Spirit of the Big Ditch: The Story of the Welland Canals in Pictures, Poems and Songs

Bridges 20 & 21, Port Colborne, ca. 1930
by Charles Walter Simpson 

Spirit of the Big Ditch The Story of the Welland Canals in Pictures, Poems and Songs, edited by Prof. Emeritus Rob Taylor of Brock University, author of 8 books and numerous articles on the 4 iterations of the Welland Canal.

  • an anthology of poems, songs and illustrations celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Mr. Merritt’s “Big Ditch.”
  • 45 poems and songs tell the story of the Welland Canals from 1824 to the present
  • full colour artwork reproductions, early photographs, and other illustrations
  • QR codes for each poem to access a recording of the poem or song on The Spirit of the Big Ditch website


Published by The Historical Society of St. Catharines, December 2023, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the 1st Welland Canal in 1824.

On the Death of Major-General Brock by J.H.R.

Push On, brave York Volunteers
by John David Kelly, 1896. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Low-bending o’er the rugged bier,
The soldier drops the mournful tear
For life departed, valor driven
Fresh from the fields of death to Heaven.

But time shall fondly trace the name
Of Brock, upon the scrolls of Fame,
And those bright laurels, which should wave
Upon the brow of one so brave
Shall flourish vernal o’er his grave.

Source: McCabe, Kevin.  (ed.) The Poetry of Old Niagara. St. Catharines: Blarney Stone Books, 1999. Previously published in F.B. Tupper (ed.) The Life and Correspondence of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock. 2nd ed. London, 1847. Poem is undated.

Composer and conductor Harris Loewen set this poem to music, with the score published by Renforth Music Publishing (New Brunswick) under the title Tears and Laurels. At the publisher’s request, the lyrics were slightly altered to create a version of the musical score that is non-specific, allowing it to function as an elegy for any war veteran. However, this recording was used on the publisher’s website. Many thanks to Prof. Loewen for permission to post this here.

Listen to Tears and Laurels 

Prof. Loewen writes: 

This track, as well as At Niagara Falls and Peaceful Niagara,* appear on the CD Voices of Niagara 5: Beauty is Before Me, the last in a choral CD series featuring music writing by Niagara composers. I believe that all the recordings in the series may still be available through the Dept. of Music at Brock University. Incidentally, John Butler’s choral arrangement of Macdonnell on the Heights (Stan Rogers) also appears on this CD.

You will notice that, coincidentally, all three pieces are originally written for male voices (although scores for other voicings are now also published). These tracks were all recorded, here in Niagara, by the combined male singers of Avanti Chamber Singers and the Brock University choirs. So, this is “home-grown” material in every sense.

At Niagara Falls and Peaceful Niagara were commissioned by the Niagara Men’s Chorus and premiered separately in two concerts in 2008. On the Death of General Brock (my original title) was written to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and premiered by a small male ensemble at the October 2012 Brock University Soiree, a fundraising event. The publication dates of the musical scores, by the way, do not reflect the date of composition.

*Peaceful Niagara is the name of the composition of Prof. Harris, using the poem Niagara in 1882 by John Macdonald.


Two songs composed by Harris Loewen

Harris Loewen

I just discovered that two
Niagara poems that are on the NFPP site have been set to music by Harris Loewen, a retired Brock University professor. For a delightful treat I’ve embedded the recordings to At Niagara Falls by Anson G. Chester and Niagara in 1882 by John Macdonald. The Macdonald poem was named Peaceful Niagara for Loewen’s choral version.


Thy Bells Deveaux (a song) by Thomas Vincent Welch and J. Ernest Rieger


Their tender tone o’er field and wood,
On summer wind now borne along;
With beating heart and eyes bedewed,
I hear once more their ev’ning song.

In many lands my feet have strayed,
Since I obeyed their vesper call;
When night winds stirred, in dreams I heard,
Their plaintive notes at evening’s fall.

Ring, ring, ring thy bells Deveaux
Ring o’er the cliffs thy bells Deveaux
Ring o’er field and wood as long ago;
Niag’ra’s murm’ring flood below
Ring o’er the cliffs thy bells Deveaux,
thy bells, thy bells, Deveaux

Once more a boy in forest dim,
I hear with joy their twilight hymn;
The toils of life, the joys we weep,
Our cares and sorrows ring to sleep.

O God from whom all blessings flow,
Protect thine hallow’d walls Deveaux,
And bells of heav’n, when life is past,
Call all thy children home at last.

Ring, ring, ring thy bells Deveaux
Ring o’er the cliffs thy bells Deveaux
Ring o’er field and wood as long ago;
Niag’ra’s murm’ring flood below
Ring o’er the cliffs thy bells Deveaux,
thy bells, thy bells, Deveaux

Source: Welch, Thomas Vincent (words) and Rieger, J. Ernest (music). Thy Bells Deveaux: Song for Soprano or Tenor and Mixed Quintette or Chorus. Niagara Falls, NY: J.E. Rieger, 1894

Many thanks to Lewis Buttery for bringing this song by Welch and Rieger to the NFPP curator’s attention.

The site of DeVeaux College is now owned by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, and is now the DeVeaux Woods State Park.

See the poem Chimes of De Veaux by Ada Elizabeth Fuller, to commemorate the installation of the new bells in 1913

Read more about the DeVeaux College Chimes

Visit the Big Daddy Dave blog post about DeVeaux School

Niagara in 1882 by John Macdonald

Queen’s Royal Hotel, Niagara-on-the-Lake, where Macdonald wrote this poem
undated postcard.
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

Suggested by a day of great quiet and beauty.

PEACEFUL is old Ontario,
‡‡Calm does Niagara flow,
Where hostile ships were sailing
‡‡Seventy years ago.

Peaceful the banks of the river
‡‡To-day compared with then,
Now clothed with the coming harvest,
‡‡Then bristling with armed men.

Silent is old Mississagua,
‡‡Niagara’s work is done,
No sound comes from its cannon
‡‡But the peaceful sunset gun.

And silent, too, are the heroes
‡‡Who sleep on either shore,
Who nobly fought for country
‡‡Here in the days of yore.

Here men still read the stories
‡‡Which the mural tablets tell.
Of brave ones who, for England,
‡‡By old Niagara fell.

But the strife is long forgotten,
‡‡And the battles long are o’er;
God grant that these great nations
‡‡May go to war no more.

God grant that these great nations
‡‡In peace may live alway,
As calm and as unruffled
‡‡As river and lake this day.

Macdonald wrote this poem at the Queen’s Royal Hotel, Niagara-on-the-Lake, June 24th, 1882

Source:  The Canadian Methodist Magazine, vol XVI, June to January, 1883

Many thanks to Arden Phair for referring this poem to the NFPP

Composer and conductor Harris Loewen set this poem to music in 2019,  as Peaceful Niagara, published by Cypress Choral Music. Listen to the composition on Soundcloud. Many thanks to Prof. Loewen for permission to post this here.