Exploring the Trent -Severn Waterway

The Peterborough Lift Lock, an engineering marvel (Photo courtesy of the Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

Photo: The Peterborough Lift Lock, an engineering marvel (Photo courtesy of the Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)


Dennis Carter-Edwards

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: Jan 28, 2011

Built over a period of 87 years, the Trent-Severn Waterway stretches 386 kilometres across the heartland of the province, linking Lake Ontario with Georgian Bay. Originally conceived as a communication route to open the interior of the Newcastle District for settlement, the government authorized construction of a series of locks and dams along the Trent River and through Kawartha Lakes.

With the outbreak of the 1837 Rebellions, funds were reallocated to defend the border from raids by rebels and American sympathizers. Without regular payments, contractors defaulted and construction on the locks ground to a halt. With the creation of the Government of Canada in 1841 and the establishment of a Board of Works to supervise public projects, work resumed on the locks. By 1844, five locks were in operation.

To support the growing lumber industry, focus shifted from lock construction to building timber slides to move the massive logs from the Kawartha and Haliburton regions and the sawn lumber to markets south and overseas. Following Confederation in 1867, the national government directed its resources to developing a transcontinental railway scheme. Ontario took the lead in new lock construction, building locks at Rosedale, Lindsay and Young’s Point under the direction of the chief engineer, Kivas Tully.

By the 1880s, a growing interest in expanding the system of locks, dams and canal cuts resulted in the creation of the Trent Valley Canal Association under the leadership of Mossom Boyd, a prominent lumber merchant and navigation company owner. The Association was successful in lobbying the government to build additional locks at Fenelon Falls, Buckhorn and Burleigh Falls.

Before considering additional expansion of the Trent Valley Canal, as it became known, a Royal Commission was appointed in 1888 to study the matter. In a report released just prior to the 1891 election, the commissioners recommended expanding the system. With an eye to electoral results as much as the economics of canal construction, the government formally accepted the recommendations and announced new lock construction to link Lake Simcoe with Rice Lake. Included in this phase of canal construction was the innovative hydraulic lift lock at Peterborough and Kirkfield.

The engineer placed in charge of this work was R.B. Rogers, a Peterborough native who examined lift locks in Britain and Europe before finalizing the design of the locks for the Trent Canal. Rogers envisaged a barge canal system from Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario that would bring the rich harvest of Prairie wheat to overseas markets with quicker dispatch than the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River route. Apart from the innovation of the Peterborough Lift Lock to ensure a quick transfer over the 19.8-metre elevation difference, Rogers also introduced the first Canadian use of concrete in lock construction along the Peterborough to Lakefield Division.

The 1896 election of the Liberals, who had opposed the canal scheme, brought the Trent Valley Canal Association back into action. As municipal leaders along the route descended on Ottawa for a meeting with Prime Minister Laurier, they convinced the government to continue with expansion of the system. The Minister of Railways and Canals announced construction of locks and dams ostensibly to open navigation from Lake Ontario to Rice Lake, but in reality to establish federal jurisdiction of the Trent River and control of its valuable hydro electric sites. In 1905, the provincial Conservatives under J.P. Whitney swept to power on the promise of public ownership of hydro electricity. The federal Liberals, however, were proponents of private-sector development of hydro sites and opposed Whitney’s plans.

The final section of the canal – from Lake Simcoe through Lake Couchiching and the Severn River to Port Severn – was authorized by Borden’s Conservative government just before the First World War. As that war continued, pressure on manpower and material resulted in delays and compromises for lock construction. Marine railways at Big Chute and Swift Rapids were installed as temporary measures. While the marine railway continues in use at Big Chute, a new modern lock replaced the railway at Swift Rapids in the 1960s. A small pleasure craft, the Irene, was the first vessel to sail the entire route during the 1920 navigation season. Visions of a viable commercial barge canal were replaced by a thriving recreational waterway, recognized in 1929 as a site of national historic importance.

Today, the Trent-Severn Waterway is managed by Parks Canada. The diversity of historical assets along the waterway – from world-class engineering works and architecturally significant buildings to archaeological sites that attest to human presence for more than 8,000 years – offers visitors the ability to create memorable experiences. The critical water management regime that is an integral part of the operation of the Trent-Severn Waterway provides water for personal, commercial and recreational uses. It is a challenge to manage these multifaceted resources and expectations in a manner that assures the legacy will continue unimpeded to future generations. But it is a challenge that the staff of the Trent-Severn Waterway are willing to assume.

The original marine railway built at Big Chute (Photo courtesy of the Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

Photo: The original marine railway built at Big Chute (Photo courtesy of the Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

Lock 18 at Hastings at the turn of the century (Photo courtesy of the Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

Photo: Lock 18 at Hastings at the turn of the century (Photo courtesy of the Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)