In a small parkette on the corner of St. Paul Street West and McGuire Street in downtown St. Catharines stands a bronze statue of William Hamilton Merritt, one of the most celebrated citizens of the city of St. Catharines. As a founder and primary force behind the Welland Canal, Merritt had a profound influence on the social and economic development of the region, and the extensive earthworks and canals he initiated have changed the very physical landscape of Niagara.
Merritt's bronze effigy gazes out just downstream of the former confluence of the Twelve Mile Creek and Dick's Creek, the route originally followed by the first Welland Canal when it opened in 1829. The was area first settled by non-aboriginal peoples in the late 1780s, followed by demobilized soldiers of British and West African origin from Butler's Rangers.
Today, the lower reaches of Dick's Creek are buried under Highway 406, but one can imagine the profound significance of the site to its impassive metal observer. The sculpted Merritt is holding a scroll, perhaps representative of the government documents or engineering drawings that helped define his illustrious career.
For a long time it had been thought possible to create a navigable waterway through the Niagara Peninsula, and thus to overcome the great obstacle to continuous travel presented by the Niagara Falls; but it was Merritt who brought forward a definite plan that resulted in the actual construction of the Welland Canal.
Merritt was born on July 3, 1793 at Bedford, Westchester County, NewYork, of Loyalist parents. In 1796 his family settled at Twelve Mile Creek. Merritt attended school in Ancaster and learned mathematics and surveying. He also received some classical education in Niagara and studied briefly in St. John, New Brunswick, while boarding with relatives. In December 1809 he returned to Upper Canada where he began to farm. He also opened a general store which sold imported goods and took in exchange farm produce, lumber, ashes, and animal hides for shipment to Montreal.
Merritt was commissioned a lieutenant in the Lincoln militia and called into active service in June 1812 with the 1st troop of the Niagara Light Dragoons. He saw active service and was captured in 1814 at Lundy's Lane and imprisoned at Cheshire, Massachusetts, until the end of the war. In 1815, on his way back to Upper Canada, he stopped in Chataqua, New York, and married Catharine Prendergast, whose family had lived near St Catharines before the war.
Returning to St. Catharines, he became a merchant and sold dry goods, groceries, hardware, crockery, and books, for which he accepted cash and country produce. In March 1816 Merritt developed a salt spring on his property, built a potashery, and erected a small distillery He also purchased a mill site and erected a small sawmill on Twelve Mile Creek, and shortly after built a grist mill there. In dry seasons, there was not enough water in the creek to turn the wheel, so he conceived of a scheme by which the stream could be fed through an artificial channel from the Welland or Chippawa River. This soon grew into a plan to link the two Great Lakes, providing a convenient means for the products of western Upper Canadian farms and mills to bypass the Niagara Falls portage and proceed to Montreal and overseas ports. In 1818, he surveyed the route with fellow millers John DeCew and George Keefer, and presented a proposal for the Canal to the Legislature of Upper Canada. The legislature was interested in the proposal, but because of the close proximity to the recently disputed American border, the politicians instead voted to survey an ultimately impractical route up the Grand River and through to Burlington Bay.
In 1823, Merrit, influenced by the success of the Erie Canal in New York State, made another attempt to put his plan into operation. He attracted 40,000 pounds in shares from private shareholders and formed the Welland Canal Company, which was incorporated by an act passed in January 1824. Initially envisioned as two canals linked by an inclined railway up the escarpment near DeCew Falls, the scheme soon evolved into a fully interconnected canal waterway with locks, joining the longest navigable extent of inland waters in the world. The construction of the Canal was beset with challenges and underwent several revisions of its route, but a mere five years after incorporation, on November 30, 1829, the first vessels passed up the completed canal from Port Dalhousie to Lake Erie. Thus began the most influential chapter in the history of Niagara.
Within a decade, the profound significance and potential of the Canal was understood even by the politicians of the day, and in 1842 the Government of Upper Canada bought out all the shareholders and assumed control of the entire canal.
Merritt's accomplishments did not end with the Welland Canal. Understanding the potential of Canadian waterways for opening up North American commerce to the rest of the world, he proposed the creation of the St. Lawrence Canals Commission, and served as its first Chairman in 1832.
His political career was equally impressive: he was elected as MP for Haldimand in 1832 and 1841, and was elected seven times as representative for Lincoln.
He was also a railway pioneer, building the Welland Railway in the 1850s, and constructing the world's first railway suspension bridge in 1855, a 251 m span which connected Niagara Falls New York with Niagara Falls Ontario, 4 km downstream of Niagara Falls. The suspension bridge, originally dismissed as unsafe and impossible to build by early critics, carried mixed traffic on its two decks across the Niagara River from 1855 through 1897. Trains crossed over the river on the bridge's upper deck while pedestrians and carriages used the lower deck. It was replaced in 1897 by a much stronger steel arch bridge, built to accommodate the greatly increased weight of modern locomotives. The original bridge structure, however, was still safe and sound when it was dismantled, a testament to the quality of its engineering and materials.
Merritt lived the last years of his life at Oak Hill, his historic home built in 1860 at 14 Yates Street in St. Catharines. It's still prominently visible just 70 metres west of the Merritt monument on the opposite side of St. Paul Street West.
Merritt died in 1862, quite fittingly while travelling on a ship in the Cornwall Canal. Though his legacy and his considerable accomplishments were respected by local residents, it took quite some time for the City of St. Catharines to recognize its famous inhabitant. There was periodic discussion about commemorating Merritt with a monument, and at least one public meeting was dedicated to creating a suitable memorial, but nothing came to pass for many years.
Finally, 66 years after his death, the present monument was erected, funded by a $10,000 donation from the will of Merritt's grandson, a mining engineer also called William Hamilton Merritt. Toronto sculptor Alfred Howell created the work, which was formally dedicated oDecember 5, 1928.
The William Hamilton Merritt Monument is located at the intersection of St. Paul Street West and McGuire Street in downtown St. Catharines. Though clearly visible from the road, the statue is best observed on foot or by bicycle. Parking is available on adjacent side streets (meter charges may apply).
Fraser, Don. 2008. Niagara landmarks: William Merritt monument better late than never. St. Catharines Standard (ON), Local, Thursday, April 24, 2008, p. A5.
Talman, James John. 2000. Merritt, William Hamilton. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, 1861-1870 (Volume IX). http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?BioId=38719