The Welland Ship Canal

“One of the great triumphs of modem engineering, in some

W. A. IRWIN July 1 1930

The Welland Ship Canal

“One of the great triumphs of modem engineering, in some

W. A. IRWIN July 1 1930

The Welland Ship Canal

“One of the great triumphs of modem engineering, in some


CANADA this year concludes a truly remarkable chapter in engineering history by completing a master link in the chain of lakes, rivers and canals which constitute the world’s greatest system of inland waterways.

Early in September, the new Welland Ship Canal becomes an engineering fait accompli, and ships will pass through a deep-water channel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario for the first time.

Since man first began to traffic on the waters of the Great Lakes he has always had to contend with the barrier raised against the flow of commerce by the Falls of Niagara. The Falls remain, but now with the passage of the first vessel through the giant locks of the new canal, their power to obstruct ceases; and the five fresh-water seas, which have been to North America what the Mediterranean has been to Europe and Africa, are rid of the last obstacle to the fullest possible intercommunication.

For two hundred years and more navigators and engineers have schemed and labored to circumvent the great cataract. In the beginning, they had no recourse but to empty their canoes and their ships at its foot and fill other canoes and other ships at its head, toiling up the intervening steeps of the portage

with their freight on their backs. Then came the wagon road, from Queenston below the discharge of the Whirlpool rapids to Chippawa above the falls, and man powrer gave place to horsepower.

Even in the beginning, though, there were visionary souls who dreamed of the day when both man power and horsepower would give place to water power. But not always too hopefully. As far back as 1710, an emissary of the French Louis XIV, Clerambaut d’Aigremont by name, sppke thus harshly of the presumption of one M. de la Mothe: “When I passed the portage at Niagara it did not appear to me that any communication between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie could be made that would avoid this portage, and if M. de la Mothe knows a means of doing so, I think he is the only man in the country who does. But, my lord, even if it were true that a communication wuth Lake Ontario or Lake Erie could be made, it could only be done w-ith very great expense.”

As a prophet, M. d’Aigremont was correct in only one particular—that of expense. Four man-made channels “avoiding this portage” have since been dug, and the last of them, the new ship canal, will have cost $122,000,000 by the time the final sod is laid on its embankments. But, by its agency, sixteen men located in as many lock-control cabins can lift a 15,000-ton ship the 326>2 feet between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, each of them expending no more human energy than it takes to turn an electric light switch, two, or at most, three times.

And the power that enables them to do this is derived from the taming of waters which in their natural course would have augmented the flood that makes Niagara the impassable barrier that it is.

One of the Wonders of the Modern World

TN ECONOMIC significance, this harnessing of -*• Nature to her own undoing, and the removal thereby of the major obstacle to navigation in the 2,300-milelong water highway between Belle Isle and the head of Lake Superior, is as important to Canada as the piercing of the Rockies by a transcontinental railway or the completion of the pioneer line of steel to Hudson Bay.

As a feat of engineering it ranks with the great engineering triumphs of modern times, in some respects surpassing anything of the kind ever built by man.

The greatest single lift on the famous Panama canal is thirty-one feet. On the new Welland, the single lift is forty-six and a half feet. The total lift on the Panama canal is eighty-five feet. The total lift on the new Welland is 326 feet. The longest lock on the Panama canal measures 1,000 feet. The longest lock on the new Welland measures 1,380 feet; it is the longest in the world.

Nowhere else in the world is there a canal capable of lifting ocean-size vessels anything like the height surmounted by this prodigy of engineering.

To the lay beholder, its more spectacular aspects are nothing short of marvellous. Unlike its timid predecessors, it spurns all compromise with gravity and marches straight up the Niagara escarpment in a series of steps molded in heroic proportions. At points, its concrete walls rise a sheer 130 feet—unbroken perpendicular cliffs of concrete the height of a ten-story building. The stark immensity of its gates and their supporting pylons inevitably suggest the grandiose conceptions of the temple builders of antiquity. On the crest of its most magnificent rise, 600-foot ships will ride between its mighty buttresses a full fifty feet above the surrounding countryside. Its man-made canyons are awesome clefts in the mother rock, which, had they been natural, could only have been riven asunder by an earthquake.

In short, man the pigmy, in raising this colossus to the gods of w'ater-borne transport, has created one of the wonders of the modern world.

respects it surpasses anything of the kind ever built by man”

By comparison, the three other pioneer canals which preceded it across the twenty-five-mile-wide Niagara peninsula seem almost toylike in their dimensions, but they have played no ignoble part in developing the trade which gives meaning and purpose to the gargantuan wonder raised in their stead. For the last hundred years there has always been some sort of artificial channel known as the Welland Canal. The first of the series was finished in 1829. It had forty wooden locks, each 110 feet long, and provided a channel eight feet deep. The second was built in 1845. It had twenty-seven locks 150 feet long, and a depth of nine feet later increased to ten. The third canal was completed in 1887. It had twenty-five locks, 270 feet long and forty-five feet wide, and the depth of water was fourteen feet.

Inadequate as it was to meet the needs of its time, this third canal, or the old Welland Canal as it is now known, developed a great trade. During the past thirty years the annual volume of traffic passing through its locks increased more than twelvefold. In 1901 it handled only 620,209 tons of freight; in 1928 it handled 7,439,617 tons, in the last of which was included 131,531,000 bushels of wheat.

Heretofore, however, ninety per cent of the traffic plying the Great Lakes has been barred to Lake Ontario and the upper reaches of the St. Lawrence by reason of the inadequacy of the old canal. How vast this traffic is can be realized only when one compares its volume with that which flows along water highways of like nature. In 1928, there passed through the Suez Canal, 36,050,000 tons of freight; through the Panama Canal, 32,950,000 tons. During the same year the canals at Sault Ste. Marie connecting Lake Superior with Lake Huron handled 19,286 ships carrying 86,993,000 tons, or nearly 18,000,000 tons more than the Suez and Panama Canals combined. Most of this huge flow of goods was floated in ships twice, and in many cases three times, too large to pass through the old Welland Canal. Now, as a result of the opening of the new, the largest vessels of this great fleet can reach the lowest lake of the Great Lakes chain at will. And ample margin is allowed for the passage of even larger ships in the future.

A Colossal Structure

"K/fORE than that, the new canal reduces the time it takes to cross the peninsula to less than half what it was formerly, and increases the size of the cargo that can be handled by more than 600 per cent. Lender normal operating conditions the maximum cargo of wheat a 260-foot canal boat could float through the old canal was 85,000 bushels, and the journey took anywhere from sixteen to eighteen hours. Now, with the new canal in operation a 633-foot vessel such as the Lemoyne, carrying a cargo of 553,000 bushels of wheat, can make the traverse between the two lakes in eight hours.

Cold figures are poor tools wdth which to try to

describe a work of the magnitude which makes this possible, but they are at least pegs on which to hang comparisons.

From lake to lake the new canal is twenty-five miles long. Leaving Lake Ontario at Port Weller at its northern end it touches the town of Thorold, the villages of Allanburg and Port Robinson, the city of Welland, the village of Humberstone, in the order named, and enters Lake Erie at the town of Port Colborne.

In the open reaches it is 310 feet wide at the waterline, sloping to 200 feet at the bottom, which is dredged out to a depth of twenty-five feet.

There are seven lift locks, three of them “twin locks in flight,” and one guard lock.

Each of the lift locks measures 859 feet over all and has a usable length of 820 feet. Each is eighty feet wide and provides a depth of thirty feet of water on the sills. Each has a “lift” of forty-six and a half feet; that is, it will raise or lower a ship forty-six and a half feet at one filling.

Each of the two steel gates at the lower ends of each of the lift locks is eighty-two feet high, fortyeight feet wide and six feet thick, and weighs 495 tons. Each of these gates contains, 43,363 rivets, and as the engineer who told me that, said; “If you don’t believe it, count ’em.”

Any one of these locks can be filled in eight minutes; which means that they will raise or lower the largest vessel that can squeeze into them at the rate of five

and a half feet a minute.

The length of the guard lock at Port Colborne is 1,380 feet, and it is used to prevent the fluctuations in the level of Lake Erie from interfering with the constant level maintained on the summit level of the canal.

At intervals throughout its twentyfive-mile length, the canal is crossed by twenty movable railway or highway bridges. Eleven of these are “vertical lift” bridges capable of hoisting a 200-foot span 120 feet above the water level.

The building of the canal required the excavation of 8,961,000 cubic yards of rock, 50,731,000 cubic yards of earth, and the pouring of 4,771,000 cubic yards of concrete.

It has taken fourteen years to construct, and the number of men employed on it at any one time has ranged from 2,700 to 3,300. Construction started in 1913, but no work was done during three of the

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war years. Probably two years more will be required to finish work that could not he done while the old canal was still in commission.

To date $113,500,000 has been spent on it, and when finished it will have cost $122,000,000.

Higher than Panama

DY WAY of comparison:

The famous Gatun flight locks on the Panama Canal will lift, a vessel ; eighty-five feet. The flight locks which step up the escarpment in an unbroken tier at Thorold will lift a vessel 139'•_> feet., or only a few feet less than the height, of the Horseshoe Falls at: Niagara, which is 158 feet.

All seven of the lift locks have a combined lift barely thirty feet, leas than the height of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, which is 355 feet.

In engineer’s language the discharge of one of these lift, locks in eight, minutes lets loose seventy acre feet of water, that is, an amount of water that, will cover seventy acres one foot. deep. Roughly, this is 19,000,000 gallons, or approximately the amount of water that, will supply a city the size of Vancouver for twenty-four hours.

Most of us have some notion of the devastating efforts of the stream of water that can be let loose through the nozzle of a fire hose. Such a nozzle is usually about two inches in diameter. The “nozzle” of each of the two tunnels through which a lock is discharged measures eighteen feet in diameter.

The great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt, still one of the world’s most colossal structures, covers an area of nearly thirteen acres and is 450 feet high. The rock and earth excavated in the building of the canal, if piled up in a solid perpendicular shaft resting on a base, the same size as that of the pyramid, would reach 2,800 feet into the sky, or more than six times the height of the pyramid. If loaded on ordinary railway flat cars it. would fill a train 18,000 mile”, long, stretching more than two-thirds of the distance around the earth. Had some ! superhuman well-digger tried to take it.

! all from one well, he would have had to dig a hole nearly seven feet in diameter I clean through the earth.say, from Canada to Australia.

One could go on juggling figures this way almost indefinitely, but sufficient has been said, I think, to indicate that, the canal builders of Welland have constructed a work of amazing magnitude.

Engineering Sorcery

UQUALLY amazing are some of the feats of engineering legerdemain they ' performed in its building. Not the least of these was the casual moving of a river which happened to interfere with their ! straight-line plans for their big ditch. Even more remarkable was their burial of the same river seventy-five feet underground in order that another river the canal might flow across above it.

Nor had they the advantage of working over virgin ground. Throughout much of ! its length the new canal followed the i route of the old, and there could be no stoppage of traffic on the old while the new was building. More than that, the routes of the old and new crossed several times. And the junctions were not all at the same level. Of two neighboring junctions, for instance, one was more than 180 feet higher than the other. Here again, traffic on the old had to be kept moving and the junctions plotted in such a way that the water levels in old and new would coincide down to the last inch, el e the initial flooding of the new would have either flooded out shipping on the

old or left, it: high and dry. Such an operation would have been an achievement had it involved only the placing of huge masses of earth and rock and concrete with the necessary precision, hut involving as it did the constant control of billions of tons of water damned up at twenty-five different levels on the side of a 300-foot slope without the spilling of a ton, it was a feat that can be described as nothing short of phenomenal.

In some cases, a description of what'' actually was done reads like a description of the impossible. Here, for instance, is what had to he done at the head of Lock Six at Thorold. To supply the necessarywater for the operation of the flight locks, a miniature lake had to be built halfway down the escarpment. This involved the building of a dam three-fifths of a mile long and eighty feet high, which at one end cut across the route of the old canal. Three of the locks of the old canal were situated in the bed of the future lake, each at a different water level. Ships had to be kept moving through these locks until the flight locks on the new canal were ready to operate. The flight locks on the new canal couldn’t be operated until water could be drawn from this lake; in fact, the upper level of Lock Six opens directly into it. And complete flooding of the lake involved the submerging of the old locks under many feet of water.

Lacking the key, it sounds like an impossible puzzle, but with a combination of temporary dams and control weirs, bypasses and what not, enabling an uncanny juggling of water levels, it was solved without a hitch. Not one of the thousands of ships using the old route was delayed an hour.

In comparison with such seeming sorcery, the mere changing of the right of way of a railway or two; the removal and replanting of four acres of cemetery; the moving of sizable sections of two towns; the designing of a floating crane capable of dangling a 495-ton gate high in the air; the building and operation of a construction railway on the main line of which, month after month, train followed train at two-minute intervals; the burial of a 150-acre farm under fifteen feet of rock: the installation of half a dozen railway bridges on as many railways crossing the canal without a minute’s interruption to traffic, much of it double track, main line traffic; the construction of miles of high-

way flanking the canal throughout most of its length; the maintenance of construction camps for 3,000 workmen; the foresting of mile after mile of canal embarkment, and the building of a harbor stretching a mile and a half out into Lake Ontario where no harbor was before, were but part of the routine incidental to the main task.

Where River Crosses River

AS A PURE feat of engineering, the building of the $2,500,000 “syphon culvert” at Welland, was, perhaps, the most difficult piece of construction on the entire canal, although in its finished state it is singularly unimpressive, for the simple reason that most of it is out of sight, deep in the earth. This is the device that buried the Welland River underground in order that the canal might pass above it.

In hare essential, it consists of six tunnels, each twenty-two feet in diameter, cutting across the line of the canal at a depth of seventy-five feet and joined to the surface at either side of the canal by a corresponding number of vertical shafts. The river pours down one set of shafts, passes through the tunnels, and comes to the surface again on the opposite side of the canal to resume its natural course. Above the tunnels and crossing them at right angles is a box-like bridge of concrete through which the canal flows thirty feet deep.

Simple enough. And yet not so simple, for both canal and river had to be taken care of while the contrivance was being built.

Fortunately for the engineers’ peace of mind, there existed an aqueduct on the old canal, which being only fourteen feet deep permitted the passage of the river underneath it. That settled the question of what to do with the river. The canal, however, had to be moved. So moved it was, ships and all. That done, a cofferdam was sunk around the site of the tunnels and the water within it pumped ouU/And then—trouble.

No sooner was the digging of the immense pit which was to contain tunnels, shafts, bridge and superstructure well under way, than the diggers encountered “soup”—a mixture of mud and water almost as volatile as quicksand. And the deeper they went, the “soupier”

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it got, with the result that the pressure on the sides of the excavation became enormous. This meant that the entire pit had to be turned into a sort of inverted timber fortress, else “soup,” walls, bracing, cofferdam, canal, and perhaps a ship for good measure, would go plunging down in one mad avalanche on the workers tolling seventy-five feet below the ground level. In the end, man won, but it was a terrific struggle. One engineer told me that in two hours of one afternoon he saw nine twenty-four-inch-square timbers smashed one after the other by end preasure—not broken from the side as one might break a stick by holding it by the two hands and pressing it with the knee, but broken by being squeezed from the ends.

Before the job was finished, more than twenty-five miles of timber piling had been sunk in the hole, not to mention 8,000 tons of sheet steel piling and something like 7,835,000 board feet of timber bracing. But the work was completed “according to plan’’; the canal was pushed back into place and the river given a new channel and turned into its subterranean passage without the slightest inconvenience to either.

“Steps” for Ships

"DEFORE attempting to describe the twin flight locks at Thorold which, for sheer monumental massiveness, outrival anything else on the canal, perhaps it should be explained that a lock is simply an elongated box very much the shape of, say, an immensely enlarged shoe-box with double doors or gates substituted for the solid ends. From a distance it looks like a step in the line of the canal, and that’s precisely what it is. It’s a hollow step by which a ship is floated from one level of a canal to another. The top of it is at the same level as the walls of the upper level of the canal; the bottom is sunk to the bottom of the lower level of the canal.

When a ship locks through, say, on the down journey, what happens is this: Both gates are closed and the lock is filled with water through a system of tunnels connecting it with the upper level of the canal. The water in the lock then being the same level as the water in the upper canal, the upper gates are opened and the ship moves into the lock. The upper gates are then closed behind the vessel and the water in the lock is allowed to run out through another system of tunnels connecting it with the lower canal, the ship, of course, floating lower and lower as the water supporting it subsides. Finally, when the water in the lock has reached the level of the water in the lower canal, the lower lock gates are opened and the ship steams out of the lock into the lower canal.

When the drop is too great for a single "step,” two or more steps are linked together, the lower gates of one lock acting as the upper gates of the one below, in which case the locks are said to be “in (light.” The flight locks at Thorold have three such steps, and in order that up-bound and down-bound ships may pass on the flight, there is one set of three locks for up-bound traffic and another set of three immediately alongside for downbound traffic. In other words, there are six locks in the flight, two on each level, which explains the term, “twin flight locks.”

A Port of Majestic Grandeur

CO FAR as basic principles are con^ cerned there is nothing unusual about the Thorold flight; its unique feature is its size, particularly its height. And this can only be fully appreciated when the locks are empty, as they were when this was written.

Seen “dry,” the flight as a whcle assumes proportions that are truly cclo sal. Standing on the top of one of the lower gates of Lock Six—the topmost of

the flight—you have the feeling of being suspended in mid-air over an awful abyss. Turn one way, and you are appalled by the canyon which is Lock Six; turn the other, and you are gazing over the edge of a skyscraper whose foundations are rooted in the still more dreadful canyon which is Lock Five. On the one side, a dizzy drop of eighty-two feet; on the other a still more dizzy drop of 130 feet. To your own timid feet, the solid six-foot-wide gate-top begins to feel like a six-inch plank.

Your eye searches out the gloomy depths of the lower canyon to where its whitish-grey walls terminate abruptly in the jet-black leaves of another pair of gates. You know that they, too, tower eighty-two feet from the floor on which they rest, but they are too far below you and too far away—nearly three hundred yards—to be impressive. The intervening void is too overpowering. And yet beyond that portal is still another 130foot concrete precipice, still another eighty-foot chasm, terminating abruptly in the jet-black leaves of still another pair of gates. And then you realize that this is but the half of it, and turn quarter left to catch a glimpse of the other series of canyons and cliffs and gates which give the whole the name of twin.

Lift your eyes to the horizon and you suddenly discover that the world is huge. Rolling away from the foot of the escarpment are miles of garden green; vineyards, orchards, open fields; beyond, the blue waters of Lake Ontario, and beyond that again a skyline faintly jagged with the toy towers of Toronto forty miles distant.

Climb down to the floor of Lock Five, empty now but soon to be flooded under seventy-five feet of water, and dizzy wonder changes to wondering awe. The world is still huge, but too close for comfort. The lock walls are twin cliffs enclosing an enormous vault, open to the sky, yet shadowed in gloom, a tomb-like place where echo mutters hollowly. And yet not a tomb, for far above, the towering bastions of the upper lock, sharplimned against the blue, with massive gates between, seem to clamber to the very sky itself. A portal of majestic grandeur, that way might lie entrance to some Olympian temple where worship not men but gods.

Marvels of Mechanical Exactitude

ATECHANICALLY, all eight of the locks, double or single, are marvels of exactitude and engineering cunning. The mystery of how a 495-ton gate can swing on hinges is explained by the fact that it floats—or almost floats. Its lower half is watertight and its lower third is always under water; the water itself carries more than half the weight. When closed, a pair of them fit so perfectly that not a trickle seeps through their mitred joints to betray the enormous pressure of a lock full of water behind them.

To see them in motion is to realize the sheer wizardry of mind in control over mass. So delicately are they hung that their movement is absolutely noiseless. So ponderous is their bulk, so overpowering their height, that their swing seems as mysteriously inevitable as doom itself.

A pair of them weigh nearly a thousand tons and yet man, up in the control cabin in the lock wall, has but to touch finger to a switch-lever to command their movement down to a fraction of an inch. Moreover, should human intelligence fail at a crucial moment there can be no catastrophe, for these inanimate monsters have a mechanical intelligence of their own. An automatic electrical control will bring them to rest in perfect alignment with the niches provided for them in the side walls of the lock.

And as with the gates, so with every other movable device on this mechanized waterway. From end to end the entire canal is powered electi ically, and from end to end it is protected by automatically

interlocking controls that reduce the possibility of accidents to the irreducible minimum.

Before each lockmaster as he stands at his station in his control cabin is a queerly patterned table studded with a series of levers. Set in the table beside each lever is a panel of frosted glass. Lights glowing beneath these panels tell him at a glance all that he needs to know7 to operate his lock. Inlet valves, outlet valves, upper gates, lower gates, water levels, in some cases bridges, highway barriers, highway signals, railway stop signals—the positions of all of them open or shut, are recorded on the table before him. And should he make a mistake and move a lever in wrong sequence, he can do no harm, for unless the ordered sequence is maintained the whole intricate mechanism simply refuses to function.

All up and down the canal this interlocking control prevails. Every conceivable contingency has been provided for. Where necessary the very water in the canal is provided w7ith the means to check itself automatically in flood. Should the improbable happen and the lock at the top of the escarpment “go out” for instance, there would be no danger of half the Niagara peninsula being flooded, for the first rush of water out of the ordered channel would automatically close a whole battery of safety weii*s provided for just such an eventuality. The flood would be checked before it started, even if there were no human within miles of the scene.

Built by Canadians

OF SUCH are the works of the men who built the Welland Ship Canal. What of the men themselves?

Some of them inevitably have paid the price of conquest over Nature. Ten of them went to their death when one of the huge gates collapsed in process of building. Others of them were buried under a tangled mass of wreckage when an enormous steel form used in pouring concrete toppled from one lock to a lower one. Others met death by drowning. Thus far the roll of the dead carries 108 names. Many of them were so-called “foreigners,” but they have left their mark on the country of their adoption. The work they helped to create will stand long after their descendants have forgotten their memory.

So far as design and technical direction are concerned, the work is purely Canadian. It was built under the immediate direction of the Department of Railways and Canals of the Federal Government, of which A. E. Dubuc is chief engineer. Most of the engineering personnel was trained in Canadian universities. The one outstanding exception is that of Alexander J. Grant, Engineer in Charge since 1919, who—it almost seems inevitable—was born a Scot. He has been building canals in this country since 1872, however, and by virtue of that record is fifty-eight years a Canadian.

All the other senior engineers own some eastern Canadian university as their Alma Mater. E. G. Cameron, the principal assistant engineer, is a graduate of Royal Military College and McGill. F. E. Sterns, the designing engineer, is another McGill man, as is also Brodie Atkinson, the bridge engineer. J. B. McAndrew, assistant designing engineer, is a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Science. Of the four divisional engineers on the field staff, two are Queen’s men, E. P. Johnson and E. P. Murphy. McGill is again represented by F. C. Jewett, and Toronto by C. A. West.

One hundred years ago when the first Welland Canal was completed, Canada had neither the men nor the universities to make the compilation of such a list possible. Today, she has both the universities and the men. Which latter truth, in the light of all that has gone before, is a fact of some considerable significance.