The Canal – The Human Cost

Any modern historical narrative is incomplete without the inclusion of the human cost to any historical event. The Welland Canal, despite being a thing, impacted the human condition in the corridor where the canal runs. It took a great deal of human effort to build all three canals. Not only is there the cost of human lives but also impact on the communities, land, and political landscape. One thing that you have to remember, the Welland Canal came in the days before labour laws and protections for workers. In many cases, the men who did the dangerous work did so without safety equipment, medical attention, and supervisors. Either you worked at whatever job you were given, or you didn’t get paid. The Welland Project, unlike the Rideau Canal, was a private affair. Both were dangerous, but the Rideau Canal had the support of the British army, the Welland was built entirely with private money. So today, we’ll be looking at the human cost in the construction and operation of the Welland Canals.

The Memorial
The memorial for the 137 men who died during the construction of the fourth Welland Canal. Located at the Welland Canal Centre in St. Catharines.
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Back two hundred years ago, Ontario remained a vast, untamed wilderness. Forests, Swamps, rushing rivers, and animals we don’t see today were the norm of the day. While the first Welland Canal project used existing waterways, there were still many sites that required backbreaking labour. Much of the labour force was made up of those who had little in the first place; these were often new immigrants to Upper Canada and from the lower classes. And the work being done by hundreds, if not thousands of these men earned them a near half-dollar a day for their work. Conditions were worse than poor and little oversight from the government; supervisors cared more for their health and safety than that of the men under their control. And the bosses were even further away from the dirty day-to-day operations. Not only was bodily harm, a common occurrence, but sickness also ran rampant. The shantytowns had no sanitation services plus alcohol ran freely as did crime and violence. The swamps and marshes like the Wainfleet Marsh were home to mosquitos which carried malaria and cholera also became a regular visitor. Accidents happened regularly; the two biggest took place on the deep cut. The first in 1828 when the cut was at around two-thirds of the finished depth when workers hit an underground water source. What started as a trickle turned into a deluge, only one man died in that case. The second accident later than the year in November proved far deadlier. The deep cut, only a few weeks away from being finished, saw a massive collapse. The years of work had piled dirt onto the banks and where the engineers thought the banks rested on a rock, actually rested on the sand. And in true Biblical fashion collapsed. The number of men who perished remains unknown to this day. The men who died were easily replaced as more men were waiting to take the roles left by the dead. While the second canal attracted the same number of workers, they remembered the stories of the conditions on the first canal. Shortly after work opened in 1842, the whole body took matters into their own hands. Having worked months with inadequate food, unsafe conditions, and bolstered by the rebellions and drive for reform, marked on St. Catharines. They protested the lack of food, poor pay, and unsafe conditions. The protest turned into a riot when the authorities refused to listen. The workers looted both private and company stores to get what they wanted. In return, the government raised a small militia unit. The unit made up mainly of former slaves and men of colour and white officers were designed to keep the peace. But the end of slavery within the Empire remained less than a decade old, and many white workers were not pleased to have men of colour acting as police. It also didn’t help that the Irish immigrants were none too happy with red coats on the worksites having fled the symbol of British oppression from their home island. The work camps also became satellite conflicts between Roman Catholic and Protestant Irish. I’m sure there was a series of accidents during the construction of the third canal, there were none that stood out in the annals of history. By the time the forth canal started construction, new technology made new ways to die on the construction site. With heavy equipment and electricity added to the mix, the men who worked on the project were drowned, crushed, and electrocuted. Of the 137 men who died on the project, two significant incidents stand out during the completion. The first cost three men their lives when a cofferdam collapsed in 1927. And then in 1928 two cranes collapsed under the weight of a steel beam at lock six. Ten men died in that accident. The fourth Welland Canal became the deadliest government project in the twentieth century but changed the way heavy work was done. A new system of safety equipment, first aid, plus investigations and ultimately laying blame came out of deaths.

The Welland Canal Workers Memorial
A memorial to all those workers who perished in the construction of the Welland Canals, located alongside the former channel of the canal in Welland, Ontario.
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Being a significant piece of infrastructure the Welland Canals became a tempting target for enemies of the British Empire and then Canada throughout its history. The post-rebellion Canada West was ripe for civil unrest and with the passage of the Act of Union which joined Upper and Lower Canada two acts of terror were committed against what some rebels saw as British domination and imperialism. The first attack damaged Brock’s Monument on Queenston Heights damaging it enough to force total demolition and reconstruction (with the help of William Hamilton Merritt). The second attack targetted Lock 37 of the Welland Canal near Allanburg. The charge successfully damaged the lock gates only the closing of a guard gate further down prevented any major flooding or damage from occurring. Benjamin Lett was ultimately charged for both acts however there was not enough evidence to make the charges stick and he got let off, but would die under mysterious conditions. While never attacked outright the second canal proved a tempting enough target during the Trent Affair at the start of the American Civil War that the Canadian government raised an Active Militia artillery regiment to guard two major ports on the Canal, Port Robinson and Port Colborne. The Welland Battery came under the command of Captain Richard King who was outfitted with surplus rifles and a pair of brass field artillery pieces. His men never ended up training on the artillery, training instead as infantry. The guns safe in the artillery sheds in Hamilton. The Fenians did plan for a strike against the canal. Still, they never got any further than Ridgeway and the Welland Battery ended up fighting the Fenians at Fort Erie in 1866. The Third Canal had a quiet start, but the 20th century saw a renewed Irish independence movement rose again in North America. The Irish Republican Army North American branch, Clan-Na-Gael, began to harbour some of the IRA’s fighters. Among them, Luke Dillion, better known as Dynamite Dillion, decided to extend his attacks against the British to Canada. Dillion along with a pair of collaborators John Walsh and John Nolan planted dynamite charges on the hinges of Lock 24 (near Thorold). The men’s plans were foiled when a local woman, Euphemia Constable, witnessed the men planting the charges and reported them. Her testimony at their trial resulted in all three men being imprisoned at Kingston. Nolan would go mad during his time and transferred to Kingson’s mental hospital, Walsh was released for good behaviour. Dillion, an American, was released in 1914 and returned to Ireland where he continued the fight including the Easter Risings. . In the summer of 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was gunned down in Sarajevo. What could have remained a minor and contained incident thanks to a twisted set of alliances and treaties not to mention a fair amount of sabre rattling, in July 1914 the Great War opened. As a Dominion of the British Empire, Canada found itself embroiled in the growing global conflict. While work continued on the new Canal, the Third Canal found itself on the front lines of the homefront thanks to the massive industrial might of the Canal communities. Steel, cloth, paper, and food flowed out from Canada and onto the Western Front. The German’s had two primary goals in Canada, the first being the interruption of the movement of war material from Canada out to Europe. The second was convincing Canadians to keep their troops home to defend against a possible (but fictitious) invasion by the Germans from the United States. To that end, Berlin operated out of their American embassy conducting campaigns of espionage, misinformation, and sabotage against targets in Canada, and the Third Welland Canal made a tempting target. While Germany planned to blow up key locks, Canada upped the defences around the canal forming a militia unit known as the Welland Canal Force. The unit would go under many different names during its service during the Great War. The Force guarded critical points on the canal, including public buildings, generating stations, along with essential war industries of the Canal zone and telecommunication infrastructure. Horst von der Gotz became one of two favoured agents of von Papen, and Gotz would get the job to blow either the lock at Port Dalhousie or Port Colborne. While crippling a lock at any point along the Canal would grind the whole thing to a halt, disabling a terminus lock would cause maximum damage. It also helped that both port communities maintained their draw as a tourist destination, making it easy to access. Gotz ended up getting spooked before carrying out the mission and turned himself in to British authorities. Not wanting to lose the chance, von Papen turned to his second favourite agent, Paul Koeing. Koeing already had a series of successes to his credit, disrupting industries in Windsor and a successful bombing of the international bridge between Vermont and Quebec. Koeing and his family arranged for passage to Port Dalhousie. The plan saw the Canal disrupted at the end of September 1915, but a week before Koeing was to leave, he called the whole thing off. Koeing’s act of calling it off probably saved himself from getting into serious trouble. He had rightly assumed that the Americans had him under surveillance. Second, he quickly realized that the Canal’s defences were far stronger than initially expected. The final blow would be the ejection of von Papen from the United States for breaking their Neutrality Laws. Despite being removed, von Papen would be indicted by an American Grand Jury for the plot to blow up the Welland Canal. The charges stuck until 1932 when he became the German Chancellor. While the Canal remained a target throughout the remainder of the war, no direct action was taken against it, and the Welland Canal Force had the channel well defended.

The Deep Cut
The Deep Cut remains the site of the worst accident in the construction of the canals, hundreds died in a major bank collapse in 1828. A lock (now long gone) here near Allanburg also saw damage in a terrorist attack.
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While uncommon on the first two canals, accidents during the operation of the canal did happen. As the canal size expanded to match the increase in ship sizes, collisions became a more common occurrence. The first major accident to happen on the third canal came when the Government survey ship, SS La Canadienne collided with the gate on Lock 22. The hit forced the gate open only six inches but enough to cause a surge of water into Lock 21. Five children who were fishing on the lock wall fled as the wall of water crashed towards them. Only two of the children survived, the rest drowned. The Fourth Canal has been a hotbed of shipping accidents, minor and major. On the 25th of August 1974, the MV Steelton failed to signal their approach to Bridge 12 that connected the two halves of Port Robinson. The watchmen attempted to raise the bridge but never got the deck up in time, and the collision caused the deck to sink into the canal and the two towers to collapse. While the Steelton escaped with damage to the pilothouse and bow, Bridge 12 was a total write off. The Seaway did make plans to replace the bridge with either a new lift bridge or a tunnel neither happened. A small six-person ferry service now acts to connect the divided community, much to the annoyance of the residents. The one small mercy is that no one lost their lives. The second major bridge collision took place just down the canal at Allanburg at Bridge 11. On the 11th of August 2001, the MV Windoc collided with the lowering road deck which sheered off a section of the bridge and funnel. On fire and out of control the Windoc drifted 900 meters before coming to rest against the canal bank where local fire departments managed to get the fire under control without any major environmental damage. The investigation showed the bridge operator was impaired and lowered the deck too early. The Windoc proved a write-off and eventually scrapped at Port Colborne, and the Bridge 11 was repaired. The third and currently final bridge collision took place on the 15th of September 2015 when the MV Lena J collided with Bridge 19, both suffered only minor damage. Recently, two ships the MV Alanis and MV Florance Spirit collided in the deep cut between Port Robinson and Allanburg. That incident remains under investigation.

The Welland Canal throughout its history has cost innumerable lives, divided communities, even destroyed natural wonders in the construction. However, the canal has adapted throughout history from building itself bigger to meet new demands. Workers in the post-canal era enjoy far better protection on the job site. At my workplace, I serve as a Fire Warden and a designated first aider to provide direction and help to those injured in the workplace. And even now, when I write this, I try to do my job from home rather than risk having large groups of people in an enclosed environment due to the COVID pandemic. Even today Port Robinson remains a divided community, and the Ferry service is no longer operating due to the Pandemic. Bridges on the canal are now operated by computer, and an entire network of cameras and sensors track ships every inch of their transit along the canal and are all controlled from a central location. Thankfully the workers who gave their lives are not forgotten. In 2001 the city of Welland unveiled a memorial in the downtown along the former Canal channel to all the workers who died in the construction of the historic three canals. A second memorial to the 137 who died in the creation of the Fourth Canal was unveiled in 2015 at Lock 3 at the Welland Canal Centre in St. Catharines.

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.
Smy, William A. Guarding Niagara: the Welland Canal Force, 1914-1918. Lieutenant Colonel William A. Smy OMM, CD, UE, 2012.

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