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Seaway's 50th Anniversary - a Celebration or Not?

The year was 1959.

The Barbie doll debuted; Simon Cowell, American Idol's most hated judge, was born and both Alaska and Hawaii were officially declared states. However, there was one significant event that helped to put the Thousand Islands region on the map, one of North America’s most fascinating man-made wonders was opened for world-wide shipping.

On April 25, 1959 two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers made their way through the St. Lambert Lock in Montreal to clear the way for what was about to come. Ships from across the world would begin commercial shipping along the St. Lawrence Seaway and throughout the Great Lakes thanks to a joint partnership between the United States and Canadian governments, helping to increase trading across international borders and within the interior of North America.

On June 26 with the world watching, government leadership and royalty came together as U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Seaway as the Royal Yacht Britannia made its way through the St. Lambert and Cote Ste-Catherine Locks. They would proceed up river to Massena, New York where the following day they would meet up with U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon for a formal dedication ceremony.

"The St. Lawrence Seaway presents to the world a 2,300 mile waterway of locks, and man-made channels. Its completion is a tribute to those farsighted and persevering people who across the years pushed forward to their goal despite decades of disappointments and setbacks. We pause to salute those who have shared in this task," said President Eisenhower in front of a crowd in the small Upstate New York town. The Queen added “we can say in truth that this occasion deserves a place in history.”

When shipping began it was a Seaway regular that would be the first commercial shipping line to make the St. Lawrence trek. The Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) was the first to send a vessel on the magnificent waterway. Now, fifty years later, it was a Canada Steamship Lines boat that again would have the honor of being the first through the Lock doors in Montreal. "We were very honored to have been asked by the Seaway to provide a ship for this, the 50th anniversary of the Seaway. It was even that much more important due to the fact that it was the CSL vessel Simcoe that originally opened the seaway in 1959" said Gerald Carter, President of the division Canada Steamship Lines. The 730-foot Spruceglen held the honor this spring as it was set to embark on a trip to Ashtabula, Ohio. Festivities were in full bloom in Montreal as confetti shot through the air while the large vessel inched forward in the lock and broke a blue ribbon that draped across the water from wall-to-wall as a way to signify the cutting of the ribbon to open the season. Celebrations in Montreal were only the beginning of a summer of celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Plans are coming together and will continue throughout the summer on both sides of the border. One event includes a weekend filled with activities in that same small Upstate town of Massena. Beginning on Friday, July 10, Opening Ceremonies will be held at the Dwight Eisenhower Lock, named after the President who presided over the event fifty years ago, as well as concert in the park. Then, on that Saturday the town will come to life as a parade strolls through town. The weekend will wrap up on Sunday with an open house at the Lock and all are invited to attend.

However, this anniversary isn’t a party to everyone.

Like any type of business there is a need to transport goods and the Seaway has acted as an effective, logical method for companies in need of moving raw bulk goods from port to port. “This bi-national waterway was created to provide safe, reliable, and economical transportation of bulk commodities vital to the many industries in this region: automobiles, chemicals, power generation, agriculture, steel production, and mining, to name a few,” according to St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation Administrator Collister Johnson Jr. “For 50 years, the Seaway has fulfilled this mandate exceedingly well.  In the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway Study, published in 2007 by Transport Canada and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it was noted that the Great Lakes Seaway System annually saves shippers almost $3 billion in transportation and handling charges that they would otherwise have incurred had they used other modes of transportation.”

But, between economic hard times and ecological imbalance, the Seaway sits on the minds of many others who are affected by this massive water highway. It’s been expressed that shipping along the Seaway has wreaked havoc on shorelines, spawning beds and has also introduced invasive species. Along with that, add in today’s economic situation and disaster could be lurking.

“The Seaway has chronically over promised and under-delivered,” said Jennifer Caddick, Executive Director of Save The River. Caddick, like many environment watchdogs, has strong views on the river which she has grown to love. “Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River communities were promised an ‘economic renaissance’, but instead, we were handed significant environmental problems. Instead of celebrating, the Seaway must honestly examine the past 50 years of damages and begin taking immediate steps to fix the problems.”

This very thought is being tested today as the United States faces financial difficulties. Across the Great Lakes there are ports downsizing, steel mills shutting down and shipping lines not even considering putting ships in the water. Headlines from port city newspapers are reading “Little coal and no ore shipped out” – Duluth News Tribune, “Layoff 190 Quebec workers indefinitely” – The Canadian Press and “Cutbacks and layoffs ripple across U.S. industries” – Green Bay Press Gazette. The burden of a downfall reaches so many such as when car manufacturing companies stop producing vehicles, then steel mills stop making steel, which in turn then effects shipping companies who have no products to ship and ports who have no ships to unload.

Some of the problems and concerns, such as Caddick’s, are being addressed.

In 2008 the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation set regulations that would require all oceangoing vessels with no ballast water in their tanks to conduct saltwater flushing within the tanks prior to entering the Seaway. In addition, more inspections were made of ballast water tanks compared to those made in 2007. “The new Seaway regulations, along with those of Transport Canada and the U.S. Coast Guard and best management practices, strengthen environmental oversight of oceangoing ships prior to entering the Seaway,” said  SLSDC Administrator Collister Johnson, Jr.  “This collective inspection regime is critical to preventing the further introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes.”

Despite new regulations and stronger approaches by watchdogs along with a poor economy, only one can speculate as to what the future may hold for a Seaway that is now a half century old, but continuing to flow. In the meantime, celebrate the phenomenon that is known by so many as The River.

For more information on the St. Lawrence Seaway 50th Anniversary, log onto and for more information on the work done by Save The River, log onto

By Michael Folsom/

Michael Folsom is a regular contributor to TI Life.  Michael is an avid ship watcher who currently hosts a web site,, where he tracks ships and reports on various Seaway happenings. His work has been featured in the Thousand Islands Sun, as well as on and This spring he provided a countdown clock to signal the opening of this year's season.  When not watching ships or writing about them, Michael works for the Syracuse Crunch, a professional hockey team. He and his wife Christie live in Central New York.

Posted in: History, Event
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Bill Stallan
Comment by: Bill Stallan ( )
Left at: 7:30 PM Sunday, April 19, 2009
Great article and I find it unbelievable that this is the first I've heard about the 50th anniversary!
Can you imagine Niagara Falls keeping such an important event a secret?
Maybe that's why they enjoy so much more tourism!
Hopefully the controls proposed can protect the ecology of the river and the lakes and keep these great ships traveling through here?