John DeCew, George Keefer and the Welland Canal Gamble
By Alun Hughes

When John DeCew and George Keefer accompanied William Hamilton Merritt on the first Welland Canal survey in 1818 [Niagara This Week, May 28] they were moved by more than a simple desire to help. That had to be part of it, of course, for the three were probably personal friends, and lending a hand to a neighbour was an established part of life in Upper Canada. But they were motivated also by the prospect of financial gain, for a canal linking Lakes Erie and Ontario would transform the economy of the Niagara Peninsula.

Merritt himself had no doubts on the matter. He wanted a consistent water supply for his mills on Twelve Mile Creek, he wanted access to water transport for his goods, and he wanted a share in the prosperity that a canal would bring. Writing in 1824, with canal construction about to commence, he said, "I consider I will be richly paid in the enhanced value of my property," and he was right. Merritt more than anyone else made the canal, and the canal in turn made Merritt, turning a moderately successful miller/storekeeper into one of the wealthiest persons in the area.

But any major project involves risks, and not everyone comes out a winner. So it was with John DeCew and George Keefer. Both were strong backers of the Welland Canal at the start, but only one of them benefitted in the long run.

DeCew and Keefer had a lot in common. Their ancestors were displaced Huguenots - French Protestants who were forced to flee their homeland to escape persecution. The DeCews went to England and the Keefers to Germany, and eventually both families emigrated to America. Their fathers were Loyalists who fought for the Crown in the American Revolutionary War, possibly for the same unit, the New Jersey Volunteers.

DeCew was born in 1766 and came to the Peninsula in about 1787; Keefer was seven years younger and arrived three years later. They both acquired land on the brow of the Escarpment in northern Thorold, DeCew in the vicinity of DeCew Falls (he also owned adjacent land in Grantham), and Keefer where Thorold townsite now stands.

They became important members of the community, serving in various official capacities in the township of Thorold (DeCew as assessor, collector and warden, Keefer as collector and warden). Their names appear on the list of subscribers to the first church in St. Catharines in 1796, and they were among the original "proprieters" of the Niagara Library in 1800. They both took teenage brides called Catherine, Keefer in 1797, DeCew in 1798.

They prospered in business. DeCew farmed and operated grist, oil and saw mills on Beaverdams Creek, and before the War of 1812 he erected the handsome stone house to which Laura Secord trudged prior to the Battle of Beaverdams. After the war DeCew's land became the site of the village of DeCew Town. Meanwhile Keefer worked as a farmer, distiller and storekeeper (his first advertisement - "for sale 200 smoked hams" - appeared in 1819). He is also said to have been a miller, but hard evidence for this is lacking.

Both were officers in the 2nd Regiment, Lincoln and saw action in the War of 1812, though precisely how much is uncertain. DeCew was captured by the Americans just before the Battle of Beaverdams, and spent a year as a prisoner before escaping in 1814.

When Merritt proposed the idea of a canal DeCew and Keefer came immediately on board. They assisted with the 1818 survey, and when the project eventually got underway in 1823 they were among the first investors and directors. Indeed, Keefer was elected President of the Welland Canal Company, and it was he who turned the first sod at New Holland (later Allanburg) when construction began in November.

Only two years later, however, John DeCew withdrew his support and demanded his money back. The reason? - a crucial change in route. Originally the canal was to run north west from New Holland and descend the Escarpment near DeCew Falls. Canal water would drive DeCew's mills, and would lead to further industrial development on his lands. But a decision to enlarge the canal to permit schooner navigation made that route impracticable, and a route north from New Holland was substituted.

In previous years George Keefer had been cannily buying lots close to the original route in the Beaverdams area. All that effort now became academic, for the new route ran directly through land he already owned. In 1827, though serious doubts still existed about completion of the canal, he went out on a limb and built a stone grist mill along the proposed line. He was granted free water in perpetuity as a reward for his enterprise, and once the canal was opened in 1829 his mill became the focus of the "new village of Thorold."

DeCew was left - literally - high and dry. Not only did the canal come nowhere near his property, but it further reduced the water supply to his mills. He became an implacable opponent of Merritt and the Welland Canal Company, and in 1832 ran (vindictively and unsuccessfully) against his former colleague for election to the Legislative Assembly.

He petitioned the government for damages caused by the canal, and in 1836 was awarded £625, a significant amount for those days. Two years earlier he had abandoned Thorold for North Cayuga township, and the money no doubt helped him get re-established. There he became involved in farming, milling, glass-making and lime manufacture, and again his land became the site of a small community, this time called DeCewsville.

He died in DeCewsville in 1855, three years before George Keefer, who had remained in Thorold. Both gentlemen had gambled on the canal. At first the odds strongly favoured DeCew, but in the end it was Keefer who came through, sadly at DeCew's expense.

© Alun Hughes 2004

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