How the Story Goes: Reexamining the Story of the First Welland Canal Part 1

Part one of a four part series

An artistic representation of the First Welland Canal.

Go back through your memories and think of a favourite trip abroad. You probably remember your trip as snap shots of favourite locations or fun adventures. But when you communicate those memories about the trip – the narrative you share – what kind of details are altered or omitted? Surely the time you had a fight with your travel companion is omitted from the story. Or the time you read your tickets wrong and wound up at the wrong concert venue hasn’t made it into the final version of your narrative. The story, by now, has been told dozens of times to varying audiences with varying levels of interest and feedback. The story has been honed and shortened. The narrative points have been altered to land laughs. So, how closely does the story of your trip aboard match the trip you took?

The story of the First Welland Canal has been told over and over again by historians and canal buffs so that the story has shifted and changed over time. Facts, of course, mostly have remained the same, but the way the narrative is harnessed for others, and the way the story is constructed and relayed has changed. In my study of the historiography and the public’s perception of the narrative, I have discovered a few challenges with the telling of the history of the First Welland Canal.

Lack of Tangibility

We humans aren’t so great with intangibility. We need to touch and see to believe and unfortunately, there isn’t much of the First Canal to touch or see. The First Canal is unique from the other iterations because it was quickly replaced by the stone locks of what we call the Second Canal. The two took mostly the same route, so the wood locks were removed to make way for stone or were destroyed by flooding. Indeed many sources talk of farmers salvaging the wood for their own uses, others for firewood.

The source material is also so annoyingly sparse. The contractors, let alone the Company itself, kept dodgy records at best, and what survives often leaves more questions than answers. Questions and unknowns don’t make for good story telling. Additionally, there aren’t any photographs of the First Canal. There are a few paintings and sketches, but in comparison to the Welland Ship Canal, which employed photographers to document construction, there are no tangible visual links to the past.

A special difficulty exists in telling this story because of that lack of tangibility. It’s really difficult to get excited about something that doesn’t exist anymore, especially when in comparison to the fascinating infrastructure that remains from the Second and Third Canals. The First is generally overshadowed and its narrative, if told accurately, is told too infrequently or as the introduction to the more exciting elements of the later canals.

Lack of Criteria for Success

Project Managers talk about setting the ‘criteria for success’ at the beginning of the project so that the team knows what a successful project looks like, and so that the team knows when the project is complete.

The success criteria for the First Welland Canal were horribly unachievable on every score except for two: it did link the two great lakes together and it did steady the supply of water to power mills in St. Catharines. The rest however was an extremely complicated gong-show of mission creep, bad luck, poor budgeting, hard weather, insufficient resources, supplies, skills, and labour. We’ll look at the story of funding the project in part two of this series, and the story of building the canal in part three.

The canal in its own day was the subject of this much of this same criticism. Malicious attacks from opposition politicians like William Lyon Mackenzie complicated the news story of the day, leaving impressions of corruption and mismanagement that lasted for decades.

It’s unsurprising then that the traditional narrative quickly shifts focus away from the First Canal and onto the more successful and prideful Second. Any good (read: enjoyable) narrative stays out of the weeds and wraps information in a nice package with a pretty bow. The real story of the First Canal is not pretty. If it were a project being managed today, it would be a disaster – and it would actually likely fail, or cost an insane amount of money to rescue (spoiler-alert: it actually did cost an insane amount of money to rescue). Finishing the project just isn’t enough to overlook the disasters left over from making it happen, but that’s what has happened to the story over time.

The Story Today

So, in part one of my series about this story, let’s look first at how the story is usually told.

A lot of time is spent on the motivations for building the canal and the work involved in getting to the signing of the Welland Canal Company charter in 1824 and ground breaking on November 30 of that year. A lot of time is also spent on the post-mortem and the shift from private operations to the government of Upper Canada taking on ownership in 1841 on the way to the inevitable rebuilding of the canal with stone by 1845.

The whole juicy, complicated, and messy components of the story, which actually explain why the canal was a failure, are almost always left out of the story, for precisely that reason: its complicated.

Not enough time is spent on the question of money. The leader and promoter of the Welland Canal Company, William Hamilton Merritt came from modest background and was infamously bad with his personal finances. Embarrassingly low cost-estimates had the project in trouble almost immediately. Even though they tried, lack of available government funds to bail out the company mired the project. The difficulty of engineering tasks, including the removal of dirt, the presence of unwanted water, and horrible weather were also tricky, were expensive to accommodate, and were never well communicated.

The unknown and faceless labourers who engaged in back-breaking labour, or who became sick or died from malaria are barely mentioned. The folks who lost their land for construction or from flooding, including the Six Nations of the Grand River are also left out of the story. This is a product of history written in and for an era which focused on the great men of the project and so the stories of labourers and those who lost out during construction are lost in the shadows of the likes of Merritt, Oliver Phelps, and others.

So, how does the story go?

The First Welland Canal was constructed between 1824 and 1833 by William Hamilton Merritt and the private Welland Canal Company to bring a steady supply of water power to 12 Mile Creek in St. Catharines. The Canal’s 40 locks were built of wood, unfortunately they quickly rotted and were replaced by the stone locks of the Second Welland Canal between 1840 and 1845.

There’s definitely more to the story than that.

Watch for part two of this series on the First Welland Canal November 13, 2021. In part two Adrian will discuss how money (and the lack of it) influenced the construction of the Welland Canal. Catch all four parts of this series from November 2021 using the tag or category ‘How the Story Goes’.

Adrian Petry is the Visitor Services Coordinator and public historian at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.

Sources / Further Reading

Aitken, Hugh. “A New Way to Pay Old Debts.” Men In Business; Essays on the Historical Role of the Entrepreneur, with Additional Essays on American Business Leaders. Edited by William Miller. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Aitken, Hugh. “Financing the Welland Canal: An Episode in the History of the St. Lawrence Waterway.” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society. Vol. 26, No. 3. (September, 1952): 135-164.

Aitken, Hugh. “The Family Compact and the Welland Canal Company.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. Vol. 18, No 1. (February, 1952): 63-76.

Aitken, Hugh. The Welland Canal Company: A Study in Canadian Enterprise. St. Catharines, 1997.

Mackenzie, William Lyon. The Welland Canal: A Weekly Journal. December 30, 1835.

Merritt, Jedidiah Prendergast. Biography of the Hon. W.H. Merritt. St. Catharines, 1875.

Phair, Arden and Kathleen Powell. Triumph & Tragedy: The Welland Ship Canal. St. Catharines: St. Catharines Museum, 2020.

Styran, Roberta and Robert Taylor. The “Great Swivellink” Canada’s Welland Canal. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 2001.

Styran, Roberta and Robert Taylor. This Great National Object. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2012.

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