The History of the Trent-Severn Waterway
The construction of the Trent-Severn Waterway has had a very sporadic history. Unlike the Rideau, which was built of political necessity and was funded by the British Government, the Trent-Severn developed slowly and painstakingly with many interruptions. Various projects, in fits and starts, resulted in the completion of the entire waterway in just over 80 years. The growth of the fur trade gave rise to a number of camps and milltowns along the inland waters. Mill construction and operation provided employment to new settlers and, for this reason many were attracted to the new settlements. Soon, support services such as general stores, blacksmiths and inns prospered at these sites. As southern timer stands were depleted, the lumber trade pushed farther north and west along the waterways.
The 1850s were boom years for the timber trade. Large American markets were more easily accessible due to improved rail service and river transport. The waterway towns prospered and grew. By 1860, the push north had reached Port Severn, but the gradual rape of the land eventually resulted in depleted timber stands and logging industry, more of less, put itself out of business by the turn of the century.
Interest in an inland water route to Lake Huron from Lake Ontario began as early as 1785. The overland trek from York (Toronto) to Lake Simcoe was slow and arduous. After preliminary and incomplete surveys were made, it was proposed that connecting the lakes and rivers to form a continuous water route was not feasible. The settlers and owners of timber enterprises did not agree. They petitioned for a direct water route to lake Ontario so that supply ships and lumber rafts and barges could proceed quickly and inexpensively to larger commercial centres.
Finally in 1833, the Imperial Government sanctioned a bill to survey a route and construct locks, dams and canals as chosen sites. Civil engineer, Nicol H. Baird was appointed by Sir John Colborne to undertake the project. Baird carried out surveys from Lake Ontario to Rice Lake and from Rice Lake to Lake Simcoe and estimated the works to create a waterway would cost 2.5 million dollars. His results were approved and the project was allotted monies to start construction. The first lock sites were Bobcaygeon and Purdy’s Mills, now Lindsay. This allowed navigation from Chemong, Buckhorn and Pigeon Lakes into Lindsay via Sturgeon Lake and the Scugog River. Bobcaygeon lock was the first construction started in 1833. A channel was dredged at Trenton and lock construction began at Hastings, Glen Ross and Peterborough. Having done this much, a cash shortage was experienced by the Inland Water commission and work was stopped. Attention focused instead on the 1837 Rebellion and the Inland Water Commission project became a secondary concern.
As the rebellion threat died down, it appeared that government enthusiasm for the waterway died with it. Arguments against the waterway were that the project had too many locks to be useful or expedient anyway. It was finally agreed that those locks which had been begun, could be completed, but that the proposed lock sites would be equipped with timber slides instead. The locks were completed, served their localized communities. Steamship cruises through a lock became a very popular vacation pastime.
In 1841, Upper Canada and Lower Canada were joined to form the Province of Canada. Further works on the waterway were transferred from the Inland Water Commission to the Board of Works. Work was resumed on unfinished locks under the Board of Works, because it provided a means of employing the new waves of immigrants.
It wasn’t until after Confederation that the provincial government built locks at Young’s Point and Rosedale and a new lock was constructed at Lindsay. These were localized improvements which were not undertaken with a view to the overall waterway.
In 1879, interest in a waterway from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay was rekindled. Sir John A McDonald’s government took over the project and made yet another survey. Locks were completed at Burleigh Falls, Lovesick Lake, Buckhorn and Fenelon Falls. These locks together with the preciously constructed locks allowed through-navigation from Lakefield to Balsam Lake. At this point, interest once again flagged. Further plans for the completion of the waterway were put aside for several years. By 1890, the Murray Canal had been cut through Presqu’ile and this helped to push the idea of an inland waterway to Georgian Bay to the fore again.
Bids were taken from contractors for three additional sections of locks and canals to be built. They were Trenton to Rice Lake, Peterborough to Lakefield and from Balsam Lake to Lake Simcoe. The works on these sections were completed in 1918, 1904 and 1904 respectively.
The section from Lake Couchiching to Georgian Bay was completed in 1920 and consisted of locks at Washago and Port Severn and marine railways at Swift Rapids and Big Chute. It might have been completed earlier if not for the interruption of World War I. The marine railway at Swift Rapids was replaced by a large lock in 1964. Also since then, a new and larger marine railway has been built at Big Chute.
In July of 1920, the first vessel to complete a through-passage was the motor launch Irene. The journey from Trenton to Port Severn took nine days.
The Trent-Severn Waterway was never used for commercial traffic as originally planned. By the time it was completed, the canal draughts and lock chambers were somewhat short for modern commercial vessels. Also, rail and road transport had much improved and was a popular alternative.
Because the Waterway was completed in the not so distant past, it may be hard to realize that it was started close to 175 years ago. The spirit behind the idea of an inland water route to Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay was in the heart of every waterway settler and could not help but affect their lives. Many settlers, new to Canada, found themselves gainfully employed in the hard, gruelling labour of canal digging and blasting operations.
In spite of many initial apprehensions, delays and interruptions, the Trent-Severn Waterway has become a major success. Today it is one of the primary recreational attractions in central Ontario. Thousands of boaters and motorists visit the Waterway and its corridor each year to enjoy unrivalled fishing, cruising and scenery.