On today’s date in 1932, the fourth and current Welland Canal—officially known as the Welland Ship Canal—opened to traffic in the Niagara Region.
The 43-kilometre canal traverses the Niagara Peninsula from Port Weller to Port Colborne, connecting the northern Lake Ontario with the southern Lake Erie, the latter of which is about 100 metres higher in elevation. The canal includes eight 24.4-metre-wide ship locks, seven of which (Locks 1–7, also known as the “lift locks”) are more than 230 metres long and raise or lower passing ships between 13 metres and 15 metres each. The southernmost lock (Lock 8, also known as the “guard lock”) is nearly 350 metres in length.
Each year, about 40 million tonnes of cargo are carried through the Welland Canal by about 3,000 ocean and Great Lakes vessels. Throughout the 19th century, it heavily contributed to the growth of Toronto, which is located on Lake Ontario’s north-west coast. The original canal, which dates back to about 1830, allowed goods to be shipped from other Great Lakes ports and major industrial cities to either Montréal or Québec, where they could be reloaded onto ocean-faring vessels for international shipping.
There were three previous canals in the Welland area dating back to about 1830; however, its roots can be traced back to 1824, when the Welland Canal Company was incorporated in Upper Canada after a petition by nine “freeholders of the District of Niagara.”
FIRST TRIAL RUN IN 1829
Construction began in Allanburg, Ont. shortly after the petition was signed, and on Nov. 30, 1829–exactly five years after the ground-breaking in 1824–the canal opened for a trial run. It ran from Port Dalhousie, leaving Lake Ontario and traveling south along Twelve Mile Creek to St. Catharines, where it wound up the Niagara Escarpment through Merritton and into Thorold, where it continued south via Allanburg to Port Robinson along the Welland River.
Ships then traveled east on the Welland River to Chippawa, where they made a sharp turn into the Niagara River and south towards Lake Erie. The section between Allanburg and Port Robinson was originally planned as a subterranean tunnel, but the sandy soil made the project infeasible.
In 1833, a southern extension from Port Robinson opened with the founding of Port Colborne on the north coast of Lake Erie. The extension ran south along the Welland River to Welland, which was then only a small settlement called Aqueduct, the name of which paid tribute to the wooden aqueduct that carried the canal over the river. The extension then split south to Port Colborne.
In 1974, Canada’s Post Office Department (now Canada Post) commemorated the Welland Canal and one of Niagara’s freeholders, William H. Merritt, on an eight-cent stamp (Scott #655) to mark the centenary of the famed shipping route. Printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company and American Bank Note Company, the multi-coloured stamps have general tagging along two opposing sides. The issue was designed by William Rueter and depicts life along the Welland Canal in 1824.