Highway H2O

April 4, 2009 by D'Arcy Jenish
Construction of a diversion canal at Cornwall, Ont. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C-022733]

Construction of a diversion canal at Cornwall, Ont.

Jim Coke graduated from Montreal’s McGill University in 1953 with a degree in electrical engineering, worked for a year and in the spring of 1954 embarked on a backpacking tour of western Europe with a friend. As Coke tells it, they spent the summer sleeping in fields and barns when they couldn’t find an appropriate bed and headed for home when they ran out of money. The young engineer returned to Montreal just in time to land a job on what was arguably the biggest Canadian construction project of the postwar era—the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway. “It was totally exciting,” recalls Coke, who spent 17 years in the operating and maintenance department of the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority before joining the Department of Public Works in Ottawa. “There have been huge projects since then, but I don’t know whether there’s been anything as big.”

Some might even argue that the seaway ranks as one of greatest public works in Canadian history. In the space of four years, an army of 20,000 men and women designed and built a network of locks, canals, shipping channels and bridges between Montreal and the Ontario riverside town of Iroquois, 150 kilometres to the west. The small, quiet communities of the St. Lawrence were flooded overnight with workers and their families from across the country. Hotels and boarding houses let every available room and schools were bursting with the new faces of children whose fathers were employed on the project. “It was a great time to be growing up,” recalls Carol Potts, a retired nurse and president of the Cornwall, Ont., Historical Society. “The streets were so crowded you could hardly walk. You couldn’t find a parking space downtown.”

Adding to the excitement was the launch of another megaproject that would be built at the same time. On Aug. 10, 1954, a sod-turning ceremony at Cornwall and Massena, N.Y., marked the construction of a massive hydroelectric project on the St. Lawrence. To make room for the dam and a huge headpond, more than 500 dwellings and approximately 6,500 people were relocated to higher ground. Many other farms and seven towns were submerged. (The Lost Villages, May/June 2003).

The seaway itself was built at a cost of $475 million and it completely transformed the marine transportation industry in Canada. It allowed ocean-going vessels to sail 3,680 kilometres inland, or halfway across the country. They could travel from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario, through the previously constructed Welland Canal that links Lakes Ontario and Erie and, from there, all the way to Thunder Bay, Ont., Duluth, Minn., Green Bay, Wis., Chicago, Ill. and other ports of the upper Great Lakes.

A vessel inside the Iroquois, Ont., Lock. [PHOTO: C. LUND, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA111548]

A vessel inside the Iroquois, Ont., Lock.

With the lift provided by the seven locks of the seaway and the eight of the Welland Canal, 730-foot-long ships could climb from sea level to an elevation of 182 metres on Lake Superior, the rough equivalent of 60 storeys.

Queen Elizabeth II, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended the official opening since the seaway was a bi-national project, with five locks located in Canadian waters and two in American. The ceremony was held June 26, 1959, at the St. Lambert Lock, which is the first in the system and is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence opposite downtown Montreal. Almost every member of Parliament attended and so did American congressmen and senators, mayors of Great Lakes ports, shipping executives and some 20,000 ordinary citizens.

The Queen proclaimed the seaway “one of the outstanding engineering accomplishments of modern times,” while the U.S. president declared it “a magnificent symbol to the entire world of the achievements possible to democratic nations peacefully working together for the common good.”

The seaway celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2009 and the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, the private sector users’ group that now runs the waterway, has planned a number of events to mark the occasion. And, by any yardstick, it is a half century worthy of observation. “We’re celebrating because the seaway has been an enormous success,” says SLSMC president Richard Corfe. “It was built to get western grain exports to market, to move iron ore from Quebec and Labrador upriver and to make our industries more efficient.”

Prior to its construction, wheat and other Prairie grains were moving from Thunder Bay to the lower St. Lawrence and onto ocean-going vessels. And iron ore was shipped up the St. Lawrence and eventually to the steel mills of Hamilton, Cleveland and other Great Lakes manufacturing centres. But the movement of these bulk commodities was hampered by an inefficient and outdated set of canals and locks on the St. Lawrence that were built in the late 19th century.

This waterway was a mere 14 feet deep and could only handle vessels known as canallers, which were up to 250 feet in length. By comparison, the present Welland Canal, completed in 1932, was 25 feet deep and could accommodate lakers 730 feet in length. Grain destined for world markets came down in these larger ships, but had to be unloaded in Toronto, Kingston or Prescott and then re-loaded onto canallers for the journey to terminals on the lower St. Lawrence. Likewise, iron ore from Sept-Îles and Port Cartier on the Quebec north shore could come upriver in large vessels as far as Sorel and Contrecour below Montreal. Then it had to be unloaded at waterfront terminals and placed in canallers in order to continue the journey westward.

A view of construction near Long Sault, Ont. [PHOTO: ARCHIVES OF ONTARIO—RG 65-35-3, 11764-X2932]

A view of construction near Long Sault, Ont.
PHOTO: ARCHIVES OF ONTARIO—RG 65-35-3, 11764-X2932

With the opening of the seaway, this inefficient transportation system became obsolete. Its locks, canals and channels were built to the same specifications as those of the Welland Canal. Starting in the spring of 1959, the big lakers could sail all the way from Thunder Bay to Sept-Îles or Port Cartier with a load of grain and make a return trip with cargo holds bulging with iron ore. Ships that set sail from Liverpool or Rotterdam could deliver goods to customers in Detroit, Chicago or other Great Lakes centres. “The volume of goods moving on the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes grew enormously,” says Corfe. “We went from about 25 million tonnes in 1959 to 77 million two decades later.”

Veteran mariners and riverside residents alike were startled by the changes wrought by the seaway. “We were used to seeing smaller ships—the canallers,” says Bill McNairn, a retired Cornwall pastor who was in his late teens at the time. “We’d go out in a little 16-foot fishing boat to watch the big ships come through. You felt like you were next to the Titanic.”

“Everything that could float came up in 1959,” recalls Robert Stevenson, a retired captain who lives in St. Catharines, Ont. “A U.S. Navy task force went up as far as Chicago just to show the colours. There must have been 60 ships. They had landing craft, three submarines and destroyers. The flagship was the cruiser Macon. It barely got through the locks.”

It wasn’t long, in fact, before the seaway was literally choking on its own success. The Welland Canal became a serious impediment. The shipping channel that crossed the Niagara Peninsula was only 180 feet wide whereas the canals on the St. Lawrence and channels dredged out of the river bottom were 350 feet wide. It had too many bends and turns, and it passed through the City of Welland where six bridges had to be raised or swung open every time a ship passed.

The result, by the early 1960s, was massive congestion at the Lake Ontario and Lake Erie entrances to the canal. “We had upwards of 50 ships a day lined up at anchor at Port Weller and Port Colborne,” says John Kroon, who worked for the seaway from 1956 until 1995. “Sometimes they were there for days.”

The St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, the crown corporation then responsible for managing both sections of the waterway, launched several initiatives to deal with the problem. The authority hired consultants who developed a modern and effective traffic control system. Seaway engineers began to design a new canal, with locks capable of accommodating 1,000-foot ships that would run parallel to the existing infrastructure from Lake Ontario to the summit of the Niagara escarpment. They also went to work on a new 141⁄2-kilometre shipping channel that would be wider and deeper than the old one and would bypass the city of Welland altogether.

Construction at the St. Lambert Lock near Montreal. [PHOTO: ST. LAWRENCE SEAWAY MANAGEMENT CORPORATION]

Construction at the St. Lambert Lock near Montreal.

The canal project never advanced beyond preliminary designs, but the Welland Canal Bypass was built and it stands as the biggest capital project of the seaway’s first 50 years. In May 1966, the Seaway began acquiring the 6,500 acres of land required for the new channel. It was finished in late 1972 and by then some 4,000 people had worked on it. Rail lines belonging to three companies had to be relocated and 160 kilometres of new track installed. Two huge underpasses were built for trains and motor vehicles, which would allow ships to navigate the new channel unimpeded by bridges. The larger of these sub-surface structures was 1,080 feet long, 1161⁄2 feet wide and 35 feet high. As well, the Welland River had to be diverted and made to flow under the bypass in enormous concrete siphons that could handle maximum flows of 12,000 cubic feet of water per second.

Mariners were delighted with the changes, and the Seaway Authority declared in its 1973 annual report that the bypass was a “marvel of engineering expertise,” a claim that few would dispute.

Meantime, the opening of the seaway precipitated an equally profound change in the country’s marine transport industry. Until 1959, most of the country’s major shipping companies, in effect, operated two fleets—the lakers which sailed on the Great Lakes and canallers that plied the waters of the St. Lawrence. The seaway made the canallers obsolete, virtually overnight, and unleashed one of the biggest shipbuilding booms in Canadian history.

It began in the early 1960s and shipyards located in Lauzon, Que., as well as the Ontario communities of Midland, Collingwood, Thunder Bay and Kingston launched one big vessel after another, most of them 730 feet long and 76 feet wide, the maximum then allowable under seaway regulations. Montreal-based Canada Steamship Lines built the Murray Bay, the English River and the Fort Chambly, among others, while Algoma Central Marine of St. Catharines commissioned the Sir Denys Lowson, the Roy A. Jodrey and the Agawa Canyon, to cite a few.

The building boom ended in the early 1980s just as a severe recession hit North America. The downturn cut into the volume of bulk goods moving on the seaway and it was just the start of a prolonged period of economic and political upheaval that further reduced the shipments. Grain and iron ore—the seaway’s two staple commodities—were especially hard hit. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 led to an American embargo on grain exports to the U.S.S.R. The steel industry in the United States went through a major re-structuring and closed numerous mills in Ohio and other northeastern states.

In the mid-1980s, the Canadian government began subsidizing Prairie grain shipments that moved west in order to boost traffic at the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert. At the same time, world markets for cereal crops were changing. Longtime importing nations in eastern and western Europe were becoming self-sufficient or exporting, while demand in the Asia-Pacific began to grow. Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the straitened financial circumstances of many East Bloc countries led to steep declines in purchases of Canadian grain.

A vessel transits the St. Lawrence Seaway. [PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/troyerimages]

A vessel transits the St. Lawrence Seaway.
PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/troyerimages

By the late 1980s, the total annual movement of goods on the seaway had fallen nearly 50 per cent to below 40 million tonnes, but that devastating decline had a galvanizing effect on the organization itself. Successive presidents, starting with Glen Stewart in 1990, concluded that the Seaway needed to be leaner and more efficient and today it employs about 600 people, which is down from over 1,100 during the first three decades of operations. There have been large investments in improved technology, including the world’s most advanced traffic control system for marine transport.

The organization has aggressively marketed the system in order to attract new cargos and users. Senior executives have led trade missions to Europe, Brazil, China and elsewhere. For several years, starting in 1990, an incentive tolls program offered new and existing users volume discounts. Since the spring of 2003, the seaway—with support from port authorities, shipping companies and its U.S. counterpart, the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation—has billed the waterway as Highway H2O, and it has been pushing the environmental advantages of shipping over trucks and trains.

Despite these efforts, the seaway remains underutilized. In recent years, it has operated at about 60 per cent of capacity. The Highway H2O partners are working hard to change that and to ensure that the St. Lawrence Seaway remains an integral part of Canada’s transportation infrastructure. The advantages of marine transport, they say, are clear. One seaway-max vessel can carry as much cargo as 870 transport trucks or three, 100-car unit trains. “Moving goods on the water reduces fuel consumption, produces fewer emissions and eases congestion,” says Corfe. “That’s good for communities. It’s good for society.”

And that’s a message he will repeat often this year as the seaway celebrates its 50th anniversary and prepares for the future.


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