The St. Lawrence Seaway – Spring 1950

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By N.R. Danielian

It is quite appropriate that the Great Lakes Historical Society should be interested in the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Basin Project because it was in Cleveland that the first impetus to its development was given in September 1895 at a meeting of the International Deep Waterways Association. One of the great advocates of this project was the late George T. Bishop, an officer of the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company and later of the Niagara Frontier Association.

Like all major undertakings of mankind, the St. Lawrence Project has had a long and turbulent history. Following the Cleveland meeting of the International Waterways Association in 1895, the President of the United States and the Government of Canada appointed a Deep Waterways Commission to report on all the possible waterway routes which might connect the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. Reporting on January 8, 1897, this Commission advised the President that both the St. Lawrence route and the Oswego-Oneida-Mohawk canal route were feasible and that construction of either project as quickly as it could be technically planned and economically executed was fully justified. This Commission also recommended deepening of the connecting channels between the Great Lakes and further surveys to determine which one of the two routes should be undertaken. In the next three years Congress appropriated a total of $483,000 to finance further investigation by the Board of Engineers on Deep Waterways which the Secretary of War had established. In the light of unsettled boundary disputes and navigation rights on boundary waters between the United States and Canada, the inclination of the Army Engineers at that time was to favor the construction of a 21-foot all-American canal.

Cedar Rapids, St. Lawrence River

In 1902 Congress took the initiative in requesting the President to establish an International Waterways Commission jointly with Great Britain (for Canada) for the purpose of reporting upon the use and conservation of the Great Lakes. Such a Commission was established in December 1903. The great accomplishment of this Commission was to negotiate and to settle the existing points in dispute between Canada and the United States. These settlements were embodied in the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. This treaty clarified navigation rights on the boundary waters, defined the amount of diversion of water each country could take at Niagara River and established an International Joint Commission with broad powers over the control and utilization of boundary waters. With the settlement of these issues, the St. Lawrence route became the preferred channel for the Great Lakes to Atlantic Ocean navigation project.

In February 1914 the United States inquired of the British ambassador as to the views of the Canadian government with regard to a study by the International Joint Commission, established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, concerning the feasibility of constructing a deep waterway for ocean-going vessels. Due to the great war this was delayed until 1920. In the meantime, Canada had already authorized the construction of the Welland Canal and work on it was started in 1914 but was delayed on account of the war.

The International Joint Commission held extensive hearings throughout the United States and Canada and in 1921 reported unanimously in favor of undertaking the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway Project.

In the meantime, private interest was very much alive to the advantages of constructing the St. Lawrence project for both navigation and power. In 1919 the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Tidewater Association was organized as a Council of the States and in the succeeding decade as many as thirty state governments became officially affiliated with the organization, which devoted its sole efforts to public education and promotion of the Seaway Project.

At the same time private companies interested in the development of St. Lawrence power and the utilization of this power in the reduction of aluminum were engaged in acquiring riparian rights upon the shores of the St. Lawrence River. As early as 1896 private interests had acquired leases from the State of New York by special legislative act to utilize some portion of St. Lawrence River’s water power in northern New York. It was under such a lease that the present Massena power canal was constructed and still utilizes a part of the flow of the St. Lawrence River in northern New York for the production of power to be used in the plant of the Aluminum Company of America. The history of private efforts to secure licenses for the development of power on the St. Lawrence River has been checkered with political controversy ever since 1907 when Governor Charles Evans Hughes took a hand in the definition of a water conservation policy in New York State. This controversy has at times been very lively and has involved Governors Miller, Alfred E. Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Lehman and Thomas E. Dewey. In the end, however, the state finally decided by legislative enactment to retain the right of utilization of St. Lawrence power as a public domain and to hold it in trust for the benefit of the people of the state as a whole.

Hugh L. Cooper

The most ambitious program of development of the St. Lawrence Project was proposed to the International Joint Commission in 1920 by the great American engineer Hugh L. Cooper, who appeared before the Commission on behalf of his clients, namely, the Aluminum Company of America, the General Electric Company, and the Dupont Company, to propose a privately financed program of developing water power resources of the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg to Montreal, where there are potentially over five million kilowatts of undeveloped resources. An interesting part of Cooper’s program, which called for the private expenditure of $1,300,000,000, was the proposal that his clients would make a gift of the joint works that would be useful in the creation of navigation facilities, to the two governments, in exchange for the right to utilize the water power of the river. This program, as well as other similar private offers, did not reach a stage of maturity because of political opposition in New York State and because, being an international project, Canadian consent was necessary, which could not be obtained for private exploitation of the river. It is an interesting footnote that Hugh L. Cooper, having failed to develop this greatest of the domestic water power sources, soon was engaged by the Russian Soviet Government to supervise the construction of the Dnieper Dam, which was the major symbol of the first five-year plan. The successful construction of this project made Cooper the “darling” of the Soviets. It is also a matter of record that an American manufacturer, who was also interested in the St. Lawrence power development, supplied the generating equipment for the Dnieper Dam.

The first sustained effort to secure agreement with Canada for the development of the St. Lawrence Project was initiated and carried through to completion under the Republican administrations of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, while Andrew Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury and Charles Evans Hughes and Henry L. Stimson were Secretaries of State. In July 1932 President Hoover finally announced the signing of a treaty with Canada and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee immediately undertook, under the chairmanship of the late Senator Borah of Idaho, to hold hearings. The political campaign in which the St. Lawrence Seaway was an issue between candidate Franklin Roosevelt and President Herbert Hoover and the subsequent period of economic crisis, delayed Congressional consideration of the treaty until March 1934. At that time the treaty came to a vote and it was defeated; although it had a majority of Senate votes, it failed of the required two­ thirds endorsement.

Lachine Rapids, St. Lawrence River

During the following six years, Secretary of State Cordell Hull made repeated overtures to Canada to renegotiate a new agreement. Because of certain political conditions in Canada, no definite progress was made until 1940. Then, under the impetus of the national defense preparedness program, the two governments resolved to proceed expeditiously for the construction of the project. An agreement was, therefore, signed on March 19, 1941, which immediately became the subject of hearings before the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors, and after seven weeks of hearings the Committee voted 17 to 8 to report the measure to the House. This was delayed until November 22, 1941. Two weeks after the measure reached the House floor, the tragedy of Pearl Harbor set aside major projects of long range significance, as the attention of the country was immediately focused on winning the war with all available weapons.

President Roosevelt, however, was convinced that power from the St. Lawrence Project and also the navigation works might ultimately be useful in the prosecution of the war, for he more than anyone else realized that the war would be long, hard, and bitterly fought. In the spring of 1942 he attempted to interest Speaker Rayburn and Chairman Mansfield of the House Rivers and Harbors Committee in reviving the St. Lawrence Seaway legislation, but received advice that because of its long range character, there was no chance of its being approved at that time.

President Roosevelt did not give up hope of pushing the project forward. Relying upon the precedent that such other major projects as the Panama Canal, Muscle Shoals, Bonneville and Grand Coulee had required strong executive action, sometimes of an unorthodox character, to start them on the way towards ultimate realization, President Roosevelt resolved to initiate the St. Lawrence Project by Executive Order under his war powers. This is an episode that is not generally known and is buried deep in the files of the late President. To begin construction of the St. Lawrence Project by Executive Order, the President needed funds. He determined that the first allocation of funds should be so substantial that the further construction of the project could not be stopped, as were the Passamaquoddy Project and the Florida Ship Canal, because such large investment would be involved that the Congress would be disinclined to abrogate Presidential action. He, therefore, called upon his budget officers to find fifty million dollars for the initiation of work on the St. Lawrence. His budget officers, however, could locate only about sixteen million dollars of unencumbered funds. To secure the rest the White House had to go to the War Department, or more specifically to Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, who was then in control of War Department expenditures. War Department appropriations during the war provided flexibility within ten percent of total appropriations which permitted diversion of funds from one use to another depending upon the exigencies of the war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Judge Patterson had a singleness of purpose at that time–to use all available resources of manpower and materials which could have demonstrably a direct and immediate impact upon the war and, be opposed to long range projects, even though they might help in the prosecution of the war at some future time. He, therefore, visited President Roosevelt in August 1942, in company with the Chief of the Services of Supply, General Brehon Somervell, and strenuously opposed the allocation of any War Department funds for the St. Lawrence Project. President Roosevelt was unconvinced and still insisted that he wanted the project initiated. Judge Patterson was equally adamant and two weeks later, early in September, he again went to see the President, this time in company with a Vice Chairman of the War Production Board, opposing the initiation of the St. Lawrence Project. The President had no choice then but to yield to the deep rooted conviction of his Undersecretary of War and made announcement on September 15, 1942 that the St. Lawrence Project would have to wait the termination of the War. After this decision it was obvious that there was no easy way of building the St. Lawrence Project but to secure Congressional approval. Even before the end of the War, Senator George Aiken of Vermont initiated action in the Senate in 1944, but his attempt to attach the St. Lawrence Project as an amendment to the Rivers and Harbors Bill failed by a wide margin on December 12, 1944.

The defeat of Senator Aiken’s motion revealed certain aspects of the St. Lawrence legislation that are of paramount interest to the residents of the Great Lakes area. First, it became obvious that the agreement of March 19, 1941 encompassed many issues that went beyond the mere construction of the Seaway Project, it contained provisions concerning navigation rights on boundary waters, connecting channels and the lower St. Lawrence. It contained provisions relating to additional diversion of water at Niagara River. It contained provisions for the arbitration of damages arising from diversion of water from Lake Michigan via the Chicago Canal. Some of these provisions raised serious questions concerning the constitutional authority of the Senate to approve treaties by two-thirds vote whereas the proposed agreement called for a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

During the first part of 1945, at the initiative of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the State Department undertook revisions of the 1941 Agreement with the consent of the Canadian Government. These revisions were incorporated in Senate Joint Resolution 104, introduced by Senator Alben Barkley, then Majority Leader, on October 1, 1945. This resolution was the subject of extensive hearings before a sub­committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Senator Hatch of New Mexico was Chairman. This resolution was reported by the sub-committee and it was approved by the full committee by a vote of 14 to 8, but was not considered by the full Senate because it was near the end of session in 1946, an election year.

Republican victory at the polls in the 1946 election raised the whole issue of economy in Federal expenditures. As a concession to this feeling and as an improvement in the development of such a great natural resource as the St. Lawrence, Senator Vandenberg took the initiative in introducing the concept of making the St. Lawrence Seaway Project self-liquidating by the charging of tolls. It was my privilege to assist Senator Vandenberg in formulating and securing acceptance of this idea by many organizations throughout the country. The Canadian Government and our own State Department readily acceded to this program. Senate Joint Resolution 111, which Senator Vandenberg as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced on May 8, 1947, embodied this concept.    Although there has been much controversy about this idea, it is a fact that the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, Article I, specifically authorizes each country to charge tolls in boundary waters, with the proviso that any regulations or charges on boundary waters must apply equally to the citizens and the vessels of both countries.

Senate Joint Resolution 111 came to a vote in the Senate on February 27, 1948. It was subject, as usual, to bitter controversy between eastern and middle western Senators. In the course of the debate the St. Lawrence Waterway became a “leeway”; the St. Lawrence project which has been the subject of study and endorsement by innumerable governmental and private engineers was attacked as the pipe dream of woolly­-minded liberals; and the project which had the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was labeled as a military liability, the folly of misguided enthusiasts.

Senate Joint Resolution 111 was, therefore, recommitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 56 to 30, but like all great undertakings that appeal to the imagination, the project will not die an unsung death, for in the 81st Congress, Senate Joint Resolution 111 reappeared as Senate Joint Resolution 99, this time sponsored by Majority Leader Scott Lucas of Illinois with 18 other bi-partisan Senators, willingly and eagerly putting their names to the Bill.

There it rests now, still subject to controversy between the east and the middle west and between the south and the north. The only new element in the picture that gives added significance to this controversy is the growing realization of middle western industry of the danger inherent in the rapid exhaustion of iron ores. What will happen to this project from now on depends upon how quickly the country at large, and the Great Lakes area in particular, come to realize the seriousness of the depletion of natural resources and their impact upon the long-range strength and security of this country.

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This article first appeared in Inland Seas in Spring 1950: A paper given at the Annual Meeting of the Great Lakes Historical Society, May 19, 1949

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