Finding the Welland Canal(s)

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CSL Niagara going through Lock 8 at Port Colborne (note the raised bridge)
CSL Niagara going through Lock 8 at Port Colborne (note the raised bridge)

As a historian of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, one of the things I love about my research topic is that there are physical and tactile elements that I can go discover, see, and touch. I’ve spent many days just exploring the St. Lawrence, including the old canals that once ran along the river. Recently, I spent the better chunk of a very hot and humid day exploring back paths and hacking through bush in St. Catharines in order to find the remnants of the old Welland Canals. The next day, I had the opportunity to ride a laker through the current Welland Canal, which is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The idea of a canal on what would become the Canadian side of Niagara apparently dated back to the 17th century, but it was not until the efforts of William Hamilton Merritt that the first Welland Canal was built (see inset map). Merritt hoped that this canal would promote commerce through increased trade, and the Welland Canal was emblematic of a growing belief in the use of technology to harness and control water for man’s benefit – an important theme throughout the history of St. Lawrence canals – and thus be made to serve the needs of growing populations. From 1823 to 1829 the canal was audaciously carved through the Niagara escarpment in a winding route that took advantage of existing creeks and rivers.

Even after post-1829 improvements the initial Welland Canal experienced many problems, some stemming from wooden locks, and in the 1840s the second Welland Canal was installed. This newer version followed virtually the same course, but had fewer locks, which were made of stone, with a depth of 8.5 or 9 feet (10 feet by 1853). The third Welland Canal was built between 1883 and 1887, with all locks enlarged to a standard dimension of 14 feet. Like its predecessors, its Lake Ontario entrance was Port Colborne. But the third cut in a straight southeast direction across what is now modern St. Catharines before looping up the Niagara escarpment.

Yet another version of the Welland was in the cards at the beginning of the 20th century. Work began in 1913 on what would prove to be a monumental achievement for the early 20th century: the new iteration of the Welland reduced the number of locks from 26 to seven, plus a guard lock, and the dimensions were 859 feet long, 80 feet wide, and a controlling depth of 25 feet with 30 feet of water over the sills. It also featured three consecutive flight locks to pass ships over the Niagara escarpment. While the route remained much the same from Port Colborne to Thorold, from the Niagara escarpment it ran fairly straight north to a new Lake Ontario harbour, Port Weller. However, due to the economic impact of the First World War, progress was halting and the fourth Welland Canal was not opened until 1931. It was then deepened and improved in the 1950s as part of the Seaway, and in 1973 the Welland By-Pass was finished.

Location of the Welland canals. Map drawn by David Edwards-May, Euromapping, France. In Pauline Desjardins, “Navigation and Waterpower: Adaptation and Technology on Canadian Canals,” IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 29.1 (2003): 69 pars. Used with permission.
Location of the Welland canals. Map drawn by David Edwards-May, Euromapping, France. In Pauline Desjardins, “Navigation and Waterpower: Adaptation and Technology on Canadian Canals,” IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 29.1 (2003): 69 pars. Used with permission.

The folks at Canadian Steamships Line kindly agreed to let me aboard one of their vessels, the CSL Niagara. This trip had been planned several weeks ahead of time, and I managed to make it coincide with the aforementioned old canal exploration and a research trip to the Ontario provincial archives. Initially, the Niagara was supposed to depart Port Colborne at about noon on July 23; this was pushed back to supper time in the days leading up to departure, and it was past 8pm by the time we got going and entered Lock 8 (once the longest lock in the world). As the rest of the locks are grouped together further north, this was the only lock we would transit in the light of day.

The Niagara was carrying a cargo of iron ore, one of the dominant natural resources, along with grain, that has been moved via the Seaway. The vessel is a “laker” – a term for the type of vessel, meaning that it isn’t a “saltie” (transoceanic) vessel, and is of a certain size. Indeed, the CSL Niagara is the maximum dimensions for the seaway: 740 feet long and 78 feet wide, with what amounts to a 5-story apartment building at the aft, or rear (see:

After heading north through the Welland By-Pass, we arrived at Lock 7 at about 11:30pm. We had to tie up and wait for over two hours, so I took a nap, waking to go through that lock and then the famed flight locks – numbers 4,5, and 6 – that traverse the Niagara escarpment right before Thorold gives way to St. Catharines. I got off the Niagara at a lock farther down about 6am, and headed for bed.

What did I take from my experience? Well, aside of it being a great thrill and pretty cool experience considering how much time I’ve spent studying the Seaway, it was of great value as a historian., I think it will help my writing as I can speak with increased authorial authority, and maybe improve the range of literary devices or imagery I can invoke. Moreover, such an experience helps in conceptualizing distance, space, and environment. I took many pictures and video which will feature in the last installment of my Niagara trilogy, all of which will hopefully make their way to EHTV: 1) Hydro-electricity at the Niagara Falls/River; 2) Finding the old Welland Canals; 3) Riding the Welland Canal.

Going down the Welland also leads one to consider the environmental impact of canals. The construction of canals has a dramatic impact on environments and landscapes, significantly altering production, mobility, and transportation networks and patterns. In the 19th century, canal digs were notorious sites of disease. The spoil from canals can have damaging effects, depending what type of material is placed and where. Basically, a canal and the activity it fosters can alter entire local ecosystems.

While canals are arguably a more environmentally friendly way of transporting bulk goods, compared to road, train, or air, they are not without their impact. Canals produce unclean waters, shores, and surrounding areas. Canals have historically attracted industry, and the industry astride to the Welland Canals over the past centuries has had a more damaging environmental impact than any other aspect of these waterways. Of course, canals such as the Welland also facilitate the introduction of invasive species, while those that cross drainage basins can cause other problems. Canals are also often linked to hydro-electric developments, which have a whole range of different environmental impacts.

Although much has admittedly been written, and is currently being written, on Canadian canals, rivers, hydro-electricity, and watersheds there is certainly more room for exploration. I’m not aware of any environmental history of the Welland, Rideau, or earlier St. Lawrence canals, just to name a few from my immediate geographical vicinity? Or in my home province, Gardiner Dam and Lake Diefenbaker? After CHESS I was in Moncton, and it seems the Peticodiac River in Moncton, including the controversy over the causeway, would make a great study.

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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