Welland Canal

Picture of Welland Canal
Picture flickr.com

The Welland Canal, one of the world’s amazing man-made wonders, was initially built in 1829 to connect Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and to give ships a safe detour around the Niagara Falls.

It is a key section of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes Waterway. Crossing the Niagara Peninsula from Port Weller in St. Catharines to Port Colborne, it allows ships to ascend and descend the Niagara Escarpment and bypass the Niagara Falls. The name currently refers to the fourth such canal, and three earlier and much smaller canals that serve the same route are also known as the Welland.

The Welland passes about 40,000,000 tons of cargo a year on approximately 3,000 boats. It was really a major growth factor in the city of Toronto, Ontario, the original channel and its successor permitted the delivery of goods to the Port of Montreal or to Quebec City from Great Lake ports such as Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and other highly industrialized areas in the U.N. and Ontario.

By providing a shorter, more direct link to Lake Erie, the Welland Canal eclipsed other, narrower canals in the region, such as the Trent-Severn Waterway and, significantly, the Erie Canal (which linked the Atlantic and Lake Erie via New York City and Buffalo, New York).

The canal’s southern Lake Erie terminus is 99.5 meters (326 feet) higher than Lake Ontario’s northern terminus. Eight 24.4-meter (80 ft) ship locks are included in the canal. Seven of the locks (Locks 1-7, the ‘Lift’ locks) are 233.5 m (766 ft) long and raise (or lower) passing ships by 13 to 15 m (43 to 49 ft) each. The southernmost lock is 349.9 m (1,148 ft) in length (Lock 8-the ‘Guard’ or ‘Control’ lock). The Garden City Skyway crosses the canal, limiting the maximum height of the ships’ masts allowed on this canal to 35.5 m (116 ft).

The present canal

  • Maximum length of vessel: 740 ft (225.5 m)
  • Maximum draft for the vessel: 8.08 m (26.5 ft)
  • Maximum clearance above-water: 35.5 m (116 ft)
  • Change in elevation between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie: 326 ft (99,5 m)
  • Average time between the lakes for transit: 11 hours
  • Canal length: 43.5 km (27.0 mi)

First Welland Canal

The Welland Canal Company was incorporated after a petition by nine “freeholders of the District of Niagara” by the Province of Upper Canada in 1824. William Hamilton Merritt, who was partly looking to provide his many water-powered industries along the Twelve Mile Creek in Thorold with a regular flow of water, was one of the petitioners. Construction began on November 30 at Allanburg, Ontario, at a point now marked as such on Bridge No. 11’s west end (formerly Highway 20). On November 30, 1829 (exactly five years to the day, after the ground-breaking in 1824), this canal opened for a trial run. The schooner Anne & Jane (also referred to as ‘Annie & Jane’ in some texts) made the first transit, upbound to Buffalo, N.Y., with Merritt as a passenger on her deck after a short ceremony at Lock One, in Port Dalhousie.

The first canal ran south of Lake Ontario along Twelve Mile Creek to St. Catharines from Port Dalhousie, Ontario. It took a winding route from there up the Niagara Escarpment through Merritton, Ontario, to Thorold, where it continued south on the Welland River via Allanburg to Port Robinson, Ontario. Ships went east (downstream) to Chippawa on the Welland River, at the south (upper) end of the old portage road, making a sharp right turn into the Niagara River, upstream to Lake Erie. The section between Allanburg and Port Robinson was originally planned to be transported in a tunnel. The sandy soil in this part of Ontario, however, made a tunnel impossible, and instead, a deep open-cut canal was dug.

In 1833, with the foundation of Port Colborne, a southern extension from Port Robinson opened. This extension followed the Welland River south to Welland (then known as the Aqueduct settlement, for the wooden aqueduct that at that point carried the canal over the Welland River), and then split to run south on Lake Erie to Port Colborne. From Welland, a feeder canal ran southwest to another point on Lake Erie, just west of Port Maitland’s Rock Point Provincial Park. The canal stretched 44 km (27 mi) between the two lakes when the extension opened, with 40 wooden locks. The minimum size of the lock was 33.5 by 6.7 m (110 by 22 ft), and the minimum depth of the canal was 2.4 m (7.9 ft).

Within just a few years, the deterioration of the wood used in the 40 locks and the growing size of the ships led to a demand for the Second Welland Canal, which used cut stone locks.

Second Welland Canal

In response to the company’s continuing financial problems in the face of the continental financial panic of 1837, the government of Upper Canada approved the purchase of shares in the private canal company in 1839. In 1841, the public buyout was finished, and work began to deepen the canal and reduce the number of locks to 27, each 45.7 by 8.1 m (150 by 27 ft). By 1846, a 2.7 m (9 ft) deep path was completed through the Welland Canal, and by 1848 that depth was extended via the future path of the St. Lawrence Seaway the rest of the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

With the opening of the Erie and Ontario Railway, running parallel to the initial portage road, competition came in 1854. The Welland Railway opened in 1859, parallel to the canal and with the same stations. This railway, however, was affiliated with the canal and was actually used to assist the transfer of cargo from lake ships that were too large for small canal locks to the other end of the canal (the remnants of the railway and the Port Colborne Harbour Railway are owned by the Trillium Railway). A portion of these loads was also taken by smaller ships called “canallers.” It was soon apparent that the canal would have to be enlarged again because of this issue.

Third Welland Canal

A new, shorter alignment between St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie was completed in 1887. The Merritton Tunnel, built-in 1876 on the Grand Trunk Railway line that ran under the canal between Locks 18 and 19, was among the most interesting features of this third Welland Canal. The canal was carried by another nearby tunnel over a sunken portion of St David’s Road. With 26 stone locks, each 82.3 m (270 ft ) long by 13.7 m (45 ft) wide, the new route had a minimum depth of 4.3 m (14 ft). Even so, for many boats, the canal was still too small.

Fourth Welland Canal (current)

Construction on the current canal began in 1913, but due to a shortage of men and workers during World War I ( 1914-18), work was put on hold from 1916 to 1919 and was completed and officially opened on August 6, 1932. Until 1935, dredging to the planned 25 foot depth was not completed. Once again, the route was altered north of St. Catharines and now runs directly north to Port Weller. There are eight locks in this configuration, seven at the Niagara Escarpment and the eighth at Port Colborne, a guard lock to adjust the varying depth of water in Lake Erie. It was 7.6 m (25 ft ) deep, with locks 233.5 m (766 ft) long and 24.4 m (80 ft) wide. This canal is now known officially as the Welland Ship Canal. Before 2014, the Welland Canal’s first “hands-free” vacuum mooring was tested in Lock 7. Installation of the updated Locks 1 to 7 systems will be completed in 2017.

Proposed fifth Welland Canal

These projects were to be linked to a new proposed canal, the Fifth Welland Canal, which was scheduled to bypass most of the current canal to the east and cross the Niagara Escarpment in a single ‘superlock.’ While land was expropriated and the design finalized for the project, the project never passed the initial phases of construction and has since been shelved.

Originally, the current Welland Ship Canal was designed to last only until 2030, almost 100 years after it first opened, and 200 years after the original canal’s first full shipping season, in 1830. Subsequent improvements to the canal infrastructure mean that before it needs to be replaced, it may last much longer.

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