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The unique locks of the Trent-Severn Waterway

December 2019

The Trent–Severn Waterway, a 386-kilometre-long canal in southern Ontario connecting Lake Ontario at Trenton to Georgian Bay at Port Severn.

Originally surveyed as a military shipping route, the canal had its beginning in 1832 when construction began at Trenton. Unfortunately, access from Balsam Lake near Kirkfield, to Lake Simcoe was blocked until the opening of the Kirkfield Lift Lock was completed in 1907, completing the Trent-Severn Waterway that we know today. An unfortunate consequence of the canal’s small design, was that it impractical for most commercial shipping traffic. The railways were much improved for commercial and passenger traffic, with truck transportation not far behind, and the larger ships now crisscrossing the Great Lakes through the Third Welland Canal; a point that was further hammered home when the current Welland Canal opened for traffic in 1932.

However, the Trent-Severn Waterway did go on to be very popular with smaller recreational boats and even a small cruise liner, the Kawartha Voyageur, making it a tourist attraction instead of a commercial shipping route.

The Trent-Severn Waterway has a total of 44 conventional locks, but three of them are quite unique. Two hydraulic lift locks are located in Peterborough and Kirkfield, and a marine railway can be found in Big Chute.

Peterborough Lift Lock and Kirkland Lift Lock

The Peterborough Lift Lock, a dual hydraulic lift lock located in the City of Peterborough and officially designated as “Lock 21,” opened for boating traffic 9 July 1904. At the time, this was the world’s highest hydraulic lift, raising boats up a dramatic 65 feet high in one smooth motion, at a time when conventional ship locks had a rise of around 7 feet.

The Kirkfield Lift Lock, is also a dual hydraulic lift lock, located near the village of Kirkfield and officially designated “Lock 36.” Opened for boating traffic in 1907, it sits at 840 feet above sea level, making it the highest section of the canal.

Both the Peterborough and Kirkfield Lift Locks were necessitated by the steep rise in elevation that would have required numerous traditional locks for one small area. Designed by Canadian engineer Richard Birdsall Rogers from Montreal’s Dominion Bridge Company, who modeled them after the lift locks on the Canal du Centre in Belgium, they were considered a significant technological achievement at the time, as hydraulic loft locks had never been tried in colder climates like that found in Canada.

Two side by side, identical rectangular boxes, or caissons, 140 feet long by 35 feet wide and 7 feet deep, carry the ships up and down the lock system. Both caissons have pivoting gates at either end that when closed, allow for 228, 093 imperial gallons to fill the one with the boat in it. The lift lock works by a simple gravity and counterweight principle, with each caisson guided along rails affixed to concrete towers on either side. A sensor system guides each into final position to allow the boat to enter and exit.

Today, the Trent-Severn Waterway is maintained and operated by Parks Canada, and is open for boating from

Big Chute Marine Railway

Big Chute Marine Railway, located near Severn Falls and officially designated as Lock 44, is a canal inclined plane that carries boats in individual cradles up and down the 60-foot change in elevation, along a rail line that extends out into the water on either side.

Big Chute is the only marine railway still in operation in North America, based on a design by Thomas Morton in the early 19th century.

The original marine railway at Big Chute opened in 1917, and was designed to carry boats of up to 35 feet, but it was replaced a short six years later with a larger one to carry bigger boats of up to 60 feet long.

The second marine railway was replaced by the third and current one as the primary transport for boats in 1978, although the second one remained in uses as a back-up for busy days until 2003. It remains stationary on its track as an exhibit piece; a reminder of the Trent-Severn Waterway’s past.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trent%E2%80%93Severn_Waterway, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Chute_Marine_Railway, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peterborough_Lift_Lock, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirkfield.

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.

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