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From Ditch to Industrial Corridor

For the week of Monday January 19, 2003

On January 19, 1824, the Welland Canal Company was incorporated. Soon afterwards, construction began on a waterway to connect Lake Ontario with Lake Erie. The first Welland Canal was completed in 1829, enabling lake schooners to avoid the formerly impassable Niagara Falls and safely navigate into the heart of North America.

H.M.C.S PORTAGE entering lock No.6, 1949.

H.M.C.S PORTAGE entering lock No.6, 1949.
© J.M Schreuer / LAC / PA-134344

William Hamilton Merritt, an Upper Canada businessman, founded the Welland Canal Company to construct the Canal, which would serve both as a schooner navigation and source of water power for local mills. It would also offset the threat of economic or military aggression from the United States, which Canadians had feared since battling the Americans in the War of 1812. The recently built Erie Canal, with its port at New York City, threatened to divert trade from the Canadian St. Lawrence River and the port of Montréal. By providing a navigable waterway between the upper Great Lakes and Lake Ontario, the Welland Canal successfully drew trade from the Niagara peninsula and the Lake Erie settlements into the St. Lawrence commercial system. The Canal also facilitated settlement and fostered industrial development, contributing greatly to the urban landscape of the Niagara region.

The Canal was built using private and public funds from Upper and Lower Canada, New York State and England. Initially the Canal was dug from Lake Ontario to the Welland River, and followed natural waterways (the Welland and Niagara rivers) to Lake Erie. It featured 39 wooden locks, a towpath to pull barges and sailing vessels, and a feeder canal to ensure adequate water supply. The expensive upkeep of the locks led the new province of Canada to purchase the Canal in 1841. The Canal has since been expanded and rerouted three times to become a direct corridor to Lake Erie. The wooden locks were also replaced with stone masonry by 1850. The present canal was opened in 1932. It is 42 kilometres long, and has only eight large locks.

The Welland Canal, 1824, William Hamilton Merritt

The Welland Canal, 1824,
William Hamilton Merritt

© LAC / POS-000685

The elevation difference between lakes Ontario and Erie is 99.5 metres, making the Welland Canal the steepest lock system in the world. More than 3000 vessels pass through the Welland Canal each year with approximately 40 million tonnes of cargo. In addition to its contribution to international trade, the Welland Canal is still a major source of water and electricity for the Niagara region.

A plaque commemorating the national historic significance of the First Welland Canal stands at St. Catharines.

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