Hidden by time – the old Welland Canal

How much do you know of your area’s history? Probably not as much as you should.

So much of the landscape has changed in the Niagara Region through modernization that we’ve literally lost sight of the centuries of history here. But, like temples in the Central American jungle, remnants of our past peek out of the trees and brush that have overtaken them — we have only to put on bug spray and hiking boots to find them. A knowledgeable guide is a great asset, and my friend Terry has been showing me some of our old treasures on days when the scorching summer heat has abated and the skies aren’t emptying their contents on our heads.

The modern-day Welland Canal is such a technical marvel that it’s difficult to envision its origins in the early 19th century. The first version of the Canal was completed in 1829.

In 1824, nine “freeholders of the District of Niagara”, including a man who would become a local notable, William Hamilton Merritt, petitioned the Province of Upper Canada to build a canal to transport boats between the two local Great Lakes, L. Ontario and L. Erie. Merritt owned two mills on the Twelve Mile Creek, a natural waterway running through the current city of St. Catharines. In the summer, the water supply to the mills often ran low, and his original idea was simply to divert some water from the Welland River about 18 miles away to help. That idea was expanded to create a navigable canal to transport goods.

The geography of Niagara threw several wrenches into this plan, but eventually, utilizing as many natural waterways as possible to save costs, the first canal was built, with wooden locks. On November 30, 1829, two schooners made the inaugural journey from Port Dalhousie on L. Ontario to Port Robinson on L. Erie, and the Welland Canal was open for business.

As you’d imagine, the lifespan of wooden locks swimming in water all the time was short. The Second Welland Canal was built along the same route, but replaced the wood with limestone. It had a string of 27 locks, and continued to be used until 1881, when it was replaced by the Third version, shorter and straighter (reducing travel time) as well as wider to make room for the bigger ships coming into use.

The Third Welland Canal featured water siphons built into the walls to fill the locks (and empty them).

Bollards were added along the edges of the canal with which to tie up the ships while they were being lowered or raised.

Bollards are still used today along the modern Fourth Welland Canal, but now ships use them to tie off while they’re waiting outside of the locks. One of the most interesting features of the Third Canal was that in places it ran over top of the landscape, in one place over a sunken section of a road, and in another over a railway tunnel built for the Grand Trunk Railway Line between locks 18 and 19. That tunnel still exists today — it’s called the Blue Ghost Tunnel, as it’s apparently haunted; look for a feature on the tunnel this October!

A hike along sections of the Third Canal is an exercise in patience and fortitude. If you’re not fond of heights, the hike might not be for you, and ticks are prevalent in the bush through which a hiking path has been maintained, so you’ll need long pants tucked well into hiking boots, a bug shirt, and plenty of insect spray (and even then you’ll still need to check yourself for the nasty little critters before you get back into your vehicle to return home). But the hike is a great look at a bygone era when the only previous way to get between the two massive lakes was a hazardous portage.

Today these are some of the extant sections of the Third Canal:

Lock 13, just beyond Glendale Road
Discovering deformed bollards along the thickly-wooded hiking path
The crumbling walls of Lock 14. On the left you can see where the gate was attached and swung open/closed on a curved track
The other end of Lock 14
Most of the canal is shallow now, with a series of small rapids
CN Rail tracks run over an old haulage road
Remnants of an old weir between Locks 17 and 18
Vivid orange ditch-lilies pop out of the brush
An old double-tracked Grand Trunk swing bridge still springs out of the landscape. The apparatus that allowed the bridge to pivot no longer exists.
The old tracks across the bridge are walkable
Rust has coated the metal supports
At the edge of the bridge, you can see the wide flat section on the lower left that is a remnant of one of the reservoirs used to hold back water from the canal.
On the outskirts of Thorold, a spillway releases water from a reservoir for the Fourth Canal
The reservoir itself, looking towards Thorold
Looking down at the low water of the spillway
Some of the remarkable landscape of the Niagara Escarpment
A Pearl Crescent butterfly on the path

To give you some idea of what ship travel would have looked like in the Third Canal’s heyday, this photo was posted on the Historic Welland Canals Mapping Project website. I wasn’t able to find any source or permissions info.

c. 1904, ship at the 17th lock

While we all recover from the pandemic, this is a great time to explore parts of your regional landscape that you never thought you’d have time for. If your area is like ours, there are likely all kinds of interesting things to discover!

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

Published by

ejurus

I started Lion Tail Magic as a way to help people recapture the adventurous spirit of their childhood -- exploration, curiosity about everything, and a belief that anything is possible if you want it and are willing to work towards it. I am a travel coach, professional speaker, writer and endlessly curious world traveller.

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