Our modern-day water highway opens for 65th season

Looking northward on the Welland Canal towards the Homer lift bridge and the Garden City Skyway beyond it

There are certain unmistakable signs of spring in the Niagara Region, and one of them is the annual reopening of the Welland Canal. Anyone who’s driven through the area over the years can spot when the Canal, which become completely dry over the winter when the ships are put into dry-dock for repairs and any repairs to the Canal itself are made, begins to fill up again. It only takes a few days, which is amazing considering the volume of water — I haven’t been able to find a figure for the total volume of the Canal, but each of the 8 locks holds about 20 million gallons of water, and there are long stretches of water between each lock (bearing in mind that not every lock is full at the same time, but it still gives you an idea of the amount of water being let back in.

Below, you’ll see a photo of the Canal from Bridge 1 at Lakeshore Road in St. Catharines when it was partially filled, on March 4th.

On the other side of the bridge, you’re looking at the empty lock itself. The southward gate is in the forefront, and the 766-ft long Lock 1 beyond it.

Less than three weeks later, on March 21, the first southbound ship of the season, moving from Lake Ontario down to Lake Erie, left the Port Weller dry-dock

With the aid of two tugboats and moored along the Canal bank. It was the CSL (Canada Steamship Lines) ship St. Laurent.

In this view from the stern, you can see the tugboats that guided it out of the dock, their job finished.

Tied off with sturdy lines, the ship was resting in place, waiting for its move to Lock 3, where it was the star attraction of the Top Hat ceremony that kicks off each shipping season.

Not having any cargo loaded at this stage, we had a good view of the massive propeller as it sat partially out of the water.

Each year there are two Top Hat ceremonies, one in St. Catharines, the northern terminus of the Welland Canal on Lake Ontario, and the other in Port Colborne, the southern terminus on Lake Erie. March 22 dawned fairly overcast and chilly when we got up to attend the St. Catharines ceremony at the Lock 3 museum. The St. Laurent was waiting there, all flags flying in.

Numerous ceremonial flags along the lock also fluttered in the cold wind. Below you can also see the viewing platform overlooking the lock, where quite a few people were waiting for the official launch.

The weather in this region, a peninsula sandwiched between two massive lakes and bordered on the east by the Niagara Strait, which most people call the Niagara River, is highly variable — boaters always have to keep a vigilante eye on the weather reports any time they’re out on the water. From past experience with the vagaries of the local weather, this year the Top Hat ceremony was held indoors, inside the museum (which meant that we’d overdressed and were very warm).

A number of dignitaries were on hand, including the Mayor of St. Catharines, the Chair of the Niagara Region and the captain of the ship, who was given the ceremonial beaver-skin top hat in closing.

Some of the interesting facts we learned at the ceremony:

  • the average ship that traverses the St. Lawrence Seaway water transportation system carries the equivalent of 363 truckloads, making the water system much more environmentally friendly
  • the Seaway system produces its own power, so it doesn’t draw from the Ontario grid
  • since the opening of this, the 4th iteration of the Welland Canal, more than 3 billion tons of cargo have been transported
  • the St. Laurent is part of the World Biofuel Program

After the top hat was presented, with three long and two short blasts of the ship’s horn, the season was underway.

The clouds began to part as hubby and I moved to the viewing platform to get a birds-eye view of the ship.

If you’re curious as to what the deck of such a massive cargo ship looks like…

In short order, the yellow armature, called a “ship arrestor”, began to lower behind the boat (it serves as a barrier between the ship and the lock gate for extra accident prevention) and the water in the lock began to churn as the ship began to move forward…

This photo below gives you some idea of how very snugly the ships fit inside the lock. The laker pilot navigates the boat from the bridge at the rear, which is quite something to watch when you’re standing on the bridge over 700 feet away from the prow. There’s very little margin for error, which is why any ocean-going ships that use the Seaway system have to take on laker pilots to go through the locks.

Ahead of the ship, Bridge 5 at Glendale, a vertical lift bridge, was already going up.

At the same time, Lock 3 was emptying in preparation for another ship to enter it and be lifted to the next stage of the canal. The yellow apparatus you can see below is part of the Hands-Free Mooring system. On each side of the lock, the pairs hold the ship firmly in place with a vacuum seal.

You can find out much more information about the Seaway System and the Welland Canal when you visit the St. Catharines Museum at Lock 3. The museum is small, but holds some fascinating pieces of area history, such as this vintage REO motor car.

The REO Motor Car Company was based in Lansing, Michigan. Ransom E. Olds, who founded the Oldsmobile Car Company, left that to start REO, using his own initials as the name. One of the company’s plants was in St. Catharines.

Built in 1843 in downtown St. Catharines, the Russell Hotel was a popular rest spot and watering hole.

A vintage fire truck from the Victorian era displays some complicated mechanics.

There are quite a few more items to see inside, including information about the Freedom Trail that ran through the area as part of the Underground Railroad.

A nice gift shop holds a good variety of items, including copies of Ship to Shore Chef, by Catherine Schmuck, a chef on the Seaway for many years. I couldn’t resist buying a copy. In my early days working at Niagara College, I had the opportunity to go through the Canal on a big Laker ship. The voyage was fascinating, with tours from the bridge (which was where I got the eye-popping view of the front of the ship being steered from the rear almost 800 feet away) all the way down to the engine room. Our small visiting group also had a wonderful meal on board, so I can tell you from experience that the crew eat very well — thanks to chefs like Catherine. I haven’t had a chance to try out any of her recipes yet but am looking forward to it.

Outside there are an interesting assortment of artifacts to get a close-up look at.

If you can catch good weather, there’s a lot to see along the Canal in the Niagara Region.

All photos are by me, and may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus