Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock to Celebrate Centennial
The Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock, a Canadian National Historic Site, officially opened in 1904 and will soon be celebrating it's Centennial. This engineering wonder, recognized by several engineering organizations both in Canada and the United States, continues to impress thousands of tourists and boaters each year with visitor number one million expected to pass through the doors of the Visitor Centre during the celebratory year of 2004.

The Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock was constructed as a means of overcoming a significant drop in elevation during the building of the Trent-Severn Waterway. After eight years of construction and considerable challenges, hundreds including dignitaries from Ottawa who made the journey by train, attended the Official Opening of the Lift Lock on Saturday,
July 9th, 1904.

At the time the lock was built, the lock was the first to use concrete technology, deemed the highest lift lock in the world as well as the largest structure in the world to be constructed using unreinforced concrete. The Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock remains the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world today.


From the late 1820's and early 1830's, as settlers moved up into the back lakes district, demands grew for a waterway linking the upper lakes with Lake Ontario. Farmers wanted a route to get their produce to markets in the south and the rapidly growing lumber industry also wanted a canal system to carry giant cribs down from the northern forests. Others saw the waterway in terms of its local benefits.

The initiator of the idea of building a lift lock along the Lakefield to Peterborough section of the Trent Canal was R. B. Rogers who had been appointed Superintending Engineer of the canal in 1884. Rogers was a Peterborough native who returned to the area after having graduated from Concordia University with a degree in civil and mechanical engineering in 1877.

The fact that no lift locks had ever been built in North America combined with adverse weather conditions and carious other political issues made the task of constructing the Lift Lock a major challenge.

Peterborough in 1903 was a bustling town of 15,000, the "Hub of Central Ontario and prospective Birmingham of Canada" according to the Toronto Saturday Globe of the era. New industries like Edison General Electric Company (later Canadian General Electric) and the American Cereal Company (now known as Quaker Tropicana Gatorade) were at the forefront of a province-wide economic boom the year before the lift locks opened.

Wooden boardwalks crisscrossed the main street, to avoid the mud, which resulted when rain fell on the dirt streets. Summer clothing bargains included white duck trousers or knickers for men for 85 cents. Men's bathing trunks and suits ranged from 10 cents to a dollar and women could buy pleated, white lawn shirtwaists for 89 cents. Steamer excursions down the Otonabee River or into the Kawartha Lakes were popular for everyone from Sunday School outings to the Peterborough Old Boy's reunion.


As with other canal projects, steam powered equipment was employed, as it had been in Canadian engineering projects from the 1860's, but manual labour and horsepower were pre-eminent. Work was undertaken on a ten hour a day, six day a week basis, with labourers wages at one dollar a day, and teamsters at two dollars and a half. Between 50 and 75 men were employed at various times over the season. Small dump cars, driven by the engine, were used to move the earth. The equipment, which also included steam-powered derricks and piledrivers, utilized water pumped up from Little Lake by means of a portable engine and pipeline.

In spite of the supposed efficiency of the machinery, the difficulty of keeping the pit dry was a constant impediment to the workers. The labourers waded through a veritable sea of mud to load the excavated material into barrels and on car beds which were drawn by cables to the dump cars on the small tracks which ran along the west side of the site. When it got particularly wet, the steam shovel could not be used to help the workers and all the digging and loading of the fill had to be done by hands.


On the big day itself, a cloudburst and heavy rain dampened the spirits of the people who gathered to see the festivities. Officials were on a boat below the Lift Lock and the shoreline had been cleared and landscaped for them to stand on but the downpour turned the area into a slippery mass of mud. The city hosted 300 guest on the Empress and Stoney Lake steamboats. In spite of dire predictions to the contrary, the Lift Lock turned out to be more than a tourist attraction. Right from the beginning there was heavy commercial traffic. One vessel in 1904 carried 95,000 feet of lumber and 80,000 shingles and during 1905, a total of 564 vessels passed through the locks, carrying wood, livestock and wheat into boomtown Peterborough and finished products out. All dignitaries present at the official opening praised the efforts of R. B. Rogers who had been under great stress while the project was in progress; Rogers had been under great stress. After persuading his superiors in the Department of Railways and Canals that it was a viable project, many times Rogers came under fire for the problems at the site.


From July 9-11th, 2004, Peterborough will celebrate with a multi-faceted festival along the shores of the Trent-Severn immediately south of the Lift Lock. The event will offer something for everyone, with numerous community groups and organizations participating. Here is just an example of what you can expect at the Peterborough Lift Lock Centennial

Stroll through the displays of steam equipment, antique cars and marvel at the antique steamboats cruising down the waterway. Kids can visit the Children's Area where they can do crafts, games and activities from 1904, then stop for lunch at one of the many food kiosks where you can have the opportunity to sample foods from the turn of the century. During lunch you can be entertained by a variety of musicians performing historical tunes of the area, after which you can learn how blacksmiths, broomstick makers and other trades of the early 1900's made their wares. Cool down with some Lift Lock Ice Cream or Lift Lock Lager before settling down for a theatrical performance based on the building of the Trent-Severn Waterway and in particular the famous Lift Lock.
There will be so much to see - do not miss out on all the action! Updates on developments of the event will be posted at If you have a steamboat and are interested in participating in the event or would like any further information on the event on a whole, please e-mail or call (705) 742-4421.