The St. Lawrence Project

Section 2

By the early 1950s Canada had been waiting almost thirty years for the Americans to come around and finally had enough. Robert Hood Saunders, former lawyer and mayor of the city of Toronto from 1945 to 1948, provided much of the impetus for the St Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. After his departure from politics in 1948, he assumed the Chairmanship of Ontario Hydro and immediately grasped the seriousness of the situation. In a series of speeches made from 1948 to 1951, he began forecasting that massive price increases would need to be put in place by the late 1950s, unless the Seaway project was completed.

Drawing of projectDiagram of proposed Seaway [ca. 1955]

In 1951 the Canadian government, finally convinced the situation was becoming critically urgent, announced it would be going ahead with the the Seaway project and alone if necessary. They also added that if they went alone on the project, it would be built entirely on Canadian soil. The ploy worked and in 1952 the U.S. and Canada negotiated an agreement and sought the necessary approvals to get the project rolling. Licences were issued in 1953 and construction of the International St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project officially began on August 10th, 1954. Unfortunately Robert Saunders didn't live to see the completion of the Seaway. He was killed in an airplane crash in 1955. The Robert H. Saunders Dam was named in his honour.

The Seaway project was actually a twofold venture. Its primary purpose was to provide Eastern Ontario and Upstate New York with much needed low-cost hydroelectric power. On the other hand, it involved replacing the antiquated 110 year-old Cornwall Canal with a system that could handle the larger ocean-going shipping vessels and provide greater access to the inland ports on the Great Lakes.

Model3D model [ca. 1955]

The project involved building three dams and two powerhouses. The centre dam would be used for hydroelectric power with a powerhouse sitting on each side of the border. Two more dams, one on each side of the hydro dam, would regulate the water height behind the hydro dam. In the process, the water height would be raised; forming a 30-mile long man made lake or headpond, 90 feet deep, over top the Long Sault Rapids. The rapids would finally be tamed and harnessed. Five locks would replace the twenty-one locks on the old Cornwall Canal. The lake would be called Lake St Lawrence. More than 25,000 people were employed in the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the total cost ended up at more than a billion dollars.

The sheer scale and magnitude of Seaway project was almost impossible to fathom. Although the American lake ports would be the prime beneficiaries, the project was conceived and initiated by Canada, who also paid two thirds of the cost. From 1954 to 1958, local residents watched with excitement and fascination as the engineers diverted the water first into north and then into the south channels of the waters surrounding Long Sault Island. Eagerly they combed the dry rocks of once fearsome Long Sault looking for relics, treasures and souvenirs. However the project was not without its casualties.