Jun 26

Construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway

Sunday, June 26, 2011 1:01 AM


June 26, 1959

The St. Lawrence Seaway, a project which transformed the Great Lakes into “The Eighth Sea” is completed.

“The completion of this majestic engineering project exemplifies national sovereignty and national growth at its best and highest.”


In May 1959, Proceedings published an article by Harry C. Brockel, which examined the benefits of constructing a 2,400-mile waterway system through the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. These benefits, which included the harnessing of previously undeveloped water power and the opening up of valuable resources in the Great Lakes region, also extended to national defense. An excerpt of the article describes the difficulties in beginning the project and its expected impact on national defense:

After 35 years of regional struggle and Congressional debate, the Seaway was finally authorized by the United States Congress in May, 1954. President Eisenhower signed the bill immediately, and within a few weeks one of the greatest engineering tasks in the history of the world was under way. It took only 4 1/2 years–from late 1954 until early 1959–for the engineering genius of Canada and the United States to bring into being the second largest power project in the world and a new waterway which will make the Great Lakes into “The Eighth Sea” or “The New Mediterranean.”

When opened to deep-draft ships, the St. Lawrence Seaway will consist of a 2,400-mile waterway system extending from the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to the headwaters of the Lakes. Although a joint project was contemplated for many years, the legislation finally enacted by Canada and the United States made a simple and logical division of the work, with each country building the structures and improving the channels within its own territory. . . .

“The New Look” on the Great Lakes embraces not only the tremendous engineering works involved in the Seaway project and the building of an enormous hydroelectric structure, but the engineering marvel of the new Straits of Mackinac Bridge and a multimillion dollar program of new port structures in the lake ports which expect to be the principal terminals for the many new ocean lines now in operation or projected for the Great Lakes. The largest Great Lakes bulk freighters will be able to move freely between lake ports and tidewater. An estimated 80% of the world shipping fleet will find the Great Lakes accessible as a new world trade route. The small ocean ships and small “Canalers” which now link the Great Lakes and Montreal may linger briefly, but the inexorable facts of transportation will no doubt see them quickly replaced by fast, deep, large-capacity ships. One example of the attraction of the new project to shipping will be that an estimated two days–perhaps more–will be chopped off transit time between Montreal and the Great Lakes, with wide and deep canal sections replacing present shoestring canals and with seven tremendous locks replacing 21 obsolete small locks into which ships had to be shoehorned, at great cost in time and frustration to vessel masters.

The Seaway and National Defense

The military potentialities and the national defense aspects of the Seaway have been a major consideration in the prolonged national debate on the project and in international discussion of it. For example, during the defense mobilization, preceding World War II, President Roosevelt sent several special messages to the Congress urging immediate construction of the Seaway to add to the national arsenal for defense. On October 17, 1940, President Roosevelt said, “The development … of the Seaway should be undertaken at the earliest possible … to meet the continuing power requirements of the defense program in essential centers of war material production. The potential power at this site is best adapted to meet the requirements of expansion in certain essential defense industries including aluminum, magnesium, ferro-alloys, chemicals, etc. The project may be considered as an essential part of the program of continental defense.”

In a special message in June, 1941, President Roosevelt said, “I recommend construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project as an integral part of the joint defense of the North American continent … your action will either make available or withhold 2,200,000 horsepower of low-cost electric power for the joint defense of North America. Your action … will either open or keep bottled up one of the greatest transportation resources ever offered to people…. Our defense production is a gigantic assembly line; transportation is its conveyor belt. The Seaway … will provide a great highway to and from important defense production areas. It will cut by more than a thousand miles the stretch of dangerous open water which must be traveled by supplies to Great Britain and strategic North Atlantic bases. It will increase our capacity to build ships. … The St. Lawrence Project must be expedited. No comparable power, shipbuilding and transportation facilities can be made available. . . . I know of no single project of this nature more important to this country’s future in peace or war.”

When he became president, Harry S. Truman similarly urged the building of the Seaway both for national expansion and to strengthen the country militarily.

As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later as President, Mr. Eisenhower, with his experienced military background, became persuaded of the military merits of the project and its value to the national defense. His convictions were buttressed by a report of a special cabinet committee which he had appointed to study the project.

In the final historic debate in the United States Senate in 1954, borderline votes were favorably influenced by a special report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, just before the final Senate vote on the Seaway Bill, advised the Senate that the construction of the Seaway with United States participation would:

(1) Afford access of a relatively protected route to additional sources of high-grade iron ore, coal, lead, zinc, copper, titanium, and manganese;

(2) Assure joint control … as important from the national security aspect as the Seaway itself;

(3) Help in meeting the threat of submarine attack to exposed overseas shipping routes for essential materials;

(4) Assure the United States the full benefits . . . in a shorter, more protected overseas route to the British Isles and Europe for transportation of military cargo;

(5) Afford access to additional shipbuilding and repair facilities.

In view of the foregoing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff “consider the joint participation in the construction and operation of the St. Lawrence Seaway as necessary in the interests of national security.”

The military minds of the United States have always been conscious of the relatively sheltered location of the St. Lawrence route, with only 2,200 miles of open ocean between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Channel ports, as compared to 3,300 miles via the ports of New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is much easier to protect against submarine attacks than are the open waters of the North Atlantic, attested to by the terrible losses in men, material, and ships suffered by North Atlantic convoys during the early years of World War II.

From the military standpoint, the Seaway will also open up the extensive shipbuilding resources of the Great Lakes area, which were used only to a minor degree in the last war. Of seventy million tons of naval and merchant shipping built in the United States during World War II, only about 2 1/2 per cent was launched in Great Lakes harbors, because of the difficulty of getting ships to sea via the shallow draft Illinois-Mississippi route or via the extremely limited St. Lawrence route. More than 60 per cent of the total material going into the shipbuilding program, however, originated in the Great Lakes area, and these millions of tons of material–steel, gears, engines, propellers, auxiliary motors, and the like–had to be transported by congested overland routes to shipbuilding centers on the seaboard. A cheaper cost for large­scale shipbuilding programs is reasonably indicated by the resources of the Great Lakes region in terms of steel production, water transportation, sheltered harbors, and large reservoirs of manpower, backed up by the machine shops of the continent which cluster on the shores of the lake region. A major report by the National Security Resources Board in 1950 strongly supported the building of the Seaway to buttress the national defense.

Water Power and National Defense

Another significant military aspect of the Seaway Project is the harnessing of the enormous hydroelectric power capacity of the St. Lawrence River in the International Rapids section between Massena, New York, and Cornwall, Ontario. The spectacular but dangerous Long Sault Rapids of the St. Lawrence have already disappeared from view as a result of the building of the second largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Built by the Province of Ontario and the Power Authority of the State of New York, the dam has been named in honor of two famous “Bobs,” the late Robert H. Saunders, Chairman of the Hydroelectric Power Commission of Ontario (an untimely victim of an airplane crash just as his long vision of building the St. Lawrence power dam was about to be realized), and the fiery Robert Moses, oft­called by the State of New York to handle tough assignments. As Chairman of the New York State Power Authority, Moses has driven the great St. Lawrence Power Project to completion, meeting every target date.

The great new power dam harnesses the 92-foot fall of the St. Lawrence in the 46-mile International Rapids section, where the river runs downhill with great velocity, with an annual average discharge in the range of 240,000 cubic feet per second. It was here that the spectacular Long Sault Rapids formerly terrorized mariners. An occasional venturesome Indian might run these rapids in a canoe and survive, but for conventional navigation only locks and canals would suffice.

The terror of the mariner was the dream of the hydroelectric engineer, and New York and Ontario have long aspired to harness the river at this point, capturing the largest undeveloped source of water power in North America. In July, 1958, the great dam was dedicated, and in September, 1958, the great turbines began to spin. This year the 32 enormous turbines, sixteen on each side of the international boundary, will be in full operation, harnessing 2,200,000 horsepower of energy and producing upward of thirteen billion kilowatt hours of energy each year.

The military and industrial significance of this great new power resource is obvious. Power from this great dam will flow as much as 300 miles from the dam site, sparking new industrial developments in Ontario and eastern Quebec and aiding in developing the great mineral resources of Ontario.

On the American side, spectacular new industrial developments have been stimulated by the new power source. These include a new aluminum plant being built at $100 million cost near Massena, New York, by Reynolds Aluminum Company. This tremendous plant will utilize both the navigation and the power of the St. Lawrence. Ocean ships will carry bauxite ore from distant lands to the plant, and the large concentration of power available at the site will permit the development of the first fully integrated aluminum plant in America, with raw alumina entering the plant on the river side and the finished product emerging from the far end. Significantly also, General Motors Corporation is building at Massena the largest aluminum foundry in the General Motors empire.

These are merely illustrative of the industrial developments confidently anticipated in the St. Lawrence River valley, in upper New York state, in parts of New England, and in Ontario and Quebec, powered by the great energy of one of the world’s mightiest rivers. The industrial capacity and the military potential of Canada and the United States are being significantly enhanced.

It is worth noting that the waters of the Great Lakes, as they fall toward the sea, not only will provide a unique combination of inland and ocean navigation, but will be one of the hardest working water supplies in the world from the power standpoint. Power is generated at Sault Saint Marie, at the downfall of Lake Superior toward Lake Huron. It is, of course, generated on an astronomical scale at Niagara Falls. The same water, moving east, will now be harnessed on an astronomical scale at the International Rapids section. Canadian power plants at several points between Massena and Montreal again send this water through their turbines on a significant scale.

Surely these must be considered among the hardest working waters of the world, with the rain droplets which fall into Lake Michigan or Lake Superior finding themselves called upon to serve the industrial and human needs of a great region; to serve the quarter billion tons of navigation annually moving on the Great Lakes; to be harnessed for power five or six times between Lake Superior and Montreal; and finally to serve the unique combination of fresh water and salt water navigation now to be realized with the opening of the Seaway, the deepest extension of ocean navigation into a continental land mass to be found anywhere in the world.

The Seaway and Shipbuilding

One of the more interesting arguments for the Seaway was that it would open up vast new shipbuilding resources, both in terms of merchant marine and naval shipping. Seaway advocates argued, quite logically, that the Great Lakes Basin as the American center of steel production; that the machine shops of America lined their shores; that the country’s principal reservoir of skilled manpower was to be found in the North Central region. A considerable number of shipyards are in the area, but usually working on a “feast or famine” basis with tremendous peaks of demand in wartime, and with the production curve dragging between wars. The fresh waters of the Great Lakes are conducive to long life for ships. Many of the bulk freighter fleet on the Great Lakes even now are over forty years old. The absence of barnacles and marine growths assures long life to ships in fresh water. The long life of ships on the Great Lakes is perhaps dismaying to shipyards, but of great benefit to ship operators.

In this connection, the durability of iron ships in fresh water is strongly exemplified by the fact that the USS Wolverine, the first iron ship ever built on the Great Lakes, launched in 1844, is still afloat as a museum piece at Erie, Pennsylvania.

During World War II more than 1,100 ships were built on the Great Lakes, a superficially impressive figure. Included in lake­constructed ships were fleet-type submarines, destroyer escorts, frigates, landing craft, and a host of small auxiliary naval types and small merchantmen. However, few of these ships could get to sea via the St. Lawrence, because of lock size and depth restrictions in the antiquated 14-foot waterway. Most of them reached tidewater via the Illinois Waterway and the Mississippi River at staggering cost. Fully built and tested on the Great Lakes, they would then have superstructures cut off and would be variously ballasted down or pontooned up to get under bridges or through shallow reaches of the inland waterway system. Reaching the Gulf Coast, sometimes in battered condition from a difficult voyage, they would then be rebuilt and re-outfitted at great cost in time and money before they could be sent into action.

The Navy and the Great Lakes

The U. S. Navy and the Great Lakes have a glorious historical association going back to the War of 1812. One of the clean-cut American victories of that war was the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, when Oliver Hazard Perry, who had been commissioned to build, equip, and man a fresh water fleet, destroyed the British fleet which had dominated the eastern Great Lakes, won control of Lake Erie for American arms, and handed down to posterity the great naval victory message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Naval utilization of Great Lakes shipbuilding resources during World War II probably represented the maximum reasonably possible, under the limitations of the waterways which connect the Great Lakes to the high seas.

After the war, the Navy gave consideration in shipbuilding awards to many factors, including cost, the need to maintain a widely dispersed shipbuilding potential, and other national interest considerations. A Navy report in 1954 pointed out that Great Lakes and inland waterway yards had only about 8.6% of the construction and conversion program then under way. This compared to 51.3% East Coast, 28.9% West Coast, and 11.2% Gulf. The Navy utilized lake shipyards for building mine sweepers, destroyer escorts, and auxiliaries, not only to support Great Lakes shipbuilding as a military resource, but because in many instances lake shipyards had a high efficiency rating and were often low bidders.

Military Vulnerability

To rebut the national defense arguments in favor of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the project was invariably attacked by its opponents as being vulnerable from a military standpoint. It was argued that the project would involve strategic points such as major locks and dams which by bombing or sabotage could be taken out of service, and thus make the whole waterway inoperative. Proponents replied that if this line of reasoning were true, the Panama Canal, the Soo Locks, and the other great ship canals of the world should be taken out of service to remove the military threat they presented. It was said that the Port of New York might as well be abandoned because it, too, was militarily vulnerable. The underlying thought was, of course, that mankind does not deny itself the great works of peace because they may be vulnerable in time of war.

The Seaway and the Future

A convincing case can be made that World War II might actually have been shortened had the St. Lawrence Seaway been completed and ready for service before Pearl Harbor. The shipbuilding resources of the Great Lakes could have been used on a larger scale; an enormous power resource would have contributed mightily to the national power output, particularly to alumina production for aircraft; and a sheltered transportation route would have reduced the hazardous North Atlantic crossing by a thousand miles, with a possible large saving in ships, strategic cargo, and lives.

If the horror of nuclear war and of intercontinental ballistic missiles can be avoided and if future wars were to follow conventional forms, then the Seaway inescapably will be a vital factor in raw material procurement, power output, military logistics, and added industrial strength. It will have a key role in continental defense considerations.

Assuming that all past patterns of military conflict are to go by the board and assuming the worst in terms of a short and deadly struggle with fantastic weapons, even then one may conclude that the St. Lawrence Project will make a contribution. Its contribution will be to help the United States and Canada build an industrial machine of such strength and magnitude that it will serve as a mighty deterrent to aggressors. The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence, in this sense, are the arterial stream for the mighty resources of the midcontinent area, embracing steel mills, heavy industries, coal fields, petroleum, the world’s richest farm lands, and great cities of skilled crafts. These are military resources of the first magnitude. These build the total complex of industrial and economic might which towers behind armies and ships.

Finally, modern diplomacy and defense is not limited to fire power. Secretary of Defense McElroy has emphasized that international trade is just as important as military agreements in buttressing America’s allies. Secretary McElroy said that foreign trade strengthens the domestic economy and is essential to the economy of other friendly nations. “If stable, strong allies are important to us, then international trade is important to us,” he stated.

The St. Lawrence is above all a great new mechanism for foreign trade. On its waters will flow vital raw materials from the Dominion of Canada and from many areas of the world to serve the mighty industrial machine of the Great Lakes region. From its ports will move foodstuffs and manufactured goods which, going to friendly nations and allies, will improve their way of life, strengthen diplomatic relationships, and exemplify a peaceful world of trade. From its shipyards will be launched mighty merchantmen and the navies of the future. The completion of this majestic engineering project exemplifies national sovereignty and national growth at its best and highest.

America’s new fourth seacoast–the new eighth sea–the American Mediterranean­-whatever we may call it, the new deep water highway to the Atlantic and the symbolic mingling of fresh and salt water in the very heart of the continent is rich with portents for a stronger and better America. It adds some powerful new muscles to national security and continental defense. микрозаймы

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