Shall We Deepen the St. Lawrence?

W. A. IRWIN February 15 1926

Shall We Deepen the St. Lawrence?

W. A. IRWIN February 15 1926

Shall We Deepen the St. Lawrence?


SHALL we deepen the St. Lawrence? Should we deepen the St. Lawrence? If we do deepen the St. Lawrence, will it make us or break us? If we don’t deepen the St. Lawrence, will we be adjudged wise men or fools? Whether we like it or not—“we” being all those Canadians who vote, grumble about taxes and growl at the high cost of making both ends meet— whether we like it or not, those questions will have to be answered before the St. Lawrence is much older. At this very moment the report of the engineers, who will advise the Canadian and United States Governments on the question, is within measurable distance of completion. It may be ready in April; more probably it will not be ready until June. Cnee completed it will have to be considered by the non-technical advisors of both governments, but even now the practical politicians are beginning to measure possibilities.

Can Canada, with a population of Q,000,000 and a national debt of more than two and a half billion dollars, afford to go into partnership with the United States in the spending of a quarter or a third of a billion dollars on the St. Lawrence waterway? Or, is it a case of an opportunity we cannot afford to miss?

What about the rest of us? Áre we going to let the practical politicians play vith the project as it suits their fancy? Are we going to watch them use it as a vehicle in which to ride in or out, as the case may be, without taking the trouble to find out something about the rights of the matter ourselves? In short, are we going to plunge one way or the other and plunge blindly?

But why get excited about the St. Lawrence? asks the reader in Dawson City.

The answer to that is simple. Long before the coming of the white man the St. Lawrence river, and the five

great fresh-water lakes it drains, functioned as the aborigines’ transcontinental highway. Since white man first set foot on the northern half of the continent, it has been the highroad of civilization—the outlet to the sea and the pathway to an interior immensely rich in natural resources. But, like many lesser instruments, it has its weaknesses. Here and there, throughout its course it tumbles and lashes itself into fury, thereby seriously inconveniencing those who would ride upon its waters. And man, not being content to abide tantrums, has sought to make smoother the way of his going. To date, he has spent scores of millions of dollars in devising ways and means of circumventing those outbursts. Now, as a last effort, he—or some of him, at least—is seeking to induce the Governments of Canada and the United States to spend anywhere from a quarter

to a third of a billion dolíais in finally subduing the mighty St. Lawrence. In short, audacity seeks to outdo Nature and bring the ocean to the head of the Great Lakes.

So much for the objective. Now for the problem. Let the mind’s eye picture the great basin that drains north-eastward past the site of Cartier’s Hochelaga to the Atlantic Ocean. Like a grotesque, five-1 obed lung, the Great Lakes sprawl almost halfway across the continent. Joined together by comparatively short constrictions they have a common outlet in the bronchial tube of the St. Lawrence proper and the throat of the gulf which bears the same name. From the straits of Belle Isle to the head of the lakes at Fort William the course measures 2,267 miles— 510 miles further than the distance from Belle Isle to Liverpool. At the moment, there is passage for ocean ships of thirty-foot draft through the 1,003 miles of gulf and river between Belle Isle and Montreal.

Now, look at the 182 miles of bronchial tube between Montreal and Lake Ontario and the shorter, twenty-five mile constriction between Lakes Ontario and Erie. Here aie encountered the series of rapids and falls which constitute the most serious obstacles to further development of the St. Lawrence route, and it is here that most of the money will have to be spent if ocean ships are to reach Fort William.

Remembering that the international boundary between

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Shall We Deepen the St Lawrence?

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Canada and the United States follows the St. Lawrence for 113 miles northeasterly from Lake Ontario, let us see what has already been done towards clearing out the 182-mile bronchial tube. Away back in 1783, Royal Engineers started the long battle with Nature by building shallow canals around the upper and lower of the rapids between Lake St. Francis and Lake St. Joseph. This first effort was gradually enlarged and extended until now there is a series of canals and locks, fourteen feet deep, through which vessels can pass from Montreal to Lake Ontario. These are all on Canadian territory and were built by Canada at a cost of roughly $55,000,000.

Two Welland canals have been built to bridge the gap between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the first one having been opened in 1833. The second has been in use since 1887 and provides a f ourteen-foct channel. These two canals cost $41,500.000. A third Welland canal with a depth of twenty-five feet and provision for an increase to a depth of thirty feet has been under construction since 1913. It was estimated that this would cost $50,000,000, but it is now generally conceded that its completion will involve an expenditure of $100,000,000, all of which will come out of the Canadian treasury if further development of the St. Lawrence route on an international basis is not proceeded with.

Further up the chain, at Sault St. Marie, the gap between Lakes Huron and Superior has been bridged by canals on both the Canadian and United States side of the St. Mary’s river, but here the bulk of the expenditure has been shouldered by the United States Government.

All told, the Canadian Government has already spent approximately $194,000,000 on rivers, harbors and canals in the water system from Lake Superior to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Correspondingly, the United States has expended $146,000,000, making a total outlay by the two countries about $340,000,000. To this amount must be added a further $75,000,000 still to be spent by Canada in the completion of the new Welland ship canal.

Engineers Report Favorably

FIGURES make dry reading at best, but these speak eloquently of the value which Canada and the United States have placed on the development of the St. Lawrence in the past. They also give a sketchy but fairly comprehensive view of the situation as it existed in 1920 when the two governments, yielding to pressure, exerted by the states and provinces tributary to the Great Lakes basin, instructed the International Joint Commission to report on further improvement of the St. Law rence betw een Lake Ontario and Montreal.

Heretofore, the question of improvement had been considered solely from the standpoint of navigation but, with the commencement of the investigation by this Commission, the question of hydroelectric power development assumed the importance which, in some respects, has made it the crux of the controversy which has since raged. In passing, it might be noted that the chairman of the Canadian section of the commission was C. A. Magrath, who was recently appointed to the chairmanship of the Ontario Hydrc-Electric Commission, a fact of some significance in view of the

relation of the latter to the development of power on the Ontario section of the river.

After sounding general and expert opinion in all the areas affected by the project, the Joint Commission reported its findings to the two Governments in December of 1921. These were based on the general investigation and an engineering report compiled by the late W. A. Bowden, former chief engineer of the Department of Railways and Canals, representing Canada, and W. P. Wooten, representing the United States. In effect the commissioners recommended:

That the Governments of Canada and United States enter into a treaty providing for a scheme for improvement of the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Lake Ontario to a depth of twenty-five feet.

That the new Welland canal, now being built by Canada be embodied in this scheme, the United States to share in the cost.

That further engineering investigation be proceeded with before actual commencement of the work.

That the cost of navigation works be divided between the two countries on the basis of use.

That the cost of “navigation and power” works be shared equally.

The cost of the works recommended was put at $252,728,000, this expenditure to provide for the building of canals, locks and power dams and the generation of 1,464,000 horsepower of electrical energy on the international section of the river between Lake Ontario and St. Regis; and the building of canals alone on the section between St. Regis and Montreal. It was reported further that an expenditure of an additional $235,000,000 would provide a further 2,636,000 horsepower from the latter section of the river, but the commissioners advised against the immediate harnessing of this pow^r on the ground of excessive cost and lack of market. Eight years was set as the period necessary for the construction of the work.

Another Inquiry Under Way

THAT the engineers were not of one mind as to the cost of the development was indicated by the fact that one independent report, that of the Hugh L._ Cooper interests, estimated the total cost of the work at $1,450,000,000. This w as based on the development of 6,600,000 horsepower of electrical power, however, and stated that the necessary navigation works could be completed for $150,000,000. Three alternative schemes were presented by the Ontario Hydro-Electric Commission of Ontario, but allthree w-ere rejected as being less suitable than the official scheme.

Following receipt of the report, the authorities at Washington intimated to the Canadian Government their desire to enter into a treaty pledging the two countries to undertake the w ork and providing for a further investigation by a joint international board. In May, 1922, the Canadian Government replied, “that it would not appear to be expedient to deal with the matter at the present time.”

So far as official steps were concerned, the matter rested there until January, 1924, when, in response to further inquiries from President Coolidge’s Government, the Canadian authorities, after

asking fui ther time to consider the request for a treaty, stated that they were prepared to authorize compilation of a final report covering the engineering features of the entire project.

As a result of this and subsequent communications, each government in April, 1924, appointed a National Advisory Committee and a board of three engineers to co-operate in preparation of this final report. Right Hon. George P. Graham, Minister of Railways and Canals, was named as chairman of the Canadian committee, while Hon. Herbert Hoover heads the United States committee. Canada is represented on the engineeiing board by D. W. McLachlan, chief engineer of the Department of Railw ays and Canals, Olivier C. Lefebvre, chief engineer of the Quebec Streams Commission, Montreal, and Brig.-Gen. C. H. Mitchell, dean of the Faculty of Applied Science of the University of Toronto. The major part of their investigation is now completed and their report is expected in April or June of this year.

The Battle Over Power

AS IS indicated by the history of the ■ negotiations between the two Governments, the United States has displayed considerably greater eagerness to see the project undertaken than has Canada, but the proposal has no lack of ardent supporters even on this side of the boundary.

Anything like adequate understanding of the multitude of arguments advanced for and against the project must involve a realization of the fact that it presents two entirely distinct aspects—power and navigation—affecting two sets of interests which overlap in some particulars, but, in the main, are entirely distinct.

. Central and Eastern Ontario are vitally concerned in the development of power. In fact, some powerful Ontario interests would be prepared to see the navigation scheme go by the boards temporarily, so long as that province is given authority to develop its share of the power on the international section of the river. Quebec, on the other hand, has maintained all along that there is no need to risk international complications by developing these international powers, claiming that there is plenty of available power on such purely national rivers as the Ottawa to meet all immediate needs.

New York state has vehemently opposed the navigation project, w hile the eastern American power barons have been quietly preparing for the day when St. Lawrence powers will be harnessed. Illustrative of the latter, is the fact, not generally known, that the big American power group in which Secretary of the Treasury Mellon is interested, has acquired extensive rights in the neighborhood of the large power dam proposed by the engineers who reported through the International Joint Commission. New England is more or less indifferent to the navigational side of the scheme but is vitally interested in power development.

, Who Owns the Water?

* I 'HIS question of hydro-electric deA velopment is further complicated by the division of powers among the governments concerned. Under the constitutions of both the United States and Canada control of water used for navigation is vested in the Federal authorities. On both sides of the boundary, however, control of surplus water which may be used for power purposes is claimed by the state or provincial authority, as the case may be. In Canada, the latter right has never been fully conceded by the federal authorities,although the provinces claim that they have established their case in law. All that the laymen can do is to shudder at the possibilities of entanglements inherent in that situation.

From one quarter comes the plea that the cost of the navigation works should be met, in part at least, out of revenue from power. From Ontario comes the demand that the Ontario share of the powers on the international section of the river shall be developed for the benefit of that province alone. And from Quebec comes the warning of Premier Taschereau that “the bed of the river, its banks and its falls belong to the province and I challenge any authority whatever, barring that of our Legislature, the right to alienate one scrap of our Provincial domain.” Add to this the fact that

Canadians have been engaged in bitter controversy over the question of w hether power should be exported and even the neophyte in matters legal can visualize a chain of legal complications that would puzzle all the Philadelphia lawyers living.

Still another factor is the fundamental difference in the methods of power development in Ontario and Quebec. In the former Province, by far the greater percentage of the developments are nowunder public ownership, while in the latter the system of private control obtains. Naturally, the Ontario HydroElectric Commission and its supporters are insisting that the Ontario share of the power be developed under public ownership, while the private power interests centred in Montreal are as loath as Ontario is eager to see public ownership entrenched on the St. Lawrrence. Some observers go so far as to say this is the biggest single factor affecting the proposal in its relation to power development.

Montreal on Guard

EVEN apart from the development of navigation, Montreal is very touchy about the project. For instance, when, early in 1924, it wras noised abroad that the Canadian Government was on the eve of a decision to appoint the National Advisory Committee with orders to prepare a final report, Sir Herbert Holt, who is probably the most powerful of the Montreal financiers, protested immediately. As disclosed by the parliamentary record, the initial protest took the form of a telegram which reads as follows:

Montreal, February 21, 1924. Hon. W. L. Mackenzie King,

Prime Minister, etc.

We understand that Government proposes to appoint commission to study St. Lawrence problems and export of power. We urge that before Government makes any commitment our great interests have opportunity to interview your ministers and explain position of Province of Quebec. Unless you deal with the entire complicated problem, any commitment now may adversely affect the great navigation, industrial and power interests of this Province.


This drew a reply from Premier King to the effect that “the Government has made no commitment respecting the St. Lawrence beyond expressing willingness to have the problem studied in all its aspects.” The Montreal men got their interview, but the National Committee and its assisting engineers materialized shortly afterward.

From the purely navigational standpoint, opinion for and against the project is largely a matter of geography. Excepting Buffalo and placing Chicago in the doubtful column, all the communities bordering immediately on the Great Lakes are enthusiastic supporters. This enthusiasm extends in varying degrees throughout the agricultural states of the American Middle West, and in lesser degree to the Canadian Middle West, w here the wheat growers look forward to considerable savings in transportation costs as a result of the enlarging of the canals.

Hope to Save Millions

ESTIMATES of the possible saving vary all the way from minus nothing to $50,000,000 a year. The most authoritative figures I have been able to find are those which D. W. McLachlan, chief Engineer of the Department of Railways and Canals, presented to the Engineering Institute of Canada in January, 1924. As he is one of the three Canadian engineers engaged in the preparation of the final report, Mr. McLachlan is still studying this problem but, at that time, he estimated that the deepening of the St. Lawrence would effect a saving in the transportation costs on Canadian export grain of $6,800,000 a year. This economy would result from elimination of the cost of cargo transfers which are necessary under existing conditions, and the increased use of the economical large ships which now navigate the upper lakes. Of course, these figures take no account of other commodities which might use the route, but in themselves they have done much to strengthen the case of the western agriculturists.

Such figures, however, have been repeatedly challenged by the ports of Montreal and New York, which are fighting the proposal tooth and nail. With singular unanimity their representatives are denouncing the entire St. Lawrence project as being utterly indefensible from the standpoint of both cost and national expediency. Why spend our money in building canals on foreign territory when we can build canals at home? demands New York. Why spend our money in building canals which will benefit a foreign country when our financial position is such as to demand drastic economy? echoes Montreal. As suggested by the report of the International Joint Commission, the reason for this is not far to seek: Both Montreal and New York fear that the opening of the Great Lakes to ocean vessels will weaken their position as the two greatest ports on the Atlantic seaboard.

Some Staggering Figures

IF THIS is natural, so also is the position of the Great Lakes communities natural. They have been the actual spectators of the growth of a water-borne traffic through the existing canals which is not paralleled anywhere in the world. How many Canadians know, for instance, that the traffic through the St. Mary’s river canals, American and Canadian, is more than double the combined traffic of the Suez and Panama candis. Incredible, you say? Here are the figures for 1924: St. Mary’s canals,

72,000,000 tons ¡Panama canal, 25,892,000 tons and Suez canal, 25,529,000 tons. And the traffic through the Detroit river is even larger than that through the St. Mary’s, having, reached a total of 80,000,000 tons, valued at more than $1,000,000,000.

Still another angle to the question is the difference in the transportation situation, as between Canada and the United States. In the latter country, the railways operating between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic seaboard are suffering from chronic congestion. The resulting monetary loss to say nothing of the vexation of shippers has contributed more than any other single factor to the growth of the Middle West’s desire for a ship channel to the sea.

In Canada, on the other hand, we already have—and are paying dearly for—too large a railroad plant. That leads to this question: Is it sound economics to make further huge outlays on a transportation route which, in a measure at least, will compete with railroads that are suffering from lack of traffic even under existing conditions?

Over against this, however, must be placed the possibility that iailure on the part of Canada to co-operate in the St. Lawrence scheme might lead to a still greater diversion of traffic from Canadian channels, both rail and water.

, Chicago’s Manoeuvres

FOR example, there is no lack of evidence to show that Chicago is actively fostering a movement for the construction of a deep water route from the head of Lake Michigan to the mouth of the Mississippi. Were this to succeed, the Chicago Sanitary District would be able to add still another reason to the many which it has advanced in justification of its diversion of Lake Michigan

watera. Seven-foot canals between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi already exist. Were the dream of a Lakes-to-Gulf Deep Waterway realized, it is conceivable that Canadian traffic as well as Canadian water might soon be running down the Mississippi instead of down the St. Lawrence.

New York state is also trying to combat the St. Lawrence route by pushing an alternative. This is the Erie Barge canal —a twelve-foot channel—and the latest proposal calls for enlargement of the section leading from Oswego on Lake Ontario to Albany and thence down the Hudson to New York city.

Even under existing conditions by far too great a percentage of the Canadian wheat crop is finding an outlet through American ports, as witness the howl that went up from one end of the country to the other when the figures for last year’s shipments were published. What the effect would be if still another effective American export channel were opened can be left to the imagination.

From the purely Canadian standpoint still another question to be considered is the possible effect of other Canadian alternative routes on the desirability of a deeper St. Lawrence. Take for one, the Panama-Pacific route through the port of Vancouver. There seems to be but little doubt that this, the ^newest of the great pathways of the ocean, will ultimately handle all of the export grain from Alberta and a considerable part of that from Saskatchewan. That being the case, the interest of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the St. Lawrence route will be largely diminished. Then there is the much maligned and much lauded Hudson Bay route. Were this to prove effective, Manitoba could scarcely be expected to be keenly interested in the St. Lawrence.

Would Canals be Used?

NOTHING has been said about the many arguments centred around the effectiveness of the St. Lawrence route itself. Many words have resounded and much printers’ ink has flowed in the effort to prove that ocean ships would not use the route even if it were deepened. This is still a moot point in the controversy, but the weight of opinion, based on the experience of similar restricted waterways in other parts of the world, would appear to indicate that this position is scarcely tenable. At least that was the conclusion reached by the investigating commission after impartial investigation, and the commission’s wisdom would seem to be > amply borne out by the fact that the difficulty of navigating the restricted channel below Montreal has not prevented that seven-months port from becoming second only to New York on the Atlantic seaboard.

No attempt has been made in this article to pronounce judgment on the St. Lawrence project, either one way or the other. Many important phases of the question have been ignored altogether, but it will have served its purpose if it has given an understanding of the tremendous difficulty involved in deciding whether Canada’s answer to the proposal should be yes or no. Sooner or later the choice will have to be made and if ever choice demanded statesmanship, this is one.

The immediate question is: Will

statesmanship be forthcoming?'