Since the first arrival of European settlers to the American continent, the drive to develop a local economy and industry. The new continent proved a wealth of raw material through timber, fur, and minerals. Open untouched space allowed for large farms and rivers teamed with fish. The first industries in the area were all related to the extraction and processing of these raw materials. The business owners made a fortune and grew into a new world nobility. Electricity remained decades away, and these industries relied either on animal power or better, water power. Water power relied on running water to drive massive wheels which turned the machinery inside. The earliest mills within what would become Canada were sawmills which turned the extensive forests into usable lumber, and gristmills that turned the grains into flour. My hometown of Milton grew up around a gristmill built by Jasper Martin and the second mill constructed by his son saw continued operation until a fire destroyed it in 1960. And the Welland Canal came out of the idea to improve the water flow in Twelve Mile Creek and improve the businesses of William Hamilton Merritt.
The harnessing of Niagara Falls remained decades away when the first mills sprung up along the rivers of Upper Canada, mills not only supplied businesses with a source of income they provided jobs and material to feed and grow the population of the Province. It also generated tax revenue which made the British Parliament happy to provide the Province with needed services and military support to defend the borders. Many mills had been destroyed during the Anglo-American War of 1812 as they provided flour for the British and Colonial troops participating in the conflict. In the post-war reconstruction, many new mills sprung up in the new communities that began to carve a life for themselves in the backwater. And while natural waterways were present, the water levels were not exactly consistent. The Welland Canal Corporation ensured that the water levels could be maintained as they controlled the locks for raising and lowering ships during their transit through the canal. They also built long hydraulic raceways in which they sold water rights to businesses who built massive mills along the edge of the canal route to take advantage of this abundant source of water power. When it came to the type of mills constructed along the canal, the corporation preferred gristmills. Gristmills operated on less water and produced no pollution. In contrast, sawmills even ones with a single saw used far more water and often ejected pollution in the form of sawdust into the canal water, which gummed up the works. One of the greatest areas with more water power than was needed focusing on the mountain locks, which allowed both Slabtown (Merritton) and Stumptown (Thorold) to become major industrial centres and only improved on the industrial potential at St. Catharines. This water power only increased with the construction of the Second Canal, which increased the sizes of the locks and produced more running water to power bigger mills.
As the 1850s arrived, milling did not have an exclusive hold on the local industrial growth. And while the processing of raw materials remained the primary use of waterpower in the region, some limited manufacturing began to take place. In the port communities, the need for ship construction and repair began to see the presence of shipyards, the largest of these being the Muir Brothers dry dock in Port Colborne. Communities also saw the arrival of cotton mills, the first in Canada West being located in Thorold which opened in 1847. However, it did not operate for an extended time. Also, ironworks, foundries and machine shops began to work producing not just the machines that ran in the mills but farm implements to drive the organic agriculture in the region. Much of the Niagara Fruit Belt started with the arrival of the Welland Canal and soon processing facilities such as canning plants and wineries grew up through the region of the canal. The Niagara Escarpment provided a source of limestone for the construction of mills and other buildings. Cement Plants, Quarries, and Brickworks soon followed.
Besides the need to provide repair for ships along the canal, a growing service industry also offered for the creature comforts not only for the crews but the passengers of the vessels transiting the canal. Hotels and Taverns provided for a safe place to get a meal, drink, and a bed. Crews would drag sailing vessels along towpaths with crews of oxen and horses. Banks provided safe places to handle monetary matters. Water power continued to provide the primary source of energy for the large industries that grew up along the canal and remained that source well into the later part of the 19th Century. However, it did curtail the size of the industry and limit where it could set up shop. This often meant that the communities were a jumble of commercial, residential and industrial. By the end of the 1870s, a new way to use water power came into play, the use of water for the generation of electricity and many saw the canal as an option to drive these new generators and allow bigger and more distance industrials plants to come into creation.
Today many of these early industries are lost to the sands of time and progress. Merritt’s original mill is long gone, and the site of it is now a pharmaceutical company, and no plaque marks the site. The only reminder is a small channel that was once the first canal and the leftover of the second canal runs nearby that is, ironically, part of a hydroelectric generating plant. In the downtown of St. Catharines, Race Street marks the location of the former hydraulic raceway. Merritton has several restored factories that are now commercial ventures, the Lybster Cotton Mill that opened in 1866, the Beaver Cotton Mill that opened in 1857. In Throlod the first cotton mill is long gone although a plaque marks the spot. The Welland Mill that operated from 1847 to 1929 saw restoration in the early 2000s is now a mixed residential and commercial building. The Muir Brothers drydock is long gone, although their office and store are now the Dalhousie House and a marker nearby tells of their history is Port Dalhousie.
Written With Files From
Jackson, John N. The Welland Canals and Their Communities: Engineering, Industrial, and Urban Transformation. University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Styran, Roberta M., and Robert R. Taylor. This Colossal Project: Building the Welland Ship Canal, 1913-1932. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.
Styran, Roberta M., and Robert R. Taylor. This Great National Object: Building the Nineteenth-Century Welland Canals. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.
Styran, Roberta McAfee, and Robert R. Taylor. Mr. Merritt’s Ditch: a Welland Canals Album. Boston Mills Press, 1992.
Jackson, John N., and Fred A. Addis. The Welland Canals: a Comprehensive Guide. Welland Canal Foundation, 1982.
Styran, Roberta M, et al. The Welland Canals: the Growth of Mr. Merritt’s Ditch. Boston Mills Press, 1988.