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Articles Blog

The St. Lawrence Seaway

Karyn Planett

From The Great Lakes to the Sea 

This massive project, undertaken by the Canadian and American governments, has served as the key to unlocking the natural travel and trade barriers along the St. Lawrence River. Known as the St. Lawrence Seaway, it has opened the doors for pleasure craft and container ships to travel deep into the continent, unstoppable now by rapids and rivers too narrow or too shallow.           

The St. Lawrence Seaway has paved the way for commerce and recreation all the way from the heartland of Canada and America to the steel gray waters of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. An engineering marvel. An architect’s dream. The Seaway reshaped the region’s geography as well as the world’s economy. Its story follows. 

A Long Time Coming 

Since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1904 (measuring a mere 51-miles long), nothing on this scale has been attempted anywhere in the world. Here are some amazing statistics about the St. Lawrence Seaway: 

•            22,000 laborers worked on the Seaway.

•            It took four years to complete.

•            The machinery alone cost $70,000,000.

•            Five lakes drain into this body of water.

•            A quarter of a million cubic feet of water flows every second to the sea from the St.      Lawrence River (enough to permit each American to shower more than five dozen times daily).

•            The Seaway stretches 2,342 miles.

•            From Montreal to Lake Ontario (183 miles) the St. Lawrence rises 224 feet.

•            The Seaway is divided into five sections: Lachine, Soulanges, Lake St. Francis, International Rapids, and Thousand Islands.

•            The St. Lawrence Seaway was officially dedicated in 1959 by President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II.

•            The US and Canadian economies are now closely tied – 80% of Quebec’s foreign exports go to the US. In return 45% of its imports come from the US.           

Most of the St. Lawrence has always been navigable. The problem has been areas that were narrow or shallow that turned calm waters into roiling rapids. For the French priests living in the area during the 1700s, the solution was to construct small canals that were capable of handling boats and canoes. Larger ships, however, were unable to pass.           

A series of locks followed that allowed bigger boats through. But, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that a vessel of any substantial size could navigate the St. Lawrence River all the way to Lake Ontario from the Atlantic. Beyond Lake Ontario there were the Sault Ste. Marie and Welland Locks that permitted passage even deeper into the other Great Lakes.           

With the opening of the full complement of the Seaway’s locks and canals, cities like Chicago and Duluth were closer to, say, Liverpool than Florida or Louisiana. And Ohio became a competitive trading partner for Europe, in lieu of some eastern ports such as Baltimore. In the early days grain, coal, wood, and iron ore were among those commodities loaded aboard ships plying the St. Lawrence.           

To sum up the importance of this extraordinary Seaway, realize that more than 8,000 miles of coastline became accessible to sizeable vessels, shifting the balance of trade dramatically. 

It Wasn’t Easy To Build 

In fact, one of the most difficult factors the construction crews had to face was the long, cold winter. Ice crusted over the frozen river and temperatures dipped as low as 35 degrees below zero! The workers had to wear protective gear, including gloves so their fingers wouldn’t freeze to the tools. Even the machinery failed in this weather.           

Not to be outsmarted by Mother Nature, however, the fellows pouring concrete would heat the sand, water and gravel mixture before pouring it into heated forms. This kept the concrete from freezing before it could set.           

A Mr. Martin W. Oettershagen, speaking on behalf of the U.S. St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, said, “the St. Lawrence commands respect.” And respect it they did as the teams worked with 19-foot tides, hot and humid summers, and bone-chilling winters to overcome rapids, waterfalls, and underwater hazards. Their reward was not only a wonderfully successful waterway project but also the added bonus of hydroelectric power. Enough, in fact, to light major cities in the area.

All in all, the St. Lawrence Seaway has been very, very good for both the United States and Canada, not to mention the rest of the world.