Ask Alicia – Port Dalhousie Jail

Alicia,

Can you share some information with me on the little jail in Port Dalhousie?

Thanks,

M.B.


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Port Dalhousie Jail – 1937. John Burtniak Collection, StCM, 2006.77.1218

The Port Dalhousie jail, one of the oldest jails in North America, is situated at the very bottom of Main Street adjacent the Lakeside Park parking lot. The port town had become a busy place with the completion of the First Welland Canal.  It also became a rather rowdy town with all of the passersby and pubs that they could visit.  The old Port Dalhousie jail was constructed in 1845 on land owned by the Town of Port Dalhousie, however, it was so close to the property line of Lakeside Park (previously owned by the N. S. & T. Railway) that when the door was open, it crossed the property line.  It was built in this location because it was close to the banks of canal.  It is said that the jail, originally called “the lock-up”, was built under the order of Alexander Muir, owner of the Port Dalhousie dry dock, who got extremely angry when he found men working on ships on the Sabbath.  The jail was built as a deterrent for this and other inappropriate behaviors.

This tiny building is constructed of rough cut stone and mortar and has an area of 20 feet by 15 feet 2 inches. It originally had a copper roof and two chimneys. There was only one wooden door with iron frames, a bolt and latch. The windows were framed in metal and had vertical bars. The jail contained two cells separated by a thick stone wall, each of which had a fireplace. In the winter prisoners were given a supply of wood to keep their own fires going.

Police did not keep round the clock guard on the jail and there doesn’t seem to be a record of full time jail staff to guard for prisoners and maintain the facility. A key to the jail was kept in Lakeside Park’s.  The Town of Port Dalhousie had only one policeman who was on 24 hour call, but the park had two officers, a night watchman and a cashier, so they held the jail key because there was always someone on duty.

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Port Dalhousie Jail – 1967. St. Catharines Museum, N2039

There were two commonly reported uses of the jail. The first was to house disruptive sailors. Port Dalhousie at the time was a main terminus for sailors passing through the Welland Canal.  They would stop over and visit one of the many local pubs.  Some sailors would engage in social activities that were considered disorderly.  In such cases, the individual would be locked in this small jail until his ship was ready to leave port.  However, what seemed to be more of an issue was maintaining order among labourers constructing the Second Welland Canal.  Records show that the issues included strikes and riots by employees who wanted their wages increased.  The Welland Canal Company had difficulty maintaining order among some workers so the company maintained its own police force for security purposes.  There is also documentation of a large number of “grog shanties” which were unlicensed establishments or liquor stores.  Many of the workers were detained for public intoxication or for being disorderly.

Without any records from the jail, and based on peoples recollections, the jail simply served as a place for police or watchmen to lock up troublemakers or intoxicated individuals until they regained sobriety or could be sent on their way the next day. Sidney Brookson, former manager/owner of Lakeside Park, stated in an interview that “police would release the nightly prisoners in the mornings and either return them to their boat or put them on a street car to St. Catharines.”  Brookson also stated the jail stopped being used for “sobering people up” when the law required individuals to actually be charged if they were placed in jail.  There were occasions where local residents who committed crimes were charged and held in the jail.  Some of the jail-worthy crimes included: rowdy behavior, use of offensive or blasphemous language, disturbers of the peace, Sabbath-breakers and “women of questionable reputation”.

In 1979 the jail was designated a heritage building by the St. Catharines City Council based on its architectural and historic value.

Since the building was no longer used as a jail, it has had multiple purposes including serving as a simple storage room for a nearby restaurant owner and was once a bar called “The Jailhouse”.

Over the years there have been a number of towns boasting Canada’s smallest jail, which has apparently cause quite a rivalry. In 1989 Mayor Joe McCaffery reported to the St. Catharines Standard that the Port Dalhousie jail was Canada’s smallest.  It was stiff competition with the Tweed jail but McCaffery was determined to prove our jail was the smaller than theirs.  He measured the Port Dalhousie jail and determined reported it to be smaller at 20 feet by 12 feet, and the Tweed jail measured 20 feet by 16 feet.  Later, Dalhousie Peer Magazine redid the measurement and concluded that McCaffery’s report was inaccurate.  The width was short by 3 feet 2 inches.  Currently, the Coboconk jail holds claim over the title, with its jail measuring only 15 feet by 29 feet.

The Port Dalhousie jail currently sits vacant, but remains one of Canada’s oldest and smallest jails and a brag-worthy historical site in St. Catharines.

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