On today’s date in 1824, George Keefer—then president of the Welland Canal Company—turned the first sod in the construction of the First Welland Canal at the west end of Bridge #11.
“In the early days of settlement in Canada, in the absence of roads or trails, the lakes and rivers provided a natural and convenient mode of travel,” reads the Welland Public Library’s canal history clipping files. “This form of travel was, however, seriously limited by two obstacles, the rapids of the St. Lawrence and the much greater barrier of Niagara Falls.”
Before the construction of the First Welland Canal, the only route from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, which differ in elevation by more than 99 metres, was through a hazardous portage from Queenston to Chippawa Creek.
Built to compete with New York State’s Erie Canal, the First Welland Canal opened for a trial run on Nov. 30, 1829—exactly five years after the ground-breaking in 1824—and ran from Port Dalhousie to St. Catharines, where it wound up the Niagara Escarpment through Merritton and into Thorold. It then continued south via Allanburg to Port Robinson along the Welland River, where ships would traverse the Welland River to Chippawa before take the Niagara River to Lake Erie.
A CENTURY LATER
One century after the first sod was turned, on Nov. 30, 1924, a cairn commemorating the original sod-turning ceremony was unveiled at Bridge #11, which is also known as the Allanburg Bridge.
In 1979, the City of Welland issued an “anniversary dollar” to mark the 150th anniversary of the opening of the First Welland Canal. The trade dollar, which was redeemable for $1 worth of merchandise throughout Welland before Nov. 27, 1979, measures about 31.75 mm in diameter.
On one side, the coin depicts the city’s crest, which includes a lion as a symbol of strength and leadership; a scroll directly beneath the shield with the motto “Where Rails and Water Meet”; a ship flanking each side of the shield representing the word “Water”; a train resting at the top of the shield depicting the word “Rails”; and the words “Corporation of Welland” both above and below the shield and scroll.
The opposite side depicts a tall ship on the Welland Canal with the words “ANNIVERSARY DOLLAR ANNIVERSAIRE” and “1829 / WELLAND CANAL / 1979” around the edge.