At the core of many of the products Canadians take for granted are the fingerprints of Canada’s largest Great Lakes shipping fleet.
It’s the steel in Canadian cars and the salt that keeps Canadian roads drivable in the winter. It’s the metal in our washing machines, the fuel that drives cars and jets around the country and the grain from Canadian farms that travels around the world. Much of those raw materials got to its final destination by Great Lakes ship, down the Welland Canal – and the largest fleet of those ships makes its home in St. Catharines.
“Most people probably don’t realize how vital the Canal is and these ships are to our supply chains,” says Wes Newton, Executive Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Algoma Central Corporation. “It’s pretty fascinating. We just go about our business quietly.”
Algoma Central, headquartered in downtown St. Catharines, owns a fleet of 84 ships, 29 of which carry domestic cargo. Another fifteen are under construction. Those ships carry an outsized share of cargo through Niagara’s Welland Canal. In 2022 alone, 41% of the domestic tonnage that passed through the Canal was carried by Algoma. That amounts to about 23 million metric tons of cargo - and 51% of domestic Seaway tolls were paid by Algoma.
Algoma’s fleet includes the massive Seawaymax carriers. At 740 feet long and 78 feet wide, they’re the biggest ships the Welland Canal can possibly handle.
It’s the importance of the Canal that brought Algoma’s headquarters to Niagara. Originally founded in the 1890s as a northern Ontario railroad, the company expanded into shipping over the years before moving its headquarters to St. Catharines in the 1990s. The roughly 120 office staff working in Niagara complement a team of about 1,200 full-time seafarers, about 10% of whom are from Niagara.
“Virtually all the domestic dry-bulk ships we own transit the Canal on a regular basis,” Newton said. A typical trip for an Algoma bulker involves ships loading up with Western Canadian grain in Thunder Bay and carrying it to Quebec to ship around the world. On the way back, they’ll carry iron ore to the steel mills in Hamilton. Other Algoma ships carry aggregate or cement, and still more carry refined fuel to Quebec and the east coast. Some carry salt from mines in places like Goderich, destined to de-ice roads in the winter.
For Algoma, the Welland Canal Corridor is a natural place to be. Ships can repair on the go and take on supplies en route. Crews can stop in Niagara for food, provisions and parts. If crews need help from Algoma’s operations team, the headquarters is right there.
“The reason St. Catharines is here is because it’s situated between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, along the shipping canal,” said Newton. “That’s one thing people often lose sight of. There’s a reason our area was built up – it’s because of its proximity to the shipping canal and marine ports.”
The Canal provides an environmentally and economically efficient option for connecting cargo to markets. A single Seawaymax ship can carry as much cargo as 963 semi trucks. And some of Algoma’s newest ships – the Equinox class vessels, which the company has invested about $600 million in building – emit 85 per cent less carbon to move cargo as compared to trucks on a cargo ton per kilometer basis. These new ships are 40% more efficient than the ships they have replaced.
The spinoff of all this activity goes a long way. Algoma estimates that their activities support about 2,000 Niagara jobs, mostly maintaining and supplying ships. “Niagara understands shipping,” Newton says – a lot of people in Niagara know someone who has worked on a ship.
Niagara’s marine culture combines with the Canal itself to make the region a unique economic engine.
“If you’re on the Seaway, you’re basically connected to the world,” said Newton. “From Thunder Bay, Ontario, you can get anywhere in the world by water because of the St. Lawrence Seaway system. Being in a Canal community connects you with that transportation network.
“Being in Niagara, very close to the US border – it’s a perfect transportation node. It’s a great spot to have access to water, rail, highways and different markets, whether it’s (United States) or international markets.”
Algoma has made the most of those international opportunities. From their base in Niagara, they’ve spent the past 15 years working to grow internationally.
The Canal and the Seaway more broadly, stretching thousands of kilometres inland, are a “crown jewel in Canada’s national infrastructure,” says Newton.
“Imagine trying to develop that network today. It would be a massive undertaking – but it’s here in front of us. We just have to find ways to make the most of it.”
This article is part of a feature series highlighting the importance and impact of the Welland Canal Corridor and the businesses that operate on and around it. This feature series is provided by the economic development offices of the Canal communities of St. Catharines, Welland, Thorold and Port Colborne.