Where There’s a “Bill”, There’s a Way

I promised a history lesson, so here it is.

The Trent-Severn Waterway is not for the faint of heart. Connecting Trenton, ON to Port Severn, ON in the Georgian Bay off Lake Huron, it’s 240 miles of rivers, lakes and canals that are shallow, rocky, and sometimes narrow and poorly marked. It also has 46 locks, one of which is the Peterborough lift lock that takes you 67 feet into the air.

It’s also one of the most beautiful waterways in Canada.

Its history might be subtitled, “Show Me the Money.” Although the idea for it came about as early as 1780, plans for a shorter route to transport men and supplies from Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario were dropped. It seems those scalawag Americans were behaving themselves so there was no military purpose and the commercial uses just didn’t pencil out.

Dreams die hard. By 1833 new players pushed for a canal from Trenton to Port Severn. The natural system had worked pretty well, but locks would make it more efficient. The first one was built in 1833 in Bobcaygeon, but it had design flaws. It took 25 years to get the money to fix it.

In 1875 the Canadian government decided locks were needed only for inter-lake transportation and the government would not support a complete system. Nevertheless, a few more locks were built, including the Peterborough lift lock in 1904. It’s still in operation and is a real thrill ride.

But in 1907 a new player entered the scene. Hydroelectric power. Politicians realized that controlling rivers and dams between lakes represented a goldmine. By letting contracts to build hydroelectric dams with locks, the government could rake in money to finish the system, pay for its upkeep, provide cheap power and have an efficient waterway. With new impetus, the Trent Severn was finished by 1918.

Today there are 46 locks (most with dams). The only lock never completed was Big Chute, which started construction but was abandoned because of WWI. As a temporary fix, a marine railway lifted boats out of the water on one side and transported them over land, lowering them into the water on the other side. It’s still in use today.

The Erie Canal took eight years to complete. It started with a plan and had a clear economic purpose. Barges can still be seen on it. Not so the Trent-Severn, which has become a popular, scenic spot for pleasure boaters…and Loopers, like us.

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