Biography of Hon. William H. Merritt
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A Biography of William Hamilton Merritt, of more than four hundred pages, has been published by his eldest son living, J. P. Merritt; therefore we propose to give only a brief sketch of his life in this work briefer than would otherwise seem to answer our purpose. His father, Thomas Merritt, a Loyalist of the revolutionary time, and a cornet in the regiment known as Simcoe’s “Queen’s Rangers,” married Mary Hamilton, of South Carolina, left the United States with other Royalists for New Brunswick in 1783; removed to Canada in 1793, and it was while on this journey that our subject was born in the State of New York, on the 3rd of July 17 93. The family settled on the Twelve-mile Creek, in the old Niagara District. Here the boy, then three years old, grew to manhood, and made his history. He commenced his education under Mr. Cockerell, at Burlington, now Hamilton, continuing his studies at Niagara, and received a slight classical polishing at the hands of Rev. John Burns. At fifteen years of age he visited St. John, N. B., where he had relatives, and where he studied surveying, algebra, trigonometry and other useful branches.
In June 1812, when the United States declared war against Great Britain, he immediately drew his sword, having just received a Lieutenant’s commission. Three months later he was a Major; and, at the battle of Queenston Heights, October 13, 1812, holding the position of commander of militia cavalry of Upper Canada, he was deputed by Gen. Sheafe to receive the swords of the American officers captured. He was in other engagements, including those at Stony Creek and Lundy’s Lane, and during the latter engagement was taken prisoner.
At the close of the war Mr. Merritt returned to St. Catharines; went into the commercial trade in company with another man, and continued in trade until 1819.
In 1818 he had a survey made of the land from the south branch of the Twelve-mile Creek, now Allanburgh, due south two miles to the Chippawa, in order to see if it was feasible to supply his mill by means of a canal with a full supply of water from the latter stream. This apparently trifling undertaking, finally suggested to Mr. Merritt the more gigantic enterprise of connecting the waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, by means of a canal. This grand idea the Welland canal, which he conceived, was commenced in November, 1824, and completed in November 1829. It was the pioneer enterprise of the kind in Upper Canada. But Mr. Merritt’s spirit was indomitable; he had noble coadjutors in the work, and it was done, giving Mr. Merritt a red letter page of unsurpassed brilliancy in the history of Canadian enterprise.
In 1832 Mr. Merritt was elected to parliament for Haldimand; was placed on the finance committee, and served several years in that body, becoming chairman of the committee just mentioned in January 1838. As a legislator he looked well to the interests of the Welland canal; was a strong advocate of internal improvements generally; took broad and statesman like views of all subjects coming up for consideration, and was one of the most industrious and useful members of parliament. He was a strong advocate of the union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, a measure which was effected in 1841.
During the period of his legislative career, the rebellion occurred (1837-38) but Mr. Merritt entered into none of the military proceedings, designating the attempt at revolution as the “Monkey War.”
In 1840, Mr. Merritt, who had long been a director of the Welland canal, was again elected president of the company, and continued to work with the utmost diligence for its interests He was rightly regarded as the father of that grand public work. He favored the building of the Welland railway, which now runs along beside the canal, knowing that both would aid in the development of the country. He took a liberal and comprehensive view of all such matters, and labored untiringly to promote the welfare of Canada until his death, which occurred on the 5th of July 1862.
Thomas Rodman Merritt, the youngest of the three sons who grew to manhood, was educated at Grantham academy and Upper Canada college; was a merchant at St. Catharines from 1844 to 1846; a miller for the next twenty-three years; a director of the Niagara District bank for more than twenty years; a member of the Dominion parliament from 1868 to 1874; and is now managing director of the Welland railway, vice-president of the Imperial Bank, and president of two or three local corporations or societies. “Rodman Hall,” his home, is one of the most elegant residences in the Niagara peninsula.