William Hamilton Merritt

William Hamilton Merritt, ca. 1875. 

William Hamilton Merritt is well known for being the driving force behind the development of the Welland Canal.  Merritt owned and operated mills on Twelve Mile Creek and first proposed a canal in 1818.  The need for water to power these mills is likely what gave Merritt the idea of constructing a feeder canal to connect the Welland River and Twelve Mile Creek.  This plan quickly evolved into a much larger project to connect Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.   This would provide a link in the St. Lawrence Seaway transportation system that would allow goods from western Upper Canada to be shipped to Montreal and Great Britain while bypassing the Niagara Falls portage.    

An American plan to build a canal from Lake Erie that would connect to New York City via the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers provided some competition to Merritt's proposal.  It was important to Merritt that a canal be built connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie in order to restore Montreal as the centre of western trade.  Despite the advantages of this plan, many were opposed to the idea.  This was particularly true among those in Niagara and Queenston who economically benefited from the Niagara Falls portage. 


A circular from William Hamilton Merritt to Alexander Hamilton of Queenston concerning the Welland Canal, July 12, 1823. 

An invitation to Alexander Hamilton from William Hamilton Merritt to a meeting for receiving stock in the Welland Canal Company, January 24, 1824.  A blank certificate for shares is included.


Faced with multiple problems and delays, it was not until 1823 that Merritt campaigned for the Welland Canal Company in earnest.  He had originally hoped to have the government build the canal, but instead the government committed to building a canal from Burlington Bay to the Grand River for defence.  Merritt realized it would be necessary to create a private company for a commercial shipping canal.   He organized local meetings and sought incorporation.

A circular from William Hamilton Merritt to Alexander Hamilton, postmaster at Queenston, is one of the earliest printed references to the Welland Canal.  It was issued on July 12, 1823, around the time that Merritt was organizing meetings to gain support for the endeavour.  Merritt asks for Hamilton's assistance in "promoting so necessary an undertaking...I have taken the liberty of appointing you an agent for Queenston without your previous concurrence.  If you decline acting, have the goodness to hand it to some respectable person who will exert himself...".

On January 19, 1824, the Welland Canal Company was chartered by the Upper Canadian Assembly.  


The following is a list of some of the resources in Archives and Special Collections on William Hamilton Merritt and the Welland Canal Company.

Archival Resources

William Hamilton Merritt Welland Canal Circular, 1823  (RG 506)

Alexander Hamilton/Early Canada Postal Collection fonds, 1775-1983  (RG 699)

Two dispatches upon the subject of the Welland Canal, 1827-1828  (RG 258)

An Act to authorise the stock held by private parties in the Welland Canal to be purchased on behalf of the Province [Welland Canal Stock Bill], 1841 (RG 257)

William Hamilton Merritt portrait, ca. 1865  (RG 290)



The Old Welland Canal and the Man who Made It.  Story of the creation of the first Welland Canal, and of its creator, William Hamilton Merritt.  SPCL FC 3143.42 K44

An Act to authorize the advance of a certain sum out of the consolidated fund for the completion of the Welland Canal Navigation in Upper Canada, July 25, 1828.  SPCL 3143.7 L3 A4 1828

Account of the Welland Canal, Upper Canada/ William Hamilton Merritt.  SPCL FC 3143.5 M47 1828

An extra report of the Board of  Directors of the Welland Canal Company, June 6, 1829.  SPCL FC 3143.7 W45 A3 1829

First General report from Robert Randal, the commissioner appointed under and by virtue of an act passed in the eleventh year of His Majesty's reign entitled "An Act to grant a further loan to the Welland Canal Company and to regulate their further operations, February 8, 1831.  SPCL 3143.7 W45 R35

A first report of the Committee on the petition of the Welland Canal Company, with the letter of J.B. Yates, esquire to the said Committee.  SPCL FC 3143.7 W45 O588

Second report of the select committee to whom was referred the petition of the president and directors of the Welland Canal Company/  Upper Canada, Legislature, House of Assembly.   SPCL FC 3143.7 W45 O59 1836

Third report from the Select Committee appointed to examine and enquire into the management of the Welland Canal, 1836.  SPCL FC 3143.4 O59

The Welland Canal Company:  a study in Canadian Enterprise.  SPCL 3143.7 W45 A65

William Hamilton Merritt and the first Welland Canal.  SPCL FC 471 M47 O75