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Trent-Severn Waterway history and facts

History of the Trent

The Glaciers melted as the climate grew warmer, leaving behind vast glacial lakes.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, a warm shallow sea covered the lower Trent area, leaving deposits that gradually formed layers of limestone. After the sea receded, an ancient river carved a steep valley out of the limestone.
These glacial lakes grew smaller as the meltwater rushed headlong to the ocean. As lake levels fell, the flowing waters once again followed the course of the Trent Valley.’
‘Then, from about 1 million to 15,00 years ago, this area was covered by a series of enormous glaciers. The glaciers were over 3 km thick, easily dwarfing the CN tower!
For the next 8,000 years, a thick forest of oak, pine, and basswood cloaked the land. Logging and land clearing have since changed the character of the lower Trent Valley to today’s rural patchwork of woodlots and farm fields.

Source:  Lock 10 Interpretive Signage

Sportfishing on the Trent-Severn Waterway

The Trent-Severn Waterway is famous for some of the finest fishing waters in Ontario. Since the mid-1900s, tourists have been attracted by the area’s excellent fishing and natural beauty. Today, anglers from near and far cast their lines hoping to hook “the big one”. But unlike the steamboat days when the fish population seemed infinite, anglers today are becoming aware of the increased pressures on this valuable natural resource.

How a lock works

Boats travel the Trent-Severn Waterway through several different types of locks. This lock is one of the 37 conventional locks on the system, which act as steps in a water staircase raising boats up 182 metres (597 ft.) from Lake Ontario to Balsam Lake, and then lowering them down 80 metres (263 ft.) to Georgian Bay.
The basic operation of a conventional lock is very simple:
1. The water in the lock has been emptied through the lower valves, and is now at the same level as the lower reach where our boat waits. The lower lock gates have been opened to prepare for the lockage.
2. The boat enters the lock, and the lock gates close forming a watertight chamber. The upper valves are opened, allowing water from the upper reach to flow by gravity into the lock. Our boat floats upwards as the lock fills.
3. When the water is at the same level as the upper reach, the upper gates are opened, and our boat continues upstream. The lock is now ready to lower boats heading in the other direction.
Simple! No pumps are needed, it’s all done by valves and gravity.

While the same basic principles apply at every conventional lock, operating mechanisms and lock designs can differ. Originally, all the lockstations had gates and valves that were operated manually. Some remain this way but others have been updated and mechanized for operation at the push of a button. Lock staff will be glad to explain which type of system their lock uses.

“Ancient Waterway”

Many archaeological sites are found along the Trent-Severn Waterway. Artifacts discovered at these sites show us that successive groups of native people have used the waterway for centuries, both as a transportation route and for its wealth of natural resources.

Early Inhabitants
The Archaic people were a group of hunters and fishermen that lived in the lower Trent valley between 5000-1000 B.C. These hardy people hunted big-game, but also relied on berry and nut gathering, fishing, and bird trapping to supplement their diet. Their nomadic lifestyle was based on a seasonal cycle – hunting in small family groups during the winter, and meeting at a riverside campsite for fishing in the spring.
By 4000 B.C., this group began to manufacture ground and polished stone tools, and to obtain goods such as copper, shell, and slate through trade. Finding evidence of these new developments, as well as distinctively chipped stone tools, enables archaeologists to identify Archaic sites.

The Mound Builders
By 0-500 A.D., the hunters and gatherers of the Trent Valley had developed into a more advanced society that archaeologists have termed the Point Peninsula culture. Distinguishing features of this group include artistic designs on their pottery created by notched of toothed implements, and earthen burial mounds which were constructed as part of their elaborate religious ceremonies.
Exotic materials such as copper from Lake Superior, marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from Wyoming were in demand to place with the bodies of privileged individuals in the mounds. This created a vast trade network, including the Trent-Severn route.
Mysterious symbols of an ancient culture, a few burial mounds still lie hidden along the Trent River. The most impressive and well-known are found at Serpent Mounts Provincial Park on Rice Lake.

Source:  Lock 9 Interpretive Signage

Forgotten Canoe Trails

The Trent-Severn Waterway has served as a canoe highway for centuries. From at least 9000 BC, successive groups of native people used its connecting rivers and lakes as a convenient route for travel and trade between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay. This natural chain of lakes and rivers was navigable only by canoe – its rapids, waterfalls, and low marshy stretches were impassable and required portaging.
Native groups were skilled in long-distance travel. Portages or “carrying places” along the Trent-Severn route provided them with short practical routes to and from their northern hunting grounds. Today these ancient canoe trails are distant memories – some lie overgrown and forgotten, others under the modern highways or canal cuts which have taken their place.

Canal Maintenance Then and Now

Maintenance equipment and methods have changed over the years…..
1. Timber lock gates, still made by Waterway carpenters, are replaced periodically. Historically, the gate-lifting barge W.H. Pretty travelled the Waterway installing and removing gates. Today lock gates are assembled log by log on-site using modern road cranes.
2. Repairs to locks and dams often require underwater work. Cumbersome hard-hat diving equipment has been replaced with modern scuba gear.
3. Maintenance of the navigation channel is an ongoing task. Dredges, with accommodation for the crew on-board, were used for many years to keep channels clear. Today, modern steel scows ply the system maintaining aids to navigation
The operation and maintenance of the Southern Area of the Waterway, stretching from Trenton to Rice Lake, is managed from the office across the road.
“The Maintenance Crew”
The task of keeping our Historic Canal in running order falls to an often overlooked, yet remarkable group of tradesmen and labourers. These men have developed highly specialized skills and tools over the years for maintaining the Waterway’s locks, bridges, and dams. Whether the job calls for diving to repair underwater valves, constructing massive timber lock gates, or custom machining parts for our unique marine railway, it’s “all in a day’s work” for our talented maintenance crews.

Source:  Lock 11/12 Interpretive Signage

Water-Fight At Hastings!

Soon after the first lock and dam were completed at Hastings in 1844, the lack of any policy for regulating water levels resulted in an ongoing “water fight” between all those whose livelihood was affected by the dam. If the dam served one interest group, it disadvantaged another. When millers and lumbermen got the amount of waterflow they required, steamboat operators didn’t have enough depth to navigate. If water levels were raised for navigation, farmers blamed the dam for drowning their land. Gradually, with improvements to the dam and the development of water use regulations, the situation improved. Today the Trent-Severn Waterway is a managed system, which still serves a variety of users.
“Marmora Iron Mines”
It was the promise of transporting iron ore from the mines up the Trent River to Rice Lake that caused businessmen to push for the construction of the first lock at Hastings, Ironically, when iron ore finally began to be shipped from the mines in 1867, water levels were too low for the heavily-laden barges to navigate the river.
“Hastings, 1860”
By the mid-19th century, Hastings was a busy industrial centre on the Trent River. Water wheels drove the village’s many mills and factories, shown here on both sides of the river.
“Fowlds Mill, 1871. Originally operated as a grist mill by James S. Fowlds and Brothers Company, this historic building last served as a leather factory. One of the few survivors of Hastings’ industrial heyday, the mill can be viewed just northwest of the lock.

Source:  Lock 18 Interpretive Signage

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Trent Hills Chamber of Commerce
51 Grand Road
Campbellford, ON
K0L 1L0


The Trent-Severn Trail Town Program is an initiative of Kawarthas Northumberland in partnership with Parks Canada, Kawartha Lakes, Peterborough & the Kawarthas and Northumberland County.

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