The Canals
Table of Contents

Title Page
The Canals
The Sulpicians' Canal
The Military Canals
The First Commercial Canal
The Second Commercial Canal
The Third And Final Commercial Canal
The Canaller
The Future Of The Canaller
Table 5 Tabulation of Owners and Canallers
Table of Illustrations

The Second Commercial Canal

In 1833 government commissions were appointed to investigate navigational conditions on the river and to make recommendations as to the most effective improvements. Their report recommended that a uniform system of locks all 200 ft X 45 ft with 9 ft of water over the sills be constructed along the entire route.

The Cornwall canal was the first of the new canals to be undertaken but was not completed until 1843. A lack of co-ordination seems to have existed in this period as the Second Welland canal, begun in 1841 was built to much smaller dimensions, 150 ft X 26 1/2 ft X 9 ft and had to be completely rebuilt a few years later, in 1870, when the entire system was enlarged to 270 ft X 45 ft X 14 ft.

The Cornwall canal, overcoming one of the river's worst rapids, the Long Sault, was built on the site of the present canal which is, in fact, simply an enlargement of the first. The canal is 11 miles long with 6 locks and has guard gates at the west end at Dickenson's Landing.

The second stage of this development was the Beauharnois canal. This canal was built to by-pass the Coteau to Cascades rapids section and connected Lake St. Francis and Lake St. Louis. Many surveys, reports and inquiries were made before the Board of Public Works finally decided to abandon the old canals on the north shore and this new canal was commenced on the south shore immediately following the act of Union between Upper and Lower Canadas in 1841. The canal, which is still in existence though now disused, commences near the town of Valleyfield and sweeps in an arc to enter Lake St. Louis near the village of Beauharnois. This route is shown in Fig. 2. When the canal was completed in 1845, it was found that the depth of water at the upper entrance was insufficient and two dams eventually were built across the main channel of the St. Lawrence just below Valleyfield with a dyke along the low lying south shore of Lake St. Francis. These dams raised the water to a satisfactory level and the canal was operated until the completion of the Soulanges in 1899.

In 1843 work was started on the enlargement of the existing Lachine canal to the new dimensions, three of the old lower entrance locks being combined into two in the process. These two locks, with much modification, now form part of the present system. The lower locks were arranged for a depth of 16 ft enabling seagoing vessels to reach the industrial sites which were then developing along the line of the canal. The cost of this enlargement was $2,149,000 part of which was again contributed by the British Government.

Farther upstream a completely new series of canals was begun in 1846. These canals, now known as the Williamsburg canals, were built to overcome a series of rapids extending for about 30 miles. Boats were at that time able to ascend these rapids but, as in the case of the Iroquois it was a difficult operation for most ships and seriously depleted their cargo capacities when bound upstream.

The first of the series (the most easterly) was the Farran Point canal, just over 1 mile long and with one lock. Ten miles farther upstream the Rapide Plat canal, 4 miles long and with two locks, overcomes the Rapide Plat, a large stretch of rapids, after which a 4-mile stretch of navigable river leads to the Galop canal. This is the largest of the Williamsburg canals and is 7 1/2 miles long and has 3 locks. The canal was originally built in two sections, one at Cardinal and one at Iroquois but was subsequently made continuous by the junction canal along the river bank (2, 3).

By 1848 all of these improvements were completed and a continuous waterway existed with canals around all the difficult sections. The effect on the traffic on the canal was immediate and the figures given in Table 1 for the years 1848-1849 indicate the volume of westbound cargoes through the Lachine canal.

Westbound (all in long tons) 1848 1849
Railroad and pig iron 1870 11439
Earthenware 473 1047
Liquors 537 45
Sugar and molasses 627 990
Furniture, etc 620 918
Castings 4225 5565
Salt, coal 4863 6141
Merchandise 9864 12851
Building materials 76 415
23530 40738
Passengers 16040 20814
Vessels 2890 2763
Toll receipts 11,661 15,740

The completion of the chain of canals around all the important rapids signalled the beginning of a period of furious activity along the river and large numbers of ships were built to ply between the lake ports and Montreal.

Canallers were, at this time, vessels of about 175 ft maximum over-all length, with a beam of 35 ft and drawing about 8 ft. Those intended for the passage through to Lake Erie were restricted to about 135 ft in length to pass through the locks of the Second Welland Canal which was completed in 1845.

These ships were mainly sailing vessels, wood built and generally rigged as 2 or 3 masted schooners with a square rigged fore topsail, brigantines or barkentines.

Fig. 4 Sailing Vessels in Lachine Canal, about 1880
These rigs became almost standard in the lakes and canals after many years of experimenting. Square-rigged vessels proved to be unwieldy in the narrow channels and in the variable wind conditions of the lakes. The crew requirements of the square-rigged vessel were usually greater than those of schooner rig and this was an important factor in the highly competitive trade in the canals. The topsail schooner and brigantine represented a compromise between the two extremes, the square sails being of great value when running downstream under the prevailing westerly winds. In addition the schooner-type rig enabled the booms to be swung well out of the way when loading and discharging, whereas the mass of stays of the square rigger seriously hindered cargo handling. The bowsprit of these ships was frequently inclined upwards at a steep angle to clear the lock gates. This feature may be seen in Fig. 4, the forward vessel being a regular canal type with barkentine rig (see Fig. 5)

Fig. 5 Sailplan of the Barkentine James F. Joy of 1866. This type was common in the Lakes and Canals at that time.
These vessels were full formed with almost vertical sides and a small bilge radius, the sterns being cut up to a square-ended deck. The bow was built more nearly vertical than the ocean-going vessels of the period, in order to obtain the maximum displacement on the length available between the lock gates.

One of the unusual features of these vessels was the fitting of centerboards or drop keels, quite similar to those fitted on modern sailing dinghies. Two types were in use, the pivoted and vertical types, both being raised and lowered by a tackle hung from the crosstrees. These were necessary to prevent the relatively shallow draft vessels making leeway in the open water. Leeboards, such as were common in the sailing vessels operating in similar conditions on the Dutch coasts were tried but found to be impracticable for ships using the locks.

The deadweight capacity of these vessels was only about 1/8 that of their modern counterpart and averaged about 350 long tons.

When canalling, these vessels were towed by teams of horses which, in many cases, were carried in the forecastle, others being hired as required from neighboring farmers.

Steam vessels were gradually being introduced to the canals but it was not until about 1880 that they outnumbered the sailing vessels.

Many of the old sailing ships survived until the 1900's when, with their topmasts struck, they were used as barges, towed by the steamers then in use.

As far as can be determined the last sailing vessel built was the wooden Minnedosa built at Kingston in 1892 and sunk in a storm on Lake Huron in 1905 while being towed by the steamer Westmount.

During these and the following years, railway building was going ahead rapidly - much of the material being shipped west via the canals as can be seen from the figures in Table 1, over 11,000 tons of iron being transported in 1849. The completion of the Grand Trunk railway in 1855 between Montreal and Brockville - well clear of the rapids, caused a recession in the canal trade.

The railway quickly absorbed much of the mixed general traffic and the down bound flour cargoes, but the canallers retained the bulk of the grain trade - ships having a great advantage then, as now, in the carriage of bulk cargoes.

The total traffic continued to keep pace with the growth of the settlements in the mid-west, westbound cargoes being generally supplies of all kinds for the settlers and railroad materials. The figures in Table 2 for 1864 give some indication of the volume of traffic at this period (7).

Westbound Eastbound
Canal Canal Rail
long tons
Salt 8580 Flour 468868 389637 bbl
Fish 1550 Grain 3769639 424572 bu
Pig iron 18420
Railroad iron 6200
Nails 3021
Miscellaneous 390

The number of vessels engaged in the canal trade during this year can be seen from the passage figures given in Table 3.

Up Down Total
Canadian steamers 1207 1206 2413
Canadian sailing vessels 3826 3637 7463
U.S. vessels 115 111 226
Totals 5148 4954 10102
Passengers 6750 14771

The steamers listed in Table 3 were generally similar to those built in the 1870's, referred to later. The sailing vessels listed also included a number of barges which were towed in open water by steam towboats and through the canals by horses. These barges were of wooden construction about 186 ft X 44 ft 6 in. X 8 ft draft and were capable of carrying a cargo deadweight of about 750 to 800 tons. Most of the barges were equipped with a small lugsail to assist the towboats in open water and for steering purposes, their large rudders being arranged to turn at right angles to the ship to clear the lock gates.

No data on these vessels, beyond those already given, have been found. It is probable that the only plans of these vessels, like many others of their type, were in the minds of their builders.

The package freighter appears to have had its beginning about this time, a regular service being commenced from Chicago to Montreal in 1865 using four ships which, in their day, were described as "first class steamers" (7).

Fig. 6 Steamer Cataract Built in 1874 at Sophisburg, Ont. Composite Hull and Compound Engine
The steamer Ontario, built in 1874, was probably typical of the vessels used during the latter part of the life of the Second Commercial canal. This ship was built of wood by J. Simpson of Chatham, Ontario and was 181 ft long by 35 ft beam with a depth of 12 ft 3 in. This vessel was similar to the Cataract, Fig. 6, though much larger and was fitted with a low-pressure two-cylinder engine. The pressure used was only about 15 psi and as a result large cylinders, 34 in. and 36 in. were required (8).

It is interesting to note that these vessels were still being built of wood although iron or composite construction was quite common for seagoing ships at that time. This was probably due to the fact that many of the ships were built by small family businesses familiar with wooden construction and in addition wood was plentiful whereas iron was mostly imported.

Inception of International Traffic

It was about this time that the first international traffic through the canals began. Initially this trade was carried on in vessels, built on the lakes, which loaded with grain, flour, or lumber, and traded mostly to Liverpool, England, where the ship as well as the cargo was sold. This was due to the acute shortage of ships in England at that time and wooden vessels could then be built very cheaply on the lakes.

In the 1850's European registered ships began trading through the canals. These vessels brought immigrant passengers to Canada and the U.S. and returned with grain and flour.

The St. Lawrence canals also contributed in a rather roundabout way to the development of the West Coast. Before the completion of the transcontinental railway, the overland journey from the Chicago area to the West Coast was a long and hazardous undertaking and in the 1850's regular passenger services were in operation between Chicago and San Francisco via the St. Lawrence, around the Horn and eventually to the California coast (4).


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This paper was presented at a meeting of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers and is reproduced with permission.