The Niagara Blog
© Mike Keenan



The St. Catharines H2O Highway


Lock 3 signage, photo by Mike Keenan


Yes, the Homer Lift Bridge is back in business. The St. Lawrence Seaway is also open for business, celebrating it's 59th season as of Monday, the first day of spring. A ship on its way to pick up a load of grain will be the first to pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway this year. You can actually watch and identify specific ships by name as they progress along the seaway by checking out this nifty URL. Ships transit through the canal from March to December.

The Seaway is often referred to as 'Highway H2O.' St. Catharines operates the first three of eight locks starting with Lock 1 on Canal Road north of Lakeshore Road, then Lock 2 farther south on Canal Road north of Carlton Street and finally the Lock 3 complex on Government Road north of Glendale Ave., overlooking the canal.

Ship leaving Lock 7, photo by Mike Keenan Hhip Bow, photo by Mike Keenan Shadows on a hull at Lock 3, photo by Mike Keenan

The latter is a great place for tourists and residents alike to view the ships and enjoy a picnic. The centre features an observation platform (wheelchair accessible), a full service restaurant and the St. Catharines Museum. There is a souvenir store, food concession, patio area and information available on site.

The current canal is the fourth to be built, construction beginning in 1913 and completed and officially opened on August 6, 1932. Dredging to the planned 7.62 m (25 feet) depth was not completed until 1935.


Approximately 40,000,000 tonnes of cargo are carried through the canal annually by about 3,000 ocean and vessels. Apparently, last season was one of the slowest cargo seasons in a decade. Nevertheless, the Seaway reports that the system supports 227,000 jobs in the U.S. and Canada and adds $35 billion into the economy.

The locks which are 43 km (27 m) long permit ocean-going vessels to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, as far inland as the western end of Lake Superior. The maximum boat length is 225.6 m (740 feet) and 23.8 m (78 feet) wide.

Watching a modern freighter make its way through the locks is a memorable experience, as it doesn't seem possible that something so large can cram its way through, with often very little room to spare. Ships are required to pick up local pilots or guides who assist the ship's captain on the way. It's fun to observe these Lakers and 'salties' (sea going ships) that ply up and down the Welland Canal every day, casting bizarre shadows as they cruise by orchards and vineyards.

Most ships are longer than two football fields and weigh in at more than 30,000 tonnes. Yet, employing the locks, they are systematically lifted up and over the cliff face of the Niagara Escarpment to get over the inhibiting height of Niagara Falls which is 51 m (850 feet). The locks are filled and emptied by gravity, water flowing downhill from Lake Erie toward Lake Ontario. It takes ships an average of about 11 hours to traverse the entire length of the Welland Canal.

There have been a few accident along the canal. On August 11, 2001, the lake freighter Windoc collided with Bridge 11 in Allanburg, 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 first Welland Canal was constructed from 1824 to 1833 behind what is now known as St. Paul Street, using Twelve Mile and Dick's Creek. William Hamilton Merritt worked to promote the ambitious venture, both by raising funds and by enlisting government support. The canal established St. Catharines as the hub of commerce and industry for the Niagara Peninsula.


RMR: Rick and the Welland Canal

Great Lakes Sailing - Welland Canal HD time-lapse

Lock 3 empty, photo by Mike Keenan

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