By Tom Hogue
Dense brush hides almost all traces of a steep lane that rises from a culvert near the Highway 6 bypass and leads to a forgotten cemetery. On the flat grassy top of this mound of earth are white stones that mark plots in the 200-year-old Book graveyard.
It’s a serene and surreal place, peaceful on an autumn afternoon between the engine screams of transport trucks passing down below, where Book Road meets the new express route. The spot is a natural outlook, high above a bog and surrounding creeks that would have provided a steady supply of fresh water for homesteaders when they arrived in 1789.
The location has special significance because it is a source of the Welland River, which winds from this and other points nearby, eventually emptying into the Niagara River.
With the rich number of Hamilton waterfalls that drop over the Escarpment, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the city’s southern face looks down into an entirely separate watershed. Raindrops that freefall into farmland around the airport don’t take a ride down Escarpment and end up in the harbour. Instead, they meander through quiet creeks on a long and at times bizarre obstacle course.
It’s only 140 kilometres, but the voyage down the Welland River is equal parts odyssey and oddity: The river changes name twice — from Chippawa to Welland and back to Chippawa. It changes direction twice a day. It goes underground twice as it “crosses” the Welland canal and it ends violently, spilling into the Niagara Gorge through hydro-electric power turbines.
There is little evidence that the low rise of land around Mount Hope marks the headwaters of the Welland.
The trickle of water from the Book marsh travels through a road culvert and joins with other small streams in a tributary system that resembles small twigs and limbs of a large tree. Close examination of the web of water that fans out across Hamilton, Haldimand-Norfolk and Niagara reveals the key tributaries — those that journey the longest to the mouth, at Chippawa in Niagara Falls.
To confuse matters. the branches closer to Hamilton today are not called Welland at all, but are known by their original name, Chippawa Creek. The river system was originally named for the Ojibwe, or “Chippaway” as Europeans attempted to translate the First Nation tongue.
It was renamed after England’s River Welland in 1792 by John Graves Simcoe. In his first business as Lieutenant Governor of the newly established Upper Canada colony, he set out to negotiate with the Mississauga branch of the Ojibwe for their rights to land in the area between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
To the Ojibwe, and the Neutrals and Iroquois who preceded them centuries earlier, the
entire watershed provided good hunting grounds, and it was essential to those who homesteaded along its banks in places such as Renforth, now a ghost town near Hamilton airport, and the settlements of Blackheath (pictured below right), Sinclairville (pictured right) Attercliffe and Wellandport — now shadows of their former selves.
In addition to being the main source for drinking water and livestock, the Welland River was the chief means of transport inland. In the early 1800s, with no roads, bridges or railways, these small settlements were reached mainly by canoe up the river from Niagara in summer, or by sleigh on the river ice in winter.
Only at Binbrook does Chippawa Creek depart from days gone by. To regulate the flow of water through the upper sections of the river system, the creek was dammed in 1971 to create a man-made reservoir. The 430-acre Lake Niapenco and surrounding land formed the Binbrook Conservation Area.
The Welland River can be divided into two parts. The first is the web of brooks and streams that cross farmland and forests and drop 78 metres from Hamilton to Port Davidson. A boulder weir across the river at Port Davidson marks the midpoint of the river system. In the early part of the 19th century, cut timber was floated down the upper part of the river to Port Davidson. Sawmills ran 24 hours at nearby Attercliffe to rip logs into lumber. Planks were loaded on barges that travelled down the river to market as far away as New England.
The lumber boom made Attercliffe (pictured right) and nearby Wellandport (below right) important addresses in the early 1800s. Attercliffe had a carriage assembly business, a couple of banks, a cheese factory and two sawmills. It was also proud to have a concrete sidewalk, when other villages its size had only boardwalks or just muddy laneways. By 1820, Wellandport had a sawmill running 24 hours, a tannery, distillery and several hotels and taverns.
It’s important to note that this time period pre-dated the arrival of the Welland canal and the trade and commerce it brought. Only a few settlements existed in the area: the mill community of St. Johns (near present day Fonthill), Sugarloaf
The Niagara frontier town of Wellandport was flush with a gold-rush style fever. Add to the mix locally distilled hooch at 25 cents a gallon and the antics of a “wild east” town are not hard to imagine. During the U.S. civil war, Wellandport was a chosen destination for American draft dodgers. And in 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie took shelter here as he fled to the U.S. after the failed Rebellion of Upper Canada.
Past Wellandport, the river gets a little weird.
— The Welland River goes underground in aquaduct vents that allow the river to cross under the Welland Canal. This happens in two spots: One to cross under the 1932 canal route, and one to cross under the 1975 shipping route bypass around the city of Welland.
— The direction of the Welland River is permanently reversed where it once met the Niagara River at Chippawa. In 1921 the river was diverted to supply the power canal, which draws water from the Niagara River and the Welland River.
— The Welland River reverses flow twice a day as the International control works structure on the Niagara River is opened and closed, lowering the flow of water over Niagara Falls at night (when the tourists are asleep), and forcing water to back up on the Welland River as far as Wellandport.
While the Welland is dwarfed in comparison to the Nile, the Mississippi and other giant river systems of the world, it has a power all its own. In 1921, the river was diverted near its mouth to feed the hydro-electric generating plant. Instead of emptying into the Niagara River and flowing over the Falls, the Welland takes a sharp left turn and travels swiftly down a narrow channel through Niagara Falls and into the reservoir at Queenston Heights, where it waits its turn to rush down the penstocks of Ontario Power Generation’s Adam Beck plant. Where the Welland River once emptied into the Niagara River, that section has been reversed to instead draw water from the Niagara River, above the falls. Adding to the confusion, the short section from the Niagara River to the power channel was renamed the “Chippawa.”
Today, water that gathers from the source in Hamilton is still harvested downstream for the Ontario Power Generation turbines at Queenston that transmit electrical energy back to Hamilton and other cities across southern Ontario.
The Welland is not alone among river systems in the world that have been co-opted for commercial and industrial purposes. It is certainly one of the longest serving, having been part of the original 1829 Welland Canal shipping route.
Even after its role as a section of the original canal, the Welland River remained a key part of an inland waterway and canal system that connected Buffalo to Brantford. In 1843, over 100 steamers carried passengers and freight on a route that followed the Niagara River up from Buffalo, through the Welland River to Port Robinson, along the Feeder Canal to Dunnville, and finally up the Grand River to Brantford.
The supremacy of water transport on the river weakened as bridges and stage coach routes and railways arrived in the mid 19th century.
After more than 200 years of exploitation for the advance of our needs, the Welland River is showing serious signs of wear and tear.
Nutrient run-off from farming and livestock operations, industrial effluent, municipal waste that bypasses treatment facilities during storms, bank erosion and the churn of sediment caused by the reversing effect — all of these forces have contributed to weakening the river for decades.
In 1987, the Niagara River (and its tributaries) was designated as one of 43 areas of concern around the Great Lakes by the International Joint Commission. The Welland River drains 880 sq. km. of land from Hamilton through the peninsula and represents 80 per cent of the Niagara River’s Canadian basin.
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) has been working with ministries, regional and municipal governments to identify stress points and develop action plans for these historical problems.
Outside of the scope of the Niagara Remedial Action Plan are other issues such as the discovery that the compound perfluoroctane sulfonate (PFOS) was used in fire retardant exercises at the Hamilton airport. The Ministry of Environment is responsible for creating a plan to confront this problem.
Though progress has been made in the form of grants available for farmers to fence off creeks from livestock, and stabilizing banks with tree and bush plantings, there is still a long way to go to restore the Welland River, says Barry Fitzgerald, chair of the Welland River Keepers volunteer group.
“It has been totally neglected and it is greatly under appreciated,” Fitzgerald says of the river.
Jocelyn Baker, NPCA supervisor for watershed restoration, said the Welland River fishery has been surprising resilient.
“There are all sorts of issues if you are a fish — the river is up and down, back and forth and disconnected from itself, but despite that, we have an interesting and productive fishery,” Baker said.
Anglers regularly haul in Walleye, Northern Pike, Yellow Perch, Large and Smallmouth Bass, Channel Cat and Carp.
The U.S. and Canada have worked together to eliminate large problems that once plagued the Niagara River, Baker said, and she hopes that an update on the Remedial Action Plan due in the next year will define programs that could move the Niagara closer to being removed from the Great Lakes crisis list.
Will the muddy Welland be able to see its own reflection again one day? One thing is clear: it will involve the co-operation of everyone who uses the river and whose properties touch its banks, Baker says.
“The public has the responsibility to be educated,” Baker says.
For a river that moves at such a slow pace, the Welland has seen its share of excitement in the past 200 years. It has earned the right to a little R&R.