The Welland Canal

The Welland Canal we see today is the fourth in a series of five canals, the fifth one is still a proposal.

I've spent a lot of time around the canals, especially Lock 1 in St. Catharines, Ontario, and never tired of the sight of a towering lake freighter navigating its way into a lock and easing up or down to the next level. The locks and canal are almost completely accessible to the pubic and many locks have viewing platforms for this purpose. It is entirely possible to stand on the edge of the canal and put your hand on a passing freighter and marvel as it glides silently by.


Only the end of the freighter with the engines is noisy and they are so long that most of the vessel passes you by in silence except for the rushing of water as the freighter displaces the water around it.

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. [wiki]

The Canal path bypassing the Niagara River and Falls


Profile of the Welland Canal
Daniel M. Short
The mechanics that go into moving these huge vessels is simple in the extreme. Locks are just big boxes with valves. One to allow water in and one to allow water out.

...locks lift and lower with the help of gravity and large quantities of water. The force of gravity is used to fill or drain a lock moving about 20 million gallons of water in about 11 minutes. It is this movement of water that actually lifts or lowers a ship in a lock. The force of gravity is so strong that it draws this water a distance of 27 miles from lake Erie to Lake Ontario filling and draining the 8 locks in between. [source]

When the water starts being released from a lock, the churning water is an awesome thing to behold. It affects the level of water in the channel far down stream and it attracts gulls hoping for a quick catch of fish that have been caught in the maelstrom. I would have included a video of this but nobody but me seems to think this is an interesting aspect of the lock system. My videos are packed in boxes in the garage still. So we're out of luck.

Besides recreational craft and the occasional fleet of tall ships, the type of ship mainly using the locks are ocean going freighters and what we call 'lakers'. The lakers are the largest vessel to use the locks. They are manufactured to fit the locks as tightly as possible and give the captain about a foot on each side of the boat for maneuvering. If this sounds a bit like threading a needle, you're right. There is virtually no room for error sideways or end to end as there isn't much room that way either.

Ocean going vessel Photo: Steven Gardiner


Ocean going freighter

Besides size and flag of origin (one of my favourite things to catch sight of while watching ships in the lock), the difference between ocean and lake vessels is the bow. Ocean vessels have a sharp, curved bow for slicing waves and lakers are blunt nosed.

Most sailors on the vessels seem as curious about onlookers as we are about them and completely at ease answering questions about what they're carrying. Nearly always the answer had some relationship to mining and/or steel fabrication.

Laker Photo: Stephanie Fysh

Laker approaches raised bridge under Garden City Skyway

Lock 1 at Lake Ontario and beside Port Weller Dry Docks
Laker in lock 2
Note the lift bridge is up and the line up of cars waiting

If you notice the surrounding countryside here at Lock 2 you'll see a residential area with mature trees. The canal takes vessels through residential areas like this, quiet vineyards and farmland dotted with dairy cows. It was always entertaining to be sitting on a picnic table at Avondale Dairy H/O eating an ice cream cone in the middle of Niagara farmland and watching a freighter sailing placidly by like it was a really big neighbourhood cow out for a clandestine stroll.

Leisure craft eye view inside the lock. You can see the high water line on the gates

Locks 4, 5 and 6 are called the Flight Locks because they're arranged one after the other like a flight of stairs. There are two lanes for ship traffic and it's very dramatic. 

Flight Locks

Flight Locks

Flight Locks
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. And yes, you don't want to be on the wrong side of the lock system when things close down for the winter or you're stuck.

Here is a cool link to a navigation map where you can see exactly where there are ships on the St Lawrence-Great Lakes Seaway. There are tabs to get details about where there are ships in the Welland Canal, what their names are, destinations and last point of call.

[update: a reader thought this might be an interesting addition to this post]
On 11 August 2001, a laker (Windoc) collided with a lift bridge when the operator accidentally lowered the bridge before the ship cleared. Damage was done to the wheel house and funnel but there were no reported injuries to the crew or damage to the cargo.



Here are two videos focusing on navigating the lock system. The first one is a complete trip staring at Lock 8 at Lake Erie to Lock 1 at St. Catharines on Lake Ontario. The second is a closer look at a ship in a lock. Both are time lapsed. Enjoy!




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