MASSENA, N.Y. (AP) -- Working 90 feet above the ground, pouring buckets of
concrete that would harden into a 195-foot-high dam the length of 11
football fields, a teenage Frank Wicks knew even then he wasn’t on just
“We had a real sense of excitement. At the time it was going on, it was the
world’s biggest construction project. We knew we were part of history,” said
Wicks, who worked on construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway after
graduating from Massena High School in 1957.
“I remember growing up, people were always talking about it. Now, it’s kind
of been forgotten,” said Wicks, now 70 and a mechanical engineering
professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.
Hailed as one of North America’s top engineering marvels and one of the most
important public works of the 20th century, the $470 million project -- of
which Canada funded $336 million and the U.S. about $134 million -- linked
the Great Lakes interior industrial hubs to the Atlantic Ocean.
It was branded by some as obsolete before it was even finished and today is
an obscure footnote in history for many Americans. Yet for a half century it
was the defining issue in American-Canadian relations and even now is
regarded as one of the country’s most durable deeds of diplomacy.
Stretching 265 miles along the U.S. border with Canada from Montreal to Lake
Ontario, the Seaway replaced the river’s old 14-foot-deep, 30-lock canal
system with 27-foot-deep channels, 15 locks and an international hydrodam.
Since it opened in 1959, more than 2.5 billion tons of cargo -- mostly
grain, iron ore and steel -- valued at more than $375 billion have passed
through the Seaway.
The Moses-Saunders dam provides low-cost power to more than 1 million
consumers in the two countries.
Queen Elizabeth II, President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard
Nixon came to Massena to christen the shipping route. Fifty years later,
there will be no royal or presidential appearances during a weekend of 50th
anniversary events that began Thursday -- possibly a statement about the
Seaway’s present and future.
As the global economy has faltered, freight levels have dropped for the past
two years and cargo levels were down 40 percent for the first two months of
the current shipping season, according to Seaway officials.
“Over its time, it has played a major role in the economy of the Great
Lakes. In the future, it can still be a very relevant feature to the
region’s economy, even if it’s just one of many features,” said Collister
Johnson Jr., administrator for the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.,
which runs the American portions of the system.
The Seaway was created between 1954 and 1959 by taming a 44-mile stretch of
rapids, temporarily diverting the St. Lawrence River and flooding six
Canadian villages. More than 22,000 workers excavated 360 million tons of
earth and poured 6 million cubic yards of concrete, completing the project
three years ahead of schedule.
The idea of northern deep-water shipping route was first raised by a joint
U.S.-Canadian commission in the 1890s. For the next half-century, U.S. and
Canadian politicians debated its merits.
Cold War-era American politicians were finally won over by the Seaway’s
national security potential -- an inland waterway protected ships and
submarines in the event of an attack -- and its potential for fostering
industrial growth in America’s heartland, while Canada desperately needed
the power from the dam, said Claire Puccia Parham, a history instructor at
Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., and author of the recently published
“The St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project: An Oral History of the Greatest
Construction Show on Earth.”
“It’s in an isolated location and it basically sits there doing nothing
spectacular. Most Americans are unaware of the Herculean accomplishment the
Seaway was in terms of engineering, construction and diplomacy,” said
Parham, who interviewed more than four dozen former workers for her book,
The Seaway is credited with creating and preserving millions of jobs in
Canada and the Great Lakes states but it did little to transform New York’s
For a five-year span during its construction, the project brought widespread
prosperity to the region. The influx of outsiders also brought a fleeting
jolt of cultural awakening and worldliness to the less sophisticated,
tradition-steeped rural communities.
“Locally, it turned out most benefits were short-lived,” said Brian Chezum,
a labor economics professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. “The
Seaway was viable as a commercial venture largely because of the benefits
generated by hydropower. This stands in sharp contrast to the estimates that
were used to support the project which generally expected a much larger
impact from navigation.”
Although an engineering milestone, the project had its blemishes. The locks
were supposed to be 100 feet wide, but the American government capitulated
to Canadian shippers and kept the locks at 80 feet. That meant the
transoceanic freighters would have to unload in Montreal, and then pay local
companies to take their cargo the rest of the way on smaller ships.
“It could have been more than it was. People said it was obsolete the day it
was completed because it wasn’t big enough for oceangoing vessels,” said
On the positive side, not allowing transoceanic vessels into Lake Ontario
likely preserved The Thousand Islands region as a recreational destination.
“Tourism wasn’t something they talked about in the 1950s, but it has been
maybe the one lasting benefit for the local region,” Chezum said.
While the Seaway has had a productive past, officials concede its future is
This year marks the beginning of the biggest infrastructure investment in
the Seaway’s history. In March, Congress nearly doubled the Seaway’s annual
budget to $32 million. The extra money, like a similar Canadian investment,
is part of a 10-year project to modernize and maintain the system.
The Associated Press
Here are some facts about the St. Lawrence Seaway:
--Opened to deep-water navigation April 25, 1959.
--More than 2.5 billion tons of cargo have passed through, valued at more
than $375 billion.
--Stretches 265 miles from Montreal to mid-Lake Erie
--Has five sections (from east to west): Lachne, Soulanges, Lake St.
Francis, International Rapids, Thousand Islands.
--Part of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System, the world’s longest
deep draft inland waterway, extending 2,340 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to
the head of the Great Lakes.
--15 locks, 13 Canadian.
--Maximum vessel size is 740 feet in length, with a 78-foot beam and
26-foot, 6-inch draft.
--Built with 6 million cubic yards of concrete and by dredging and
excavating 360 million tons of earth.
--Agricultural products represent about 40 percent of Seaway trade, with
another 40 percent in mining products -- iron ore, coal, coke, salt and
--Governed by the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. in Canada and the St.
Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. in the United States.