Walk the Historic Welland Canals

by Sue Freeman

Just across the Canadian border near Buffalo, the Welland Canal was built in 1829 to provide a water connection for ships to make their way between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The massive locks in this canal allow boats to traverse the 180-foot change in elevation caused by the Niagara Escarpment. This limestone cliff is what creates Niagara Falls.

Big lake-faring freighters come from all over the world and spend a full day moving between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario through the locks. The first impression of these ships is of their overwhelming size – they’re often longer than two football fields and weigh more than 30,000 tons. It doesn't seem possible that something of such immense proportions could even be built, much less be able to dock, load, and sail the lakes. Yet dozens of lakers and "salties" (sea going ships) ply up and down the Welland Canal every day, casting enormous shadows as they cruise incongruously past lush orchards and vineyards.

For visitors to the Welland Canal there’s a museum and viewing platform at Lock 3 in St. Catharines (1932 Welland Canals Parkway, 1-800-305-5134). My husband Rich and I stopped there to gaze at the huge ships a few years ago. Much to Rich’s consternation, I entered my name in a drawing. Usually this results in a call from a salesperson trying to sell me something. This time, it won us a trip on a laker as it passed through the Welland Canal. On the free trip, we spent an entire day exploring every inch of the ship and watching it scream (or so it seemed from our perspective) into locks from our vantage point next to the captain on the ship’s bridge. It was an awesome experience.

The canal in use today, is the forth in a series of Welland Canals. Like the Erie Canal System, this one was widened, deepened, and rerouted over the years to accommodate larger ships. To step back in time and see the previous versions of the Welland Canal we tied on our hiking boots and headed down a portion of the Bruce Trail.

The Bruce Trail is a 500-mile-long hiking trail that runs along the Niagara Escarpment in Canada, from Niagara Falls to Georgian Bay. On the small segment we hiked this day, we turned our backs to the current Welland Canal with its large ships, and headed into the quiet woods to see the various stages of the previous canal. We walked along the original ditch, abandoned and barely visible. Then we hiked along a rushing waterway and passed old locks that still exist but are missing the lock gates. At one point the trail even lead down into an abandoned lock and we got to feel the limestone blocks and study lock construction up close. This short walk transported us back in time from 2005 to the 1830s.

A simple day trip from Rochester with a map and sturdy sneakers on your feet, and this discovery can be yours to enjoy. To read about this and other adventures along the Bruce Trail, pick up a copy of Bruce Trail – An Adventure along the Niagara Escarpment at a bookstore, call 1-800-431-1579 or visit www.footprintpress.com.

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