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The Welland Canal

The Welland Canal that we see today is actually the fourth in a series of canals that began in 1829 with the construction of the first Welland Canal.

After the American Revolution and The War of 1812 a wave of immigration poured into Upper Canada, putting an enormous burden on a fragile infrastructure. Up until this time all trade taking place in Upper Canada had to be moved from boats and portaged by oxen or horse around the mighty Niagara Falls.

With so many new immigrants and a new country to fortify it became apparent that the key to the country’s success would be a more convenient method of transporting goods inland.

It was the dream of William Hamilton Merritt to see this extraordinary feat in engineering come to fruition.

The First Welland Canal 1829

The First Welland Canal consisted of 40 wooden locks that began in Port Dalhousie and ended in Port Robinson, where the route would join up with the Welland River and eventually a hairpin turn onto the Niagara River above the falls at Chippawa.

This was a tiny canal by today’s standard, approximately ¼ the width of the present canal. And because most of the boats or schooners were powered by masts that had to be lowered upon entry, horses and oxen were used to move the schooners along the canal and through the locks. Additional water also was needed for these early locks and feeder canals were built from Lake Erie to guarantee a constant supply of water to power the locks.

The Second Welland Canal 1842

The 23rd Lock of the Old Second Welland Canal at Thorold, Ontario. c 1845.

Soon after the completion of the First Welland Canal it became apparent that the need was much greater than the first canal could provide. In 1842 work began on a new canal which also entered in Port Dalhousie and ended at Port Robinson and generally followed the path of the first.

There were now 27 locks as opposed to 40 and the canal was slightly deeper than the original canal with a depth of apx. 2 meters. The new locks were made of limestone replacing the wooden locks.

The Third Welland Canal 1883 (deepened 1887)

The Third Welland Canal was begun around 1883 and modified again in 1887. With the growing use of the steam engine Quebec City and the Atlantic Provinces were building bigger and bigger ships. The third canal increased the size of the locks from a width of 8 metres to nearly 14 metres. This canal no longer needed the feeder canals to supply additional water, instead the water was fed directly directly to the locks from Lake Erie, via the canal itself.

The Fourth Welland Canal 1932

The fourth Welland Canal is the current canal we see today. Originally begun around 1913 and completed in 1932 the canal was an engineering marvel of its day. Almost eighty years later, and with very few modifications, it still continues to function reliably just as it did in 1932.

welland canal

The Welland Canal is comprised of 7 lift locks beginning at Port Weller on Lake Ontario and ending at Port Colborne on Lake Erie. One final guard lock at Port Colborne does not have a lift.

This canal took the most direct route inland. As well, locks 4, 5 and 6 are twin locks, allowing ships travelling in either direction to pass through the locks simultaneously.

It should be noted that the Welland Canal closes in mid December for all ship traffic. The canal then reopens in the spring with a ceremony at the Lock 3 Museum in St. Catharines.