Part 1: The evolution of an idea

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a major transportation corridor, energy generator and tourist attraction that has a rich history as tumultuous as the rapids that once made it one of the most dangerous passageways in the new world. In a three-part series, the Winchester Press will explore the birth, construction and aftermath of a project that has left an indelible mark on our villages, our nation and our neighbours.

IROQUOIS – July 1, 1958 was a day filled with a range of emotions as wide as the waterway that evoked them, but whatever the feeling, one thing was clear, with the breech of the coffer dam, the landscape would be forever changed.

Man’s quest to control, conquer or otherwise divert water shapes a large part of our modern history and, consequently, our advancements as a civilization. The St. Lawrence River has long been a source of food, travel, commerce and leisure, but with changing needs of the surrounding population, so too the river has evolved.

There can be arguments made on whether that change has been good or bad but we’ll leave that to historians and the ultimate judge, the annals of time.

Main Street in old Morrisburg looking west in the early 1950s.

What is plainly clear is that our communities, our history and the way of life so many Canadians enjoy today, has been directly affected by this mighty waterway.

It played a crucial role in the settlement of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry.

When Chesterville was not yet a thought, nor even called by its original name of Armstrong Mills, the St. Lawrence played a key role in the village’s history.

The Merkley brothers were set to build a mill and settle a village on the picturesque shores of the Nation River. Lacking supplies and a barrel of whiskey for the bee they had planned after the erection of the mill, the brothers set out with their canoe and crossed the St. Lawrence to Waddington. On their return trip, their canoe upset, the brothers drowned and the village of Armstrong Mills would have to wait for another pioneer, Thomas Armstrong, to come along and finish the job they had started. So strong is the influence of the river that villages beyond sight of its shores owe much of their story to its temperament.

Many settlers, names that are still commonplace here today, travelled this waterway with nothing more than hope, a few tools, seeds and a dream of a better future to drive them forward.

The St. Lawrence River has always been a challenge to navigate. The river proper runs approximately 1,197 kilometres long from Lake Ontario past Québec City into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Early on it was recognized as a key shipping and military route.

In 1680, a 1.5-metre deep canal to bypass the Lachine Rapids between Lake St. Louis and Montreal was begun but wasn’t completed until 1824. The Royal Army Engineers completed work on four small canals, they were only 2.5 feet deep, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence at Montreal to connect Lake St. Louis to Lake St. Francis in 1783 – the first ever built on the St. Lawrence, and possibly in North America.

When the first Welland Canal was completed in 1833 it ushered in a new age of commerce and transport, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the first joint U.S.-Canadian Deep Waterways Commission was formed to study the feasibility of a Seaway. But, it remained a dream.

Just before the Second World War, the fourth Welland Canal was completed and became the first step in the completion of the modern Seaway.

Taking a look through history books does much to answer questions about construction, motivations and economic benefits for such a project, but it does little to truly measure the real driver of the forthcoming project – the human need to conquer nature.

Many historians maintain that if a project of this type and magnitude were presented today, it could never happen. When faced with the tidal wave of variables that needed to fall into place, including cross-border agreements, expropriation of land, construction costs, village reconstruction and the loss of historically significant buildings and sites, it’s hard to argue against that position. However, if history has taught us anything it’s that when the human mind wants what the human mind wants, little can stand in the way of it achieving its goal.

A view from the south canal bank of Riverside Drive, now under water, in old Morrisburg prior to the Seaway expansion.

One needs to look no further than the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China.

The $59-billion Yangtze River project created the world’s largest dam at a mile-and-a-half long and about 60 stories high. Three Gorges displaced about 1.5 million people and submerged hundreds of miles of farmland. While its electrical generation capacity is more than eight times greater than the Hoover Dam, it still only accounts for three per cent of China’s 2016 energy needs.

Libya has been working on the “Great Man-Made River” (GMR) project since 1985 and when completed in 2030, it will irrigate more than 350,000 acres of arable land. It is the largest irrigation project in the world.

As a whole, humans are susceptible to big ideas and more often than not our imaginations run wild with possibilities despite the lives, business, homes, culture and history it may obliterate. It is innately human to destroy in order to create.

As the Second World War came to a close and the world began to recover, the appetite for peace and prosperity was at an all-time high. The world had seen great horrors and an entire generation was determined to leave their mark in another way.

The conversation about the St. Lawrence Seaway had swirled for decades, but no serious headway had ever been achieved. In a Winchester Press editorial dated June 3, 1948 it seemed that the project was suddenly close to becoming a reality.

“With startling suddenness the possibilities of the Long Sault hydro-electric development came back into the news spotlight on the weekend with announcement by Governor Dewey of New York and Premier Drew of Ontario. The mass of Canadians and Americans in this section had presumed the 30-year-old plan had been shelved for good following its rough treatment by the U.S. Senate in March.”

Although the new plan was initially a hydro-electric project divorced from the Seaway, it did much to pique public interest in a deeper waterway on the St. Lawrence River. Increased trade pressures eventually led to a joint Canadian-U.S. Deep Waterways Commission to again study the feasibility of what will eventually become the St. Lawrence Seaway.

By 1951, the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority Act and the International Rapids Power Development Act allowed Canadians to begin navigation works on the Canadian side of the river from Montreal to Lake Ontario, as well as in the Welland Canal. At the same time, a joint U.S.-Canadian project began power works in the International Rapids section of the St. Lawrence.

It was a short three years later in 1954 that the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority was established by an act of parliament with the mandate to acquire lands to construct, operate and maintain a deep draft waterway between the port of Montreal and Lake Erie.

A plan that had sputtered for decades was suddenly becoming a reality. A landscape that had existed for generations was about to be altered beyond recognition.
How could this be so? How could a project spanning thousands of miles, involving multiple nations, numerous treaties, thousands of acres of farmland and affecting innumerable lives become a reality so quickly?

People always heard rumours of a plan, but the questions always outweighed the certainties. Was it possible to tame the boiling rapids? Would people simply move off the land they had inherited from their forefathers, the earliest settlers of the counties? Who would pay for this massive project? One can only imagine the conversations that occurred in diners, barbershops and taverns along the St. Lawrence and beyond.

One can read volumes of historical data and never really find the true turning point in a project that has reshaped a landscape and a country.

But what is possible to surmise from the waves of pictures, dates, names and other data is that the Seaway project was the result of a generation dreaming big.

Did it have negative ramification on the population? Of course it did. Would the population and land be better off had it never happened? Maybe. Did some people benefit from the construction? Absolutely.

What was once seen as an impassable waterway and an impossible project had become a reality.

A day may come when the Seaway is no longer necessary and the shores recede to the levels once known only a few decades ago, but it will always stand as a testament to human spirit and perseverance.