Saint Lawrence Seaway

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When Queen Elizabeth II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (19531961), and other dignitaries gathered at the U.S. and Canadian border in June 1959 to officially open the St. Lawrence Seaway, it was the culmination of a project that had been discussed for almost 70 years. Ships could now travel along all of the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence River, and into the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way were such prominent U.S. port cities as Milwaukee, Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo. Following years of study and opposition by competing interests and in the U.S. Congress, joint Canadian and U.S construction on the final phase of the Seaway began in 1954. It would cost nearly $500 million and require the relocation of 6,500 citizens on both sides of the border before the Seaway officially opened in 1959. At over 2,300 miles the St. Lawrence Seaway linked North America's industrial heartland to the rest of the world's markets, serving as a boon to commercial shippers. However, both nations have lost money on the project over the years.

Canals had been built along the St. Lawrence River as far back as the 1680s (the river was named by explorer Jacques Cartier in honor of the saint on whose feast day Cartier discovered the waterway in 1535). These canals made it easier for fur traders centered in and around Montreal to ship their wares. In 1824 what is now known as the Lachine Canal was completed, linking Montreal with Lake St. Louis. Just a year later, however, New York's Erie Canal opened, attracting much of the region's shipping traffic, as it provided a shorter route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, as well as access to New York City through the Hudson River. Nonetheless the St. Lawrence River remained an important shipping route, especially to Great Britain.

In the 1890s Minnesota Congressman John Lind sponsored a resolution to look into a joint Canadian-American waterway which linked Lake Superiorthe westernmost Great Lake, which extends to Duluth, Minnesotawith the Atlantic Ocean. The St. Lawrence River was deemed to be the most feasible route. By 1900 a network of shallow canals already made it possible to travel from Lake Superior all the way to Montreal. Between 1912 and 1932 the Welland Canal, which a century earlier linked Lake Erie to Lake Ontario (located north of Ohio and western New York) was rebuilt to support the heavy traffic.

In 1921 a joint commission issued a report recommending that the United States and Canada enter into a treaty to improve passage through the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Lake Ontario. The cost of building the Seaway, the report said, would be proportional according to each country's benefits. But interests such as railroads, which were in competition with the shipping industry, opposed the seaway project. In 1932 Canadian Prime Minister R. B. Bennett and U.S. President Herbert Hoover (19291933) signed a treaty which agreed to build a seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. Both nations would share the work and costs involved. The U.S. Senate, however, rejected the treaty in 1934.

The issue remained unsettled until the early 1950s, when vast fields of iron ore were discovered in Canada. A complete seaway along the St. Lawrence was supported as the best way to transport the ore to U.S. and Canadian steel mills. Others suggested such a passageway would also offer military advantages. As his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) had been, President Harry S. Truman (19451953) was in favor of the seaway project. But both the U.S House of Representatives and the Senate resisted approval of St. Lawrence Seaway bills. Canada, it appeared, would move ahead with the project on its own. However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with advocates in both houses of the U.S. Congress, successfully passed a bill to jointly build the St. Lawrence Seaway with Canada in 1954.

According to the original bill the Seaway would ultimately pay for itself through tolls paid by shippers. The project cost Canada $336.5 million and the United States $133.8 million. A separate project to harness the seaway for electrical power cost each nation an additional $300 million. The construction would ultimately require entire towns and villages to be relocated and about 40,000 acres of farmland in both countries was flooded. In early 1959 both countries agreed to share toll revenues roughly proportionate to the amount they spent on construction.

The St. Lawrence Seaway was officially opened on June 26, 1959, though the waterway had actually been operating for a full three months to assess any potential problems. In its first year almost 19 million metric tons of cargo passed through the Seaway, a figure that climbed to 30 million in 1964, 40 million in 1966, and 50 million in 1973. A high of over 57 million metric tons was reached in 1977. The one-billionth metric ton of cargo passed through the Seaway in June 1983, a year before the Seaway would celebrate its 25th anniversary.

The Seaway, however, has not been the revenue producer both countries thought it would be and, because it invested more money, Canada's losses have been higher. Supporters of the Seaway believed general and bulk cargo would be shipped along the route in large quantities. But the development of container ships whose cargo can be carried just as easily by train or truck has made the route primarily one for bulk cargo, such as grains and minerals, reducing potential business. Into the 1980s and 1990s different combinations of toll hikes and reductions were used to encourage use and increase revenue. Nonetheless, in the early 1990s the Seaway had created over 44,000 jobs and generated nearly $2 billion annually in personal income. Meanwhile, the Seaway's hydroelectric power project, at the Moses-Saunders Dam between Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York, supplied 1.6 million kilowatts of electricity to the surrounding area. In 1993 the Seaway registered its first total tonnage increase in five years, with almost 32 million metric tons floating through the Seaway. But this 2 percent increase was little more than half of the high achieved in 1977. However, into the mid-1990s annual tonnage shipped through the Seaway was increasing, moving closer to 40 million.


Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, s.v. "Saint Lawrence Seaway."

Dictionary of American History. New York: Scribner's, 1976, s.v. "Saint Lawrence Seaway."

Gibbons, Gail. The Great St. Lawrence Seaway. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1992.

"Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway System," [cited May 25, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @

Willis, Terri. St. Lawrence River and Seaway. New York: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1994.

1945), 1940">

[a]long with its benefits to national defense (a great lakes seaway) will contribute to the peacetime welfare of a multitude of laborers, small businessmen, homeowners and farmers.

franklin d. roosevelt, president (19331945), 1940

Saint Lawrence Seaway

views updated May 29 2018


SAINT LAWRENCE SEAWAY. Stretching 2,342 miles from Lake Superior to the Atlantic, the Saint Lawrence Seaway opens the industrial and agricultural heart of North America to deep-draft ocean vessels. Via the seaway and the great circle route, Detroit is 400 miles closer to Amsterdam than New York is. The entire Great LakesSaint Lawrence Seaway system comprises 9,500 square miles of navigable waters, linked by three series of locks. A ship entering at Montreal rises to more than 600 feet above sea level at Lake Superior. The waterway accommodates vessels 730 feet long, with a seventy-six-foot beam and a draft of twenty-six feet.

The present seaway, opened to deep-draft navigation in 1959, evolved from the engineering efforts of several centuries. In 1534 the Lachine Rapids above Montreal turned back the ships of Jacques Cartier, but by 1783 a canal that afforded passage to flat-bottomed bateaux by passed the rapids. By 1798 a small canal provided a route around the Sault Sainte Marie, on the Canadian side. In 1829 William Hamilton Merritt completed a chain of forty wooden locks across the Niagara peninsula. By 1861 ships were sailing regularly between the Great Lakes and Europe.

Increasing ship sizes and the rapidly growing economy of the Midwest created pressures for further improvements. Between 1913 and 1932, Canada built the Welland Canal to lift deep-draft ships from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Strong opposition from sectional interests blocked U.S. participation in proposals to develop the power-generating and navigation potential of the international rapids. The Wiley-Dondero Act of 1954 authorized the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation to construct that part of the seaway in the United States, and construction began under agreement with Canada.

Three initiatives in public policy distinguish the Saint Lawrence Seaway. First, it is international in character, with navigation facilities in both the United States and Canada. Second, entities of two governments, each with authority to negotiate with the other, operate it. Third, tolls assessed on shippers meet its operating expenses.


Thompson, John Herd, and Stephen J. Randall. Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Willoughby, William R. The Joint Organizations of Canada and the United States. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

D. W.Oberlin/a. e.

See alsoCanadian-American Waterways ; Fair Deal ; Waterways, Inland .

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Saint Lawrence Seaway