||July/August 2009 issue||
FEATURE - St. Lawrence Seaway
Inland superhighway (Page 1 of 4)
For half a century, the St. Lawrence Seaway has served as a vital artery for ships carrying the coal, grain and iron ore that fuelled Canada’s economy. But a sea change may be brewing.
By D’Arcy Jenish with photography by Martin Beaulieu
|The St. Lawrence Seaway has been marketed as Highway H20 in an effort to increase traffic.
Photo: Martin Beaulieu
With three blasts of its horn — two long and one short, a traditional maritime greeting — the CSL Spruceglen
sails into the St. Lambert Lock, on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence River, opposite downtown Montréal. It’s just
after noon on March 31, 2009, and right on schedule, the freighter glides to a stop. Deckhands feed thick, braided steel
lines to a pair of lockmen, who secure the ship. The lock operator opens a set of intake valves, each large enough to
accommodate a compact car, and millions of litres of water rush into the chamber. As the ship rises — it will be lifted
about five metres in less than 10 minutes — the port side of its hull forms an imposing black wall that cuts off our view
of Parc Mont-Royal and the Montréal skyline. The Spruceglen is 222.5 metres long and 23 metres wide, and it
fits into the 24.4-metre-wide lock like a hand in a glove.
Deckhands lower a gangplank, and two smartly dressed officers disembark. Captain Mark Dillon and Chief
Engineer Christian Pelletier are wearing navy blue suits with crisp white shirts and neatly knotted, matching blue ties.
The St. Lambert Lock is the gateway to the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway — a system of canals, shipping channels
and locks that allows ships to sail 3,700 kilometres inland from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of Lake Superior
— and the Spruceglen is the first vessel to enter the waterway in its 50th-anniversary season.
|The seaway’s canals, channels and locks replaced an inefficient, late-19th-century waterway on the St. Lawrence.
Dillon and Pelletier join about 200 shipping executives, politicians, seaway employees and journalists assembled on
the lock wall for a birthday ceremony, complete with a shower of blue and white confetti. Fifty years is a major milestone,
yet the speeches are brief and businesslike. Richard Corfe, president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway
Management Corporation (SLSMC), gives a brisk talk, devoted equally to the successes of the past half century and
the significant challenges ahead. By 1 p.m., Dillon is back on the bridge, and the Spruceglen — with me aboard —
resumes its journey toward the port of Ashtabula, Ohio, east of Cleveland. Its seven huge cargo holds are carrying
15,000 tonnes of titanium slag, which can be used as an additive in products as diverse as paint and sunscreen.
|Click map to enlarge|
Looking at the lock from the deck of the Spruceglen, I’m struck by the difference between today’s ceremony and the
St. Lawrence Seaway’s grand opening on June 26, 1959. A beaming, navy blue yacht, the HMY Britannia, was moored
at Saint-Lambert that day. Queen Elizabeth II shared the stage with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President
Dwight D. Eisenhower. About 20,000 members of the public attended, and among the 5,000 invited guests were
dozens of Canadian parliamentarians, American senators, mayors of Great Lakes communities and shipping executives from around
the world. Eisenhower described the seaway as “a magnificent symbol of the achievements possible to democratic nations peacefully
working together for the common good,” while the Queen called it “one of the outstanding engineering accomplishments of modern times.”
|Click map to enlarge|
That was no exaggeration. An army of men and women 22,000 strong built the St. Lawrence section, between Saint-
Lambert and the Ontario riverside town of Iroquois, 175 kilometres to the west. They started in October 1954 and, at a cost
of $470 million, were finished four years later. The seaway’s canals, channels and locks — five in Canadian waters and two in
the United States — replaced an inefficient, late-19th-century waterway on the St. Lawrence. It was designed to match the capacity
of the revamped Welland Canal linking Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which opened in 1932 and could handle 222.5-metrelong vessels in
its eight locks.
Both freshwater and ocean-going fleets use the seaway, but in recent years, vessels that sail only on the Great Lakes and
the St. Lawrence have accounted for 70 to 80 percent of its traffic. Nevertheless, by making it possible for large ships to
sail uninterrupted from the Atlantic to Lake Superior and back, the seaway has played a vital role in Canada’s growth
and prosperity over the past half century.
The waterway has proved indispensable in moving grain from the Canadian Prairies and the
American Midwest to terminals on the lower St. Lawrence for eventual delivery to export markets
around the world. Ships that hauled grain east would often refill their holds with iron ore
from the mines of Quebec and Labrador and sail up the St. Lawrence to the steel mills of
Hamilton, Nanticoke and Sault Ste.Marie and American manufacturing centres such as Cleveland,
Detroit and Chicago. All told, more than 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo — mostly bulk
commodities like grain, iron ore, coal, aggregates and road salt — have moved on the
system in its first 50 years.
Much of that cargo was carried before seismic upheavals in the international grain trade and the North American
manufacturing sector, however. The inland-shipping industry is striving to overcome the ripple effects of these economic
shifts, but there’s no guarantee of smooth sailing ahead.
|Comments on this article||Leave a comment|
After graduating from high school in New Brunswick, I had the opportunity to discover the wonderful Great Lakes regions as a deckhand. Even though the waters could be rough and cold at times, the spectacular scenery from Sept Isle, Quebec to the Great Lakes was wonderful. Everything was going well when I became seriously ill in Lake Michigan. The American Coast Guard was called in and I was airlifted to Grand Haven Michigan and subsequently transferred to Hackley Hospital in nearby Muskegon. Just got there in time as I was diagnosed with a ruptured appendix which required 21 days hospitalisation. I can remember some of the staff visiting me with their family. Still too sick to travel, after being discharged, I was offered a place to stay by one of the local staff. Amazing hospitality for an 18 year old Canadian so far away from home who did not know anyone in that community. This happened 36 years ago, and we have remained in contact for all these years. Your article on the Seaway brought back memories on this wonderful region and its people.
Excellent article but I offer one correction.There is one Newfoundlander aboard the CSL Spruceglen and that is Captain Mark Dillon.
A most interesting article with excellent images. Last week we purchased a print copy of your magazine. Your table of comparison, on the enclosed map "Using very little fuel ships carry tonnes of cargo". What is the range of transit times, in days (24 hour period) for a vessel to navigate from Montreal to Lake Ontario. How manny vessels passed the St. Lawrence Seaway - in both directions - in the 2008 shipping season? Without being a pessimist I believe that the 21st century will belong to the South-East Asian countries. The cargo shift from the North Atlantic to the Pacific is permanent. What are the concepts for assuring an economic future of the St. Lawrence Seaway?
Give another 10-15 years, with the melting of the Northcap, Port Churchill, MAN will become an integral part of the Transportation Axis Central Canada to the Caribbean Gulf region.
I like to wish the seaway authorities my heartfelt congratulations on the 50th anniversary of the seaway locks and shipping transport.
I sailed the Great lakes Between Holland and Chicago from 1963 till the end of 1969 when my company the
Orange Lijn ceased to excist on the Great Lakes, the company with all the names on her ships named after members of the Dutch Royal Family past and present. From 1966 till the end I was the pernament helmsman on board the Prins Philip Willem and I enjoyed going in and out the locks, being part of the bridge crew beside the Pilot and Captain. I remember several times when we arrived in Montreal when the pilot wanted "Thomas" on the bridge when he went through the locks, it felt good and steering the ship through the locks became a specialty for me. I felt the ship moving under my feet before the compass moved and very seldom had the pilot to give me any instructions changing course or any other course changes. I was there on the bridge had my food brought up etc. I was the most wonderful sailing experience for me and I hope to see the Great lakes one more time. One short story from me. While going down the Detroit river on out way home from Chicago the Pilot gave me an order the change course of ten degrees. You can do it slow, not to slow ofcourse or the way I did that time by turning the wheel hard over to port side and then after the ship was well on her way, very fast I turned the wheel all the way over to starboard side. By doing so the ship rocked back and forth like it was on the ocean and the pilot kept an eye on the compass and when the ship finally stop rocking the boat was perfectly on the given course the pilot gave me a wink and I could see that he enjoyed that very much and said so. The chief steward didn't like it as several pots and pans came off the stove in the galley and several officers spilled their soup into their laps, the time of that course change was 1300 Hours dinner time for the officers, will never forget that incident.
Hope to see this in your next magazine.
I live now in Edmonton but still enjoy the salty water.
Thank for putting this article in your magazine.
Thomas de Jong former 1st class sailor Dutch Merchant Marine " ORANJE LIJN " 1663 - 1969
Thank you for this great article. I loved the interactive clip on the Internet on how the locks work. How sad that our roads take us away from waterways, so Canadians have lost touch with how vital they are and how much a part of our history. As I looked at the photos, I realized I could only identify one place the bridge at Montréal. So although I have traveled widely in Canada, I have never seen any of the locks in the system. The article has given me the thought to travel along the St Lawrence Seaway to see for myself the locks operating and the towns near it. Why is there no tourist travel on the Seaway?
We enjoyed the well presented and informative article and supplementary information on the website. Learning the history of an important Canadian commerical success helps us to more fully appreciate what we see as we make pleasure craft excursions on parts of the system and the Great Lakes.