can recall as a child jumping out of the car at the lift bridge on Highway 20 to see the ships passing by hoping to get a wave from a weary sailor or sitting in the back of my parents van with my siblings trying to see which one of us could hold our breath the longest through the Thorold tunnel and earn the coveted title of champion. The Thorold tunnel was the first tunnel to be constructed underneath the Canal. It was one of the early field positions my father held when he was a young draftsman. He worked on the design of the project for three and a half years, and watched the tunnel go from drawings on paper to a full-size scale tunnel. When I was around 12 years old, I found many fascinating pictures and slides of his days working on the Canal from 1965 to 1968 and I was immediately captivated by them. There is more than just history and incredible engineering achievement to be viewed and discovered along the Welland Canal. For me the Canal represents many fond childhood memories and there are many activities and beautiful places to experience along the route for both local residents and visitors to the Niagara Region.

History of the Welland Canal

The Welland Canal has an intricate and comprehensive history. From its first construction in 1829 to the new moorings that exist today, this important man-made waterway has undergone many improvements and re-routing over the past 187 years. Ships have regularly voyaged through the Canal allowing goods to be transported across the Great Lakes and into the Atlantic Ocean, thus putting Canada on the map for trading and exporting. The Canal is designed to allow water and gravity to raise and lower ships through a series of locks, thus bypassing Niagara Falls and travelling along the Niagara Escarpment. With freighters carrying upwards of 30,000 tons of cargo, the “world’s longest inland deep draft marine highway” is a spectacular site.

The First Welland Canal 1829-1844

William Hamilton Merritt was the driving force behind the concept and construction of the Welland Canal. His motto, “Stupendous works arise from small beginnings,” demonstrates he was a visionary of his time. Merritt founded the Welland Canal Company, which was financed by the government and private sources, as a means to build the canal, which would allow him access to water that would supply electricity to his mills. Construction began in Allanburg, Ontario on November 30, 1924. Due to limited tools available at that point in time, it wasn’t until five years later that the first ship, schooner “Ann and Jane,” made its way down the canal.

The Second Welland Canal 1845-1866

Concern began to arise about the lack of profit being generated by the Canal, which the Welland Canal Company claimed was due to the cost of repairs on the wooden locks. The government purchased the Welland Canal Company and plans began for improvements to the Canal. As more steamers were sailing on the Great Lakes, renovations began to increase the depth of the Canal and reduce the number of locks. Upgrades to the second Canal, now 44 kilometres in length, were necessary to continue the shipment of grains and non-renewable resources to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Third Welland Canal – 1887-1931

The third Canal, although deeper and more able to meet the demands for exporting goods, over time also needed enhancement. At this time, the heavy ships were docked at one end of the Canal and their cargo was unloaded and put onto a smaller “canaler.” These canalers carried the precious cargo through the Welland Canal where the cargo was then reloaded onto a larger vessel >> to continue its voyage down the Great Lakes. It was decided that the Canal should be widened to allow these larger vessels to make the trip directly down the canal and eliminating the need to load and unload the cargo onto a smaller vessel.

The Fourth Canal 1931-Present

Construction to expand the canal once again began in 1913, but wasn’t completed until 1932 due to World War I. This fourth canal has eight locks that extend across the Niagara Region from St. Catharines to Port Colborne. In the 1970s extensive changes were made to the Canal in the City of Welland to create a safer and faster route. The abandoned part of the Canal, also referred to as the “Old Canal” or “Recreational Canal” boasts 12 kilometres of serene water surrounded by various recreational activities.

How a Flight Lock Works

As the vessel enters the lock it is moored, (i.e. tied or suctioned), to the sides of the canal. Next, the lock is closed and either filled with water, or emptied, depending on whether or not you are heading up or down the channel. It takes 12 minutes for the lock to fill. Once the ship has floated to the appropriate level, the ship is untied from the dock and the lock opens to allow the ship to travel on through to the next lock.

Activities along the Welland Canal

Lock 3

The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre is a tourist information and elevated viewing platform area. “It is a great place see the fascinating engineering and look at the ships coming up and down the Canal, says Kathleen Powell, Supervisor of Historical Services and Curator. “How often can you get this close to a ship?” Technology is always advancing along the Welland Canal and the viewing station is a place to see the hands free moorings in action. “They suction to the side of the ship and holds onto it while the lock fills or empties,” says Powell.

The St. Catharines Museum itself is rich in history and has memorabilia pertaining to the City of St. Catharines and the Welland Canal. The Museum and Welland Canals Centre operate on donations and has public washrooms, picnic areas, indoor seating, and a playground.

The Greater Niagara Circle Route Trail System

The Circle Route is a 140 kilometre trail perfect for biking, cycling, or rollerblading. This three metre wide trail passes along various attractions, accommodations, and eating establishments. Whether you are looking for a waterfront or wooded view, the Circle Route has something for everyone. “Half of the trail runs along the Welland Canal,” states Powell.

Lock 7

Located in Thorold, Lock 7 is complete with a viewing complex where the Twinned Flight Locks (Lock 4, 5, and 6) can be observed. If you would like a view of how the Canal functions as a pseudo set of stairs, then the deck of the viewing complex is the place for you. Lock 7 is also the home of the infamous Kissing Rock, where the legend of Charles Snelgrove promises to bring good luck to your relationship if you steal a kiss from your sweetheart while standing beside the rock.

Lock 8

Lock 8 is located in Port Colborne and facilitates many leisure activities through its marina, beaches, golf courses, flower gardens, museum, picnic areas and elevated viewing platform. Each August, Port Colborne hosts the Canal Days Marine Heritage Festival complete with a variety of festivities that include ship tours and concerts. 

The Welland Recreational Canal

“Welland is growing as a tourist destination, as we prepare for the second annual Summer Music Festival at Merritt Park’s outdoor amphitheater every Friday beginning June 24th to August 26th. Our City is conveniently accessible to cyclists, with Merritt Island being a part of the Greater Niagara Circle Route and offering over 4 km of trails to hike, bike, or simply enjoy a picnic while watching the rowers glide through waterway,” states Mayor Campion, Mayor of the City of Welland. 

“Along the Recreational waterway, the Welland International Flatwater Centre (WIFC) has a 1000 metre North Course and a 2000 metre South Course for racing,” says Brittany Bilsborough, Event Services Manager, Welland Recreational Canal Corporation. The WIFC hosts local, provincial, and national events with their next large-scale competition being the 2018 World Canoe Polo Championship. The WIFC is a unique facility that has an indoor paddle tank and the facility is equipped for canoe sprint, canoe polo, dragon boat racing, kayak, rowing, open water swim, triathlon, and water polo.

“We have the Welland Canoe Rental where tourists can rent canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, and paddle boats,” says Bilsborough. “The recreational canal does not allow motorized vehicles. There are various fishing docks and recreational trails for tourists and local residents and you can bring your own kayak and launch it from any part of the canal,” adds Billsborough.

All unaccredited sources taken from St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation brochure, WIFC website, and tour of the Welland Canals Museum.

Written By: Jill Tham