Millions of visitors each year make their way to view the spectacular Niagara Falls. If you’re looking for something else to do in the Niagara area the Welland Canal is just 15 minutes or so from the falls and is a fascinating way to spend some time watching ships, large and small, pass through the locks.
The Welland Canal is a remarkable feat of engineering. It allows a ship to sail between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie while avoiding the impassable Niagara Falls. It also allows ships to overcome the 32 feet difference in elevations between the two lakes.
A ship can enter the canal from Lake Ontario at the north end or Lake Erie in the south. Once inside the canal, the ship passes through a series of eight locks. Each lock raises or lowers the ship, depending on which direction it is headed. When a ship enters a lock the gates close in front of and behind it, sealing the lock to enclose the ship inside a water tight compartment. Water is either pumped into or pumped out of the compartment as needed to raise or lower the ship. When the water reaches the proper level, the front gate opens and the ship sails forward moving through the canal until reaching the next lock where it goes through the whole process again.
The Welland Canal has several places designed for viewing. Observers can see a ship passing through a lock from start to finish. One of these places is St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre at Lock 3, perhaps better known simply as the St. Catherines Museum or, as it was described to me, The Museum at Lock 3.
Admission is by donation. We spent about an hour wandering through the museum’s indoor displays. In addition to exhibiting items of local history, this little museum does a good job of explaining the lock system and how it works. Outdoors, an observation deck which remains open even if the museum is closed, allows observers to watch the lock process. If you want to watch a ship pass through the lock you will need to check the ship schedule. Plan to spend 30 to 60 minutes watching a single ship enter and pass through.
Lock #8 in Port Colbourne also has a viewing area. In Port Colbourne you can also browse the row of shops across the street or have lunch in a local cafe. The Gateway Park next to the lock would be a nice spot for a picnic.
Both Lock #3 and #8 are good for day trip viewing of the canal and the lock process. If you want to extend your viewing even further, I recommend reserving one or more nights at The Inn at Lock Seven.
We never would have known about The Inn at Lock Seven had it not been for a friend’s recommendation. It’s a quiet motel/hotel in the small town of Thorold that was not on our planned route. While it is conveniently located near Niagara Falls, Niagara on the Lake, and St. Catherine’s, Thorold is not a place you might think to search when looking for Niagara area lodging. There was nothing fancy about the Inn at Lock Seven. But at the same time, it was so AMAZING!
My husband and I and our two friends had reserved two rooms at this motel/hotel for two nights. I call the Inn at Lock Seven a motel because the “hallway” outside of my room was open air with the door to my room facing the parking lot. I could step outside my room, look over the railing to see our car below. This gave the place the feel of a motel. However, the stairs are accessed through a locked door. You need a room key to get inside the stairwell and to access the hallways and rooms which make it more hotel-like.
When I say the Inn is “nothing fancy” I mean it is clean, receives regular maintenance, and is decorated with basic hotel furnishings that are kept in good condition and working order. Rooms were equipped with most things you’d expect like a fridge and a coffee maker. The building is made of cement blocks, but the walls of our room were nicely painted disguising the structural material. Management was very accommodating, friendly and helpful. This is your basic motel/hotel but it provided us with everything we needed.
What made this place “amazing” is the hotel’s location and design. The Inn sits directly across from Lock #7 on the Welland Canal. Each room has either a first floor patio or a 2nd or 3rd floor balcony giving every room a spectacular front row seat to view the lock. Housekeeping kept the large windows in our room sparkling clean so that we could enjoy the lock view even in less than perfect weather.
The Inn has three floors and there is no elevator. If this is a problem you can reserve a first floor room and still have a lock view. My second floor room was reached by climbing two flights of seven steps each. Despite having to carry suitcases up the stairs, I did not ask for a first floor room. The views from the second and third floors were, to me, worth the climb.
Following our first night, I woke at dawn and slipped out onto our hotel balcony. A ship had entered the lock from the north. I had not seen it enter and it was hidden by the lock walls. I was unable to tell if it was a small boat or a big ship. Only the very top of it was visible above the lock walls to prove that it was there. The name painted across the top read “Sten Arnold.”
The morning was crisp and cold. The birds were just beginning to stir in the trees. Seeing the sunrise was worth rising early. A sky of cornflower blue and soft coral swirled together like a watercolor wash. It was a stunning backdrop that made watching the lock show magical.
As water filled the lock, the ship slowly rose. After several minutes, I could see what at first, I believed to be two ships, one parked against the front gate and one resting near the back gate. As the minutes ticked on, and as more and more of the ship became visible, I realized that — Holy Moly! — it was one single ship, so massive that it barely fit inside the lock—too big even for me to get a photo of the ship from end to end.
The Sten Arnold is an oil tanker that measures approximately 473 ft. long x 75 ft wide. Deadweight is over 16k tons. How do I know that? Never one to let curiosity go unchecked, I ran inside to my laptop and Googled it. I’d never seen anything so big. I debated waking my husband. He needed to see this. Everyone needed to see this.
But John was already awake, curious as to why I was outside on the balcony instead of asleep in bed. We stood side by side and watched as the front gate opened and the oil tanker creeped slowly and silently forward on its way toward Lock #8
Following a day of sightseeing at Fort George and downtown Niagara on the Lake, we returned for a second night at the Inn. Grabbing a take out pizza from a downtown pizza shop, the four of us sat on our balcony eating pizza from paper plates and sipping wine from plastic hotel glasses. We relaxed and watched as an old tall sailing ship entered the lock with a crewman riding comfortably in the crows nest.
At 3 a.m. I was awakened by a loud humming. Excited to see what was happening, I again hurried out onto our balcony. It was the middle of the night and on my side of the street everything was dark and quiet. I stood alone watching the scene at the lock. Lights blazed and men in hard hats were handling ropes and operating systems. They drove around in white pickup trucks looking like albino ants scurrying across a floor. The “men in white (trucks)” as we had dubbed them, seemed unaware that the rest of the world was asleep. 3 a.m. or noon, it made no difference. The lockmen were always awake and ready to go.
The 3 a.m. ship had sailed in from the north, disguising itself below the lock wall. It rose quickly and it didn’t take me long to discover that it was a large luxury cruise liner. The name “Victory” was emblazoned on its side. It was the same ship we had seen heading south a day before. I stood watching until she slipped quietly out of the lock and sailed away.
With the lock empty once again, the “men in white (trucks)” walked along the edge of the lock, crossed a bridge, and came up the near side of the lock to the place they had parked their two white vehicles side by side when they had arrived. They stood talking for several minutes too far away for me to hear anything but the hum of the electric lights that lined the lock turning night to day. I wondered, what did lockmen talk about at 3 a.m.? Were they planning a weekend fishing trip? Maybe Joe was telling Larry that his wife was expecting a new baby. Or maybe Earl was complaining that the boss had chewed him out last night for being late again. The two men climbed into their driver’s seats and started their engines. One truck followed the other, circling around to exit a gate and enter the highway where both disappeared, driving off to the north. Watching their comings and goings these past two days had made my curiosity grow. I became more and more fascinated by these men. Who were they? Where did they go when they left the lock? I knew that as soon as another ship was expected the two “men in white (trucks)” would reappear. It was a scene we had seen repeated each time a ship arrived. Where DID the men go when the lock was empty and quiet?
From northeast Ohio, the Inn at Lock Seven and the Welland Canal is more or less a 3 hour drive. It is possible to visit the locks in a single day trip. All passengers will need a passport to cross the Canadian border. Just 15 minutes from Niagara Falls, booking an overnight room at the Inn makes a nice base from which to sightsee during the day. At less than $100 bucks a night, the Inn at Lock Seven is a Niagara area bargain.