History InSite: 42 Canal Street, 1051-N

Three schooners and one propeller canaller in dry dock at Muir Brothers Shipyard, c. 1882. STCM 1051-N

Muir Brothers Dry Dock and Shipyard was the longest operating shipyard in Niagara and represents the importance of Port Dalhousie as the Lake Ontario terminus of the Welland Canal.

Opened in 1850 by Alexander Muir, he and his four brothers employed hundreds of workers and built and repaired hundreds of ships.

Muir’s workers participated in the 1861 Niagara-wide shipyard strike when over 800 workers walked out between April and July over low wages, the presence of unskilled labour on the worksite, and the lack of regular, weekly pay in cash. Muir’s workers struck more frequently than others in the 1860s, suggesting a tense and busy yard.

The shipyard was sold to the Port Weller Dry Docks in 1954 and was used to scrap old lakers no longer needed for service. Plenty of mid-century photographs of The Royal Canadian Henley Rowing Course show rowers sharing the basin with the large, retired lakers. The dry dock was closed in 1968 and the area filled in and converted to Rennie Park.

Like a Ghost in the Background

A ship is seen in the background of this 1937 Henley race. STCM S1937.51.6.2

Niagara’s Shipyards

Shickluna’s Shipyard, c. 1870. STCM 1066

Beginning in 1837, and running up until about the 1870s, five yards dominated the shipyard and drydock business of building and repairing ships. Most of the vessels produced in these yards were canallers or propellors made for shipping on the Welland Canal. They came with various sizes, shapes, names, and ship types, but all were wooden, with the main division between wind power (sailing vessels) and steam power (propellor vessels).

The five yards, some owner-operated, and other partnership firms were,

  • Robert Abbey (later taken over by sons J. and J.P. Abbey as the Abbey Brothers) (Port Robinson)
  • Muir Brothers (Port Dalhousie)
  • Donaldson and Andrews / D, A, & Ross / Andrews & Sons (Port Dalhousie)
  • Louis Shickluna (St. Catharines)
  • Melancthon Simpson (St. Catharines)

The level of production ebbed and flowed at all the yards, as did employment numbers, with major economic factors determining orders and production. Though, most records indicate that all five yards were productive and busy throughout their operational lifespan. The yards and dry docks were busy with two main types of work: building from scratch and ship repairs.

It’s estimated that the Big Five built approximately 300 ships between 1830 and 1880, with Louis Shickluna building approximately 150 of those. This number does not include repair work, which likely saw countless ships come to dry dock for repairs during their many journeys on the canal.

Repair work was a normal part of ship life, especially on wooden vessels. Caulking had to be looked after, rigging and sails had to be repaired. But the shipping business doesn’t really allow for delays, and so large repairs had to be made quickly and conveniently at local shops.

At their peak in the 1860s, Niagara’s Shipyards employed over 800 men.

There’s More to the Story

Check out the History InSite Installation in Port Dalhousie and in Downtown St. Catharines.

About History InSite

A permanent, site specific installation, History InSite juxtaposes historical photographs with modern streetscapes by presenting the photo in, or close to, the place which it was taken.

St. Catharines has a rich photographic history and when compared to the changing streetscapes around the City, that history becomes much more meaningful, poignant, and relevant to our modern eyes.

The Downtown series was installed in July 2021. The Port Dalhousie series was installed in May 2022.

History InSite is presented by the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.

Graffiti Report

If you spot any graffiti on our purple History InSite signs, please send us a message and photo via email museum@stcatharines.ca.