In 1819, the project to build the Erie Canal in New York State was a source of worries for the Montreal’s merchants: they feared that the Great Lakes trade would be diverted from the Montreal port and would be drawn towards the port of New York. In order that Montreal attracts commercial traffic, the navigation needed to be improved. Therefore, the Montreal’s merchants planned to build a canal that would allow to navigate without passing through the rapids of Lachine. To this end, they created the Company of the Proprietors of the Lachine Canal.
However, this company went bankrupt, and the government of Lower Canada took over the project. The construction of the Lachine Canal began in 1821, under the direction of engineer Thomas Burnett, and it was completed in 1825. 7 locks were built that allowed to pass through a 14.3 km-denivellation over a distance of 13.5 km between the port of Montreal and the Lake Saint-Louis. At that time, the Lachine Canal enabled the passage of small boats only.
Between 1825 and 1840, the number of boats using the canal increased sevenfold, and the boats were bigger and bigger. Thus, there was a need to enlarge the canal. The work was carried out in the 1840s, after the Act of Union reunited the Upper Canada and the Lower Canada into one entity, the United Province of Canada. In this new context, the British authorities decided to extend the canal system and to connect Montreal and the Lake Erie in order to foster the Canadian economy. Major canalization works were undertaken in 1843 and were carried out until 1848.
The Lachine Canal was widened, as well as the Welland Canal, which runs from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, and the number of locks on the Lachine Canal was reduced to five. In addition, three new canals were built, in Beauharnois, Cornwall and Williamsburg.
The reconstruction of the Lachine Canal increased its flow in such way that it was now possible to use it to produce hydraulic power. Thus, several factories were established on the shores of the canal, beside the locks, where they benefited from this source of energy. The industries were mainly set up close to the Saint-Gabriel and Côte-Saint-Paul locks, where the denivellation is significant and allows for a good amount of hydraulic power.
During the first phase of industrial development, factories were mainly grouped around the Lachine Canal’s locks, but as the industrial development continued, factories gradually occupied all of the canal’s banks to the east of the Côte-Saint-Paul Lock.
In 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, allowing boats to navigate from the Greats Lakes to the St. Lawrence River and from there to the Atlantic Ocean. Boats were able to avoid the rapids without having to pass through the Lachine Canal. As a result, the canal was lesser and lesser used, and it closed to maritime traffic in 1970.
In 1978, the Lachine Canal passed under the responsibility of Parks Canada. The canal reopened to boating in 2002.
Sources: ‘’Lachine Canal National Historic Site’’, Parks Canada
©2016 Linda Sullivan-Simpson
The Past Whispers
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