The St. Lawrence Question THREE: NAVIGATION

An analysis of the benefits that navigation would derive from a deep waterway to the sea

HON. E. C. DRURY March 1 1929

The St. Lawrence Question THREE: NAVIGATION

An analysis of the benefits that navigation would derive from a deep waterway to the sea

HON. E. C. DRURY March 1 1929

The St. Lawrence Question THREE: NAVIGATION

An analysis of the benefits that navigation would derive from a deep waterway to the sea


IN THE first two articles of this series, I pointed out the persistent and insistent demand from the NorthCentral area of the United States for a deep waterway connecting the Great Lakes and the ocean. This demand is warranted by the tremendous commerce of the lakes and the immense industrial and agricultural development of the area which they serve. It must, and will be satisfied, preferably by the deepening of the St. Lawrence, but, if Canada blocks the way in that direction, by the opening up of an alternative route through United States territory. The latter course would mean, not only the sidetracking of Montreal and Canadian trade routes generally, but very possibly an irreparable injury to Canadian lake shipping.

Montreal’s Position

ANOTHER phase of the question must now be considered. Will these very same results come from the deepening of the St. Lawrence? Will Montreal lose her preeminence as a port of transhipment? Will lake shipping be injured, or perhaps ruined by the competition of ocean tramps. Will Canadian railways lose their traffic? There are in Canada some who oppose the project because they fear these results. Premier Taschereau reflected this view when, speaking in the Quebec legislature, he said: “On what principle should the moneys of our province be devoted to an enterprise entirely detrimental to Montreal, its great metropolis?”

Opposition to the waterway on these grounds is sectional and is derived from a point of view I would regard as unprogressive. Moreoever, many public-spirited citizens who have at heart the good not merely of a section, but the whole of Canada, declare that it is based on a false premise; in other words, that the waterway, so far from injuring the port of Montreal, will benefit it very materially. With this latter view I am wholly in agreement.

If the improved waterway affects detrimentally the present machinery of transportation, including the port of Montreal, it can only be because it provides a better and cheaper means of commerce. The loss to the port would of necessity mean a proportionally greater gain to the whole. Nevertheless, this view, illogical though it is in my opinion, has its supporters. How numerous these are, and just what their individual interests may be, it is impossible to say.

Their allegiance and support is a fish to be angled for, should the question become a factor in the game of party politics.

Contrary and irreconcilable to this attitude is the view that the new waterway will do little or nothing to improve transportation or cheapen freight-rates, and hence, that anything spent upon it will be wasted. But this view, too, has its supporters. Strangely enough, the closer one approaches to a certain focus in Montreal, the stronger both these objections, opposite in their nature, appear to be. It would almost seem that both sets of arguments are being used by the same interests to oppose the project.

Whether either of them is well founded, an examination of the subject will show.

In order to understand what will happen when the new route is completed, it is necessary first to visualize transportation conditions as they at present exist on the Great Lakes—the St. Lawrence route, particularly—as these conditions affect the carriage of grain, the greatest single item in the trade.

The great Canadian wheat harvest begins to move each year, roughly, about the middle of September. By this date, out on the prairie farms, most of the wheat has been cut and stooked and threshing is well under way. As it is threshed, the wheat is hauled to the nearest shipping point—one of the hundreds and hundreds of “country elevators” that dot the prairies, operated either by the pools, or by one of the private grain companies. Here it is elevated, loaded into railway cars, and begins its long journey to the mills, the bakeries, and the hungry millions of Europe.

By the twentieth of the month the wheat is beginning to pour into the great gray elevators that line the waterfront of the Twin Cities, Port Arthur and Fort William, together the greatest grain port in the world. Picture now one of these great structures, towering into the gray autumn sky, with its rows and rows of concrete bins, its vast and complex machinery for elevating, handling, cleaning, drying, storing the millions of bushels that will pass through it in the course of a season. Into a yawning cavern in its side the loaded cars from the prairies go, to be gripped by huge machinery, tilted from end to end and their contents dumped out into a great hopper, as easily, and almost as quickly, as one would empty a carton of breakfast food. Outside, in its slip, lies a great vessel, a typical “upper laker,” dwarfed into insignificance in comparison with the towering structure of the elevator beside it.

But this vessel is no mean thing, even measured by the standards of the ocean. She may be as much as 500 feet or more in length, fifty-eight feet in beam, with a draft of twenty-one feet, and the capacity to carry well up to half a million bushels of grain. Her design, however, is very different to that of the ocean freighter. She is built primarily to handle wheat, and her structure is only made possible by the nature of the waters in which she plies her trade.

The ocean freighter has her engines and deck-house placed midway of her length. This is for two reasons: first, that this structure may be used to stiffen the ship in the centre, where the strains caused by the giant waves of the sea are greatest; and second, that the weight of her cargo and her coal may be so distributed that the trim of the vessel will not be disturbed during long voyages. Neither of these necessities exists for the lake freighter. Hence, her engines and boilers and coal bunkers are placed in her stern. She has two deck-houses, one in the bow and the other in the stern, and in between, her deck stretches bare and flat except for the long row of hatch-covers. Her hold is a series of great bins, extending the full breadth and depth of the ship, into which the wheat pours from iron spouts extending downward from the top of the elevator, as water is poured into a tank. She is not built for the sea, would “break her back” very quickly if she were exposed to its violence. She is a “tin can with an engine,” as someone has said, but for her work she is the most efficient and economical thing possible.

This is the type of boat that now plies between the head of the lakes and the bay ports, or farther on to Port Colborne and Buffalo at the foot of Lake Erie. Next year, when the new Welland canal is opened, she will be able to go right down as far as Prescott. But she can go no farther. She is altogether too big for the present St. Lawrence canals and locks. Here, another type of ship is required, the canal boat or lower laker.

The Lower Laker’s Role

THE lower laker in general design and appearance is like her sister of the upper lakes, but smaller. Her size is, indeed, strictly limited by the size of the locks in the St. Lawrence canals. She cannot exceed 253 feet in length, forty-three feet in beam, or fourteen feet draft, and her carrying capacity is no more than 90,000 bushels. She is much less efficient as a freight-carrier than the larger type of lake vessel, the cost per ton-mile being almost four times as great.

The transference of grain from the head of the lakes to the hold of the ocean vessel in the harbor of Montreal involves, under present conditions, five agencies. First, the lake-head elevators, where the grain is received from the railroads, cleaned, blended, stored, and finally discharged into the holds of the upper lake type of vessel. Second, these great and highly specialized boats, which under present conditions carry the grain to Port Colborne or Buffalo, and will, when the new Welland canal is opened, take it farther to Prescott. Third, the transfer elevators, now situated at Port Colborne or Buffalo, where the great marine legs dip down into the holds, and whirl the grain aloft at the rate of 20,000 bushels an hour. These elevators handle a tremendous amount of grain in comparison to their storage capacities. Their function is to unload the grain from the upper lakers and to load it into the lower lakers or canal boats. Probably the most active transfer elevator, after the new Welland canal is opened, will be that which the Dominion Government is now preparing to build at Prescott.

The fourth agency in this trade is the lower laker or canal boat. This type of vessel, though sometimes, under exceptional conditions, it goes to the head of the lakes, in general receives its cargo from the transfer elevator and carries it through to what may be called the assembling elevators on the harbor front of Montreal. The function of these elevators, the fifth and last link in the chain, is somewhat different from that of either the lake-head elevators or the transfer elevators at Port Colborne. Since this has an important hearing on the question we are considering, we will examine it briefly.

The lake vessels are organs of transport, pure and simple. The ocean vessels take orders in detail for their ultimate market. Montreal is the grocer’s counter where these orders are filled. In order to see clearly just what this involves, let us take a peep for a moment into the grain shipping room in the Harbor Commission building in Montreal.

Montreal, the Assembling Point

THIS room is a high-ceilinged, dingy chamber, lighted by tall, narrow windows facing southward toward the harbor. On the north wall is a great blackboard, not unlike those in the Grain Exchange in Winnipeg. On this blackboard is listed the amount and kinds of grain in store, in canal boats lying in the harbor, or moving by water or rail toward Montreal. The list is a wide and varied one. Canadian Western wheat in its various grades, wheat from the NorthWestern states, winter wheat from the Middle-Western States and from Ontario, rye, barley, flax, buckwheat, oats — all kinds of grain are there listed, with origins scattered over half the continent. Below is a space where is written the names of the vessels loading in the harbor. As the orders come in for these vessels, the quantities and kinds of grain needed are chalked up against each. Twelve or fifteen of these orders is a common occurrence. One vessel’s name I saw with twenty-two such various orders written below it. The function of the port of Montreal and its elevators as an assembling point for the grain trade is not to be lost sight of.

Now, having seen the machinery used in the transportation of grain under present conditions, let us see what would happen were the St. Lawrence improved for navigation in accordance with the plans now under consideration. So far as navigation is concerned, it would mean just one very simple thing—that the canals and locks and waterways between Montreal and Lake Superior would be made wide enough, and deep enough, and in the case of locks, long enough, to accommodate the largest size of lake freighters, and by far the greater portion of ocean freighters. Let us suppose that the deepening scheme has been carried through. What will happen?

In the first place, it is clear that the inefficient canal boat and the transfer elevators, will lose their present importance, even if they do not disappear altogether. If ships of the type now operating west of Port Colborne can take on their cargoes at Port Arthur or Fort William and go right through to Montreal without breaking cargo, there would seem to be no reason in the world why they should not do so. This alone would mean a saving, according to calculations of responsible and conservative engineers, of nearly four cents a bushel. On the present quantity of nearly 200,000,000 bushels now passing through the port of Montreal for export, this would mean a total saving of $8,000,000.

But the benefits, so far as the grain trade is concerned, would not stop here. The watershed of traffic between the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards would definitely be moved westward, and a good deal of grain now going out of Canada by way of Vancouver, would come eastward, with lower rates, to the benefit of the producer and the country generally. Just as definitely, a great deal, but not all by any means, of the grain now going out by way of Buffalo and New York, would go by the deeper St. Lawrence and Montreal, with cheaper rates, to the benefit of all concerned.

This much is clear. It is not quite so clear that ocean tramps would penetrate to the Great Lakes in numbers sufficient to be an important factor in the grain trade. Several things are against their doing so. In the first place, their officers and crews, their whole personnel and organization, are used to, and designed for, deep water conditions, and are at a decided disadvantage in such conditions as prevail in the restricted waters of the Lakes. A lake captain is captain and pilot in one. Not only can he navigate with precision through fog or storm or sunshine on the open waters of the inland seas which are the Great Lakes, but he knows intimately every harbor, every river, canal and lock. He has grown up with the lakes and he knows them like the back of his hand. Moreover, he and his crew have developed an almost uncanny skill in harbor. Great 500-foot freighters, in their hands, are docked with no more fuss and in little more time thali is required to dock a tiny tug. They have no need or use for the tugboats that one sees, for instance, in the harbor of Montreal, with pads of coiled ropes on their noses, lined up like cab-horses, waiting to push and prod the awkward ocean ships into their places. Ocean boats penetrating the lakes will need both pilots and tugs, and to this extent the saving which they would otherwise effect will be discounted.

There is, however, another reason, far stronger than this, for believing that ocean tramps will not displace lake shipping to any great extent in the handling of grain. This is found in the conditions which I have already pointed out—the way in which Montreal functions as an assembling-point for the various sorts of grain which the conditions of European trade consign to one vessel. For instance, in the case I have cited, where twenty-two different kinds of grain were going to make up a single ocean cargo, the ship would have had to visit Chicago, Duluth, Fort William, Toronto, and possibly Montreal, before her load was completed. It is not necessary to be an expert, in order to see the waste involved in such a proceeding. The opinions of men connected with, and versed in shipping, with whom I have talked, confirm this view. The ocean tramp will not displace or indeed seriously disturb lake shipping. Neither will the port of Montreal lose its place as the great grainexporting port of the Dominion.

Lake Ships would Hold Their Own

FROM another angle, it seems clear that so long as the present type of lake shipping maintains its supremacy in the lake trade, so long will it continue to carry the great bulk of the grain to Montreal for transhipment to ocean freighters. That it will maintain this supremacy is scarcely to be doubted, for two reasons. First, the type of vessel used in the lake trade is, as we have seen, peculiarly adapted, by virtue of her construction, for the trade in which she is engaged—for handling bulk freightcoal, iron ore, and wheat. In this trade the ocean vessel, with her engines and boilers midway of her length, and her afterhold spoiled by her tunnel-shaft, is under a considerable handicap. The second reason is even stronger.

It takes, roughly, ten days to make the trip from Fort William to Montreal, and the river below Montreal is closed by ice nearly ten days earlier in the fall, and the same length of time later in the spring, than the lakes. An ocean vessel out of Fort William for Liverpool would, therefore, need to sad two or three weeks before the close of lake navigation, and could not get back in the spring till the same length of time after the lakes were open. It happens that these periods are the most important in the grain trade. During the last weeks of navigation in the fall, the wheat is rolling in at full tide from the prairies, the elevators are jammed, and there is a rush to move every bushel possible as far on its way to market as may be. This is the period when vessel owners take undue risks to run a last cargo into the Georgian Bay ports, or to get their ship filled with wheat for winter storage.

Somewhat the same condition applies to the first weeks in the spring. At this period the elevators at the Bay ports, at Port Colborne and Buffalo, have been emptied while those at the head of the lakes are still full. There is another rush to move the wheat to market, and for this only lake boats are available. The lake marine will continue to dominate lake trade because its work cannot be performed by ocean tramps coming into the lakes. As long as this is so, it will take the chief part in the carrying of grain, and Montreal will continue to be the great port of transhipment.

A New Trade

THUS far we have spoken only in terms of wheat, which, as we have seen, will be benefited at least to the extent of eliminating the transfer elevator and the inefficient canal boat—a saving of some four cents per bushel. But wheat is not the only commodity carried on the lakes by any means. There is a considerable quantity of package freight coming into the Port of Montreal, which under present conditions is transhipped either to the railroads or to upward bound canal boats. There is no reason why a very considerable proportion of this freight should not proceed up the river and lakes in the same vessels in which it crossed the ocean, when the improved waterway is completed.

Indeed, the saving in the case of package freight promises to be very much greater, in proportion to the amount handled, than that effected in the handling of wheat. It costs from $1.60 to $1.80 per ton to transfer bagged or package freight from ship to ship, or from ship to car, as against forty-two cents per ton in the case of wheat. With the new waterway completed, there is no reason why cargoes of sugar, rubber, machinery, Welsh or Nova Scotia coal, should not come up to Toronto, Hamilton, Windsor, or even to the head of the lakes. Outgoing cargoes of flour, farm machinery, motor cars, or a score of other products, would be available. Toronto with its wonderful harbor would, in all probability, become an ocean port of some consequence, the distributing centre of a wide range of imports, and the collectingpoint of an equally wide range of exports.

That there will be such a trade available for the new route is evidenced by the fact that even now small ocean-going tramps penetrate into the lakes with import cargoes. But under present conditions the ships small come up the canals are too small to be economically operated on the ocean. The canals of the Deep Waterway will be large enough to accommodate, not the largest ocean tramps, but a type of vessel large enough to be economically operated.

How great this trade will be no one can foresee. It is a universal and common experience, however, that any improved means of traffic creates its own trade, and there is no reason to believe that the deeper St. Lawrence will prove to be an exception. The limit would seem to be set only by the development of the region lying contiguous to the lakes, and, since the natural resources of this region in Canada, as in the United States, are almost incalculably rich, there is no reason why this trade should not become very great. It is evident that the value of the work, to Canada, should be measured, not in terms of the present but of the future.

Advantages of the Deepened Waterway

ÍET us sum up the factors in the transJ portation equation. First, Montreal will not lose the pre-eminence in the grain trade which she now enjoys, but will stand to gain, because the lower rates brought about by cutting out the uneconomic transfer elevator and canal boat will draw trade from a wider area, as well as diverting to their channel a good deal of wheat which now goes west by Buffalo and New York. Second, the lake marine will neither be wiped out nor seriously imperiled by the competition of ocean tramps in the grain trade, on account of the seasonal condition and the superior efficiency of the lake boats for this special trade. Third, there will grow up a new trade, in commodities other than grain, which will only be measured by the development of the regions tributary to the lakes.

A recent speaker on the subject of the St. Lawrence development made the statement that it was pre-eminently a power proposition. This, it seems to me, is not a fair statement of the case, great and important as the power factor is. The improvement in navigation will be immediately and beneficially felt by all Canada from Montreal to Calgary and Edmonton. The development of power will result in the growth of industries in Quebec and Ontario. But, without the improvement to navigation these industries would be handicapped in the matter of cheap transportation. It would seem to be a fair statement of the case to say that navigation and power development are complementary to each other, but that the benefits from improved navigation will be the more immediately felt, and the most widespread in their effects, while the benefits of power development cannot reach full fruition without improved navigation.

Editor’s Note—This is the third of a series of articles by Mr. Drury on the St. Lawrence Deep Waterway. The fourth article will appear in an early issue.