Safe Passage: Aids to Navigation on the St. Lawrence

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Lachine Canal, Lachine, QC
James Duncan (1806-1881)
About 1850, 19th century
Watercolour and graphite on paper; Lithography
19.4 x 29.3 cm
Gift of Dr. Daniel Lowe
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Painting (2229) , painting (2227) , Waterscape (2986)
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This view, executed near the first lock of the Lachine Canal, looks north-east into the harbour. The small building to the left of the lock served as quarters for the men who operated the floodgates. In 1844, the canal had undergone further enlargement to accommodate bigger vessels, and by 1850 - the time this watercolour was executed - the port of Montreal was receiving 222 vessels per season and the tonnage had increased to 46,000 tons. The canal was also a popular site for leisure activities. A young boy can be seen fishing from the top of the floodgate while other figures observe the scenery from the banks. Although the work is not signed, comparison of the inscription with those on other works known to be by Duncan shows it to be in the artist's hand. The people depicted in the work are also typical of this artist's handling of the human figure.

Keys to History

The Age of Canals
Because of the rapid increase in river transportation in the 19th century, British colonial officials (and later the Canadian government) authorized a number of modifications to the navigation system, in particular, the construction of several canals and locks. The middle decades of the 19th century became known as the "age of canals."

Massive engineering projects such as the widening of the Lachine Canal (1843-1848) and the construction of the Beauharnois Canal (1842-1845) were needed so that the new steamboats could use the system. These large-scale improvements tended to overshadow smaller but equally important ones, however: the development of an efficient system of navigation aids, in particular, the construction of more lighthouses of various types.

  • What

    The Lachine Canal was dug by hand by labourers. Although the bottom was left as is (earth and rock), its sides were built of, variously, cut stone, wooden planks, cement and concrete. To allow for the 14-metre variation in water level from one end to the other, a system of locks was constructed. Seven locks were opened in 1825, but the number was reduced to five in 1848.

  • Where

    The Lachine Canal runs along the southwest shore of the Island of Montreal. It provides a means for ships to bypass the Lachine Rapids on the eastern flank of Lac St. Louis. The Lachine Canal was the first canal reached by ships sailing up the St. Lawrence River, that is, before the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

  • When

    The idea to build a canal around the rapids at Lachine dated from the end of the 17th century (during the French regime). The canal as we know it was opened in 1825. It was later enlarged, for the first time between 1843 and 1848, then between 1870 and 1885. Closed to maritime traffic in 1970, the canal was rebuilt and reopened in 2002.

  • Who

    In the 19th century, the Lachine Canal was used by an array of ships, from small Durham boats to large cargo ships. The men and women who used the canal were just as diverse, from temporarily land-locked sailors to passengers travelling for pleasure or necessity -- including the thousands of immigrants who passed through it on their way to Upper Canada.