Port Dalhousie's present-day charm lies in its historic port and relaxed, beach-resort atmosphere. But Port Dalhousie was not always a recreational destination. The marshy shores were originally inhabited by the Neutral Indians, who hunted and fished in the area. At the time of European colonization, the British Crown appropriated the land, and transferred title of the area to Captain Peter Tenbroeck, a United Empire Loyalist officer in Butler's Rangers, as part of an 800 acre land grant. Tenbroeck and other settlers established farms along the Twelve Mile Creek. Within a few years, ships began to ply the waters of Lake Ontario, but only small craft could navigate to the fledgling mills and hamlet of Shipman's Corners, later St. Catharines.
In 1825, construction began on the First Welland Canal, and a settlement gradually established itself at the mouth of the Twelve Mile Creek. The settlement was called 'Dalhousie' as early as 1826, named after George Ramsay, ninth Earl of Dalhousie ('Dal-HOW-zee'), who was Governor-in-Chief of British North America from 1820-1828 and the eventual founder of Dalhousie ('Dal-HOW-zee') University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was a political ally to the builders of the canal, which probably led to the naming of the settlement in his honour.
You may wonder why the present-day pronounciation of the names of the community and the man it was named after differ. Locals still call the settlement 'Port Da-LOO-zee', whereas the Earl's name and the Halifax university which also bears it are pronounced today as 'Dal-HOW-zee'. Brock University geography professor Alun Hughes investigated the matter, and discovered that 'Dah-LOO-zee' was almost certainly the way most 19th century Scots would have pronounced the name. 'Dal-HOW-zee' is an upper class English affectation, adopted by the educated political and social elite in Great Britain in the latter part of the 19th century, and even adopted by the Earl's own descendents by the late 1800s, despite their Scots origin. The Ninth Earl himself, however, would have probably said 'Dah-LOO-zie'.
The little settlement was not truly a port until after the First Welland Canal opened in 1829. Port Dalhousie became the northern entrance to the canal, and hosted a working harbour with dockside businesses catering to the serious business of moving freight between the two Great Lakes.
Construction and commerce associated with the opening of the First Welland Canal caused the migration of a canal labour force to the area, as well as the establishment of industries and services to meet the needs of the growing settlement. The abundant growth of virgin timber at the water's edge and the commercial promise of the new canal resulted in the establishment of several shipyards in the area.
In 1837, a Scottish boat builder called Robert Abbey started a shipyard at Port Dalhousie, building yawls, sailing yachts and eventually steam yachts. Two years later, Alexander Muir came to the Twelve Mile Creek entrance to set up a Dry Dock, the remains of which can still be seen in Rennie Park. In 1860, Donaldson, Andrews and Ross established another shipyard in Port Dalhousie.
By 1841, it became clear that the old wooden locks and narrow channels of the First Canal were no longer sufficient to support the increasing number of larger, heavier ships that now carried freight and passengers, so the stone locks and wider channels of the Second Welland Canal were constructed between 1842 and 1845. The stone walls of Lock 1 of the Second Welland Canal are still visible in Port Dalhousie today.
In 1842 the first steam vessel travelled through the Welland Canal, and traffic began to increase significantly. Thousands of ships sailed each year past Port Dalhousie and into the canal waterway, and the small community grew from a handful of original inhabitants to more than 200 people by 1846. The community continued to flourish, first as a working port serving the shipping industry, and later as the southern port for a cross-lake steamer service between Toronto and St. Catharines.
In the late 1800s, the size and volume of ship traffic on the Second Welland Canal outstripped its capacity, which was never built to handle the bigger and more modern steamships that were being used on the lakes in increasing number. Also, enormous resource industries like grain, livestock, pulp and paper, lumber, and steel began to grow in the centre of the North American continent, all of which had to transport their goods to burgeoning domestic and international markets. As a result, a wider, deeper Third Welland Canal was built between 1872 and 1881. It still used Port Dalhousie as its entry point, but diverged from the second canal route a short distance inland, cutting across the peninsula in a new route that passed through what is now north St. Catharines. From 1881 onwards, the channels of Twelve Mile Creek and Dick`s Creek ceased to be a part of the Welland Canal, replaced by the modern new steamship channels of the Third Welland Canal.
But Port Dalhousie continued to flourish. The well-developed harbour and dock facililtes made it a logical stopping point for cross-lake passenger transportation, and in 1884 the St. Catharines, Grimsby and Toronto Navigation Co. was formed to provide passenger service between these three destinations. The Empress of India, a massive paddle wheeler, began plying the route in the summer of 1884.
In 1892 the Garden City, also a paddle-wheeler, joined the run. In addition to ferrying passengers and day-trippers, the boat carried tender fruit from Niagara's lush orchards to market in Toronto. The appeal of day trips to picturesque Port Dalhousie soon caught on with residents of Toronto, and the town soon became a popular recreational destination, a role it still plays to this day.
Aloian, Christine. A History Outline of Port Dalhousie, 1650 – 1960. Port Dalhousie Works, 1978.
Forgeron, Ken and Bill Stevens. 2008. Discover Old Port Dalhousie: Walk & Quiz. Waterfront Trail Adventure Tour, Niagara Section - July 4, 2008. Available online at URLwww.waterfronttrail.org/pdfs/GWTA/Discover%20Port%20Dalhousie.pdf .
Forsyth, Paul. 1997. Renewing a tradition: The return of cross-lake ferry service to Port Dalhousie evokes memories of crowded beaches and picnickers. Standard. St. Catharines, Ont. [Final Edition]: Apr 26, 1997. pg. A.1.FRO
Ressler, Rene. 2008. "X" Does Mark the Spot - Lock 1, 1st Welland Canal - Precedent Setting Dig in Lakeside Park. Archeologist Jon Jouppien finds remnants of Old Lock 1. Welland Canals Advocate website,http://thewellandcanalsadvocate.ca/Lock%201%20dig.htm .
Port Dalhousie Heritage District
Port Dalhousie, Ontario