The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum will be welcoming Kathleen Powell, curator of the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canal Centre, to present the next instalment of their Fall Virtual Lecture Series Oct. 20.
Her presentation, Triumph and Tragedy: Building the Welland Ship Canal, will delve into some of the personal stories of the 138 fallen workers who lost their lives during the construction of the fourth and current Welland Canal.
The sights and sounds of the Welland Ship Canal are familiar to those of us who live in Niagara. Large lake freighters, or lakers, are an impressive sight as they manoeuver skillfully into a lock, with mere metres to spare. Familiar too is the sound of the ship’s whistle that is used to signal to lock masters, but we may not pay them too much attention.
The Welland Canal, with its locks and bridges, is more than just an inconvenient interruption when we get “caught by a bridge” or just another waterway that divides the region. The canal is an engineering marvel that allows ships to overcome the change in elevation between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie through a series of eight locks, thereby bypassing Niagara Falls and the Niagara Escarpment. Starting in St. Catharines at Port Weller on Lake Ontario, passing through Welland and ending in Port Colborne on Lake Erie, this commercial waterway facilitates the flow of goods to and from the ports on the rest of the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, allowing access to international markets.
As impressive as the canal is as an engineering feat, Powell seeks to remind us that thousands of men worked on the construction on the current canal from 1913 until its completion and official opening on Aug 6, 1932. Over this almost 20-year span, 138 men were killed in accidents directly related to its construction. In her lecture, Powell will tell us more about their lives and their deaths. When you hear a number like 138, she says, you don’t put faces to names, and it doesn’t feel personal, until you hear those personal stories.” She will be highlighting some of these stories that were uncovered during the research on the Fallen Workers Memorial project.
Some of the stories will focus on who these men were, how they died and the impact their death had on their families and the community. Her lecture will highlight the working conditions these men had to endure, the types of accidents that happened during construction, and the efforts made to prevent them. For example, she says, the beginnings of health and safety regulations were established around the time of the First World War. She adds, “there was a medical service along the Welland Canal to support the workers.” Medical personnel were to get to the workers as quickly as possible in an accident, to try to mitigate any injuries as much as possible.
The material for the lecture was gathered as part of the Fallen Workers Memorial project. Back in 2015, Powell explains, a couple of local historians were doing some research on the canal. They found references to men who had died during the construction, and references to promises that were made to erect a memorial in their honour. As Powell explains, “Way back in 1932, when they unveiled and opened the Welland Canal, there was a promise that was made by the Department of Railways and Canals, at the time, that said that they would eventually build a memorial to the men who died on the Welland Canal. That never happened, because they were in the middle of the Depression and governments changed.”
“That’s how the whole project got started,” she explains. “It was really to come up with a memorial to recognize the fallen workers.”
Local historians and community members began to pressure the federal government to fulfill the promise and honour the sacrifice these men made. With funding from the federal government, municipal governments and the community, the research began.
“Back in 1932,” Powell explains, “there appeared only 118 names on the list of accidental deaths. During the research, they found 20 more names that should have been on the original list.” Powell cites many hundreds of hours volunteers clocked, searching through microfilms of newspapers, death certificates and coroner’s notices to make a comprehensive list. “The community really got behind it and came forward with information,” she states proudly. “When the monument was unveiled, we actually had 137 names. One was even found after the monument was unveiled. He will be eventually added to the memorial.” In the end, there were 138 names on the list.
The Fallen Workers Memorial was finally unveiled in 2017, 85 years after the promise was made to honour these men. The federal government, through the department of Canadian Heritage, contributed a significant amount to the project. Powell indicated that the local municipalities in Niagara contributed something to the project, including the City of St. Catharines where the memorial stands at Lock 3. She adds that they also received a “huge number of donations from local companies and from people just off the street who contributed to this project, because they found it to be worthwhile.” The project culminated in a memorial and a book, published in 2020, that presents the research uncovered by the project, and stories of some of the men who died.
Powell was involved with the project from the beginning, and says some of the most rewarding parts of the project were the interactions with the community. People began to contribute stories and photos of the men who had died. “We had a few pictures to start with, but people in the community began sharing family photos, so we were able to find photos of a fair number of the fallen workers. Some families still lived in the area, other family members came from all over Canada and the United States. We even found a family member who was over in Europe who helped contribute.”
Powell continued enthusiastically, “one of the great things was that a lot of them came to the unveiling of the memorial, which was awesome. There were a lot of people at the unveiling of the memorial.” She adds, as her voice takes on a more serious tone, “It was a very emotional memorial to some people. There were just a few people who had still remembered the people that worked on the canal, especially those who died closer to the end of the construction project in the 1930s. There were still family members who had been small children when that had happened, who are still alive. That was really impactful.”
Their research from the project helped give these family members more information about their loved ones, she added. In some cases, the family might have had a little bit of information about what happened, but the researchers were able to contribute more from what they had learned.
Coming up after Powell’s resentation, in honour of Treaties Recognition Week, three guest speakers from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs will present Treaties and Land Claims on Nov. 3. They will look at the significant impact that treaty responsibilities and promises have made on First Nations, in order to create a better understanding of collective treaty rights and obligations.
All presentations start at 11 a.m. and require registration through Zoom.
To access Zoom registration link, go to www.notlmuseum.ca
For more information, please contact Amy Klassen: aklassen@nhsm or at the NOTL Museum at 905-468-3912.