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Dynamite Introduced While Constructing the Fenelon Falls Lock

January 1, 2023

Manita in the Fenelon Lock, circa 1900

When the Trent-Severn Waterway (then called the Trent Valley Canal) was first seriously proposed in the 1830s, it was a remarkably ambitious project—far larger in scope than anything that Upper Canada had undertaken to date. Its cost would easily have been enough to bankrupt the colony, but enough of the colonial elites had in interest in its completion, that the colony could not entirely say no. So, they started off by making the easiest improvements first.

Throughout the century, lobbyists would continue to push the government to build a through waterway, arguing that it would be the best route for moving wheat from the prairies to the Atlantic. Given that the Great Lakes were even then the preferred route, and how shallow, narrow, winding and circuitous the Trent-Severn alternative was (even for ships of that day) they should have known better. The boosters included some very wealthy businessmen, who would not have spent their own money on such folly, but had no qualms about demanding that the government do the same.

Given all the pressure to build the Trent Valley Canal, Sir John A. Macdonald would have a hard time saying no, but at the same time, it would be unconscionable to approve the staggering expenditures that would be necessary. During the 1878 election campaign, he raised the possibility of further work on the waterway, and won seats along the route, on his way to power. Then just before the election was called in 1882, Tom Rubidge was commissioned to make surveys at Burleigh Falls, Buckhorn and Fenelon Falls for work. On the eve of the election the tenders were posted, and when Macdonald was re-elected, the contracts were let on October 27. He had parlayed this round of improvements into two electoral victories locally.

Alexander Manning of Toronto and his American brother-in-law Angus McDonald received the job at Fenelon Falls for $105,701. With the technology of the day, two locks were needed to overcome the 30 foot difference between Cameron and Sturgeon Lakes (once both were raised sufficiently to allow for navigation). The canal was to be a third of a mile long, 60 feet wide and 12 feet deep—deeper where the locks were located. Two days after being hired, McDonald was on site arranging for construction. He assembled a crew that soon reached 103 labourers, plus teamsters, and began blasting within nine days. He was not able to find enough workers locally so he brought in French Canadians, Greeks and Italians.

The largest part of the job was excavating all that rock, especially given the technology of the day. In an era before mechanized digging equipment, labourers and horses worked together to pry rocks free, used leverage or even a derrick to swing them up and load them, then hauled them out of the lock pit. Workers could remove the smaller rocks using wheelbarrows and hand carts. Where the bedrock could not be pried loose, workers drilled holes manually, often using hammers and bits, which were filled with black powder (gunpowder) for blasting. Excavation was a painstaking process.

In 1867, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel patented dynamite, which he had devised as a way to stabilize nitroglycerin to make it safe and portable as a commercial explosive, complete with a blasting cap, to allow it to be safely detonated from a distance. It was said to be a thousand times more powerful than black powder, and the contractors at Fenelon Falls decided to give the new explosive a trial.

McDonald and his workers lacked experience with an explosive as robust as dynamite, and at first used it like it was black powder, causing some massive explosions. It was literally raining rocks in the village. In one blast:

Mr. Wm. Campbell was the worst sufferer, for not only did a mass weighing 57 ½ pounds fall on the roof of the lean-to addition to his store in Cunningham’s block and break a rafter, which went through the ceiling below, but a stone probably about half as heavy broke the roof of his house, and a smaller one knocked a hole through the wall just under the eave. Mr. John Nugent had one of the large sidelights in the window of his store broken by a stone weighing a little over a pound, and we have heard, but are not sure that it is correct, that a hole was knocked the roof of R.C. Smith’s new mill. A large piece of rock, apparently about 50lb weight, struck and broke the telegraph wire not far from the canal, and one piece of rock, which turned the scale at 26lb flew a distance of nearly 150 years up Colborne Street, just cleared Manning’s Veranda and knocked a piece about two feet long out of one of the boards in the sidewalk. There were at least two narrow escapes from personal injury; for a stone struck with great violence against a telegraph post close to which Mr. Wm. Robson was standing, and a huge piece of rock fell at the entrance of the hallway in McArthur’s block a second or two after Mr. McArthur’s son had been lifted from the spot by a person who saw the missile approaching. To add to the excitement a canal horse, which was struck by a stone upon his hind-quarters broke from the boy who was holding him, and ran furiously to his stable on Francis Street, nearly going over a person who was in his line of flight.

For all the rocks that showered down on the village, and all the workers who were in close quarters to the detonations, no one was killed or even seriously injured by flying stones, and the construction crew learned how to handle dynamite more safely.

There were however, several other accidents in the course of the construction. One man had his hands and arms badly burned in an explosion while drilling to enlarge a hole in which dualin (another explosive based on nitroglycerin that was less powerful and more volatile than dynamite) had misfired. John Brandon was struck in the head when a derrick dropped the empty box used to lift stone out of the canal—his life was likely saved by the box first striking the drill shaft he held above his head. A worker and a horse survived being pulled into the canal pit, but two horses died falling into the lock pit.

The canal cut through the one of village’s mill sites and the ancient oak grove, where 50 trees had to be removed. By 1883, enough excavation was complete to begin construction of the lock—if they could find a way to keep the lock pit dry. Though they had built a coffer dam to keep the water out, a deluge flowed through a seam in the rock, which was plugged by a diver. Still a fifteen horsepower engine was needed to keep the lock dry. The walls were constructed using stone from Boyd’s quarry at Bobcaygeon—the blasted stone was too irregular to use on the lock walls. The great quantities of stone that the work crews had to dispose of presented an opportunity for local masons. Some of it was used to build a livery stable for the McArthur House hotel (just across Water Street), which still stands today as the Fenelon Falls Brewing Company.

McDonald had completed the masonry work by 1885, but it was not until May 1887 that the lock gates were finally installed, after an inexplicable delay of over a season. But, for everything that the government had spent building a lock at Fenelon Falls, it was not functional, because a ridge of stone at the head of the canal and the fixed railway bridge across the Fenelon River blocked traffic. Nevertheless, William MacArthur was appointed lockmaster on November 26, 1887, with an annual salary of $250, even though there was no boat traffic, though the pulp mill (at present day Garnet Graham Park) used the locks to bring up logs from below.

In 1889, R.B. Rogers, the Superintending Engineer of the Trent Waterway, hired William Kennedy of Bobcaygeon to blast the stone obstruction out of the river bed. A strip 200 feet long and 60 feet wide was cleared that October. But still no boats could pass while the Midland Railway Company and the Federal Government litigated over who was responsible for building the new swing bridge. It was understood that if the bridge impeded a navigable waterway, the Railway Company was responsible for installing a swing. The Crown argued that the river had previously been navigable to the head of the falls and therefore the bridge rendered part of the river unnavigable. The company disagreed because there was scarcely any distance between the head of the rapids above the falls (flooded by the dam above the falls) and the rail bridge.  

The judge ultimately agreed with the railway that the Crown’s insistence that the river was navigable right to the precipice of the falls was nonsense. The government built a new swing railway bridge, which still swings open and closed once a year to facilitate winter traffic across the Fenelon River. It opened to traffic on December 26, 1893, and A.W. Parkin’s Water Witch passed through the locks on May 12, 1894. In the meantime, the Anglo Saxon had sat at Fenelon Falls waiting to lock through, and by the time the works were operational, the ship was “a spectacle of ruin and decay,” so after removing the machinery, it was scuttled in Cameron Lake. Eleven and a half years had passed since the tender was let for the construction of the Fenelon Falls lock, but at long last, boats could pass from Sturgeon to Cameron Lake.

The Fenelon Falls Lock was one of the missing links on the system, with its completion through navigation was possible from Lake Scugog to Balsam Lake to the portage at Bridgenorth or Lake Katchewanooka. Much greater challenges remained to link the Trent and Severn Watersheds and the upper lakes with the Trent River, which were ultimately overcome with engineering marvels—two lift locks. But even having this central section complete, allowed a golden age of steamship navigation, with the Boyd Family’s Trent Valley Navigation Company and George Crandell offering integrated steamship networks.

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