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July 10, 2009

My Canada Day 2009 – A Look at the St. Lawrence Seaway on its 50th Anniversary

My column in Community Voices has to be submitted on the Wednesday prior to publication the following week.  Today,as I write, is Wednesday July first so you will see this July 9th outside  North Bay and July 10th in North Bay.  Since July 1st is Canada Day I decided to muse a bit on some Canadian history - the 50th Anniversary of the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

The Seaway is of interest to me because I grew up in Port Colborne on the south end of  the Welland Canal and the canal - a 43km – 8 lock section of the Seaway, is part of my family history.  I hadn’t been to Port Colborne in 4 years until last week when I visited relatives and toured the city including the canal and related development. 

Welland Canal (St. Lawrence Seaway) showing twin bridges in Port Colborne  From Jenish book.

I picked up a copy of the book The Historic Welland Canal by Derek R. Miller which tells the story of the 4 Welland Canals prior to the Seaway . The  book is  subtitled “The Historic Welland Canals of Port Colborne” (available at the Port Colborne Historical and Marine Museum). 

My maternal grandfather worked as a diver on the 4th Canal which finished in 1932 when I was 1 year old.  He was a second generation member of a 6 generation family that still lives in a house in Port Colborne built in 1879. (My grandfathers  brother was born 142 years ago  – believe it or not – on July 1, 1867.) 

My dad worked as an accountant at the government elevator on the canal and I worked summers at the Inco Refinery which was there because of the canal.  My first job as a 16 year old was assistant lightkeeper one summer on the lighthouse a mile out in Lake Erie where the ships passed. 

When I became a teacher I taught on the opposite side of the canal from where I lived and spent many moments waiting for the lift bridge to come down so I could get home or to school.  I also walked the nearby railway bridge hundreds of times when I was a teenager because my girlfriend lived on the other side of the canal.  After four years we got married on July 6, 1950 , had several children there who also experienced the canal as we lived there for a decade  A 17 year old Port Colborne cousin Lee Spencer went sailing on a canal boat The Cyprus and drowned in Lake Superior (see my article online on September 28, 2007)  Powerful memories on Canada Day. 

The first canal was built 175 years ago and the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed  50 years ago in 1959.  On June 26, 1959 with the world watching 33 year old Queen Elizabeth got off the Royal Yacht Britannia and met President Eisenhower to open the Seaway.  The Canadian Steamship Lines based in Port Colborne put the first boat through the Seaway  as it did last week on the 50th  when its 730 foot Sprucegreen went through.  There were many  celebrations on the 50th including one in St. Catharines on Saturday June 27th at the Welland Canal Centre at Lock 3. 

The St. Lawrence Seaway 

A new book The St. Lawrence Seaway: Fifty Years and Counting by D’Arcy Jenish is available at Penumbra Press and is also available online.  It has many photographs that indicate the monumental  scale of the Seaway project allowing the Atlantic Ocean into the heart of Canada and the U.S. to Lake Superior. 

New book The St. Lawrence Seaway: Fifty Years & Counting by D’Arcy JenishPenumbra Press.

The Globe & Mail had a 2 page spread on Saturday June 27th.  It noted that the “engineering marvel finished on time and under budget.”  It took 22,000 workers four years and nine months to build the 306 kilometre stretch from Montreal to Lake Ontario.  They also built various hydro electric dams.  

The Globe & Mail stated that “the seaway, arguably the world’s most impressive inland waterway at a cost that would today top 7 billion (U.S.) transformed centres along its shores, opening new markets and churning out a reliable stream of electricity.” 


Now 50 years later there are concerns.  The seaway saltwater ships brought as many as 57 water creatures including the invasive sea lamfrey and zebra mussels into the great lakes with devastating results.  Much has been done to correct the problem and prevent more problems. 

The Seaway with its fixed locks restricts the length of ship that can pass and the world has developed remarkable vessels that cannot pass through making revenue production an issue when only smaller ships can be used 

The advantages outweigh the problems and the incredible Seaway which raises and lowers hundreds of ships some 180 metres from sea level to Lake Superior is a feat to be celebrated now 50 years after its opening on Canada Day2009 

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