History from Here: Twelve Mile Creek at Downtown St. Catharines

A guiding pathway and a food source for Indigenous peoples, waterpower for the mills of early European settlers, a shipping route for the First and Second Welland Canals, the waters of Twelve Mile Creek have sustained communities for thousands of years.

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It is thought that Niagara’s earliest inhabitants lived in the area surrounding the upper Twelve Mile Creek watershed and Short Hills some 9500 to 2900 years ago. Indigenous peoples were likely drawn here for the deer and moose that once roamed, the bountiful fruits and nuts that grew, as well as its ample fishing resources. By the 1600s, a string of indigenous longhouse villages developed along the crest of the Niagara Escarpment, and the many waterways flowing into Lake Ontario, including Twelve Mile Creek. The indigenous peoples who settled in Niagara also established an extensive trail network following waterways connecting the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and beyond into the Great Lakes. Though these communities eventually dwindled and migrated elsewhere, their trails remained and became the steadfast routes of travel in Niagara for the European Settlers who came after, and are still in use today. Martindale Road, St. Paul Street, and Queenston Street, among others, were all once part of this complex indigenous system of well-travelled routes.

In the 1780s and 1790s, United Empire Loyalists and retiring veterans of the Butler’s Rangers, migrating from the United States, began to settle around the height-of-land where Dick’s Creek and Twelve Mile Creek met. After the first Treaty 3 was signed, between the British Crown and some Mississauga peoples in 1783, purchasing the lands between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, the Niagara Peninsula was formally surveyed and opened for development. Settlers were drawn to this location thanks to the existing confluence of the many trails crisscrossing Niagara, the fertile lands that surrounded the waterway, as well as for the potential of the creek to provide waterpower for mills.

Postcard image of the old Welland Canal from the grounds of Ridley College, c. 1905. STCM 1170-N.

Settlers to the area first built a storehouse as a supply and trading point, about where the Burgoyne Bridge is today. This was followed by mills, then a church, a tavern, a school, and eventually shops and stores. By the early 1800s, the junction of Ontario and St. Paul Streets, above the flowing waters of the creek, had become a hub of activity, trade, and commerce for Niagara. When, in 1829, the first Welland Canal began operation, the shipping route used the waters and path of Twelve Mile Creek, which opened into Martindale Pond, to connect Lake Ontario to the Upper Great Lakes. The creek that attracted St. Catharines’ earliest settlers, now fuelled the development of the village into an industrial centre of significant importance. Now not only vital for its waterpower, but for its transportation access as well.

Illustration of Twelve Mile Creek and Welland Canal, with Ridley College in the background. C. 1840-1845. STCM 1975.64.1

With Twelve Mile Creek running through the core of the city, the industries and people of St. Catharines have enjoyed many decades of prosperity. The creek continued to power the factories along its banks even after the construction of third Welland Canal in the 1880s, when the shipping route was redirected away from the downtown.

Twelve Mile Creek continues to sustain our community today. The waterway was straightened and deepened in the 1940s to increase the capacity of the power generating facilities at Decew Falls, and its rushing waters continue to provide us with electricity today.

You can follow much of Twelve Mile Creek’s winding path today along a series of scenic, recreational trails. These trails are reminiscent of Niagara’s indigenous history, which, despite, the challenges presented by the arrival of European settlers, endures in the very geography of our City.

One comment

  1. The ca 1840-45 sketch was mad looking northward from a point to the east of the current CNR bridge. The building visible in the left distance is likely Rodman Hall. Ridley College was not founded until much later. The 12-Mile Creek used to have a meander to the east after it passed below the railway bridge as visible in the sketch.

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