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The Welland Canal connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie through a series of eight locks, allowing ships to avoid the 51 meter high Niagara Falls.

The Welland Canal is a ship canal in Canadamarker, that runs 42 km (27.0 miles) from Port Colborne, Ontariomarker on Lake Eriemarker to Port Weller, Ontariomarker on Lake Ontariomarker. As part of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the canal allows ships to avoid Niagara Fallsmarker by traversing the Niagara Escarpment.

Approximately 40,000,000 tonnes of cargo is carried through the Welland Canal annually by over 3,000 ocean and lake vessels. It was a major factor in the growth of the city of Montrealmarker. The original canal and its successors allowed goods from Detroit, Michiganmarker, Cleveland, Ohiomarker and other heavily industrialized areas of the United Statesmarker and Ontariomarker to be shipped to the port of Montreal where they were reloaded onto ocean-going vessels for international shipping.

The completion of the Welland Canal made the Trent-Severn Waterway (which links Lake Ontariomarker with Lake Huronmarker) all but obsolete as a commercial traffic route for Great Lakes navigation.

The canal's Lake Eriemarker (southern) terminus, at Port Colborne, is 99.5 m (326.5 feet) higher in elevation than the Lake Ontariomarker (northern) terminus at Port Weller. The canal comprises eight lift lock, each 24.4 m (80 ft) wide by 233.5 m (766 ft) long. Due to the Garden City Skywaymarker, the maximum ship height allowed is 35.5 m (116.5 ft). All other crossings are movable bridges (lift or Bascule) or tunnels. The maximum permissible vessel length is 225.5 m (740 ft). It takes ships an average of 11 hours to traverse the canal's length.


A lock of the second Welland Canal

Prior to the building of the canal, traffic between Lake Ontariomarker and Lake Eriemarker used a portage road between Chippawamarker and Queenstonmarker, both points on the Niagara Rivermarker above and below Niagara Fallsmarker, respectively.

First Welland Canal

The Welland Canal Company was incorporated in 1824 by William Hamilton Merritt, in part to provide a regular flow of water for his mill. Construction began at Allanburgmarker on November 30, at a point now marked as such on the west end of Bridge #11 (formerly Highway 20). It opened for a trial run on November 30, 1829 (exactly 5 years, to the day, after the 1824 sod turning). After a short ceremony at Lock One, in Port Dalhousie, the schooner Anne & Jane (also called "Annie & Jane" in some texts ) made the first transit, upbound to Buffalo, N.Y.marker; with Merritt a passenger on her decks. The first canal ran from Port Dalhousiemarker on Lake Ontario south along Twelve Mile Creek to St. Catharinesmarker. From there it took a winding route up the Niagara Escarpment through Merritton to Thoroldmarker, where it continued south via Allanburg to Port Robinsonmarker 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 would make a sharp right turn into the Niagara river, upbound towards lake Erie. Originally, the section between Allanburg and Port Robinson was to have been carried under a tunnel, however, sandy soil conditions made that unfeasible and a deep open cut was used instead.

A southern extension from Port Robinson opened in 1833. This extension followed the Welland River south to Wellandmarker (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 Colbornemarker on Lake Erie. A feeder canal ran southwest from Welland to another point on Lake Erie, just west of Rock Point. 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 m by 6.7 m (110 ft by 22 ft), with a minimum canal depth of 2.4 m (8 ft).

Abandoned locks of the third canal

Second Welland Canal

In 1839 the government of Upper Canada approved the purchase of share in the canal company in response to the company's continuing financial problems in the face of the continental financial panic of 1837. The buyout was completed in 1841, and work began to deepen the canal and to reduce the number of locks to 27, each 45.7 m (150 ft) by 8.1 m (26.5 ft). By 1848, a 2.7 m (9 ft) deep path was completed, not only through the Welland Canal but also the rest of the way to the Atlantic Oceanmarker 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 Tunnelmarker 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 (present) Welland Canal

(Officially known as the Welland Ship Canal)

Construction on the present canal began in 1913 and was completed in 1932. The route was again changed north of St. Catharines, now running directly north to Port Wellermarker. 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.

Fifth (proposed but uncompleted) Welland Canal

MS Isa lifted in Lock 7
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 mile) 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 Wellandmarker. 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 Von Papen Plot

In April 1916, a United States federal grand jury issued an indictment against Franz von Papen, then a senior Germanmarker diplomat, on charges of a plot to blow up the Welland Canal. 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.

1974 accident

On August 25, 1974, the northbound ore-carrier Steelton struck Bridge 12 in Port Robinson, Ontariomarker. 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.

2001 accident

On August 11, 2001, the lake freighter Windoc collided with Bridge 11 in Allanburg, Ontariomarker, 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. 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."

Shipping season

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

Facts and figures

Lock 3 Observation Centre of the current Welland Canal (facing North).
Lock 7 Observation Centre (Thorold).

Current canal

  • Maximum vessel length: 225.5 m
  • Maximum draft: 8.2 m
  • Maximum above-water clearance: 35.5 m
  • Elevation change between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie: 99.5 m
  • Average transit time between the lakes: 11 hours
  • Length of canal: 43.5 km

Increasing lock size

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. Catharinesmarker 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 Skywaymarker: 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)
Thoroldmarker Bridge 6 Great Western Railway

(now Canadian National Railway)
Thorold Locks 4-5-6
twinned flight lock
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
Wellandmarker Main Street Tunnel: (Regional Road 27/Highway 7146)
Welland Townline Tunnel: Highway 58A and Canadian National Railway/Penn Central
Port Colbornemarker 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 Robinsonmarker
Thoroldmarker Canadian National Railway built during the relocation
Thorold Highway 406 built after the relocation
Wellandmarker Woodlawn Road (Regional Road 41) built after the relocation
Welland Bridge 13marker 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 15marker Canada Southern Railway (Penn Central) rare Baltimore truss swing bridge [36526]
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 Colbornemarker

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.


  1. "Marine Investigation Report #M01C0054: Striking and Subsequent Fire on Board Bridge 11, Welland Canal and Bulk Carrier Windoc, Welland Canal, Allanburg, Ontario, 11 August 2001." Transportation Safety Board of Canada, 2005-07-05. Retrieved on 2007-08-15.

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