World's longest canal system

It was a gala day. The Royal Yacht Brittania was moored in the St. Lawrence River a few miles away. Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower rode in an open car in the streets of Montreal waving at the crowds. And then the blue and white yacht slipped regally through the locks at St. Lambert at Montreal, officially opening the St. Lawrence Seaway.

It was June 26, 1959, 25 years ago, that the St. Lawrence Seaway opened as a deep waterway. The seaway is 2,342 miles from the western tip of Lake Superior to the Atlantic. The Suez and Panama canals may carry more, but no canal system in the world is as long.

And while the Suez has been shut by Mideast wars and the Panama lies in strife-torn Central America, the St. Lawrence Seaway placidly bisects the boundary between Canada and the United States, two countries that have shot nothing but hot air at each other since the War of 1812.

The St. Lawrence Seaway is now just a workaday part of North American life. Some 45 million tons of cargo went through the St. Lambert locks last year. Half of the cargo on the seaway is grain; the rest is coal, iron ore, limestone, oil, and petrochemicals - the stuff that fuels industrial North America.

Of late the seaway has also been carrying manufactured imported steel, the stuff industrial North America doesn't like. That isn't the seaway's fault. It is still cheap, efficient, and does the job.

It seems hard to believe now but the St. Lawrence Seaway was once controversial. Presidents as far back as Calvin Coolidge were in favor of it. But there were powerful lobbies against building the seaway - among them the railways, the railway unions, and the Port of New York City.

The railways were right. Ships are about three times as efficient as railways. Seaway officials say it costs $7 a ton more to ship grain by rail than by laker from the head of Lake Superior to terminals on the St. Lawrence River.

And every time the price of fuel rises, ships look better.

New York City was wrong and so was Montreal, for the same reasons. There were a lot of ports on the Great Lakes which thought the St. Lawrence Seaway was going to make them bustle, that freighters would ply the lakes with goods and make their harbors vibrant places instead of dumping grounds for coal, grain, and ore.

Cities such as Chicago and Toronto hoped for general cargo, the packages of small goods delivered in freighters, which were still around in the late 1950s. Not today. Containers have taken over. Ocean ports unload the containers; trucks or trains deliver them inland.

But hopes had been high, ''Quite possibly the project (the seaway) would in time, by giving direct access to the deep sea, make Chicago the greatest port in the world,'' wrote John Gunther in his book ''Inside USA'' in 1947.

Well, Chicago is no slouch. In 1981 it handled 32 million tons of cargo and was the No. 2 port on the Great Lakes, but it was No. 17 on the list of ports in the United States - behind New Orleans and New York City, two worrywarts from the pre-seaway days. It was even just behind Pittsburgh. It isn't doing badly but is hardly the greatest port in the world.

''Some of the inland ports were perhaps just a little too optimistic about what the seaway would bring,'' says William O'Neil, president of the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, which oversees the Canadian side of the system.

While it was a disappointment for ports such as Chicago and Detroit, Mr. O'Neil points out it was great news for places such as Duluth, Minn., the No. 1 port on the Great Lakes.

Its specialty is bulk cargo, and that is what the long, thin lakers are good at - taking on at Duluth or Thunder Bay grain from the prairies that they will carry to Port Cartier in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then loading up with iron ore pellets from Labrador for the long trip back to the steel mills of Ontario and the Midwestern United States.

Ports that don't handle bulk cargo just watch most ships glide by.

Take Toronto on Lake Ontario. The seaway killed this port. Few ships stop here. The grain ships and the other bulk carriers have little reason to pull in. There is some traffic here, but the city doesn't like the port anymore, and even feels it doesn't need it.

Grain terminals have been torn down to make way for luxury condominiums on the lakefront. There is a movement to open up Toronto's waterfront, to let people get at the lake, which has been blocked by the port, the factories on the lake, and the railway tracks that served them both. The thinking seems to be that this is a service city and it doesn't need a port.

Montreal is a different story.

In 1959 it was thought the seaway would kill the port of Montreal. The first locks of the waterway are across the St. Lawrence from the port of Montreal at St. Lambert, and the argument went that shipping would bypass Montreal and head inland. But the Port of Montreal has boomed. It is a major grain terminal, with ships from the seaway bringing cargo to the Montreal, where it is loaded on ocean-going vessels for transshipment to Europe.

A huge container business has been built up as the general cargo ocean-going vessels stop at Montreal, roll off their containers and head back to Europe rather than waste valuable time going through the St. Lawrence Seaway system. The goods are then shipped by rail or truck to destinations in Canada and the US. Although Montreal is a thousand miles from the sea, there are no locks or other obstacles. It is an ocean port open 12 months a year.

It is the rapids at Montreal that started the building of a canal system in the 19th century and led to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The early French fur traders used to portage around the Lachine Rapids and the other obstructions on their way through the Great Lakes. A shortcut was built around the fast, shallow water surrounding the island of Montreal called the Lachine Canal. Then farther down the river was the Soulanges Canal.

In other parts of the Great Lakes System the Welland Canal was built to connect Lake Erie with Lake Ontario. It gets over the 326-foot drop of Niagara Falls and the rapids that race by Buffalo, N.Y.

But more impressive than the distance is the climb. A ship going into the lock system will rise 580 feet by the time it has passed through the Sault locks and on to the head of Lake Superior.

The seaway is not a moneymaker. ''There have been financial problems because it was felt at the start that user fees would pay the way,'' says William O'Neil. ''But it has been an economic success. It would be a physical impossibility to move all this cargo through that old canal system.'' The Canadian part of the seaway lost ''less than a million dollars'' last year and this year it could break even.

The seaway is open from April 15 to Dec. 15, and some people would like to see it open longer, especially Great Lakes ports in the United States, which want year-round access to the ocean. But to keep the seaway open year-round would mean a twin system of locks, according to seaway officials, because the locks have to be repaired.

And there's a lot of ice to deal with, especially at the locks. The US Army Corps of Engineers says the seaway can be kept open 12 months a year. The Canadians say it isn't worth spending the money.

But isn't this how the seaway started - with a lot of hot air blowing across the border?

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