Remembering a River: The St. Lawrence Seaway at 60

Seen in image above: This was the last of many houses that were uprooted and moved to more northern locations as the Seaway widened. Photo provided by Craig Stevenson

Guest column
by Craig Stevenson

With a series of blasts on the morning of July 1, 1958, the river was forever changed.

It is a curious thing about history, that what once were such familiar stories become old and forgotten, and then, when rediscovered, often seen in a new light. That is true of this year’s sixtieth anniversary of the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Once famous internationally, it has faded from public attention to the point that it is entirely conceivable that the vast majority of Canadians—even many living locally—are unaware that the great waterway once took a very different form along the front of Stormont and Dundas counties.

That fact, while not strange, should give pause for thought. It is no great stretch to suggest that the creation of the Seaway remains the most significant event to have occurred in this area.

An overview, then.

I was reminded recently—by an uncle who started his engineering career working on the Iroquois lock—that the Seaway was not a single and isolated development, but rather the latest in a long series of attempts to convert a difficult section of the St. Lawrence into a more efficient and productive waterway.

Very true. As the Great Lakes region grew in population in both the United States and Canada, and as each country developed industrial economies, the river served two very clear purposes: to transfer people and products, and to generate power. By the mid-20th century, the St. Lawrence was well-established as a shipping route and, where possible, its current was harnessed to generate hydro-electricity.

By the end of World War Two, however, the scale of growth in North America exceeded the limitations imposed by the most challenging section of the St.Lawrence—and those limitations were right here, along the front of Dundas and Stormont counties, where the “International Rapids” section of the river broke it into stretches of swift whitewater, water too shallow and rocky to navigate, and bypassed by a series of almost-obsolete canals that could only accommodate small ships.

Both Canada and the United States had considered this situation for several decades, and the booming post-war economy pushed the two countries toward an agreement in the early 1950s to increase the shipping capacity of the St. Lawrence and harness its full hydro-electric potential by damming it, raising its level significantly, and dredge out a much deeper shipping channel.

Seen in image above: St. Lawrence River near the time of the Seaway’s completion. Photo provided by Craig Stevenson

In 1954 representatives from both countries broke the dirt ceremoniously on the project, and work proceeded quickly over the following four years. With a tremendous collaborative effort brought to bear  on the construction project, the St. Lawrence region between Iroquois and Cornwall was altered permanently and beyond recognition. Sections of the river were diverted and the rapids drained strategically to allow the construction of a massive hydro-electric generation facility at Cornwall, water control dams at Massena and Iroquois, and modern shipping locks at each end of the project area to allow ocean-going vessels to overcome the 83-foot difference in water level between Cornwall and Iroquois.

All of that, however, was simply the technical end of the project. There remained a significant human element to this story, as the raised water levels were to create an impoundment that would inundate the many communities scattered along the length of the project area. And so—at a time when the word of authority was taken with less questioning than today—residents in the soon-to-be flooded areas generally accepted all of this as “progress”, negotiated the terms of relocation with the Ontario’s hydro authorities, and moved on to new lives in new communities. Gradually, places with names like Aultsville and Dickinson’s Landing and Wales were physically eradicated in preparation for the date that they would cease to exist on the map entirely, or—in the cases of Iroquois and Morrisburg—altered in shape, nearly beyond recognition.

Seen in image above: Night view of the Long Sault Spillway Dam construction. Part of the St.Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. Photo taken by the Power Authority of the State of New York. Photo provided by Craig Stevenson.

The date with destiny—July 1, 1958—arrived, and the waters rose, and the “world’s greatest construction project” commenced to turn out electricity and facilitate a more effective shipping route into the interior of the North American industrial heartland. A year later, at the official opening ceremonies in Montreal and Cornwall, one last burst of international prominence came with the speeches and signatures of Queen Elizabeth II, American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, and vice-president Richard Nixon.

And it left behind an entirely new landscape, populated by people now living in Long Sault and Ingleside, and photographs and memories of places they could never again see or visit.

How long do those memories last, and how robustly do they endure? With surprising strength, considering that sixty years is stretching the horizons of human memory. There is no small amount of residual interest in the Seaway story, particularly among area residents who have clear memories of the river prior to the Seaway, and who lived in the villages lost to flooding. 

Seen in image above: Shoreline of Crysler Memorial mound. Photo provided by Craig Stevenson

But it goes well beyond that. There is an intrinsic and compelling story at the heart of this historical event that draws in people whose personal distance to the Seaway project is greater—people whose older family members lived along the river, people who visit the area and are taken by the image of roads leading off into water, divers who explore remnant locks, historians who see in the Seaway project the emergence of a very different, “modern” Canada.

Perceptions of the Seaway have also changed, or are perhaps expressed more openly. Several years ago, aerial photographer Louis Helbig took a remarkable set of low-level views of the flooded riverfront. In waters now very clear on account of the invasion of the zebra mussel into the St. Lawrence, Helbig created a vivid record of a world lost, the visual accompaniment to a range of emotional reactions: wistful nostalgia, regret, sadness at what was lost.

What all of this becomes is uncertain.

Does it prompt a renewed interest in the river and the riverfront as a place of intrinsic important to local communities? Does it lead to a public effort to express the Seaway story as a core element of this area’s historical identity? The current effort to recreate “old” Morrisburg in a riverside display seems intended to capture that spirit, and to recreate a link between land, water, and people that was severed so dramatically six decades ago.

The inundation of July 1958 was, indisputably, an ending—and, in retrospect, the end of much that was good. It was also the abrupt and highly visible start of something—and someplace—new. Binding those two eras together is a history that serves as an important foundation for a people, their place, their past, and their river.

Scroll down to share this article. Scroll down to search Scroll down to comment.