Construction railway kills two dozen workers

The Construction Railway and other pieces of large earth-moving machinery were indispensable in building the Canal. This image shows a dragline and rail engine that were used in excavating the channel for the future waterway. Unfortunately, almost 20 percent of all canal fatalities resulted from rail-related accidents. St. Catharines Museum , Claude Richardson Collection, 2011-N

Canal building is a massive undertaking. The sheer volume of materials to be moved is staggering with 40,382,258 cubic metres (of earth was excavated for the Welland Canal incision as well as 7,096,598 cubic metres of rock. According to a contemporary publication: “If all the material were loaded on dump cars, of the kind which may be seen passing along the Construction Railway parallel with the Canal, it would require a train of such cars 15,000 miles long, extending half way around the globe, to hold it.”

The Welland Ship Canal would bridge a distance of 40 kilometres from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Compared to the Third Welland Canal with 26 locks that were 82.3-metres long, 13.7-metres wide, the new canal would have eight locks of 250-metres long, 24.4 metres wide. The seven lift locks of the Ship Canal raise and lower vessels on average about 14.2-metres per lock.

In general, this monumental pile of earth and rock would be moved by train. Track was laid all along the construction site and met up with the rail lines already crisscrossing the Niagara region. These trains would not only remove material but were necessary to bring to the works the materials needed to build the new canal — stone, sand, cement, steel, wood and equipment, etc.

Accidents involving locomotives were common and of the 137 men who lost their lives in the course of the construction and 26 were train-related accidents. George William Robinson was the first of these fatalities.

On 24 July, 1914, The St. Catharines Standard reported the following information about his death:

The First Fatal Accident On The Canal Construction

George Robertson Was Run Over by a Train He Was Brakeman on

Taken to The Government Hospital at Homer, Where He Died Thursday Evening

George Robertson, an Englishman recently out, 21 years of age met with a fatal accident Thursday morning between 8 and 9 o’clock, on section 3 of the new canal construction at Thorold.

Robertson was brakeman on a line of dump cars. He had just uncoupled a few cars, and went to jump onto the moving engine when his foot caught in a frog and he was thrown down the engine passing over both legs. He was taken at once to the Government Hospital at Homer where one leg was amputated at the thigh.

He died Thursday afternoon at 5 o’clock. The funeral will be held Saturday at 2:30 from the company’s boarding house on the town line.

Robertson had only been in this country about eight months and has one cousin Mr. Holden in Hamilton.

It has not been decided yet as to when the inquest will be held, but an inquest is necessary, the victim having been employed on a public work, Coroner Armour stated this afternoon.

It should be noted that the article names the man as George Robertson, which was inaccurate. In addition, more recent research has revealed that Robinson was not the first fatality on the canal construction but the second after William Henry Burt who drowned at Port Dalhousie on 15 June, 1914.

This article is part of a series highlighting the men whose lives were lost in the construction of the Welland Ship Canal. The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial Task Force is a volunteer group established to finance, design, build and install a memorial to recognize workers who were killed while building the Welland Ship Canal. For more information about the memorial or to contribute to the project visit


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