Closeup

The Gruel Seaway

It promised so much, delivered so little

David Thomas March 6 1978
Closeup

The Gruel Seaway

It promised so much, delivered so little

David Thomas March 6 1978

The Gruel Seaway

Closeup

The Nation

It promised so much, delivered so little

David Thomas

The deathly breath of winter has petrified the mid-continent’s artery to the open sea. Bullish icebreakers of the Canadian Coast Guard still ram their tough, red hulls through clots of ice and slush to maintain a ship channel to Montreal, but above the city, the St. Lawrence Seaway that nourishes Canada’s economy and national psyche is in suspended animation. This winter’s freeze ended a shipping season

that brought more goods than ever through that system of locks and canals. But the year also saw the dissolution of some proud myths held by Canadians ever since that sunny day in June 1959, when the royal yacht Britannia opened the fabulous new waterway to the heart of a continent. Now, in less than two decades, the Seaway is being acknowledged as a financial fiasco, its presence provokes talk not of na-

tional unity but of more division; Great Lakes cities are still awaiting the hoped-for economic miracles and, instead of the “bond between Americans and Canadians” anticipated by the late prime minister Louis St. Laurent, the Seaway has

proven to be another lever for U.S. manipulation of Canada’s finances.

Also this winter, the men and ships of the Seaway came closer to a calamitous finish to the shipping season than in any of the previous 18 years. Less than three weeks before the scheduled December 15 closing date, more than 150 oceangoing vessels were still above Montreal and another 20 were climbing the St. Lawrence River on their way into the Seaway system. The chances seemed flimsy that all could be cleared before the gates of the 15 locks between the Seaway entrance and its end at Port Colborne, Ontario, were welded shut by ice. At losses averaging $7,000 a

day for each ship, entrapment in the Great Lakes for the winter would mean financial disaster for their owners. Typical of those vessels caught up in the last-minute dash was the Split, a trim, blue Yugoslav freighter that slipped into the St. Lambert lock in Montreal harbor, the Seaway’s first step, late on the final Sunday of November.

Up on the wing of the Split’s bridge, Captain Filip Ruid wrapped the folds of his double-breasted greatcoat over the protruding bulk of his bon vivant’s belly and then pulled up the collar to save his closely barbered head from the night breeze stirring the black harbor surface

into fidgety wavelets. The approaching lock appeared much too narrow a squeeze, but Ruic knew there was plenty of room for the ship’s 8,000 tons. This was his fiftyfirst trip up the Seaway since 1960 and the climb from the Atlantic, through Quebec, New York and Ontario, was worn of its romance: “Don’t like the Seaway. Too many problems. Too much traffic. Every trip gets worse.”

Ruic’s dark mood was justified. First of

all, he shouldn’t have even been on this ship. The Split’s regular captain was called away because of an illness in his family and Ruic, supposedly on an extended vacation in Yugoslavia, was flown to Naples to take over command. Then the weather forecasts had been worsening ever since his ship had penetrated the continent four

days earlier, bound for Montreal, Toronto and Chicago with steel, basketware, tractors and cherries loaded aboard in Rijeka, Naples, Barcelona and Valencia. By the time she berthed in Montreal, prospects of escaping the ice were already so dim that the Toronto stop was canceled, at an instant loss of $20,000, and the Montreal stevedores worked through Friday night to clear the hold of Toronto cargo. A harbor pilot was due aboard in the early morning to guide the Split to the Seaway entrance. But it was snow that came instead. In fat, infuriating flakes that bleached the ship’s red deck. By Sunday, the sky had blued and the retina-cutting rays of a frigid sun bounced about the glassed spires of Montreal like chromed spheres in a pinball machine. But still there was no traffic in port. “Very bad news. Very bad,” frowned the captain, seated at his cabin desk under a portrait of an imposing, young Marshal Tito imperially gripping the rail of a ship in seas clearly more friendly than these. “Too much wind. Seaway is closed.”

Because their towering superstructures behave like unwanted sails, saltwater ships can be bashed about the narrow locks by stiff gusts like those that were beating down the St. Lawrence Valley. The Yugoslav master not quite achieved a smile before staring back down to a lengthening row of figures that told of the Split’s woes: “Every day like this costs us another $10,00.” By the time the wind had

dropped and the Split was floating upward on water rushing through submarine tunnels into St. Lambert lock, Ruic knew his voyage was heading for disaster, if not in the ice then at least on the balance sheet.

The Split’s sprint into the Seaway was reined to a halt before dawn. Without warning, fog quickly plugged Lake St. Francis, forcing ships to drop anchor before dawn. Becalmed, they waited for wind to carry off the condensed water vapor lifting in steamy puff's from the flat, steel grey surface and freezing to sugarcoat their rigging and the varnished wooden rails looping around their decks. To starboard of the Split, an Indian trader named Vishna Tej faded in and out of ghostly sight as the fog thinned to tantalize and then thickly close in again. Twice the Split chugged warily ahead only to drop the hook minutes later. A ship that brazenly ventures across dark, violent seas gropes in the crowded, confined Seaway like a blind man in a subway station. The risks of early winter and spring navigation could be tamed by deployment of an accurate, electronic guidance system that would permit ships to proceed when bad weather rubs out the sight of winking channel buoys. The technology is available but the money isn’t.

Late Tuesday evening, Seaway control spits over marine radio an anxious message for all ships: “Conditions in the Seaway are deteriorating rapidly. It may not be possible to clear all ships from the Seaway by the closing date [17 days away]. Unless all vessels begin an immediate and orderly exit, there is a very strong possibility a large number of oceangoing ships will be trapped in the Great Lakes for the winter. Masters must accept responsibility for their decisions.” Captains aboard the long, domestic lakers were not harassed by the same fear of entrapment nagging at Ruic and the other masters of saltwater ships. The lakers, like torpid water snakes, slither through the system until freeze-up, bellies crammed for the winter and not really caring where the ice will catch them. Once it hits, they head for the nearest shelter and drowse till spring, floating stockpiles of grain and ore.

Undaunted by the advice to turn back, the Split, as soon as visibility was restored Wednesday night, moved westward, through the St. Regis Indian reserve into disputed waters. Both Quebec and Ontario covet the dozen islands in the river where the provinces meet. The border has never been surveyed and, last autumn, Mohawk Indians added their own claim to the islands which edge the Seaway channel. Just past the Indian community, a seaman ran the Stars and Stripes up the forward mast where, for the next 60 miles as the channel crisscrossed the border between Ontario and New York, it fluttered and snapped alongside the Maple Leaf. With two locks inside the United States, the Seaway is often cited as proof of Canadian-American cooperation. Strangely, within Canada itself, it is more often raised as an issue of

division, as in: “What about the

Seaway?”—an almost reflexive part of English Canada’s apprehensions over Quebec independence.

It is the Seaway’s vital importance to the Canadian economy and sense of existence that prompted historian Donald Creighton to call for a two-mile-wide canal zone controlled by Canada and the United States, and extending through Quebec, in the event of separation. While the Americans, painfully extricating themselves from their much resented role as masters of the Panama Canal Zone, are unlikely to give much thought to such an invasion, the Canadian government is wondering what it should do to protect the Seaway. The cabinet’s privy council staff has asked the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority for contingency plans in anticipation of separation. “No, I don’t have any plans,” says Seaway president Paul Normandeau. “First of all, I don’t know what is going to happen and, if there is a separation, there will have to be an understanding. Let’s wait until it happens.” Normandeau, a grandfatherly engineer who rescued the Seaway from administrative chaos four years ago and was asked last year by Trudeau to stay on despite his 65 years, considers concerns over the waterway’s future are misguided, not because he thinks division of the country is impossible, but because he believes Seaway operations would be unimpeded. “My guess is that the easiest way out is to create an international company—Quebec, Canada, and United States—to manage the system. I would hope this is the way the three nations, if we can say that, would g°”

Quebec still has not defined just what sort of relationship it wants with English Canada but government economist Bernard Bonin, who is laying the academic foundations for the sovereignty-association formula the PQ will push, agrees with Normandeau’s solution: “A tripartite administration is the only answer.” He says Quebec could never obstruct the Seaway for political reasons: “There would be no better way to bring the Americans down on our heads.” No matter what the denouement of the constitutional crisis, Quebec’s direct interest is in keeping the Seaway open. It makes money, lots of it, from seagoing ships which unload part of their cargoes at Montreal to come up to Seaway draught and top up with fuel and stores in the province before returning to the Atlantic. More importantly, the lakers which are the meat and potatoes of Seaway traffic u nload their grain and take on ore at Quebec ports. French is already the language of administration and ship control through the Quebec part of the system. Separation at the Seaway’s operational level is already fact. The Quebec and Ontario zones do not even touch.

It is the intervening U.S. section that may hide the real menace to Canada’s sovereignty. The Canadian taxpayers’ huge loss on the waterway is partly because the

United States refused since the Seaway opened to make ships pay their way by increasing tolls. With only a quarter of the total investment in Seaway construction, the U.S. government rejected Canadian pleas for higher tolls and thereby produced a gift for American business at the expense of Canadian taxpayers. At last, Washington ceded and tolls will be raised next season, but not by an immediate doubling as Canada wanted. Instead, the increase will be spread over three years.

The Seaway was very nearly an all-Canadian venture. American railways and ocean ports lobbied for years against U.S. backing for a direct sea route to the continental heartland. But when iron ore ranges south of the Great Lakes neared depletion, powerful steel interests began to favor a water route between the new Labrador and Quebec ore fields and the Chicago mills. That, and Canada’s determination to go it alone if necessary, brought in Washington’s money and power. By June, 1959, the ditch was dug and the Britannia churned through the Seaway channels, still murky grey from the dredging of the river and lake bottoms. On board, squinting in the sun and waving triumphantly down to the flotilla of sailboats, runabouts and dinghies pitching perilously in the wakes of the royal vessel and her escorting destroyers, stood Queen Elizabeth II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The world was coming to Canada and an age of great-

ness had started with the new Seaway. Then, stunningly, nothing happened.

Promoted as a magical way to create a seacoast inside the continent, the Seaway was deemed so obviously attractive that the cost of canals and locks would be easily recovered through tolls. Economic boom

was so inevitable that cities all around the Great Lakes began ambitious port facilities, gussying themselves up like smalltown bar girls expecting an international oilmen’s convention. What they got in fact was more like a reunion of the local Legion branch. Only about 10% of Seaway tonnage is general cargo. The rest is ore, grains, coal, salt and other bulk freight that would have traveled by rail and smaller ca-

nal ships if the Seaway had not been built. Shipment of manufactured goods has fallen steadily.

What killed the dreams of aspiring inland seaports was a revolution in freight handling: containerization, the scourge of dockside pilferers and a boon to Montreal and East Coast ports which had once lamented the Seaway as the angel of their deaths. Big container ships must keep their propellers turning at top speed to pay the mortgage and have no time to dawdle in the Seaway. Their boxes are shuffled at Halifax, Saint John or Montreal and move inland quickly and cheaply by rail.

Thursday morning, the Split danced through the Thousand Islands, two-stepping around stone architectural fantasies of 19th-century robber barons whose successors have maintained their style and arrogance. One private island aims a commanding billboard at passing ships, ordering: No wake, please. Captains of the great ocean and lake vessels ignore the injunction to go slow in order to avoid disturbing the idyllic shoreline. Their disrespect of privileged wealth seems somehow a small measure of retribution for the injuries wreaked upon humbler folk by the Seaway’s construction. Thousands of Ontario farmers and townspeople were displaced by flooding of the Seaway valley behind the international power dam at Cornwall. More than 500 buildings and 6,500 persons were shifted off the 100 square miles of land drowned by the rising waters. The new towns of Ingleside, Iroquois and Long Sault were created with the remains of seven villages and half a town submerged like Atlantis.

As the Split approached Kingston and Lake Ontario, Ruic" suddenly seized his binoculars and focused his sight upriver toward a descending vessel. His face broke with his first real grin since quitting Montreal four days earlier and he punched the brass plunger controlling the Split’s air whistle, mounted high on her red-starred funnel. The deep blasts were joyous, rolling over the green water to the other ship, another Yugoslav freighter called the Banja Luka. Ruic rushed out to the wing of the bridge to salute the passing vessel’s master, his brother-in-law, who would be back in the Adriatic while Ruic was still fighting the frigid St. Lawrence.

Bad weather struck the Split again. After a bouncing crossing of Lake Ontario, she had to drop anchor because the Welland Canal was closed by high winds. Another day was lost waiting for an available pilot. “It’s getting worse here than in the Suez Canal,” complained second mate Davor Kurtovic. “In the Suez, pilots have to be bribed to work. Here there too often isn’t a pilot to bribe.” At starting salaries around $45,000, the federal government is under-

standably reluctant to hire more pilots than necessary. From the Atlantic to Chicago and back again, the Split must take on board 30 different pilots. Normally, the bill for pilotage would be about $15,000, but this trip, because pilots stay aboard when the ship is immobile due to bad weather, the cost will be closer to $25,000.

The sky was already darkening late Saturday when pilot Kenn Austin clambered up the Jacob’s ladder of knotted rope and slippery wooden slats. Like most pilots, Austin is a former ship’s captain and he handles the Split with casual, professional ease as he aims her into the Niagara Falls bypass, the Welland Canal: “Where the steamships climb the mountain,” in the accurate eloquence of local lore. Austin considers the Seaway “was obsolete the day it was built” since the locks were built to the same size as those completed for the Welland Canal in 1932. “We need to build a new seaway if we’re going to get the modern ships up here and it should be free. There’s no way tolls can be expected to pay the costs so we should just forget about them.”

The Split left the canal at Port Colborne, the western end of the Seaway, two hours into Sunday morning, after a trip from Montreal that should have taken three days but consumed a week. Fier engines humming nervously, she steered out across Lake Erie to skip between Detroit and Windsor, drive up Lake Huron and through Lake Michigan to Chicago. She arrived only to learn she would have done better to stay in Montreal. So urgent were the warnings of impending freeze-up that the Split’s agents in Chicago, Montreal and back home in the Croatian port of Split decided to cut their losses and call her back before unloading had been completed and before she could take on cargo for Europe.

Then, too late for the Split, capricious winter relented with a week of exceptional warmth before Christmas and all the salties fled to the open river below Montreal. The Split cleared through St. Lambert lock just after midnight, December 20. That was five days after the official closing date but still a week before the Swiss freighter St. Cergue closed the Seaway for the winter. Though the Split’s empty hold on her last transit contributed nothing, total tonnage for the 1977 season was a record 63 million, proving that the mid-continent’s prosperity has grown at least partially dependent on the Seaway despite its financial miseries, undelivered promises and the blue moods it causes sea captains. With an anticipated steady growth in traffic, mostly because of grain and coal shipments, Seaway president Normandeau is already looking at the prospect of a new seaway, at least at the Welland section where the government already owns the necessary land. By 1980, he says, parliament will have to make up its mind. But this time promises of self-financing and economic miracles will be harder to sell to a wiser tax-paying public.