The Welland Canal

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Each year, 3,000 ships, carrying 40 million tons of cargo, pass through the Welland Canal. The canal would help Toronto become the largest city in Canada, while fostering increased trade on the Great Lakes between the United States and Canada.

The story of the construction of the Welland Canal begins 200 years ago, and continues well into the 20th century.

Before the Welland Canal existed, shipping traffic between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario required a portage road between Chippawa, Ontario and Queenston, Ontario. This road stretched for 18 kilometres and was time consuming and inefficient. As trade began to increase between the United States and Canada, only a decade after the War of 1812, the need for a canal became apparent. This was especially true as the Erie Canal had been built between Albany and Buffalo, which gave New York City direct access to Lake Erie.

The idea of a canal actually dates back to 1799, when a Queenston merchant named Robert Hamilton petitioned the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. This would fail, but the idea of a canal would not disappear.

In 1816, William Hamilton Merritt, who was only 23, bought a rundown sawmill, grist mill and store along Twelve Mile Creek. The creek’s levels changed constantly, which made it difficult for him to operate his mills. In 1818, the water level was especially low and Merritt began to pursue the idea of bringing water to his mills from the Welland River. With others in the area, Merritt began to survey a potential route for a water canal, planning a three kilometre route from the headwaters of Twelve Mile Creek to the Welland River. He would send a petition to the Upper Canada Legislature to provide funds for construction of a canal. The members of the Legislature were open to the idea and in 1823, Hiram Tibbets, a respected engineer, was hired to do a survey of the route. His suggestion was to dig a channel that was four feet below the surface of the Welland River.

On Jan. 19, 1824, six years after Merritt began to pursue the idea, the Legislature formed the Welland Canal Company, providing capitalization of $150,000. Merritt was made the financial agent, requiring him to travel throughout the United States and Britain to find funding for the project. Several proposals were put forward, including combining the canal with a rail route with boats hauled up the incline on wooden rails. Another proposal was to dig a tunnel through the summit between the two lakes, 4.5 metres wide, four metres high, with a draft of 1.8 metres. Eventually, it was decided that the canal would be a series of locks with an open channel.

The Montreal Gazette wrote on March 17, 1824, quote:

“In our last paper, we took an opportunity of noticing the favourable reception the project of the Welland Canal, for joining Lake Erie and Ontario, had met with in this town, and we find additional proof of the importance and utility of this undertaking in the interest manifested for Quebec.”

On Nov. 30, 1824, 200 people gathered at Allanburg to watch the sod-turning for the construction of the canal. It would not be until July of the following year that the actual construction would begin.

The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:

“The morning was rainy, and had the appearance of a rainy day. Owing the frequent rains lately, the roads were exceedingly bad, owing to those circumstances there were not near the number of people that might otherwise have been expected.”

Several dignitaries were on hand, including the directors of the company. Merritt would also give a speech to the crowd. He would say quote:

“We are assembled here this day for the purpose of removing the first earth from a canal which will, with the least, and by the shortest distance, connect the greatest extent of inland waters in the whole world. It gives me particular pleasure to find the line of this canal has been located in this neighbourhood. The inhabitants of which have turned out on all occasions with a zeal and alacrity worthy of the undertaking.”

The deep cut, as it was called, progressed slowly, running as deep as 20 metres and moving 750,000 cubic metres of dirt.

By 1826, there were questions over whether or not its size would be adequate. In an editorial, the Montreal Gazette wrote on Oct. 23 of that year, asking if it was going to be a boat canal, or a ship canal. It states quote:

“A ship canal, it may with a little extra expense be made to carry very considerable shipping, but the intention of it is to make it carry ships 120 tons burden, which is the full size of those that ordinarily navigate Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.”

By 1827, work was paused in September due to heavy rains, and workers began working on a new canal in Wainfleet. Work would not continue until April 1828.

As work neared completion, advocates of the canal at St. Catherine’s purchased a canal boat in Buffalo, called the General Jackson, with the plan to make it the first boat through the canal to pass the village. Unfortunately, they would be unsuccessful in their endeavor.

On July 12, 1828, it was announced that £50,000 was allocated from England in order to finish the canal.

The rains seemed to continue through the year and on Nov. 9, 1928, the banks of the cut near Port Robinson collapsed, killing an unknown number of workers. Several more landslides would occur and it was decided that making a cut deep enough to use the Welland River as a source of water for the canal would not be possible.

To deal with this problem, a dam was built near the mouth of the Grand River, with a feeder channel running to the Welland Canal. The feeder channel ran to the east before turning to the north across the Wainfleet Marsh. The digging of the feeder channel took 177 days, which was considered an achievement for the time. In November 1829, Lake Erie water was let into the feeder and the Welland Canal project.

The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:

“It is with extreme pleasure we announce to our readers and friends, and the friends of this great work throughout the country, the fact that the waters of the Grand River were actually let into the feeder of the Welland Canal on Saturday last and are at this moment, gradually wending their way through the Canal, to mingle, with the waters of Lake Ontario.”

On Nov. 30, 1829, five years after sod was first turned, the Welland Canal was opened to traffic. The Annie and Jane from York, Upper Canada and the R.H. Broughton from Youngstown, New York, were the first boats to go through the canal from either side. It takes them two days and they are pulled by teams of workhorses.

In all, the Welland and Feeder Canals stretched for 44 kilometres between the two lakes, with 40 wooden locks and a minimum canal depth of eight feet. The difference in elevation between the two entrances to the canal, at Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, was 99 metres. The total cost to build this canal was $8 million, no small amount for the time.

Only two years after the canal was completed, Gravelly Bay, now Port Colborne, was chosen as the new Lake Erie terminus for the canal as it offered a natural harbour for ships waiting to go into the canal. A loan was obtained and construction soon began, but a cholera outbreak in 1832 delayed construction.

On June 1, 1833, the Matilda became the first ship to travel through the new canal route.

In 1839, with the 40 wooden locks beginning to deteriorate and the ships getting larger, work began on the Second Welland Canal which would deepen the original canal to nine feet at a minimum and reduce the locks number to 27.

While work was conducted on the Second Welland Canal, there was still cargo going through. In 1840, 186,000 barrels of flour went through, along with 14,889 pounds of beef and pork, 153,031 pounds of salt, 1.8 million board feet of lumber and 1.7 million bushels of wheat.

By 1841, the Province of Canada turns all loans made to the financially-troubled Welland Canal company into stock and takes over control.

The deepening of the canal was completed by 1846 for part of the distance, with the full distance finishing in 1848. Total completion of the Second Welland Canal was finished in 1854.

As ship traffic increased and ship sizes ballooned, it was evident by the 1870s that a Third Welland Canal project needed to be conducted.

The Kingston British Whig reported quote:

“In Canada, we are more slow to perceive the advantages which the enlargement would secure than our commercial neighbours, who from time to time, give us plain but kindly hints of the danger in our own backwardness.”

This time, the minimum depth would be 14 feet with 26 stone locks. Originally, the plan was to have it at only 12 feet, but the Kingston Board of Trade would speak with the Minister of Public works. The British Whig Standard reported quote:

“They are satisfied that though the Honourable Minister of Public Works does not intend to interfere with the present contracts to deepen the Welland Canal to 12 feet, he will before a year is out supplement that work by contracts to make a 14-feet draught of water.”

One of the largest projects along the canal route was the Merritton Tunnel, built in 1876 so that the Grand Trunk Railway could run under the canal between locks 18 and 19. Construction on the tunnel began in 1875, finishing in 1876. It would officially open four years later though. The tunnel ran for 713 feet, and was made by men using only picks and shovels, with horses taking the dirt out in wagons. The construction of the tunnel was very dangerous. In 1875, a 14-year-old boy was killed when he was crushed by a large rock. In all, 107 men died in the construction of the tunnel, and the canal in that area.

The tunnel would be used until 1915 when it closed. It would eventually be sealed completely.

Construction on the fourth and current Welland Canal began in 1913. At the time, there were questions of whether or not the expansion, or even the canal itself was still needed.

The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:

“The proposed new Welland Canal is a conspicuous example of the unscientific, unbusinesslike lack of system and lack of exact knowledge to guide a minister before coming to an important decision on expenditure.”

In all, it was expected the entire project would cost $50 million, which would be $1.2 billion today.

The Ottawa Citizen would respond to this price tag, stating quote:

“It is proposed to spend $50 million on the construction of a new canal at Welland. Will the expenditure be justified by results for the general good of the country? There does not appear to be any way of finding out. There is any amount of evidence against the project, facts in its favour or conspicuous by their absence.”

MP Robert Rogers would announce that the new canal would be ready in four years, and would be at a depth of 31 to 35 feet. About $200,000 was voted in by the House of Commons for preliminary work. By June, another $2 million was set aside for the new canal.

The Sault Star reported quote:

“By this time, the new Welland Canal will be ready for traffic and the activity of the government promises that along the whole length of this great waterway, the improvements on the canal systems and harbours will either be completed or nearing completion.”

Of course, what no one anticipated was that the largest war in human history to that point, the First World War, would erupt, and put a halt to that construction from 1916 to 1919 as there was a shortage of workers. The canal would open to traffic in 1930, thought it was not completed to its full depth. By this point, the cost was about $120 million.

It would take until 1932 to complete the dredging to a 25-foot depth, although the canal would be opened by Governor General Lord Bessborough on Aug. 6, 1932. By the time it opened, it had cost $200 million to finish, or $4.1 billion today. That figure is spread over a decade though, so the inflation figures may be slightly off. This figure was come to by the National Post, which had the construction cost at $130 million, the cost of providing the cast at 3.95 per cent interest at $5.35 million and the interest during construction over 18 years at 4.9 per cent over nine year at $57.3 million.

The new canal changed the route north of St. Catharine’s, now running directly north of Port Weller. The canal now had a minimum depth of 25 feet, with eight locks in total. As well, 12 highway bridges and nine railway bridges now spanned the canal. To construct the new canal, nine million cubic yards of rock, 51.1 million cubic yards of earth and 3.5 million cubic yards of concrete were used. As well, 37 million pounds of reinforced steel and 55 million pounds of sheet steel piling was used. The construction of the canal had taken so long that Francis Cochrane, the Minister of Railways and Canals who began the project, was dead long before it was finished.

The first ship to make the journey would be the SS Lemoyne, the largest vessel on the Great Lakes, which completed the journey through the canal as thousands of citizens cheered it on along the banks of the canal. Through the canal, the 633-foot long freighter took 600,000 bushels of grain.

The Brantford newspaper described the opening of the canal quote:

“The scene was one of beauty. A bright sun in a clear sky shone down upon hundreds of gay flags and pennants flying in the breeze. Along the straight, gray walls of the deep lock basins, thousands of people in holiday attire were gathered.”

Minister of Railways and Canals R.J. Manion would say in his speech quote:

“We meet here today to open officially the Welland Ship Canal, a work of great magnitude, which of importance to the trade and commerce of this continent, a work begun no less than 19 years ago, but delayed in completion because of Canada’s participation in the Great War.”

The Canal would officially be opened by the Governor General.

It is believed the current Welland Canal will last until 2030, a century after it opened and 200 years after shipping first began on it. It is believed it will last much longer due to small improvements to its infrastructure but there is a proposed plan to create a Fifth Welland Canal at some point in the 21st century.

The canal has seen many accidents over the course of its history. On June 20, 1912, the steamer La Canadienne lost control and smashed into Lock No. 22, opening the lock by six inches. This caused a surge of water to flow downstream, which went over Lock No. 21, where five boys were fishing. Three of the boys would drown in the surge. As well, the Merritton Tunnel was completely filled with water.

The Edmonton Daily Bulletin reported quote:

“The gates gave way and the rush of water from above carried the steamer and the lower gates into the reach below, where the steamer struck the rocky bank and sank with a large hole in her hull. Willie Wallace, Willie Jacks and Leonard Bretherick, all aged five years, were swept over the canal bank into the water and drowned. The mass of water continued down the canal as far as lock number 18, badly damaging the banks and overflowing the adjoining farm lands.”

On Aug. 25, 1974, the Steelton, an ore-carrier, struck Bridge 12 at Port Robinson, knocking the bridge over and destroying it. Thankfully, no one was killed.

Recently, on July 11, 2020, two cargo ships, the Alanis and Florence Spirit, struck each other near Port Robinson. No one was injured and no cargo was spilled.

Earlier in the canal’s history, it has also been the target of sabotage by various groups. Its importance to the area made it an important target for saboteurs.

On Sept. 9, 1841, at Lock No. 37, an explosive charge destroyed the lock gate but a guard gate upstream was closed in time to prevent a catastrophic flood from flowing upstream, saving many lives and property. While no one was arrested, it was believed Benjamin Lett was responsible. Lett was a follower of William Lyon Mackenzie, who led the Upper Canada Rebellion. Lett had bombed the monument to Sir Isaac Brock near Queenston, Ontario and attempted to burn the British steamship Great Britain while it was leaving a harbour in New York.

The incident was described in a letter by W.B. Robinson, the Superintendent of the Canal. He writes quote:

“A tremendous explosion was heard, and it was immediately ascertained that one of the head gates of the upper lock at Allanburgh was completely destroyed, very fortunately a guard lock had been erected about 50 feet above the injured lock, the gates of which closed almost immediately after the explosion, from the force of the current caused by the water rushing into the level below, and thus preventing the whole body of water above, from descending into the canal and the surrounding country.”

On April 21, 1900, a dynamite charge caused minor damage to Lock No. 24. The men responsible were arrested and sentenced to life in prison at the Kingston Penitentiary. The men were caught because Euphemia Constable, a 16-year-old girl, was nearby and had seen the bombers before the blast knocked her unconscious.

The Windsor Star described the incident quote:

“It is a miracle that the gates were not entirely dislodged in which case the result would have been most disastrous to the canals. A large number of light glass in the town were broken with the shock. It is not considered that the damage is sufficient to prevent navigation from opening on Tuesday next.”

During the First World War, there were several plots against the Welland Canal but the Van Papen Plot would become the most well-known attempts to sabotage it. It was in April 1916 when a United States federal grand jury indicted several men who had planned to attack the canal. Karl Boy-Ed worked at the German embassy in Washington D.C., Franz von Rintelen and Hans Tauscher were attached with the German Imperial Navy and the German Imperial Army. Franz von Papen was a Prussian nobleman who was also indicted but he was in Germany, having been expelled from the United States for alleged acts of sabotage. He who would go on to serve as the chancellor of Germany in 1932, and then vice chancellor under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1934.  

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Niagara Welland Canal, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, WellandCanal.com, Ontario Heritage Trust, Montreal Gazette, Kingston British Whig, Sault Star, Windsor Star, National Post, Edmonton Daily Bulletin

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