The Welland Canal, a major shipping route in North America, in nearby southern Ontario, is a unique engineering marvel. People travel from all over the world to see the canal in operation.
Since the canal is less than a 45 minute drive from the border, western New Yorkers can easily explore the canal and the surrounding area in a day. There are several viewing platforms along the 26 mile route, as well as recreational trails, museums, stores and restaurants. A scenic driving route takes you along the canal through four cities from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie.
History of the Canal
If you study a map of the United States and Canada, you can see that ships from the Atlantic Ocean can travel inland through the St. Lawrence Seaway into Lake Ontario. However, at the turn of the 19th century, the furthest inland they could proceed was the lower Niagara River; as Niagara Falls presented a barrier to the remaining four Great Lakes.
The Welland Canal Company, founded by William Hamilton Merritt, began the construction of the first Welland Canal between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie in 1824. It took five years to dig it by hand, connecting a series of creeks and rivers. It had 39 small locks with wooden gates. Once it opened in 1829, ships were able to sail the rest of the Great Lakes region.
Of course, over time, ships got bigger and the canal had to be enlarged to accommodate them. It was rebuilt three times, in 1845, 1887, and in 1932. The last major construction project on the canal was about 30 years ago; when a new channel was dug to bypass the downtown section of the city of Welland.
Today the canal has seven lift locks, each measuring 859 feet long, 80 feet wide and 80 feet high. The eighth lock, a regulating lock located in Port Colborne, is 1,380 feet long, one of the longest locks in the world. It takes about 21 million gallons of water to fill a lock in about 10 minutes. A ship’s travel time through the canal, from lake to lake is about 8-10 hours, with approximately 30 minutes to enter, be raised or lowered and exit a lock. The canal is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from April to December.
Two types of ships can be seen traveling the waters of the canal: “lakers,” which sail the Great Lakes region and “salties,” ocean going vessels that hail from all over the world. While the majority of ships that use the canal are cargo ships; cruise ships, barges and pleasure crafts are permitted.
The terminus of the first three Welland Canals was located several miles west of the present-day terminus of Port Weller on Lake Ontario, in the Old Port Dalhousie section of St. Catharines. Although Port Dalhousie is not technically on today’s canal, it’s a great place to begin your journey; it has numerous restaurants, shops, a large beach and an antique carrousel that you can ride for only five cents. A restaurant of note here is Marie’s Seafood Dining Room (1 Lock St., 416-934-1677) which is noted for its seafood and lobster.
From Port Dalhousie, head east on Lakeshore Rd. to Bunting Rd., which connects to the Welland Canals Parkway, a scenic route that follows the canal. While you really can’t pull over here, you will get your first glimpse of the canal as you drive, and perhaps see a freighter or two. A recreational hiking and biking trail also runs parallel to the canal; a brochure is available from St. Catharines Recreational Community Services, 905-5937-7210.
Continue on the parkway to the Welland Canals Center, located at Lock 3. The observation deck here is the best place to view the ships on the canal. Check the posting of the daily ship schedule to see when a ship will be passing through the lock. You may want to call ahead (1-800-305-5134) before leaving home, so you can time your visit to coincide when a ship is in the lock. Some days only one or two navigate the canal, while on others; there may be a dozen or more ships.
The center also houses the St. Catharines Museum, which has information about local history as well as canal history, and the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum (admission is charged for these museums.), as well as a snack bar, gift shop and tourist information center.
The city of Thorold is referred to as “the place where ships climb the mountain,” as it is here that ships pass through a set of three twinned locks, allowing them to climb the Niagara Escarpment, the same ridge of rock that Niagara Falls flows over.
As you approach Thorold from the north, you will see a parking lot at your left just before Locks 4, 5 and 6, where you can observe ships in the locks. A short distance away, you will find the viewing platform by Lock 7. Be sure to check out the “Kissing Rock” at the Lock 7 Viewing Complex. Legend has it that sailor, Charles Snelgrove started the tradition of saying goodbye to ladies he met in port by bringing them to the rock in Thorold and kissing them good bye. Soon, other sailors followed the tradition with their wives and girlfriends; considering it bad luck to leave Lock 7 without visiting the Kissing Rock.
The Inn at Lock 7 offers unique accommodations, as you can watch ships “climb the mountain” from the balcony of your room. The inn has 24 air-conditioned rooms, each with a view of the canal.
The Thorold Tunnel, on Hwy 58, built in 1968 to relieve traffic congestion when ships passed through the canal, is one of three tunnels that cross under the Welland Canal. Two other tunnels can be found in the city of Welland.
The city of Welland is located right on the canal; as a matter of fact, until 1973, when a by-pass channel was built, ships sailed right through downtown Welland. The old section of the canal is now used as a recreational waterway.
Welland is probably best known for the almost 30 murals that are located throughout the downtown area, mainly in the vicinity of East Main Street, which depict scenes from Welland’s history.
Welland, officially known as the “Rose City” celebrates its annual Rose Festival June 1-11, 2006 in Chippewa Park, which has one of the finest rose gardens in Ontario. One variety in the garden is the “City of Welland Rose,” a yellow blend hybrid tea rose.
In the fall, Welland hosts the Niagara Food Festival, billed as the Niagara Peninsula’s tastiest party, which features foods and wines from restaurants and wineries throughout the region. To learn more about the city of Welland and the history of the canal, stop by the Welland Historical Museum & Niagara Children’s Museum.
The Welland Canal Lock 8 at Port Colborne is a regulating lock, which raises or lowers ships only a few feet, depending on the water level of Lake Erie. The park surrounding the lock has an elevated viewing platform. Take a stroll along the West Street Promenade, a waterfront shopping district, to view the canal up close.
Other points of interest in Port Colborne include the Port Colborne Historical and Marine Museum Heritage Village (905-834-7604, 280 King St.) which features several historical buildings, including Anabella’s Tea Room, which serves an afternoon tea June-September. During the summer months, nearby Nickel Beach on Lake Avenue is a popular spot. Port Colborne’s annual Canal Days Marine Heritage festival takes place August 4-7, 2006.
For St. Catharines and Thorold, cross over the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and take HWY 405 to the QEW. For Thorold and the lock viewing complexes, exit at Glendale Ave. There are several St. Catharines exits; for Port Dalhousie take exit 47. For Port Colborne and Welland, cross over the Peace Bridge and take Hwy 3 to Port Colborne; for Welland, take West Side Rd. north from Port Colborne.
If you go
Welland Canals Centre, (905-984-8880, 800-30505134) 1932 Welland Canals Parkway, St. Catharines. Open daily 9-5, April-December. The St. Catharines Museum is open year-round (weekends only in winter).
Port Dalhousie Business Association (905-937-4783, ).
St. Catharines Tourism (905-984-9882, 800-305-5134) 50 Church St., St. Catharines.
Thorold Lock 7 Viewing Complex (905-680-9477)
Inn at Lock 7 (905-227-6177, 1-877-465-6257) 24 Chapel St., S. Thorold.
Tourism of Welland Niagara (905-735-8696) 800 Niagara St. N., Welland.
Welland Historical Museum & Niagara Children’s Museum (905-732-2215) 65 Hooker St., Welland.
Port Colborne City Hall (888-767-8386) 66 Charlotte St.
www.wellandcanal.ca has a photo archive of ships.