- This Great National Object: Building the Nineteenth-Century Welland Canals by Roberta M. Styran, Robert R. Taylor
The Welland Canal occupies a curious place in Canada’s historiography – historians know about it and recognize its importance, but few pay it much attention. The fact is that its construction and subsequent expansion intersect with several key themes and events in the country’s history: the settlement and modernization of Upper Canada, the grievances of Mackenzie and the reformers, state interventions of the union period, the beginnings of a large-scale industrial workforce, the growth of staple exports, Macdonald’s national policies, and the St Lawrence Seaway in the postwar era. And it is, as the authors note, one of the world’s great ship canals. Yet it has never received the attention of, say, the Rideau Canal or the cpr.
Among the few historians who have chronicled its history are the authors of this book who, over the years, have produced several illustrated histories of the canal, a few scholarly articles on specialized aspects, and a substantial collection of documents (all of which are itemized in the bibliography). One might then ask, as the authors themselves do in their introduction, “Could there be more to say on the subject?” Their answer, of course, is yes, though they do not make a convincing case in those introductory remarks, asserting simply that their earlier books were not long enough to convey “the [End Page 607] astonishing saga of the construction and reconstruction of Niagara’s waterway” (xi). But the book itself justifies their answer. Clearly a product of years of research – the authors seem to have mined all possible historical sources – this book is more than just longer, it is also much deeper and more comprehensive than their earlier efforts.
This latter quality is perhaps the book’s most impressive feature. Styran and Taylor strive for something of an histoire totale of the canals, exploring and revealing as many aspects and as much detail as they can: the complex and contentious process of choosing the routes, the contractors and engineers who handled the work, the actual construction of the canals – effectively presented in separate chapters on “the ditch,” the lift locks, the bridges, and the water that, taken altogether, make a significant contribution to the history of construction technology – but also the experiences of the canal workers and, rather unusually, relations between the canals and the communities in which they were built.
While their broad scope and assiduous pursuit of detail generally serve the authors well, it does at times lead them onto thin ice. They are not always fully informed about the subjects they are exploring. Their material on workers’ shantytowns and medical conditions is well researched and presented, but they seem a little shaky on the evolution of the traditional “master–apprentice” relationship into modern industrial relations (265–72). The level of detail is perhaps unnecessary at times. We learn, for example, that a contractor who took over the work of another on the first canal acquired possession of 327 shovels, of which 127 were in poor condition (135). Their approach also tends to leave the chronological element of the narrative under-explored. The book is about the nineteenth-century Welland canals, in the plural, for a canal was built in the 1820s, the 1840s, and the 1870s. The worlds in which these projects took place were obviously vastly different, with the first being essentially a pioneer society and the last a rapidly modernizing industrial society. The authors do mention changes in construction technology and labour organization, though perhaps not as thoroughly as they could, but others, such as management techniques and the role of the state, do not get much attention.
This latter point leads to what, for some readers, will be a significant shortcoming in this book, especially considering its title. The idea of the Welland Canal as a “national” project – with all that that label could imply – is only cursorily explored. In fact...