How the Story Goes: Reexamining the Story of the First Welland Canal Part 4

Part four in a four part series

An idyllic post card scene of the old Welland Canal. Pictures like these help to contribute to a romanticized view of the story of the First Welland Canal. STCM 2793-R

Green Light

While the construction work continued, the job of operating the canal had to be done as well. Now, Merritt and the Company were dealing with repairs to locks, building the route through to Lake Erie, and operating the existing canal, all while fundraising. It is a flurry of activity that kept Merritt busy and away from home. He rode the line often, working with contractors and engineers one week, then he was off to York, or Albany, or New York discussing financials or selling subscriptions, then he was back in St. Catharines hiring more staff to run the canal, all before heading out again to complete another circuit.

The work was beginning to pay off and it became more clear as construction progressed that, even in 1830, the government would eventually take over ownership of the canal. There was just no way that the Company could keep up financially without the market support it needed.

Despite their financial tightness, things were looking up and the canal was ready to open for the season on May 15, 1830.

Captains needed encouragement, of course, because the reputation of the Welland hadn’t yet been established. Captains carrying precious cargo on a tight timeline were risk averse but getting ships through the canal was imperative for any sniff of success.

Unfortunately, not two weeks after opening, a major rain storm incapacitated the canal and it was closed for almost of all of June. Then, in August and September, it was closed again because they just couldn’t get enough water into the system. By October, they had sorted it out, but then the locks kept causing trouble and they’d have to close again. This did not help its reputation.

Shipping wasn’t the only industry on the canal from which the Company could gather revenue but for mills to operate, they needed a steady, stable, and reliable source of water power. The canal in 1830 was not quite ready for milling. Though, within two years, the Company had to shut down the canal completely because so much saw dust had been dumped into the canal it was causing blockages. Mills from then on had to fill any gaps in their floors so that saw dust did not get into the canal.

If the lock tenders of the 1830s could see how the Seaway runs the canal today, they’d fall into a lock! Computer and hydraulic operated doors, infrastructure, shelter, communication, and safety gear! Lock tender houses were approved by the company in 1831, so they had to make due in that first season of operation.

The work of lock tenders was pretty dangerous on the Welland since locks were in somewhat constant disrepair. Temporary solutions made lock operation risky, and there were no foot bridges over the lock gates as there were on other canals, such as the Rideau. To cross to the other side to open the other gate, lock tenders had to balance on top of the slim gates to cross. Not an ideal situation for John Tinline, Robert Fletcher, William Chace, or the other 9 lock tenders on the route. But, it seems some did benefit from increased traffic: William Chace imported goods to his store directly from the canal schooners passing by St. Catharines. Though, he had time to run his store: he was only responsible for one lock where 3 other tenders were responsible for 7 locks each.

Merritt continued on in his role as Company Agent, now selling unused land, encouraging local milling and manufacturing to establish itself along the canal, and other fundraising and building duties that the actual running of the canal operations fell to the superintendents. In 1830, company engineer Marshall Lewis and contractor Oliver Phelps were appointed superintendents of the works – both for repair and operation. Later, however, it seemed necessary to appoint additional staff along the route, to monitor water levels; to establish and maintain toll roads; and to keep the canal free from timber and rubbish.

While the canal was operational, its reputation continued to suffer. A Captain Finney, piloting the Schooner Charles & Annie on October 15, 1830 said it best: “I had heard reports of its disparagement and expected to have met with some drawbacks in the passage through, but was agreeably surprised to find none.”

Negative Press

The last thing a major infrastructure project needs is negative press. Regardless of the project, we’ve all seen headlines screaming “overbudget” or “major delay”. Newspapers in Merritt’s day had a tendency to be more nasty than we’re used to today. William Lyon Mackenzie was particularly good at using his newspaper – the Colonial Advocate – to bring all the problems of the canal to the attention of the public.

Early on in the 1820s, Merritt had hitched his wagon to the Family Compact, a group of white, conservative, anglophile, and Anglican men who held government for nearly twenty years in Upper Canada. Even though Merritt was a liberal, he knew how to navigate the messiness of politics to achieve his dream. Unfortunately, this meant that he was swept up in the allegations of corruption, misappropriation, and wastefulness, both of the government and the canal project.

For most of the Company’s lifespan, Tory government members made up the majority of the Board of Directors, including Solicitor General, Henry John Boulton, William Allan, President of the Bank of Upper Canada, and most famous of all, John Robinson, Attorney General and leader of the Family Compact. Mackenzie – growing more and more unruly in his critique of the government published attacks against Merritt’s management in special newspapers he published in 1835. The Welland Canal Company became central to Mackenzie’s arguments for reform. Public trust was quickly eroded. While Merritt and the Company were cleared of alleged corruption at a special investigation in 1836, the damage had been done.

Looking Toward the Future

You can see through all the confluence of higher than expected expenses, construction missteps, the fact that success kept eluding the Company, and a bad reputation, that the government had had enough. Instead of loaning out the money to float the company, the government bought the majority of the shares and by 1841 had full control of the Company and Board of Directors.

Instead of sinking more money into the quickly deteriorating wooden locks, new stone locks were constructed by 1845 marking the end of the First Welland Canal.

The Rest of the Story

Missing from even my analysis of this narrative are the stories of the labourers themselves. Even though I would have liked to examine how their story is told, and feature more examples of how individual labourers contributed to the project, it’s next to impossible to do so. So much of their story consists either of digging and removing dirt, striking for higher wages (at great annoyance to contractors and the Company), rioting or fighting amongst themselves, or dying from construction accidents or disease. They are always presented as a group to be dealt with, not as individuals with families and dreams of their own.

Another very complicated issue that is left out of the traditional narrative is the compensation, or lack thereof, for lands adjacent to or flooded by the Welland Canal. The collection of lands by the Company to facilitate building was difficult. Some people simply wouldn’t give up their land to a seemingly ridiculous, never-gunna-happen infrastructure project like a canal. Others, as the Six Nations of the Grand River claim, were never compensated for over 2000 acres of adjacent lands that were flooded by damming the Grand River for the Feeder Canal in Dunville.

There are two reasons that these important elements remain mostly nameless and faceless both in my analysis in this series, and in others. They are actually the same reasons that the majority of the story is so poorly told. The first is that the records were so poorly maintained that there is no or little record of the individuals who built the canal. Like the intangibility of the infrastructure itself today, it’s really difficult to understand the micro-experience of everyday life of the worker from the perspective of the worker. The information we have about what they did and how they did it comes from reports of contractors to the Company, or observations about the project generally. The transient nature of their labour didn’t help. It’s possible very few hands worked on the project during the entire construction timeline.

The second reason is that most scholarly work around the canal has not unearthed the information to correct this gap. Partially because so much attention, including here in this series, has been spent reforming the traditional narrative to include the more complicated elements. Partially also because there is such limited source material available for scholars to draw conclusive narrative from. Even when we don’t want to write a great-man focused history, sometimes we’re trapped.

Whether because of the complexity of the narrative, the lack of tangibility, or the embarrassment of failures and bad luck, the story of the First Canal has really become a stepping stone to the more exciting and glorious Victorian-era canals that brought enormous wealth to St. Catharines.

The whole point of reexamining the story then is to show that the reduction of the narrative undervalues significant contributions and struggles and is an injustice to the memory of the people who built the canal. Can you imagine the labourers hearing the story as it is traditionally told and rightly crying out ‘what about us!? We dug the darn thing!” Or Merritt himself admitting “woah, woah, it was not that easy.” The simplified version risks undervaluing the accomplishments they all spent their lives (literally and figuratively) working for.

With its story often reduced to mere sentences focused on its challenges, I encourage you to reframe the regular, parsed version of this story. Instead make effort to include the messy and the complicated. Include the embarrassments alongside the successes. Identify the gaps in our knowledge about the community of labourers and landowners alongside the exciting infrastructure of locks and channels, and the gritty details of the Welland Canal Company.

The story of the First Welland Canal would benefit from a bit more study, time, and attention, (and even a time machine to rescue records and information) just as our own personal vacation stories would benefit from revisiting our travel diaries or photographs for the finer details and story revisions.

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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