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In the early days of settlement in Canada, in the absence of roads or trails, the lakes and rivers provided a natural and convenient mode of travel. This form of travel was, however, seriously limited by two obstacles, the rapids of the St. Lawrence and the much greater barrier of Niagara Falls. Prior to the construction of the First Welland Canal, the only route from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, which differ in elevation by 326 feet, was by means of a laborious and hazardous portage from Queenston to the Chippawa Creek.

The First Welland Canal

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Although the idea of a canal to bypass the Falls had been broached on several earlier occasions, the first active steps towards the construction of a canal were made under the inspired leadership of the Hon. Wm. Hamilton Merritt, who was convinced that by using the Twelve Mile Creek basin, a canal could be dug to join Lake Ontario to Chippawa Creek, now called Welland River. Vessels could then pass easily down the Chippawa into the Niagara River at a point about two and one-half miles above the Falls and thence to Lake Erie.

In 1824 an act was passed in the legislature incorporating the Welland Canal Company, and on November 30, 1824, the first sod was turned at Allanburg by the president, Mr. George Keefer. One hundred years later on November 30, 1924, a modest cairn was unveiled at this spot.

The original plan was for a combined canal and rail route, the canal following Twelve Mile Creek Valley to the foot of the escarpment and the boats being hauled up the incline on wooden rails. Another proposal was to cross the summit by means of a tunnel 15 feet wide, 14 feet high and with a 6 foot draft of water. However, the Company decided to make the ascent of the escarpment by means of locks and to dig an open channel, called the Deep Cut, between the top of the escarpment and the Welland River.

In 1828, the work in the Deep Cut having suffered severe set-backs, due to landslides, the company decided to raise the summit level of the Canal about 8 feet, and to obtain a water supply at a higher elevation. For this reason a Feeder Canal was constructed to supply water from the Grand River at Dunnville. From there the Feeder flowed north-west through the swamps of Wainfleet and Moulton Townships, crossed the Welland River by a wooden aqueduct at Welland and joined the summit level of the main canal at Port Robinson. At Port Robinson, the summit level of the canal was connected to the Welland River by two locks locking down to the river.

In the Fall of 1829, water was let into the Feeder and the first canal to join Lake Erie to Lake Ontario was an accomplished fact. On November 27, 1829, the Canadian Schooner "Annie and Jane" of York, and the "R. H. Boughton" of Youngstown, N. Y., entered the canal and arrived at Chippawa on November 30th, exactly 5 years after the turning of the first sod.

Improvements to the Canal and Feeder were gradually carried out and vessel traffic slowly increased. At that tire two routes were available from Port Robinson, one by way of the Feeder to Dunnville and Port Maitland, and the other by way of the Welland River to the Niagara River. As the Feeder route had only 4-foot draft and as sailing vessels using the Welland River route had to be towed up the Niagara against strong currents by 8 to 14  yoke of oxen, it soon became evident an extension of the Canal south from Port Robinson to Lake Erie was essential. After various surveys and many discussions "Gravelly Bay", now Port Colborne, was selected as the Lake Erie Terminus. The extension was completed and put in operation in June, 1833.

This, the First Canal, was 27-1/2 miles in length. It proceeded from Lake Ontario at Port Dalhousie, the outlet of the Twelve Mile Creek, up the creek to Shipman's Corners (now St. Catharines), along the east branch of the creek to Slabtown (now Merritton), ascended the escarpment to Thorold, thence crossed the height of land between Beaver Dams Creek and the Welland River and continued South to Lake Erie at Port Colborne. It had 40 locks, 110 feet in length, 22 feet in width and 8 feet in depth.

The Company from time to time obtained loans from the Imperial Government and from the Governments of Upper and Lower Canada and the Government of Upper Canada bought a considerable amount of the Company's stock. After the Union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841, the Province of Canada acquired all the stock belonging to private individuals.
As the wooden locks had not proved satisfactory, work was immediately started on rebuilding with stone. Moreover, as schooners were already outgrowing the canal, it was decided to proceed at once with the construction of the Second Welland Canal.

The Second Welland Canal

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The route selected for the Second Canal was practically the same throughout its length as the First Canal. The number of locks was reduced from 40 to 27 by increasing the lift of each lock. The new locks were increased in size to 150 feet in length, 26-1/2 feet in width, and with a 9 foot draft over the sills. The former First Canal channel and locks became, in general, the weir channels of the Second. Remains of the old wooden locks are still visible when the existing portion of the Second Canal between Thorold and Lake Ontario is unwatered.

As a first step in construction, the Feeder Canal was enlarged and a connection made to Port Maitland where a lock 200 feet by 45 feet with 9 foot draft was constructed. The Feeder was deepened and this route was the only one available from 1845 to 1850 while the main canal was being reconstructed from Feeder Junction to Port Colborne. This completed the Second Welland Canal. Locks and other structures on it now over 100 years old still stand in excellent condition today.

In 1853 the canal was improved by raising the banks and lock walls to give an increase in draft to 10 feet. By this time it was evident that the supply of water from the Grand River was not sufficient, and that the summit level should be lowered about 8 feet so as to feed directly from Lake Erie. However, this lowering of the summit level was not completed until 1881.
Up to the date of Confederation, July 1st, 1867, the total expenditure on the Welland Canals was $7,638,239.00. By this time steam was replacing sail, and again the canal was beginning to be a bottleneck between the lakes. In 1870 a Commission was appointed to recommend improvements.

The Third Welland Canal

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The Commission, in 1871, recommended a uniform system of locks for the St. Lawrence and Welland Canals with locks 270 feet long and 45 feet wide and with 12 feet draft, which was later increased to 14 feet.

The Third Welland Canal followed practically the same route as the Second Canal from Port Colborne to Allanburg but here the route left the Twelve Mile Creek to follow a new line to the east of the Second Canal and in a much more direct line to Port Dalhousie.

This Third Canal, 26-3/4 miles in length, was opened to traffic in 1881, but it was not until 1887 that 14 foot draft prevailed throughout. Once again ships were increasing in size and number, and by 1905 it was evident that a greatly enlarged canal was essential. Between 1907 and 1912 exhaustive surveys were made, and in 1912 a first appropriation was made for the construction of the fourth canal, the  Welland Ship Canal.

The Fourth Welland Ship Canal

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The actual construction of the Ship Canal was begun in 1913 and carried on despite the outbreak of the First World War. In the spring of 1916, however, in the face of material and manpower shortages, construction was suspended and remained so until 1919. Work was resumed in 1919 and carried on under the supervision of Mr. A. J. Grant, to completion in 1932.

The original course was generally followed from Port Colborne to Thorold, but from Thorold north the Ship Canal followed the Ten Mile Creek Valley and joined Lake Ontario at Port Weller, approximately 3 miles east of Port Dalhousie.

Since no natural harbour existed at Port Weller, an artificial one was created with embankments extending a mile and a half into Lake Ontario.

The Ship Canal is now 26.8 miles long and has a width in the canal reaches of 310 feet at water level and 200 feet at the bottom of the prism, with the exception of the new Welland Channel which has a width of 350 feet and a depth of 30 feet. Seven lift locks and one guard lock have replaced the 40 locks of the First Canal; each lift lock being 859 feet in length between centers of gate paintles, 80 feet in width and having 30 feet of water over the sills. Each of the seven lift locks has a lift of about 46-1/2 feet.

Many safety devices are employed throughout the canal. Electrical interlocks control all machinery operating the gates, valves, fenders and signals to protect the equipment and prevent disasters. At the locks, the gates are protected by wire rope fenders, each one of which consists of 3-1/4" diameter wire rope carried across the locks by means of a light structural boom. This boom with the suspended cable is raised to a nearly vertical position when it is desired to pass a ship. If a ship strikes the fender, the boom is carried away and the rope, paying out over brake drums, brings the vessel to a halt before it strikes the lock gate.

Eleven bridges, including six of the vertical lift type, five of the bascule or rolling lift type span the canal. Each bridge is equipped with a standby gasoline engine for emergency operation in the event of electric power failure.

All electrical power used on the canal is generated by the canal power house located at the foot of the flight locks and having 3 turbo-generators with an installed capacity of 15,000 kilowatts.

Since each lockage requires approximately 21,000,000 gallons of water, or enough to cover 77-1/2 acres by one foot in depth, large poundage areas are provided above the locks in order to decrease the drop in the canal level at each filling. By contrast the average amount of water required for one lockage in the First Canal was about eight-tenths of an acre-foot.

Water is led into and discharged from the locks through culverts with openings along each side of the locks at the lock floor level. The time required to fill a lock is 10 minutes, and the total time required for a vessel to navigate the canal is about 8 hours average.

The original estimate for the construction of this canal was approximately 30 million dollars which was, of course, based on pre-World War 1 costs. The disruption due to the war and the greatly increased prices after the war were the principal factors in increasing the actual cost to be about $135,000,000,00.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Authority Welland Ship Canal

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The Welland Ship Canal is that part of the St. Lawrence Seaway which joins Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and by-passes Niagara Falls. The Welland Canal and the Sault Ste. Mlarie Canal constitute the Western Region of the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, with the Head Office at St. Catharines, Ontario, and Field Offices at Fort Weller and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

The Welland Ship Canal, which was opened in 1932. It is the fourth Welland Canal built since 1824. Its construction was started in 1913, but suspended from 1916 to 1919. In 1965 construction of a new Welland Bypass Channel was commenced and completed by March 27, 1972. The other canals had their northern terminus at Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario, three miles west of the present terminus at Port Weller. From Port Weller, the Canal runs southerly 26.8 miles to Port Colborne on Lake Erie through a well populated industrial area and is crossed by three railway bridges, and eight highway bridges. The new Welland Canal Channel from Port Robinson to Ramey's Bend in Port Colborne reduced the length of the canal by .8 of a mile and eliminated six bridges with construction of 2 tunnels. It is estimated that 3/4 of an hour transit time on a round trip will be saved by a vessel using this new channel. There are submarine cables carrying electric power, telephone and telegraph lines beneath the Canal, as well as gas and oil pipelines. It also supplies water for the DeCew Falls power plant of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario and for various municipal water supplies.

At both approaches, there are beacons and sheltered anchorages. The limiting length of the locks is 765 feet between fenders used to protect the lock gates. The locks are 80 feet wide and the Canal is 200 feet wide at the bottom and 310 feet at the waterline. The permissible draft is 26 feet and the overhead clearance under the lift bridges is 120 feet. Turning basins are provided at four points along the Canal. There are eight locks with a total lift of 327 feet. The Canal Power House, which provides all the power for lighting and operating the Canal, can be supplemented from other sources in emergencies.

The canal is usually open from early in April to the end of December. During 1969, 53,532,336 tons of cargo passed through the canal. Almost one-sixth of this tonnage was coal and approximately 12,738,576 tons of grain passed through the canal. During 1972, 64,193,633 tons of cargo passed through the canal. Almost one third of this tonnage was grain, with coal comprising 9,805,394 tons and iron ore 13,6000179 tons. This represented a record year for the Welland Canal.

The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, which changed the whole pattern of inland navigation by permitting large vessels to carry huge cargoes freely between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, has increased the traffic on the Welland Canal, which is showing a marked improvement over previous years. On the first three canals, tolls were charged until 1903. Tolls were suspended from the Welland Section in 1962 with only a lockage fee of $100.00 per lock, now applicable to commercial vessels transiting the Welland Canal. Pleasure craft pay a lockage fee of $3.00 per lock to transit the Welland Canal.

Revised: April 2, 1973.
Welland Public Library Canal History Clipping Files