful function, the Canal Lockmasters Home became the club headquarters for the local wing of the R.C.A.F Association in 1961 and the club has been situated there ever since. In 1990 the RCAFA group added a $67,000 extension. “Mossop Hall” enables complete access for those who live with disabilities. 


Despite what most assume, the building holds many of its original features. As you enter the building, you are face to face with the original grand wooden staircase. The building also holds many of its original window and door frames. At one hundred and fourty-two years old, I think it is remarkable to have so much of the original interior preserved. 


Since the historic Canal Lockmasters Home has housed the local wing of the R.C.A.F Association for the last fifty-three years, this building holds a special place in many people’s hearts. Mark A. MacDonald is one of these individuals. “The RCAFA facility is a jewel of the waterfront. The new bridge dumps traffic on water street, and we’re right there!” But the building is more than just a historic site. During our phone call, I think Mr. MacDonald hit the nail on the head, “The RCAFA building is a support network. This is a meeting ground for the older generation; it is their personal Facebook, but in real life.”


The RCAFA and its beautiful interior has survived one hundred and fourty-two years. This, in my opinion, makes it a big historical accomplishment that Cornwall should be very proud of.