A History of the Old Welland Canals.

If you're interested in the Old Welland Canals you may want to brush up on their history. The following covers the important details starting with why they were built. It should be enough to get you started.

The Need for a Canal

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There are several reasons that led to the building of the first Welland Canal, first and foremost being one of geography. North America includes a series of navigatable freshwater lakes, called the Great Lakes, that allowed shipping deep into the center of the continent.

Despite this potential for inland transit, shipping was historically limited to Lake Ontario, the first lake in the chain. The reason being that the natural waterway between the first and second lake, the Niagara River, included it's own natural obstacle to shipping, Niagara Falls (see Niagara Falls here)

Because of the falls, shipping on the "Upper Lakes" was limited to boats that could be carried overland or built at locations above the falls. Cargo meanwhile needed to be unloaded several miles from the falls and portaged past Niagara Falls before being reloaded on boats for continued passage. For this simple reason the idea for a canal existed long before work on the first Welland Canal ever started.

Other reasons for building a canal were political in nature. In 1783 The United States of America signed a treaty with England granting independence. The terms of the treaty, dividing the 13 colonies in the south from the territory still held by England in the north, used the Great Lakes as a natural boundary between the two nations.

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When thousands of "Empire Loyalists", people remaining loyal to England, then traveled north to be resettled on land still held by England, many of these Loyalists were settled in the Niagara Peninsula, the narrow strip of land that separated Lake Ontario from the Lake Erie. With settlement eventually reaching Lake Erie, one of the Upper Lakes, a need grew for an efficient method of transporting commodities to and from the increasingly distant settlements.

The presence of the United States on the southern shores of the Upper Lakes was yet another concern. During the War of 1812 (1812-1814) settlements such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit were able to provided support for military campaigns into Upper Canada. For this reason the British Navy was eager to have their ships stationed on Lake Erie as well as on Lake Ontario.

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The First Canal

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Although the idea of building a canal was not new, credit for building the first Welland Canal is given to William Hamilton Merritt. Merritt was the son of an Empire Loyalist, a farmer and the owner of a mill that operated on the banks of the 12 mile creek 1 mile downstream from downtown St. Catharines at a place named Welland Vale.

After several years as a mill operator, Merritt was increasingly bothered by the seasonal variations of the water supply available from the 12-mile creek. In 1818 he became interested in the possibility of diverting water from the Welland River, a larger river running the length of the Peninsula. Although a span of just 2 miles needed to be dug, it was discovered that an extensive ridge ran between the two waterways and the idea was given up.

It was one month later that Merritt first proposed building a canal that would allow boats to travel between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Few historians fail to point out that once completed the canal accomplished much of what Merritt's original diversionary ditch had intended.

While the idea of a canal was generally accepted as a good idea it was still a considerable undertaking. The distance between the lakes that needed to be crossed was roughly 40 km. Lake Erie's was also 326.5 feet higher then Lake Ontario, and therefore some method was needed to lift and lower boats to that height. The rise between the lakes was also not gradual. Instead the peninsula was divided into two plains that reflected the different elevations of the two lakes. The place where the two plains met created a physical landform known as the Niagara Escarpment where a change in elevation of nearly 200 feet needed to be scaled. Lastly, as Merritt had already discovered, a ridge running east and west existed midway between the Lakes. Rising as much as 50 feet above the height of Lake Erie it needed to be crossed to allow passage between the lakes.

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After several surveys and much debate over route, a path was decided on that would utilize natural waterways as much as possible. Wooden locks would be used to lift and lower the boats to the heights required between the two lakes.

Starting from Lake Ontario, 12-mile creek would be taken as far south as the town of St. Catharines. Here, Dick's Creek, a tributary of 12-mile creek was followed briefly north and then south again starting a slow climb upward which eventually culminated in a rapid succession of locks that took the canal up the escarpment. From here it continued south where it eventually met up with another tributary of 12-mile creek and eventually the same ridge that had prevented Merritt's original idea of a water diversion ditch.

While a tunnel through the ridge was originally conceived of, the final plan called for a channel or "Deep Cut" to continue south a distance of 2 miles until it met up with the Welland River. The Welland River would then be followed to the Niagara River, this time above Niagara Falls allowing access to Lake Erie.

The Welland Canal Company was formed in January 1824 to build and manage the canal with construction starting in November 30, 1824.

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The Feeder Canal

In 1828 after several years of construction an unexpected problem arose at the Deep Cut. The original plan required a deep channel so that the canal could operated at the same water level as the Welland River. This would allow the river to be a source of water for the canal and would simplify ship movement between the two bodies of water.

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After considerable digging it was found that the ground making up the ridge was too unstable to support the depth and the steep slopes of the channel they were creating. The simplest solution was to dig a much wider channel but this presented difficulties as well. The digging was a slow process and it had taken 4 years to dig a partially completed channel. Hopes, meanwhile, were for the canal to be finished by the next year and so a decision was made to instead dig a shallower channel and to use locks to transfer ships down to the Welland River.

But this decision created a new problem. Since the Welland River could no longer flow into the canal, a new source of water at a higher elevation was now needed to fill the canal. The source selected was the Grand River a major river that poured into Lake Erie. It was decided that a new channel, a "Feeder Canal" would be created to bring that water to the Welland Canal.

To preserve its elevation the feeder canal would travel south of the Welland River valley to a point south of the canal and then turn north. The Feeder Canal then crossed over the Welland River by use of a wooden aqueduct and continued north emptying into the Welland Canal adjacent to where it accessed the Welland River.

The Feeder Canal was completed in 1829, functioned as designed and shipping on the canal was able to commence on Nov 30, 1829.

Once built the canal was a success by allowing ships to reach the Upper Great Lakes. The Welland River, however, was quickly seen as too cumbersome. In 1833 part of the Feeder Canal was incorporated into the first canal and extended directly south to Lake Erie, helping to further streamline transit to Lake Erie.
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Canal Usage

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The Welland Canal aided in the development of several towns along it's route. Mills were often built adjacent to the locks to take advantage of available water power. Towns arose were people employed by the canal lived and where services for the shipping industry could be provided.

Towns affected in this way were as follows.

  • Port Dalhousie - A port town developed at the northern terminus of the canal.
  • Merritton - A mill town developed at the bottom of the Escarpment.
  • Thorold - A mill town developed at the top of the Escarpment.
  • Allanburg - Developed at the northern end of the deep cut where Hwy. 20 crossed the canal.
  • Port Robinson - A port town serviced the canal where it joined to the Welland River.
  • Welland - Developed where the feeder canal crossed the Welland River.
  • Port Colborne - A port town developed at the southern terminus of the canal.

Despite the economic stimulus provided by the first canal, it did have shortcomings and it's important to note that the canal only operated for 15 years. The main problem was the deterioration of the canal infrastructure itself. Built out of wood, kept wet and used regularly the locks themselves started to deteriorate after 10 years. Maintenance of the locks became a growing concern and a continual drain on finances for the Welland Canal Company.

Eventually while the canal proved vital to the economic welfare of the region the Welland Canal Company, owner of the canal, was soon depending on government subsidies to continue its operation.

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The Second Canal

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After 12 years of operation it had become clear that the canal would benefit from government ownership. The canal was purchased by the government in 1841 with plans of rebuilding. This time the infrastructure of the canal was built with stone, the size of the locks increased and the number of locks reduced. While the second canal followed the route of the first canal a few winding sections were straightened out to allow larger ships to pass. Work on the Second Welland Canal started in 1842 and was complete in 1845

With government supervision additional improvements continued to be made on the canal system. Access upstream on the Welland River was made available by a new lock built at Welland. This route allowed boat traffic further inland and encouraged towns such as Wellandport and Port Davidson to develop on the Welland River.

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The Feeder Canal was also widened and improved. At the town of Dunnville, the Feeder Canal's water source on the Grand River, a lock was added. The Feeder Canal was also extended to the mouth of the Grand River at Port Maitland where another lock was built to allow access to Lake Erie.

By the time all the improvements were made in the 1850's the Welland Canal had become more than just a shipping route between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The Welland Canal had also become an inland waterway system and an integral part of life in the Niagara Peninsula.

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The Industrial Revolution

The Second Welland Canal's operation also saw the effects of the industrial revolution. While the canal provided immediate transportation to markets, raceways built along the canal offered a simple and dependable source of water power. The Second Welland Canal, soon became an industrial corridor with dozens of factories lining it's banks. Because of this the Second Welland Canal continued operating for years after the Third Welland Canal was opened in 1881 with the last ship traveling the canal in 1915.

Today only a few of these factories survive. Often at odds with their environment, they still offer us a glimpse of how things may have once looked like along the Second Welland Canal.


Industrial Remnants of the Second Welland Canal

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Welland Mills, Thorold
Built 1846

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Beaver Cotton Mill, Merritton
Built 1880's

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Lybster Cotton Mill, Merritton
Built 1866

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Riordin Paper Mill, Merritton
Built 1867

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Canada Hair Cloth, St. Catharines
Built 1890's

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Maple Leaf Rubber, Port Dalhousie
Built 1900

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The Third Canal

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While economical prosperity arose on the banks of the Second Welland Canal, plans for an improved third canal soon developed. This time concern refocused on providing a shipping route between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Exploration and settlement had uncovered a growing number of natural resources on the upper lakes and the vast plains of the west were increasingly being utilized for agriculture. All of the commodities generated in these regions needed to be brought east where markets for them existed.

The first and second canals, meanwhile, were never built to handle the bigger and more modern steamships being used on the lakes in increasing number. To fix this problem plans were drawn up to build a much larger canal out of stone that could be crossed with much less time and effort.

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The plan for the 3rd Canal was to continue using Port Dalhousie as it's northern entrance, but once inland to follow a newly cut channel southeast just north of the growing city of St. Catharines. The new route had the advantage of being straighter, shorter, and more easily navigated by larger ships. At the escarpment the canal turned southwest to climb the hill at an angle, it straightened out just east of Thorold and continued south.

South of thorold the 3rd canal again ran southwest, approached the 2nd Welland Canal and then turned south continuing adjacent to the 2nd Welland canal for a couple miles. Here the 3rd canal distinguished itself from the second by running in a straight, banked channel while the 2nd canal to the east followed through several low-lying marshes that were tributaries to 12-mile creek. Upon reaching the Deep Cut the 3rd Welland Canal finally merged with the second and continued to Lake Erie.

Construction on the third canal started in 1872 and continued for 9 years. When completed the canal allowed much larger boats to pass through the canal to Lake Erie. With regards to the numerous waterways that were supported by the second canal, the approach of the Third Welland Canal was to accommodate the additional channels, although no further improvements were made to them. Locks continued to giving access to the feeder canal and the Welland River both upstream and down.

The Second Canal between Allanburg and Port Dalhousie meanwhile remained operational with improvements made when necessary to give transportation and water power to the towns and industries it supported.

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The Fourth Canal

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If it wasn't for the ever expanding size of ships traveling on the Great Lakes the Third Welland Canal may have been in service for a much longer period of time. As it was, only a few years after finishing the Third Canal thoughts of a still larger canal arose.

The fourth canal was as ambitious as any that had come before it. It more than doubled most of the proportions of the third canal. It also attempted for the first time to make a straight-line crossing from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. At the escarpment a series of three locks (flight locks) were built as a single structure that alone could lift the ships almost 140 feet.

The fourth canal was an enormous project taking years of planning. Construction started in 1913. When it was completed in 1933 the third canal was decommissioned. By then traffic on the second canal and the feeder canal had also finished, making the fourth canal with it's emphasis on lake to lake transit the only canal in operation.

The last important modification on the Welland Canal happened in 1973. For 150 years the canal had always taken a long curving route through the city of Welland. Because of several constraints the route placed on canal traffic a new and straighter route was built just east of the city with the old route eventually becoming a recreational waterway for the city.

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The Lost Canals

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A history of the Old Welland Canals would not be complete without addressing the current legacy of the First, Second and Third Welland Canals and the Feeder Canal. You may be wondering what happened to them and how much of them are left? The answer to these questions may surprise you. Although obsolete and no longer in use the majority of the canal infrastructure was left alone.

  • The first canal made entirely of wood may have suffered the worst since it was directly incorporated into the second canal. Despite this, a few small stretches of channel have remained along with a couple of preserved locks.
  • The route of the second canal has remained mostly intact with most locks still visible. In St. Catharines, landscaping has removed the weir system from the canal. The town of Thorold cleaned up the section running through town in the early 1960's. South of the town the route of the second canal is still visible up to the "Deep Cut" where it was incorporated into the 3rd and 4th canals. South of the Deep Cut, Second canal era locks still exist in Port Robinson, Welland, Port Maitland and Port Colborne.
  • About half of the third canal infrastructure has remained. Most of the section crossing St. Catharines was filled in, while the rest of the route is still easily visible up to the Deep Cut where it becomes incorporated into the 4th canal. South of the Deep Cut a few stretches of channel are preserved where it deviated from the 4th canal in Welland and Port Colborne, an aqueduct is still preserved in Welland where the third canal once crossed the Welland River and a lock remains in Port Colborne.
  • The Feeder Canal is the best preserved of all the canals. 90% of the channel still exists with only its extreme ends in Welland and Dunnville being filled in. Locks on the Feeder Canal are still visible in Welland and Port Maitland.



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