Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Queen’s Big Gig in North America

Liz and Ike do their thing.

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II has recently gotten a lot of attention on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee on the Throne of the United Kingdom and various remnants of a once world girdling Empire.  We are reminded that she favors enormous hats color coordinated shapeless outfits and accented by a few eye popping jewels and that she can wave from an open carriage like nobody’s business.

But these days she often seems more like a backdrop for the sexier story of her handsome, if balding, grandson and his ravishing new brunette wife.  This story line has finally eclipsed the arc of young Prince Williams’s feckless father, Charles, Prince perpetually in waiting, his own ill used beauty, the hapless Dianne, and the horse faced mistress who he long yearned to be in the knickers of. 

But once she could hold the attention of a continent.

On June 26, 1959 Queen Elizabeth and President Dwight D. Eisenhower were on hand for the ceremonial opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. 

For the first time ocean going ships had access to lake ports deep within the industrial and agricultural heartlands of Canada and the United States.  Buffalo, Toronto, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Duluth all became deep water ports. 

The first ship, an icebreaker, led other vessels on the transit in April.  But the grand pageantry marking the official opening after 5 years of construction riveted the attention of both nations. 

The Queen hosted the President on the Royal Yacht Britannia.  They boarded at Lambert, Ontario to sail through the first lift locks on their way to another ceremony the next day at Massena, New York. 

Connecting the Atlantic with the inland waters was a dream as old as the French settlement along the shores of the St. Lawrence River.  The Lakes, considerably higher than the river east of Montreal, were made inaccessible to shipping by a series of rapids and falls and by shallow passages between Lakes Ontario and Erie. 

Small canals connecting portions of the route were being dug by hand in the 18th Century.  In 1862 the British built locks on the St. Lawrence making Lake Ontario accessible to ships up to 186 ft. long, 44 ft. 6 in wide, and 9 ft. deep. 

At the same time the Welland Canal, running north-south from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie roughly following the Niagara River could accommodate ships up to 142 ft. long, 26 ft wide, and 10 ft. deep.  Even then they were too small for ocean going ships. 

Proposals for a new, greatly expanded canal and loch system date to 1909, invariably pushed by the Canadian government.  For almost 40 years the United States turned aside every proposal for a joint undertaking because of objections from American railroads, Atlantic port operators, and the cities along the route of the Erie Canal, which had long diverted lake trade from Lake Erie to the Hudson River and then to the Atlantic at New York City.  All stood to lose trade to a new cannel system. 

In 1951 the impatient Canadians announced that they were prepared to act unilaterally.  Afraid of being totally shut out of the new trade, Congress finally agreed to participate in the construction in 1954.  The canal cost $470 million in pre-inflation U.S. dollars of which the Canadian government paid $336.2 million and the U.S, only $133.8 million. 

The St. Lawrence Seaway Authority was charged with construction and maintenance of required facilities in Canada; the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation was responsible for facilities in the United States.  Besides dredging channels in the St. Lawrence, building lift locks and port facilities, the required dams also were used to power hydro-electric generators.  The electrical production aspect of the project was responsible for generating political support from a reluctant Congress. 

Seven locks were built in the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the Seaway, five Canadian and two U.S., in order to lift vessels to 246 ft. above sea level. The 28-mile Welland Canal was the fourth along that route since the first canal was built in 1829. The Seaway deepened the 1932 ditch as part of the overall project and straightened the route in 1973. Today its eight locks, all Canadian, lift ships 326 ft. over the Niagara Escarpment. 

The route also had to adapt to low bridges.  Engineers devised a system to raise bridge central spans to allow ships to pass underneath. 

Today, through improved use of ice breaker and other technology, the Seaway system is open an average of 272 days from April to early November.  In 2009 3,631 vessels passed through some or all of the system with a combined total of 37,021,275 tons.  Most traffic is in bulk cargos of grain, coal, iron ore, and paper pulp products.  On the St. Lawrence section ocean going tankers bring in petroleum. 

Shipment of general cargo is limited because the locks cannot accommodate large modern container ships.  Containers must be transferred to or from smaller vessels.  A proposal is being considered to upgrade the system for container ships—and is predictably being resisted by the same interests in the U.S. that opposed the Seaway fifty years ago.  As feared the Seaway system tolled the death knell for the Erie Canal and contributed to the economic decline of several Up State New York cities.  Buffalo, the terminus of the Erie Canal, however, has benefitted by increase in ocean going traffic on the Lake.  A side effect of reduced use of the Erie Canal is less barge traffic on the Hudson River, which has contributed to the cleaning up of those waters. 

On the other hand the St. Lawrence system has allowed invasive species like the destructive Zebra mussels to reach the fresh water great lakes.

Fifty-three years after doing her regal best to the strains of military bands and long after her ceremonial partner President Eisenhower has gone and nine others have taken his place in the White House, the Queen can look back at a useful day’s work.

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