Travelling through southern Ontario in the late 18th century and early 19th century was a chore. Early settlers used trails long established by the Indigenous peoples, but these trails were foot paths, not ideal when trying to move possessions to new settlement areas or crops to market. Many of these paths were widened and upgraded to support the movement of troops and wagons but these early roads were rough and muddy and often impassible. Passage over these roads was often best in the winter months. It was cold, but the surface was hard and permitted smooth travel by sleigh.
The entrepreneurs in the area realised that making the area more easily accessible would improve their situation. Needed goods and staples could get to the area more easily and more importantly goods and crops produced in the area could get to an expanded market hundreds of miles away. They also saw a potential lucrative money making opportunity in the tolls the waterway would bring.
In the early 19th century canals were all the rage in North America. Canals leveraged the existing river systems and made the interior of the continent more easily accessible. Early canals in eastern North America included: the Erie Canal (1825), Lachine Canal (1825), Rideau Canal (1832), and the Welland Canal (1830).
Grand River Navigation Company
These canals all preceded the Grand River Navigation Company, a company chartered in 1832 to make the Grand River navigable from Brantford to Lake Erie, a river distance of 60 miles. The waterway would make it easy and inexpensive to ship and receive crops and goods, leveraging the water transportation system throughout the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, crossing New York State to the Atlantic coast.
The Grand River Navigation Company was pivotal in the development of Brantford. It led to the early arrival of the railway into Brantford and then provided the motive power for electrical generation making Brantford one of the earliest cities in Canada with electric power.
A proposal for a navigable Grand River to Brantford first gained public attention in December of 1827. Local men that supported the proposal included: James Racey, John A. Wilkes, and Warner Nelles. The chief promoter of the waterway was William Hamilton Merritt, the promoter and builder of the Welland Canal. The prime motivation to develop a navigable waterway was the significant reduction in transportation costs versus land transportation, a three-quarters cost reduction if not more. The area was rich in timber and gypsum, and flour milling was beginning. Flour became a major commodity to ship via the waterway. These commodities would all benefit from inexpensive, reliable water transport. Seven dams and locks would be required between Dunnville, on Lake Erie, and Brantford. Competing canal ideas were floated in 1828; connecting the Grand River with Burlington Bay, or to Hamilton, or to the headwaters of the Thames River. But it was the original proposal that prevailed.
To construct the waterway, land would be required to build the dams, the locks, wasteweirs, towpaths, and mills. About two-thirds of the required land was Haudenosaunee land; land they did not give up willingly.
Work commenced on the waterway in 1834. Initial financing was provided by William Merritt (¼ of the stock); David Thompson (¼), a Grand River miller; a number of Brantford’s leading citizens (¼); and the Six Nations trust fund (¼), which was used without the consent or knowledge of the Haudenosaunee people. Money was scarce in the 1830s and as a consequence the company was inadequately capitalised.
The Grand River was navigable from Dunnville to Cayuga. Five dams and locks were required for the 9 miles between Cayuga and Caledonia. From Caledonia the river was navigable to Cainsville. The locks and dams were completed in 1836 and navigation to Cainsville was possible. Construction on this portion of the waterway continued until 1840, to complete the towpaths, build the mills and repair and reconstruct the failing dams and locks. The workmanship and quality of construction was poor; many of the low cost bidders had no experience in building dams and locks.
The Brantford Cut
Three more locks, a dam, and a three mile canal would be required from Cainsville to downtown Brantford. This avoided following the twelve mile river course between Cainsville and Brantford. Getting to Brantford was essential if the navigation company was to generate sufficient revenue to become a successful business concern. Work on the Brantford Canal began in 1842 and was completed in the fall of 1848.
Construction of the canal was fraught with numerous problems causing lengthy delays in construction; the Company’s ongoing struggle to raise money due to the scarcity of capital and the Company’s dire financial condition, low tolls fees charged by the Company to use the waterway (designed to encourage traffic), labour unrest within the workforce building the canal, and the difficulty acquiring land at a fair price.
Tolls revenues increased substantially after the waterway was completed through to Brantford but they were not sufficient to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the waterway, and servicing the large debt incurred to build the waterway. It took fourteen years to complete the waterway from Dunnville to Brantford.
Legacy of the Grand River Navigation Company
The development and opening of the Grand River waterway fundamentally changed Brantford. Brantford was no longer another inland settlement that traded locally. The condition of the road system at the time did not encourage the development of trade over distance. It was too costly and difficult to move large, heavy goods. Brantford became a sea port in the loosest sense. Brantford became a port of entry in 1852, unusual for an inland city. The Port of Brantford remains in force to this day.
With the completion of the canal, goods could be loaded on a barge in downtown Brantford and reach anywhere in the world through a well-developed water transportation system. This encouraged local entrepreneurs to begin manufacturing goods because they could economically ship them to distance points. It also attracted entrepreneurs to locate in Brantford.
The waterway established a connection with Buffalo, a thriving, vibrant city of 42,000 in 1850. Buffalo was one day travel by Steamer and so became a favourite travel destination for local residents because of its ease of access. Buffalo was the gateway city from the interior of the continent, to the Atlantic seaboard and beyond by way of the Erie Canal. The St. Lawrence Seaway would not open for another 111 years.
The waterway attracted railway interest because the town was already established as a shipping point and there was business to be had immediately. When the railway arrived in Brantford in January 1854, the fortunes of the Company diminished rapidly. The railway reduced travel time to Buffalo to four hours. The railway started to syphon traffic away from the waterway. The railway operated twelve months a year, the waterway did not.
From a purely financial point of view the waterway was a failed commercial venture, but its development forever changed the fortunes of the town. Perhaps if the waterway had been completed to Brantford in the mid 1830s rather than the late 1840s, just before the emergence of railways, a different outcome may have occurred. The arrival of the railway occurred too soon after the waterway was completed and gave the Company little time to reap the harvest of increased revenue and turn the venture around financially.
The Town of Brantford had become financially involved with the Company in 1851. In 1859 the Town foreclosed on its mortgage with the Company because the Company could no longer continue financially. From 1860 to 1871 the Town managed the Company. Haldimand County then purchased and operated the waterway except for the Brantford Canal which was retained by the Town. In 1875 the Town sold the canal to Alfred Watts for $1. By 1880 all waterway traffic had ceased. In 1885 Watts started generating hydro electric power by harnessing the water flow of the canal at the dam at the Grand River. Power generation continued until May 15, 1911 when the power house was closed.
Some readers may be surprised to learn Brantford had a canal. Most of the Brantford Canal is still visible to this day. The canal starts at the Grand River just south east of Beach Road. It follows Beach Road and crosses under the Locks Road bridge, then flows along Mohawk Road, into Mohawk Lake, then along Greenwich Street to just west of Alfred Street. From Alfred Street the canal was covered over in the 1930s. The Brantford Mosque is built over the canal. The downtown parking garage is also built over the old canal. Wharf Street and Water Street fronted the canal.
For a thorough history of the Grand River waterway, pick up a copy of Bruce Hill’s book The Grand River Navigation Company, available at the Brant Museum & Archives, 57 Charlotte St, Brantford, Ontario.