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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.