The Lachine Canal was built in 1825. It was built so ships could go from the Old Port to above Lachine on the river. It is a distance of 13.5 kilometres. The river is 14.3 metres higher at the eastern end of the canal than at the Old Port. Ships go up and down the 14.3 metre difference by using “locks” which are water gates that close and fill with or empty water to change the level. There are five sets of locks on the Lachine Canal.
Why did they build the Lachine Canal? Because of the Lachine Rapids. The Lachine Rapids are a very dangerous and fast section of the Saint Lawrence River, just east of Montreal. In 1535, the explorer Jacques Cartier from France sailed his ships all the way up the river from the Atlantic Ocean to Montreal. He had to stop here because his ships couldn’t go through the rapids. You can see the Lachine Rapids at Des Rapides Park.
The Lachine Rapids were a big problem for transportation on the river. The French colonial government planned and started to build a canal in 1689, but it was too difficult to dig with their technology. Finally, a group of businessman finished it in 1825.
The new canal changed Montreal and Canada forever. Now, ships could continue up the river past Montreal. Soon after its construction, hundreds of factories were built next to the canal for two reasons. First, there was easy transportation for the factories. Second, the water running down the canal could be used for water power (hydraulic power) and for electricity. It didn’t take long for the most important industrial area in Canada to develop. There were factories making paint, rope, sugar, guns, chemicals, steel, sewing machines, bicycles, bathtubs: just about anything. This was the heart of Canada’s industrial revolution. Near the factories, thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, lived in the row houses that are typical Montreal housing. The population of the city grew quickly.
The Lachine Canal area remained a very important industrial area until well into the 20th century, but things changed. Technologies changed, and old factories had to change or die. Trains and trucks became more important for transportation. Many old factories closed and moved to somewhere else. In 1954, the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened. This was a very important project between Canada and the U.S. They built many new locks so big ocean-going ships could pass from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the five huge Great Lakes in the middle of the continent. The new locks meant that the smaller Lachine Canal was not needed any longer. In 1970, it closed.
However, in the 1990s, people became interested in the old factory buildings, with their red brick and large windows. Some people bought the old buildings and repaired them to make new buildings for businesses and many new apartments called condominiums. The apartments are very popular and expensive. People like to live in old factories.
The canal became a National Historic Site, so the government of Canada made it into a park. On both sides of the canal, there are bike paths. And in 2002, the locks were rebuilt so that boats can pass through the canal again. In the summer, hundreds of private boats take the trip down or up the canal, going through the locks. It takes about four hours, since each lock takes a long time to fill or empty. In the national park, the government has a historical boat tour of the Lachine Canal that you can take from the dock at Atwater Market.
Today, Montrealers love to spend time walking, cycling, rollerblading, boating, canoing or kayaking in the Lachine Canal. And thousands of people live along it in converted factories. It is again a very important part of life in Montreal.
If you want to go to the Lachine Canal, you can see the beginning at the eastern end of the Old Port. If you walk about 10-15 minutes down Guy street from our school, you will get to the canal, and you can see a lock near there. The Atwater Market (Metro Lionel-Groulx or Charlevoix) is next to the canal, and there is a foot bridge there where you can cross it. But is is best to explore the canal with a bike or rollerblades, if you can.