This canal is 385 kilometres (240 miles) and connects Lake Ontario at Trenton with Georgian Bay / Lake Huron at Port Severn. From Lake Ontario (75m) the canal climbs 181 m (600 feet) through 36 locks to its highest point on Balsam Lake at Kirkfield (248m / 814 ft), before dropping 79m (260 feet) through another 10 locks to Lake Huron (176m). The waterway and connecting lakes have over 1609 km (1000 miles) of shoreline and contain 160 islands, and is traversed by 18,000 pleasure boats each summer season.
The canal enables sailors to move from the Atlantic to the Upper Great Lakes via the Hudson-Mohawk to Lake Ontario and the Trent-Severn to Lake Huron. Sailors can also use the St Lawrence River to Montreal and the Rideau Canal between Ottawa and Kingston to get to Lake Ontario, with a slight jaunt west to the Trent-Severn. The canal starts passes through typical southern Ontario farm country with bedrock covered by glacial sands and gravel, and rapidly rises into rugged Canadian Shield with rocky outcrops exposed as they were left by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago covered only by boreal forest.
History of the Trent-Severn Waterway
Successive groups of Native people have travelled the natural waterway formed by the Waterway Lakes since at least 9000 B.C, as evidenced by archaeological sites throughout the area. One of the largest single concentrations of Native rock carvings in Canada may be seen at Petroglyphs Provincial Park near Burleigh Falls. Prehistoric burial mounds at Serpent Mounds Provincial Park on Rice Lake also show the area’s early significance.
The first European to visit the area was Samuel de Champlain, who arrived in Huronia in 1615 via the Ottawa, Mattawa and French River systems, and began trading with the Huron, Algonkin and Montagnais natives and aided them in their wars against the Iroquois, who lived south of Lake Ontario. Champlain travelled over the Trent-Severn system to Lake Ontario (then called Lac St Louis) and helped the Indians attack a village of Onodagas (one of the Iroquois Five Nations) near what is now Oneida, New York. Champlain was injured and the attack was unsuccessful and the invaders retreated. In 1649, the Iroquois got their revenge, and attacked the Hurons, wiping out the villages south of Georgian Bay. The Iroquois kept the territory as their own until forced south by the Mississaugas (an Ojibway tribe) who came south from the north shore of Lake Huron. The Mississaugas pushed the Iroquois back south of Lake Ontario.
After the American Revolutionary War, many United Empire Loyalists settled in the fertile region along Lake Ontario’s shores. The use of the Trent-Severn as a fur-trading route between Montreal and the Upper Great Lakes was considered, but the waters were considered too shallow, with too many rapids and falls to be practicable. The War of 1812 taught the British that the Great Lakes were vulnerable to American attack, including their forts at what are now Detroit and Sault Ste Marie, so they resolved to built alternate shipping routes connecting the Great Lakes. In 1820, the first plans were proposed for a Trent Canal, and in 1825 rough roads were built into the area. When the Crown failed to advance the canal, settlers in the area went ahead on their own, offering land grants to workers who came over from England to help build the canal. By 1830 the lumbermen, working to get the area’s forests to market, also got onside with a Trent Canal.
By 1836 the waterway was navigable up to Rice Lake. The first lock was built at Bobcageon in 1833, and over the next decade additional locks were built at Glen Ross, Hastings, Whitlaw’s Rapids and Lindsay. Then in the 1850s resources were shifted to the construction of railways into the region, though most failed quickly, since there were only 17,000 settlers north of Rice Lake at the time. After Confederation lock building was restarted, with locks built at Young’s Point and Rosedale, and in the 1880s more locks were built at Burleigh Falls, Lovesick Lake, Buckhorn and Fenelon Falls. From 1895 to 1907 the sections from Peterborough to Lake Simcoe were completed, and by 1920 (after delays due to World War I) the completion of two marine railways at Swift Rapids and Big Chute opened the stretch between Lake Couchiching and Lake Huron. By that time, the automobile eclipsed boats and railways as the prime mode of transportation, and the canal looked irrelevant again. It gained a life of its own for pleasure boaters, which have kept it busy ever since.
The first settlers came to Trenton in 1790, when New England Loyalists James Smith and John Bleeker built their cabins on opposite bank of the Trent River. In 1897 when her husband died, Mary Meyers Bleeker built a hotel and started a ferry service across the Trent to help travelers on the new road from Montreal to York (now Toronto). By the mid 1830s a bridge was built over the Trent, a roofed toll bridge 680 yards long. By the 1850s the village grew to 1500 people, was incorporated as Trenton, and began attracting sawmills to process the lumber harvest from forests up the Trent. Much of the lumber was exported to the United States, shipped across the Lake. In the 1880s the Murray Canal was built to save ships the eastward detour around Prince Edward County to get to the Lake. In 1885, a dam was built to provide electrical power to the sawmills. By the early 1900s most of the sawmills had shut down, and other industries supported the community of Trenton.
During World War II an air base was built 3 km east of the town, as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and over two years 2600 flying instructors were trained here to support the training bases opened up across the country.
Peterborough was begun by Adam Scott, when built a water-powered sawmill & gristmill on the Otonabee River, even quarrying his own granite for the millstones. He was one of many who in 1820 came to British North America when William Horton, Britain’s Under Secretary of State encouraged the resettlement of paupers and indigents, which provided much needed settlers (any of them poor Irish) for the colony while sparing Britain the cost of care or prisons. The process was overseen in Canada by Peter Robinson, bother of the Chief Justice of Canada, who provided new settlers a shanty, a cow, and axe, kettle, frying pan and iron pot, and seed corn and potatoes. They named the community Peterborough in his honour. Later settlers were military and naval officers who settled here after their service.
By the 1850s the town had a population of 2500, and had gristmills, sawmills, carding and fulling mills (for cloth-making) , as well as a tannery. In those days travelers would arrive by road from Cobourg, transferring to steam boat across Rice Lake and up the Otanabee River. In 1879, the Ontario Canoe Company started manufacturing freight canoes, that were much-used in the exploration of Canada’s North, and winning many international awards. They later branched out into recreational canoes and those with a squared stern for motors.
In 1896 work began on the largest hydraulic lift lock in the world, to help boats climb the 20 m (65 ft) over this section of the waterway, and was opened in 1904. In 1919, the Hunter Street bridge linked the east and west sides of Peterborough, the center span of which is the longest concrete arched bridge in the world not reinforced by steel.
Overview of the Canal
The Trent Severn Canal begins on Lake Ontario at Trenton (161 km east of Toronto and 96 km west of Kingston), but is only useful for most boats because of the 1880 Murray Canal which connects Lake Ontario to the Bay of Quinte, and effectively makes the scenic Prince Edward County an island.
The 92 km (56 mile) stretch from Trenton to the eastern end of Rice Lake climbs 112 m (267 feet) through 18 locks. An interesting spot 6 km (4 miles) north of Trenton is a boulder the size of a house at Glen Miller, which was left behind by the retreating glaciers. Along the lower Trent you can observe the Peterborough Drumlin Field, where 3,000 teardrop shaped glacial hills are spread over 7770 square kilometres (3000 square miles). Some of these drumlins rise 45 metres (150 ft) and stretch over 1.5 km (1 mile) long, with the highest point showing the direction of glacial advance. At Percy Reach there was a salt spring, where settlers extracted and evaporated water.
Rice Lake is the second largest lake on the Trent-Severn system, is named for the rice crop harvested by the Indians. The rice plants grew over a metre (3 ft) above the water and were prized by early settlers. Changing water levels and the introduction of carp to the lake ended the rice crops many years ago.
From Rice Lake, the Otanabee River takes you to Peterboroguh and then on to Lakefield. Peterborough has what was once the largest hydraulic lift lock in the world, climbing 20 metres (65 ft). Boats enter the upper and lower chambers at the same time, and the top one is filled with slightly more water, so as one lock drops by gravity, the other is lifted by hydraulic pressure. Above the lift lock is the Peterborough Centennial Museum and Archives which has a scale model of the entire Trent-Severn canal. The canal passes by Trent University, chartered in 1962 and featuring very unique buildings.
Above Peterborough, at Lakefield you enter into the Kawartha Lakes system, passing through Katchiwano, Clear, Stony, Lovesick, Buckhorn, Chemong, Pigeon and Sturgeon Lakes. At the north shore of the eastern end of Stony Lake are ancient petroglyphs on a limestone outcrop, first discovered in 1954 by geologists flying over the area while exploring for minerals, and a road was built to the petroglyphs in 1968 making them accessible to all. The town of Bobcygeon’s name is derived from the Indian name for the rapids, bob cajwin (narrow pace between two rocks where water rushes through), and attracted sawmills in it s early days, a canal lock in 1833, and today is a major tourist hub
From the southern end of Sturgeon Lake you can detour south to Lindsay and Scugog Lake, though it was only a marsh until a dam built by an 1834 mill made it navigable. Part of the 16 km (10 mi) long island in the lake is an Indian reserve granted to the Misissaugas, and the southern tip is marshland with great birdwatching. The town of Lindsay was important as the northern terminus of the railway from Port Hope on Lake Ontario.
From Sturgeon Lake you pass Fenelon Falls, and travel across Cameron, Balsam, and Mitchell Lakes before using the 1907 Kirkfield Hydraulic Lift Lock, and then across Canal Lake and 5 more locks to drop down to Lake Simcoe level. On a farm near Kirkfield, is the 149 birthplace of William Mackenzie, who worked as a school teacher and lumber man before helping to build the Canadian Northern Railway, for which he was knighted.
Lake Simcoe was named by Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor in honour of his father, Commander John Simcoe, who died during an expedition to Quebec in 1759. When the younger Simcoe became governor, he surveyed the area between York (now Toronto) and Lake Huron for the purpose of establishing a military base. He began construction of a road between York and Lake Simcoe, built by the Queen’s Rangers garrison, and that road is now Yonge Street, the longest road in the world, continuing as Highway 11 north to North Bay and then westwards to what is now Thunder Bay. During the War of 1812, the road was extended from Lake Simcoe to Penetanguishine to provide land access to Lake Huron. Today, the lake is well know for catches of trout, whitefish and muskelonge, and is popular for winter ice fishing.
On Lake Simcoe, boaters have access to the city of Barrie at its western end, and on the eastern end is the town of Orillia. To the north of Lake Simcoe, you pass through the Narrows into 16 kilometre (10 mi) Lake Couchiching, which has the resort town of Orillia at its southwest corner. Orillia was often written about by humourist Stephen Leacock, including in his “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town” Lake Couchiching Park features a 1925 monument with a 12 foot bronze statue of Samuel de Champlain who passed by this point in 1615.
At the northern end of the lake you pass the community of Washago, and enter the rugged 32 km (20 mile) Severn River, which passes boaters through 5 locks before reaching Georgian Bay. At Big Rapids, boaters drop 14 m (47 feet), with the 1919 marine railway replaced by locks in 1965. At Big Chute, boaters travel on a marine railway, first built in 1919 and rebuilt in 1977 (to handle boats up to 100 ft in length) which climbs 19 m (58 feet) in 182 metres (600 ft).
At the western end of the canal, the waterway cuts through red granite rocks, topped by white birch trees and dark green pines. This rustic scenery was popularized in the early 1900s by the artists known as the Group of Seven.
Vessels can also get electric power hookup at Percy Reach, Lakefield, Rosedale, Bolsover, Couchiching, Swift Rapids
Directly across from Honey Harbour.
Take Highway 11 south then west on Honey Harbour Rd. to Honey Harbour. The Park Information Office has details and maps. Paddle west through Big Dog Channel, between Little Beausoleil Island and Roberts Island, making camp on Tonch Point. Or you can head northwest up the main channel, and then left through Little Dog Channel, camping at Blueberry, Sandpiper, or Chimney Bay campsites. You may decide to paddle up the main channel, between Beausoleil and Deer Islands, making camp on either Cherry, Godettes, or Honeymoon Bay.
Trent Severn Attractions
Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site
P.O. Box 567
Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 6Z6
Toll-free in North America1-888-773-8888,
Fax: (705) 742 9644
Lock 44 on the Trent-Severn Canal
Boaters travel on a marine railway, first built in 1919 and rebuilt in 1977 (to handle boats up to 100 ft in length) which climbs 19 m (58 feet) in 182 metres (600 ft).
Lock 21 – Peterborough Lift Lock
One of only two hydraulic lift locks on the Waterway, Lock 21 is the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world , raising/lowering boats 19.8 m (65 ft). Opened on July 9, 1904, it leaves a visible and lasting impact on Peterborough’s landscape. Quiet overnight mooring is located at the upper level. There are plenty of services within a 10-minute walk to the East City area of Peterborough.
Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site
235 John Street North
Gravenhurst ON P1P 1G4
705-687-4261 or 1-888-773-8888
Dr. Norman Bethune is a revered icon to China, and a medical pioneer and political activist, during China’s revolutionary war. Dr. Norman Bethune’s lasting worldwide influence is on display in a perfectly preserved Victorian-era home and interactive Visitor Centre.
Directly across from Honey Harbour.
Take Highway 11 south then west on Honey Harbour Rd. to Honey Harbour.
The Park Information Office has details and maps. Paddle west through Big Dog Channel, between Little Beausoleil Island and Roberts Island, making camp on Tonch Point. Or you can head northwest up the main channel, and then left through Little Dog Channel, camping at Blueberry, Sandpiper, or Chimney Bay campsites. You may decide to paddle up the main channel, between Beausoleil and Deer Islands, making camp on either Cherry, Godettes, or Honeymoon Bay.