The most impressive canal locks in North America offer an abundance of scenic outdoor adventures.
The recreational opportunities these waterways provide are endless.
These canal locks, mostly found in the northeast, were developed to serve three purposes; to provide transportation, to assist with land irrigation and to help control water levels.
The most important aspect of the locks is to provide a route for inland transportation along rivers and safe passage for water vessels to navigate from one body of water.
How do canal locks work?
Imagine a lock as being a type of elevator for boats. A lock moves boats or other watercraft from one elevation to the next.
Gates and chambers are used to navigate the difference in the heights of the water.
A water vessel will enter a lock and then a gate closes behind it creating a compartment.
Water is allowed to flow in and out of the chamber depending on the need. The water will lift the vessel to the correct height to allow safe passage.
The front gate is opened to allow the watercraft to continue on its journey.
The most impressive canal locks in North America
These seven interesting canal locks are engineering wonders in North America.
1. Coteau-du-Lac Canal National Historic Site, Quebec
The Coteau-du-Lac Canal is the first lock canal to be built in North America.
Built by Loyalists, it opened in 1781 with three locks covering a distance of 100 metres navigating the roughest rapids of the St. Lawrence River.
The remains of the locks and a fort are found about 40 kms from Montreal, Quebec on the shores of the St. Lawrence River.
Find out more about this National Historic Site.
2. Ballard Locks, Washington State
The 105-year-old Ballard Locks officially known as the Hiram M. Chittendem Locks National Historic Site, are the first locks built on the Pacific coast of the United States.
The locks are situated in the Seattle, Washington neighborhood of Ballard in the middle of Salmon Bay.
Hiram M. Chittendem Locks National Historic Site
The historic Hiram M. Chittendem Locks are also known as the Ballard Locks. The locks opened on July 4, 1917 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The locks are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They are one of the busiest operating locks in the United States moving around 50,000 ships and other nautical vessels both commercial and recreational between Lake Union, Lake Washington and the Puget Sound. Most of Alaska’s fishing fleet uses the locks to moor in Seattle.
The locks help protect saltwater from the sea mixing with the fresh water of the lakes.
A fish ladder, with a newly renovated viewing room, is built into the locks to allow salmon to migrate upstream to spawn. The best time to witness the migration of three types of salmon, Coho, Chinook and Sockeye, is from July until November. The fish ladder is drained every year, usually in May, for two weeks or longer.
There are two small locks and one large one. Free tours of the locks are offered from March 1 – November 30.
The grounds include a Visitor’s Center and Museum and a botanical garden.
This location is a popular picnic and wedding spot.
Learn more about these historic locks.
3. Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site, Ontario
Sault St. Marie locks, once the longest locks in the world, opened in 1885. These locks, also known as the Soo Locks, were the first locks in the world to operate using electricity.
The canal is located on St. Marys River between Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and runs between White Fish Island and Sault Ste. Marie, bypassing the St. Marys Rapids.
The locks closed in 1987 and reopened in 1998 for recreational use between May 15 and October 15.
Informational boards throughout the site provide the history of these important locks.
In the summertime, enjoy afternoon tea overlooking the locks, take a tour, learn about the history at the visitors centre, wander the trails or cycle on the new pathways, rent a fat bike.
Find out more about the Sault St. Marie Canal Historic Site.
4. Rideau Canal Locks USESCO World Heritage Site, Ontario
The Rideau Canal Locks are the oldest continuously operating canal system in North America and it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These locks first opened in 1832, and the entire route stretches 125 miles (kms)
The 49 locks can be found from Ottawa, Canada’s capital city to Kingston Ontario connecting the Ottawa River, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
The Rideau Canal Skateway is noted as the world’s largest ice-skating rink. It runs 7.8 kms through Canada’s capital city of Ottawa and is open for an average of 50 days depending on the weather.
This year the ice rink will celebrate it 53rd year when the season opens in January 2023. Skating is usually allowed through until the March closing.
Download a map of the canal.
In 2005, this skating rink appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest naturally frozen ice rink in the world.
This North American canal is one of the best preserved examples of a slackwater canal.
The slackwater canal building method is based on European technology using a series of dams to avoid large-scale excavation.
5. Welland Canal Locks, Ontario
A visit to the scenic Welland Canal Locks takes you through four Ontario cities: St. Catharines, Thorold, Welland and Port Colborne. The Welland Canal Parkway Trail is part of the Greater Niagara Circle Route and is a great way to explore the area by bike or by walking. Download a map.
Each of the cities the Welland Canal runs through provides viewing platforms and an abundance of other activities.
The Welland Canal connects two of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The canal system was a necessary means of transportation for getting water vessels around Niagara Falls and the St. Lawrence Rapids.
The difference in elevation between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario is 326 feet (100 metres).
Over the years, four Welland Canals have been built along almost the same routing.
The first Welland Canal was opened in 1829, with a later extension in 1833 making it 27 1/2 miles in length. The route had a total of 40 wooden locks, 110 feet long, 8 feet deep and 22 feet wide.
The second Welland Canal was opened in 1850 to accommodate ships of increased size. This second canal improved upon the capacity of the first one and was rebuilt with stone. The number of locks dropped to 27, covering the same length but the size of the lock increase to 150 feet long and 26 1/2 feet wide.
The third Welland Canal was constructed between 1872 and 1887.
The fourth Welland Canal was started in 1913 but was not completed until 1932. Delays to the building of the canal were due to material and labour shortage, depression and war.
The canal’s width is 200 feet. It has seven locks each measuring 80 feet wide with the capacity to accommodate a vessel up to a maximum of 765 feet.
It takes a ship up to eight hours to make the trip through the entire canal lock system running 7 miles (11 km).
The Welland Canal usually operates from April through to the end of December.
Read more about the history of the Welland Canal and best things to do in St. Catharines, Thorold, Welland and Port Colborne.
6. Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site, Ontario
The Trent-Severn Waterway has two of the world’s highest hydraulic lift locks. It also has the only marine railway of its kind in North America.
The historic waterway uses 45 locks to assist boaters through four Ontario regions to navigate 386 km from the Georgian Bay area of Lake Huron to Lake Ontario.
The Peterborough Lift, Lock 21, is the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world. This lock took eight years to built and opened in 1904. The lift navigates a height of 65 feet or 19.8 metres.
Lock 36, the Kirkfield Lift Lock, is the second highest hydraulic lift lock in the world rising 49 feet or 15 metres.
The Big Chute Marine Railway at Lock 44 actually carries boats up 60 feet or 18 metres.
The entire length of the scenic waterway provides a great recreational playground with endless possibilities. It is also part of the Great Loop canal system.
7. Erie Canal, New York
The Erie Canal was the first canal in the United States to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the western waterways and Lake Erie. The canal ran 363 miles (584 km) from Albany to Buffalo, New York.
It took eight years to build from 1817 until 1825. When the canal opened, it was the longest man-made waterway in North America.
Canal traffic was reduced drastically when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959.
See a more detailed map.
Today’s boating community is very active on the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
This canal route is part of the Great Loop canal system allowing boaters to explore up to 7,500 miles (12,070 km) of waterways.
What an incredible journey for a great boating experience.
Fast Facts about Canals
- The largest canal lock opened in the Netherlands in January 2022. The Ijmuiden lock allows the Port of Amsterdam to receive larger cargo ships from the North Sea Canal. The lock measures 70 metres wide by 500 metres long. 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.
- Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal is the oldest and longest canal in the world running 1,776 km (1,104 mi) from the Yellow River to the Yangtze River in China. The canal was built starting in the 5th century BC. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The world’s highest hydraulic lift lock is found on the Trent-Severn Waterway at the Peterborough Lift Lock 21.
- Rideau Canal Locks are the oldest continuously operating canal system in North America.
- The Rideau Canal Skateway is noted as the world’s largest ice-skating rink.
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