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Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway System: Stairway to the Sea

Jeffrey Syken

When Jacques Cartier entered the estuary beyond Grosse Ile in 1535, he believed he had discovered the elusive “Northwest Passage” (between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean/s). However, when he came to the area of the river (which he named “St. Laurent”) near present-day Montreal, the formidable Sault St. Louis Rapids (a/k/a “Lachine Rapids”) dashed his hopes for a short-cut to the riches of the east. With European settlement of the St. Lawrence River Valley, both in Canada (north-bank) and the U.S. (south-bank) came the need to bypass the rapids via canals. This effort began in 1680 with what would be the first of many canal systems/schemes to come. It would be from these modest beginnings that the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway System would be made manifest, gaining access for ocean-going shipping to the riches of mid-continent North America.

The idea of canals (to bypass rapids and/or connect bodies of water with one another) dates back to antiquity, but it would be in Great Britain; during the period spanning from1760 to 1840, that the “Golden Age of Canals” was realized. Ultimately, the iron-horse would replace canals as the main means of moving people and freight great distances on land, but canals still had their place. The opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, by Queen Victoria herself, highlights the on-going usefulness of canals. Landlocked, the City of Manchester, England, with the creation of a ship canal (that connected it to the River Mersey and, in turn, to the Port of Liverpool and the sea) made Manchester into a “Cottonopolis.” In America, canals such as the earlier Erie Canal and later Sacramento Ship Canal would similarly benefit the commercial prospects of the regions they served.

By the late 19th century, the idea of improving the St. Lawrence Canal System was “on-the-table,” but two World Wars and stubborn self-interest would get in the way of its realization. The improvement of the Welland Canal, completed in 1932, would serve as a catalyst for the Seaway project in the post-WWII years. This canal serves to connect Lake/s Erie and Ontario by by-passing Niagara Falls and, through a series of locks, negotiate the formidable Niagara Escarpment. The barriers that had prevented the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway/Power Project were overcome during the Eisenhower administration and the great work began in earnest in 1954. By 1959, it was complete. However, the advent of containerized shipping (during this same period) and ever-larger ships would render the seaway obsolete at its opening. Even so, it has proved a valuable means of moving commerce efficiently to the heart of the continent and the benefits of its hydroelectric power production are considerable for all the people of the region.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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