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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 8

The Canals of Canada

by John P. Heisler

Canals in the New Confederation, 1867-1914


At the time of confederation, Canadians still clung to the belief that nature had intended the St. Lawrence to be the great commercial highway of the West. They clung to this belief despite the fact that in relation to western trade the St. Lawrence route had not fulfilled its destiny to the extent it should have done. It had not yet received anything like the amount of traffic to which it was entitled by virtue of its superior facilities. When one considers the formidable nature of the opposition arrayed against it, however, the route had perhaps not done too badly. The St. Lawrence ran through British territory whereas the great bulk of the population and commerce was on the American side of the river and lakes. Quite naturally enterprising communities like the state of New York, deeply interested in the prosperity of American canals and railways, had wooed away much of the western trade from the St. Lawrence. At the same time the facilities afforded by American enterprise for the transit of western products proved somewhat inadequate and American interests, especially those concerned in obtaining cheap routes of communication with the principal markets of the world, approached the Canadian authorities on the question of transit. Commissioners appointed by the state of Illinois to confer with the Canadians on the question of transit stated:

For several years past, a lamentable waste of crops already harvested had occurred in consequence of the inability of Railways and Canals leading to the seaboard to take off the excess. The North West seems already to have arrived at a point of production beyond any possible capacity for transportation which can be provided except by the great natural outlets. It has for two successive years crowded the Canals and Railways with more than one hundred millions of bushels of grain, besides quantities of other provisions and vast numbers of cattle and hogs. This increasing volume of business cannot be maintained without recourse to the natural outlet of the lakes. ... The St. Lawrence furnishes for the country bordering upon the lakes a Natural outlet to the sea.1

About the same time the report of the Buffalo Board of Trade for 1869 concluded:

It would be folly to ignore the fact that a great increase has taken place in the trade of Canada with Europe in breadstuffs. The route via the St. Lawrence leads almost in a direct line from the grain growing regions of the West to those nations of Europe whose people are and will be the chief consumers of the grain exported from this country. By a liberal Canal policy we may arrest this division of trade and restore the traffic of very many important articles which seek other channels through lower rates of transportation. . . . The trade of Chicago with the Dominion has largely increased both in imports and exports. The Canadians hope to establish a large direct foreign trade by way of the St. Lawrence to and from the West, exporting wheat by the vessels used in the trade, returning with iron, salt, hardware, glass, crockery, carpets, drugs, dyes, etc., and the estimated value of such imports alone foot up to $40,000,000. Would not a reduction of tolls on the Canal Erie somewhat disarrange this programme? Two plans are proposed for receiving the trade of the great West by the Canadians. The one is, to enlarge the Canals around the rapids of the St. Lawrence, and to increase the capacity of the Welland Canal to a degree whereby vessels of large tonnage can pass direct to and from the Upper Lakes; the other contemplates a Northern route by improving the navigation of the Ottawa River, which flows into the St. Lawrence at Montreal. The first route mentioned is the most feasible, least expensive, easier maintained and can be made available longer during the year.2



In 1870 the Canadian government appointed a royal commission with instructions

to institute and make a thorough enquiry as to the best means of affording such access to the seaboard as may best be calculated to attract a large and yearly increasing share of the trade of the North Western portion of North America through Canadian waters as well as a thorough and comprehensive improvement on the canal system of our said dominion on such a scale and of such a character as would best tend to afford ample facilities for the expansion and due development of its growing trade and commerce . . . and such as will enable Canada to compete successfully for the transit trade of the great Western County.3

The commission made a careful study of the Welland Canal and recommended that it be enlarged and improved. In order to achieve this betterment the commission suggested: (a) that a new canal be built from Thorold to Port Dalhousie; (b) that the locks, banks and weirs on the present line be raised so as to give 12 feet of water; (c) that the harbours at Port Colborne and Port Dalhousie be deepened to 15 feet in order to provide a safe entrance to vessels drawing 12 feet of water; (d) that the main line between Thorold and Port Colborne be widened and deepened to 100 feet wide at bottom and 13 feet depth; (e) that a second lock be built at Port Colborne so as to allow more water into the canal, and (f) that the floor of the aqueduct be sunk 2 feet and possibly another aqueduct be constructed alongside the present one in order to increase the supply of water required for the double set of locks from Thorold downward.4 By far the most important of these suggestions was that of an entirely new line from Thorold to Port Dalhousie.

As the commission explained:

The reaches between the present locks on the Mountain declivity are entirely too short, and of too small capacity for the enlarged canal. The locks are so close together and even supposing it possible to construct the large locks on this line without stopping the navigation, and to make use of one of the present walls to form part of the new locks, still the enlarged locks would be placed so close together that there would not be left a vessel's length between them. They would be tantamount to combined locks the operation of which is to retard the passage of vessels and cripple the efficiency of the canal.5

Since, therefore, combined locks could not be admitted on this important navigation, it was necessary to find a line where sufficient "basins can be established between the locks to admit of the passage of vessels and capable of holding an abundant supply of water for working the lock without drawing over the levels." The commission suggested that while the new line from Thorold to Port Dalhousie was being built, the present line should be maintained at full working capacity and indeed ought to be deepened and kept in good working order for the use of smaller vessels. The 24 smaller locks were located on the 8 miles between Allanburg and St. Catharines and were 150 feet long by 26-1/2 feet wide. Originally designed and built for 9 feet of water, the depth was later increased to 10-1/4 feet by "bolting down timber upon the copings of the walls and by raising the banks and weirs." This increased the tonnage capacity of the vessels navigating the canal from 400 to 500 tons net. An additional 1-3/4 feet would increase the tonnage capacity from 500 to 600 tons. This additional carrying capacity of vessels would allow some shipowners to pass through the canal without lightening their cargo as they were forced to do when heavily laden. The commission concluded its report on the Welland with the suggestion that "the temporary timber now used to raise the water should be replaced by masonry and the lock gates, weirs and banks, should be permanently finished to the highest level."6


Considerable attention was given to the proposed canal at Sault Ste. Marie. There, as early as 1852, the Department of Public Works made a survey for a Canadian canal. This survey called for a straight cut through the middle of St Marys Island which is about one-half mile long. The distance between the deep water bays at the upper and lower entrances corresponding with the length of the canal from end to end of the piers would be a little over a mile. Lake Superior, at the northern end of the proposed canal, fluctuated in water level between a rise and fall of about 18 inches. The fall in the Sault rapids varied, according to the different stages of the lake and river, from 17 to 19 feet with a usual fall of 18. This early survey in 1852 was made at a time when the side-paddle steamers reigned supreme on the upper lakes. Hence the chief engineer of the department proposed to build the canal of sufficient size to pass the largest class of side-paddle steamers at that time employed in the trade. The proposed dimensions for a lock were therefore 350 feet long by 66 feet wide with 10 feet depth with the prism of the canal 130 feet at bottom and 140 feet at surface in order to allow two steamers to pass one another on any part of the canal. The estimate for this canal with two locks, which it was necessary to build when the breadth was so great, was $480,000.7 Following a careful study of the early survey, the commission was prepared to accept the line of the straight cut through the middle of St. Marys Island but suggested that due to the more moderate scale suggested for the canal system of the dominion, it would be quite practicable to overcome the whole fall at the Sault by a single lock of 18 feet lift.8 This would avoid the expense of the regulating weirs required if two locks were constructed to divide the lift. The commission regarded the construction of a Canadian canal at Sault Ste. Marie as "the natural commencement of the improvements of the inland navigation of the Dominion."9


Reference has already been made to the dredging operations on the St. Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal in the years immediately preceding confederation resulting in a marked improvement in the channel of navigation. After 1865 a larger and better class of sea-going vessels, including Atlantic steamers of 3,000 tons capacity, had access to Montreal, the effect of which was a reduction in the cost of freight and a spur to Canadian business. Since the proposed enlargement of the canals would likely bring a great increase of business to Montreal, the commission believed it was essential that better port facilities should be available to Atlantic vessels frequenting that port thereby allowing them to compete successfully with New York and Boston shipping for the carrying trade to European ports.10 At this time (1870) the largest vessels trading at Montreal drew from 18 to 23 feet laden, without coal, and ranged from 290 to 350 feet in length. It was felt, however, that the security of the navigation required that the channel be as wide as the length of the vessel and the depth fully one foot more than the draught. The commission, therefore, recommended the enlarging of the channel throughout between Quebec and Montreal to 400 feet width and 24 feet in depth at low water.11

In 1870 daily passenger vessels successfully descended all the rapids between Kingston and Montreal. Returning, these vessels used the Lachine, Beauharnois and Cornwall canals but had sufficient power to ascend the upper rapids, Rapide Plat, Iroquois and Galops, without entering the canals. Freight vessels, however, seldom navigated the lower rapids of Long Sault, Coteau, Cedars, Cascades and Lachine, though such vessels could safely descend the upper rapids. For some time it had been urged that improvements be made in the channel through the lower rapids "as would enable all vessels and express by the propellers to pass down safely without making use of the canals thus saving time and expense."12 This the commission felt must be done.

Still considering the St. Lawrence navigation, the commission concluded, from both the evidence laid before it and information contained in the annual reports of the Public Works department, that there appeared to be an urgent necessity for improvements in the Lachine Canal in order to better accommodate the trade. Vessels were overcrowded in a limited space afforded both in Montreal harbour and in the upper basin of the canal. Great delays occurred in passing vessels through the two lower locks forming the connection between the harbour and canal. With increasing trade, matters only got worse. It was clear that the entrance locks were wholly inadequate to the requirements of the trade. The commission reported:

To meet increasing demands of the trade at this port we consider it indispensable that the former entrance to this canal should be reopened and another set of locks laid alongside the present ones, in the line of the old canal, with 17 feet of water on the sills to admit ocean vessels into the upper basin, and that the whole of the canal reserve containing upwards of fifty acres, be laid out into docks and basins in the manner suggested in the report just quoted but instead of proceeding gradually with the improvements, the whole as far up as Wellington street should at once be undertaken and made 18 feet deep.13

By the phrase, "in the report just quoted," the committee was referring to the report of the commissioner of Public Works for 1860 which stated:

By opening new basins on the south side of the canal, and deepening the channel through the middle of the large basin up to them, sea-going vessels may with facility be brought in connection both with the Upper Lake vessels and the Grand Trunk Railway for the draught upon the sills of the two lower locks has been made 16 feet expressly with this view, and the requisite quantity of land has long since been acquired and is still retained for that express purpose.14

31 Plan of the Welland Ship canal With general dimensions. (Annual Report, 1915-16, Dept. of Railways and Canals.) (click on image for a PDF version)

32 The Lachine canal locks from the air, about 1920. (Public Archives of Canada.)


During a 50-year period (1822-73) the governments of the Maritime Provinces and Canada considered at various times the possibility of building a canal to connect the waters of the Bay of Fundy at Cumberland Basin with those of the Gulf of St. Lawrence at Baie Verte. Robert C. Minnette made the first survey in 1822 by order of the government of New Brunswick and proposed a canal 4 feet deep, running through the valley of the Aulac across the Missiguash lakes and then to the River Tidnish. Three years later F. Hall also made a survey of the route at the suggestion to the lieutenant governor. Sometime later Thomas Telford, a civil engineer, revised Hall's report and suggested a canal with a depth of 14 feet with a view to accommodating the large trade that would likely accrue especially with Quebec, Montreal and the upper lakes.15 Meanwhile public opinion in New Brunswick became quite vocal about the proposed canal. One citizen of Saint John addressed an appeal to the Rt. Hon. William Huskisson in 1828 stating: "The meditated improvement in this province of opening a canal from the Bay of Fundy to the St. Lawrence is an object of national interest and peculiarly worthy of the attention of governments; and which by affording facilities of intercourse will create an extensive business with our Canadian neighbours which is at present very limited."16 A decade later the Saint John Chamber of Commerce addressed a petition to Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey, which perhaps merits quoting in full, urging the advantages of a canal across Chignecto.

That a Canal to connect the Waters bordering the possessions of Great Britain in North America has long been an object of consideration, not only with numerous private individuals, but also with the Legislature of this Province, who have had surveys and estimates made, and have been prevented from commencing the undertaking in consequence of the large sum required for its completion, and also, we apprehend, from want of confidence in the surveys.

That the work, according to a survey made by Mr. Hall, the particulars of which he forwarded to the late celebrated Sir Thomas Telford, was by that gentleman, on Mr. Hall's data, estimated to cost £155,898 sterling but this calculation does not seem to your Petitioners an exception to the observation above made. We much question, had that gentleman been on the spot, if he would have relief on the uncertain and periodical high-tide mark, as the most proper level for the range of a Canal. Should a stranger observe that one part of your command is completely cut off from all water intercourse with another more extensive and important part of the Province, save by a voyage of eight hundred miles, while a Canal of fifteen or seventeen miles, through a particularly level country, would completely connect and bring them together, he would be astonished that no attempt has yet been made to cut such a Canal.

That on 16th March, 1836, the Legislature of this Province passed an Act, (at the suggestion of several persons who probably dispaired of a canal being cut) for the purpose of incorporating the "Shediac and the St. John Railroad Company," or in other words, an Act to authorize the parties named, and their associates, to make a Railway from the Harbour of Shediac to the most convenient spot for a landing Harbour on the headwaters of the Bay of Fundy; said Railway to be completed in six years, or the Charter to expire. And on the same date a like Law was enacted, to Incorporate the Bay of Verte "Canal Company" with a capital of only £90,000 sterling which Charter is to expire and end if the object is not completed within ten years from its date. The Legislature of the Province of Nova Scotia, during their last Session, passed an Act authorizing the Lieutenant-Governor of that Province, for the time being to Incorporate any persons who shall within ten years make such progress in cutting a Canal from the Bay of Verte to Cumberland Basin, as may satisfy the then Commander-in-Chief that the Canal will be completed within some reasonably distant period.

That not only is New Brunswick in an especial degree interested in this undertaking but that the extensive and growing trade between this Port and Quebec, makes it certain that the Canadas would join warmly in promoting what would so much advantage their commerce. That various products of the Eastern part of Nova Scotia would find a ready and advantageous market at this Port; — that fleets of small vessels would be fitted out in this Province for general trade on the shores of the St. Lawrence, and also for the Gulf Fisheries, it such a Canal were completed. Another object of vast importance to the British Government, as well as the trade of the North American Colonies and the West Indies, seems likely to be attained by the completion of this work. We refer to the opening of a safe and easy passage to Quebec, several weeks earlier in the Spring than can be reckoned upon by the present route, and wholly avoiding the great danger of encountering the ice between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, or in the Gut of Canso. We believe it is well known that a clear passage along the Northern shore of New Brunswick, and thence by Gaspé to Quebec, is generally open in the month of April, and frequently in its first week.

That Prince Edward Island would be greatly benefited by such a Canal; and that the trade of the whole Colonies would thereby be increased in times of peace, and their energies become closely united in time of war.17

Further surveys were undertaken by orders of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Canada including one in 1843 by Captain Crawley, with Canada paying a portion of the expense. A number of the engineers who reported on the project approved a tidal canal. Others advised that a supply of fresh water should be procured for operating the proposed canal. Despite all these reports the project was still being debated at the time the royal commission was appointed in 1870. The commissioners were attracted by the project and believed that the Baie Verte canal was closely linked with the canals of the St. Lawrence. They therefore strongly recommended its construction as inseparably connected with the growth of interprovincial trade.

A steamer laden with flour for Saint John, N.B. now goes down the Gulf as far as Shediac where the cargo is transported by rail to its destination. The total distance by water from Shediac through the Gut of Canso and around the east of Nova Scotia to the Bay of Fundy as far as the commercial capital of New Brunswick is concerned is about 600 miles. Hence there is little or no direct communication between the Bay of Fundy Ports and those of the River St. Lawrence. By a canal through the Isthmus the distance from Shediac to Saint John will not be much more than one hundred miles.18

The commission went on to point out that the lumber and fishery interests of the Gulf of St. Lawrence both of Prince Edward Island and the north shore of New Brunswick along with the coal trade of Pictou would benefit by a safer and shorter route not only to the ports of the Bay of Fundy but also to those of the northeastern coast of the United States. Construction of this canal would give a spur to the mackerel fisheries of the Gulf of St. Lawrence by which a short and secure route would be given to the inhabitants of the north and south shores of the bay as well as those in the Nova Scotia counties of Yarmouth and Shelburne. "As a Canadian canal at Sault Ste Marie is the natural commencement of the improvements of the inland navigation of the Dominion, so to work through the Isthmus of Chignecto is the inevitable conclusion necessary to give unity and completeness to the whole system."19


Improvement of inland navigation was essential to the promotion of interprovincial trade. Between Ontario and the lower ports direct trade could not be developed unless canal communication above Montreal were improved. Any appreciable growth of interprovincial trade depended upon cheap transit since goods passing between the maritime provinces and Ontario "must be of a bulky character requiring large vessels and rapid despatch to be really profitable." If a propeller could go direct with a cargo of coal or other produce of the eastern provinces shipped to Kingston or Toronto and in return take a freight cargo of flour, barley and other western produce, interprovincial trade would enter a new area. The Toronto Board of Trade believed that a deepening of the canals would lead to increasing trade with the Maritimes, for then "it would be carried without breaking bulk from the lakes to the ocean, creating thereby a reciprocity of interest, and connecting over several Provinces more closely."20 At the same time the Toronto Corn Exchange Association declared

that reciprocity of trade, upon which we must count as the only basis of legitimate commerce, and the one great means of uniting the Provinces in the strong bonds of mutual interest, remains undeveloped, and will continue so until our water communications shall have been permanently established on such a scale as to induce the building of vessels suitable at once to the navigation on the lakes, the canals, and ocean.21

The short interval between confederation, the abrogation of the reciprocity treaty with the United States and the commission's report in February, 1871, witnessed an increase in interprovincial trade. The proportions, however, were still relatively small due largely to a shortage of facilities for cheap and rapid transportation between the provinces. The Grand Trunk, of course, ran a line of steamers between Portland and Halifax which facilitated trade between Montreal and the Nova Scotia port. Moreover, steamships plying the Gulf of St. Lawrence between Quebec, Shediac, Pictou and other ports helped to promote trade in the chief provincial staples, the coal of Nova Scotia and the flour of Ontario. A few figures will indicate the slow steady increase in this trade. Canada exported 58,233 barrels of flour to Nova Scotia in 1865. In 1869 this had increased to 131,336 barrels to Halifax alone via the Grand Trunk Railway. Total shipments for four years via the Grand Trunk to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were as follows: 1866, 157,859 barrels; 1867, 228,345 barrels; 1868, 328,204 barrels; and 1869, 293,754 barrels. The total quantity of flour exported from Canada in 1864-65 to all British North America was 137,581 barrels. In 1869 this quantity had increased to 542,412 barrels. Of this quantity 293,754 were sent by Grand Trunk Railway via Portland and the remainder by steamers and sailing vessels by the St. Lawrence.22 During the same period Nova Scotia coal found a steadily expanding market in Quebec.

Improvement of inland navigation was also essential to the promotion of western trade. Any improvement would particularly affect the western flour and grain trade from which the canals derived the principal part of their income. At this time the Grand Trunk was a formidable competitor for the trade of the St. Lawrence and flour was carried largely by rail. Bulky products like corn and wheat, however, went by canal. This competition between canal and railway produced one significant result; namely, that the canal business of seven months exceeded the railway business of twelve months. It was found that the charges of a railway running alongside a good water communication had to be lowered during the summer months to an extent that was probably not profitable. Freights from the West to Montreal at the time were lower than those from Chicago and other western ports to New York via Buffalo and Oswego. The average rates paid per bushel by propeller from Chicago to Montreal during the years 1868 and 1869 were 13 cents and 12 cents respectively, whereas the average rate of freight per bushel of wheat from Chicago to New York during the same years via Buffalo and Oswego was 23 cents. Moreover, the difference in time was in favour of the St. Lawrence, and hence much of the trade was forced into its natural channel despite the lack of an enlarged and uniform system of canal communication. Once the capacity of the St. Lawrence canals including the Welland was enlarged, the propellers in use on western waters could come directly to Montreal and Quebec, and there transfer their cargoes to the larger class of vessels for European traffic or go to Boston through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Baie Verte canal (thereby shortening the route to Portland and Boston by nearly 500 miles). Freights of western produce would be reduced to a minimum. In the keen competition between the rival routes, Chicago-New York via the Erie Canal and Chicago-Montreal via the Welland and St. Lawrence canals, an important element was that of return freights. New York drew the commercial marine of the world and vessels carrying wheat, corn and other products of the grain-growing western states had never wanted return freights. Up to 1870, however, the direct foreign trade with the West via the St. Lawrence was comparatively small, through increasing. Ocean transportation charges were an important factor in accounting for the modest trade.23

Besides considering the question of canal improvement in relation to interprovincial commerce and western trade, the commission also viewed such improvement as an important aspect in future commercial relations with the British and foreign West Indies. In 1870 Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were the only parts of the dominion which did any large business with those countries. Quebec and Ontario had virtually no trade with them. Any imports which those two large provinces received from the West Indies came through the United States and American ports. The commission believed that a large direct trade should be opened up between western Canada and the West Indies, which at the time purchased from the United States goods which could be supplied more cheaply from Canada. Improvement of the St. Lawrence canals might induce Ontario to open a direct trade with the West Indies, for the province had many of the products which those countries needed. And a Baie Verte canal would open "a shorter and safer route . . . to propellers and sailing vessels." Moreover, Ontario and Quebec merchants could supply those maritime firms engaged in this trade with such goods as found a ready and remunerative market in the tropics. In exchange the Canadian merchant could get back sugar, molasses and other semi-tropical produce which at the time was supplied indirectly to the two larger provinces through the United States. And finally in regard to this potential trade, the commission believed that the large type of vessel, which would likely be built as a result of an improved inland navigation, could proceed from Ontario lake and Quebec river ports to the Maritime ports and thence to the West Indies, where during the winter season such vessels might find employment instead of being laid up for five months of the year.24


In the conclusion of its report dated 24 February 1871, the commission urged upon the government a policy of canal enlargement as one best suited to stimulate the commercial development of the whole dominion. According to the commission there should be one uniform size of lock and canal throughout the main line of water communication from Lake Superior to tidewater including the Welland Canal, the St. Lawrence canals and the proposed canal at Sault Ste. Marie. After much discussion the commission decided that the most suitable size of lock for these canals would be one having 270 feet length of chamber between the gates, 45 feet in width and 12 feet of clear draught over the mitre sills. Some persons urged a draught of 14 feet and others as much as 16 feet. The commission, however, keeping in mind the limited resources of the young dominion, the capabilities of the Canadian canals and harbours as well as the actual needs of the trade, agreed upon a draught of 12 feet as the most suitable one for the St. Lawrence. For the Ottawa route, extending from Lachine to Ottawa, the commission proposed a scale of improvement with locks 200 feet length of chamber between the gates, 45 feet in width and 9 feet of clear draught over the mitre sills. The scale recommended for the Chambly canal corresponded with that of the Ottawa with the exception that the draught might fall short of 9 feet should it involve considerable expense to reach that depth. Since both the Ottawa and Richelieu routes would be used principally for conveying lumber from Ottawa to the American market, it was thought that the canals along these routes should be built with approximately the same dimensions.25


The Canadian government accepted the royal commission's recommendations and decided to enlarge the canals; the scale of navigation in the St. Lawrence throughout was fixed at an available depth of 12 feet of water instead of 9 feet in the Lachine, Beauharnois, Cornwall, Farran's Point, Rapide Plat and Galops canals, and instead of 10-1/2 feet in the Welland. The dimensions of the locks on the enlarged canals were fixed at 270 feet between the gates and 45 feet in width instead of 200 by 45 feet. The least breadth of the canals at bottom was fixed at 100 feet. In 1873 this enlargement was authorized to be carried out on the Lachine and Welland canals and subsequently on the Cornwall Canal. Two years later, in 1875, strong representations were made to deepen the various channels for the passage of vessels drawing 14 feet of water. The government assented to this need for deeper channels and orders were given to place the foundations of all permanent structures on those parts of the works not then under contract at a depth corresponding to 14 feet of water on the mitre sills. These orders applied to all the principal works on the main line of navigation between Lake Erie and Montreal. Such dimensions would enable vessels of almost any ordinary build to pass carrying fully 1,000 tons burden.26

Work on the Lachine, Cornwall and Welland canals was proceeded with in accordance with these directions. Work on the Welland was completed for a draught of 12 feet of water except at the point where the canal was carried by an aqueduct over the Chippawa River, where the draught was limited to 11-1/2 feet for vessels using their own motive power. For vessels in tow, however, the draught could be 12 feet. At the same time a new scale of navigation was adopted for the route between Montreal and Ottawa. Here the dimensions of the new locks at the Ste. Anne, Carillon and Grenville canals were fixed at 200 feet by 45 feet, the depth of water on the sills at 9 feet and on the canals at 10 feet. The scale of navigation on the Rideau, however, was not altered.27

Meanwhile St. Peters Canal connecting the Bras d'Or lakes of Cape Breton and the ocean was the only canal in actual operation in the Maritime Provinces. Commenced in 1854 by the government of Nova Scotia, construction was suspended for a time but was renewed again in 1864 and the canal was finally completed in 1869. Navigation of this canal extended through Cape Breton Island. Boularderie Island divided the channel from the eastern end to the Bras d'Or lakes. The northern channel, called the Great Bras d'Or, was about 20 miles long with a depth of 4 fathoms, while the southern channel called the Little Bras d'Or was about 12 miles long with a depth of 7 fathoms. Proceeding eastward across the Little Bras d'Or Lake one reached Barra Strait, about one mile long and half a mile wide, and this point was considered to be the head of tidewater. Then one proceeded across the Great Bras d'Or Lake and through St. Peters Inlet, 6-1/2 miles long. There one reached the St. Peters Canal, cut through the isthmus, and passing through the canal reached the western end of the navigation at St. Peters Bay. As completed in 1869 the canal was 2,400 feet long and 26 feet wide at bottom. It contained only one tidal lock 122 feet long by 26 feet wide at water surface and a depth of 13 feet on the sills. The canal had four pairs of gates at St. Peters Bay. It was seen at once that the canal was altogether too small to handle the traffic offering. Accordingly in 1872 the government decided to include St. Peters in their general scheme for enlargement of canals. Surveys were made in 1872-73, and in 1875 a contract was let for enlarging the canal and lock to the following dimensions: lock 200 feet long by 48 feet wide with 18 feet of water on the mitre sills at low tide and a width in the prism of canal of 48 feet. While this work was being done St. Peters was closed to navigation from June, 1876, to October, 1880.28 The canal was again closed to navigation for the period from December, 1894, to November, 1895, to permit the renewal of the four pairs of lock gates and to make repairs to the lock bottom.

St. Peters was an important factor in the general coasting trade of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Much of the coal shipped from Sydney to the maritime ports passed through it as well as limestone from the quarries in the Bras d'Or lakes en route to Charlottetown. There was also a large quantity of farm produce carried through the canal from Prince Edward Island to points in Cape Breton. Moreover, at one time a considerable quantity of gypsum passed through the waterway from the Bras d'Or Lakes to the United States, but this traffic ceased when it became unprofitable owing to the size of the canal limiting the size of vessels engaged in this trade. During the 1911 season of navigation, 1,253 vessels were passed through St. Peters. In addition to these a large number of small craft (principally fishing boats measuring from 7 to 10 tons burden) used the canal.

In September, 1910, the resident engineer inspected the canal and found the whole of the works in a very bad state of repair. Therefore, in August 1911, tenders were invited for the construction of a new lock and entrance at the Atlantic end of the canal. The lock was to be 48 feet wide by 300 feet long between gates opening in the same direction. It provided for a depth of 18 feet of water on the mitre sills at low tide. It had a rock bottom. The side walls of the lock, and the entrance walls for a depth of about 400 feet on each side, were built of concrete. The contract for the work was signed in November, 1911, but, owing to the lateness of the season, no attempt was made to commence operations till the spring of 1912. The depth through the canal was 17 feet.29

Another Nova Scotia canal deserving of mention was the Shubenacadie Canal connecting Minas Basin and the Bay of Fundy with Dartmouth Cove in Halifax Harbour by way of the Shubenacadie River, Grand Lake and the Dartmouth lakes through the counties of Colchester, Hants and Halifax. This canal was 44 miles long with 15 locks and was designed for a navigation of 8 feet draught. Francis Hall made the original survey in 1825, and construction was undertaken by a joint stock company under a charter granted in 1824 by the government of Nova Scotia and afterwards extended by an act passed in 1827. The province granted lands and a money loan to the company toward construction of the canal. Work was started in 1827 but was never completed as originally planned, though a certificate signed by the governor of Nova Scotia in 1862 states that the water communication between Halifax Harbour and Minas Basin was then completed. No practical use was ever made of the work as a canal. It was designed for the purpose of conveying lumber, minerals, gypsum and grain from ports on the Bay of Fundy to Halifax, there to be shipped abroad.30

Before leaving the Maritimes a brief mention should be made of yet another canal project. Since the high tides and the silt-laden waters of the Bay of Fundy were major difficulties in the construction of the Baie Verte canal,31 H. G. C. Ketchum, an engineer, projected a ship railway to transport vessels a distance of 17 miles from Amherst, at the north of the LaPlanche River to Tidnish on Baie Verte. Ketchum first revealed his plans and details of the scheme at the Mechanics' and Manufactures' Exhibition at Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1875. Seven years later the Chignecto Marine Transport Company was incorporated with a total share and bond capital of $5.5 million to carry out the project. In 1886 the dominion government granted the company an annual subsidy of $170,602 for 20 years, or such portion of that time as might expire before the company earned 7 per cent on its authorized share and bond capital. If the earnings exceeded 7 per cent per annum, the surplus over and above that amount was to be paid to the government until the whole subsidy paid had been refunded. On its part the company engaged to construct works capable of raising, transporting and lowering vessels of 1,000 register tons with full cargo.

Construction was begun at Amherst on a large dock equipped with gates 30 feet high to retain the water after the recession of the Fundy tide. This dock was 530 feet long, 300 feet wide and 40 feet deep. It was large enough to accommodate at one time six vessels of 1,000 register tons each.

Once a vessel was in the dock it was to be guided over a huge lift equipped with a ship carriage or cradle, which ran on two hundred and forty wheels. Power from twenty large hydraulic presses was then to be applied to the lift and the ship elevated to the level of the railway on land. Heavy locomotives were then to draw the carriage with its marine burden on double tracks at the rate often miles an hour to the terminus of the line, where, by similar means, it was to be lowered into the water. At Tidnish, the Northern terminus, a dock with gates was not necessary because the tides of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence had a range of only from six to seven feet.32

Though the project appeared practicable from an engineering point of view, it was never completed. Construction was started and continued for a time and it was thought that the undertaking might be finished in 1892. However, financial difficulty forced suspension of the work. The dominion government extended the completion date but asked for some assurance that capital to complete it was available. No such assurance was given and the subsidy lapsed. "The partially completed Chignecto ship railway remains only as a sorry monument to millions of dollars of wasted capital."33

At the same time (1876-80) as the St. Peters Canal in Cape Breton was being enlarged and improved, the St. Francis Canal was being built in western Canada. Situated near the outlet of Rainy Lake on the north side of Grand Falls, this canal was located 237 miles northwest of Prince Arthur's Landing on Thunder Bay and 215 miles southeast of Fort Garry, Manitoba. Its purpose was to improve transportation between Lake Superior and the Red River country by opening the navigation of Rainy Lake with that of Rainy River and the Lake of the Woods. In 1875 work was begun on the canal to be 800 feet long by 36-1/2 feet wide with one lock 200 feet long by 36 feet wide having 7 feet of water on the sills. In January, 1879, it was reported that the lock was nearly completed but that the lock gates should be deferred until the materials for such a purpose could be brought by the C.P.R. However, due probably to the operation of the new C.P.R. line from Thunder Bay to Manitoba, further construction was discontinued, the outstanding debts were settled and the project left unfinished. The total cost up to the time the work was suspended equalled $288,275.51.34

Another work in western Canada was St. Andrew's Lock located on the Red River in Manitoba and first opened to traffic in 1910. Built and operated by the Department of Public Works, St. Andrew's consisted of a lock and dam at Lockport on the Red River about 15 miles north of Winnipeg and afforded communication between that city and Lake Winnipeg. In 1912, 95,549 tons of goods passed through consisting almost entirely of forest and mining products.35

One projected canal, which was seriously considered during the decade of the seventies and on which some work was done, was the Ottawa ship canal.36 During the decade following confederation steamboat navigation on various portions of the river above the city of Ottawa extended as far as the mouth of the Mattawa River, a distance of 192 miles. Of this distance, 120 miles between Ottawa and Joachim Rapids were navigable for vessels of 6 feet draught of water, and 50 miles between the Joachim Rapids and the mouth of the Mattawa for vessels of from 3-1/2 feet to 2 feet draught during low water. Among the principal obstructions to a continuous line of navigation were the rapids of Calumet situated 66 miles above the city of Ottawa. The Culbute Canal was built to overcome this destruction by connecting the navigation between the village of Bryson at the head of the Great Calumet Falls and the village of Aberdeen at the foot of the Joachim Rapids, a total distance of 77 miles. The canal was commenced in 1873 and completed in 1876. It comprised two combined locks of 200 feet by 45 feet each with 6 feet of water on the sills. Two submerged dams were constructed in order to raise the water in the north channel of the Ottawa from Bryson to Culbute; one of the dams was on the north channel below Bryson near the foot of Calumet Island and the other dam was on the south channel toward the head of the same island.37



After 1880 there was a renewed interest in canal construction due in part to the greater attention being given to the problem of providing cheap transportation for the shipment of grain from the expanding area west of the Great Lakes. Already in 1871 the royal commission studying canals regarded the construction of a Canadian canal at Sault Ste. Marie as "the natural commencement of the improvements of the inland navigation of the Dominion."38 The relatively slow development of commerce on Lake Superior largely accounts for the comparatively late construction of this canal in the St. Marys River connecting Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Previously a ship canal with 11-1/2 feet depth and two locks to connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron had been constructed on the United States side of the river between 1853 and 1855 by the state of Michigan. Finally in 1887 the Canadian government made a survey of the ground and contracts were let for the construction of a canal on St. Marys Island.39 The work was divided into three sections.40 The first commenced at the navigable channel of St. Marys River below the rapids and extended upstream to the foot of St. Marys Island a distance of 5,300 feet. The second extended from the foot to the head of St. Marys Island, a distance of 3,500 feet, and embraced the excavation of the prism of the canal and lock pit, the guard gate, side walls, etc. The third section extended from the head of St. Marys Island 9,300 feet to the navigable channel of the river. A contract for the lower entrance was entered into on 30 January 1889; for the upper entrance on 26 March 1889; and for the canal and lift lock on 20 November 1888. The project, as covered by these contracts, contemplated a lock chamber 600 feet long and 85 feet wide with a depth of water on the sills of 16-1/4 feet at the lowest known water level. However, the possibilities of the Canadian West developing as a wheat-producing country resulted in pressure being applied to the Canadian government to increase the dimensions of the lock. Whereupon, under authority of orders in council of 21 May and 3 June 1891, a supplemental agreement was entered into with the contractors for the canal and lock whereby the following dimensions were to be adopted; length of lock in chamber 650 feet, width 100 feet, depth of water on the sills 19 feet, the time for completion being extended one year to 10 May 1893. Further discussion took place in Parliament during the session of 1891 regarding the desirability of making the entrance of the lock in a straight line with the walls of the chamber. A second supplemental agreement was therefore made with the contractors on 5 April 1892, the dimension of the lock to be as follows: length of chamber 900 feet, width 60 feet throughout, with a depth of 20 feet 3 inches of water on the sills at the lowest recorded stage of the water in the river below the lock, the date for completion being fixed as 31 December 1894.

The desirability of completing the work at an earlier date resulted in a further agreement being made with the contractors on 8 November 1892 for the completion of all works under their contracts by 1 July 1894, including the deepening of the canal prism to a further depth of 4 feet, making it 22 feet below the lowest known river level. The contract for the electric light and power plant for the canal was awarded to the Canadian General Electric Company, 9 May 1894. The large lock permitted three vessels, one behind the other, to be locked through simultaneously; one of the lake type 320 feet long and two of the Welland Canal type 255 feet long, with ready means of entrance and exit on a course through the gates and lock straight with the line of the canal. It was opened for navigation in 1895 and the increase in traffic over the next decade was astounding. With the development of the Canadian West there was a steady growth in the volume of water-borne wheat while the development of the mineral and timber resources along the north shore of Lake Superior added to the volume of trade. Moreover, the tendency at the time was to increase the size and carrying capacity of vessels resulting in a greater flow of goods.

The following figures will give some indication of the volume of traffic pouring through the Canadian canal at the Sault at the turn of the century. During the 1901 season the total movement of freight was 2,820,394 tons carried in 4,204 vessels with 2,910 lockages. Of wheat, 9,639,627 bushels, and of other grain, 2,769,425 bushels passed through the canal along with 1,245,243 barrels of flour, 1,596,549 tons of iron ore, 510,393 tons of coal, and 12,553,948 feet of lumber.41 Two years later during the 1903 season, these figures rose to 5,511,868 tons of freight carried in 4,351 vessels with 3,242 lockages. Of wheat, 32,232,315 bushels, and of other grain, 6,154,448 bushels passed through the canal along with 2,808,927 barrels of flour, 2,683,000 tons of iron ore, 998,780 tons of coal and 30,609,187 feet of lumber.42


The year which saw the Canadian government survey the ground for the Sault Ste. Marie Canal also saw the completion of the third or New Welland Canal, begun about 1873, to a depth of 14 feet. The first Welland Canal completed in 1829 with locks 100 feet long by 22 feet wide carried all the traffic between the lakes until 1845. The second canal opened in 1845 had locks 150 feet by 26-1/2 feet with 9 feet of water on the mitre sills. After being in operation only eight years, it was found to be too shallow and the lock walls and banks were raised to allow vessels of 10 feet draught to pass through. Moreover, the locks were eventually enlarged to 200 feet by 45 feet with a depth of 19-1/4 feet on the mitre sills. This canal was in operation till 1881 when it in turn was replaced in 1883 by the New Welland with locks 270 feet long by 45 feet wide with 12 feet of water on the sills.43 However the canal was not completed before a further change was made. The lock walls and banks were again raised to allow vessels drawing 14 feet of water to pass through. The new completed canal had 26 locks, one less than the old line.

The Welland Canal now had two entrances from Lake Ontario to Port Dalhousie, one for the old, the other for the new line. From Port Dalhousie to Allanburg, 11-3/4 miles, there were two distinct lines of canal in operation, the old line and the enlarged or new line. From the head of the Welland Canal a deep water navigation extended through Lake Erie, the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River, Lake Huron and the St. Marys River to within a short distance of the Sault canal, a length of 394 miles.44 A glance at the following figures will give some indication of the quantity of freight passing through the New Welland Canal in the years immediately following its opening. During the season of 1892, 955,554 tons moved through the canal of which quantity 929,946 tons was through freight and 25,608 tons local freight; 685,348 tons of freight passed eastward and 270,206 tons passed westward. Canadian vessels carried 245,739 tons of the through eastbound freight and United States vessels carried 420,527 tons. Of the westbound freight Canadian vessels carried 22,267 tons and the United States vessels 241,413 tons.45 The quantity of grain (barley, corn, oats, peas, rye or wheat) which passed down the Welland to Montreal from ports west of Port Colborne increased from 180,694 tons in 1882 to 261,954 in 1892.46 The total quantity of freight passed eastward through the Welland and St. Lawrence canals from Lake Erie to Montreal in 1892 was 263,144 tons, and westward from Montreal to Lake Erie was 9,452 tons.47 The total quantity of freight passed eastward through the Welland Canal from United States ports in 1892 was 300,733 tons and westward 240,332 tons.48

33 Plan showing location of the Welland Ship Canal in the Niagara Peninsula. (Annual Report, 1915-16, Dept. of Railways and Canals.) (click on image for a PDF version)


The Soulanges Canal, constructed during the 1890s, was a principal and most important link in the enlarged St. Lawrence navigation. Ever since the royal commission had reported in 1871 recommending a scheme of canal enlargement, much thought had been given to the problem of how best to obtain the required canal accommodation between Lakes St. Louis and St. Francis. A decision had to be made whether to enlarge the existing Beauharnois Canal on the south side of the St. Lawrence by which the intervening rapids were then surmounted, to construct a new canal on the south side, or to construct a new canal on the north side of the river. As early as 1872-74, surveys were made for an enlarged canal between Lakes St. Louis and St. Francis. These surveys reported in favour of a route between Coteau Landing and Cascades Point on the north shore with a 12-foot navigation, the scale adopted prior to 1875. Between these two points the fall in the river was relatively much greater than on any similar length of the St. Lawrence between Lake Ontario and tidewater. Following these surveys of 1872-74, nothing further was done in this matter until 1889 when extensive excavation was begun with a new 14-foot navigation. Finally after considerable discussion, the government adopted the line recommended in the early part of 1891. An order in council, dated 7 February 1891,49 decided upon the construction of the new work on the north side of the river and adopted a line extending upward from Cascades Point to Macdonald's Point near Coteau Landing. As contemplated by the order in council, the canal would be on practically a straight line 14 miles long comprising five lift locks overcoming a total rise of 82-1/2 feet. Four of the locks would lift 17-1/2 feet each and one was of variable lift along with a guard lock at the upper end of the canal. The dimensions of the locks were those of the enlarged system; namely, 270 feet long, 45 feet wide with a depth of 14 feet of water on the sills. The summit level was about 10-1/2 miles long and for more than half of this length the canal would be in embankment below the mean level of Lake St. Francis.50

To ensure rapid transit and the minimum cost of maintenance, the most up-to-date and most approved system of construction and operations was adopted for the Soulanges Canal.51 Construction plans for it differed significantly from those hitherto carried out on the enlarged Welland, Cornwall and Lachine canals. Concrete was used where deemed advisable throughout the locks and weirs instead of stone masonry and timber, as was previously used. For example, the foundations in the lock bottoms were entirely of concrete and stone instead of the usual timber. The Soulanges had side walls differently proportioned to those of the Welland with a heavier cross-section and wider base. The locks were filled and emptied through culverts formed in the side walls running the whole length of the chamber and connected with it by numerous openings. The upper gates were placed upon a curved breast of solid masonry, while none of the gates were pierced by valve holes and all were operated by electrical power. Moreover, the weirs regulated the height of water in the several reaches by an automatic electrical apparatus connected with their sluice gates and the water would therefore not be partly discharged over a breast as heretofore.

The position of the Soulanges Canal, as regards line and level in relation to the river, was peculiarly advantageous for the cheap development of electrical power to be used on the operation of all structures, the lighting of the canal and, if practical, the introduction of cable or some other system of towing vessels of full size (about 2,000 tons) safely and expeditiously through without using their own power. The point selected for the power station was at the crossing of the Rivière-la-Graisse on the south bank of the canal. The site had several advantages. It was only 600 feet from the St. Lawrence and the surface of the canal was 20 feet above that of the river. It was calculated that only 10 per cent of a moderate flow through the prism at this place would yield between 500 and 1,000 horsepower. When completed and opened to navigation in October 1899, the Soulanges Canal overcame about two-fifths of the entire lockage between Montreal and Kingston — the average lift lock being more than twice that which obtained on the other river canals.52 As soon as it was open to navigation, the canal was a huge success. Along its whole length on the north side, closed arc lamps of 2,000 candlepower were placed 480 feet apart while at the locks and entrance piers they were much closer and on both sides. The result was that the canal was easily navigable by night thereby practically doubling the carrying capacity of this important link in the St. Lawrence navigation. The electrical operation of the entire canal proved completely successful and expeditious; the passage through the whole canal and its five locks, 14 miles, required only 2 hours and 25 minutes. Moreover, at the same time as the canal was opened to navigation, a new system of grain traffic came into operation, that is, large lake boats laden with grain for export put in at Depot Harbour on Georgian Bay; the cargo was then transhipped over the line of the Canada Atlantic Railway to Coteau Landing at the head of the Soulanges Canal, and thence by barge to Montreal. In the season of 1899 the total freight carried by this route to Montreal totalled 309,573 tons, of which 259,531 tons were grain.53

Prior to 1914 the need for electrical power led to the construction of power projects on the Soulanges section of the St. Lawrence extending from the foot of Lake St. Francis to the head of Lake St. Louis, a total distance of 18 miles. The oldest of these was the St. Timothee plant of the Canadian Light and Power Company with an installed capacity of 28,800 horsepower. This plant was brought into operation in 1911. It drew water from the abandoned Beauharnois navigation canal and operated under a head of about 50 feet. The Cedars Rapids plant of the Quebec Hydro-Electric Commission was the next one to be put into operation in 1914. This powerhouse was located on the north shore of the river at the foot of the Cedar Rapids. An agreement with the Canadian government allowed the plant the use of 56,000 cubic feet per second in perpetuity which could be increased to 75,000 c.f.s. during the non-navigation season.54


Yet another of the projects undertaken at this time to improve the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes navigation was the construction of the Murray Canal extending through the Isthmus of Murray and affording a connection westward between the headwaters of the Bay of Quinte and Lake Ontario, thereby enabling vessels to avoid the open lake navigation.

Construction of the canal required that a 4-1/2 mile long cut be made through the isthmus along with extensive dredging and erection of piers in order to form the entrance channels at either end. When completed the canal was practically a "strait" or channel without locks. From the western terminus near the village of Brighton on the harbour of Presqu'lle on Lake Ontario, the future western terminus of river navigation to Port Dalhousie, the entrance to the Welland Canal, the distance was slightly less than 120 miles. A contract was entered into on 24 August 1882, for the construction of the canal with a length of 5-1/6 miles between eastern and western pier heads, 80 feet wide at bottom across the isthmus and with a depth at low water of 12-1/2 feet. According to the contract the canal was to be completed by 1 June 1885, but the work was actually not finished until August 1889.55 Traffic through the canal during the 1894 navigation season totalled 21,885 tons of which 8,360 tons were produce of the forest.56

Throughout the 1890s the Lachine Canal was being continually improved. Such improvements consisted of (a) the construction of a large regulating weir to permit a great quantity of water being introduced into the canal in order to keep the upper reaches at the proper level, and (b) the deepening for a 14-foot navigation between St. Gabriel and Lachine locks, a distance of 6-1/5 miles. The contract for the deepening of the prism of the canal to 15 feet was awarded in September 1894, the work being carried on night and day during the season of navigation until it was completed at the end of April 1899.57


It has already been pointed out that, in order to make the St. Lawrence navigable by vessels of the same class as passed through the Welland Canal and to carry out the general scheme of enlargement adopted by the government, work was commenced on the Cornwall Canal in 1876 — a canal originally designed and constructed to allow vessels to surmount the Long Sault Rapids extending from Cornwall to Dickinson's Landing, a distance of 11-1/2 miles with a rise of 48 feet. The original channel was now deepened, widened and straightened; the embankments were improved, and enlarged locks were built 270 feet long by 45 feet wide with not less than 14 feet depth of water on the mitre sills when the river was at its lowest stage. In order to facilitate construction, the canal was divided into nine sections. Work was commenced with section I at the lower eastern entrance in 1876 and was finished in 1882. Work was done next on section X commencing in 1884 and being completed in 1895. Work to complete the upper entrance, consisting in the extending, strengthening and widening of the channel of the north or landward side of the present entrance from deep water west of the upper gates for a distance of about 3,500 feet, was let under contract in September 1899 to be completed in November 1900.58 At the same time the old locks were kept in a state of good repair so that they could be used in case of accident to the new ones by the class of vessels hitherto employed on the St. Lawrence.59 Improvements on the Cornwall Canal were finally completed in 1905 with the installation of electrically driven winches for hauling vessels through the locks.60

Meanwhile work was progressing with the entire enlargement of the St. Lawrence canals to the 14-foot depth, though this was not finally attained until 1904. Farran's Point Canal, situated about 5 miles west of the village of Dickinson's Landing, the head of the Cornwall Canal, was built to overcome the short swift rapid above the village of Farran's Point and was about three-fourths of a mile long with a lockage of 3-1/2 feet. It was first opened to traffic in 1847 for 9 feet navigation. Enlargement having been authorized, a contract was entered into in June 1897 to undertake the work which consisted of forming a new eastern or lower entrance north of the original and free from the eddies produced by the rapids. A new flotilla lock 800 feet long and 50 feet wide with 14 feet of water on the sill at the lowest known stage of the river was constructed (extending from deep water at its eastern entrance to a point 200 feet west of the old lock and nearly parallel to it on the north side). Also the old channel was deepened and straightened to the head of the old canal and extended through Point Avoyon to Empey's Bay. The old lock was kept in good repair so that it could be used in case of accident to the new lock, which was ready for traffic in September 1899 and immediately used by all heavy draught vessels. Dredging of the canal channel resulted in more than 14 feet depth of water being available at the lowest stage of the river.61

In November, 1888, a contract was let for the widening and deepening of the upper entrance of the Galops Canal and for the construction of a lift lock from the river below the Galops Rapids about 4,000 feet from the upper entrance together with a guard lock and supply weir to the canal adjacent to that point. Both locks were completed and the water admitted to them in October 1894. By the use of this new lift lock, vessels able to stem the currents of the Iroquois and Cardinal rapids could dispense with about 7 miles of canal passage traversing only the 4,000 feet between the lock and the upper entrance in order to pass the Galops Rapids. As a result no steps were taken toward the enlargement of the 7 miles of canal east of the lock. In the river opposite the canal the formation of a new channel through certain areas in the Galops Rapids was completed in 1888. The improved channel was 3,300 feet long and 200 feet wide, the intention of the government in creating the new channel being to afford a safe passage to a low stage of the river water for vessels drawing 14 feet. Since it was considered advisable to allow a clear margin of 3 feet below the keel of a vessel of this draught, the channel had a depth of 17 feet.62 One further word about improvement of the Galops Rapids. In 1904 a dam was built with an extreme length of 900 feet and a maximum depth of 17 feet in what was known as "The Gut" between the Canadian Adams Island and the American Les Galops Island. The primary object of the dam was to shut off a side or cross current in the Galops Rapids and thereby render that channel safer for the passage of vessels. A secondary object was to raise the water in the upper entrance of the Galops Canal by lessening the cross-sectional area of discharge of the river. The depth of water on the sill of lock 27 at its lowest known stage was only 13 feet. The objects of the dam were attained when the current crossing the Galops Rapids channel was overcome and the water in the upper entrance of the Galops Canal was raised.63

The Rapide Plat Canal enabled vessels ascending the river to pass the rapids at that place. Descending vessels ran the rapids safely. Improvement of the Rapide Plat Canal consisted of the enlargement of the channel way above, and for some distance below, the existing guard lock at the head of the canal. A new guard lock was constructed along with a supply weir in connection with the old lock. The bottom of the channel, for a distance of about 1,000 feet below, and out about 700 feet into deep water above the lock, was excavated to afford a navigable depth of 14 feet. The new lock was completed in 1888. In January, 1891, contracts were awarded for the enlargement of the remaining portion of the canal, including the lock at the lower outlet.64



The turn of the century found a large immigration pouring into western Canada, cultivating vast areas of wheat lands, resulting in an immense increase in the western grain crop. Realizing that the shipment of western grain was the most urgent transportation problem of the day, the federal government set up a royal commission to make "an investigation of questions affecting the transportation of Canadian products to the markets of the world through and by Canadian ports with the view of ascertaining as far as possible the best means of placing such products in a position to compete successfully through all Canadian channels with the products and exports of other countries."65 The bulk of the western grain poured by way of the railways from the place of production through the elevators at the Lakehead, then eastward through the Great Lakes to ports convenient for export trade. To grain passing eastward through Sault Ste. Marie the problem was one of providing the cheapest, quickest and best route or routes from the elevated Great Lakes system to ocean navigation.

At this time Depot Harbour and Midland were the principal ports on Georgian Bay. Established by the railway companies in order to afford a convenient and short rail route to Montreal — the Canada Atlantic Railway running from Depot Harbour and the Grand Trunk Railway from Midland — a large movement of grain passed through these ports along the increasingly important route by way of Georgian Bay. When testifying before the royal commission, C. M. Hayes, general manager of the Grand Trunk Railway, stated in reference to the Midland route: "The grain comes directly down by our Midland Railway and comes into the Grand Trunk at Belleville, thence to Montreal. Our plans are for the reduction of our grades from Midland to what is our present standard .04 per cent (at present 1 per cent is the maximum) and to double track the line to our main line at Port Hope."66 Improvement of grade and roadbed would enable the moving of not less than 40,000 bushels in a train load.

One of the great weaknesses of this Georgian Bay route was its want of sufficient elevator accommodation. At the same time of year as the western grain crop was being moved to the seaboard, the railways operating from the Georgian Bay ports were also moving large quantities of general merchandise, as well as United States grain, and, partly because of this traffic, the railways did not move forward the western grain as rapidly as was necessary in order to prevent congestion. The royal commission studying this whole problem therefore strongly recommended that a competent board of engineers be appointed to lay out the harbours of both Depot Harbour and Midland on a broad comprehensive plan, and also that the government undertake the construction of a system of elevators at each of the ports so as to provide proper storage capacity at each place for at least 10 million bushels.67


By the all-water route via the Welland and the St. Lawrence canal system the distance between Fort William and Montreal was 1,220 miles. Vessels carrying up to 70,000 bushels of wheat could pass through the Welland Canal with its locks 270 feet long, 43 feet wide and 14 feet deep, but larger vessels drawing more water had to discharge at Port Colborne on Lake Erie the surplus of their cargo above 70,000 bushels either in lighters or into freight cars of the Grand Trunk Railway for transportation by rail. The lighters passed through the Welland and their cargo was loaded into vessels at Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario, going then to Kingston or Prescott where the surplus was again discharged into lighters and the remainder carried through to Montreal on original vessels, stored or discharged into other craft at Kingston or Prescott. The commission strongly recommended the speedy completion of the 2-million-bushel elevator at Port Colborne along with other improvements at that port. The commission recommended the enlargement and deepening of the Welland Canal to the standard of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal, thereby enabling vessels of the largest size to continue their voyage to Kingston or Prescott and thus bring their cargo within 180 miles or less of Montreal before discharging it. Such an enlargement of the Welland was urged upon the commission by those private interests at Kingston engaged in providing excellent facilities for the transhipment business. They wished to see the large vessels plying on the upper lakes proceeding direct to Kingston with cargo intact without being obliged to discharge a portion or all of it at Port Colborne.


A matter which gave the commission much concern was the necessity of extending open navigation in Lake Superior and in particular the harbours of Sault Ste. Marie, Port Arthur and Fort William. Boards of trade, including those of Winnipeg, Fort William and Port Arthur, addressed the commission on this subject urging that a powerful and properly equipped ice-breaker capable of overcoming two to three and one-half feet thickness of ice should be supplied by the Canadian government. It was proposed that such a vessel should accompany the first upward bound vessels in the spring from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, that the vessel might be utilized by the marine or public works departments during the summer season, and that in the late fall the vessel could perform the service of any ice-breaker required at Thunder Bay prior to its return to Sault Ste. Marie. The commission believed that, due to the date of the harvesting and shipment of western grain, any lengthening of the period of fall navigation at the Lakehead was a matter of great importance from both a national and western standpoint. At the same tine the flow of immigration into western Canada along with the movement of enormous quantities of merchandise westward necessitated the earliest possible opening date in the spring navigation in Lake Superior.

Every day gained in the delivery of this freight was crucial to the economy of western Canada. At that time recorded dates of the opening and closing of navigation at these places showed that the season of navigation at Sault Ste. Marie under existing circumstances was longer than at the Lakehead by an average of 19 days. Regarding the paramount importance of an extended seasonal navigation, T. C. Keefer, in his presidential address to the Royal Society of Canada in 1898 on winter navigation declared, "The early closing of the St. Lawrence has been given as the reason why 75 per cent of our Manitoba wheat was exported from New York last year and only 25 per cent from Montreal. Whether this is correct or not, there can be no difference of opinion as to the importance to Canada of an extension of the length of the season of navigation if only for one month and also of the value of the earliest possible reopening of navigation in the spring which would follow a diminished ice-pack."68

In conclusion the commission recommended a uniform standard depth of water of 23 feet in all harbours and waterways in connection with the Great Lakes down as far as the foot of Lake Erie and that such portions of the harbours of Port Arthur, Fort William, Depot Harbour, Midland and Port Colborne as were required for present use should be immediately deepened to that standard.

34 St. Andrews Lock, Lockport, Manitoba, about 1910. (Public Archives of Canada.)


When discussing the port of Midland the commission suggested that it should serve also as the port for the Trent River navigation upon which the dominion government had already expended upwards of $6 million. The commission recommended that this waterway be completed as soon as possible by way of the Severn River at the Georgian Bay end and the Trent River on the Bay of Quinte so that its terminals would lie in protected waters for the greater safety of the smaller boats and barges to be used along this route. The term "Trent River navigation" was applied to the several water stretches lying for the most part along the valley of the Trent River between the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. The idea was to form a continuous line of landlocked navigation between the two lakes by connecting the several water stretches by short canals. The route contemplated ran along the Trent River, Rice Lake, Otonabee River and Lakes Clear, Buckhorn, Chemong, Pigeon, Sturgeon and Cameron to Balsam Lake, to summit water being about 165 miles from Trenton. Then from Balsam Lake by a canal and the Talbot River to Lake Simcoe; thence by the Severn River to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. The total distance was about 235 miles requiring the construction of only 20 miles of artificial waterway.

We have already noted that as early as 1835 the imperial government chose this route as affording the most natural and feasible along which to make a water communication between the two lakes, and that the provincial government voted money to construct part of the work but that the scheme was subsequently deferred. However, a few works were built and some sections made practicable for local navigation and the passage of timber. The following figures indicate the distance of navigable and unnavigable reaches in 1893, a decade before the Royal Commission on Transportation commenced its inquiry.69


From Trenton, Bay of Quinte, to Nine Mile Rapids

From Nine Mile Rapids to Percy Landing19-1/2

From Percy Landing to Heeley's Fall dam

From Heeley's Fall dam to Peterborough51-3/4

From Peterborough to Lakefield

From Lakefield to a point across Balsam Lake61


The total distance from Bay of Quinte to Balsam Lake was 165 miles. A branch of the main route extended south from Sturgeon Lake, afforded communication with the town of Lindsay and continued through Lake Scugog to Port Perry, 190 miles from Trenton. The branch included 48-3/4 navigable miles and 27-1/2 unnavigable miles.

The following is a list of the works by which the Trent River navigation was improved by 1900, comprising canals with locks at Burleigh Rapids, Buckhorn Rapids and Fenelon Falls along with dams at Lakefield and Young's Point.70 These works afforded communication between Lakefield 9-1/2 miles from Peterborough and Balsam Lake, the headwaters of the system, opening up a total of about 160 miles of direct and lateral navigation.

Trenton to Balsam Lake:Miles from

Chisholm's Rapids: the work here consisted of a canal and lock, a dam and slide15-1/2

Percy Landing: the work here consisted of a retaining boom for sawn logs28-1/2

Campbellford: the work here consisted of guide boom34-3/4

Middle Falls: the work here consisted of two dams and a slide37-3/4

Crow Bay: the work here consisted a retaining boom38

Heeley's Falls: the work here consisted of a dam and slide42-3/4

Crooks Rapids: the work here consisted of one lock, one dam and slide for timber56-1/2

Whitlas' Rapids: situated below Peterborough, the work here consisted of one lock, one dam and canal92-7/8

Peterborough: the work here consisted of three piers and one boom94

Lakefield: situated 9-1/2 mi. above Peterborough; here the dam at the head of Nine Mile Rapids of the Otonabee River, completed during 1886-87, maintained navigation on Katchawannoe Lake to Young's Point.103-1/2

Katchawannoe Lake: the work here consisted of one boom 4 miles long separating navigable and timber channels108-1/2

Young's Point: situated 5 miles from Lakefield; the work here consisted of one lock and a dam which controlled the water level through Clear and Stony lakes up to the foot of the Burleigh Canal.

Burleigh Rapids: situated 10 miles from Young's Point; the work here consisted of a canal about 2-1/4 miles long comprising three lift locks and a few dams and passing the Burleigh and Lovesick rapids thereby giving communication between stony Lake and Deer Bay.118

Buckhorn Rapids: situated 7 miles from Burleigh Rapids; the work consisted of a canal, one-quarter mile long, having one lift-lock; a dam at this point kept up the level of the water of the lake west of it as far as Bobcaygeon including Lakes Pigeon, Buckhorn and Chemong. 125

Bobcaygeon: situated 15-3/4 miles from Buckhorn Rapids; the work here consisted of a dam 553 feet long which controlled the water level up to Fenelon Falls.140-3/4

Fenelon Falls: situated 15 miles above Bobcaygeon; the work here consisted of a canal, one-third mile long with two lift-locks, constructed in 1885, and connecting Sturgeon Lake with Cameron Lake.154-3/4

Rosedale: the work here consisted of one lock giving entrance from Cameron's Lake to Balsam Lake.162-3/4
Branch from Sturgeon Lake to Lake Scugog:
Lindsay: work here consisted of one lock built by the Ontario government in 1879.161-1/4

The navigation is, by this work, extended to Port Perry on Lake Scugog.190

All the above-mentioned locks were 134 feet long by 33 feet wide with a depth of 5 feet on the mitre sills.

By the turn of the century new construction was under way to make a continuous line of navigation between Heeley's Falls and the ports on Lake Simcoe, a distance of about 160 miles.71 Provision was also made for an eventual draught of eight feet along this new section of navigation. For many years a continual subject of complaint was the management of water in the different regions during the dry season.72 At the time the regulation of water was under three different managements: the federal government, the provincial government and private industry. The immense country drained and becoming every year more cleared created increasing difficulty in the proper regulation of the water which was running off more rapidly in the spring with few dams to conserve it. Around Peterborough the regulation of water was most unsatisfactory owing to the mills at Young's Point, Lakefield, using all the surplus.73 Any temporary stoppage in the mills greatly reduced the entire flow in consequence of which the mills located below Peterborough often had to cease operation for a time. Hence negotiations were opened between the federal and provincial governments for the transferral of the several dams (over 50 controlling some 70,000 acres of water in which over 25 billion cubic feet of water could be stored) from the province to the dominion. These dams to some extent controlled the water in the north country and it was proposed to extend the system for the benefit not only of the navigation of the Trent waterway but also of the commercial interests located along it. Finally in 1905, under an order in council, various lakes and 50 dams were taken over by the federal government of which 36 were constructed of concrete and the remainder of timber.74

Traffic on the Trent waterway nearly doubled during the decade of the nineties, the total number of lockages increasing from 2,500 in 1893 to 5,442 in 1903.75 However, this did not fairly represent the traffic on the waterways as, owing to many of the longer routes of the steamers not passing through the locks, no record of the traffic was kept. There were at the turn of the century over 30 vessels engaged in commerce between Lakefield and Balsam Lake besides a large number of small steamers belonging to private individuals. There were also several steamers on the reach between Peterborough and Heeley's Falls and several on Lake Simcoe. Many of the larger steamers were of considerable size, some of them carrying as many as 450 passengers.

Meanwhile improvement of the Trent waterway continued. A new hydraulic lift lock near Peterborough was formally opened for traffic in June 1904.76 The occasion was one of considerable interest especially from an engineering point of view. The lock in a single operation raised or lowered a vessel of the ordinary type, 800 tons capacity, used on the canal, a distance of 65 feet in three minutes actual movement. Not only was it the only lock of its kind in North America but it was double the size of any of the three existing in Europe. In 1911 a new electric lighting system was installed at the Peterborough hydraulic lift lock.77 This not only greatly improved the appearance of the lock but made it possible to pass boats through after dark.

During the session of 1907 the government decided upon a through water route from Trenton, on the Bay of Quinte, to Rice Lake by the Trent River and voted a sum of $700,000 to begin the work.78 Construction was begun that fall. The work carried out on the principle of damming the river at suitable points by means of dams and connecting the pools thus created by means of locks. These were 175 feet long by 33 feet wide with 8 feet 4 inches of water on the sills and in the reaches a minimum depth of 9 feet of water. The 58 miles of river had a fall of 369 feet between Rice Lake and Trenton.79

By 1914, therefore, the Trent navigation had been greatly improved by the construction of short canals with locks at Hastings. Peterborough (from Peterborough to Lakefield there were seven locks, one being an hydraulic lift), Young's Point, Burleigh Falls, Lovesick, Buckhorn, Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls, Rosedale, and six locks between Balsam and Simcoe, one being an hydraulic lift at Kirkfield formally opened for traffic on 6 July 1907. There were also dams at Heeley's Falls, Hastings, Peterborough, Young's Point, Burleigh, Lovesick, Buckhorn, Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls, Rosedale, and three between Balsam and Simcoe lakes.80 Also by 1914 there was considerable development of hydro-electric power along this waterway. The Sidney Electric Power Company constructed hydro-electric plants at the west end of Dam No. 2 on section 1 of the Lake Ontario-Rice Lake division and at the rear of dam No. 5 on section 2 of the same division.81 The company also built a transformer station which was used as a distributing point for all power generated between Trenton and Frankford. Here the current was stepped up from 6,600 volts delivered from the power house to 44,000 volts for transmission to various parts of the country.82 The Seymour Power and Electric Company had a generating plant at dam No. 11 on section 5 of the same Lake Ontario-Rice Lake division,83 while the Campbellford municipal electric plant was located at dam No. 12.84


The Royal Commission on Transportation reported in 1905 that one of the Canadian routes which merited serious consideration as a possible artery by which the products of the West could reach ocean navigation was an all-water route from Georgian Bay down the Ottawa River to Montreal. This scheme had been proposed many years before and was again revived at the turn of the century. In 1899 and 1900, under special appropriations voted by Parliament, surveys were conducted on the upper Ottawa with a view to ascertaining the feasibility and probable cost of constructing a canal system which would give a 14-foot navigation along such a route.85 A special report on the proposed Montreal, Ottawa and Georgian Bay canal dated 21 March 1901 from the engineer in charge, H. A. F. MacLeod, contained an estimate of the cost of the proposed waterway.86 MacLeod based the estimate on (a) the surveys and estimates of cost made in 1859-60 for a route which left the Allumette Lakes at the head of Allumette Island and passed down the Culbute channel through Coulonge Lake and the Rocher Fendu channel, (b) a recent survey of the summit section from Talon Lake to Nipissing Lake, along with (c) a recent description of work to be done and estimate of cost prepared by H. G. Stanton, for a 14-foot navigation between Lake St. Louis and Ottawa. MacLeod's estimate was for 14 feet navigation with 16 feet in the open reaches and with two sets of combined locks to be constructed at a cost of $23,898,000, and for a 20-foot navigation the cost would be $72,627,000. The distance from Georgian Bay to Montreal by this route would be 430 miles.

Though railway development after 1900 seemed to lessen the urgent need of the Georgian Bay Canal, the enormous pressure of the grain traffic on transportation facilities led to periodic revivals of agitation for building it which would shorten the distance between Montreal and Sault Ste. Marie by about one-half as compared with the Welland route. In 1904 Parliament provided an appropriation for yet another survey of the route. The report of this survey submitted in 1909, stated that a 22-foot waterway covering the 440 miles between Montreal and Georgian Bay could be constructed with 27 locks at a cost of $100 million.87 Following this report nothing further was done except to construct storage works on the upper Ottawa to regulate the flow of the river for power development purposes. The tremendous cost of the undertaking and the time that would be consumed by vessels in passing through the locks were serious drawbacks to the accomplishment of this project.


The Washington Conference in 1871 found Great Britain and the United States discussing the reciprocal use of Canadian and American canals. On 18 March 1871 the American commissioners proposed that Canadian and American vessels should have equality of treatment in these canals.88 The British commissioners replied, however, that the privilege of using the Canadian canals was a much greater concession to the Americans than the privilege of using the American canals was to the Canadians. Thereupon the Americans suggested that Canada concede the navigation of the St. Lawrence and the use of the Canadian canals and in return the United States would give to Canadians the navigation of Lake Michigan and the use of the canals in the United States. But the British commissioners declined this proposal. They suggested, instead, the same arrangement with regard to the canals and added as a part of the bargain "a reciprocal agreement as to transit and transshipment" and a pledge by Canada not to impose export duties on logs floated down the St. John River for shipment to the United States. The American commissioners assented to this but they desired further and it was agreed "that the transshipment arrangement should be made dependent upon the non-existence of discriminatory tolls on the Canadian canals."89 By Article XXVII of the Treaty of Washington, Great Britain and the United States respectively agreed to urge on Canada and on the separate states concerned to accord navigation of their canals on terms of mutual equality to the people of both countries.90 That compact was honourably kept by Great Britain and Canada whose canal policy was in no way antagonistic to the letter or spirit of the Treaty of Washington. American barges took Canadian lumber from Ottawa, through the Ottawa River and Chambly canals, for the markets of New York and returned with American coal for Canadian consumption.91 They used these canals on exactly the same terms as barges of Canadian registry. Unfortunately the compact made was not kept by the United States. No Canadian boat or barge was permitted to carry Canadian lumber to the markets of Troy and Albany or bring American coal for Canadian use through any of the New York canals.92 So much for Article XXVII of the Treaty of Washington.

Article XXX of the treaty pertained to reciprocal agreement as to transit and transhipment. According to this article Canadian vessels could carry goods from an American port to a Canadian port; those goods could be hauled by rail to another Canadian port and shipped from there in a Canadian vessel to an American port. Added to Article XXX was the clause, insisted upon by the American commissioners, declaring that this transit business should be stopped if canal toll discrimination should be resorted to by Canada.93 No discrimination was practiced or charged but the transit trade grew to such proportions as to attract attention. Where upon the United States gave notice of its desire to secure the abrogation of Article XXX, and abrogated it was in 1885.94 Thus the equivalent for the free use of the canals, which permitted the transportation of grain from Duluth to Collingwood, and from Coliingwood to Toronto and thence to Ogdensburg, was withdrawn.

Prior to 1883 tolls were paid by shipping on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes and also on the Erie Canal. In that year, however, tolls on the latter were abolished. The natural consequence of the action was that more lake traffic tended to flow to New York by this route. To counter this development tolls on grain passing through the Welland Canal were halved in 1884 upon the urgent requests of forwarders and other groups interested in the grain trade. Before 1884 tolls on grain for passage through the Welland were 20 cents a ton. In the following year 1885, tolls were further reduced to 2 cents a ton and this rate prevailed up to 1892. That year witnessed another reduction to 2 cents a ton on grain passing down the Welland and St. Lawrence canals and exported, and in such cases only. An order in council, dated 13 February 1893, reduced tolls to 10 cents a ton on grain passing westward through the Welland irrespective of destination, and the same rate of toll was allowed by succeeding orders in council up to and including the year 1900. At this time the rate through the St. Lawrence canal only was 10 cents a ton but goods having paid full toll on the Welland were allowed to pass down the St. Lawrence to Montreal free from payment of any further toll.95 Such progressive reductions in tolls resulted in marked increase in traffic.

Renewed requests of forwarders and shippers of Montreal, along with the management of the Canada Atlantic Railway Company, for a reduction of tolls on certain agricultural products, resulted in the passage of an order in council, dated 3 May 1901, authorizing a reduction as follows:

For the season 1901 the canal tolls for the passage of the following food products, wheat, indian corn, pease, barley, rye, oats, flax-seed and buckwheat for through passage eastward through the Welland Canal, shall be 10 cents per ton, and for through passage eastward through the St. Lawrence Canals, only 10 cents per ton, payment of the said toll of 10 cents per ton for passage through the Welland Canal to entitle these products to free passage through the St. Lawrence Canals, or any portion thereof; further, in the case of any of the above named products brought down from Parry Sound over the line of the Canada Atlantic Railway Company to their elevator at Coteau Landing, the through rate thereon from that point to Montreal, to be 2-1/2 cents per ton.96

Finally, in 1904, tolls were abolished on the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes route, and all shipping was free to use the Canadian or United States locks at Sault Ste. Marie without fee of any kind.97

In 1909 a treaty was signed between Canada and the United States regarding "boundary waters" extending between the two countries. By this treaty both countries could use the waterways. Tolls might be imposed if thought desirable but only without discrimination as to nationality. Accordingly, if either country desired to abandon the system of toll-free canals, it would have to impose tolls on its own shipping. In accordance with the provisions of the treaty, the International Joint Commission was created in 1911 as a permanent commission to deal with the lease, obstruction or division of boundary waters.


The report of the Department of Railways and Canals for 1902 contains some interesting statistics relating to the competition between Canadian canals and railways for the transport of western grain, in that year 151,566 tons of grain and peas passed down to Montreal through the Welland and St. Lawrence canals, a decrease of 93,095 tons compared with the previous year. At the same time the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk railways carried 227,700 tons, a decrease of 1,924 tons compared with the previous year. Over the route from Depot Harbour, on Georgian Bay via the Canada Atlantic Railway to Coteau Landing at the head of the Soulanges Canal, thence by barge to Montreal, in the season of 1900, the total freight carried to Montreal was 319,865 tons, of which 303,259 tons were grain. In the following season 321,016 tons were carried of which 291,834 tons were grain. Of the grain so carried in 1900, 126,963 tons were wheat and 154,815 corn; and in 1901, 207,403 tons were wheat and 71,459 corn.98

A glance at statistics relating to traffic on the New York state canals and railways for the year 1901 shows that the quantity of grain carried to tidewater on the canals was 355,760 tons, an increase of 46,815 tons over the previous year while the quantity carried by the railways to tidewater amounted to 4,630,479 tons, an increase of 234,038 tons.99

By 1907 the growing importance of water transport in Canada was clearly shown. In that year the quantity of freight carried on the dominion canals was 20,543,639 tons, an increase over the previous year of 10,020,459 tons, or 95.2 per cent. Most of this addition was largely at the Canadian Sault Ste. Marie Canal where the 6,574,039 tons of 1906 were increased to 15,588,165 tons, in 1907. Through the Welland Canal from points west of it there passed down to Montreal 789,167 tons as against 479,442 tons in 1906; of this 635,573 tons were grain. One hundred and two Canadian and fourteen American vessels took their grain cargoes, 5,168,796 tons, to Montreal without transhipment in 1906. Down the Welland there passed 840,890 tons of grain to Kingston and Prescott.100 The two major railways, Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk, carried to Montreal 383,735 tons of grain, a decrease as compared with the previous year of 3,228 tons.101 It was clear that the use of water transport for certain classes of commodities, where it was available, was becoming more commercially desirable. But water transport offered more than the mere conveyance of goods. It controlled and restricted freight charges as against its competitor, the railway. Producer, consumer, and the several interests lying between then, all profited by this control.

Suggestive of the awakened interest of Canadian enterprise in the problem of water communication from the Great Lakes to tidewater at Montreal was the statement, made by the superintending engineer to the Soulanges Canal in his report for 1902, to the effect that there were then building at various points on the upper lakes and under contract for delivery in 1903, ten steel freight steamers of full canal size, 255 feet in length overall, 241-foot keel, 44-foot beam and 18 feet in depth to be fitted with triple expansion engines. It was estimated that they could carry 2,200 tons of cargo on a 14-foot draught.102 The revival and expansion, at this time, of the Canadian ship building industry, long dormant on the Great Lakes, was a highly gratifying development. Heretofore the United States, England and Scotland supplied the vast fleet of steel vessels plying these waters. Now, however, Canadian shipyards, notably those of Coliingwood on Georgian Bay, commenced building large vessels adapted for carrying 200,000 to 300,000 bushels of wheat.103 Such shipbuilding is not surprising since, by the beginning of the 20th century, three great classes of freight — ore, coal and grain — were shipped in bulk on the Great Lakes.104 The ore traffic, the greatest of the three main classes, moved eastward from the Duluth area at the head of Lake Superior down to ports on Lakes Michigan and Erie. Much of it was used at the ports of destination but some of it was subsequently shipped further inland by rail to centres of the iron and steel industries. The ore traffic accounted for about 67 per cent of the traffic at Sault Ste. Marie. Most of this traffic passed down to the Lake Ontario area by water. Next, but with the flow reversed, was the coal traffic, the bulk of which reached water at Lake Erie ports and proceeded northwest to the head of Lake Superior. Some 17 per cent of the traffic passing through Sault Ste. Marie was made up of this class. The grain traffic constituted about 11 per cent of the tonnage passing through the locks at the Sault. These forms of bulk traffic were responsible for unusual port and shipping developments. The vessels which this traffic produced were unique — boats steadily increasing in size; the largest with a length of over 600 feet, a beam of 64 feet and a designated draught of 21 feet.105 These vessels moved the large bulk cargoes of grain and ore eastward and the return trip when possible was made with coal. Whereas the ore and coal trade were local, a very large part of the grain traffic was for destinations overseas and the problem was how best to get it down to ocean ports from the producing areas, from the lake terminals to the Atlantic ports, principally Montreal and New York. Montreal had the advantage of a through route by water from the head of the lakes at the eastern end of which the large cargoes had to be transferred to smaller boats or rail to proceed to Montreal. Waterborne traffic, therefore, shrunk between Lake Erie and Montreal. Clearly more traffic destined for export would have continued down to Montreal by water if only the waterway could have been enlarged to accommodate the large bulk freighter.

35 Locks on the Rideau Canal at the Ottawa end, about 1914. Note the curved floor of the lock in the foreground. (Public Archives of Canada.)


Because of the bulk freighter and the fact that increased traffic would likely flow further east in such vessels if facilities allowed, starting in 1907 the question of enlarging the Welland Canal was raised by many interests including practical businessmen composing boards of trade in important cites from Halifax to Vancouver. These men were fully acquainted with the immediate conditions of traffic on the lakes and, foreseeing a rapid expansion in trade and commerce between the east and fast growing west, urged that better means of water communication be provided between Lake Superior and Lake Ontario. In all 27 boards of trade and other commercial bodies, including the Dominion Marine Association and the Grain Produce Exchange of Winnipeg, sent resolutions urging enlargement of the Welland to the Department of Railways and Canals. The following extract from these resolutions shows the attitude of the applicants.

The enlargement and improvement of the Welland Canal is a matter of the most urgent importance to Canada, both as a means of reducing the cost of transportation of grain and other export products from the interior to tide-water, and also as a means of making the St. Lawrence route the highway which it should be, not only for the export commerce of the Dominion, but also for that of the control and northern portion of the United States.

That at present the route from the head of the lake to the sea board via Buffalo and New York enjoys a great advantage in the cheapness with which grain can be carried from western lake ports to Buffalo, in large vessels of 10,000 tons and over; that advantage will be further increased by the enlargement of the Erie canal which has been undertaken whereby barges of 1,000 tons will replace those of 250 tons now in use on the second portion of this route; and that under existing conditions the Canadian route via the Welland canal cannot possibly compete with that via Buffalo and New York, even it Port Colborne harbour is improved so as to provide the same facilities for storage and transhipment as are now available at Buffalo, because additional difficulties and expenses are entailed in providing for the navigation of the second part of the route, which includes, with the Welland canal and the St. Lawrence, the broad exposed waters of Lake Ontario. That on the other hand if the Welland canal is enlarged and approved so as to permit these large vessels of the upper lakes to extend their voyages to the full length of deep water at or below the foot of Lake Ontario, the longer haul of the large cargoes in unbroken bulk will place the advantages decidedly on the Canadian route.106

At this time the Welland Canal system contained 25 lift locks whose dimensions were 270 feet in length by 45 feet in width with but 14 feet of water on the sills, while the narrow canal prism compelled severe restrictions on speed. Vessels using the Welland Canal were practically restricted to dimensions of 255 feet in length and 44 feet beam. They therefore had a very limited carrying capacity. This gave much concern to the commercial interests which held that to make a remunerative voyage from Lake Superior western ports to Lake Ontario eastern ports, a vessel should be capable of carrying 7,000 to 10,000 tons.107 Any possible enlargement of the Welland Canal required serious consideration being given to three major factors; (1) the extent of enlargement, (2) the speed of passage through the new enlarged canal and (3) the cost of the work. As to the first point it was essential that an enlarged Welland Canal should at the very least, be able to accommodate the large class of vessel, from 500 to 600 feet in length, then using the Sault Ste. Marie Canal. This meant a depth of water 25 feet in the reaches and not less than 22 feet in the lock gate. It also meant a widening of the canal prism by about two and one-half times its present width and increasing its depth to 25 feet. As to the second point (speed of passage), the multiplicity of lift locks on the Welland Canal was an unavoidable source of great delay in passage through, and it was essential that the number of locks should be as limited as possible. By reducing the number of locks to seven, the normal delays would be partly reduced and passage through the canal could be effected in about seven hours instead of the usual fifteen hours for a loaded vessel of full canal size.108

As a result of all these resolutions and discussions regarding the enlargement of the Welland Canal, plans were made during the period 1907-12 for the reconstruction of the canal on lines which it was believed would meet all possible requirements for many years to come.109 The proposed new canal would follow an entirely new route from Thorold to Lake Ontario by means of a new cutting to be made from Allanburg, crossing the existing canal just below lock 25 and recrossing again below lock 11 with the proposed canal entering Lake Ontario at the mouth of Ten Mile Creek about three miles east of Port Dalhousie, the entrance of the existing canal. Above Thorold, however, the proposed canal followed roughly the route of the existing one, half way across the peninsula, to Port Colborne on Lake Erie. The lift from lake to lake remained, of course, the same as before but was now accomplished, in the proposed new canal, with only seven locks, each having a lift of 46-1/2 feet, instead of 25 locks as in the existing 14-foot canal. The dimensions of the locks were to be 800 feet in length by 80 feet in width in the clear with 30 feet of water over the mitre sills at extreme low stages on the lakes. The width of the canal at bottom would be 200 feet. It was proposed that at first the canal would be excavated to a depth of 25 feet only, but all the structure would be sunk to the 30 foot depth so that the canal could be deepened at any future date by the simple process of dredging out the reaches. Plans of the proposed canal called for the construction of twin locks numbers 4, 5 and 6 in flight. These three locks overcame a descent of 139-1/2 feet. One flight would be used for downbound vessels and the adjoining flight for upbound, a double flight being required to save long delays in the passage of vessels through the canal.

The lock walls will be 82 feet high above the top of the gate sills and including the necessary foundation work required below this level two of the locks will have walls 100 feet high.

The lock gates will be of the single leaf type, swinging on a hinge at one side of the lock, and resting when closed in a notch cut in the opposite wall, a single leaf thus spanning the whole width of the lock chamber. The gate at the foot of said lock will be 83 feet in height and 88 feet in length, and will weigh about 1,100 tons.

The valves and culverts in the walls are of large dimensions and will permit of the lock being filled in less than eight minutes. This will mean that the time of passage through the canal will be much reduced below that required at present.110

Work was begun on the Welland Ship Canal in 1913 but, due to the war, construction was suspended in the fall of 1916.


With a view to assisting in the development of trade through the canals as well as the formation of a well-protected harbour at Port Colborne, the Department of Public Works planned in 1904 to carry out extensive harbour improvements. Already completed was the dredging and cleaning up of the bottom of the canal basin along with the entrance harbour to a depth of 16 feet at low water. Excavated also was a wide channel 23 feet in depth from deep water in the lake to the lighthouse situated 2,000 feet from the shore line on the southern end of the west pier and the construction of two elevator docks at this point. Moreover, the department had recently completed a breakwater across the southwest face of the harbour 4,500 feet long and situated on the lake about 1,650 feet south of the new docks. But that was not all. In order to afford protection from easterly storms the department was at the time building a second breakwater 2,400 feet long and beginning 600 feet from the eastern end of the present one.111 Previously in 1903 the Royal Commission on Transportation visited the harbour and heard evidence in reference to the works then under contract and contemplated for the improvement of the Welland Canal and Port Colborne Harbour. The commission discussed at length the construction of suitable foundations and elevators of the most modern type and required capacity on the new docks as well as the required rail connection out of the docks.112


When studying the Richelieu River navigation in 1871, the Royal Commission on Canals concluded that the wisest policy for Canada to follow, in regard to the line of water communication between the lumber yards of Ottawa and the great lumber markets at Troy and Albany in New York state, was to enlarge all the canals on this line of navigation from Ottawa to Lake Champlain to one uniform scale commensurate with that recommended for the Ottawa canals and with which the lock at St. Ours already corresponded.113 This recommendation, if allowed, necessarily involved the enlargement of the Chambly Canal extending from Chambly basin to St. John, 12 miles with 74 feet of lockage and 9 locks. The cost of such an enlargement was estimated in round numbers at $1.5 million. Once that work was done it was not considered necessary to make improvements on any other part of the Richelieu.

By June, 1896, the total amount expended by the government for original construction and enlargement of the Chambly Canal was $637,206.76 and for the St. Ours lock was $121,537.65.114 After 1900 traffic increased along this waterway. In 1903, 379,442 tons of freight were moved on the Chambly Canal, an increase of 19,644 tons over the previous year, of which 25,084 tons were produce of the forest and 23,768 tons of coal.115 In September, 1908, the electrical lighting of the St. Ours lock and its approaches by arc lamps was inaugurated. This proved to be a great aid to navigation. There were in all ten 2,000 c.p. lamps: four on the lock, two along the lower approach, three on the upper approach, and one on the yard near the shops.116 In addition to the above, a number of incandescent lamps were placed in the various buildings connected with the canal.117 The new light was a decided improvement on the old system of oil lamps and greatly facilitated navigation of the lock. In 1910, concrete foundations were laid for the proposed new Chambly Canal power house.118 At that time the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company was supplying the canal with the required power under an agreement dated 22 January 1907. However, only the lower section of the canal about two miles in length was electrically lighted, and, in view of the extension of the lighting along the whole length of the line, the foundations of the power house were devised for water power sufficient for the purpose.119

Three years later electrical machinery was designed for the operation of the lock gates and sluices at St. Ours.120 Steel frames and timber top logs were placed on the crest of the dam here in such a manner that both could be removed at will (a movable dam). The purpose of this movable dam was to keep the level of the section of the Richelieu River between St. Ours and the foot of the Chambly Canal about two feet above low water mark. This proved satisfactory and the level of the river was kept up as intended during the period of low water. At the same time as the movable dam was built, four of the old cribwork boom piers on the east side of the lower entrance were removed and rebuilt with concrete laid on pile foundations. In the same year, 1913, the bottom of the Chambly Canal's lock No. 6 was renewed.121 The old planking was removed and replaced with concrete. The canal's lighting system was remodelled and extended from lock No. 2 to St. Johns. It was decided to adopt incandescent lamps instead of arc lamps as generally used on canals. The power used here was supplied free of charge by the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company from their Chambly plant. The supply of free power came about as a result of the Chambly Canal power house being carried away during the spring floods in 1908. The unprecedented rise of the Richelieu River at that point that year and the consequent destruction of the canal power house were due to the existence of the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company's dam some distance below. After protracted negotiations the Department of Railways and Canals secured from the company, among other things, an undertaking to supply in perpetuity to the Chambly Canal, for the loss of its power house, electrical energy equal to 75 h.p. Under a subsequent agreement, dated 9 April 1912, power was to be supplied at the rate of 100 h.p. during the season of navigation and 40 h.p. during the winter months. This power it was expected would be sufficient for the lighting of the canal from one end to the other.122

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