It is early December. The sun has just set and thick, wet flurries swirl in the air. In the nearby park, sparkling light displays have been set up, but this was not what we had come to see. Port Dalhousie—now part of the City of St. Catharines—is a familiar location for us, the site of many summer excursions to the shores of Lake Ontario, although those days of swimming and kayaking amid the thick summer heat seem like a lifetime ago on this particular day.
On this day, we turn and walk away from the lake, up a short path along what was once Lock 1 of the Welland Canal. Due to the time of year, the harbour is emptied of boats, although many are still nearby, winter ghosts wrapped in protective coverings awaiting the return of the warmer weather.
We hurry on, eager to find the large metal sculpture of a horse that had recently been installed in the heart of historic Port Dalhousie, an initiative made possible by the Port Dalhousie Beautification and Works Committee and the Kiwanis Club.
As an art historian I am aware that it sounds ridiculously hyperbolic to say that a piece of art “took my breath away,” but, as I rounded the corner and saw The Pull for the first time, I gasped. It is a stunning piece, and I felt a swell of emotion, proud that the city I call home now has a piece of public art commemorating the labour of the nonhuman animal workers who were so essential to the building and operation of the Welland Canal in the 19th century. The significance of what we were looking at felt solemn and important. As people rushed by—eager to get home to cosy fireplaces and warm drinks—I resisted the urge to stop them to point out this remarkable act of remembrance in our midst.
The Pull is a memorial sculpture of a working horse, a large collaborative public piece created from bronze and hardened steel by three artists: Floyd Elzinga and Veronica and Edwin Dam de Nogales. In previous work, all three artists have grappled with the messy complexities of the environment, nature, and the climate crisis. Elzinga explores “broken landscapes, portraits of trees and the aggressive nature of seeds” in his sculptural work, while Veronica and Edwin Dam de Nogales have collaborated on many pieces related to environmental themes, including Melting Ice Bear, a public installation during COP25 in Madrid in 2019.
For The Pull, Elzinga worked on the body of the horse in his studio in Beamsville, Ontario, while the bronze head was completed at the Dam de Nogales studio in Barcelona, Spain. The international collaboration is fitting for the subject. As the artists pointed out when I interviewed them about this piece, “there is something poetic in that the sculpture itself is collaborative, an acknowledgment of joining strengths.” Simply put, the Welland Canal—an entity that has allowed for so much international trade and commerce—could not have been built nor operated without the combined effort of hundreds of human and nonhuman workers. Both the sense of teamwork and the international elements of The Pull echo this in important ways.
The Welland Canal—an entity that has allowed for so much international trade and commerce—could not have been built nor operated without the combined effort of hundreds of human and nonhuman workers.
There have been four different Welland Canals that have cut different paths across the Niagara peninsula, and each have had a tremendous impact on the local landscape. The first opened in 1829 and the fourth remains in operation today. Digging the canals was a dangerous and monumental task, one that relied on the labour of countless horses, mules, and oxen.1 Many workers–both human and nonhuman–were killed and injured during the construction. Once the canal was complete, animal workers continued to be essential to its operation during the 19th century. Towhorses helped move ships through the canal until they were replaced by steam powered vessels later in the 19th century.
The Welland Canal has played an essential role in the economic development of the Niagara region as it has allowed ships to travel between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie while bypassing Niagara Falls and navigating the Niagara Escarpment. Yet none of this would have been possible without the unsung animal labourers The Pull commemorates. As Niagara historian Nancy Cameron has noted, “an enormous amount of economic growth, development, and history rode on the backs of the Welland Canal towhorses.”2
The work of the towhorses was incredibly difficult. In addition to battling the elements, the loads were heavy and the work demanding. It was not uncommon to see sores and scars on the bodies of these animals, evidence of the gruelling conditions and “stinging whip” of the towboys who urged them on.3 Barlow Cumberland, Vice-President of the Niagara Navigation Company during the late 19th and early 20th century, recalled the horrific plight of the towhorses. He described them as “piteous brutes” and “miserable beings,” and noted that they all had “lean sides and projecting bones” and “unkempt coats, gradually approaching similar colour as the red mud dried upon their hides.”4
For too long the contributions of animals like the towhorses in Niagara have gone unnoticed or ignored.
For too long the contributions of animals like the towhorses in Niagara have gone unnoticed or ignored. Dr. Kendra Coulter, Professor in Management and Organizational Studies at Huron University College at Western University, has been trying to change this in recent years. “Many human and animal work-lives are entangled or even interdependent,” she notes.5 Much of Dr. Coulter’s work advances arguments for “an expanded lens for seeing and understanding a fuller range of animals’ labor,” and pieces like The Pull can do important work here.6
Indeed, the Dam de Nogales and Elzinga hope that “viewers of The Pull are drawn into a deeper sense of respect” and that this piece honours “the memory of all the horses involved in the construction, maintenance, and daily operations of the Welland Canals.”
Public memorials to animals—when they exist at all—tend to either commemorate a specific animal (for example, Greyfriars Bobby) or honour animals who served in war (for example, the Animals in War Memorial in London, England and Canada’s War Animal Memorial in Ottawa). A public piece of art honouring animal workers in other areas is certainly rare.
In 1913, Cumberland reflected on the lives and legacy of the Welland Canal towhorses.
One wonders whether it is the ghosts of these departed equines, that, revisiting the scenes of their torture, make the moanings along the valley, and the whistlings on the hills, as they sniff and whinny in the winds along the canal.7Barlow Cumberland, 1913
I can’t help but think of this passage when I visit The Pull. Life goes on all around the sculpture, but day in and day out it stoically stands there, a reminder of this often forgotten, yet important aspect of the community’s history.
With The Pull, the Dam de Nogales and Elzinga aimed to create a piece that had “one foot in the past and another in the ongoing future.” It is easy for us in 2023 to read about the treatment of these horses and cluck disapprovingly. But it is perhaps a little more challenging to be reflective about how animal labourers are treated in our current times. As Coulter’s research makes clear, there is much room for improvement.
Art can be an important catalyst for change. This piece is at once quietly contemplative and disruptive by its very presence along a major road leading into Port Dalhousie. As the days grow longer and the warm weather draws tourists back to the beach, The Pull will undoubtedly be an important conversation starter.
1 Roberta M. Styran and Robert R. Taylor, This Great National Object: Building the Nineteenth-Century Welland Canals (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012), xiii.
2 Nancy Cameron, “Towhorses on the Welland Canal,” The Reporter (Port Dalhousie) Vol 17 no. 3 (Winter 2022): 5.
3 Barlow Cumberland, A Century of Sail and Steam on the Niagara River (Toronto: Musson, 1913), 69.
4 Cumberland, 68-70.
5 Kendra Coulter, Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 1.
6 Coulter, 2.
7 Cumberland, 70.
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