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Welland Canal

Welland Canal
A ship transits the Welland Canal in St. Catharines, with the Homer Lift Bridge and Garden City Skyway in background.
Length 27 miles (43 km)
Maximum boat length 740 ft 0 in (225.6 m)
Maximum boat beam 78 ft 0 in (23.8 m)
Locks 8
Status Open
Navigation authority Saint Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation
Original owner Welland Canal Company
Principal engineer Hiram Tibbetts
Construction began 1824
Date completed 1830
Date extended 1833
Date restored 1932
Start point Lake Ontario at Port Weller
End point Lake Erie at Port Colborne

The Welland Canal is a ship canal in Ontario, Canada, connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Traversing the Niagara Peninsula from Port Weller to Port Colborne, the canal forms a key section of the St. Lawrence Seaway, enabling ships to ascend and descend the Niagara Escarpment and bypass Niagara Falls.

Approximately 40,000,000 tonnes of cargo are carried through the Welland Canal annually by a traffic of about 3,000 ocean and Great Lakes vessels. This canal was a major factor in the growth of the city of Toronto. The original canal and its successors allowed goods from Great Lakes ports such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, as well as heavily industrialized areas of the United States and Ontario, to be shipped to the port of Montreal or to Quebec City, where they were usually reloaded onto ocean-going vessels for international shipping.

By providing a relatively short and direct connection to Lake Erie, the Welland Canal eclipsed other, narrower canals in the region as a commercial traffic route for Great Lakes navigation, such as the Trent-Severn Waterway and, significantly, the Erie Canal, which linked the Atlantic and Lake Erie via New York City and Buffalo, New York.

The southern, Lake Erie terminus of the canal is 99.5 metres (326 feet) higher than the northern terminus on Lake Ontario. The canal includes eight 24.4 metres (80 feet)-wide ship locks.[1] Seven of the locks (Locks 1–7, the 'Lift locks') are 233.5 metres (766 feet) long and raise (or lower) passing ships by between 43 (13.01 m) and 49 feet (15 m) each. The southernmost lock, (Lock 8 – the 'Guard' or 'Control' lock) is 349.9 m (1,148 ft) in length.[2] The Garden City Skyway passes over the canal, restricting the maximum height of the masts of the ships allowed on this canal to 35.5 metres (116 feet). All other highway or railroad crossings of the Welland Canal are either movable bridges (of the vertical lift or bascule bridge types) or subterranean tunnels. The maximum permissible length of a ship in this canal is 225.5 metres (740 feet). It takes ships an average of about eleven hours to traverse the entire length of the Welland Canal.


  • History 1
    • First Welland Canal 1.1
    • Second Welland Canal 1.2
    • Third Welland Canal 1.3
    • Fourth (current) Welland Canal 1.4
    • Fifth (proposed but uncompleted) Welland Canal 1.5
  • Accidents 2
  • Sabotage 3
  • Shipping season 4
  • Facts and figures 5
    • Current canal 5.1
    • Increasing lock size 5.2
    • List of locks and crossings 5.3
      • Old alignment prior to Welland By-pass relocation 5.3.1
  • Profile 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Before the digging of the Welland Canal, shipping traffic between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie used a portage road between Chippawa, Ontario, and Queenston, Ontario, both of which are located on the Niagara River—above and below Niagara Falls, respectively.

First Welland Canal

The Welland Canal Company was incorporated by the Province of Upper Canada, in 1824, after a petition by nine "freeholders of the District of Niagara". One of the petitioners was William Hamilton Merritt, who was in part looking to provide a regular flow of water for his watermills. The construction began at Allanburg, Ontario, on November 30, at a point now marked as such on the west end of Bridge No. 11 (formerly Highway 20). This canal opened for a trial run on November 30, 1829 (exactly five years, to the day, after the ground-breaking in 1824). After a short ceremony at Lock One, in Port Dalhousie, the schooner Anne & Jane (also called "Annie & Jane" in some texts[3]) made the first transit, upbound to Buffalo, N.Y., with Merritt as a passenger on her deck. The first canal ran from Port Dalhousie, Ontario on Lake Ontario south along Twelve Mile Creek to St. Catharines. From there it took a winding route up the Niagara Escarpment through Merritton, Ontario to Thorold, where it continued south via Allanburg to Port Robinson, Ontario on the Welland River. Ships went east (downstream) on the Welland River to Chippawa, at the south (upper) end of the old portage road, where they made a sharp right turn into the Niagara River, upstream towards Lake Erie. Originally, the section between Allanburg and Port Robinson was planned to be carried in a subterranean tunnel. However, the sandy soil in this part of Ontario made a tunnel infeasible, and a deep open-cut canal was dug instead.

A southern extension from Port Robinson opened in 1833, with the founding of Port Colborne. This extension followed the Welland River south to Welland (known then as the settlement of Aqueduct, for the wooden aqueduct that carried the canal over the Welland River at that point), and then split to run south to Port Colborne on Lake Erie. A feeder canal ran southwest from Welland to another point on Lake Erie, just west of Rock Point Provincial Park. With the opening of the extension, the canal stretched 44 km (27 mi) between the two lakes, with 40 wooden locks. The minimum lock size was 33.5 by 6.7 m (110 by 22 ft), with a minimum canal depth of 2.4 m (7.9 ft).

Deterioration of the wood used in the 40 locks and the increasing size of ships led to demand for the Second Welland Canal, which used cut stone locks, within just a few years.[4]

Second Welland Canal

In 1839 the government of Upper Canada approved the purchase of shares in the private canal company in response to the company's continuing financial problems in the face of the continental financial panic of 1837. The public buyout was completed in 1841, and work began to deepen the canal and to reduce the number of locks to 27, each 45.7 by 8.1 m (150 by 27 ft). By 1848, a 2.7 m (8.9 ft) deep path was completed, not only through the Welland Canal but also the rest of the way to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Competition came in 1854 with the opening of the Erie and Ontario Railway, running parallel to the original portage road. In 1859, the Welland Railway opened, parallel to the canal and with the same endpoints. But this railway was affiliated with the canal, and was actually used to help transfer cargoes from the lake ships, which were too large for the small canal locks, to the other end of the canal (The remnants of this railway are today owned by the Trillium RR). Smaller ships called "canallers" also took a part of these loads. Due to this problem, it was soon apparent that the canal would have to be enlarged again.

Third Welland Canal

In 1887, a new shorter alignment was completed between St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie. One of the most interesting features of this third Welland Canal was the Merritton Tunnel on the Grand Trunk Railway line that ran under the canal at Lock 18. Another tunnel, nearby, carried the canal over a sunken section of the St David's Road. The new route had a minimum depth of 4.3 m (14 ft) with 26 stone locks, each 82.3 m (270 ft) long by 13.7 m (45 ft) wide. Even so, the canal was still too small for many boats.

Fourth (current) Welland Canal

Construction on the current canal began in 1913 and was completed in 1932. The route was again changed north of St. Catharines, now running directly north to Port Weller. In this configuration, there are eight locks, seven at the Niagara Escarpment and the eighth, a guard lock, at Port Colborne to adjust with the varying water depth in Lake Erie. The depth was now 7.6 m (25 ft), with locks 233.5 m (766 ft) long by 24.4 m (80 ft) wide. This canal is officially known now as the Welland Ship Canal.

Fifth (proposed but uncompleted) Welland Canal

In the 1950s, with the building of the present St. Lawrence Seaway, a standard depth of 8.2 m (27 ft) was adopted. The 13.4-kilometre (8.3 mi) long Welland By-pass, built between 1967 and 1972, opened for the 1973 shipping season, providing a new and shorter alignment between Port Robinson and Port Colborne and by-passing downtown Welland. All three crossings of the new alignment—one an aqueduct for the Welland River—were built as tunnels. Around the same time, the Thorold Tunnel was built at Thorold and several bridges were removed. These projects were to be tied into a proposed new canal, titled the Fifth Welland Canal, which was planned to by-pass most of the existing canal to the east and to cross the Niagara Escarpment in one large superlock. While land for the project was expropriated and the design finalized, the project never got past the initial construction stages and has since been shelved. The present (4th) canal is scheduled to be replaced by 2030, almost exactly 100 years after it first opened, and 200 years since the first full shipping season, in 1830, of the original canal.


The Welland Canal connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie through a series of eight locks, allowing ships to bypass the Niagara Falls, 51-meters high.
A ship in Lock 3 of the Welland Canal in St. Catharines, just south of the Homer Lift Bridge and Garden City Skyway
Aerial photo of Port Dalhousie from the third canal era. 3rd canal lock at left, 2nd canal lock at right. Note 3rd canal towpath at upper left and Muir brothers' ship yard centre right.
A lock of the second Welland Canal
Abandoned locks of the third canal
MS Isa lifted in Lock 7
Lock 3 Observation Centre of the current Welland Canal (facing North).
Lock 7 Observation Centre (Thorold).

On June 20, 1912, the government survey steamer "La Canadienne" lost control due to mechanical problems in the engine room and smashed into the upstream gates of Lock No. 22 of the 3rd Welland Canal, forcing them open by six inches. The resulting surge of water flooded downstream, cresting the upstream gates of Lock No. 21 where 5 boys were fishing. One boy ran to safety, one of the boys, David Boucke was saved by a government surveyor Hugh McGuire. But the remaining three, Willie Wallace Tifney (age 5), Willie Tacke (age 5) and Leonard Bretwick (age 4)[5] were knocked into the water, drowning in the surge.

On August 25, 1974, the northbound ore-carrier Steelton struck Bridge 12 in Port Robinson. The bridge was rising and the impact knocked the bridge over, destroying it. No one was killed. The bridge has not been replaced and the inhabitants of Port Robinson have been served by a ferry for many years. The Welland Public Library archive has images of the aftermath.

On August 11, 2001, the lake freighter Windoc collided with Bridge 11 in Allanburg, closing vessel traffic on the Welland Canal for two days. The accident destroyed the ship's wheelhouse and funnel (chimney), ignited a large fire on board, and caused minor damage to the vertical lift bridge. The accident and portions of its aftermath were captured on amateur video.[6] The vessel was a total loss, but there were no reported injuries, and no pollution to the waterway. The damage to the bridge was focused on the centre of the vertical-lift span. It was repaired over a number of weeks and reopened to vehicular traffic on November 16, 2001. The Marine Investigation Report concluded, "it is likely that the [vertical lift bridge] operator's performance was impaired while the bridge span was lowered onto the Windoc."[7][8]

At around noon on Wednesday September 30, 2015, the Lena J cargo ship collided with Bridge 19 in Port Colborne, closing the bridge to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic until an assessment could be made on the condition of the bridge.[9][10] The vessel had sustained damage to its bridge, but was still able to continue on its voyage to Burns Harbour, Indiana. Pictures of the damage sustained to the vessel and Bridge 19 were captured.[11] On Friday October 1, 2015, Chris Lee, an acting direct engineer for the City of Port Colborne, said that the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) will likely close the bridge to all vehicle traffic until the end of the year. However, pedestrians will be able to cross the bridge, and emergency services will be able to cross the bridge on a limited basis.[12][13][14][15] On Tuesday October 6th, 2015, the City of Port Colborne released a media statement, which stated that Bridge 19, "will remain closed to vehicular traffic until after the close of the shipping season in December. Repairs will begin in early January." Detour routes have been planned and mapped by the City of Port Colborne and the City of Welland in order to ease the flow of traffic over Bridge 19A.[16][17]


The Welland Canal has been the focus of plots on a number of occasions throughout its existence. However, only two have ever been carried out. The earliest and potentially most devastating attack occurred on September 9, 1841[18] at Lock No. 37 (Allanburg) of the First Welland Canal (), [approximately 180m north of today's Allanburg bridge][19] when an explosive charge destroyed one of the lock gates. However, a catastrophic flood was prevented when a guard gate located upstream of the lock closed into place preventing the upstream waters from careening down the route of the Canal and causing further damage and possible injury or loss of life. It was suspected that Benjamin Lett was responsible for the explosion.

On April 21, 1900 about 6:30 in the evening,[20] a dynamite charge was set off against the hinges of Lock No. 24 of the Third Welland Canal (just to the east of Lock No. 7 of today's canal ()), doing minor damage. This time, the saboteurs were caught in nearby Thorold. John Walsh, John Nolan and the ringleader "Dynamite" Luke Dillon (a member of Clan-na-Gael)[21] were tried at the Welland Courthouse and found guilty, receiving life sentences at Kingston Penitentiary. The "star witness" at the trial was a 16-year-old Thorold girl named Euphemia Constable, who caught a good look at the bombers before being knocked unconscious by the blast. While waiting to testify, the girl received death threats, but, they turned out to be a hoax. As for the prisoners, Nolan lost his sanity while incarcerated, John Walsh was eventually released while Luke Dillon remained in custody until July 12, 1914[22]

The First World War brought with it plots against the canal and the most notable of them came to be known as "The Von Papen Plot". In April 1916, a United States federal grand jury issued an indictment against Franz von Papen, Captain Hans Tauscher, Captain Karl Boy-Ed, Constantine Covani, and Franz von Rintelen on charges of a plot to blow up the Welland Canal.[23][24][25] However, Papen was at the time safely on German soil, having been expelled from the US several months previously for alleged earlier acts of espionage and attempted sabotage.

Von Papen remained under indictment on these charges until he became Chancellor of Germany in 1932, at which time the charges were dropped.

Shipping season

The Welland Canal closes in winter (January–March) when ice or weather conditions become a hazard to navigation. The shipping season re-opens in spring when the waters are once again safe. In 2007, the season opened on the earliest date ever, March 20, just hours ahead of the vernal equinox.

Facts and figures

Current canal

  • Maximum vessel length: 225.5 m (740 ft)
  • Maximum draft: 8.2 m (27 ft)
  • Maximum above-water clearance: 35.5 m (116 ft)
  • Elevation change between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie: 99.5 m (326 ft)
  • Average transit time between the lakes: 11 hours
  • Length of canal: 43.5 km (27.0 mi)

Increasing lock size

Canal First (1829) Second (1848) Third (1887) Fourth (1932)
Locks 40 27 26 8
Width (metres) 6.7 8.1 13.7 24.4
Length (metres) 33.5 45.7 82.3 261.8
Depth (metres) 2.4 2.7 4.3 8.2

List of locks and crossings

Locks and crossings are numbered from north to south.

Municipality Lock or bridge number Crossing Remarks
St. Catharines Lock 1
St. Catharines Bridge 1 Lakeshore Road (Regional Road 87)
St. Catharines Bridge 2 Church Road (Now Linwell Road) Never installed
St. Catharines Lock 2
St. Catharines Bridge 3A Carlton Street (Regional Road 83) Replaced original Bridge 3 (destroyed in accident)
St. Catharines Bridge 4A Garden City Skyway: Queen Elizabeth Way
St. Catharines Bridge 4 Queenston Street (Regional Road 81) (former Highway 8) also known as "Homer Lift Bridge"
St. Catharines Lock 3
location of Welland Canal Information Centre
St. Catharines Bridge 5 Glendale Avenue (Regional Road 89)
St Catharines Bridge 6 Great Western Railway (Ontario)
(now Canadian National Railway)
St Catharines Lock 4 twinned flight lock
Thorold Locks 5–6
twinned flight locks
Thorold Lock 7
southernmost lift over the Niagara Escarpment
Thorold Bridge 7 Hoover Street removed
Thorold Bridge 8 Niagara Central Railway
(now Canadian National Railway)
Thorold Thorold Tunnel, carries Highway 58
Thorold Bridge 9 Ormond Street removed
Thorold Bridge 10 Welland Railway
(now Canadian National Railway)
removed winter 1998
Thorold Bridge 11 Canboro Road (Regional Road 20) (former Highway 20) lowered prematurely on Windoc in 2001
Thorold Bridge 12 Bridge Street (Regional Road 63) destroyed by the Steelton in 1974
Welland Main Street Tunnel: (Highway 7146)
Welland Townline Tunnel: Highway 58A and Canadian National Railway/Penn Central
Port Colborne Bridge 19 Main Street (Regional Road 3) Highway 3
Port Colborne Lock 8
control lock
Port Colborne Bridge 19A Mellanby Avenue (Regional Road 3A)
Port Colborne Bridge 20 Buffalo and Lake Huron Railroad
(now Canadian National Railway)
removed winter 1997
Port Colborne Bridge 21 Clarence Street

Old alignment prior to Welland By-pass relocation

Municipality Bridge Number Crossing Remarks
Welland Recreational Waterway branches off from the Welland By-pass at Port Robinson
Thorold Canadian National Railway built during the relocation
Thorold Highway 406 built after the relocation
Welland Woodlawn Road (Regional Road 41) built after the relocation
Welland Bridge 13 East Main Street/West Main Street (Regional Road 27) vertical lift bridge, counterweights removed
Welland Division Street (Regional Road 527) built after the relocation
Welland Bridge 14 Lincoln Street rebuilt as fixed-span after the relocation
Welland Bridge 15 Canada Southern Railway (Penn Central) rare Baltimore truss swing bridge[26]
Welland Bridge 16 Ontario Road/Broadway Avenue rebuilt as fixed-span after the relocation, the new span located to the north of the original site of Bridge 16
cut by western approaches to Townline Tunnel (Highway 58A and Canadian National Railway/Penn Central)
Welland Bridge 17 Canada Air-Line Railway (now Canadian National Railway) vertical lift bridge, counterweights still present
Welland Bridge 18 Forks Road vertical lift bridge, towers and counterweights removed
Welland Recreational Waterway merges with the Welland By-pass at Ramey's Bend in Port Colborne

If assigned by the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority. The original bridges across the fourth canal were numbered in order. Numbering was not changed as bridges were removed.


The following illustration depicts the profile of the Welland Canal. The horizontal axis is the length of the canal. The vertical axis is the elevation of the canal segments above mean sea level.

Profile of the Welland Canal from Lake Ontario (left) to Lake Erie (right)


  1. ^ "St. Lawrence Seaways System – Region Guide: Welland Canal Section" (Pdf). 
  2. ^ "The Welland Canal - Navigation, Locks, Distances, and Passage Information". 
  3. ^ Merrit, Jedediah (1875). Biography of the Hon. W. H. Merritt, M. P. St. Catherines: E. S. Leavenworth. p. 123. Retrieved 6 April 2015. 
  4. ^ Chambers, Melanie (26 February 2008). Frommer's Niagara Region. John Wiley & Sons. p. 199.  
  5. ^ "Three Boys Drowned When Steamer Broke Thru Gates Of Canal". Toronto World. June 21, 1912. 
  6. ^ "Windoc Bridge Accident". YouTube. 
  7. ^ "Transportation Safety Board of Canada - Marine Investigation Report M01C0054". 
  8. ^ "YouTube". 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
    A media release document, published by the City of Port Colborne on the status of Bridge 19 and Weir Bridge 8.
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Canal has been terrorist target: Brock prof". Niagara This Week. February 26, 2010. 
  19. ^
  20. ^ Clark The Irish relations: trials of an immigrant tradition, p.121
  21. ^ "Dynamite Luke among canal's terrorists". Welland Tribune. February 19, 2010. 
  22. ^ Clark The Irish relations: trials of an immigrant tradition, p.122
  23. ^ "Tauscher, Figure In 1916 Plot, Dies. Acquitted of Charges That He Planned to Blow Up Welland Canal in World War. Served Krupp Interests. Ex-Aide of von Papen Had Arms Firms Here. Husband of Johanna Gadski, Singer".  
  24. ^ "Indict Von Papen As Canal Plotter. Federal Jury Names Recalled Attache and Four Others in Welland Conspiracy. One Name is Kept Secret. Captain, Tauscher, Fritzen, Covani, and Another Accused".  
  25. ^ "Welland Canal Case". Information Annual. 1917. p. 652. Retrieved March 23, 2015. 
  26. ^ "Welland Railway Bridge". 

External links

  • – Detailed phototours of all Four Welland Canals
  • Survey maps of the First and Second Welland Canals at Brock University
  • Boat Traffic Site
  • "New Inland Canal Rivals Panama", February 1931, Popular Science
  • The Old Welland Canals Field Guide
  • Exploring the Old Welland Canals (Google map)
  • Railway Maps (includes details of the Welland Realignment)
  • The Welland Canal Section of the St. Lawrence Seaway (PDF)
  • Has information about Niagara Region bridges, including many Welland Canal Bridges.
  • Welland Public Library archive of canal history images & clippings
  • Images from the Historic Niagara Digital Collections
  • Art works from the collection of the Niagara Falls Public Library
  • "Windoc Bridge Accident." Youtube, 2006-09-30.
  • Al Miller, "Windoc Accident."

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