An 85 year-old promise was fulfilled on, November 12, when the Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial was unveiled.
Construction of the Welland Canal began in 1913, and the canal opened for use on August 6, 1932. During those 19 years of construction, 137 workers — husbands, brothers, sons and friends —lost their lives. On that day, Hon. Dr. R. J. Manion, Minister of Railways and Canals, said the following: “Peace has its heroes as well as war . . . we should give a thought to the men who lost their lives during the progress of the work.” Manion promised that those who died during construction of the canal would be honoured and remembered.
After this, however, nothing materialized for a long time. Then, local historian Arden Phair and journalist Grant LaFleche teamed up to remember the fallen workers with a series of their stories published in The St. Catharines Standard. Over 2,000 members of the Niagara community signed a petition to build a memorial for the workers. In 2013, officials from Welland, Port Colborne, Thorold and St. Catharines, along with representatives from local businesses and labour, joined together to begin planning a memorial site and structure and start the fundraising process.
Four years later, the unveiling of the memorial, which stands at a site next to the Lock 3 Museum, marked the fulfillment of that promise made nearly a century ago. The memorial consists of two gates with the names of each of the men who died during construction of the canal. There is a timeline on the ground which depicts how many men died during each year of construction. The focal point of the monument, however, is a large, black and reflective wall that represents the canal’s dark past, the history of high death tolls and sacrifice. The opposite side has a perfectly clear reflection, and it celebrates what the canal means to Canada today and represents its bright future.
The Canal was constructed during a time with low health and safety standards and unsafe working conditions. Most men who died had horrific deaths.
“They were crushed by rail trains, they were buried alive, drowned, electrocuted,” said Phair in an interview with CHCH. “. . . this was probably one of the largest losses of life on a Government of Canada project in the history of federal infrastructure.”
One such incident occurred on January 17, 1928, which was an icy morning. Rocco Fraracci, an Italian immigrant who had left for Canada in 1908, was working to repair track on a trestle at the Canal’s new syphon culvert when he slipped on the ice and fell to his death 20 meters below. He left behind a wife and eight children.
His story was not uncommon. Fraracci’s death was the first of 1928, which would turn out to be the year with the highest death toll among Canal workers; an average of one man died every 12 days that year. John Bode, a Hungarian immigrant who had left his family behind, died en route to the hospital after the wall of the pit where he was digging collapsed on him. Edward Joseph Morin was only 24 when he died during a shift oiling machines, during which he supposedly got caught in a machine that was still operating, resulting in his body being severed in two. A gate collapse killed eight, including James McArthur and his son, James Jr.
The sacrifices of these men and at least 132 others are easily forgotten in light of the vital role that the Welland Canal plays in industry and economy today. The Canal functions as a bypass to Niagara Falls, allowing cargo ships to travel through the Great Lakes system. In 2014, the Canal transported 31,750,000 metric tonnes of cargo on 3,272 ships.
“Our community is proud to fulfill a long-forgotten promise to honour the fallen workers– the fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, veterans and newcomers to Canada who died building the Welland Canal, a project that continues to shape our community and national economy,” said St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik.