The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Daily News (Kingston, ON), March 31, 1871

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The following are the most important points in the report of the Canal Commissioners to the Government:- It will be observed that the evidence laid before us relative to the proposed enlargement and extensions of our canal system, for the purpose of securing to Canada a large share of the growing trade of the West, comprehends a wide range of opinion, gathered from all quarters of the Dominion, as well as from the neighbouring cities of the United States interested in the subject. First, then, as regards the proper scale of navigation for the main line of the water communication from Lake Superior to tide water, we are of opinion that there should be one uniform size of lock and canal throughout, including the Welland Canal, the St. Lawrence Canals, and the proposed canal at the Sault Ste. Marie; that the most suitable size of lock for these canals will be one having 270 feet length of chamber between the gates, 45 feet in width, and 12 feet of clear draught over the mitre sills; that the bottom of the canal should be sunk at least one foot below the mitre sill of the locks, with a width throughout of not less than 100 feet, to admit of two vessels passing each other with perfect ease in any part of the canal; and that the slopes in earth and rock excavation should be such as the nature of the material may require, for the preservation of the canal, and the protection of the vessels navigating it; that the most suitable size for the locks on the proposed Bay Verte Canal will be 270 feet in length of chamber between the gates, 40 feet in width, and having 55 feet draught of water over the mitre sills; that the most suitable size for locks in the proposed Ottawa improvement will be 200 feet in length of chamber, between the gates 45 feet in width and 9 feet draught over the mitre sills; that the proper size for the locks on the Chambly Canal will be 200 feet in length of chamber, between the gates 45 feet in width, and of such draught over the mitre sills not exceeding 9 feet, as the channel in the River Richelieu, will conveniently afford. The size of the locks and the sectional area of the canal must of course be suited to the class of vessels now in use, and best adapted for the movement of the immense tonnage of the Lakes. The vessel that does this work with the greatest economy of time and money, is the true ideal vessel of the future. The one that will continue to transport the most tonnage consequently presents the best claims for consideration. The tendency in shipbuilding for the last quarter of a century on the Upper Lakes has been to construct larger vessels every way, whether propelled by steam or sails, while the screw is superceding the paddle everywhere, on the lakes as well as on the ocean. The relative number and tonnage of screw steamers is gradually increasing upon the sailing craft. Then, again, as the line of navigation is extended, so the long voyage demands larger tonnage. As an approximate rule for the size of a vessel for any particular route, it has been observed that any vessel, to be properly adapted to its business should have one ton of measurement for every mile of its voyage, and as examples in illustration of the rule, it may be remarked that the vessels plying between Chicago and Buffalo, 916 miles, now range between 600 and 1,500 tons, while many persons of considerable experience in the trade are of opinion that a medium size of about 1,000 tons is best suited for this route. The ocean vessels laid upon the line between Montreal and Liverpool, for a journey of 3,320 statute miles, have a capacity of from 2,000 to 4,000 tons. The distance between Chicago and Montreal, 1,261 miles, would seem, from these examples, to require that the vessels trading between these ports should have a capacity ranging somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 tons. While some of the writers who ought to be best informed on the subject recommended a draught of 14 feet, and others as much as 16 feet, regard must nevertheless be had to the capabilities of the harbours, and to the engineering characteristics of our canals, as well as to the prudent suggestions of moderate and experienced men, who have limited their views to 12 feet. It would be extremely unwise to embark in magnificent schemes exceeding the resources of a young country, with the view of introducing ocean vessels into our canals and lakes. Having, therefore, a prudent regard to the demands upon the resources of the Dominion, to the condition and capabilities of our canals and harbours, and to the actual wants of the trade, we have agreed upon a draught of 12 feet as most suitable for the St. Lawrence route and fifteen feet as most suitable for the Bay Verte Canal. The scale of improvement for the Ottawa route is the same as that of the existing St. Lawrence Canals.

Classification of Works

Respecting the relative importance of the several public works and proposed improvements, and the order in which they should be proceeded with, we have found it expedient to divide them into four separate classes, as follows:-

Works of the First Class - In the first class we have placed all those works which it is for the general interest of the Dominion should be undertaken and proceeded with as fast as the means at the disposal of the Government will warrant. These works are at the Sault Ste. Marie Canal; the raising of the lock walls, waste weirs, and banks of the present line, from Allanburg to Port Dalhousie, in a permanent manner to admit the passage of vessels drawing twelve feet water; the enlargement of the Welland Canal on the scale adopted for it; the Ottawa Canal improvements from Ottawa City to Lachine, and the enlargement of the Chambly Canal on the scale adopted for them; the deepening of the navigable channels in the River St. Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal to 22 feet draught at low water; the construction of the Bay Verte Canal on the scale adopted for it; the enlargement of the St. Lawrence canals to the same scale as the Welland. At the lower entrance of the Lachine Canal another set of locks is to be constructed, with 17 feet of water in the metre sills, forming a second line of connection between the Montreal harbour and the upper basin of the canal. The lands purchased and set apart in former years for increasing the accommodation to the trade at this point when required, we now propose shall be used for the establishment of commodious docks and basins, the whole of which, as far as Wellington street, are to be made 18 feet deep; the improvement of the channel in the River St. Lawrence above Montreal, by removing all obstructions in the river and lakes between the several canals, and also at the ingress and egress of these canals, so as to give 14 feet of water throughout. We consider that all the works embraced under the head of first-class are really of so great importance, so essential to the welfare and prosperity of the country, that we feel some degree of embarrassment in recommending which of them should be first proceeded with, but we respectfully suggest that they should be undertaken in the order in which they are here recited, or as far as possible simultaneously without classing the Upper Ottawa Canal, the improvements of the rapids of the St. Lawrence, and the Murray Canal.

Among the works of the second class, the Commissioners resolved on the subject of the Upper Ottawa Canal that the wide discrepancy between the different engineers' plans and estimates - one being as high as $12,053,070, and the other $24,000,000, - leaves them in doubt both as to the proper methods of improvement, and their probable cost. The importance of this work to the whole Dominion cannot well be over-estimated, and the Commissioners are of opinion that further examination into the subject is necessary as early as possible, in order that if found advisable action may be taken with regard to it. As regards the improvements of the rapids in the St. Lawrence, it is very desirable that the depth of water in the river should be so increased as to afford at least eight feet at the lowest water. The Commissioners are led to believe that this depth can be obtained at a very moderate expenditure, and recommend that it should be done as early as convenient. The further deepening of the channel to fourteen feet is no doubt quite practicable but it may left for further consideration. The Murray Canal is entirely a work of local importance, and is not required by the general trade of the Dominion. In this view, while so many works of general importance call for execution, the Commissioners recommend that for the present the consideration of this canal be deferred.

Works of the Third Class - In the third class we have placed the works which have been undertaken by private companies, which companies have received the necessary powers for constructing them under special and most liberal charters from the Dominion Parliament, and for this reason we do not feel warranted in offering any recommendation in regard to them. These works are the Caughnawaga Canal, and the Erie and Ontario Ship Canal.

Works of the Fourth Class - In the fourth class we have placed that proposed work projected by a chartered company which has applied for a grant of the public lands to aid in its construction but on which we do not recommend any expenditure of the public resources of the Dominion. That work is the Georgian Bay Canal, otherwise designated in the charter as the Huron and Ontario Ship Canal. - 29 Vic., cap. 78, September, 1865.

Rideau Canal

From the evidence submitted in reference to this canal, we are led to the conclusion that it is an important work which ought to be maintained as one of the public works of Canada. That as constituted it is quite sufficient for the wants of the trade provided it is kept in good working order and the summit level maintained at its original height.

River St. Lawrence

In order, however, to be a benefit to the full extent by the proposed enlargment of the canals, and to be prepared for the great increase of business they will naturally bring to Montreal, it is considered essential that still further facilities should be extended to all the vessels frequenting this port so that they may be in a position to compete successfully with New York and Boston shipping for the carrying trade to European ports. Many of the larger steamers now trading at Montreal draw from 18 to 23 feet, laden without coal, and range from 200 to 350 feet in length. For the security of the navigation the channel should be as wide as the length of the vessel, and the depth fully one foot more than her draught. This would require the enlarging of the channel throughout between Quebec and Montreal to 400 feet in width and 24 feet in depth at low water. The cost of such enlargement had been estimated by the chief engineer in his report before referred to at $2,500,000, but he states that, having made no examination for this purpose, he assumed the depths shown on the Admiralty charts as giving a fair idea of the channel way not included in his surveys; consequently it is not founded on correct data, is partly conjectural, and merely submitted for the purpose of giving some idea of the extent of the work. He remarks that it is a work of great magnitude, involving the removal of a larger mass of material than has been excavated up to the present time, while it would embrace all those portions of the river where improvements have already been made, and probably other parts where no work was required for a twenty feet channel. We therefore recommend that the necessary surveys and examinations be made with a view of finding out all the places where obstructions to a channel 24 feet in depth are likely to be encountered, and that an estimate be prepared of the probable cost of removing them. Meanwhile the Commissioners recommend that the deepening of the channel to 22 feet depth of water be undertaken and proceeded with as already indicated.

Summary of the Estimates For the Works Embodied In the First Class

Sault Ste. Marie Canal $ 550,000

Welland Canal 6,550,000

Lower Ottawa 1,800,000

Chambly Canal 1,500,000

Deepening of River St. Lawrence

between Quebec and Montreal 800,000

Bay Verte Canals 3,250,000

St. Lawrence Canals 4,500,000

Upper St. Lawrence River 220,000

Total $19,170,000

Georgian Bay Canal

It has been stated by the promoters of this canal that engineers of high standing in England have given it the weight of their professional sanction, but we are not aware that any of these gentlemen have ever visited this country or passed over the ground to give it that personal examination, without which it appears to us impossible that they can be qualified to offer any reliable opinion as to its practicability. In this case their opinions must be formed on such facts only as are laid before them, while it is quite possible that other facts essential to the formation of a fit judgement, and to afford a comprehensive view of the whole question, may have been altogether omitted or overlooked. We do not think that any of the promoters of this scheme in this country have ever fully realized the enormous magnitude of this undertaking. Setting aside the estimates that have been published, which are merely conjectural, and not to be admitted as correct, it is only fair that the public should be reminded of the fact that the proposed canal is of equal length with the Suez Canal, which has cost upward of eighty millions of dollars, and occupied fifteen years in construction, but is encompassed with natural obstacles infinitely greater. While the Suez being on a dead level from sea to sea, is unencumbered with a single lock, the Huron and Ontario has an intermediate summit of 470 feet above Ontario to surmount, which requires 42 locks, and 600 feet of lockage. It has also no less than three deep cuts, the least of which is larger than the celebrated Deep Cut on the Welland, and the largest of which exceeds it in volume 30 ? fold. The formidable cutting through the Township of King is about 12 miles in length; and nearly 200 feet deep at the summit. It belongs to the same geological formation as that through which the Welland Canal is made and is not unlikely to partake of the same uncertain character. It has been stated that by test pits and borings it has been satisfactorily ascertained that the ground consists of indurated clay and gravel, but it is well known to practical engineers that neither borings nor test pits can fully reveal the true nature of the material to be encountered at so great a depth and over such an extended surface, and therefore there is really no certainty that before the excavation is half done slides may not occur as they have done on the Welland and render the whole scheme abortive. In view of these incontrovertible statements it must be apparent to any impartial judgement, even admitting it to be physically possible, that the cost of carrying out such a project would be so great as to render it commercially worthless.


In urging this policy of canal enlargement and extension upon the favourable consideration of the Government, the commissioners feel that it is the one which will best stimulate the commercial development of the whole Dominion, and bind all sections together in the bonds of mutual amity and interest. The expense of these improvements will be insignificant compared with the direct benefits Canadian Commerce will receive, and will be immediately met by the larger revenue that must accrue from the tolls on a vastly increased traffic. The contest for the supremacy of New York and Montreal and Quebec. Nature has given the latter city the advantages of position and route, and it now only depends on enterprise and capital to determine whether they shall be left behind in the competition for an enormous traffic, the control of which must elevate them to the foremost position among commercial communities. If we look at the route of all other projected canals - the Ottawa, the Erie, and Ontario, or the Georgian Bay - we see that each and all are intended to be subsidiary to the St. Lawrence route. Our duty is to improve that navigation in the first place, because it is one which has been tried and found to answer all the purposes for which it was intended. It would be unwise to expend millions of public money in assisting enterprises of minor utility at present, when a comparatively reasonable sum can so improve existing works like the Welland and St. Lawrence system of canals as to answer all the requirements of trade for many years to come, and with the certainty of returning a large income to the public revenues and giving an impulse immediately to the development of the commerce of the whole Dominion. In taking upon herself the entire burden of opening an avenue to the sea through her own waters for the trade of the West, Canada has a right to expect that the influence of the people of the Western States (whose commerce, already employed five-eights of one traffic now passing through the Welland Canal, will be further stimulated, and whose productions will be enhanced in value by the expenditure) should be felt in the counsels of their country; and that all unnecessary restrictions upon the trade between the two countries should be abolished. The question is now presented whether, under our existing commercial relations with the United States, it is advisable for Canada to embark in this expenditure without first obtaining such reasonable concessions as she has so clear a right to demand. She may not unreasonably expect that the navigation laws of the United States should be so modified as to prevent free intercourse with Canada, and that our trade relations should be put on a footing mutually advantageous to both countries.

We have thus endeavoured to lay before His Excellency in this communication as fully as our limited time permitted, and the information we could gather on these important questions, without waiting until our report could be submitted. By the categorical method of inquiry we have taken the sense of the community at large on all these questions, and in coming to a decision upon them, our labours have been very much facilitated by the methodical arrangement of this voluminous evidence under the directions of the Secretary, as well as by his intimate acquaintance with the public works from the many years of his official acquaintance with them, both during and after construction.

In setting forth the canal policy recommended by us in the previous pages, and sustaining it by the fact of statements therein contained, the Secretary has been ably assisted in the historical and commercial portion by Mr. J.G. Bourinot, who under his instructions completed the historical sketch of the canals from official documents and other sources of information within the Archives of the Dominion, and the commercial and statistical statements, from the evidence submitted, and from such further information as could be collected in the course of this inquiry.

Hugh Allan, Chairman.

G.S. Gzowski.

D.D. Calvin.

p. Garneau.

Alex. Jardiner.

S.L. Thomson.

Samuel Keefer, Secretary.

Dated Ottawa, 24th February, 1871.

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March 31, 1871
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Rick Neilson
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Daily News (Kingston, ON), March 31, 1871