Our Own Three Gorges: Would We Build the St. Lawrence Seaway Today?

construction st lawrence seaway photo

Almost fifty years ago, President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth opened the St. Lawrence Seaway, built to generate electricity and open Great Lakes ports to to ocean-going ships. 100 square miles of land, including six villages, home to 6,500 people, were submerged, "sacrificed at the altar of shipping and hydro-electric power," as Peter Gorrie of the Star puts it. Robert Moses on the American side, and Robert Saunders on the Canadian, bulldozed it through.

"In the '50s there was no such thing as protests," Jane Craig of the Lost Villages Historical Society says. "When the government said something was going to be done, it was done. It couldn't happen today the way it happened, for sure. The protest groups that would be out there – I just couldn't see it."

So they just went ahead and did it. But was is worth it?

eisenhower and queen Elizabeth photo

President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth at the dedication of the St. Lawrence Seaway with Queen Elizebeth on June 26, 1959
Electricity production from the St. Lawrence
According to the Star, Canada gets 1,045 megawatts, enough to power Ottawa. The USA gets almost as much.


An economic boom on the Great Lakes?

Visit Toronto's outer harbour, built in the early 60s to handle increased shipping traffic- lots of rowers and seagulls, but no ships- containerization made it much cheaper to dump stuff in Halifax or Montreal than to bring it through the seaway.


Environmental Effects of the St. Lawrence Seaway

The Lamprey Eel devastated the Great Lakes Fisheries, killing off much of the Lake Trout. The Zebra Mussel was brought in the ballast water of ocean going ships, disrupted ecosystems and clogged water intakes for boats, power plants and water supplies, causing $5 Billion in damages each year, more than it cost to build the whole seaway. There is even talk now of banning ocean-going ships from the Great Lakes altogether, to prevent further ecological damage:

"The comment that ocean vessels are essential to the economy of the Great Lakes region and that the economy would somehow suffer without them is simply not correct," said John Taylor, a logistics professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Taylor, a lead author on the report, says banning ocean vessels from the lakes would cost shippers the "relatively small amount" of $55 million for alternate transport. (Hamilton Spectator)


Billions Spent on a Big Bust

Economically, things did not quite work out as planned; where it was expected that "The Seaway would bring the world's goods straight to Toronto and beyond. Iron ore from Labrador would feed booming steel mills. Our wheat and other resources would flow to the Atlantic. Electricity would light Ontario homes and run factories. On the American side, it would power new aluminum smelters." - the goods moved by rail, the steel mills are almost all closed down, our wheat and resources tend to go south or west rather than east. Environmentally, it was a disaster for the Great Lakes Ecosystem.

It is a difficult issue. Are megaprojects based on megavisions doomed to failure? Are we better off with Hoover Dam and the Tennesee Valley projects than we would be without them? Certainly if the St. Lawrence Seaway was being considered today, a lot more questions would be asked before it went ahead.

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