Until the construction of the railways, the chief highway in the Canadas were waterways. However, even at an early stage, the St. Lawrence waterway above Montreal included obstructions that inhibited the passage of larger vessels. The view below, taken from "Canadian Scenery, " Illustrated by Bartlett, text by Willis, George Virtue, London, 1842, suggests the difficulty of travel at the time. Goods were transported in freight canoes. This shows a canoe being mainlined up through a set of rapids.
The canoe routes were well known, passing from one body of water to the next. However, much of the travel involved crossing the highlands of the Canadian Precambrian Shield, the oldest exposed rock surface in the world! This would necessitate a portage across the intervening space from one side of the highland to the other. The view below shows a portage around a falls.
The St. Lawrence was navigable, more or less, up to the city of Montreal, but beyond that, the rapids of Lachine made further travel by ocean-going vessels impossible.
The Long Sault Rapids are the first major rapids exiting Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River. The scale of difficulty in traversing the rapids can be inferred from the scene depicted above, from "Canadian Scenery." Note the figures in the foreground and on the near shore in relation to the size of the drop in the rapids. A somewhat later view from Chisholmes "All-Around Route and Panoramic Guide of the St. Lawrence," Canadian Railway News Co., 1881, depicts a ferry traversing the rapids on its way to Montreal. Note the canal in the background for the upstream route.
The first operating lock canals in Canada were built by the Royal Engineers in 1779-1783 between the Cascades and Coteau Landing above Montreal. For the most part they were small, admitting only a small raft or bateau. However, they were enlarged between 1801 and 1804. By 1855 passage was effected all the way from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Lake Superior. Canals were early proposed to link the various waterways. For example, Robert Gourlay ("Statistical Account of Upper Canada Compiled with a View to a Grand System of Emigration," Simpkins and Marshall, London, 1822. See also the General Introduction to the former, published in the same year.) proposed the first "Welland Canal," noting: "The canal should be such as to admit schooners of 100 tons burden, and steamboats of 55;-vessels sufficient to carry on the whole traffic, without unloading, from Quebec to the remotest shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior." A sketch of his proposed possible "Grand Niagara Canal routes is shown below.
It became imperative to find means to ferry goods between centres in order to facilitate trade and to ensure a growing economy. In the early days, roads were not feasible. Gourlay suggested an interconnection of canals across Upper Canada, including a canal linking the Ottawa River and Lake Huron right across the province. He also foresaw the need to link Lakes Ontario and Erie, proposing possible routes to join the two through a canal system. There is some evidence that he might have influenced William Hamilton Merritt who implemented the idea of connecting the two lakes.
The first Welland Canal was constructed by a private company, The Welland Canal Company (Eight directors, including Merritt, all land owners over the proposed route of the canal or its feeders.), between 1824 and 1829. It had 40 wooden locks to overcome the some 325 foot drop between Lake Erie, travelling Northward to Lake Ontario. The route started at Port Colburne and finished its downward trek at Port Dalhousie. William Kingsford, CE, documents the history of the early development of this canal, although not very favourably to its initial investors. ("The Canadian Canals, Their History and Cost," Toronto, 1865.) The first traffic moved through the canal in 1829, although it was never satisfactorally finished because there were constant break-downs. A second canal was constructed, beginning about 1842 and completed about 1845. The third canal substantially altered the route and enlarged the locks to hold larger ships, begun about 1874, and completed in 1887. It had 25 masonry locks over the distance from Port Dalhousie to Allanburg, thence the route coninued, more or less, in the same direction as the second canal.
George Grant, then Principal of Queen's University, edited a voluminous work documenting in story and pictures the progress across Canada. The print above, and those below, illustrate the work on the Welland Canal, part way through the construction of the third version of the canal.
According to Styran and Taylor, some nine communities owed their existence and financial prosperity to the establishment of the Welland Canal. They included Port Dalhousie, Port Weller, St. Catharines, Merritton, Thorold, Allanburg, Port Robinson, Welland, and Port Colborne. Merritton is named after William Hamilton Merritt, who had the grand idea of promoting the canal in the first place, raised the original capitalization, and saw to the early construction of the first canal. The first canal, with its wooden locks and construction, broke down on a regular basis. It was not until 1842, that the Canadian Government essentially took the canal and its maintenance over, with the objective of using masonry on the locks instead of wood and embankment.
The final canal was begun in 1913, but work was interrupted by the war. It was finally completed in 1932. Except for a further modification to bypass Welland, that completed the canal more or less as we have it today. There is a considerable history of the Welland Canal on the web, see, for example www.wellandcanal.ca, or www.greatlakes-seaway.com/en/pdf/welland.pdf. A more comprehensive discussion can be found in "The Welland Canals," by Roberta Styran and Robert Taylor, The Boston Mills Press, 1988. The Welland Canal now forms a part of the Great Lakes Waterway, together with the St. Lawrence Canal System, linking almost 3800 km of navigable waterway between the mouth of the St. Lawrence and the far reaches of Lake Superior. As such, it is of great economic signifiance.
Of greater significance at the time than the link between Lakes Ontario and Erie, was the Rideau Canal, undertaken with the objective of avoiding the rapids in the St. Lawrence River above Montreal, while providing a safe route from Montreal to Kingston, at the time a major centre in the province. It will be remembered that the war with our neighbours South of the border was just concluded in 1815, and that the difficulties engendered in those hostilities was still in the minds of the leaders of the day. It became imperative to ensure safe passage between Montreal and the country westward, particularly to Kingston.
Gourlay, had already suggested a Grand Canal system to link Ottawa with the St. Lawrence at Johnstown. That route still did not solve the problem of proximity to the border. The route did require construction of a canal around the Lachine rapids as a part of the project. In addition a lock was needed at Saint Anne's on the Ottawa River, and several locks around the Grenville and Carillon Rapids, also on the Ottawa. The final route agreed started at the entrance to the Rideau, passed along the Rideau River, and a series of lakes to the Cataraqui River, thence to Kingston, a distance of about 126 miles. Critical to the success of the venture was a canal to circumvent the Lachine Rapids by the Island of Montreal.
Construction on the Lachine was begun about 1821, with completion in 1825, although much earlier efforst had been made to dig a canal to join with the Ottawa River. The French had first proposed such a canal sometime around 1659, and even begun to dig it. However, nothing came of the efforts until after the British conquest.
With the completion of the Lachine Canal, undertaken by the Province of Lower Canada, work could begin on the Rideau Canal. The British government chose Col. John By to be the principle engineer for the project. It proved to be an immense undertaking, the scale of which can be imagined from the Bartlett print below showing the entrance to the canal at Ottawa.
The Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America, as it is still operational today, although not for its intended purpose.
By originally came to notice as an engineer on the development of the canal at the Cedars Rapids. These rapids were in the upper part of the St. Lawrence, just above the junction of the Ottawa River with the St. Lawrence. By was attached to the detachment of the Royal Engineers at Quebec City on his first tour in Upper Canada from about 1802 to about 1811. During the early part of his sojourn, he worked as an engineer on a small canal to circumvent the Cedars Rapids, completed sometime around 1805. There weere a series of three rapids on this upper stretch of the river, the Cascades, the Cedars and the Coteau Rapids. Each had a small canal constructed around it. bartlett captured some of the fury of these rapids in a sketch shown below.
Goods were now able to move downsketches, taken some forty eyars after Bartlett the river in scows, or bateaux, which were flat-bottomed craft. They also used rafts for the purpose, mainly to move timber for the export market. Some of the difficulty of navigation can been seen from Chisholme's sketches, taken some forty years after Bartlett's.