Next time you find yourself caught up in the hustle of life, waiting endlessly for a bridge to lower and a boat to pass, think about the history behind the Welland Canal inclusive of the workers, the over 12 hour days, and the risk of working in such extreme conditions. While you sit in your idle vehicles think about all of the other places in Canada where people do not have the luxury of viewing such a remarkably engineered structure, where huge boats pass, and water flows. All of the time and energy put into the fourth Welland Canal continues to fuel the Canadian economy and creates a unique site providing an outpost for global tourism.
I have spent a large part of my summer cataloguing over 400 photographs taken during the construction of the Fourth Welland Canal from 1913 to 1933. This project has allowed me to take a new perspective on a site that has been a common landmark; for I no longer simply see boats and a long narrow body of water rather, I see the work of endless engineers and construction companies, and workers who spent their days tirelessly on the 43 kilometer canal. The collection is inclusive of aerial photos, construction photos, and photos depicting the opening celebrations of the canal when the S.S. Lemoyne, the largest freighter on the lakes at that time, entered the canal for the inaugural voyage on the 6th of August 1932.
There is something remarkable about cataloguing photographs from 1925 on the same site in which the photos were taken. This unique setting in which I have had the privilege to work for the last four months has allowed me the opportunity to develop a new perspective on public history, and better understand the vital role of the Canal both within a historic and present context. Such large scaffolds were used to build the canals, as well as railcars in an effort to transport materials and machinery in an efficient and productive manner.
Often I find myself wandering to the viewing deck on break and it is as if I stepped out of a time machine. I’m able to visualize the lock gates under construction, the lock chamber drained of all the water, and the men standing at the utmost top of the lock without being tied off to anything. I find myself contemplating how such large locks were able to be engineered with minimal errors, moreover a site constructed in 1932 still has a vital role to play well into the twenty-first century.
I have come across some photos that demonstrate the extreme working conditions. One photograph in particular depicted a worker at least 30 feet from the ground on a wooden ladder hanging onto a rope in his right hand, and he had his right foot off the ladder as if he were stepping onto a platform with which there was none.
Photographs have the remarkable ability to be a universal language, one in which all viewers can identify and understand. Many of the photos had English captions however the photos immerse the viewer into a historic realm in which they are not familiar, forcing the viewer to revaluate their surroundings and re-examine the historical implications of the Welland Canal.
I have spent part of my time this summer biking along the canal with my family, and along the ride I tell them about what bridges were built when, how deep the canal is in between locks, and how 137 men died while building the unique structure that today lies in the heart of Niagara. And as we ride I think back to all of the photographers because they were the ones who determined what was worth photographing and what was not. The four photographers who documented the Welland Ship Canal from 1912-1934 were incredibly skilled, a few of whom would go to extreme lengths atop of large structures in an effort to capture to best shot.
As a student recently graduated from the department of history, I received criticism as to why I was in a program that is incredibly boring. “What are you going to do with that?” many individuals often ask me. To those of you who think history is a long forgotten subject that has no relevance in today’s society I tell you this: Every pathway you walk on, every bridge you cross, and every person you meet has a story. For myself, I have dedicated a large portion of my summer documenting and looking back on the story of the Welland Canal, sadly a canal today that receives more frustration from drivers than it does praise. Many of us take the canal for granted, a landmark more of an inconvenience rather than a place of beauty.
Lisa Marie Mercier is a summer student with the collection at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.