Sycamore trees, Jefferson Salamanders, wild plums, nearly countless waterfalls, hot summers with snowy winters – these are just a few of the natural features that you will find here and nowhere else in Canada. St. Catharines lies in the Lake Erie Lowland Ecoregion, an environmental neighbourhood that, in Canada, we share only with the Southernmost tip of Ontario. This unique ecosystem has long dictated human activity here, including cultural, agricultural, and industrial developments.
On this episode of History from Here, host Sean Dineley visits Walker’s Creek Park to explore the unique natural and agricultural history of St. Catharines and the surrounding area.
This park and the creek that runs through it are named after the Walker family who operated a fruit farm on the site from the 1880s until the 1950s. The site’s history of commercial fruit growing, its proximity to the Welland Canal, as well as its resident plum trees, tulip trees, yellow-breasted chats, and other rare native species, make it an excellent spot to delve into St. Catharines’ remarkable ecological history.
The Lake Erie Lowland Ecoregion is one of Canada’s smallest, but also most biodiverse areas. With over eight million residents, it’s also Canada’s most urbanized and populous ecoregion. Unlike most of Canada, which is limited to cold-hearty apples, raspberries, and blueberries, St. Catharines enjoys a temperate climate just right for plums, peaches, grapes, cherries, and many other delicious gifts of nature. The area’s unique fruit-growing climate has had an immense impact on human activities and culture here. Iroquoian Peoples living here before European settlement are known to have played a sacred game known as Dish during Winter festivals and healing ceremonies. The game involved fruit stones as playing pieces, likely from plums or cherries native to the area. By the 1790s, first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe was growing peaches and cherries in his Niagara backyard, to the delight of visiting dignitaries.
As settlement increased, the industrial potential of this climate was realized in earnest. With wheat and other cereal grains shifting to the West, fruit was the predominant form of agriculture around St. Catharines by the late 19th century, attracting new settler groups and investors to fully tap the industry’s potential. In addition to fruit farming itself, Niagara’s first winery was opened in St. Catharines in 1873, a development that was to have immense impact on the culture and economy of this area for the next 150 years and beyond. Other adjacent industries included canning, with at least three canneries operating in the city in the early 1900s, including Canadian Canners which was right downtown. Fruit baskets were also needed, and the St. Catharines Box and Basket Company operated for about a decade on the Shickluna Shipyards site.
St. Catharines’ and the rest of Niagara’s unique escarpment landscape and position between two large lakes also positioned it as a literal “powerhouse”. The abundance of fast flowing water has powered numerous local industries for centuries and has, more recently, provided an impressive amount of hydroelectricity. Decew Generating Station, built in 1898, took advantage of the escarpment landscape to help revolutionize power generation in Ontario. At its construction, it transferred electricity some 56 kilometers, which was the longest distance in Canada and second longest in the world to that point.
The ecological rareness of St. Catharines and the rest of the Lake Erie Lowlands ecoregion has certainly inspired a rich history of human activity. There are, however, two sides to this story of progress. In addition to being one of Canada’s most uncommon, biodiverse, and prosperous regions, it is also arguably Canada’s most critically threatened. Over 130 species in this ecoregion have been categorized as “at risk” while only 1% of the land is protected. Traveling the largely unsettled Niagara Peninsula in the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe wrote of wolves, passenger pigeons, rattlesnakes, and butternut trees – all species that are either extinct, extirpated, or endangered in the Niagara Region. All, however, is not lost. Simcoe also wrote about bald eagles and Great Lake salmon, two species that had been extirpated from this area in the 20th century but, as a result of vigorous conservation and reintroduction strategies, have since returned in healthy numbers.
Canada is a massive country that is full of natural heritage. But you won’t find Cherry Birch trees or grape vines in Algonquin Park or Banff. You’ll find them right here in St. Catharines!