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The Seaway Turns 50!

The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System

On June 26, 1959, Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President Eisenhower presided over festivities that marked the opening of the modern Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway. Since then, more than 2.3 billion metric tons of cargo have traversed North America's inland seas.

Full transits of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean occurred long before 1959. What changed 50 years ago was the scale and efficiency of these transits. By overcoming geological obstacles from the Lachine Rapids to Niagara Falls, the modern Seaway is frequently cited as a remarkable engineering feat and a model of binational cooperation.

The concept of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway stretches back to at least 1895 when the first joint U.S.-Canadian Deep Waterways Commission deliberated its feasibility. Over the ensuing years, the U.S. and Canada drafted agreements, such as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. (The Boundary Waters Treaty, and the International Joint Commission that it formed, are celebrating 100 years of activity.)

Before there was a Welland Ship Canal, people skirted Niagara Falls on a portage road. Today's canal is the dramatically altered fourth version of the first Welland Canal. The first canal was completed 1829, in part to keep a merchant's mills operating. The modern Seaway became more than a pipedream as construction began on the Fourth Welland Canal in 1913.

The Fourth Welland Canal began moving vessels between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie in 1932. Eight locks, all Canadian, lift ships 326 feet (100 meters) over the Niagara Escarpment. The canal was deepened in the 1950s, and straightened in 1973. Unfortunately, the canal let more than ships through. According to the National Center for Research on Aquatic Invasive Species (ww.glerl.noaa.gov/res/Programs/ncrais), sea lamprey are one of a dozen non-native species that entered the Upper Great Lakes through the Welland Ship Canal. About 75 non-native species have been brought into and moved around the Great Lakes by shipping activities.

The final push for completing the locks and dams defining the modern Seaway took four years. Bridges were modified, new channels were dug, and excavators uncovered rock formations so tough that they had to call for stronger machinery. Related power development flooded hundreds of acres of Canadian land, including a small group of communities that are collectively known as the Lost Villages.

This truly international waterway is worth celebrating now more than ever. Built, owned, and managed by the U.S. and Canada under international treaty law, its locks and dams give commercial trading vessels inter-lake and ocean access. Today, maritime activities in the Seaway exceed $9 billion (U.S.) per year in regional revenues. The Seaway principally handles mining and agricultural commodities at the center of a $100 billion value chain.

Seaway Facts:

  • 3,700 km (2,342 miles) from the Duluth-Superior Harbor to the ocean
  • Utilizes 6 canals and 19 locks
  • Maximum vessel dimensions: 225.5 m (740 ft.) length; 23.7 m (78 ft.) beam; 8.08 m (26 ft., 6 in.) draft; 35.5 m (116.5 ft.) height above water
  • Almost 25% of the traffic travels to and from overseas ports
  • A specialized laker fleet conducts business only on the Great Lakes

Great Lakes maritime trade has dealt with serious challenges since the opening of the Seaway. Issues like vessel capacity and fluctuating markets are joined by other concerns like biological pollution from ship ballast exchange, a market shift from Europe to Asia, tolls, structural repairs, dredging, and added costs due to post-9-11 security requirements. However, maritime trade on the Great Lakes remains competitive and demand on maritime transportation is projected to increase.

The appeal of marine transportation is this: it's twice as fuel efficient as rail, and ten-times as efficient as trucking. Furthermore, fossil fuel and pollutant emissions are much lower for shipping than they are for trucking the same bulk. Maritime transportation removes congestion from roadways, and leads to fewer deaths and injuries than overland transport options. The increasingly compelling reasons to move goods over water are inspiring more interest in ballast water legislation, vessel emissions reduction, port facility issues, and coastal land use.

The maritime industry is becoming innovative and incorporating new technologies. New inter-modal systems are being leveraged, new public/private partnerships have been formed, and governments are beginning to coordinate and cooperate to facilitate the flow of goods on an unprecedented scale. Canada and the U.S. are working closely and cooperatively to address Great Lakes issues, and the maritime industry, academia, and regional communities are embracing the realities of sustainable development, as witnessed through interstate and bi-national efforts throughout the Great Lakes region.

Continuous improvements have made the Seaway a valuable asset to communities in the Great Lakes region. It will be exciting to follow the Soo Lock expansion project at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., which will create a second large lock between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes that will be able to accommodate the longest of the Great Lakes bulk carriers. At present the Poe is the only lock at the Soo large enough for these vessels that carry iron ore, coal and stone. Because of Congressman James Oberstar's (MN) efforts to eliminate local cost share, with adequate funding, construction of the new large lock is expected to take less than 10 years. The Sault Ste. Marie locks opened in 1855, over 100 years before the icebreaker "D'Iberville" began the first through transit of the modern Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway in late April 1959.

Moving forward into the next 50 years, the importance of the Seaway cannot be understated. Academia, industry, and governments will continue to unite in efforts to protect the environment, support efficient transportation, build sustainable wealth for costal communities, and support North American development and global trade. The Seaway exists and will continue to exist because of the need to move basic commodities to and from the midst of North America into national and global manufacturing supply chains.

By Dale Bergeron
September 2009

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