February 27, 2018
As part of a day of exploring the old Welland Canals I decided to look for the Merritton Tunnel. The story of the first three canals will be told in greater detail in a separate post. To reach the tunnel you have to walk a fair distance and I parked in a small lot beside the Welland Ship Canal on Glendale Avenue, near the Good Eats Diner. You will walk past the General Motors Plant which is clearly marked, indicating electronic surveillance and patrols. I was unsure if this included the old canal and tunnel or not but decided to be wary just in case.
The first Welland Canal was opened in 1829 and consisted of wooden locks. A second, larger canal was built in 1842-1845 and followed the route of the first but used stone blocks for the locks. Very quickly it was determined that a third canal, with larger and deeper locks was needed. It was built between 1872 and 1881 but was modified through to 1887. It ran straighter and required shorter transit times than the second canal. The Grand Trunk Railway would need a way to cross the new canal and so in 1876 a tunnel was built. The Grand Trunk Railway Tunnel is 713 feet long and made of Queenston Limestone. The tunnel has the formal name of Merritton Tunnel after William Merritt who is seen as the father of the Welland Canal system. He first conceived the idea of joining Lake Ontario with Lake Erie by canal in 1818. The nearby community of Merritton was named after him. On the 1934 aerial photo below the yellow line marks the path of the GTR through the tunnel while the orange line marks the path across the swing bridge.
Lock 13 of the third canal is crossed by Glendale Avenue and has two large culverts installed to support the road. The Bruce Trail runs along the east side of the canal but I was hoping to find the west end of the Merritton Tunnel and go through to the east side. Therefore, I went up the west side leaving the Bruce Trail for the return hike. Locks 13 through 16 are located between here and the rail bridge. Lock 16 below shows a drop in river elevation of about 10 feet.
By 1915 the railway had been rerouted away from the tunnel and over a steel Howe Truss bridge. This bridge was designed to swing out of the way of passing ships and the canal only passes under the west half of the bridge.
At the end of lock 18 you will be forced away from the river by an old dam that retained the water used to operate the locks. It allowed ponds to be created behind the west side of each of the locks so that they could be flooded as ships passed through.
Once you pass the dam you will be forced out onto a service road that isn’t on the archive aerial photograph above. The road passes along the side of the GM plant and had sparse traffic on it until now, but as I was unsure if I was actually trespassing I crossed it quickly and looked for a trail in the trees on the other side. Knowing that the train had to approach the tunnel in a ravine that would be close by, I chose to follow the first one. As you can see in the picture below, the west end of the tunnel has been closed off because it was considered unsafe. At times, people have made several holes in the concrete blocks and a few of these have been sealed off again. The door is currently locked but appears to be broken into regularly. Entering from this end would require going up the log and dropping into the tunnel. Being by myself this wasn’t an option.
The tunnel is closed but the door, apparently looted from some old jail cell, allows you to reach through the bars and take a picture of the tunnel. Rail ties can be seen on the floor part way in. The door can be more clearly seen in the cover photo.
This archive photo shows the construction of the tunnel as the first row of blocks for the start of the curved roof were being laid. A channel was cut and the tunnel constructed and then covered over. This was done before the canal was flooded and put into service.
Unable to enter from the east end of the tunnel I determined to cross the canal on the swing bridge and look for the other end. From the railway bridge you can look up lock 17 and see the height difference that the lock allowed ships to gain as they passed through.
The canal locks have started to collapse and it is quite dangerous to get close to the edge in some places. Most of the damage appears on the upstream ends of the locks due to flooding and annual ice flows pushing downstream. The picture below shows the south-west end of lock 17 where the entire side is in danger of collapse. Stepping on the wrong stone block to take a picture could result in a long drop with tons of rock crashing around you.
Between lock 17 and 18 you have to go around the back of a wetland area before you cut back toward the canal. When you find a small ravine you have reached the former rail line. This will lead you to the east end of the tunnel. Two metal posts indicate the original attempt to close this end of the tunnel was done using a low fence instead of concrete blocks. I wonder why the two ends of the tunnel were treated so differently.
The east end of the tunnel is currently flooded. Near the curve you can see several support beams that reinforce the tunnel where the river passes overhead. They have been added since the tunnel was abandoned as they leave no clearance for a train to pass beneath. Water leaks from the beams and perhaps one day the tunnel will collapse at this point, letting the river above rush in.
The tunnel is considered to be one of the most haunted places in the Niagara Region. Various paranormal experiences are reported including voices, cold spots and physical pushing. A mysterious blue ghost has given rise to the name Blue Ghost Tunnel. Various reasons are given for this such as the 107 deaths that occurred during construction of canal, including two while building the tunnel. A head on collision between two trains killed two people and there is also a claim that there may have been hundreds of remains left in a cemetery that was flooded by the dam at lock 18. As usual, any spirits in the area chose not to reveal themselves to me. The closest I came was this skeletal hand which I hope is a Halloween prop.
I may think about returning one day when the east end of the tunnel is dry enough to get inside without getting muddy up to the knees. Pictures from The First Three Welland Canals can be found at the link.
Google Maps Link: Merritton Tunnel
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