Peterborough Lift Lock

My job has afforded me the opportunity to travel to a number of places I’d never heard of before learning of the local auto part manufacturer. One such place has stuck in my heart for over 20 years. When I worked for a major manufacturer in Flint, Michigan I often traveled to a small town in the Kawarathas in Ontario called Peterborough. I had only heard of it before because of the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Former Detroit Red Wings greats Mickey Redmond (the greatest color commentator in the NHL), Larry Murphy, and Steve Yzerman, as well as the greatest NHL coach of all time, Scotty Bowman, all spent time in idyllic Peterborough.

The city is about 90 miles north east of Toronto or 300 miles from Detroit. I used to drive out in the morning, spend the day at the plant, and return in evening the next day. The region is part of cottage country, and it’s set amongst the hills and lakes of Ontario. At one time, Peterborough’s claim to fame was the electric industry, and they had the first electric street lights in all of Canada.

There are some ancient historical sites in the region, indicating the area was inhabited long before the British Parliament started an initiative to relocate poor Irish Catholic families with farming background from County Cork to the area in 1825. I need to revisit the area to get photos of Petroglyphs Provincial Park and the Serpent Mounds. The petroglyphs were carved by the Algonquin people around 1000AD and the mounds date back 2000 years to some of the first people to live in the area.

Trent Severn Waterway

None of the historical sights captured my interest like the Lift Lock.

Lift lock, note the east side is now raised.

Peterborough sits along the Trent-Severn Waterway. Wikipedia describes it as:

The total length of the waterway is 386 kilometres (240 mi), beginning at Trenton, Ontario, with roughly 32 kilometres (20 mi) of man-made channels. There are 44 locks, including 36 conventional locks, two sets of flight locks, hydraulic lift locks at Peterborough and Kirkfield, and a marine railway at Big Chute which transports boats between the upper and lower sections of the Severn. The system also includes 39 swing bridges and 160 dams and control structures that manage the water levels for flood control and navigation on lakes and rivers that drain approximately 18,600 square kilometres (7,182 sq mi) of central Ontario’s cottage country region, across four counties and three single-tier cities, an area that is home to more than a million Canadians.

I have been fascinated with the lift lock since I first saw it. The goal of a lock is to change the elevation of a vessel like a boat without it crashing down the side of a hill. We’ve all seen rapids, or even more violent water falls. The lift lock is designed to use gravity to move the basin of water containing boats from the top to the bottom, or vice versa. In this case, the change in elevation is 65 feet.

How it works

The Peterborough Lift Lock was started in 1896 and completed in 1904. It was the tallest in the world for years. It was the first lift lock built with concrete and at the time was the largest structure ever built in the world with unreinforced concrete. There is a road that goes through the structure just wide enough for one car.

Lift lock

The tunnel is at the level of the keyhole shaped window in the photo above. There is a walk way that allows one to stand looking out that window when the lift is in operation. It’s a sight to see, but beware, you will get wet.

Lift Lock
Lift lock

The say the weight of an extra foot of water on the higher basin or caisson is enough to lift the lower one, regardless of the number of boats. It’s all about displacement.

Control tower

There is an impressive museum or visitor’s center at the bottom with all manner of historical information about the site.

View from the top

It’s a long way down! One day I will convince somebody traversing it in their houseboat to let me tag along.

I can’t tell you how many colleagues and friends I’ve taken to the lift lock. I think it’s a must see sight for anyone in the area. Truly impressive what some engineers can accomplish.

~ Freddy


I'm an engineer, a veteran, and an avid traveler. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson - "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

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