The history of the Welland Canal

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The Welland Canal revolutionized the industrial capabilities of the Niagara Region and ushered in a new era and geographical sense of place for its many citizens.

The Brock Press sat down with Evan Vatri, a historical programmer who worked at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canal Centre in the summer of 2016 to discuss the history of the Canal and its many implications for the Niagara Region.

Before the Canal was constructed in 1829, this area was relegated to small scale subsistence agriculture. What made the Niagara Region unique was that it could support the production of different forms of agriculture unlike other cases in Ontario and what was then Upper Canada.
Orchards were dotted throughout the landscape and farmers yielded apples, plums, pears and many other fruits. During this time in history, cities in Canada were much more isolated than they are today. There were few roads and no established highway systems so transporting goods by land was a very slow, expensive and sometimes dangerous venture. Therefore, importing or exporting goods within the Niagara Region would mainly occur through the use of the Niagara River which was shared with the United States and was a less than ideal channel to use due to the rapids and Niagara Falls itself presenting a massive obstacle.

“A major reason we constructed the Welland Canal was because we feared the threat of an American invasion. The War of 1812 had occurred just a decade prior and the fear was that in times of war the United States could overtake the Great Lakes region like they did in 1813 during the War of 1812,” said Vatri. Another reason the Welland Canal was constructed was because William Hamilton Merritt, the chief financier of the project, saw it as an opportunity to inject industry into the area. Therefore, Merritt’s designs for the first Canal weaved and wined through downtown St. Catharines.

“The first Canal went right through what is now the parking lot of the Marilyn I. Walker building. Before electrical power the only way to industrialize an area was through the use of water or hydraulic power. This allowed St. Catharines to be part of the industrial heartland of southern Ontario becoming the sixth largest city in Canada for a time,” said Vatri.

The construction of the Canal was a significant undertaking and shares some aspects of its history with the hydroelectric dam. The majority of the Welland Canal was constructed by low ranking members of the British Empire including people the working classes of Ireland, Britain, Scotland, Italy and Eastern Europe. These individuals constituted the unskilled labour force who did the most difficult work for the project.

“The work was dangerous, there was lots of disease, the working conditions were poor and deaths were involved with the construction process. We are now just coming to realize the true loss associated with the construction of the Welland Canal as the city is putting up a fallen workers memorial to commemorate those who lost their lives during the project,” said Vatri. The financiers of the Canal were rich industrialists from old families who had been in the region for a long time.

“The most polarizing groups who immigrated to work were the Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. They came over in the largest numbers and as a result lived in a community with one another. Merriton was constructed and it served as an area where Canal workers were housed. It started as a small shanty town but was progressively built up and is now a part of St. Catharines proper. There were lots of fights between the two religious groups in this community. The most famous was the Battle of Merriton where the local militia had to be called in which was made up of all retired black soldiers from the War of 1812,” said Vatri.

When it was completed in 1829 the Canal effectively connected Lake Ontario to Lake Erie which afforded ships reliable passage to the St. Lawrence seaway and the world abroad from there. Industries could now export their goods to markets they could not reach before the construction of the Canal. Also entire markets were opened up and Canadians could import goods they didn’t have access to prior to 1829. St. Catharines and the surrounding area began shaping their local economy around this new paradigm in their local transportation as businesses expanded.

“The Canal gave St. Catharines and the Welland area a point of place. We were known for something; it gave us geographical importance and helped cement industry here. We were employing large numbers of women in the 20th century in zipper factories and the Canal was the catalyst for this. It was a trickle down effect, people could grow their businesses and expand to make their fortunes,” said Vatri.

Garment, automotive and farming equipment factories all became prevalent in the region and were shipped worldwide via the Welland Canal. Even in our current age of rapid deindustrialization in Ontario there is still plenty of industry that uses the Canal. For example, the windmills which were installed in the Vineland area were made from pieces that were imported from Europe. The Canal was rebuilt three times after 1829 to keep up with the demands of industry. The current Welland Canal was completed in 1932. This represents a massive economic as well as a social success because shipping by water is much more environmentally friendly compared to trains and especially trucks just based on the sheer volume you can fit in boats.

“Canadians should be proud of the Welland Canal because it brought in not only economic and industrial drive to the region but also a wide influx of people from different places in Europe. It essentially cemented the cultural mosaic that Canadians are proud of today and it developed a city with a dynamic and rich history,” concluded Vatri.

The Canal can be seen as a beacon of Canadian ingenuity, industriousness and hope. It was one of the first jobs for many new immigrants to Canada and helped shape our communities. It can also be seen as a symbol of oppressive capitalism as workers who were being paid minimally perished during its construction so a small portion of industrialists and business owners could profit. Either way you look at it, the Welland Canal is a significant part of the Niagara Region’s rich history. “The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canal Centre’s mission is to present St. Catharine’s citizens their rich history. We offer daily public programming which is free thanks to public donations,” said Vatri.

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