Merritt, William Hamilton

SUBJECT AREA: Canals, Civil engineering
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b. 3 July 1793 Bedford, Winchester County, New York, USA
d. 5 July 1862 aboard a vessel on the Cornwall Canal, Canada
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American-born Canadian merchant, entrepreneur and promoter of the First and Second Welland Canals bypassing the Niagara Falls and linking Lakes Ontario and Erie.
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Although he was born in the USA, his family moved to Canada in 1796. Educated in St Catharines and Niagara, he received a good training in mathematics, navigation and surveying. He served with distinction in the 1812–14 war, although he was captured by the Americans in 1814. After the war he established himself in business operating a sawmill, a flour mill, a small distillery, a potashery, a cooperage and a smithy, as well as running a general store. By 1818 he was one of the leading figures in the area and realized that for real economic progress it was essential to improve communications in the Niagara peninsula; in that year he surveyed a route for a waterway that would carry boats.
In c. 1820 he began discussions with neighbouring landowners and businessmen, who, on 19 January 1824 together obtained a charter for building the first Welland Canal to link Lakes Ontario and Erie. They were greatly influenced by the realization that the completion of the Erie Canal would attract trade through the United States instead of through Canada. Construction began on 30 November 1824, largely with redundant labour from the Erie Canal. Merritt foresaw the need for financial support and for publicity to sustain interest in the project. Accordingly he started a newspaper, the Farmer's Journal and Welland Canal Intelligencer, which was published until 1835. He also visited York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada, and obtained some support, but the Government was reluctant to assist financially. He was more successful in raising money in New York. Then in 1828 he visited England to see Telford and persuaded both Telford and the Duke of Wellington, among others, to purchase shares. The Canal opened on 30 November 1829. In 1832 Merritt became a member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada, and after the Union of the Canadas in 1841 he was elected to the new Assembly, later serving as Minister of Public Works and then as President of the Assembly. He advocated improvements to the St Lawrence River and also promoted railways. He pioneered a bridge across the Niagara River that was opened in 1849 and later carried a railway. He was not a canal engineer, but he did pioneer communications in developing territory.
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Further Reading
R.M.Styran and R.R.Taylor, 1988, The Welland Canals. The Growth of Mr Merritt's
Ditch, Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press.
JHB

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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