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Newmarket's great canal project became 'Mulock's Folly'

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod explores what he believes is one of the most contentious topics in Newmarket's history, the Ghost Canal

When I am asked what the most contentious topic is in Newmarket’s history, I answer that, in my opinion, the whole matter of the “Ghost Canal” would have to be my choice. Few topics in our history have garnered more missed facts or generated more myths and misinterpretations than Newmarket’s Canal project.

In this article, I will attempt to highlight the facts, debunk the myths and present the current thinking on the matter. It means dealing with a multitude of facts, and it may seem a bit boring, but to properly assess history, one must go back to the base facts and re-evaluate, when necessary, the conclusions that were made. Let us start by painting a picture of what prompted the idea of building the canal in the first place.  

The concept of a canal system that would link the financial and population centres of Ontario dated back to the time of Champlain. This plan was to manifest itself in the late 1800s with the building of the Trent Canal System, which was to encompass the Newmarket to Lake Simcoe canal project as part of the system.

The Wm. Cane and Sons woodenware factory was the leading industry in Newmarket in the closing decades of the 1800s. The supply of lumber found locally had been exhausted and the need to find lumber and transport it back to Newmarket was a critical need. A scheme was devised to dredge the Holland River from Lake Simcoe to Newmarket to float logs along it at a much lower cost than by rail, which was the primary mode of transportation at the time. In 1904, the cost of shipping materials on the Grand Trunk Railway had increased by 30 to 50 per cent due to their being the only show in town.

This prompted a public meeting Sept. 10, 1904 at the old Town Hall to discuss alternative means of transportation by a water route to join with the Trent Valley Canal System. This meeting was attended by delegations from area communities and the business community.

The meeting was chaired by Mayor H.S. Cane and Sir William Mulock, our representative in Ottawa, was there to support efforts to lobby the government to consider a Lake Simcoe to Newmarket extension of the Trent Canal, already underway. It was decided a local delegation would be sent to lobby Ottawa.

On Sept. 30, 1904, Ottawa announced a preliminary survey would be done on the feasibility of the canal and on Oct. 7, 1904, a government engineer visited Aurora and a survey party begin to take levels in the area.

On Feb. 2, 1905, an area meeting was held by Newmarket Council to arrange for a proposal to be submitted to the federal government to deepen the waterways to Lake Simcoe. Then on Feb. 21, 1905, a deputation of 65 men travel to Ottawa to present a petition and resolution to subsidize a canal from Newmarket to Lake Simcoe. The delegation was met by prime minister Wilfred Laurier, Sir Mulock, then Postmaster General, minister of Crown Lands E. J. Davis and several other ministers.

The Newmarket delegation was led by Mayor N.J. Roadhouse and included H.S. Cane (former mayor), J.R. Broughton (local druggist), W.H. Eves (lumber and coal merchant), A.W. Evans (proprietor of the Royal Hotel) — basically the whole merchant class of the town at the time.   

They must have made a great deputation as the government was moved to schedule a feasibility study and topographical surveys of the Holland River watercourse from March to June 1905. Their engineering report was received by Ottawa June 30, 1905.

The first myth that we need to dispel is that the scheme was a case of cronyism by Sir Mulock and our town fathers. The report that Ottawa received back from its engineers was not only in favour of proceeding with the venture, but it outlined in great detail why the project had every chance of success.

Anyone who looks at a map of the Trent Canal system will notice that the engineers who built that project were forced to search for a water supply and thus the map looks like a snake, winding its way from the Kingstone area north to Lake Simcoe. It was the opinion of the engineers that this project was more straightforward and held a greater degree of success at a much lower cost. Look at the diagrams that I have provided with this article.

In July 1905, the House of Commons voted to provide $100,000 to commence work on the canal. This was not a spur of the moment decision, as the Canal Project was defined with full program specifications over a one-year period, 1905 to 1906.  In May 1906, the contracts were awarded for the dredging of the Holland River from Cook’s Bay to Holland Landing and an application was made to build a bridge at the Lower Landing/Queensville Sideroad.

In October 1906, dredging operations commence after having been delayed by the shipment of machinery going astray. The second myth was that the project was plagued by mismanagement but as we will see, they did have some setbacks but for those who have ever handled a large project, things do crop up and they are soon resolved. This was to be the case with this project.

In May 1907, the dredging at the mouth of the Holland River resumes after the winter break. On June 14, 1907, a dispatch is issued from the Department of Railways and Canals in Ottawa announcing that contracts are to be awarded for construction of the canal locks from Newmarket to Holland Landing.

It has always been said that the preference was given to local interests or political cronies, but this was not the case as all the companies awarded contracts did have a record of success in their areas of engagement. There is no doubt local companies were given preference in the bidding process, but if they were deemed to be solid candidates, I have no problem, as a businessperson, in keeping things local.

It is interesting to note that on July 6, 1907, the official opening of the Trent Canal from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe as held. Focus had now shifted to the Lake Simcoe to Newmarket portion of the Trent Waterways project.

In October 1907, problems in dredging are encountered when hardpan was discovered a few feet below the surface. Hardpan is a layer of clay sometimes found beneath water sources that is so compact it takes on the characteristics of concrete.

The contractor eventually quit and a new tender was called but not awarded. The engineers should have noticed this geological feature during their studies but even today with our advanced tools it is difficult to detect this feature. Eventually, on Feb. 12, 1908, contracts are awarded for the excavation and construction of the canal locks.

Finally, on May 1, 1908, work commences with the arrival of 60 teams of horses, which soon grows to more than 300 teams and 400 men housed in three camps. An office is established on the southwest corner of Main and Ontario streets for the administration. Preliminary excavation of the turning basin on Huron Street (Davis Drive) begins and continues to Lock 3 and Green Lane. On July 3, 1908, steam shovels arrive for deep excavation and pile driving.

By Sept. 25, 1908, the excavation of Lock 3 was complete. It is 150-feet long, 70-feet wide and 25-feet deep. The removed earth was deposited along both sides of the trench where the bank is low and required building up to make a uniform depth of eight feet in the watercourse. Sixty span of horses moved the earth and steam engines and pipes were used to drain the excavation.

By March 1909, construction costs begin to soar beyond the initial estimate of $300,000 and the project becomes “political”. The government was facing an election and the canal became an election issue. The expenditure, feasibility and justification were being questioned. By now, Sir Mulock had been replaced by A.B. Ayleworth as the government’s point man on the project.

However, on Nov. 26, 1909, the concrete walls of the turning basin on Huron Street (Davis Drive) were completed. The trench now eight-feet deep, extending from the turning basin three-quarters of a mile north to Lock 3. By November 1909, Lock 3 is nearly complete before winter sets in.  

The records show 150 cu. yards of concrete was poured per day using three to four carloads of gravel daily and a carload of cement every other day. The contractor supplied everything except the cement, which was supplied by the government. The soil from the turning basin was used to build the trestles under the Queen Street Bridge for the Metropolitan Railway.  

On Sept. 10, 1910, Lock 2’s (north Main Street) concrete dam and lock chambers were almost complete and excavators prepared for lock 1 at Holland Landing. Note that progress is being made and the gap of unfinished sections is now declining. The myth that progress was slowed or stopped would seem to be untrue.

The political pressures surfaced yet again. The actual progress on the canal is set aside in favor of political expediency. On Dec. 5, 1910 the Newmarket Canal is ridiculed by the Conservatives in Parliament. They begin to call it “Mulock’s Folly”, a political ploy designed to unseat the government and to paint the project as a total failure.  

There was no truth to the allegations being made but in government, as in business, truth or facts cannot be allowed to interfere with the larger objective. On Sept. 21, 1911, the Conservatives under Robert Borden defeated the Liberals. The loss by the Liberals is attributed in large part to the Canal Project.

Contrary to the myths that continue to be published, the project did proceed, albeit under a cloud. On Oct. 6, 1911, the Huron Street turning basin was complete and the bottom dredged to a uniform depth. The project was proceeding nicely and the eventual conclusion was well in sight.

However, on Jan. 14, 1912, the Conservatives announced they are abandoning the Canal Project altogether. Everyone was aghast that the government would pull the plug on a project that was nearly complete and in which a considerable amount of money had been invested.

In January 1912, local councils pass a resolution to approach the Conservatives and demand that the project be completed. On Feb. 14, this resolution is presented in Parliament and the Government rejects all appeals and cancelled all outstanding contracts related to the project. By Aug. 7, 1912, all work on the canal stopped and the administration office in Newmarket closed, all the machinery was removed.

A hint to the government’s objectives can be gleaned from the statement that “no project attached to or championed by Sir William Mulock will be allowed to be completed”.  

Let us look at a few of the facts related to the Canal project. The total distance of the canal system from Lake Simcoe to Newmarket is 13 miles, with 8.5 miles of the canal from Lake Simcoe to the mouth of the Holland River nearly completely dredged and straightened. The remaining 4.5 miles from Holland Landing to Newmarket was completely dredged and straightened. We can see that given more time, we would have had a canal.  

Another myth was that the topographical elevations (above sea level) would have been a problem. Lake Simcoe sits at 718 feet, Newmarket at 761 feet, Vandorf at 1,050 feet, and Lake Ontario at 245 feet. What you’ll notice is that the flow of the potential canal would have been downhill toward Lake Simcoe.  

The differences in the levels between Holland Landing and Newmarket was 43 feet and the rise in elevation required by the lock system was: Lock 1 at Holland Landing, 16 feet; Lock 2 at North Main, 16 feet; and, finally, Lock 3 at Newmarket, 11 feet. This was most certainly doable.

Let us look at the main elements of the canal. There were four swing bridges at Lower Landing (Queensville Sideroad), at Lock 1 (Holland Landing), Lock 2 (North Main) and the Green Lane Road overpass. The bridges were complete along with the lock main structures, dams, spillways and approachments by the end of 1911. The three locks were all similar except for the dam arrangements. Lock gates were not installed on any of the lock’s chambers before its cancellation.  

Sadly, at the time of abandonment, the canal system was 83 per cent complete. It was simply cleared of its equipment and abandoned. Essentially, the government just walked away from the project, wrote off the investment and forgot about it.

It is ironic that the Canal Project was begun to find a less expensive alternative to train transportation. As it turned out, the construction of the canal gave the railway more business than it had before. Delivering huge amounts of materials and equipment to the lock sites.

It must also be acknowledged that original estimates of cost were around $100,000 but the actual expenditures before its cancellation was estimated to be $600,000 with another $400.000 required to complete it. However, in walking away from the project, the government essentially wrote off the $600,000 investment it had made.

The story does not end there. Over the years, the Ghost Canal became a popular project for graduating engineers and earth science students. I had the good fortune to meet with and walk the route in spring 2016. with graduate student who had examined the plans and schemes and had come to the conclusion that the canal should have and would have worked.

One of the myths they put to rest for me concerned the lack of water for a canal system. I had grown up hearing that the lack of water was a fatal flaw. As we walked, an engineer pointed to one of the locks and commented that the town had put up fences up along the canal and had filled in with earth the locks from its original 12-foot depth.

I knew that the area was plagued with artesian wells, having worked at the local cemeteries as a university student. The engineer pointed out the records showed that when it was being built, the canal kept filling up with water from underground sources.  When the canal was abandoned, it was necessary to fill in the canal with soil and put up fencing because they continued to be fed by underground water sources. The story of a lack of water to fill the canal system would seem to be a just another myth associated with this remarkable project.  

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Newmarket Canal 1904 – 1911 by George Luesby; Articles from The Newmarket Era and Toronto Star of the period; The South Simcoe Conservation Authority Reports; Plans and Studies of the Newmarket Canal obtained from the Government of Canada.

************ brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].