How the Opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway Impacted the City of Toronto

How the Opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway Impacted the City of Toronto


Kaitlin Goldsworthy

Toronto - 2023

The St. Lawrence seaway, which opened on June 26, 1959, is a waterway that flows through the Great Lakes, connecting them to the Atlantic Ocean as well as smaller bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. The Seaway’s opening in 1959 greatly impacted the port city of Toronto by allowing for the use of larger cargo ships and increasing the amount of products which companies could export. In addition to impacting industry, the opening of the seaway also vastly impacted trade by creating new passageways that granted access to the Atlantic Ocean. It is very evident that the opening of the St. Lawrence seaway significantly impacted Toronto’s economy and helped the city expand its industry to further promote economic growth. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway made Toronto’s port side industries into growing economic supports which catapulted the city into a bustling metropolitan.

Canada always knew that the St. Lawrence Seaway would become a natural extension of maritime traffic, boosting the country’s economy. According to H. C. Brockel in regard to the construction of the Seaway, “To the Canadians, this is not a new undertaking. Canada has been progressively developing the Seaway since the first primitive canals and locks were built to carry the bateaux of the fur traders around the Lachine Rapids, and that happened as long ago as the 17th century.”1 Canada’s plan for the new waterway had finally been put into motion in 1954, when construction began. For many decades leading up to the opening of the seaway, Canadian and American governments debated the expansion of the waterway across both countries to develop a main and continuous route that could traverse the continent (figure 1).2 With enthusiasm from each side ebbing and flowing for the better part of 50 years, there seemed to be barriers presented at differing times by each country, resulting in the project being repeatedly shelved. Barriers that delayed the project included astronomical costs, the need to redevelop cities to accommodate the project and engineering challenges to develop the deep and expansive canals.3 Despite the challenges, both Canada and the United States continued to show interest in development of the seaway system. Finally, in 1954, with Canada threatening to proceed independently to develop its own seaway system, the two countries came to an agreement and proceeded with the enormous 5-year project that resulted in the establishment of the St. Lawrence Seaway.4 As a joint project between Canada and the United States, the seaway was, often referred to as the Power Project. According to Claire Parham, building the St. Lawrence Seaway became increasingly important to Canada after World War II. Production increases due to the war launched the country into its third industrial revolution.

Figure 1. A depiction of the St. Lawrence Seaway route traversing through the United States, and Canada, out to the Great Lakes.

This led to a concentration of businesses and residents along the St. Lawrence River.5 This progression and interest in further economic growth supported the push for establishment of the seaway which was recognized as an opportunity to also open up routes for expanded trade to other countries. As noted by Benjamin H. Stevens, “The construction of the Seaway will make possible a considerable expansion of direct overseas trade in general cargo between foreign ports and points served by the Seaway by lowering the costs of getting products to market and materials to industry.”6 The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway was very beneficial to port cities and towns lining the Great Lakes. As was predicted by Stevens, “On the Canadian side, Toronto should gain by far the most while Fort William-Port Arthur and other minor lake ports benefit only slightly.”7 As time passed, it became evident that Toronto, which is a major hub for imports and exports, benefitted greatly from the Seaway.

This business boom along the St. Lawrence River only grew more after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and provided many new opportunities which the port city of Toronto utilized to their advantage Ronald Stagg argues that, “In 1958, the Toronto Telegram noted that the Toronto Harbour Commission general manager predicted that overseas trade in and out of Toronto would be three times what it had been prior to the Seaway.”8 This prediction manifested as truth and Toronto’s waterfront industry grew tremendously. The city’s establishment as a hub for imports and exports sparked rapid economic growth and is very largely attributed to the Seaway’s opening. This is further supported by Donald Kerr, who revealed that the effects of the expansion of accessible waterways on the economic geography of the Great Lakes region and on cargo movements changed the status port cities in a drastic way.9 The trade increase greatly aided the city of Toronto’s economy leading to foreign trade which made the port side city a major trading hub. Toronto’s overall capacity to trade through the St. Lawrence Seaway was also increased greatly due to the ability to access and utilize large ships that were previously too large to maneuver through the old waterways. Previous to the opening of the Seaway, the waterways in and surrounding Toronto were too narrow and could only support small vessels. The St. Lawrence Seaway provided a wider passage which could support significantly larger ships (figure 2).10 The use of these larger ships allowed industries to transport a greater amount of product in a shorter time period. Furthermore, research done by Robert J. Berdard proved that since the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, “the Port of Toronto, in particular, has experienced a sharp rise in overseas cargo trade, the greater portion of which consists of general cargo.”11 Previous to the Seaway’s opening, there were many speculations about the impacts the Seaway would have.

Figure 2. The Manchester Commerce, launched in 1963 and pictured in the Toronto Harbour, is an example of a typical large ship used to travel the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes and the ocean. It had a length of 502 feet, a beam of 62 feet and the ability to carry 5000 tons of cargo.

In a research report conducted by the Lake Carriers’ Association, various association members and cargo workers were asked about their opinions on the new waterway. Many people determined that the overall effects of the Seaway would create new, positive opportunities. The report stated that international trade, “…has been restricted to vessels of the United States and Canada because limitations imposed by existing St. Lawrence canals prevent all but the smallest foreign ships from entering the lakes to compete.”12 The opening of the Seaway created access to other bodies of water, most notably the Atlantic Ocean which allowed for port cities such as Toronto to expand their exports into foreign waters on the other side of the Atlantic as well as import goods from countries outside of their immediate surrounding. The Lake Carriers’ Association’s also reported that the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway would take away the limitations of trade possibilities and allow for the seaway to be open to foreign countries.13 This access to European markets, brought about by the Seaway’s development clearly increased economic prosperity for port towns and for Toronto in particular it served as a major hub, given its position along the Seaway system. Support for the benefits of the Seaway was also reported in the Globe and Mail who printed that "The seaway will make it possible for 10,000-tonners to come up the waterway to Toronto carrying three times the cargo now hauled by these smaller vessels. Several lines have already built 10,000-tonners in anticipation of seaway traffic.”14 In addition to creating access to previously inaccessible waterways, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway allowed industries to expand their trade routes and the areas in which they did business, opening up opportunities in otherwise inaccessible markets. By utilizing the newly opened waterways, not only were companies able to spread their products to areas they previously could not ship products to, but they were able to do so more efficiently. Gordon C. Shaw noted, “The Seaway permitted the development of large 730' ships which move grain directly from Lake Superior to the St. Lawrence River export ports and return with Labrador iron ore.”15 Based on the reports of well-documented support for expansion of trade, broader reach to international waters and expansion of supporting industries such as the building of larger ships, there is significant evidence to support the notion that the building of the Seaway boosted the economic growth of Toronto.

A clear example of economic growth is evident in the expansion of exported commodities. For example, grain was a major cargo that was exported from Toronto waters. Once the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, “bulk iron ore and grain immediately became the dominant commodities, combining for well over half of the total cargo shipped, a status they have maintained to the present.”16 After the Seaway opened, the amount of grain cargo, in addition to many other types of cargo, increased exponentially. It was predicted that the increase in shipping would also require an expansion of cargo handling facilities.17 It can be surmised that in addition to job growth in the major trade areas of iron ore and grain production, the storage facilities and warehouses built along the Toronto port led to increased jobs in order to maintain operation of the new facilities. The sheer volume of shipping traffic lends itself to creating a sense of the enormous workforce that would be required to support the trade industry. Initial predictions indicated that “…in its first year, the Seaway will carry as much as 40,000,000 tons of traffic. But a more realistic estimate would be 25,000,000 tons…”18 Within a few years of its opening, the Seaway’s traffic far surpassed the modest estimate of 25,000,000 tons. According to the research of Donald Kerr, “Shipments through Gulf ports in 1958 amounted to 10 million tons or 50 per cent of the grain export but by 1962 had increased to 20 million tons or 57 per cent of the total.”19 With 20 million tons of cargo being attributed just to the export of grain and representing just over half of the overall export from Toronto, it is very clear that the St. Lawrence Seaway created rapid growth within the shipping industry and majorly increased trade and job opportunities in the supporting cargo processing facilities in the city. By 1962, just three years after the Seaway’s opening, the amount of tons of grain being exported had doubled. Another major cargo which was revolutionized by the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway was steel. As noted by Brockel, “the Great Lakes steel industry is being internationalized on a tremendous and inescapable scale.”20 The major expansion can clearly be attributed to the opening of the Seaway and resulting newly accessible trade routes which connected Toronto to the Atlantic Ocean through the Seaway allowing for cargo ships to travel to places such as Europe. At the time of the Seaway’s opening, Toronto was recognized as one of the largest steel producers in Canada. It is clear that the increase in the trading of steel would have required increased production, which of course would have led to the need for a larger workforce. Workforce expansion would then have attracted people to Toronto, contributing to its population growth and economic development. As noted by Kerr, the choice of shipping routes were largely determined by transportation costs and to some extent, the location of mills that processed materials. Given the location of large producers at the time of the Seaway’s opening, such as the Iron Ore Company of Canada, the Seaway provided a more direct and cost-effective route through which goods could be transported. This major producer and shipper of ore to support the steel industry along with other companies, such as Republic Steel Corporation, who frequented the Seaway waters, contributed to the increased use of the St. Lawrence Seaway system.21 It seems that the growth of Toronto was supported both by direct increase in goods such as steel which were produced directly from the city and increase in the operational industries like warehousing that would have been needed to house and process the continuously increasing volume of cargo passing through Toronto’s harbour.

The St. Lawrence Seaway opened Toronto to new trade possibilities because it connected Toronto to new passageways that were inaccessible prior to its establishment. H. C. Brockel argues, after the opening of the Seaway, “the Great Lakes now become a sort of new Mediterranean, open to the ships of all the world which have legitimate commerce to do with us; and, for the first time, the huge fleets of the Great Lakes and the huge commerce of the Great Lakes can break past the traditional barriers at the eastern end of Lake Ontario and move freely down to Toronto and Hamilton and Montreal and Quebec.”22 The ability to trade with new places, especially those that were overseas, was a major source of economic growth for the city of Toronto. The excitement and anticipation as the Seaway opened was well reported. As noted in the Globe and Mail, “The Industrial heartland of North America will be opened to direct contact by ship into the rest of the world.”23 The Seaway’s effect however, reached beyond the excitement of opening up additional trade routes. It also addressed a shortage in raw materials that was being recognized in the steel industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s by increasing access to mine and transport steel deposits from the eastern parts of Canada.24

On June 26, 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened. This waterway created a route through the Great Lakes, connecting them to the Atlantic Ocean as well as smaller bodies of water such as lakes and rivers, revolutionizing Canada’s ability to increase shipping trade. This opening was extremely beneficial for port cities and towns on the Great Lakes. Notably, this opening had a large, positive impact on the port city of Toronto. The Seaway provided connections to various bodies of water including the Atlantic Ocean which helped Toronto utilize new trade routes and expand trade into areas such as European markets that were previously inaccessible. This expansion provided a vast amount of job opportunities as Toronto’s port side industries of grain and steel grew to support increased trade. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway expanded Toronto’s imports and exports as well as greatly boosted the city’s economy through expansion of industry.

  1. Donald Kerr, "The St. Lawrence Seaway and Trade on the Great Lakes, 1958–63." Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien 8, no. 4 (1964): 188-196 

  2. Figure 1. A depiction of the St. Lawrence Seaway route traversing through the United States, and Canada, out to the Great Lakes. Benjamin H. Stevens, “The Effects of the St. Lawrence Seaway on the Location of Economic Activity,” 1954. 80, map 1. 

  3. Jim Coyle, "May 13, 2017 (Page IN3)." Toronto Star (2010-), May 13, 2017. 

  4. Coyle, “May 13, 2017 (Page IN3)."  

  5. Claire Parham, Claire. “The St. Lawrence Seaway: A Bi-National Political Marathon, A Local and State Initiative.” New York History 85, no. 4 (2004): 359–85. 

  6. Stevens, “St. Lawrence Economic Activity Effects.” 

  7. Stevens, “St. Lawrence Economic Activity Effects.” 

  8. Ronald Stagg, The Golden Dream: A History of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Dundurn, 2010. 

  9. Kerr, “St. Lawrence Seaway Trade,” 188. 

  10. Figure 2. The Manchester Commerce, launched in 1963 and pictured in the Toronto Harbour, is an example of a typical large ship used to travel the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes and the ocean. It had a length of 502 feet, a beam of 62 feet and the ability to carry 5000 tons of cargo. Kerr, “St. Lawrence Seaway Trade,” 8, fig. 8. 

  11. Robert J. Bedard, "The effects of the St Lawrence Seaway on trade patterns and cargo volumes at the Canadian Great Lakes ports." PhD diss., University of Ottawa (Canada), 1972. 

  12. McGill University Library, and Robert Heller & Associates. Report for Lake Carriers ‘Association: Effect of the Completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Cleveland: Robert 

  13. McGill University Library, and Robert Heller & Associates. Report Lake Carriers’ Association. 

  14. Wilfred List, "Plan Increased Foreign Trade: Toronto seen as Great Export Harbor Even before Seaway." The Globe and Mail (1936-), May 11, 1954. 

  15. Gordon C. Shaw, "Changes in Canadian Great Lakes Shipping Since the Opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959." (1978): 571-591. 

  16. Daniel Macfarlane, “Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway.” UBC Press, 2014. 

  17. Stevens, “St. Lawrence Economic Activity Effects.” 

  18. Clark Davey, “Ocean Ships Bound for Toronto: St. Lawrence Seaway Opens Glamor Girls, Canallers Form Queue.” Globe and Mail. 1959. 

  19. Kerr, “St. Lawrence Seaway Trade,” 188. 

  20. H.C. Brockel, “The Significance of the St. Lawrence Seaway.” The Centennial Review of Arts & Science 3, no. 3 (1959): 258–68. 

  21. Kerr, “St. Lawrence Seaway Trade,” 188. 

  22. Brockel, “Significance St. Lawrence Seaway”, 266. 

  23. Davey, “Ocean Ships Bound for Toronto.” 

  24. Brockel, “Significance St. Lawrence Seaway,” 266.