Finding the Welland Canals

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Version 1.0 of the Welland Canal, Canada’s competitor to the Erie Canal, was built privately in the 1820s to circumnavigate the route between lakes Erie and Ontario.  A little something called Niagara Falls prevented easy passage along the eponymous river, and they didn’t have the technology to try and move the Falls … yet.

Over the next century or so, the Welland was rebuilt several times by the Canadian government along new routes, getting progressively larger (or, if you will permit me to abuse mixed computer metaphors: increasing speed and memory). The canal was eventually incorporated into the St. Lawrence Seaway and given further improvements, meaning we are now using version 4.2 or 4.3, depending on how you measure such things (and there have long been plans to skip the incremental updates and jump straight to operating system 5.0, which would be built east of the existing canal).

In addition to providing a vital transportation and economic conduit for Upper Canada, the Welland Canal very much determined the shape of the evolving community of St. Catharines (as well as other communities in the Niagara peninsula). As this video post (click on link above to watch) demonstrates, remnants of the earlier versions of the Welland Canal can still be found in and around St. Catharines. In fact, parts of the second (and a bit of the first) are still largely intact right in the heart of the city, hidden in the woods behind a strip of businesses and restaurants (http://www.tourstcatharines.com/tours-mountainlocks.shtml). Many aspects of the third route of the Welland – including locks, channels, and a train tunnel – can be found close to the current Welland Canal on the east side of town.

This video was initially filmed in 2012 for inclusion in the now-defunct EHTV (thus it was shot with the hand-held personal video recorders distributed by NiCHE for EHTV participants). Given the importance of the Welland Canal to Canada’s history, and the fact that many readers of The Otter~La Loutre were in St. Catharines for Congress 2014, it seemed appropriate to still post this video. Hopefully you will find that this speaks to the hybrid envirotechnical settings that develop when nature starts to reclaim abandoned industrial systems. Or maybe it will just inspire someone to go for a walk behind The Keg on Glendale Avenue after they finish their steak.

Although water has justly been a long-standing concern of Canadian environmental historians, one could argue that canals haven’t received that much attention, relative to their importance. The reason may lie partially in the fact that most canals were built before the 20th century, the era in which the majority of environmental scholars have focused. Where is the environmental history of the Welland, the Lachine, the Rideau? Or the lower Ottawa River, which is just screaming for a PhD dissertation.

Some liner notes. You will notice a train bridge running over the third canal – as this videographer learned first hand, that bridge is still very much in operation! As for what lurks in the tunnel under the old canal that ends the video … curious viewers will have to find out for themselves!

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is co-editor of The Otter-La loutre and is a member of the NiCHE executive board. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author of "Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway" and co-editor of "Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship" and "The First Century of the International Joint Commission." His book "Fixing Niagara Falls: Environment, Energy, and Engineers at the World's Most Famous Waterfall" will be published in September 2020, and his in-progress research projects include Canada-US environmental diplomacy and a co-authored book on the environmental history of Lake Ontario. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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