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The Ghost Canals: Remnants of the Newmarket/Holland Landing Canals

Did you ever wonder about those big stone structures that you can see near Rogers Reservoir, close to the East Gwillimbury GO station, and throughout the Newmarket area? This week, we will look at these remnants of an infrastructure project from the early 20th century, now known as the “ghost canals”. We’ll look at who built them and why, and the circumstances that caused them to be abandoned.

The use of ships, and the building of canals to enable movement of people and goods by ships was a hot commercial enterprise in the 19th century. The Welland Canal and the St. Lawrence Canals were extended in the 1830s & 40's to encourage traffic along the Great Lakes. However, by the 1900’s the railway was the primary way to transport goods north of Toronto. In 1904 the Grand Trunk Railroad had increased the percentage of their freight rates, from 30% to 50%, meaning that certain businesses (such as William Cane & Sons woodenware factory in Newmarket) which had to import lumber from farther up north would have a much narrower profit margin.

In response to this increase, a meeting was called at the Old Town Hall in Newmarket on September 4th, 1904. Sir William Mulock (1844 – 1944) who was the Member of Parliament for Newmarket from 1884 to 1905 proposed a daring plan to counteract the steep railway fees: to create a canal system linking Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe through Newmarket and Holland Landing. The plan was to connect the proposed canal to the Trent-Severn Waterway, giving goods access to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

Figure 1: Cartoon of Sir William Mulock at home at his farm. From the Toronto Telegram, October 13, 1905.

After several environmental surveys declaring the building of the canal to be feasible, construction work began in 1906 with dredging several sections of the Holland River from Cook’s Bay to Holland Landing to a depth of 6 feet, in addition to widening the river to allow barges and other large ships to pass through. Between 1907 and 1908, requests for proposals were put out for the actual construction of the canal system, with the contract ultimately being awarded to the Queenstown Quarry Company, after William Russel purchased it from John Riley; he had won the contract before by bidding a total of $677,801, using concrete as a building material and making three swing bridges for the canal.

Despite being plagued by labour problems and the fact that the water supply was not enough to ensure that the boats could go through the locks at the height of the season, work on the project went ahead for several years. By January 1912, a lot of work had been done on the canal in Newmarket, including the completion of three locks as well as “three swing bridges, and a turning basin built just north of Davis Drive (then Huron Street)” but there had been no work done on the canal from Newmarket to Holland Landing.[1] Since Robert Borden’s Conservatives had been elected in 1911, they painted the project as a money sink with no enduring value to the community. The completion of the project was cancelled, allowing the government to recoup $393,000 by abandoning the works. By August 1912, all work had stopped, and it was never restarted.

Figure 2: Close up view of the canals in Holland Landing. Photo from the East Gwillimbury Anchor, August 8th 1997.

Today, it is designated as a heritage feature, and you are still able to see them in the area today. If you want to learn more about these canals, you can check out Richard Macleod’s in-depth research article on the Newmarket canals on the Newmarket Today website.

[1] Carter, Robert Terence. (2011) Stories of Newmarket: An Old Ontario Town. Toronto: Dundurn Press. Page 196.

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