A historical St. Lawrence Seaway

Scene of an Aug. 10, 1954, groundbreaking ceremony near Cornwall, Ontario, for the St. Lawrence River hydroelectric project. (Watertown Daily Times archives)

By Brian Kelly

For President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the largest construction project ever to occur in the north country was more than a triumph of engineering and industrial achievement, it was also a symbol of peace. When the former Army general attended dedication ceremonies of the St. Lawrence Seaway on June 26, 1959, he spoke of the waterway shared by the United States and Canada as an example of international cooperation for other nations to copy.

    “It is, above all, a magnificent symbol to the entire world of the achievements possible to democratic nations peacefully working together for the common good,” he said.

    President Eisenhower, who was joined that day in St. Lambert, Quebec, by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, was the first U.S. president to recognize the importance of the Seaway. He would certainly not be the last.

    The idea of creating a way for ships to bypass rapids on the St. Lawrence River was nearly 200 years in the making. The British, facing rebellions in its American colony, desired a quick water route between the Canadian cities of Montreal and Kingston, Ontario.

    When Montreal was temporarily captured by Americans in 1775, Sir Frederick Haldimand, governor-in- chief of Quebec, pressed his government for development along the river.

    As a result of Haldimand’s enthusiasm, British Royal Engineers began building a series of small canals to avoid the rapids between Lake St. Francis and Lake St. Louis. Improvements were made, but the transportation system was still slow and costly.

    In the early 1800s, Northern and Central New York became more populated. These new residents recognized the value in being able to move products – primarily lumber and wheat – by water. Construction on the Erie Canal was started in 1818 and by the mid-1830s that waterway was a threat to commerce in Canada.

    This prompted the Canadians to build a canal near Cornwall, Ontario, followed by others in Beauharnois, Quebec, and Williamsburg, Welland and Soulanges, Ontario.

    The canals were suitable for helping small boats pass through areas such as the International Rapids section of the St. Lawrence River between Massena and Cornwall, but there was soon talk by Canadian officials of building a Canadian-owned canal system that would require U.S. boats to pay tolls.

    The U.S. government also coveted a shipping channel that would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the American Midwest and the idea of paying tolls to Canada did not sit well with many U.S. officials. However, this still did not justify the incredible expense of building a U.S.- owned canal and a bill proposed in the U.S. Senate in 1948 to authorize the Seaway was defeated.

    What made the project affordable in the eyes of U.S. legislators was its coupling with a hydropower project. Not only could the rapids be defeated for shipping purposes, their awesome force could be tamed for the generation of power.

    New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey had first proposed the idea of a power project only, but it was President Harry S. Truman’s opposition to this that brought about the realization that the canal/hydropower project could be done jointly. Mr. Truman was a staunch supporter of the Seaway.

    The International Joint Commission, created in 1909 to settle water boundary disputes between the United States and Canada, gave permission to Ontario Hydro on the Canadian side and the New York Power Authority on the American side to build a shared hydropower dam.

    The lack of shopping facilities in Massena was cited in 1956 as the main complaint among the wives of workers who came for the massive project. “It’s impossible for me to buy a shoe for my narrow feet in Massena,” one woman told the Watertown Daily Times. “They forget there are people here earning more than $65 a week,” said another.

    The living accommodations were not what some workers and their families were used to, but they made do.

    “I certainly didn’t want to live in a trailer,” said Mrs. Richard W. Coulter of Montpelier, Vt., in 1956. “I fought it for months, but there just wasn’t anything suitable in Massena. But now I like trailer living. If you have a sense of humor, living in a trailer community can be great.”

    The workers, both skilled and unskilled, came for the good pay, which could average about $550 a month for a foreman.

    “We like the money, for one thing,” Corbin J. Weed, a drill foreman from Sacramento, Calif., said, “but we also like this moving around, because it’s interesting. It’s just like being a prospector – hoping on hitting something on the next pull.” 

    Moving around the country was hardest for the children, said Elwood R. Hamilton, of Baudette, Minn. His daughters, Lilace, 18, and Patricia, 16, were students at Massena High School, one of several schools they had attended during their father’s 12-year construction career.

    “The children mind it most,” Mr. Hamilton said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. The work is interesting and you get to see a lot of the country.”

    Ellen A. Rochford, a native of Brasher Falls and a graduate of St. Lawrence University, Canton, had left her teaching job in the Catskill Mountains in 1954 to work construction in Morocco.

    She said she was “fascinated” by construction work and returned to the north country to work in the administration section of a contractor working on the Seaway.

    Not all of the employees on the Seaway were traditional blue-collar workers. A large contingent of “Ivy Leaguers in hard hats” also came north to earn up to $1,000 for summer employment.

    The roll of schools revealed the names of Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia and Cornell as some of the institutions represented. There was a practical side to many of the students’ work, as some were considering careers in engineering or geology.

    The project was hailed as one of the most successful industrial safety stories up until that time. An insurance company had calculated that on a typical project of the Seaway’s size, up to 100 people would be killed. The Seaway project lost only three workers.

    By contrast, the Panama Canal, Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, the Colorado river aqueducts, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Empire State Building resulted in a total of 1,544 fatalities. This figure does not include the number of those who died of yellow fever while working on the Panama Canal.

    The landscape along the St. Lawrence River was forever changed by the project. On the U.S. side, 60 farms and 262 camps were in the project’s path and needed to be either moved or torn down. The community of Louisville Landing near Massena ceased to exist.

    Including Canadian property, some 225 farm families and 500 cottage owners were displaced to make way for flooding 14,700 acres of low-lying lands. There were 19 cemeteries and some 13 miles of highway relocated. Railroad tracks, docks, boat houses, golf courses, public beaches and other facilities were moved. In all, 1,970 buildings were relocated or torn down.

    It will long be debated whether farmers were paid a fair price for their riverfront property. One farmer said in 1955 that he had been unable to sell his property for $10,000 five years before and now was being offered $105,000 for the property.

    However, other property owners formed the St. Lawrence Landowners’ Association on July 4, 1954 to protest the amount they were offered for their land from the New York Power Authority. This organization served the useful purpose of allowing neighbors to blow off steam to one another, but its formal protests fell on deaf ears.

    “They treat us like a bunch of rubes,” a landowner said to the Times in 1955.

    Power Authority Chairman Robert Moses, who said it was essential to the Seaway and hydroelectric project’s time schedules to “speed up the land acquisition program” made it clear he was not seeking to make friends in the north country.

    “We are not diplomats. We are interested in the long-range effects (of the projects) and are not attempting to win immediate acclaim,” he said.

    Daniel Cuglar, whose family settled on Long Sault Island in the 1820s, said in 1955 that land not needed for use in the two projects should be offered for sale back to the original owners.

    Mr. Moses’s response was, “There always arises a Dan Cuglar who attempts to selfishly impede progress under claim of high principle.”

    When the village of Massena asked for financial assistance from the Power Authority to help ease its growing pains resulting from the influx of construction workers – it doubled the size of the village’s police force – Mr. Moses said the village “can’t eat your cake and have it too.”

    “This authority is no year-round Santa Claus commissioned to pay your bills,” Mr. Moses said to Massena Mayor Ralph Johns.

    On July 1, 1958, the raising of the pool that would become Lake St. Lawrence began. By the time it was finished on July 4, 1958, the lake covered 37,500 acres and held 244 billion gallons of water. This impoundment would serve as the “power pool” for producing electricity at what was now known as the Robert Moses-Robert H. Saunders Power Project.

    The damming of the river for power production created the need for a way for ships to bypass the dam, thus the need for a system of locks.

    Construction on the Seaway was completed in 1959. It cost more than $470 million, of which the United States paid $133.8 million.

    The Seaway system itself consists of 2,038 nautical miles, stretching from the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the Atlantic Ocean to the western end of Lake Superior at the twin ports of Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis. There are 17 locks to raise and lower ships along that stretch.

    While Mr. Eisenhower and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II attended the Seaway’s opening near Montreal on June 26, 1959, it was up to Vice President Richard M. Nixon to handle the ceremonies the next day in Massena. Queen Elizabeth joined Mr. Nixon at the lock that bears Mr. Eisenhower’s name.

    Eisenhower Lock uses 22 million gallons of water during each transit to raise and lower ships more than 100 feet in less than 10 minutes. It can accommodate a vessel up to 740 feet in length and up to 78 feet in width.

    Mr. Eisenhower and Mr. Nixon were not the only U.S. presidents who looked at the Seaway as an important link to the nation’s economy.

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt was an early supporter of the project, viewing the navigation passage as a means of defense in the unstable early 1940s. The accompanying cheap power was also of importance to him and the hydroelectric project that resulted would come to be named the St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power Project.

    In 1954, when there was opposition to the Seaway from railroads and East Coast ports, a junior senator from Massachusetts advocated its construction. John F. Kennedy said the Seaway “is in the best interests of our country and in the best interests of Massachusetts.” Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson voted against the project.

    When Mr. Kennedy became president in 1960, he appointed Martin W. Oettershagen as the Seaway’s second administrator, replacing its first administrator, Lewis G. Castle.

    Mr. Nixon returned to Massena in 1969, this time as president. He attended the Seaway’s 10th anniversary celebration with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

    In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was invited to attend a 25th anniversary celebration of the Seaway, as was Queen Elizabeth II. Mr. Reagan declined the invitation, but sent a presidential proclamation that called the Seaway “one of man’s most outstanding engineering feats” and its locks “the world’s greatest waterway lifting operations.”

    Mr. Reagan did not come north, but sent his secretary of transportation, Elizabeth H. Dole, who would mount an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1999.

    Since 1959, more than 2.5 billion metric tons of international cargo – mostly bulk grain, iron ore and manufactured iron and steel – have moved through the Seaway’s locks aboard more than 200,000 ships flying the flags of over 50 nations. The value of the cargo is estimated at more than $375 billion.

    Most of these ships have had safe passages, but there have been groundings, oil spills, collisions and even sinkings.

    The first reported incident was on June 22, 1964. The Stella Dora, a 443-foot Norwegian ship, went aground on Pullman Shoal near Alexandria Bay, halting ship traffic for seven hours.

    One of the most notorious accidents occurred on April 15, 1974. A Canadian crude oil tanker, the Imperial Sarnia, went aground on Whaleback Shoal, about halfway between Alexandria Bay and Ogdensburg, spilling 1,000 gallons of crude oil. The cleanup of this spill cost more than $2 million.

    But this spill was topped on June 23, 1976. The barge Nepco- 140 struck Comfort Shoal off Keewaydin State Park, rupturing three cargo tanks and spilling 308,000 gallons of Venezuelan No. 6 oil into the river. The cleanup took more than a month.

    One ship full of oil sank in 1974, but didn’t present a problem until last year. The Roy A. Jodrey, a 640- foot freighter, sank on Nov. 21, 1974, in 150 feet to 200 feet of water off the Coast Guard station on Wellesley Island.

    It was believed that about 40,000 gallons of oil out of 50,000 gallons were off-loaded from the ship, but it may have been less than that. Oil started bubbling from the site during the summer of 1998 and eight tanks were removed under the supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard.

    On June 18, 1982, Canada’s luxury cruise ship Canadian Empress ran aground near Gananoque, Ontario. No oil spilled and there was only minor damage to the ship’s front hull.

    Several ships went aground during the 1990s, without significant damage or delays resulting. On June 18, 2015, the cruise ship MS Saint Laurent struck a concrete knee wall on the west gate of the Eisenhower Lock in Massena. The  five-deck, 105-stateroom luxuryship was carrying 274 people, including passengers and crew, when it hit the lock.

    More than a dozen ambulances took 19 passengers and three crew members to Massena Memorial Hospital after the cruise ship struck the wall, which acted as a fender to protect the gate. Two passengers were taken by Seaway Valley Ambulance to the University of Vermont Medical Center, Burlington.

    The Seaway has also been blamed for introducing zebra mussels, as well as other invasive species into the St. Lawrence River. It is believed the troublesome mollusk was released into the river when a ship from Europe dumped its ballast water.

    Ships passing on the St. Lawrence Seaway – considered an unachievable dream even as late as the 1940s – have become such a part of the Northern New York scenery that it could easily be forgotten how vital the waterway has become for the area and the rest of the country.

    It is now estimated the Seaway creates nearly 100,000 jobs throughout the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region and generates about $14 billion in personal income and $34 billion in business revenues each year.

    ~A version of this story by Mr. Kelly appeared in the Watertown Daily Times on Oct. 31, 1999.