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Transiting Montreal’s Lachine Canal - A Water Ways TV Odyssey with Steven Bull

WaterWays TV Lachine Channel Steven Bull
Transiting the Lachine Canal on our 'Odyssey' to New York City

I went on an odyssey to take my 30-year-old pocket cruiser from Toronto, to Montreal, to New York City to prove that a modest boat can make for extravagant adventures.

Montreal, a city renowned for its vibrant culture and historic charm boasts one of Canada’s most iconic canals: the Lachine Canal. This historic waterway, which played a pivotal role in the development of Montreal, is now a recreational haven for boaters, cyclists, and history enthusiasts alike.

The idea for a canal to bypass the rapids allegedly dates back to the very origins of what we now know as Montreal. Way back in 1671, reverend François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon outlined benefits of a canal between Montreal and Lachine. By 1689, work began but an attack by the Iroquois put an abrupt end to the idea. The idea never went away, but it took more than a century before the dream would finally become a reality. The first canal opened in 1825 after just four years of work. Flat bottomed-sailboats could traverse the first canal but after it was enlarged -- twice -- in the mid 1800s things really took off.

The Early Years and Boom Times

The construction of the Lachine Canal was a monumental task, involving thousands of workers who excavated the 14.5-kilometer route by hand. When it opened in 1825, the canal featured seven locks, allowing boats to navigate the elevation difference between the St. Lawrence River and Lake Saint-Louis. The canal's completion marked the beginning of Montreal's transformation into a major industrial hub. Factories and warehouses sprung up along its banks, drawn by the promise of easy access to shipping routes and abundant water power.

During its peak in the 19th century, the Lachine Canal was bustling with activity. It played a pivotal role in the industrialization of Montreal, with industries such as textiles, machinery, and food processing establishing operations along the canal. The canal's importance continued to grow with the expansion of the railway system, further integrating Montreal into the North American trade network​.

Decline and Revival

By 1929, the canal was booming. Every year 15,000 commercial ships were using the canal while Montreal became an economic hub within North America, and in Canada in particular with a highly diversified concentration of industries along its banks. For a few decades this short stretch of water made a world of difference. However, with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, which allowed larger ships to bypass the canal, the Lachine Canal's commercial significance dwindled quickly. The canal became obsolete for large-scale shipping and was closed to commercial navigation altogether in 1970. The surrounding industrial areas fell into decline, and the canal itself became neglected. In 1978, the canal was taken over by Parks Canada and tasked with turning it into a tourism destination.

The revival of the Lachine Canal began really took off in the late 20th century as part of a broader effort to preserve and repurpose historic urban spaces. In 2002, the canal was reopened to pleasure boating, and extensive efforts were made to clean and restore the waterway. Today, the Lachine Canal is celebrated as a National Historic Site of Canada, offering a blend of historical charm and modern recreational opportunities​.

Boating on the Lachine Canal: A Modern Adventure

Today, the Lachine Canal is solely for recreational boating and it's one that I was happily able to experience during the 1,400-kilometre/750-nautical mile journey from Season 2 of Water Ways TV where I took a 30-year old “pocket cruiser” (a 1994 Monterrey 265 SEL) from Toronto to Montreal to New York City.

If you’re a larger cruiser, you’ll be stuck in the St. Lawrence Seaway and taking the South Shore canal that bypasses the rapids and is used by large freighters. But, if you can clear an 8-foot bridge (none of the bridges move anymore), you can transit the canal and have a much more scenic and enjoyable route.

We arrived from the west and began at Lock 5 at Rene-Lévesque Park. We arrived the night before our transit and tied up right by the lock. Mooring is offered on a first-come, first-served basis but it's a great option because you’re right there to start your day.

The first stretch west-to-east from locks 5-to-4 aren’t the most thrilling as it’s primarily an industrial stretch. With the canal not used for industry, the waterway is an obstruction to the flow of trucks more than a focal point. But still, it beats the seaway in my books! The entire system is a 10 km/h, no wake zone and you always tie up on the same side - at least they did when I transited. Between Lock No. 5: Lachine and Lock No. 4: Saint-Gabriel it's about a 45-minute, 7.5-kilometre run. En route to Lock No. 3: Côte-Saint-Paul, things start getting a lot more scenic as the residential world starts taking over. The most iconic landmark along the entire Canal you can see clearly from the water, the Art Deco-masterpiece that is the Atwater Market building. Out of Lock 3 you have a short run to Locks 1 and 2 which aren’t true flight locks but are considered a single lockstation. In between those two final, or first, locks you’ll find the Daniel McAllister, the largest preserved tugboat in Canada.

Exiting the canal you immediately get reminded as to why canals were required. The fast flowing water of the St. Lawrence River churns and bustles as you cruise past the Old Port and the skyline of the city. Kudos to the decision makers in the 1970s who had the foresight to recognize that this could – and should – be a fantastic recreational boating destination. Their efforts fifty years ago kept a centuries-old canal in operation which not only allows a fun experience for boaters like me, but also preserves a vital stretch of our national heritage which, for a long time, was tied to the water.

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