The Lachine Canal: Montreal’s Answer to the Rapids

by Art Cohn

Montreal is an island and historically the point at which travelers moving up the St. Lawrence River had to circumnavigate the rapids, which barred their passage west. This dynamic place in the river made Montreal the city it is today. However, by the early 19th century the city’s location and its requirement to transship goods also became a limiting factor to Montreal’s potential for growth. The solution was to construct a canal from one end of the swift water to the other, bypassing the challenging energy of the rapids. The Lachine Canal opened in 1825, the same year as New York’s Erie Canal, and like the Erie, it was expanded and enhanced several times over its working life before being bypassed and superseded by the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1958. The once active waterway fell on hard times and finally closed to navigation. Like many of Canada’s historic canals, it was revived by Parcs Canada.  It now provides an all-water route through the city and is alive with boats, kayaks, runners and bicycles.

During our stay at Montreal, we scheduled visits to both ends of the Lachine canal. At the Old Port we got a taste of the still dynamic currents that required us to supplement the steady Churchill with an assist tugboat graciously donated by Oceans Group by arrangement of our friends at Gresco Ltee. After a warm three-day reception in the historic Old Port, we transited through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the western end of the Lachine Canal. Moored at a dock just outside the stone locks of the Lachine Canal Visitors Center, we enjoyed a busy weekend in this very historic place. The Visitor’s Center and Fur Trade Museum are operated by Parcs Canada, and the town operated Lachine Museum added perspective through an excellent archaeological exhibit about the days when the Chevalier de La Salle settlement became a jumping off point for explorations further inland.

A photo of Montreal and Lachine, then and now, at the Parcs Canada exhibit at Lock 5

Our visit to Montreal was a sensory delight of maritime activity and stories. Empire Sandy’s overhanging bowsprit was a constant reminder that we had left Lake Champlain. Watching container ships, tankers, private yachts on steroids, go-fast boats by the dozen and working tugboats it occurred to me while in the shadow of this important Lachine Canal to examine the record of our Captain Bartley and get his perspective from the days when the shipwrecks that provided the information for the construction of the Lois McClure would have operated. The Bartley entries were many and as usual, very insightful to our understanding of how the Lachine Canal and business corridor influenced the world. In 1862, the year that both General Butler and O.J. Walker were launched, Captain Bartley arrived at the Old Port end of the canal from Sorel and “Locked up as soon as we could.” He then writes that he “laid up above the locks, head of Wellington St, till some time in the afternoon then started for Lachine through the Lachine Canal. Got there sometime before sunset. Stayed here until about 12 P.M. when we started in tow with the [steamer]  Prescott for Thurso 30 miles east of Bytown and about 75 from Montreal.” Little did I realize that in the days that lay ahead, our crew we would pass by Thurso on the Ottawa River enroute to Bytown, now Ottawa, and the Canadian capital. Bytown was named for Lt. Col. John By, the British engineer who designed and built the Rideau Canal, but that story will follow along shortly.

Canal boat loaded with lumber on the Lachine Canal

Later, in October of that same 1862 season, Captain Bartley was back in Montreal to deliver a load of coal. He wrote on October 20, “We found by the consignee that we must unload our coal at the ax factory about 3 miles above the locks so we locked through as soon as our turn came & laid just above the mouth of the canal where it branches off. As we were hauling out of the lock the men on a barge that was hauling out told us to give them a line ahead as a steamboat was going to tow them out. So we hitch on & they towed us up near where we lay all night. This saved us probably an hour’s work poling” It was amazing to me to learn that Captain Bartley was regularly poling his loaded boat short distances around the harbor. Beyond the hard work of moving the boat, it seems that it would have taken considerable skill to guide the heavily laden boat to where the boatman wanted it to go.

The next day Captain Bartley is pulling up to the ax factory getting ready to unload his coal. “…the men began on our load but it began to rain & the work didn’t go very fast. Finally it rained so steady & hard near night that we all quit work for more than an hour. It finally slacked up a little & we had a little more taken off. While we quit work, I visited the different shops. They manufacture axes, scythes, shovels, augers & nearly all kind of edge tools. Beside there is a nail factory running 20 or more nail machines. They make about 240 axes per day besides the different tools”. On the next day they finished unloading the coal, “We then towed by horse through the remainder of the canal 6 miles to Lachine. Got there but little after dark. Locked through one more lock and tied up outside ready for a steamboat to us to Beauharnois.”

It was very pleasing and appropriate to realize that the place which Captain Bartley described a century and a half ago was the same spot that the Lois McClure was tying up 150 years later. We were not here to load or unload a heavy cargo, but instead to reflect on the days gone by. Captain Theodore Bartley shared his daily observations with us and we, in turn, are privileged to share his extraordinary record with the public. Following in Captain Bartley’s footsteps and moored at the entrance to the historic Lachine Canal, it all seemed right.

Art Cohn
Captain, C.L. Churchill