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Still Runs the Water: The Cornwall Canal

For the week of Monday June 26, 2006

On July 1, 1958, the echoes of distant explosions rumbled over the small industrial city of Cornwall, sounding the death knell for the Cornwall Canal, a fixture in the city for more than 115 years.

Cornwall Canal Construction, 1840
© Library and Archives Canada / W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana
The explosions signalled the opening of the international St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, built to provide hydroelectric power and an improved commercial shipping route to the Great Lakes. As the temporary dams disintegrated, water began to flood the new waterway, gradually erasing several historic villages and most of this piece of Canada’s early transportation history.

Located alongside the St Lawrence River, 110 kilometres southwest of Montreal, the 18.5-kilometre Cornwall Canal was constructed between 1832 and 1842 to allow ships to bypass the treacherous Long Sault Rapids. Here the river plunged 14.5 metres in just under 1.5 kilometres. Unlike the Ottawa and Rideau River military canals, the St. Lawrence canals were strictly a commercial necessity, intended to help the ports of Montréal and Québec compete directly with New York City, which was connected to the Great Lakes via the Erie Canal.

Cornwall Canal, 1910 (from same view)
© Library and Archives Canada / Andrew Merrilees Collection
The canal had unsettled beginnings. First, construction was often delayed because the Upper Canada government could not secure loans, partly because of the massive canal debts previously compiled. Only the 1840 Act of Union, merging Lower and Upper Canada, gave the new Province of Canada the political clout needed to obtain the financing to complete the waterways. Second, Irish immigrant canal workers – mostly single men with no local community ties – provided some rough and violent times for Cornwall’s quiet agricultural community. For example, in 1834, Deputy Sheriff Ewen Stuart was murdered while serving a summons on one worker. Two years later, a prominent local citizen, Albert French, was killed for refusing transportation to three canal labourers. Troops had to be stationed in Cornwall during the trials and executions and they remained until the canal was completed. However, the canal ultimately proved its worth as Cornwall emerged as an important industrial centre. The tanneries, and flour, paper, woolen and cotton mills, which soon occupied its waterfront, helped Cornwall enjoy continued industrial expansion even when the country suffered through recessions in the 1870s and 1920s.

The Cornwall Canal greatly facilitated the shipment of goods between the Great Lakes and Eastern Canada and was the impetus for significant industrial growth within the Cornwall area. The Cornwall Canal was designated a National Historic Event in 1923. Five kilometres and twolocks of the original Cornwall Canal still exist as part of Cornwall’s waterfront recreation area.

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