Welland Canal

The conception of the Welland Canal began with the vision of a young Empire Loyalist named William Hamilton Merritt, who saw the enormous potential of constructing a waterway that would allow vessels to travel from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and safely bypass Niagara Falls. Merritt owned a saw mill in the city of St. Catharines, which was powered by a water wheel utilizing the water from nearby Twelve Mile Creek. The mill was often shut down in the summer and winter months due to low water levels in the creek. This problem would prove to be the catalyst for the construction of the Welland Canal. Merritt realized that he would be able to run his mill continuously throughout the year if he could divert water from the Welland River and channel it into the Twelve Mile Creek.

With the construction of the Erie Canal in New York state, an even greater need for a canal linking Lake Ontario to Lake Erie grew. The new Erie Canal linked Lake Erie with the Hudson River, and allowed vessels to transport their goods directly to New York City, bypassing the busy Montreal ports, thus leaving Canada out of the lucrative shipping industry. Seeing the potential loss of business the government soon became involved with the proposed canal and on January 19, 1824 a move was made to incorporate the Welland Canal Company, headed by Merritt, as well as a number if other prominent business owners in the area.

The proposal to build a canal running from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario would not be as straight forward as originally thought. The original plan to use the waters of the Chippawa Creek were not possible as too deep of a cut had to be made to accomplish this. Engineers proposed to build a feeder canal from the Grand River. The feeder would run 27 miles through the Cranberry Creek marsh and be carried by an aqueduct over the Chippawa. On November 30, 1824 the first sod was turned over at the head of the Twelve Mile Creek, and construction began on this amazing engineering feat.

In January of 1825 a tunnel the workers had been labouring on for weeks was abandoned because its banks kept collapsing. Engineers instead proposed to construct a deep cut between Allanburg and Port Robinson. The cut was about 44 feet deep and stretched 1 ¾ of a mile. It was built by thousands of men, many of them Irish immigrants who had come to Canada for a better life. Many men died or were injured while constructing the canal as the work was heavy and dangerous.

By the summer of 1826 the wooden locks began to be constructed. Forty locks in all would be built, each measuring 110 feet long, and 8 feet deep. Thirty six of them would be utilized on the Niagara Escarpment allowing vessels to climb the side of the escarpment, and travel back down the other side.

By 1827 the deep cut was almost completed, however, Engineers soon realized that their original plan of connecting to Chippawa Creek would not be entirely feasible as it would not provide enough water to fill the canal. They proposed to build a feeder canal in order to obtain enough water to adequately supply the canal. The feeder canal would take water from the Grand River, and channel it into Chippawa Creek. In order to do so a dam would have to be built, so water could be diverted from the river into the feeder canal. The Engineers challenges did not stop there, because there was a ten foot difference in elevation between the canal and Chippawa Creek where the feeder was supposed to run across. It was then proposed that an aqueduct be constructed to bridge this gap. The aqueduct was constructed during the summer of 1829, and was 360 feet long and was 6 feet deep.

On November 7, 1829, the first boat travelled from the deep cut to the Grand River, with William Merritt and two officers aboard, and a week later on November 14th commercial traffic began to use the new waterway, however, work was still to be completed on the final length of the canal from Port Robinson to Port Dalhousie. On November 28th, 1829 five years after the first ground was broken the Welland Canal was officially opened when the vessels Annie & Jane and RH Broughton entered the first lock at Port Dalhousie with Merritt sailing on the Annie Jane to inaugurate the opening of the canal.

By 1830 the company was already trying to fix problems with the canals water levels, and in 1831 it was proposed that a channel would have to be dug directly from the Aqueduct to Lake Erie, and work soon began on the extension that June. The extension was completed in time for the 1833 shipping season.

Numerous vessels began using the canal to carry their goods on this new route from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, mostly carrying wheat, flour, and salt. The engineers had managed to shorten the once fifty mile trip to just 10 miles with the new canal, and with the advent of the modern steam ship the canal was being used more and more.

Towns began to emerge along the canal route, with businesses seeing the benefits of being in the new transportation centre. Many industrial companies also chose the area for their operations because they could ship and receive goods to and from the West much quicker than before. The mills located in St. Catharines and Thorold now had a steady reliable power flow from their water wheels and could now operate much more efficiently, and soon business began to boom.

Operating this huge infrastructure and keeping up with the constant repairs of the new canal became increasingly harder for the Welland Canal Company and the canal was sold to the government of Canada in 1834.

In the early 1840s construction of a second canal began. The locks, which had originally been built of wood, where falling apart, and would now be built of lime stone to give added strength. Engineers also proposed to enlarge the canal in order to accommodate the new much larger steamer ships of the day. The new locks were 150 feet long and nine feet deep, and the plan called for a reduction in the number of locks from forty to twenty seven. They would be completed in 1843, however, it would be ten years before the renovations of the canal would be completed.

By 1859 vessels were becoming too large and heavy to enter the locks and travel the canal. William Hamilton Merritt would solve the problem by building the Welland Railway. Merritt’s trains would take some of the ships cargo, lightening its load and thus allowing it to pass through the canal. The cargo was taken by land on the rail and was then reloaded onto the ships at nearby terminals. This system would be a short term solution and it soon became apparent that another expansion of the canal would be necessary. In 1872 work soon got underway on the Third Welland Canal. The new canal would have a new route from Thorold to Lake Ontario, bypassing the Twelve Mile Creek. They further reduced the number of locks needed to climb the escarpment from seventeen to fourteen, however, they added two new locks to the route between Port Dalhousie and Merriton. A new aqueduct was also constructed to cross the Welland River, it was constructed of limestone, and had six impressive arches each seven feet by forty feet. When it was completed in 1887 the third canal was 14 feet deep and ran a total of 23 miles, and could accommodate a 255 foot long vessel.

A fourth canal was being proposed as early as 1907 to accommodate the ever increasing traffic and larger vessels of the day. Construction began in 1913 for the fourth and final canal. This canal was designed to use the Ten Mile Creek in St. Catharines, which runs in a fairly straight line north and south from the escarpment. Engineers reduced the number of locks from twenty six to eight, and changed the aqueduct at Welland by constructing a large trench to siphon water from the river and force it under the canal and out the other side of the aqueduct. Construction was halted on the canal when the First World War broke out, and did not resume until 1919 when the bloody battles had finally ended. The canal was finished in 1932, and was 859 feet long and 80 feet wide, and boasted only seven locks from the previous 26, which were now made of reinforced concrete instead of stone. It could accommodate much larger vessels than the previous three, with typical vessels being 730 feet long with a capacity of 25,000 tons. Various deepening and widening projects have taken place to accommodate the ever growing ship designs. In 1973 the last changes were made when the Welland bypass was completed. A tunnel was dug beneath the canal at Thorold and two subsequent tunnels were dug at Welland, this project was completed for the 1973 shipping season, and would allow vessels to bypass the city of Welland.