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The Professional Tourist

by Jim Park

Laid over? Got a bit of time on your hands? One of the greatest advantages we have as truck drivers is getting paid for traveling around this great country of ours. While you're out there, why not partake of some of the sights along the way. Sure, trucking's all about making a living, but you'll never regret building a stash of memories for those cold winter evenings, many years from now, when the grandchildren ask what you did in the olden days.

Southern Ontario: The Welland Canal

Should you find yourself holed up for a weekend at the Fifth Wheel in Grimsby, Ont., or perhaps the Husky in St Catharines, Ont., why not check out one of the greatest engineering marvels this country has to offer: The Welland Canal.

One can hardly make the trip from Hamilton to Buffalo without noticing the Welland Canal, or at least the bridge that keeps traffic flowing above the busy canal, some 200 feet below. That canal is actually the forth waterway to bear the name Welland Canal.

The first of the four canals was conceived in 1799 when local businessmen proposed the construction of a artificial channel from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario to provide an adequate supply of water to operate the grist and lumber mills which were springing up in the area. It also struck those businessmen that the channel could be developed into a canal, with locks, to help ships traverse the 330 ft. difference between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

In 1824, William Hamilton Merritt and 45 other shareholders formed the Welland Canal Company with less than 40,000 pounds Sterling as capital. Five years later, the schooner 'Anne and Jane' from York, Ont, (Toronto), became the first ship ever to sail between the two lower Great Lakes. The route followed by the first canal was a little different from the present route. In fact, the QEW passes over Chippewa Creek about 10 miles east of St. Catharines, which was the inland route from the Niagara River to the man-made canal that turns north toward Lake Ontario just south of the city of Thorold.

The 27 mile long waterway included 40, 110 ft.long, wooden, hand-operated locks and was built at a cost of $8 million. By 1840, demand on the canal dictated that a more efficient means of moving freight had to be devised. So, work on the second canal began in 1842. This time, a more direct route was chosen to ease navigation and to provide a more consistent supply of water. The second canal originated at Port Colborne on lake Erie, and terminated at Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario.

The second canal featured locally quarried and cut limestone blocks instead of wood. The locks were increased to 150 ft in length and 26.5 ft wide, while the total number of locks was reduced to 27 from 40. This version was fully opened to shipping in 1854, but again, demand forced a third canal into existence. Plans were drawn up and another realignment was adopted in order to reduce the impact to shipping during the construction, and sod began to turn by 1873.

Progress being what it is, the locks along the third canal were even larger still: 207 ft long by 45 ft wide and 14 ft deep. This canal can rightfully claim the most colorful history of the four canals. An attempt to blow up Lock 24 at Thorold by three American operatives, thought to be in league with developers of the Erie Canal, nearly succeeded in severely curtailing the shipping season of 1900. Twelve years later, a ship bumped the gates of the upper lock of Lock 22 and sent a wall of water cascading downstream, drowning three boys who were playing along the banks of the canal. Then in 1928, a lock gate collapsed killing 20 workers. All the while, the third canal was becoming quietly obsolete. Just too small.

Construction on the forth, and present, canal began in 1913, and was completed in 1932. Again the number of locks was reduced, from 26 to seven, while the size of the locks was dramatically increased to 766 ft long, 80 ft wide and 27 ft deep. The northern terminus was moved from Port Dalhousie to Port Weller, several miles to the east, and in March 1973, a bypass around the City of Welland was completed, making the entire channel nearly completely straight and much less susceptible to traffic jams.

Anyone interested in the operation of the present canal system will enjoy the Welland Canal Visitor's Centre, located on Government Road at Lock Three. Government Road runs adjacent to the length of the canal, and boasts plenty of opportunity to stop, park and watch a ship from practically anywhere in the world pass through the system. For the more energetic enthusiast, a paved cycling/rollerblading path also runs from Port Weller to the City of Thorold.

For the history buff, all four canals are still well preserved and worthy of a day on the trail. The remaining sections of the third canal lie behind the General Motors plant off of Glendale Ave, while the Merritt trail follows almost the entire length of the second canal from Port Dalhousie to Lake Gibson, south of the City of Thorold.

To find all these historical treasures, get rid of the wagon and exit the QEW at Glendale Ave, located at the south end of the Garden City Skyway in St. Catharines and go south to the lift bridge. Just before the bridge, you'll see GM on the left. A small overpass crosses the third canal at this point, and a haul road into GM is a handy place to park the truck while you go for a walk. After crossing the bridge, turn right and go about two miles to the Visitor's Centre, or to access the historical Merritt Trail, follow Glendale Ave. to the first light, turn left then immediately turn right. Drive past Domtar paper, and directly across from the Jumbo Video store you'll see a gravel drive on the right with a small parking lot about 1/4 of a mile in. Plenty of room to park a tractor. Get out and walk among the ruins of one of Canada's most significant, and most neglected, engineering triumphs. Enjoy!

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