Origin of Welland Canal’s Top Hat Ceremony

One only needs to have a slight idea of how Canada’s geography takes shape in order to understand the perhaps fanatical emphasis Canadians and their governments have always placed on transportation. Canada and many other “New World” countries (including the United States) have traditionally placed a great value on the importance of transportation, largely due to the fact that in order for these huge countries to stay cohesive both politically and economically, there has to be a great transportation infrastructure in place. For Old World countries, size usually wasn’t a factor, but when it comes to the sprawling expanses of North America and the unique geographical challenge within it; any construction of a major transportation system was and is a big endeavour.

In Canada, one of the great historical challenges was to provide a way for goods to move from the Great Lakes to the open ocean, thus avoiding the high costs (and sometimes impossibility) of transport overland. The answer was to build canals that ran from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the most celebrated of these canals is the Welland Canal. Located in Ontario, the canal runs from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. It is part of a series of canals that allows shipping to avoid the Niagara Falls region of the St. Lawrence River. Today, over forty million tonnes of cargo is carried through this canal by ships each year!

One can only imagine the new opportunities that were opened up with the completion of the first Welland Canal in 1829. In fact, compared to the Canal today, this operation might well be considered small time.

The Second Welland Canal opened in 1854, and was a much larger investment both of public and private money. After seeing how a canal could open up the trade possibilities of the interior, many interests became involved. The giants of industry in those days specialized in transportation (the railroad developers and so on) and shipping was no exception, thus the opening of the canal was a very formalized event. It included a ceremonial recognition of the first trip up the canal by hanging a top hat (indicative of wealth and power) on both the hull of the ship and the first bridge on the canal.

Today, the Top Hat Ceremony has continued, both as a demonstration of prestige and for reasons of good luck. Each year, the first up bound ship going through the canal is honoured with a ceremony and the presentation of the lucky Top Hat.