The St. Lawrence Seaway, a 189-mile (306-kilometer) stretch of the Seaway between Montreal and Lake Ontario is recognized as one of the most challenging engineering feats in history. Seven locks were built in the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the Seaway, five Canadian and two U.S., in order to lift vessels to 246 feet (75 meters) above sea level.
It had been in various stages of proposal, debate and consideration since roughly 1895. In 1932 talks began in ernest to begin the seaway and President Roosevelt proposed serious action be taken to break ground and commence what many considered to be a very adventuresome and costly project. Through fits and starts and debate back and forth, not to mention a War and resistance from a number of sectors, deals were proposed and debated on by both the U.S. and Canadian governments. Canadian Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was reluctant to proceed, in part because of opposition to the project in Quebec, in 1932 he and the U.S. representative signed a treaty of intent. This treaty was submitted to the U.S. Senate in November 1932 and hearings continued until a vote was taken on March 14, 1934. The majority voted in favor of the treaty, but it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote for ratification. Later attempts between the governments in the 1930s to forge an agreement came to naught due to opposition by the Ontario government of Mitchell Hepburn and the government of Quebec. In 1936, John C. Beukema, head of the Great Lakes Harbors Association and a member of the Great Lakes Tidewater Commission, was among a delegation of eight from the Great Lakes states to meet at the White House with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to obtain his support for the seaway concept. By January 1940 substantial agreement was reached between Canada and the United States. By 1941, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King made an executive agreement to build the joint hydro and navigation works, but this failed to receive the assent of the U.S. Congress. Proposals for the seaway were met with resistance; the primary opposition came from interests representing harbors on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and internal waterways and from the railroad associations. The railroads carried freight and goods between the coastal ports and the Great Lakes cities.
But stumbling blocks continued until 1945 when Canada and the U.S. again tried to reach an agreement and it’s this episode of the weekly interview program Our Foreign Policy from NBC Radio that the subject is approached and debated by Sen. Leverett Saltonstall (D-Mass) and Rep. William A. Pittenger (R. Minn) – the points of view expressed by these two legislators gives some idea of what the stumbling blocks to this project were.
And its a reminder that, even projects that are beneficial and for the common good are often met with considerable resistance – that very little, if anything is accomplished with the snap of a finger or blanket insistence. Politics is a different mindset altogether, and it’s good to remember that. And this 1946 broadcast gives some indication that ground breaking wouldn’t happen for another 9 years, and the St. Lawrence Seaway itself wouldn’t be completed until 1959.
Here is that episode of Our Foreign Policy from (approximately) March 9. 1946 with Senator Leverett Saltonstall and Representative William A. Pittenger.