In 1844, George Williams and a group of 11 colleagues began the organization known as the Young Men’s Christian Association in London, England. The Association grew as a lay, self-governing, voluntary organization, which sought to provide interesting and wholesome leisure-time activities for a small proportion of the thousands of young men who crowded English industrial centres, as a means of leading them to "the Christian way of life."
It was on November 25, 1851, that the first YMCA was organized in Canada. A group of young men met in the Sunday School Room at St. Helen Street Baptist Church in Montreal. The Association provided libraries, lecture series, and reading rooms as a means of religious and mental improvement in the lives of young men. One of the founders, T.J. Claxton was only 20 years of age, and many of his colleagues were under 25, forcing some community elders to lament,“If young men are to be the officers and to manage (the YMCA), nothing but mischief will result.” Over the next few years, Associations sprang up in Toronto, Halifax, Saint John and Charlottetown.
In 1859 the YMCA was founded in St. Catharines. James Mills, a local druggist, served as the first President. It commenced operations under considerable difficulties in rented rooms at 25 Hainer Street, which was located near the west end of the present Burgoyne Bridge in west St. Catharines. The Niagara Falls Y was established in 1889, Fort Erie in 1905 and Welland in 1907. Both the YMCA in Niagara Falls and Fort Erie began as "Railway Ys." Railway Ys were built along railway lines to serve workers by providing recreation, reading and writing rooms and accommodations. The first YMCA in Welland used the old Model School on Dorothy Street at Hellems Avenue.