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Story of the Welland's canals told in pictures, poem and song

Public invited to official book launch of 'Spirit of the Big Ditch' on Dec. 12 at St. Catharines Museum

Looking for something special for Christmas gift giving? The Historical Society of St. Catharines has just the item that will appeal to the historian in the family, as well as to others with a passion for the canal, literature and the performing arts.

After a couple of decades of researching and assembling content, the latest book by Robert R. Taylor about the Welland Canal is now available for addition to bookshelves everywhere!

Titled SPIRIT OF THE BIG DITCH: The Story of the Welland Canals in Pictures, Poems and Songs it chronicles two centuries of the Welland Canal through the words of a medley of poets and songwriters. These unique compositions date as far back as the first transit through the First Welland Canal in 1829.

Dr. Taylor, Professor (Emeritus) in History from Brock University, is pleased to offer up his eighth book about the Welland Canals. It is a very different study from previous works with their rich documentary focus. This new book captures a cultural nuance and makes an emotional connection with our multifaceted man-made waterway.

The writings feature a wide spectrum of author backgrounds from nineteenth-century sailors to professional authors and songwriters.  And, while books of this nature have long been embraced in the United States (particularly for the nearby Erie Canal), this is the most comprehensive compilation yet for a Canadian canal system.

Through the words of dozens of different authors, the reader is introduced to the stories of the people, places, and projects associated with this marvel of engineering.  It touches upon many aspects of the Welland Canals including their communities, the ships that sailed their waters, the achievements in building each of the Canals (tempered against the tragedies experienced during construction), and of course, the people who were associated with the Welland Canals, with particular praise reserved for its founder, the Hon. William Hamilton Merritt.

Through the poems and songs it becomes apparent that Taylor’s collection of creative writings is much more than a local story – it is also a broader reflection of many aspects of Canadian history in the areas of transportation, multiculturalism, economic development, labour issues, and the hardships of construction.

A special feature of SPIRIT OF THE BIG DITCH is its interactive capability with the Canal’s marine heritage. The written word is brought to life by scanning QR codes in the book which will link readers to audio and video performances of sailor’s songs, to living poets reading their creative works, and to special guest readers who add a distinctive dimension in their spoken-word readings. This unique feature can be enjoyed while reading the various poems or while absorbing Dr. Taylor’s explanatory notes and interpretations about the works.

The publication is also a great kickoff to Bicentennial celebrations being planned for the Welland Canals. The upcoming year (2024), marks the 200th anniversary of the commencement of construction of the First Welland Canal in 1824. Other events will lead up to 2029 which is the Bicentennial of the Official Opening of the waterway.

The Historical Society of St. Catharines gratefully acknowledges several community partners whose support made this publishing project possible: The Ontario Paper Thorold Foundation, The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, and The Marine Club.

The 116-page softcover book is richly illustrated and published in full-colour. It retails for $25.

SPIRIT OF THE BIG DITCH may be purchased from the Historical Society of St. Catharines (Contact: [email protected]) as well as being available at the Port Colborne Historical & Marine Museum.

The public is invited to the official book release of Spirit of the Big Ditch on Dec. 12 at the St. Catharines Museum.  Books may be purchased that evening from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., with a special programme scheduled for 7:15 p.m.