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The Merritton “Blue Ghost” Tunnel – A relic of the Grand Trunk Railway

September 2020

The Niagara region of southern Ontario has many popular tourist attractions. For those interested in urban exploration, a popular attraction in the area is the “Blue Ghost” tunnel.

Built beginning in 1875 by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), the 713 foot long tunnel was constructed to run underneath the then-new Welland Canal (now referred to as the Third Welland Canal), between Locks 18 and 19.

The construction of this new canal, which followed a direct route from Port Dalhousie to Thorold, made it necessary for the GTR to construct a new rail crossing for their line through the area. The GTR rejected the idea of a swing bridge over the new canal out of concern there would be long delays and the possibility of accidents.

Instead, plans were made to divert the line slightly to the south, and construction of a tunnel underneath the canal began, a decision that ironically would have the tragic consequences the company wished to avoid with a swing bridge.

The tunnel was built by nearly a thousand Irish immigrants, using the open trench method of tunnel construction, dug using picks and shovels. Queenston rock was used to create the tunnel, a semi-circular arch 16 feet wide and 18 feet high, with a gentle curve to the north to the western end of the line and a single track running its length. After assembling the tunnel, it was covered over with earth.

Several serious accidents occurred during construction, along with three deaths, one being a 14 year-old kid who was crushed by some of the large, heavy stones. Minor injuries occurred almost every day of the construction.

The inaugural train through the tunnel on 28 February 1881 carried several dignitaries, with engineer Harry Eastman at the controls of the train. It was officially named Merritton Tunnel, after William Merritt, who is seen as the father of the Welland Canal system.

Due to the threat of cows and other farm animals entering the tunnel and causing a derailment, guards were posted at either end of the tunnel. While this prevented animal encounters, it didn’t prevent other collisions from occurring. The first train collision occurred a year and a half later in August 1882.

On 3 January 1903, two trains collided head-on around 100 yards from the western entrance to the tunnel. Both engineers escaped with only minor injuries, but the firemen of both trains, Charles Horning of Engine Number 4 and Abraham Desult from Engine Number 975, died as a result of their injuries. Desault died in the hospital of severe burns from smashing into the boiler, but Horning was killed instantly. Reportedly, his body was never fully recovered from the mangled wreck.

The GTR used the line and the Merritton Tunnel occasionally until around 1915, when the tunnel was abandoned and the track was returned to its original alignment over a double-track swing bridge, a process begun during construction of the Fourth Welland Canal (the current canal), which commenced in 1913.

Harry Eastwood had the honour of being the last engineer to run a train through the tunnel, after which it was used occasionally by farmers moving their cattle.

By the 1930s, Canadian National Railway, which had assumed control of the GTR assets after the latter’s bankruptcy, removed the tracks from the tunnel, although some of the railway ties remain.

The tunnel is thought to be haunted, thus the name of “Blue Ghost Tunnel.” Some think the hauntings are the result of the 107 men who were killed during the construction of the tunnel and the canal. Several others were killed when the Fourth Welland Canal (the current one) was built.

There is also the issue of the old Lakeview Cemetery, which was flooded for use as a run-off pond for the current canal. Reportedly, only 253 of the 842 bodies interned in the cemetery were moved to the new Lakeview Cemetery.

By 2007, the abandoned tunnel was still very much intact, but in a poor state, with parts of the tunnel at the east end shored up with wooden braces. The east end is partially flooded during certain times of the year.

In an attempt to deter urban explorers from venturing into the tunnel, both ends were bricked up. This barrier did not last and the tunnel is once again accessible to those willing to venture inside.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merritton_Tunnel, https://web.archive.org/web/20090527113533/http://www.wellandcanals.com/CS%20-%20Tunnels.html, https://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/life/local-history/2020/08/14/yesterday-and-today-the-railway-tunnel-under-the-third-welland-canal.html, http://www.capitalgems.ca/merritton-tunnel—blue-ghost-tunnel.html, https://extraordinarium.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/savoie-blue-ghost-tunnel.pdf, https://hikingthegta.com/2018/02/28/merritton-tunnel-blue-ghost-tunnel/

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/the-merritton-blue-ghost-tunnel-a-relic-of-the-grand-trunk-railway/

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