The Welland Canals is one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. In 1824, William Hamilton Merritt, a prominent businessman formed the Welland Canal Company to link Lake Erie and Lake Ontario for the purposes of trade. This would circumvent Niagara Falls, and also provide a more reliable water supply for the saw and gristmills along the Twelve Mile Creek.
The Welland Canal officially opened in 1829, connecting Port Colborne on Lake Erie, with Port Dalhousie St Catharines on Lake Ontario. It soon generated a shipbuilding industry which bolstered the local economy. This canal was the first of four canals to be built between 1829 and 1932, which over time got re-aligned to the east of both Welland and St Catharines. Ships transit the canal from April to December, during which time the Great Lakes (and the St Lawrence Seaway) are not covered in ice.
Shortly after opening, the canal was extended south from Thorold to Port Colborne, bypassing the fast waters of the Niagara. In 1841, the canal (the “Second Welland Canal“) was widened and deepened to handle the new and larger steamboats on the Great Lakes, with locks 150 feet (45 m) long, 26 feet (8m) wide, and a dept of 9 ft (2.7m). The Third Welland Canal bypassed 12 Mile Creek and Port Dalhousie, taking a more direct path down the Escarpment, with lock that were 270 ft (82m) 45 ftt (13.7m) wide and 14 ft (4.3 m) deep. The Fourth Welland Canal was begin in 1913, but delayed because of World War I, and was not completed until 1932. Today’s locks are 766 ft (233m) long 80 ft (24m) wide and 27 ft (8.2m) deep. In the early 1970’s the route was straightened between Port Robinson (NE of Welland) and Port Colborne, not only eliminating several curves but bypassed the City of Welland and eliminated bridges, by using tunnels for cross-traffic by road or rail. The Welland canal drops 99.5 m (326.5 feet) and accounts from half the drop between Lake Superior’s Lakehead and the Atlantic sea level (reached at Quebec City).
Today, you can experience the Welland Canal at four spots: In Port Colborne, where ships enter from Lake Erie, at Welland, where you can see the old Welland Canal bisecting the City, and at St Catharines, where a series of 7 locks are used to lift boats from Lake Ontario up the Niagara Escarpment, and in Old Port Dalhousie, which still retains the look & spirit of the early Welland Canal era.
In St Catharines, you can drive the Welland Canals Parkway from Lock 1 at Lake Ontario or follow the route on foot or bicycle along the paved trail. The Welland Canals Centre at Lock 3 is home to the St. Catharines Museum with various interactive exhibits that trace the history of the canals and city. At Lock 3 of the present-day canal, the viewing platform lets you observe the mechanics of a working lock and many styles of ships that pass through the canal. Open year-round, daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day
Old Port Dalhousie is a picturesque harbour front community, with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and historic sites. This is where tall ships once entered the first three Welland Canals. Port Dalhousie is a living museum of the 19th Century architecture, with the lighthouses on the pier, shops, restaurants, theatre and a 5 cent carousel along the restored waterfront promenade. For the past 100 years the community has hosted rowers from around the world in the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta.