The official opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway was orchestrated to be a breathless moment in history - a "flossy, glossy" ceremony, to quote this newspaper. On the muggy afternoon 50 years ago yesterday, balloons soared, guns saluted, an American president stopped by and a rosy-cheeked Queen, just turned 33, leaned over the railing of her yacht and waved at the cheering crowds.
Cargo freighters had, in fact, been lumbering through the new locks to Toronto and major ports on the Great Lakes for more than a month, smoothing out kinks in advance of the Royal Yacht Britannia's sleek arrival.
As it was, fog interrupted the voyage from Montreal, and the Queen turned up too late to enjoy the dinner carefully prepared for her at the hotel in Long Sault, a town created to house the many families who had lost their homes to the rising waters of the seaway and Ontario Hydro's massive new power dam.
But for most observers that day, a few lost villages was well worth giving ocean vessels access to the Great Lakes; to them, the seaway was an economic bonanza for Canada after decades of bickering with the United States. An engineering marvel finished on time and under budget, it had cost nearly $470-million (U.S) and taken 22,000 workers four years and nine months to build the vital 306-kilometre stretch from Montreal to Lake Ontario.
The hydroelectric dams - built at the same time and worth an additional $530-million - would fire up the bustling cities and manufacturing plants along both sides of the seaway. And this was the time of the Cold War, when the route promised secure berths for military ships and submarines, with quick passage to the ocean. The canals and locks that had widened and deepened the river path - silencing the famous Long Sault Rapids, which had 400 years earlier frustrated Jacques Cartier's travel plans - now made it possible for a transoceanic freighter the size of two football fields to deliver French perfume and Italian marble (as the first arrivals did) to inland ports such as Toronto before heading to Lake Superior to take home grain from Thunder Bay.
"It has moved the ocean a thousand miles inland," The Globe and Mail declared that day in 1959. "The effects of this cannot as yet be estimated, but we can be certain that they will be very great." Or, as the Queen put it: "We can say in truth that this occasion deserves a place in history."
The prediction proved to be true: The seaway, arguably the world's most impressive inland waterway, built at a cost that today would top $7-billion (U.S.), transformed cities along its shores, opening new markets and churning out a reliable stream of electricity. But over time, the story has become less rosy, the seaway's place in history less celebrated, its future uncertain.
Canada paid roughly 70 per cent of the bill, and has divided revenue with the U.S. accordingly. But that revenue has yet to cover the cost of construction, and often has barely covered operating costs.
Even worse, the seaway has wreaked so much havoc on the world's greatest supply of fresh water that some critics now propose that it be abandoned as a route for saltwater ships - the very notion that stirred its creators' imagination.
"It's pretty clear that the seaway has been an economic disappointment and an environ-
mental disaster for the Great Lakes," says environmental writer Jeff Alexander, whose new book, Pandora's Locks , chronicles the project's fallout. "I think it would be disingenuous to hold a celebration without recognizing some of the unintended side effects."