The History of Niagara

The gate to the entrance of Fort George

If you love history, Niagara is rich with it.

Humans landed here over 12,000 years ago when the falls was first forming.

The first recording of the Falls happened by Recollet priest Louis Hennepin who traveled from Europe in 1678. British colonists arrived and named it Upper Canada and we became a British monarchy.  You can still feel the history on some of the restored buildings all through Niagara.

Fort George in Niagara on the Lake can take you back to a time of war and triump. Beautifully restored to its former glory it gives you a glimpse of the world in the 1800’s.

Let’s move forward a little to the year 1812 when the Americans declared war on Canada. Niagara was instrumental in stopping the Americans from invading. Fort George served as both the stronghold and headquarters for a ragtag army of men and woman of all cultures. Built in 1802 to replace Fort Niagara which was lost to the Americans in 1794 it is an impressive site. Everything they needed was encased in 8′ thick walls with 6 bastions surrounded by a dry ditch to keep them safe. Inside the Fort was log blockhouses, Kitchen, Hospital, workshops, barracks and officer quarters. The armory which was referred to as the stone powder magazine is the only building that survived the war.

The Americans actually occupied Fort George for 7 months until the battle of Stoney Creek when they pulled back to the other side of the Niagara river. The Fort was abandoned in 1820 and then reconstructed in the 1930’s.

Today you can visit and take a guided tour to feel what it was like back then. With the guides dressed in period costumes taking you to a world that once was. There is even a musket demonstration (my grandsons favorite part) and costumes that you can wear to get the whole experience.

Sir Isaac Brock was instrumental in keeping America on their side. Labeled a brilliant military strategist his success at holding Detroit earned him a knighthood and he was labeled the “Hero of Upper Canada”. He fought his last battle at Queenston where there is a limestone statue erected in his honour. His remains was buried at Fort George and was later moved to the bottom of the statue where they remain today.

Sir Isaac Brock Statue, Queenston, Ontario

The Welland Canal

Remember in last week’s blog I said that Niagara had something most places do not, the Welland Canal is a unique piece of history that is also very much in use today. The Welland Canal is basically a set of stairs for ships to move up or down the Niagara Escarpment. Connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie it was and still is an important transportation route for industry. 

Did you know there were actually 4 Canals built?

First suggested in the early 1800’s by the French settlers to relieve portaging around Niagara falls.

The first Canal began construction November 24, 1824. It took 5 years to build and was opened Novemeber 29, 1829. The first route started in Port Dalhousie, ran along 12 mile creek to Port Robinson where it connected into the Niagara river and flowed out to Lake Erie. In 1833 the Canal was extended to Gravely Bay now known as Port Colbourne. By the time it was complete total cost was $8 million, a mighty sum in those days. It consisted of 40 wooden locks, 110′ long by 22′ capable of lifting a ship up to 125 tones. Horses and oxens were used to tow the ships between locks in those days and took many hands to work the gates. It was a mighty task.

In 1833 they discovered that they did not have enough water in the canal to lift the ships so feeder canals were constructed to feed water into the Canal. Although no longer in use 90% of the feeder canals still exist today.

The Second Canal

The building of the second Canal changed its course just a bit. Taking out some bends in the canal making it easier for the ever growing ships to make it through.

By 1841 the Welland Canal was purchased by the goverment and widened to 36′ and the depth increased to 9′. The newly built infrastructure was made from stone instead of wood to increase longevity and the number of locks was reduced from 40 to 27. Construction was finished on the second Canal in 1845. In 1850 as ships in size grew the Canal was widened to 50′ and 10′ deep.

The Third Canal

In 1872 construction begins on the third Canal. A new channel was created over land which removed the need for the feeder canals. The locks were made wider to 100′ and deeper to 14′ keeping up with the increasing size of the ships. The locks now lifted ships 12′ – 16′ with each “step”. The third Welland Canal was completed in 1881.

The Fourth Welland Canal

By 1913 it was obvious that the Canal would have to be redone to accommodate the larger shipping traffic through the channel. It is interesting to note that construction was stopped during the first world War due to lack of manpower and materials and resumed in 1919 after the war and was completed in 1932. Some major changes were made during this transition. The entry point was changed from Port Dalhousie to Port Weller. With no natural Harbour at that site one was built that juts 1 mile out into Lake Ontario. The channel itself is now 350′ wide and 30′ deep. The numbers of locks were drastically reduced from 27 to 8. 7 do go up (or down) the Escarpment and 1 in Port Colbourne. The locks require 21,000,000 gallons of water to lift a ship with an average fill or drain time of 10 min. It takes approximately 8 hours for a ship to move through the Canal.

In 1960 due to the increase of both shipping and land traffic a bypass was created around Welland just east of the existing Canal. The new bypass saved ships 30 min to move from one lake to the other.

The wait time on the bridges was causing major delays for both vehicle and train traffic. In 1967 two tunnels under the Canal were built, Main St (opened in 1972) tunnel and the Townline tunnel (opened July 1972). The construction eliminated 6 bridges and alleviated a lot of wait time. I must say it is kind of cool driving under a ship.

No matter how old I get there is nothing like watching a ship come through the locks and take the stairs down (or up) the 376′ to reach the otherside. There is actually a trail that you can walk (or bike) the 44 km along the Canal.

Ship coming into the lock

The ship will “sink” 16′ in the lock..

The lock gates open and she emerges.
2 men at the front of the boat guide her through.

The immense size of these ships is fascinating. How they maneuver with very little wiggle room is highly impressive. One more thing, do not forget to wave and smile at the men and women on board. I have never had one not wave back!

I hope you enjoyed a little piece of Niagara’s history. In next week’s blog come with me and we will explore the Nature of Niagara.

Thanks for coming along on my Chipmunk Adventure!

See you next week!


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: