Heritage Moments: The immense constructions of the 20th century, and the workers who toiled within

May 7, 2018

We take it for granted, but here on the Niagara Frontier we are surrounded by vast industrial projects of almost unimaginable scale — monstrous factories, massive powerhouses, enormous tunnels, gigantic canals — all crisscrossing around and beneath us. We don’t even remember they’re there, these relics of a bygone era, but when we finally notice them and look, their sheer size is intimidating, overpowering, frightening.


Locks 5 & 6 of the Welland Canal under construction, Thorold, 1924. Workers are visible at lower left.
Credit St. Catharines Museum

Somebody had to build and work in these gargantuan 20th-century industrial projects that altered the very geology of the land, and somebody did: the men and women of this region. Every day they toiled at backbreaking, often repetitive jobs that required maximum attention, all to provide for themselves and their families. So leviathan was the scale of their workplaces, so dangerous the nature of their occupations, that one false move could mean disaster. A mistaken step near a blast furnace, a loose piece of clothing alongside a conveyor belt, a cry of warning unheard amid the infernal din, a broken chain, a landslide, an explosion — and it could all be over in a flash. For the industrial laborers of the Niagara Frontier, crippling injury and death were common workplace companions.

Bethlehem Steel plant, Lackawanna, 1973.
Credit Photograph by George Burns, EPA; National Archives ID

The death toll on some of the largest projects is appalling. It cost 137 lives to build the current version of the Welland Canal. That massive undertaking (to move hulking ships 27 miles over the Niagara Escarpment through eight locks at a minimum depth of 25 feet) took 18 years to complete, from 1914 to 1932. The list of workmen’s deaths is a grim catalogue of horror: “drowned; dumping car”, “electrocuted; power wire”, “fall from trestle”, “blow by bucket”, “buried in sand”, “crushed by crane boom”, “run over by train”, and on and on. Their stories are heartbreaking too: Elzéar Lynch and his son, Leo, killed in the same 1925 accident; Michael Onyschuk, father of six, killed in his first hour on the job; James West, buried in an unmarked grave.

Accident tally board from Bethlehem Steel, now at the Steel Plant Museum of Western New York.
Credit Jeff Z. Klein

So it was at the mammoth Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, one of the largest in the world, where 171 workers died in the 32 years between 1924 and 1956 alone. Fatal accidents were commonplace at the region’s many other large plants and factories. One of the worst single accidents occurred in 1942 at the huge Curtiss-Wright airplane plant in Cheektowaga, which turned out thousands of World War II fighter planes for the U.S. and its allies. One of the plant’s P-40s caught fire on a training flight over the Buffalo airport; after the pilot bailed out, the plane crashed through the factory roof, killing 14 workers.

Plaque commemorating the 1942 Curtiss-Wright plant disaster, in the long-term parking lot at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport.
Credit Jeff Z. Klein

To supply the world’s first publicly owned hydroelectric plant, Ontario Power Generation diverted the Welland River and ran it through the nine-mile-long Queenston-Chippawa Power Canal, carved through sheer rock between 1917 and 1921 by what were then the largest steam shovels on the planet. While building that, as well as the power plant completed in 1930 and now known as Sir Adam Beck No. 1, 90 men died. More workers lost their lives between 1950 and 1958 building Sir Adam Beck No. 2, then the largest hydroelectric plant on earth, and the twin six-mile-long tunnels that supply it. Across the gorge on the U.S. side from 1957 to 1961, some 12,000 workers built the Niagara Power Project, which supplanted Sir Adam Beck as the world’s largest hydro plant; 20 of them died.

It’s important that we remember the laborers who lost their lives in these titanic public works projects and factories of the 20th century — and, by extension, every man and woman who toiled in them. We do a better job of it on the Canadian side, where monuments and ceremonies for fallen workers have proliferated in recent years, than we do on the American side. But it is a step forward merely to become aware of what it took for the workingmen and women of the Niagara Frontier to make this place, and to remember their names.

The Gates of Remembrance, bearing the names of 137 men who died building the Welland Canal. Fallen Workers Memorial, St. Catharines.
Credit Photo by Michele Rouse via Twitter, @Maggie8088

Cast (in order of appearance):
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)