Built in stages over a period of 87 years, the Trent-Severn Waterway links Georgian Bay and the Upper Great Lakes to Lake Ontario by a series of locks, canal cuts, a marine railway and two lift locks across a chain of inland lakes and rivers.
The section between Lake Simcoe and Balsam Lake posed a unique engineering challenge. The summit at Kirkfield was a dividing line between water flowing east to Lake Ontario and west to Georgian Bay. The Talbot River (the main link between Lakes Simcoe and Balsam) had been surveyed several times over the century and found to be unsuited for the passage of boat traffic. To ensure a sufficient supply of water and to overcome natural obstacles in the river, the federal Department of Railways and Canals proposed a canal cut to link Balsam Lake with the Talbot River, and dams to improve navigation through to Lake Simcoe. A series of dams, locks and canal cuts would permit vessels to overcome the difference in elevation of this section of the Waterway.
Richard B. Rogers, superintendent of the Trent Canal works, was assigned responsibility for the project. As he recorded in his diary, “was informed I was to go in charge of the new work...which is perhaps the most vital news of my life.” Using previous surveys (T.S. Rubidge’s survey of 1887 in particular), Rogers prepared preliminary estimates for the scope of work on the Simcoe-Balsam Lake Division. However, he made one significant change - introducing a hydraulic lift lock at Kirkfield to replace six conventional locks. Hydraulic lift locks had been successfully used in Europe.
The project was subdivided into three sections. Section one, extending from Balsam Lake to a point immediately east of the proposed lift lock at Kirkflield, consisted of extensive rock excavation, concrete abutments for three bridges, two entrance piers, two guard gates and regulation weirs and a dam. Section two, the most difficult, included excavation for the hydraulic lift lock together with construction of its concrete entrance walls, a canal cut to the Talbot River, bridge piers, a railway bridge and dam. Section three also required an extensive canal cut, together with five concrete locks (Locks 37-41) and a swing bridge.
The contract for Section three, which includes the dam at lock 37, was awarded to Alymer and Brown, successful contractors who had completed the first concrete lock in Canada a few years earlier on the section of waterway between Peterborough and Lakefield (Lock 23). Excavation through the heavy clay deposits and construction of the locks, dams and bridge abutments took five years to compete but proceeded without some of the problems associated with Section two. By the late spring of 1907 the grounds were being tidied up and planning underway for the official opening of the Kirkfield Lift Lock.
The official opening 6 July 1907 was a grand spectacle attended by politicians, dignitaries and some two thousands spectators. Three steamers, hired for the occasion, ushered the guests and press corps through the lock without incident. The speeches, which highlighted the engineering marvel of the lift lock and the importance of this section of the waterway to the development of the nation’s transportation network, described it as “another link in the chain of navigation.”