Western Ontario could have boasted a canal running from Lake Huron to Lake Erie and St. Joseph could have been a boomtown if the plans of Narcisse Cantin had have been carried out. It was in the hamlet of St. Joseph that Narcisse Cantin, son of a French-Canadian ship builder from Goderich, made plans to build a canal. The young entrepreneur started out in the cattle trade, shipping his stock to Buffalo, New York. He thought that a canal linking the two Great Lakes would make trade much easier between Canada and the United States.
Others agreed and sponsors lined up to support the Cantin Seaway Project including the CPR Railway, Bethlehem Steel, United States Steel, The Bank of Montreal, and the Hudson's Bay Company. Wilfrid Laurier's Liberal government approved the project and initial plans got underway to support the population that such a project would attract. The CPR erected a large hotel in St. Mary's Ontario on the Thames River, located between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. A huge Roman Catholic Church was built in Mount Carmel, a settlement only miles from St. Joseph. Cantin constructed the three-storey New Balmoral Hotel in St. Joseph and used it to entertain businessmen who could be potential sponsors of his seaway project. The Saint Joseph area was also home to a brickyard, a wine factory, a pipe organ factory and a carriage factory. The groundwork was laid for a boomtown.
In the meantime, Narcisse married a woman named Josephine and they relocated to Buffalo, New York where they resided for seven years. Upon their return to the St. Joseph area, the Cantin's had started a family which would total ten children in all. Narcisse became a devoted family man with a deep religious faith, evident in the fact that he named the town formerly known as Lakeview, after Saint Joseph.
In Cantin's master plan, he had proposed other canals including: one linking Port Dalhousie and the Port Colborne area; one linking Prescott and Ottawa; and one linking Lake Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean. Sound familiar? Yes, Narcisse Cantin was the original architect of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Unfortunately, certain events interrupted the entrepeneur's plans. The First World War stalled Cantin's plans as all materials were mobilized for the war effort. Then the government changed: the Conservatives canned Cantin's project and it would not see the light of day until the 1950's when the Saint Lawrence Seaway was finally constructed. Furthermore, Cantin's plan to finance his canal with profits from power projects along the Saint Lawrence River was dashed by competition from new investors in the 1920's and 1930's.
Saint Joseph, in the meantime, became a ghost town. The New Balmoral Hotel was demolished in 1920. The old organ factory is now a residential home. All that remains is the Roman Catholic Church. The St. Joseph & Area Historical Society will stage a play there this summer in honour of Narcisse Cantin written by Grand Bend resident, Paul Ciufo, the next-door neighbour of my parents. For ten nights in July, Saint Joseph will come alive, entertaining crowds as it did in the early 20th Century. And Narcisse Cantin will be smiling.
Photo courtesy www.stjosephmuseum.ca
Dates: July 19 - 30, 2011.
Time: 6:00 pm (Tuesdays - Fridays); 6:30 pm (Saturdays)
Place: St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph, Ontario (Highway 21 north of Grand Bend)