William Hamilton Merritt
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Merritt was born in Bedford in Westchester County, New York on July 3, 1793. His father, Thomas, fought as a United Empire Loyalist in the American Revolutionary War. After the revolution, the family resided in New Brunswick before returning to the U.S. In 1795, they moved to Upper Canada, settling on the Niagara Peninsula on the Twelve Mile Creek. Merritt attended school in Burlington, Ontario, studying mathematics and field surveying. Afterwards, he became a partner in a store at Shipman's Corners (now St. Catharines).
Just before the War of 1812, he sold his interest in the store and returned to his family's 200-acre (0.81 km2) farm on the creek. During the war, he joined the Second Lincoln Militia, stationed at Chippawa. He was a captain and leader of the volunteer dragoons throughout the war. During constant patrols along the Niagara River, an idea came to him for a canal to by-pass the Niagara Falls. He was captured during Battle of Lundy's Lane and held prisoner of war in Massachusetts until March 1815.
After the war, Merritt purchased 25 acres (100,000 m2) at Shipman's Corners, where he built a house and a store. He also sold goods in Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) and Queenston. In 1816, he bought a rundown sawmill on the Twelve Mile Creek, and added a grist mill and a store. His property had a salt spring, and Merritt began to manufacture salt at a time when it was still expensive.
The water levels in the creek varied considerably, creating difficulties for Merritt and his mill. In 1818, when the flow was especially low, Merritt pursued the idea of bringing water to his mills from the Chippawa Creek. The idea of a canal across the Niagara Peninsula was examined before, as early as 1799, but at that time the route for shipping materials in order to bypass Niagara Falls still occurred along a portage road. However, it is Merritt, and indirectly the lack of water for his mills, that is credited with realizing the idea.
On July 4, 1818, Merritt organized a meeting in St. Catharines. The outcome was a petition sent to Upper Canada Legislature to provide for construction of a canal between the Twelve Mile Creek and Chippawa Creek. Unlike Merritt's original water-canal plan, the petition included plans for allowing boats to cross the Niagara Escarpment. On January 19, 1824, an act of the Legislature formed the Welland Canal Company, with a capitalization of $150,000 and Merritt as the financial agent. As part of his fundraising duties, he travelled extensively, including the United States and Great Britain. He recruited Alfred Barrett as the chief engineer on the project.
Later, Merritt served in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada from 1832 to 1841 for Haldimand County. After the unification of Upper and Lower Canadas, he served in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada from 1841 to 1860 for Lincoln County. He supported free trade policies and transportation projects, including the first steel suspension bridge over the Niagara River. In 1860, he was elected to the Legislative Council in the Niagara Division.
In 1844, the residents of a community on the Welland Canal named Aqueduct, renamed their village Merrittsville to acknowledge the role of William Hamilton Merritt's enterprise in founding the hamlet. The road connecting Merrittsville to St. Catharines is to this day named Merrittville Highway. Merrittsville was later incorporated as the Village of Welland in 1858.
Ironically, Merritt died in 1862 aboard a ship near Cornwall. He is buried at the Victoria Lawn cemetery in St. Catharines, Ont.
His son, Thomas Rodman Merritt, was later a member of the Canadian House of Commons.