The Evolution of the Welland Canal | The Canadian Encyclopedia


The Evolution of the Welland Canal

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

On November 30, 1829, two schooners sailed regally from Port Dalhousie to Port Robinson, Upper Canada, announcing the opening of the Welland Canal and the completion of an engineering marvel. The canal linked Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, which differ in elevation by 99 m, opening the water route to the West and countering the economic threat of America's Erie Canal.

The early settlement of Canada, without roads or trails, depended on rivers and lakes as convenient and efficient means of travel. However, the St. Lawrence and Niagara Falls presented formidable obstacles to travel from the east coast by water to the interior. Before the construction of the Welland Canal, the only route between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was the laborious and hazardous portage from Queenston to the Chippawa Creek. The canal opened a lifeline of trade and commerce to inland North America. Communities along its length owe their urban form and industrial development to the canal.

The driving force behind the canal was St Catharines businessman William Hamilton Merritt, who took the first real steps towards its construction. The idea of a canal to bypass the Falls had been suggested several times before, but it was Merritt's initiative that brought it to fruition. He was sure that a canal could be dug, using the Twelve Mile Creek basin, to link the two lakes. Vessels could pass along the Chippawa, which is now called the Welland River, to the Niagara River and then to Lake Erie.

Legislation passed in 1824 incorporated the Welland Canal Company and the first sod was turned on November 30, 1824 by company president George Keefer. The company's initial plan combined the canal with a rail route, with boats hauled up the incline on wooden rails, certainly a difficult means of moving vessels between the two elevations.

An artist's recreation of the Canadian vessel, Anne and Jane, as it made the historical first transit of the Welland Canal in 1829 (courtesy St Catharines Historical Museum).

Another proposition was to dig a tunnel across the summit, 4.5 m wide, 4 m high and with a draft of 1.8 m. Eventually, the company decided to scale the escarpment with a series of locks and dig an open channel - the Deep Cut - between the summit and the Welland River.

The first canal (there have been three iterations since) ran along Twelve Mile Creek from Port Dalhousie to Port Robinson to connect with the Welland River, which ran to the Niagara River and on to Lake Erie.

Landslides in the Deep Cut caused several setbacks and in 1828 the company found it necessary to raise the summit level of the canal by 2.4 m and find a water supply at a higher elevation. A feeder canal was constructed, running northwest through Wainfleet and Moulton Townships, to bring water from the Grand River. The feeder crossed the Welland River on a wooden aqueduct and reached summit level at Port Robinson. The canal was joined to the Welland River by two locks reaching down from the summit level to the river.

It was an arduous project, to say the least. Construction crews, comprising mostly European immigrants, worked for five years with few tools besides picks and shovels to create the canal, which was 43.4 km long, 2.4 m deep, 6.7 m wide and had 40 locks. The workers earned about 50 cents per day.

In the fall of 1829, water flowed through the feeder and connected Lakes Erie and Ontario for the first time. The Canadian Schooner Annie and Jane of York, and the R.H. Boughton of Youngston, NY were the first ships to enter the canal, arriving at Chippawa on November 30, exactly five years from the day the first sod was turned.

The Welland Canal has changed over the years, along with the vessels using it. Today's canal follows the most direct route of the previous canals, running perpendicular to the Niagara escarpment from Port Wellers to Port Colborne. It is 24.4 m wide and has eight locks, each 262 m long. Water, gravity and watertight chambers lift vessels up and down the cliff face of the Niagara Escarpment, allowing behemoth freighters and small pleasure craft to sail to the middle of the North American continent.

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