General Articles

The Great Lakes

Along a trail the voyageurs blazed, 2,000 monster steel canoes ply North America’s inland seas to keep a continent alive

LESLIE ROBERTS April 15 1948
General Articles

The Great Lakes

Along a trail the voyageurs blazed, 2,000 monster steel canoes ply North America’s inland seas to keep a continent alive

LESLIE ROBERTS April 15 1948

The Great Lakes


Along a trail the voyageurs blazed, 2,000 monster steel canoes ply North America’s inland seas to keep a continent alive

THE BIG BOX that is the SS Lemoyne, one of the largest ships on the Great Lakes, inched slowly ahead, surrounded by night as black as the insides of a cow. The distant glow of blast furnaces over Hamilton harbor, blown into occasional glare by the pouring of molten slag, added to the inky pitch around the ship when the flood of brazen light ebbed.

No buoys marked the channel, as in the harbors of Saint John, Montreal, or any ocean port. Tiny reflectors on slender sticks, driven into the bottom by shipping folk using these waters, were the only guideposts. The Lemoyne, with 17,000 tons of soft coal in her belly, loaded at Ashtabula, ()., for delivery to a big Canadian steel plant, slowly picked her way through the night toward the glare of the furnaces.

The cap’n barked an order and the bow wave fell off to a ripple, as the 30,000 tons dead weight under his feet slid through a narrow channel between an open swing bridge with a red light atop and a low cement wall, no more than six feet away. The big ship inched across another mile of open water, ^narked with occasional reflector-tipped stakes, and gentled itself lengthwise against a pier, over which the dark shapes of power scoops, each capable of gulping coal out of a ship at 12 tons to the bite, hung against the night. Hamilton, Ont. 1.37 a.m.

In most other leagues they’d have turned off the lights and called it a night. But around the Great Lakes, when a ship comes in from the deep ?ater in what landlubbers Continued on page 47

Continued on page 47

The Great Lakes

Continued from page 23

call the still watches, the shore gang switches on the floodlights and goes to work. As the ship crossed the last stretch of bay, deck hands had stripped the covers off 21 hatches leading into the vast hold. Almost before the leviathan laker had been hitched to bollards on the dock, scoops were reaching down from gantry cranes and coming up with coal.

By two o’clock the night was horrendous with their clattering racket, but as quickly as it began, it ceased around 9 a.m. The Old Man yelled “Let go forrard!” and “Let go aft!’’ and the Lemoyne, empty as a bass drum, was heading out for Alouez, in the far corner of Lake Superior, for a cargo of iron ore from the Mesabi Range.

Open Season

That was last. fall. By now the Lemoyne and the 300 ships which comprise Canada’s Great Lakes merchant fleet are back to work after the winter’s rest in ice-locked harbors. Around the shores of Superior, commercial fishermen are readying their boats for the summer’s catch. From the Lakehead to Montreal, wheat, oats and barley that were stored in autumn are pouring from elevators into the hblds of ships, setting in motion 1948’s eastward flood of grain. Youngsters are slinging paint on trim dinghies at yacht-club jetties from Thunder Bay to Bay of Quinte. Hotels, tourist lodges, boardinghouses and summer cottages are being dusted off against the coming of the annual vacationers’ influx. Coal docks and ore ports are working up to bedlam again. Captains, mates, engineers and seamen have kissed their wives good-by in waterside towns from Collingwood and Penetanguishene down to Kingston and Cornwall. Lock tenders in the Welland Shipway have tested the intricate devices which control the stepladder around Niagara. Lighthouses, blacked out since late November, are blinking once more. Buoys have been set out in the narrows. Passenger-line operators are working on summer lists of reservations. The vast and sweeping panorama of the Lakes has come alive again.

The Lemoyne’s brief contact with the coal scoops of Hamilton is recorded here, not because it constituted any record-breaking performance, but because it was strictly run-of-mill. No phenomenon comparable to what goes on in the bulk-carrying trade of the Lakes may be found on any other waters of the globe, in terms either of quantity or speed.

The heartland waters of North America are plied by a type of ship evolved by marine architects for a special job, the carrying of huge cargoes of grain, ore and coal over these and no other waters. What the architects dreamed up can best be described as a huge steel carton, standing only a few feet out of the water when filled, with a superstructure in the bows for navigation and another housing aft over the engines. Such a box will usually be more than 500 feet long by about 70 wide and 30 feet from deck level to hold-bottom. Seen against the sun on Huron or Superior, the result is a mirage—one white-painted house trailed by another, a little distance behind, and nothing visible between, where the dun-colored deck disappears against blue sky and water.

But the cargoes these ships carry are no mirages. A heap of coal, ore or wheat can be poured into such a receptacle in jjgtime and harbors from

Kingston to Port Arthur and the coal and iron ports of the U. S. shore (where Canada draws the raw material for its inland steel plants and fuel for the fires of industry) are equipped with Gargantuan devices to load and unload the lakers in a hurry.

Funnels in series pour grain from elevators. Suction devices take it out again at the unloading point. Chutes flood holds with ore. At Two Harbors, on Lake Superior, 12,000 tons were poured into the D. G. Kerr in 14M minutes, just to test new equipment. Nightmarish contraptions hoist coalfilled railway cars into the air, upend them and shake their contents through flumes into the floating cartons. The Lemoyne had taken on her 17,000 tons of bituminous at Ashtabula in little more than five hours, while her captain growled “They do a sight better than this over to Sandusky!’’ Rows of power scoops tossed it onto mountainous coal piles at the other end of the line at Hamilton.

The fast turnaround is the essence of the Great Lakes bulk-carrying trade. Such a ship as the Lemoyne will carry more than 500,000 tons of cargo during an April-December shipping season. The 17,527 tons of coal she once loaded at an Erie port is an all-Lakes record size cargo.

To mechanized equipment ashore, add the souped-up handling ofshipping in the great locks of the Welland and at Sault Ste. Marie and a highly organized traffic-control system which boulevards such busy waters as the main line across Huron into up and down lanes a horizon apart. These are the man-made devices which make possible the huge flow of commerce, cheaply handled, of the vast inland seas. Then you come to the gimmick—the byguess-and-by-God navigation required to get into and out of most harbors on both shores. Ask why this is and the steamboatin’ men will tell you dunno. It was alius like that, mister, an’ prob’ly alius will be. Ask ashore and somebody with the title of Commissioner will reply that he has no appropriation for fancy navigation aids.

Unappreciated Asset

Talk with the Canadian who hasn’t had the good fortune to spend his life within breathing distance of the. Great Lakes air and he’ll likely have little notion of the role they play as the life line of our domestic and world commerce. Talk to a Torontonian about the lake in his own front yard and, likely as not, he will respond with sage discourse concerning the swimming at Sunnyside, or the excursion boats that ply to Niagara, as if these were the essence of what its island-sheltered roadstead means to Toronto. Yet in 1946, 1,366 ships from other Canadian ports and 533 from foreign harbors, mostly in the U. S., docked in Toronto. They unloaded almost two million tons of freight from the States, more than half of it coal and almost a quarter petroleum products. Toronto, in short, breathes through the Lakes.

To Canadians by the thousand, Georgian Bay is beautiful country where tired city slickers spend their holidays. But 1,000 lake ships tied up to the jetties of its harbors last season. By the score, the big lakers spend their winters in Midland and Collingwood. Shipyards around the bay have launched a great part of Canada’s inland fleet, including such leviathans as the Lemoyne. Bay elevators are main-line transshipment points and storage bins in the great eastward flow of prairie grain. Storage capacity at Midland alone is four million bushels.

The passer-by sees Kingston as a gentle college town, a military centre,

the site of great aluminum works and a penitentiary. How many Canadians know that 850 ships dock here in a normal season, that the Canada Steamship Lines’ elevator handles 100 million bushels of grain a year, can unload 30,000 bushels an hour and store almost 2 ! 2 million bushels? Or how many realize that the line which owns the elevator is, with its fleet of 45 ships, the world’s largest inland water transportation operator; that such other Canadian lines as Sarnia and Colonial and Patterson are not far behind?

One or two other key figures and the statistical side of the discourse ends. Note, please, that 83 million tons of shipping cleared through Sault Ste. Marie last season in 9,000 ship passages. Of these, 1,500 went through the Canadian locks and were almost wholly bound to and from Canadian harbors. Hundreds of other Canadian cargoes, carried in the Lemoyne, her sister Donnacona and other bottoms too big for the Canadian locks, went through on the U. S. side. Or consider the eastern end of the 2,000-mile run, the 14-foot-deep canal system between Prescott and the harbor of Montreal. Five million tons of freight seep through its 21 ancient locks in the course of a season, an intriguing figure when you realize that the port of Montreal, at the head of ocean navigation and the foot of the canal system, only loads and unloads some nine million tons a year, seaand lake-borne. Yet if you speak to the average Montrealer about the Lakes, he is likely to identify them as “the place where a bunch of lunatics want to build a seaway to put our harbor on the bum!”

If one lock in the Welland, which clears almost 10 million tons of freight a year, should be put out of kilter for one shipping season, no steel would be made in Hamilton, precious little coal would be shoveled into the furnaces of Toronto and the grain export trade would be cut to a dribble. The result, stated in terms of industrial unemployment in our cities, of western farms glutted with immovable grain, of starvation beyond the Atlantic, would be national and global disaster. These are some of the things the Great Lakes mean to Canada and the world.

This is the life line.

Explorer’s Trail

Before it became the life line, the Lakes route was North America’s main highway into the interior. LaSalle led the way when he built his 60-ton Griffon at the head of the Niagara River in 1679 and sailed west to the present site of Chicago. It was from the lakes that the West and the South were discovered and opened to the thrust of the white trader, and it was over the lakes that the great fur trade into the interior was carried on. The highway then was a series of dead-end streets. The ships of Erie, Huron and Michigan were barred from Superior by the Falls of St. Mary, from Lake Ontario by the 326-foot hillside down which the Niagara pours. But 10 years after the War of 1812, during which the Lakes were the scene of bitter naval engagements between the United States and ourselves, commerce-minded men began to talk of circumventing nature with canals. The result was the First Welland, constructed by private capital, which was started in 1824 and finished by 1829.

By present-day standards, it wasn’t much of a shipway. The small lake ships of those days were ushered through a chain of 40 locks, in each of which they i\ad to wait while wooden gates were manoeuvred shut behind them, the water allowed slowly to escape until surface and ship were

lowered to the next level, the lower gates opened and the vessel hauled into the next lock for another drop. The locks were only eight feet deep at lowwater level, and 110 feet long; the 40-stage drop from Erie to Ontario was a halting, time-consuming ritual. But the opening of the first Welland marked the beginning of a new era, the most notable factor of which is that from that time down to, and including, now, somebody has always been about the business of building or agitating for an improved water highway into the interior.

When what is called the Second Welland was completed in 1845, under public ownership, there was still no navigable route joining Huron and Superior. Goods trickled around St. Mary’s Falls on a mile-long tramway portage, to the tune of little more than 10,000 tons a year. The first actual ship canal was not constructed until 1853-5, on the U. S. bank of the river. Since then Soo and Welland have moved forward, step by step, and now provide a 27-foot-deep shipway from the lakehead down to the bottleneck in the international section of the St. Lawrence. Here the channel falls away to 14 feet, barring the big Lakes carriers from Montreal and keeping large ocean vessels from the Lakes.

Seaway Pros and Cons

Every proposed enlargement anywhere on the Great Lakes system has been accompanied by alarmed cries that the North American economy was about to be ruined. There was a terrific fuss when Canada built the fourth and present Welland canal around Niagara. Grain cargoes which formerly went to the railways at the Georgian Bay ports would now go by water as far as Kingston and Prescott without transfer, a project the railroads viewed askance and which owners of shallowdraught ships, accustomed to taking on transfer cargoes at the foot of Lake Erie, argued would put them out of business.

Economy - minded people looked angrily at the original Welland appropriation of $50 millions (which became an expenditure of more than $130 millions before the job was finished in 1931) and vowed the politicians were bankrupting the country. But the canal went through, the five inland seas became one and today carry a traffic unequalled on any body of water in the world. The present Welland Shipway cuts the number of locks to eight, one of which, the 1,380-footer at Humberstone, is the longest in the world. The others are 820 feet long, including the trio of twin flight locks at Thorold, through which ships step 140 feet off the Niagara Escarpment, down a veritable giant’s stairway.

While the lock system was developing, so were the vessels which plied the Lakes. The early steamers had been side-wheelers and were followed by screw-driven ships of sharp keel, inland replicas of the ocean-type freighter. The new type that was to be known as the laker appeared in the 1880’s. First of the new monsters was the James Watt, a flat-bottomed box with a housing on each end, minus the bulkheads and other internal trimmings which shore up the insides of seagoing ships and impede loading and unloading. The revolution had begun.

Meanwhile, engineers ashore were tinkering with rapid-loading devices. Together the new vessels and the bulk loaders switched the Lakes back to their historic role as main highway of the North American interior. Today, approximately 2,000 of these strangelooking monsters roam the lakes from breakup to freeze-up. The 300 Cana-

dian ships range from outsize bulk carriers like the Lemoyne, to selfloading colliers, tankers, package freighters which steam from Montreal to the head of Superior and smaller bulk carriers which ply the shallow canals below Lake Ontario.

The St. Lawrence Seaway project, a grandiose scheme to do away with those shallows between Lake Ontario and Montreal, has created a greater furore than all earlier proposals. The 1948 chapter has followed the historic pattern. As before, midwestern shippers in Canada and the United States, farmer and manufacturer alike, aligned themselves 100% on the side of the waterway, believing that a deep waterway would provide cheaper carrying charges to and from the Atlantic seaboard and the heartland. People in both countries with other special interests to serve, fought back, as before, with equal vigor.

The Quebec Government has always tended to oppose the project, considering it a threat to the St. Lawrence seaports, while the Board of Trade and shipping interests in Montreal have always been among the leading antagonists, a state of mind induced by nightmares in which two-way shipping steams right past the beautiful port facilities of the metropolis. Their opposite numbers in Toronto, on the other hand, dream dreams in which they see ocean leviathans tied up to handsome dock facilities at the foot of Bay Street, a slightly exaggerated concept.

Equally prodevelopment is Premier Drew’s administration in Queen’s Park. Ontario needs electricity urgently and could the international section of the river, from Iroquois east to a point slightly above Cornwall, be developed, 2,200,000 new horsepower would be available. Half of this would be Canadian and, therefore, the property of the people of Ontario. (Electric energy, as a natural resource, is under provincial jurisdiction.)

The debate has always cut sharply across political party lines on both sides of the border. Thus, last winter President Truman urged Congress to reach agreement with Canada for joint development, while his usually faithful political supporter, Democrat Mayor O’Dwyer of New York City, predicted that the project would “ruin the Port of New York.” By the same token the Governor of New York, Republican Dewey, lines up squarely on the President’s side because upstate New York, Buffalo excepted, wants the power developed and upstate is where the governor’s solid support lies.

Man-made Flood

Similar divisions are found in the ranks of employers and organized labor. The railway brotherhoods in both countries regard the waterway as a potential creator of bread lines for railroad crews, whereas industrial unions, thinking in terms of a new heavy-industry empire along the international section of the St. Lawrence, want the job done right away quick. Railway operators and owners of Great Lakes freighters, bitter antagonists in many a rates struggle in the past, become brothers-in-arms whenever the waterway is mentioned. The railroad men fear what lakehead-to-sea transportation may do to overland carriers. The lake operators want no deepdraught ships penetrating the continent’s heartland from the sea, particularly as the build of their boats won’t let them go cruising the oceans even if a channel is opened.

The seaway argument involves that part of the St. Lawrence River which runs from Prescott, Ont., and Ogdens-

burg, N.Y., into the harbor of Montreal, a stretch slightly more than 120 miles in length, which for approximately 50 miles forms the international boundary. In this int; motional section a number of rapids give a total drop of 226 feet, overcome by four canals with a total length of almost 25 m:lts and a draught of 14 feet within which are 12 locks. (Farther down river, between Cornwall and Montreal, are two other rapid areas overcome by the Sou langes and Laehine Canals, hut the liver in this section is purely Canadian.) The International Deep Waterway program proposes a single-stage dam at Barnhart Island, slightly west, of Cornwall, to develop 2,200,000 horsepower of electricity, and a 27-foot-deep seaway to follow a new course which over most of the route will edge the United States shore.

The dam would create a narrow lake reaching from Barnhart back to a point above the town of Iroquois on the Canadian bank, a length of approximately 40 miles. The town of Iroquois itself would he drowned out, as would a large portion of Morrisburg and numerous minor settlements on the Canadian side. Due to contour of the ground most of the flooded area would be Canadian. Highway and rail diversions would be required, including a wide inland swing of the CNR TorontoMontreal line. In this area hundreds of Canadian families would become displaced persons. They would be resettled on high ground above the new lake, or paid off in cash, as each individual owner wishes. Under current proposals the United States would pay the bill for compensating people thus forced to move, presumably because of the larger Canadian less ef soil.

Who would pay how much to construct what? All manner of fabulous figures are tossed around casually by the pros and the antis. General Wheeler, Chief of Engineers of the U. S. War Department, told a Congressional Committee in Washington recently that the project will cost $675 millions. Chairman Francis Wilby of the New York State Power Authority, a pro-seaway man, talks $513,884,000. L. C. Sabin, of the Lakes Carriers’ Association, a determined anti, insist« it will cost a cool billion at today’s construction prices. What are called unofficial U. S. estimates set a figure of $884 millions. That was last fall. Canada is reported to want a complete new checkup on estimates before anything happens and at this writing government experts in the two countries are drafting a new schedule.

Canada would pay slightly more than 25% of total cost, less a credit of $132 millions spent at the Welland, which would let us out with something less than $100 millions cash outlay at the most recently assessed figure. This outlay again would be divided between Ontario (for power works) and Ottawa (navigation works) in the international section; and l>etween Ottawa and either public or private power interests in the Quebec waters farther east. Thus the federal Government, with its big Welland credit in hand, figures it can get, out for an expenditure in cash for navigation works of somewhere around the $50 millions figure. Which is one strong reason why the present federal administration is strongly in favor of going ahead.

In February this year the antiseaway forces won another round in the struggle when the United States Senate shelved the proposals. But that does not mean the end of the seaway. The debate may die down for the moment, as it has in the past,, only to be revived again. It seems doubtful that the project will ever be permanently set

aside so long as that bottleneck of shallow-draft canals remains between Cornwall and Montreal. That sector of the Great Lakes system must remain a battleground until the bottleneck is hurst.

As this is written, Premier Drew is reported as declaring that even if the seaway is to be shelved again the Ontario Government will combine with the New York State power authorities to develop the electricity in the international section of the river, presumably by building the single-stage dam at Barnhart Island, near Cornwall. Whether this could be done without some form of international treaty between Canada and the U. S.—which might raise another storm in Congress - remains to be seen.

The quietest, sector of the Seaway front, while the debate raged, was in the heart of the area affected. Around Iroquois and Morrisburg, Ont., and Massena, N.Y., nobody talked about either the final catastrophe or the dawn of a new civilization.

They’ll Wait and See

A while back, when the story got around that the towns of Iroquois and Morrisburg, destined to be drowned, would he invited to merge in a new community and move up the hill, Iroquois flew into a tizzy. What! Join people leaded with civic debt, when we barely owe a dime? Then the rumor became current that the town’s principal industry, the Caldwell linen mill, might pack up and leave the seaway zone. That sent the reeve hustling around to the plant to find out. He came back to tell his troubled electors that the management said it would string along with the town, if Iroquois planned to stay in business.

Women, a sex whose roots seem to take firmer hold than those of their menfolk, didn’t cotton at first to the idea of moving out of homes where people have lived for generations, but talk of streamlined towns up on the hill, new houses and gadget-filled kitchens, had its appeal. A Mrs. Barlow, in Morrisburg, an addict of the good-neighbor policy, thought the Seaway would be a dandy way to show the rest of the world how well we get along together in North America. There was a good deal of this kind of talk among the women, she said.

Young people talked about the 10,000 jobs on the big dam at Barnhart Island during the eight-year construction period. Business people spoke about the money it would bring to the riverside towns. An oldster, standing on the site of the Battle of Chrysler’s

Farm, opined the Yanks would be clanged glad to see the last of a monument reminding them they had lost a battle. Far as he was concerned, the Seaway was just helpin’ ’em get by stealth what they’d never been able to take with muskets, and no good would come of the idee, no siree!

Most of the talk heard in the communities along the international section of the St. Lawrence is based on What will happen to us? Will we get a good price for our land? What about compensation for our stores and butter factories? Should we go inland with the railroad and the highway when the time comes, or move away to Toronto, Montreal, Cornwall or Brockville?, But underlying such talk has always been the “We’ll-believe-itwhen-they-start-werking” motif, for the folks around Iroquois, Morrisburg, Dickenson’s Landing and Sheik Island have seen surveyors running around with transits and levels before . . . and expect to see them again.

Meanwhile, as summer comes to the Great Lakes again the package freighters of the lower canals are nudging their way into the 14-foot locks of the Soulanges, Laehine and the Rapide Plat, en route to Kingston, Toronto and Hamilton. Behind them, tankers from the Caribbean, Toronto-bound, wait for the gates to open. Deckloads of pulpwood from the lower St. Lawrence move toward Ontario paper mills. Bulk carriers pick their way again into unbuoyed harbors. On ore stock piles, beside Canadian steel mills, red gravel from Mesabi is coming in at 70 cents a ton—it couldn’t be moved for five times that price by rail. By now the Lemoyne’s sister, Donnacona, will be downbound through the Welland with wheat, maybe a load to beat her own world’s record of 570,885 bushels. In the flight locks Donnacona’s Old Man will exchange megaphone ccn versa tien with the upbound Lemoyne’s skipper, and if either has been held up by a white-painted cruise ship outside a lock gate, a ship loaded with trippers yelling “Yoo-hoo!” at dingy freighters, he’ll yelp the news to his colleague in unpublishable terms across a hundred feet of cement. Then he’ll squirt tobacco juice downwind and give his considered opinion that steamboatin’ ain’t what it useter be.

Each spring, long before gay yachts take to the waters of Georgian Bay, or trim launches cut sharp bow waves among the Thousand Islands, the big lakers are out, loaded to deck level with coal, grain and ore, hauling the commerce of the heartland toward the markets of the world, for this is the life line of the Canadian economy. if