Museum Classroom: The Welland Canal and Lock Building (Secondary)

Lesson: The Welland Canal and Lock Building
Grade: 9-12

Curriculum Expectations:
• History
• Science
• Geography

Materials Required:
• Construction materials to build their lock (each student can use the building material of their choice out of household items, popsicle sticks, straws, recycled items etc.)
• Adhesive of choice to make their lock waterproof
• Sponge to play the part of the boat
• Tub or container to place lock inside for testing
• Water to test lock
Pages 14 & 15 of Tommy Trent’s ABC’s of the Seaway

Materials Provided:

Pre-Lesson: Discussion of Portage Routes and the Lead up to the Welland Canal
To prepare students for this lesson, start with a discussion of the difficulties that existed connecting the Great Lakes to the world of commerce by way of the Atlantic Ocean. Ask students if they can identify the major obstacle that exists connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie? If their students are uncertain explain that Niagara Falls prevents direct travel through the Niagara River between the two lakes.
Explore the topic further by discussing the barrier the escarpment posed. Ask them if they were responsible for shipping goods from Lake Ontario in Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort Erie on Lake Erie, how would they do so? This question is designed to challenge them to think like settlers of the Niagara Region who had to overcome the barrier of Niagara Falls. From the early part of settlement in Niagara until the building of the Welland Canal the transportation of goods required use of the portage systems that the Indigenous peoples had developed long before European contact.
This system was costly for those looking to purchase the goods that were being portaged. With the building of the Erie Canal system, the Canadian portage system decreased in popularity. Now there was an alternative route between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. When William Hamilton Merritt and other St. Catharines businessmen formed the Welland Canal Company, they were able to sell shares in the company with the promise that the Welland Canal would generate profits by being the preferred route from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and opening commerce.

To prepare for this you will need to either print off or project on a screen the following for each group:
• Map of the Welland Canal
• Pages 14 and 15 of Tommy Trent’s ABCs of the Seaway

Begin the lesson by having students watch the short video on the construction of the fourth canal at . This footage taken in the 1920s provides an understanding of the engineering required to build the current canal. It also shows the equipment that the workers had to work with. Ask the students to consider if they have ever thought of the Welland Canal as an “engineering marvel” as the movie describes it. Expand on this discussion by asking students what constitutes an engineering marvel to them.

The activity portion of this lesson challenges students to build their own canal lock. Place students in groups of two or three.

Ask students to pretend that their group has been asked to submit designs for a better lock for the Welland Canal Company. The first Welland Canal was made of 40 wooden locks. These locks were built, against the advice received by experts, and began to deteriorate not long into the Canal’s life. In this scenario our students are budding engineers and are designing the pitch for their new lock to the Welland Canal Company.


Design: Students will need to design and build a lock. The teacher will provide the size specifications for the lock based on the size of the container being used to test the lock. A list of the materials available for construction should also be made available. Student can use pages 14 and 15 from Tommy Trent’s ABC’s of the Seaway to discover the operation and layout of a lock.

Construction: After the students have planned their design, they may begin construction. The student engineers are encouraged to remember that their lock needs to stop water from coming in or out when the lock gates are closed. While working on their lock students will document their observations of the building process and why they feel their design will work. These observations will form the basis of their engineering pitch. Each student engineer will prepare a short pitch about why the company should choose their lock design for the Canal.

Trial: When the construction is complete each group will present their pitch to the class. After the pitch the group’s lock will be placed in the container with a small amount of water inside. To test the lock students will:

  1. Place the sponge (which represents a vessel) on one side of the container in front of one set of lock doors.
  2. The students will open their lock doors to allow the sponge in the lock.
  3. The students will pour water in the lock to raise the level of their sponge vessel.
  4. When the vessel has finished rising, the students will open the doors again to let the sponge vessel out the other side.
    If the lock can withstand the activity, then the student has successfully engineered a working lock.

Wrap up Discussion
Ask students what the greatest challenge was in engineering a lock? Ask them to consider the challenges that engineers and workers of the real Welland Canal would have faced. What do they think the greatest challenge would have been? Is this a job that they would have liked to have worked on if they lived during the construction period of the Welland Canal? To conclude, ask students to consider what Niagara would be today without the Welland Canal? Would we exist in the same capacity, or would commerce be built up wherever there was a route around Niagara Falls?

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