Workers' memorial group seeks details on canal's tragic Scottish cousins

The Welland Canal in Ontario, Canada, links Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and forms a key section of the St Lawrence Seaway.

Wednesday, 28th September 2016, 3:09 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 2:41 pm
Lock 7 under construction, 1923. Photo: J.A. McDonald. Brock University Alan Sykes Welland Canal Collection.

Approximately 40,000,000 tonnes of cargo are carried through the Welland Canal annually by a traffic of about 3000 ocean and Great Lakes vessels. This canal was a major factor in the growth of the city of Toronto and its construction stretched from 1914 to the official opening in 1932. Labourers from across the globe sought work there, including two Scottish cousins from Stornoway who met a tragic fate.

The Welland Canal is a major economic artery in Canada. It’s importance, 84 years after opening, is undiminished.

While its construction drew workers from from every region of Canada, the roll of honour must also include Poland, Finland, England, Italy, Yugoslavia, Ireland, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, the USA... and Scotland.

Right: The walls under construction. Photo: J.A. McDonald, 1923. (Credit: Brock University Special Collections  Alan Sykes Welland Canal Collection.)

The workforce from 1914 to 1932 and the consecutive canals that made up the project would have been drawn from many more countries but the list above isn’t of the nationalities of those who built it, but the homelands of those who died doing so.

This was hard work in hard times but Canada was a country opening its arms to the world, and offering a new beginning and a new life.

The Highlands and Islands were hit particularly hard after the end of The Great War.

Some 600 men, described as “the best of Scottish manhood” in Parliament, made their way to Glasgow for a passage to Canada aboard two ships, the SS Metagama and SS Marloch.

An artists impression of how the entrance to the Fallen Workers Memorial will look.

The opportunity for a new start was seized by two Stornoway cousins, but their hopes and dreams would end horrifically.

Murdo Murray and Donald MacDonald died just fivemonths apart – two of eight Scots who perished on the construction project.

One plummeted to a lingering, painful death while the other died in a dynamite explosion.

A total of 137 workers lost their lives in the 20 years it took to build. It has been pointed out that with the total cost standing at £130 million that was nearly £1m per life.

Right: The walls under construction. Photo: J.A. McDonald, 1923. (Credit: Brock University Special Collections  Alan Sykes Welland Canal Collection.)

Ugly though that statistic may be, just 24 years before the first pick was swung on Niagara soil, the Forth Bridge had become operational; it cost £3.2m but claimed 73 lives in eight years – a sobering £40,000 per death.

Four years ago Scotland unveiled its memorials to the briggers in North and South Queensferry and Canada intends to follow suit at St Catherines, Ontario, with the memorial unveiling scheduled for 2017.

The tribute is seen as not only fitting, but long overdue.

At the official opening back in 1932, Canada’s Minister of Railways and Canalds, Dr Robert J. Manion, stated:

An artists impression of how the entrance to the Fallen Workers Memorial will look.

“Peace has its heroes as well as war, and in a construction job of this magnitude, with its daily risk and hazard, the sacrifices of human life seems to be unavoidable.

“It is only right and proper that we should give a thought to the 115 men who lost their lives during the progress of the work.

“In due course we shall see that the names of these workmen are suitably preserved and made an enduring portion of the great structure that rises not only as a monument to their effort and their lives, but to the efforts of the thousands of working men and engineering helpers whose unremitting toil, often in the face of difficulty and discouragement, made possible the triumph of the present hour.”

Eighty years on these names will be preserved but, before then, researchers would like to hear from any relatives of Donald MacDonald and Murdo Murray, or receive any details of their short lives and their decision to make a new life across the Atlantic.

Anyone who might have further information should contact Arden Phair at [email protected]

○For further information about the Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial, please see: Fallen Workers Memorial

Horrific fall led to first canal fatality of 1925

Murdo Murray was born on April 22, 1901, to fisherman father Murdo and mother Annabella (nee MacLeod).

The family lived, at the time of the 1911 census, at 31 Knock, Stornoway. The house was full. As well as his parents, Murdo shared the house with four siblings, aged between 14 and five years, as well as his father’s elderly parents.

Life was hard for the residents of the Western Isles. As well as the challenging conditions of living and working on the isles, there was high unemployment following the First World War.

In 1923, 600 people left the Western Isles for a new life in Canada and Murdo, now 22, decided to be part of that adventure along with his cousin, Donald MacDonald (26).

On April 21, 300 people set sail on the SS Metagama from Stornoway bound for Montreal. A further 300 had already departed from Lochboisdale, South Uist, on April 15 aboard another Canadian Pacific Liner, SS Marloch, for Alberta.

Due to ice, the SS Metagama had been forced to change its route and docked at St John, New Brunswick.

Murdo and Donald travelled across Canada, ending up at Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) where forestry and shipping were sources of employment.

In late 1924, the cousins headed east for Humberstone (now Port Colborne), a city known for its heavy industry.

The pair gained work with the Northern Construction Company to work on the Welland Ship Canal.

Two months into the job Murray fell to his death, the first canal fatality of 1925. He suffered fatal injuries falling 67 feet from a derrick chain on January 23.

The local Standard newspaper reported on February 2, 1925, that Murdo was the last man on the pump and lost his hold. He fell to the bottom of a sump hole breaking his back, arms and skull. He died two hours later after “intense suffering”.

Bereft, his mother and family had a stone erected at the grave. The memorial is inscribed “In fond and loving memory of my dear son and our brother Murdo Murray” and carries a verse from the Song of Solomon, “Until the day break and the shadows flee away.”

Died instantly when drill hit buried dynamite

Few details are known about Donald (Domhnall) MacDonald (26).

However, researchers from the Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial project believe the most likely entry for him appears in the 1901 Census.

It notes that he was born in Stornoway in 1898 and named after his father who was a fisherman. His mother, Christina, was a domestic servant and the record suggests he possibly had a brother and a sister.

The 1901 Census also has a reference to Donald living near his cousin, Murdo Murray.

Donald and Murdo left Stornoway in April 1923 boarding the SS Metagama to Canada. After a period in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) the cousins moved to Humberstone in 1924. They began working on the Welland Ship Canal in November 1924.

On January 23, Murdo became the first canal fatality of 1925 and Donald died a few months later on June 8. A newspaper article, published a few days after Donald’s death, revealed he was killed in a premature dynamite explosion. Calling him ‘Daniel Macdonald’, it reported: “The fourth fatality on section 8 of the New Welland Ship Canal occurred at Humberstone when Daniel Macdonald was horribly mutilated in a dynamite explosion.

“Macdonald, a driller for the Northern Construction Co, was blasting and apparently struck an old hole where a stick of unexploded dynamite had become lodged. The drill struck the dynamite and the resulting explosion wrecked the drill and killed Macdonald almost instantly. His face being rendered almost unrecognisable and both legs being broken.”

The article continued: “Macdonald was a cousin of Murdo Murray who was killed on January 23, 1925. Most of his relatives live in Scotland but he has a brother at Port Arthur.” Donald’s funeral was held at Wichmann’s undertaking parlors, Humberstone, and he was buried at Overholt Cemetery. A second article, published in the St Catharines Standard in Ontario, Canada a few days later, reported that an inquest was held and recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Memorial to fallen workers from across the globe

Design plans and major funding were announced in August last year for a memorial in Canada to honour the 137 men who died while building the Welland Ship Canal, 1914-1935.

The Department of Canadian Heritage has confirmed $150,000 for the project through its Legacy Programme Funding. June 15 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the first worker who died in what is believed to be the largest loss of life on a federal government infrastructure project in Canadian history.

The dead were from 12 different countries. Eight of the men were from Scotland, including the Stornoway cousins.

The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial Task Force has set a goal of $750,000 to pay for the design, build and infrastructure of the memorial.The design will feature four elements – the Gates of Remembrance, the Veil, the Timeline and the Lock. The steel panels on the gates will be inscribed with the names of the fallen, their ages at death and places of birth.

The Timeline is embedded on the floor of the site, each year is marked by a line and its length reflects the number of fatalities in that year. The memorial is scheduled to be unveiled next year on a site along the Welland Canal, north of Lock 3, in St Catharines.