The Welland Canals

Welland Canal #1

The St. Lawrence River and the five Great Lakes constitute the greatest inland waterway in the world.  From the Atlantic Ocean, it extends 3700 kilometers (2300 miles) into the very heart of North America, forming a vital commercial shipping route.

A major obstacle, called Niagara Falls prevents the ships from sailing between Lakes Erie and Ontario.  The solution: the Welland Canal, by-passing the Falls and lifting vessels over the Niagara Escarpment.

In 1824, mill owner William Hamilton Merritt formed the Welland Canal Company, with George Keefer of Thorold as the first President.  Construction began following a sod-turning ceremony at Allanburg on November 30 and in 1829, five years later to the day, the first vessels sailed from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie.  The original canal followed the Twelve Mile Creek and Dick's Creek from Port Dalhousie, cut through the heart of Thorold and terminated at Port Robinson on the Welland River.  Ships continued down the river to Chippawa, then followed the Niagara River to Lake Erie.  In 1833 the Canal was extended south to Gravelly Bay (later Port Colborne).  When complete the Canal was 44 kilometers (27 miles) long and had 40 wooden locks.  In 1827, in anticipation of the completion of the Canal, George Keefer had built a mill (since demolished) just back of the Escarpment edge, and it was his initiative that led to the creation of the original village of Thorold.

Welland Canal #2 (1845 - 1886)

Deterioration of the wooden locks and the increasing size of ships on the Great Lakes led to calls for a bigger and better canal. The government purchased the Welland Canal Company's assets and proceeded with plans for a Second Welland Canal. Construction began in 1841 and was complete by 1845.  There were 27 locks, made of cut stone.  The Second Canal followed essentially the same route as the First, and it remained a feature of downtown Thorold until it was filled in during the 1960's.

Welland Canal #3 (1887 - 1931)

The Third Welland Canal followed the same line as the earlier canals in the southern part of the Peninsula, but north of Allanburg the route was quite different.  It by-passed downtown Thorold to the east, following the valley of the Ten Mile Creek down the Escarpment and continuing in a broad arc to Port Dalhousie.  It had 26 stone locks, extensive remains of which can still be seen east of the present canal.  One of these, Lock 24 in Thorold, was the target of an unsuccessful bombing attack by Irish-American Fenian sympathizers in 1900.  While the first two canals were lined by mills of various kinds, the banks of the Third Canal were kept free of industry by deliberate government policy.

Welland Canal #4 (1932 - Present)

Construction of the Fourth Canal (the Ship Canal) began in 1914, but because of delays due to World War I and other factors it was not opened until 1932.  The number of locks, now built in concrete, was reduced to eight; no fewer than four of these, including the world-famous Flight Locks, are in Thorold.  The Canal adopted a direct north-south route over the Escarpment, following the valley of the Ten Mile Creek all the way to a new Lake Ontario outlet at Port Weller.  New industries associated with the Canal led to the creation of the community of Thorold South in the 1920's.  In 1973 a by-pass was excavated around the City of Welland.  This was to be the first phase of a Fifth Welland Canal, which would cross the Escarpment in one super-lock, but plans for further development have been shelved.