How the Trent-Severn Waterway Connects Communities

One hundred years ago – on July 3, 1920 – the Irene became the first boat to travel the full length of the Trent-Severn Waterway from Trenton to Port Severn.

This summer, boaters should be celebrating the centenary of the waterway. While the festivities are on hold until 2021, boaters can still rejoice in the waterway and how it built and still connects our communities.

“It took 87 years to build and embodies the best of Canadian engineering design and science,” says historian Dennis Carter-Edwards. The lift locks in Peterborough and Kirkfield, plus the marine highway at Big Chute, are world class, he adds.

The series of canals, locks and weirs was initially planned to move military supplies and personnel beyond the United States’ reach along the Great Lakes. Instead, it opened up the interior of the province for settlement and commerce that makes it the thriving place it is today.

Without the waterway, this area would have never developed the way it did, Dennis explains. The engineers assigned to the project wanted to work on larger routes, such as the St. Lawrence River, but politicians – especially future prime minister John A. Macdonald — saw the value to voters in central Ontario each time the government offered a contract that brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into the communities.

Moving millions of board feet of lumber from the forests of Haliburton and Fenelon Falls made the lumber industry boom, Dennis says. While that wood built much of upper-state New York, it also gave settlers the impetus to move and stay in the Kawarthas.

As a result, there was enough of a populace to ultimately bring the railroads to the interior. While there are few trains now, the boat traffic on the Trent-Severn still offers a boost to locals’ lifestyle and visitors’ reasons to travel here. In 2018, 122,400 vessels traveled through its locks.

Senator W.H. Bennett, an advocate from Orillia, was one of the first people to see the tourism potential of the waterway in the 1920s, Dennis points out. He aimed to get people out of Toronto tenements and into the fresh air. While traffic slowed during the economically depressed 1930s, the steamboats and resorts in the next two decades had a huge impact on the local economy.

Many families who discovered the Kawarthas during that era still have roots in the region today.

By Lois Tuffin

Trent-Severn Fun Facts
Information courtesy of the Trent Canal Symphony by Dennis Carter-Edwards

• In the 1830s, Sturgeon steamer operator J.G. to improve navigation of local waterways for his route from Bridgenorth to Bobcaygeon, in return for a monopoly for    charging tolls. Instead, local leaders lobbied to do so in the public interest.

• The lock in Bobcaygeon was the first one built in 1834. It was rebuilt in 1855-57.

• The Lindsay lock was scheduled as one of the first projects, but no one bid on the contract. Ultimately, it was built three times: once out of wood (1870), once in stone (1886) then in concrete (1910).

• In 1833, a survey assessed that the full waterway would require 43 locks and 17 dams at a cost of $1,167,236. In the end, 44 locks operate along the full route with a total of 160 structures to control water levels.

• By 1880, the estimated cost was $2.5 million. From 1833 to 1920, $9,984,500 was spent on the project with many starts and stops.

• Work on the Buckhorn Dam started in May 1837 and finished in August 1838. Work was delayed when a spring freshet carried away part of the structure.

• A barge known as Sir George Arthur locked through Bobcaygeon on Nov. 6 1838, the first vessel to lock through on the waterway.

• In 1844 – 1845, new locks were built to accommodate vessels up to 120 feet in length. Seven bridges were erected over the Scugog at Lindsay, at Buckhorn and Bobcaygeon, Indian River, Crook’s Rapids, Campbellford and Ranney Falls. Peterborough got one in 1847.

• The lock at Youngs Point was built in 1870-71 to compensate the Midland Railway for the freight Whitby and Port Perry railways. It extended navigation from Lakefield (the terminus of the Peterborough branch of the Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway) to the headwaters of Stony Lake.

• The Rosedale lock was constructed from 1869-72 to get steamers from Fenelon Falls to Coboconk, via Cameron and Balsam Lakes, the end of the line for the Toronto and Nipissing Railway.

• The Rosedale lock and dam held back water in Balsam Lake to raise water in Sturgeon Lake in the dry season. It was great for lumbermen, but not for steamboat operators. It was rebuilt in 1907-12.

• In autumn 1882, contracts for locks at Burleigh Falls, Buckhorn and Fenelon Falls set at the standard size of 134 feet long and 33 feet wide. Their construction connected all the Kawartha lakes, opening up 80 miles of navigation from Lakefield to Port Perry, in conjunction with existing locks.

• The Burleigh Falls Lock contract called for a 600-foot canal cut north of falls between Burleigh Bay and Stony Lake with a flight lock of two combined locks each with a lift of 13.5 feet.

• The Trent Valley Canal Association began in September 1879 to lobby for changes to support tourism in the Kawarthas. In May 1894, 300 members went to Ottawa to press for funding to link the existing canal with the section from Balsam Lake to Lakefield and from Peterborough to Healey Falls near Campbellford. They returned in 1897 and convinced PM Wilfrid Laurier to proceed.

• In 1895, the first contract for concrete locks in North America was awarded for five locks along the section from Lakefield to Nassau Mills, north of Peterborough.

• In 1905, work began on the Kirkfield Lift Lock, one year after the Peterborough lift lock opened.

• In the 1920s, the Trent Valley Canal Association promoted the Kawarthas with traveling exhibits to the USA and Britain, showing a black-and-white silent film of majestic scenes along the route. Every community along its route gave five cents per citizen to develop these promotional materials.