How the Story Goes: Reexamining the Story of the First Welland Canal Part 3

Part three of a four part series

An artistic depiction of the opening of the First Welland Canal at Port Dalhousie, November 30, 1829. The first vessel, the Ann and Jane is pictured.

There is no such thing as an easy infrastructure project. But when it comes to the First Welland Canal, it seems the project was plagued with bad luck.

Mission Creep

Aside from the shortage of cash, the works faced many difficulties. Most of the problems stemmed from engineering mistakes and changes to the plans mid-way through the works. Nothing kills a project faster than mission creep and the grocery list of demands made of the engineers from the various stakeholders meant that locks were rebuilt before they were opened, channels were dug deeper, and then deeper again. That grocery list kept getting bigger and bigger and to accommodate the changing plans without the budget to match, contractors would cut corners. The original estimates meant that the canal would accommodate barges, but probably not larger schooners. New York investors in particular wanted to compete with the Erie Canal (which was a barge canal) and so demanded the locks be larger so as to avoid transshipments (moving cargo between larger and smaller ships). It would make the canal more competitive, but it would cost a lot more.

It is also prudent to note here that some of the original canal surveys were actually carried out by Merritt and others who, while educated in surveying, lacked experience and even the proper equipment for producing accurate work. The depth of the engineering pool in Upper Canada in the 1820s was quite shallow and it’s unlikely advice was given or work checked over before construction estimates were calculated.

In the end, larger locks were a smart business move because the Erie had such a leg up on the Welland that by the time the Welland actually opened, it had to work hard to attract business away from the old reliable Erie. But, these changes meant delays. Delays meant higher costs and a trickier approach to building during seasons. For example, the longer the project dragged on and the longer the existing infrastructure was left unused, the higher the likelihood it would have to be rebuilt, which all just added to the overall cost overruns.

Bad Luck

Early on, the lock built near Merritt’s property on Twelve Mile Creek was washed out by a rain storm that lasted for days. The labourers had only just installed timber cribbing when the works were washed away. This is only one example of troublesome weather getting in the way. Contractors battled frost and ice in winter too and the freeze and thaw complicated not only their work, but the finished projects, which had to be repaired even before the canal opened.

The route south from Thorold was troublesome because of the height of land between Allanburg and Port Robinson. The Deep Cut, as they call it, was the thorn in the side of the company, its engineers, and Merritt himself. With one disaster after another, it became money pit.

Originally, the engineers had planned to use Chippewa Creek as the primary water source for the canal. Labourers discovered an underwater spring that complicated construction and water levels. In building a canal, you want the right amount of water in the right place. The wrong water in the wrong place was disastrous and expensive.

The soil of the Deep Cut was also tricky and frequent mudslides would seriously injure or even kill labourers, delaying the project significantly. The task of getting the Deep Cut deep enough to match the level of the Chippewa was becoming less and less attainable.

Instead, they devised a new plan (midway through the project – talk about being flexible!) to bring water from the Grand River. When dammed at Dunnville, the Grand River was high enough for water to be brought to the canal, just south of Welland at “the Junction”. The Feeder Canal was dug at an enormous cost. It was partially in Merritt’s dreams for expansion much later, but it really wasn’t part of the building plans as they broke ground in 1824. Some of the major ticket items came from draining swampland in Wainfleet (with labourers subjected to Malaria), damming the Grand River, and buying up huge tracts of property.

The combination of all these problems – new locks, changes to the route, and major delays meant that the Company and contractors often cut corners to be able to accomplish the tasks. Forget achieving their project deadlines. Remember also that most of the investors expected the project to be fairly simple and completed quickly. All the messy problems they had were beginning to add up and the company was hemorrhaging money with limited sources of income remaining. The longer it took to the build the canal, the longer it took for the canal bring in revenue, and the more money it needed to say afloat. Loans and grants from the government, along with Yates – throwing essentially his entire fortune and credit into the project – were the only thing that kept it going. The longer it went on, the more important it was for the work to be finished quickly and cheaply. I can just hear Merritt, perhaps exhausted from the constant project management, saying to contractors: just get the thing open.

Hurry Hard!

In efforts to get the canal open, it was decided to make the canal operational to Port Robinson with ships locking down to Chippawa Creek and out to the Niagara River by 1829. To accomplish even this modified route, all the short cuts contractors had made needed to be repaired.

The Deep Cut was unstable, mud sliding even after the canal had opened. Lock walls were buckling in because frost cracking made their cribbing supports unstable. The design of the lock gates meant that both ends of the lock had the same size gates so that when sluices were opened, the water wouldn’t pour out onto boats. This put a lot of pressure on the upper gate sluices, which, also because of cost cutting, probably weren’t the best material and design for their purpose. The locks themselves were expected to have a 20-year lifespan. All but three locks needed major repairs between 1828 and 1830.

Weather and soil, water levels, and contractors continued to play an important and detrimental role in the repairs and eventual direct linkage to Lake Erie. Just as Merritt had jockeyed to put the canal through his land, land owners in the south, including some Company Board members now jockeyed to bring the route through their land. The options were boundless, but in the end, Gravelly Bay, now Port Colborne, was selected and work began with another large loan from the province, extension of credit from American Banks in Albany at Yate’s urging, along with more of his personal funds. Yates also purchased the hydraulic rights on the Feeder Canal for 100,000 pounds, which pushed the nervous provincial government even closer to eventual public ownership.

Not helping the situation, the government sent in Robert Randal MPP in 1830 to inspect the works before they’d give the Company any more money. He found that the Grand River Dam had settled by some 16 inches, that locks were already in disrepair, and found that Port Dalhousie was not deep enough, nor wide enough at the entrance to Lock 1. His assessment was positive despite the grocery list of updates needed. In the meantime, the withholding of funds from the government compounded the issue surrounding the quality of work contractors produced. The less money available, the more desperate contractors were and the more corners cut.

This is such a different story than we are used to hearing. It certainly was an impressive feat of engineering, but the canal was so far from what we imagine it to be as the traditional narratives depict. It wasn’t just the wooden locks that were rotting, it was an almost comical confluence of never-ending problems that needed constant attention and money. Just as construction would hit its stride, some poor weather would set them back, and the downward spiral illustrated throughout part three of our series would begin in earnest once more.

Watch for part four of the series on the First Welland Canal on November 27. In part four, Adrian will discuss why labourers are left out of the story, and wrap up the historiographical assessment of the traditional narrative of the First 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.

3 comments

  1. So interesting to read another perspective. Looking forward to part 4 —— how do I find parts 1&2 again please.

    • Hi David. Thanks for reading. To find parts 1 and 2 look for the tag “how the story goes” – the tag is probably at the top of the post on a mobile device and at the bottom on a regular desktop or laptop.

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