The St. Lawrence Seaway and The Great Lakes (part 1)

The St. Lawrence River is a body of water that runs from the Atlantic Ocean through to the Great Lakes. The river pours out like a tap running into a sink in a downward motion. The Seaway enables large ships come into the heart of North America by way of these Great Lakes.

The St. Lawrence River is sandwiched between the Appalachian Mountains to the south and the Canadian Shield to the north. The Canadian Shield stretches across most of Northern Canada up towards Hudson Bay. The river runs the length of 1,290 km from the Atlantic to the edge of Lake Ontario and allowed early settlers to make their homes in Canada. In 1535, Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence to modern day Montreal to make his home. He, like his predecessor, John Cabot was searching for a route to China and instead they discovered a gateway to a new continent.

For these early settlers, the St. Lawrence River was seen as the only practical means of moving both people and goods in towards the heart of the continent. Overland routes were too difficult (because of weather) and very dangerous. Between the Atlantic Ocean towards Montreal, the water was smooth sailing. However, the rapids just upstream from Montreal, made it almost impossible to navigate small boats through to take goods upriver, thus was the beginning of canals, dams and locks being built in the river.

As the ships became larger and as early as 1833, the first canal was built to bypass Niagara Falls. In 1855, the Soo locks and Canal were built allowing the first shipment iron ore from Lake Superior soon after.

Fast forward to the present. If you travel to the province of Ontario and northern NY state, you will find a series of ship elevators that allow ships (both lakers, which are longer and allow for more content) and salties, which are shorter than lakers and are ocean going vessels). This series of lake elevators run through the St. Lawrence River all the way to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan which enables these ships to deliver their goods to American ports such as Duluth, MN, Detroit, MI, Cleveland, Milwaukee, WI and Toledo, OH and as far south as Chicago, IL and includes Canadian ports such as Hamilton and Toronto, ON which in turn allows the goods to be shipped farther over land either by truck or by train.

Between Montreal, Quebec and Lake Ontario, there are five Canadian Locks and two that are American. Between Lakes Ontario and Erie, there are eight Canadian, not to mention the Sault St. Marie locks and that is just the beginning. The St. Lawrence Seaway was first opened in 1959 by Queen Elizabeth II and President Eisenhower and took 15,000 people to build beginning in 1954.

Maybe not a tourist site that you would think of visiting, but it is definitely a place to consider. These locks are quite a sight to see. They are quite literally, a ship elevator that carries a ship to the next level. The Great Lakes are at different heights with Duluth (on the top corner of Lake Superior) is at 183 metres above sea level, where as Lake Ontario is only 75 metres above sea level. The amount of time it takes to go through a lock takes about 45 minutes per lock and for instance, between the eight locks of the Welland Canal (between Lakes Erie and Ontario) and getting through the canal takes about eight hours from end to end.

It is something for the whole family to see. I live close to the Welland Canal and have always taken visitors that are visiting from other places there. It is a marvel of man’s technology to view it and to that end and to encourage visitors, several of the locks have built visitor friendly viewing platforms and have added restaurants, gift stores and rest stops. For instance, on lock 3 of the Welland Canal, you will find its viewing centre. It has a platform for looking down into the lock itself, a gift store, a museum, washrooms, a playground for kids, a snack bar and a restaurant.

Not only for lakers or salties, the St. Lawrence River as well the other locks are also open to pleasure crafts, so viewing the locks from the water is also a possibility. Tours with stop overs in cities such as Prescott (to see Ottawa), Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Kingston or the Welland Canal to visit Niagara Falls are even available if you do a little bit of research. One I found comes out of Quebec City and ends up in Buffalo, NY. Massena, NY also offers some special events to encourage people to visit the Eisenhower locks and would be a great place to visit during the fall months.

While you are visiting the locks you can learn a lot about on how they work, how many ships travel through them (the Welland Canal is open from the end of March till the end of December) and sees about around several hundred ships pass through its locks every season. There are a lot of opportunities to visit the various locks, both in the United States and in Canada and should be viewed at least once during one’s life time. Besides airplanes and trains, it is another of man’s wonders in seeing these big ships and how they travel into the inner parts of North America.

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