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Ghosts of the past – Abandoned shipping canals in Ontario and Quebec

August 2019

Shipping canals have been an important part of water transportation networks for personal and commercial usage across the world from the early days of shipping to the modern day. Most of the early canals have by larger canals to handle bigger modern ships or other forms of transportation have made them unnecessary or too costly to operate.

Scatted remains of some of these abandoned canals and their locks are still visible, some with water still running through them and some filled in. One canal in Ontario was built but was abandoned before it saw any ships pass through it.


Newmarket Canal

Officially known as the Holland River Division, this abandoned 16 km long barge canal was supposed to connect the Newmarket to the Trent-Severn Waterway using the Holland River and Lake Simcoe as an alternative to increasing rates transporting goods by the Northern Railway of Canada.

Construction started in 1908 and it soon became apparent that there was not enough water for the canal to operate at reasonable rates during the summer.

Along with construction of three Pound locks, a swing bridge south of the third lock and a turning basin.

Following the General Election of 1911, construction on the canal was temporarily halted, but this lead to a complete shut-down of all construction in February 1912 and the canal was abandoned.

Today, you can still see all three locks standing silently, not one ship having passed through them.  Two of the locks have water flowing through them.  One was filled in, but you can still see the top of the lock walls sticking out of the ground.

The turning basin was filled in back in the 1980s and makes up the east part of the parking lot for the Tannery Mall and the Newmarket Go Train station.

The swing bridge was used until 2002 when it was replaced by a four-lane bridge.  The turning-wheel remains, silent and rusting, along with the bridge foundations.


First Welland Canal

Opened in 1829 by the Welland Canal Company, the canal originally ran from Port Dalhousie, on the shore of Lake Ontario, to Port Robinson, near what is now the City of Welland. It then followed the Welland and Niagara Rivers to Lake Erie. By 1833, the canal was extended southwards to Gravelly Bay, now Port Colborne, incorporating part of the Feeder Canal that traversed through Welland.

A series of 40 locks, 110 feet long by 22 feet wide, built out oak wood beams, ran the 27 mile length of the canal to Lake Erie.

By the early 1840s it became apparent that the canal was inadequate to handle bigger ships, with the depth being too shallow, and construction began on what would become the Second Welland Canal.

Very little of the First Canal remains today, although much of the Feeder Canal remains. What remains of Locks 6 and 24 can be found at Centennial Gardens Park and Mountain Locks Park respectively.


Second Welland Canal

The Welland Canal Company was bought out by the government of Upper Canada in 1841, due to their continuing financial problems and the need to increase the depth of the canal. The number of locks was also reduced to 27 and unlike with the first canal, they were constructed using cut stone walls.

The second canal opened in 1848, mostly following the same route as the first.

The Welland Railway opened in 1859, running parallel to the canal. This railway was used to transport cargo from ships to large to fit in to the small canal locks. The small locks would eventually lead to the need to enlarge the canal again, leading to the construction of the Third Welland Canal.

Many of the old locks are still visible; some partially or completely filled in and others with water still running between the crumbling stone walls.


Third Welland Canal

The third Welland Canal opened in 1887, featuring a shorter alignment between Port Dalhousie and St. Catharines, but as it would turn out, the canal was still to small to accommodate many of the lake freighters needing passage between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. As a result, construction on a fourth Welland Canal began in 1913; construction that was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.

The fourth canal would no officially open until August 1932, due to worker shortages caused by WWI and the years afterwards. The forth canal followed most of the old route, with a diversion north of St. Catharines initially, and then an 8 mile diversion around the Town of Welland that opened in 1973.

This fourth canal is officially known as the Welland Ship Canal.

An interesting part about the third canal was that the Grand Trunk Railway line through the area ran through a tunnel, known as the Merritton Tunnel, constructed in 1876, running under the canal between locks 18 and 19. Constructed using Queenston limestone, the tunnel was used by the GTR until 1915.

The Merritton Tunnel still exists and is a popular site for explorers, although it is partially flooded at the east entrance.


Desjardins Canal

The Desjardins Canal, named after its promoter, Pierre Desjardins, opened in 1837 as a shipping route from Dundas, Ontario to Burlington Bay and then onto Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes shipping routes.

The canal was the site of a tragedy on 12 March 1857, known as the Great Western Railway (GWR) disaster. A GWR passenger train derailed as a result of a broken axle on one of the train engines, causing it to break through the bridge decking. The engine, tender, baggage car and two first-class passenger cars plunged 60 feet to the canal below, breaking through the ice that was covering the water.

Of the 100 people travelling on the train, 59 were killed and 18 were injured. At the time, it was the worst railway disaster in Canadian history.

Although it was initially successful and technological achievement for the time, the Great Western Railway built a line around the Hamilton and Port Nelson/Wellington Square (later known as Burlington) area in 1854, making it tough for the canal operators to compete. In the end, the railway spelt the end for the canal in 1876.

The Desjardins Canal operated for only 39 years.

What remains of the west end of the canal can be seen between Cootes Drive and King Street East, leading into Cootes Paradise in the east end of Dundas. A walking path runs along the old canal route.


Soulanges Canal

The Soulanges Canal opened in 1899 as a shipping route between Lake Saint-Louis and Lake Saint-Francis. The 23 kilometre canal was named after the Soulanges Seigneury in France, replacing the earlier Beauharnois Canal on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River.

The canal’s lock gates, swing bridges and lighting were powered by a hydro generator near the middle of the canal. It was the first canal in the world to be entirely illuminated, allowing for day and night operations.

The Soulanges Canal was abandoned in 1958, when an enlarged Beauharnoit Canal was re-opened. Beauharnoit itself later became part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merritton_Tunnel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welland_Canal, https://www.yorkregion.com/whatson-story/1427931-the-ghost-canal-newmarket, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newmarket_Canal, https://www.howderfamily.com/blog/abandoned-canals-canada, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desjardins_Canal, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dundas,_Ontario, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Western_Railway_(Ontario), https://lha.hpl.ca/articles/desjardins-canal-disaster

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/ghosts-of-the-past-abandoned-shipping-canals-in-ontario-and-quebec/

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