CANADIAN-AMERICAN WATERWAYS. The history of the boundary waters that flow along and across the borders of the United States and Canada reflects the status of the relationship between the dominant societies on either side of this border.
Soon after the establishment of competing English and French societies in North America, the waterways—the St. Lawrence Bay and River, Lake Champlain and the adjacent lakes that fed into and merged with it, and later the Great Lakes and western waters like the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers—were routes for isolated raids, military attacks, and even major campaigns.
The waterways continued to be used as military highways through the War of 1812. During the four colonial wars in North America, there were frequent efforts to isolate French Canada by controlling the entrance into the St. Lawrence River and to threaten Montreal through the Lake Champlain waterways. The French were moving west for the fur trade, and their presence at the headwaters of the Ohio River (modern-day Pittsburgh) helped precipitate the last of these wars. During the American Revolutionary War, Americans attempted to attack north, and the British general John Burgoyne unsuccessfully attempted to move down the lakes, with complementary attacks coming down the Mohawk River Valley and up the Hudson, to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. In the War of 1812, the United States fought against Britain and Canada on the Great Lakes, near modern-day Detroit, across the Niagara frontier, and toward Montreal.
Then came the Rush-Bagot Convention of 1817 that neutralized the U.S.-Canadian border and hence the boundary waters. Americans and Canadians alike now take for granted the world's longest undefended border, which, in its eastern half, consists mostly of waterways.
As the pace of settlement and industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century brought people to the great middle of the continent, interest turned to the transportation potential of these waters. Over the years, the two countries have turned from competition to cooperation. Upper Canadian interests, for example, built the Well and Canal connecting Lakes Ontario and Erie to counter the Erie Canal through New York. America opened Lake Superior during the Civil War via canals near Sault Sainte Marie. But despite positive rhetoric, both nations favored economic competition over cooperation.
It took from the 1890s to 1954 to reach agreement, but eventually the U.S. Congress agreed to a 1951 Canadian proposal to construct the St. Lawrence Seaway, opening the border waters to oceangoing vessels. More recently, transportation and navigation have played a decreasing role in Canadian-American waterway considerations; more important are issues of pollution, water supply, flood control, and hydroelectric power. The two countries concluded the Water Quality Agreement in 1978, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1987, and initiated another effort ten years later to clean up the Great Lakes. The North American Free Trade Agreement in 1988 has helped increase the flow of goods and services across this border, and thus Americans and Canadians take the border even more for granted—a far cry from its early days of providing easier means of invasion for armed parties of French Canadians and English Americans.
Classen, H. George. Thrust and Counterthrust: The Genesis of the Canada–United States Boundary. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967.
LesStrang, Jacques. Seaway: The Untold Story of North America's Fourth Seacoast. Seattle: Superior, 1976.
Willoughby, William R. The St. Lawrence Waterway: A Study in Politics and Diplomacy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.