1. The Great Lakes of North America, and the mighty St. Lawrence River that is their chief outlet into the Atlantic Ocean, together form the largest and busiest inland waterway system on Earth. It’s about 3,800 km from Duluth, Minnesota at the western tip of Lake Superior, to the Atlantic via the Strait of Belle Isle. To make the whole system navigable by ocean-going vessels, surprisingly few locks are needed: e.g., one at Sault Ste. Marie, and half a dozen on the St. Lawrence in the vicinity of Montréal.
But the system has always had one major obstacle to easy navigation: Niagara Falls, and the rapids in the gorge below, make the Niagara River linking Lakes Erie and Ontario completely unnavigable.* There is an elevation difference of 99.5 metres between these two lakes thanks to the intervention of the Niagara Escarpment, and for years the only way to navigate it was to portage vessels and/or their contents around the Falls by road.
2. (*Except of course for sightseeing boats like Maid of the Mist that convey tourists a few hundred metres from the shore to the foot of the Horseshoe Falls.)
3. The map above shows the Niagara Peninsula (it’s actually an isthmus) separating Lake Erie in the south from Lake Ontario in the north. The fast-flowing 58 km-long Niagara River (the wiggly purple line) is also the international boundary between Ontario, Canada and New York State, USA. Niagara Falls, and the two cities with the same name surrounding it on either bank, are a little over half way along the Niagara River’s northerly course. To the left of the River on the map, running in an almost straight light blue line between Port Colborne and Port Weller, is the Welland Ship Canal. A remarkable feat of engineering, this Canal enables large ships to surmount the Escarpment via seven huge locks. The Canal was first completed in 1932, and since 1959 it has been the crucial link in the St. Lawrence Seaway, the waterway between Montréal and Lake Erie that allows ocean-going ships passage between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.
4. However, there have been canals through the Niagara Peninsula since 1833. To fully appreciate the Welland Ship Canal, a.k.a. the Fourth Welland Canal, you really need to get a sense of its evolution through its three earlier incarnations. So before embarking on the Welland Canal Trail, a fairly straightforward canalside walk, we’ll first visit sections of the Merritt Trail, a more complicated and ill-defined route, to view the traces of the First, Second, and Third Welland Canals.
5. The Welland Ship Canal’s northern portal is between those long breakwaters at Port Weller. But the first three Welland Canals all began at Port Dalhousie about 5 km to the southwest, where Twelve Mile Creek enters Lake Ontario. Much of this area is occupied today by suburbs of St. Catharines (pop. 135,000), the largest city in Ontario’s Niagara Region.
6. The great age of canal building, in North America as in Europe, was between the early industrial revolution and the first railways. During those years, transportation of bulk goods by water was far easier than by road. In the USA, the 584 km Erie Canal (1817-25), promoted by New York State governor DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), provided a link between Lake Erie at Buffalo, NY and the Atlantic via the Hudson River. “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” as sceptics called it at first, led to the rapid ascendancy of New York City as the major port and population centre on the east coast.
7. In British North America, Clinton’s equivalent was William Hamilton Merritt (1793-1862). Born in Bedford, NY, Merritt was brought to Upper Canada by his Loyalist parents in 1796, to settle in Shipman’s Corners (now the city of St. Catharines). As a young cavalry officer in the War of 1812, he fought the invading Americans at the Battles of Queenston Heights, Stoney Creek, and Lundy’s Lane, at the last of which he was briefly captured and held as a prisoner of war. After the war he went into business as a mill owner on Twelve Mile Creek in Shipman’s Corners, but his mills suffered from fluctuating water levels. And when the Americans began constructing the Erie Canal in 1817, he feared the economic impact on Upper Canada if all Great Lakes shipping trade should be diverted through the USA. A canal from Twelve Mile Creek to Chippawa Creek – as the Welland River, the largest stream in the vicinity, was then called – would kill two birds with one stone: it would ensure his mills had a reliable water supply, and it would provide an all-Canadian navigation route across the Niagara Peninsula and on to the Atlantic, one that had the potential to outshine the Erie Canal. Merritt had no engineering qualifications, but he had the vision, determination, and political skills necessary to bring “Mr. Merritt’s Ditch” into being. There’ll be more about him in due course.
8. A private enterprise, the First Canal used existing waterways wherever possible to keep down costs. Begun in 1824, its southbound route was at first from Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario, past Merritt’s mills on Twelve Mile Creek, then via Dick’s Creek to the Welland River at Port Robinson in Thorold, east along the Welland to where it joins the Niagara River at Chippawa, and thence along the Niagara River upstream to Lake Erie. (Note that I’m using current placenames for ease of reference, though many of these settlements did not exist at the time, or were called by other names.) The Niagara Escarpment, indicated on the map above as “Ridge 345 feet high,” was surmounted by hand-operated locks lined with oak. Each of the forty locks on the First Canal was about 33.5 metres long, 6.7 m wide, and 2.4 m deep. A vessel could carry a maximum of 165 tons of cargo through the Canal.
A secondary Welland Canal cut southwest to the mouth of the Grand River had been planned, and a preliminary route for it is indicated on the 1828 map above. This would evolve into the Feeder Canal, opened 14 November 1829, that provided a reliable water source to the main Canal from the Grand River. There will be more about the Feeder in due course.
9. The first vessels to pass through the First Canal were a pair of schooners, the Canadian Ann and Jane and the American R.H. Boughton. Their journey, assisted by horses and oxen along the towpath, began at Port Dalhousie on the afternoon of Friday 27 November 1829 and ended at Buffalo, NY on Wednesday 2 December. For more information about this event, see Alun Hughes, “The Opening of the First Welland Canal” (2007).
The First Canal was soon extended southwards from Port Robinson to Port Colborne on Lake Erie, reducing its length and avoiding the danger posed by the Niagara River’s strong current as it approaches the Falls. This southern extension of the First Canal opened in 1833.
10A. The First Canal deteriorated quickly and struggled financially, and so the privately-financed Welland Canal Company was taken over by the government of Upper Canada in 1841. The Second Canal (1842-53) (green on the map above) was a reconstruction and expansion of the First Canal, using almost exactly the same route. The number of locks was reduced to 27, and these were now lined with durable limestone blocks rather than wood. The length of each lock was increased to 45.7 metres, its width to 8.1 m, and its depth to 2.7 m. This allowed a ship to carry a cargo of 750 tons, 4.5 times as much as on the First Canal.
10B. The Third or New Canal (red on the maps above), built 1872-87, began at Port Dalhousie, but cut directly southeast in a new, improved channel, bypassing the wiggly course of Twelve Mile Creek and Dick’s Creek. It had 26 limestone locks, each 82.3 metres long, 13.7 m wide, and 4.3 m deep. This allowed a ship to carry a cargo of 2,700 tons, 3.6 times as much as the Second Canal. From 1881 Lake Erie replaced the Feeder Canal as the Canal’s chief water source. But even those adjustments could not keep up with the increasing size of the vessels (now steam-driven) expecting to use the Canal.
11. Harvest Spirit (built 2012), a general cargo ship flying the Canadian flag, leaves Lock 3 of the Welland Ship Canal heading north towards Lake Ontario. She’s just about to pass through the raised, double-leaf bascules of the Homer Bridge (1928) that takes Queenston Street over the Canal, then she will sail under the Garden City Skyway (1963), carrying the six lanes of the Queen Elizabeth Way 37.5 metres over the Canal.
12. Construction of the Fourth Canal, the first edition of today’s Welland Ship Canal, was begun in 1913, stalled during World War I, and completed in 1932. It takes a direct route from Port Weller to Port Colborne, and has eight concrete locks each 261.8 metres long, 24.4 m wide, and 8.2 m deep. The cargo capacity of each ship is now 28,000 tons, 10.4 times that of the Third Canal, and 170 times that of the First. From 1965-73 the Canal was further straightened by bypassing the city of Welland to the east. It is this Canal which our main hike will (mostly) follow.
13. Atlantic Spirit, flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, is a bulk carrier plying regularly between Europe and the Great Lakes. Here, having just exited the Canal, she’s seen off Port Dalhousie heading for Dordrecht, Netherlands via Montréal.
Next, we’ll visit some surviving traces of the first three canals, starting in Port Dalhousie.
Here’s some further reading about the Welland Canals:
Fitzpatrick, Peter, ed. Merritt Trail Guide. St. Catharines, ON: Welland Canals Preservation Association, no date.
Jackson, John N. The Four Welland Canals: A Journey of Discovery in St. Catharines and Thorold. St. Catharines, ON: Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1988.
Jackson, John N., and Fred A. Addis. The Welland Canals: A Comprehensive Guide. St. Catharines, ON: Welland Canals Foundation, 1982.
Phair, Arden, and Kathleen Powell, eds. Triumph and Tragedy: The Welland Ship Canal. St. Catharines, ON: St. Catharines Museum, 2022.
Pritchard, Jean. The Welland Canal: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Port Robinson, ON: Jean Pritchard Publications, 1975.
Styran, Roberta M., and Robert R. Taylor. The Welland Canals: The Growth of Mr. Merritt’s Ditch. Erin, ON: The Boston Mills Press, 1988.
Styran, Roberta M., and Robert R. Taylor. Mr. Merritt’s Ditch: A Welland Canals Album. Erin, ON: The Boston Mills Press, 1992.
Styran, Roberta M., and Robert R. Taylor. This Great National Object: Building the Nineteenth-Century Welland Canals. Montréal and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.
Styran, Roberta M., and Robert R. Taylor. This Colossal Project: Building the Welland Ship Canal, 1913-1932. Montréal and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.
Tammemagi, Hans and Allyson. Exploring Niagara: The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls and Vicinity. St. Catharines, ON: Oakhill Publishing House, 1997.
Turcotte, Dorothy. Port Dalhousie: Shoes & Ships & Sealing Wax. Erin, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1986.
Williams, Jack. Merritt: A Canadian before His Time. St. Catharines, ON: Stonehouse, 1985.