On one of the sunniest and warmest days of the year in this small town of 15,000 people, hundreds of people gathered under a small white tent at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Lock to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what many call the greatest construction show on earth. It was here in 1955 on the St. Lawrence River that ground was first broken for the American portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
MASSENA, N.Y. - On one of the sunniest and warmest days of the year in this small town of 15,000 people, hundreds of people gathered under a small white tent at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Lock to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what many call the greatest construction show on earth.
It was here in 1955 on the St. Lawrence River that ground was first broken for the American portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a 750-mile waterway extending from Montreal to Lake Erie.
Four years and $470 million later, the seaway opened with a dedication by President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II.
Friday, past and present seaway officials, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood right where Eisenhower and the Queen had stood to commemorate the binational effort that is widely credited with opening up northern New York and the Great Lakes to the rest of the world.
"Aren't we all glad we came?" Miss Kaptur asked the audience, which included Massena residents as well as visitors from across the country and Canada.
She emphasized the seaway's importance: "It's really our lifeline for waterborne commerce to the world."
While the seaway's been around for 50 years, it has been discussed and debated for more than a century.
Even in the late 1800s, American and Canadian officials were calling for wider, deeper channels for seaborne vessels in the Great Lakes-Ontario region for the purposes of economic growth and national security. But railroads and other special interests made up significant opposition to the project, fearing cargo fleets would swallow up their business.
Only in 1954, after repeated calls for action and Canada's threat to build the seaway alone, did the House and Senate finally pass legislation to begin the seaway's construction in the United States.
Roy Danielian was just a boy then, but he remembers how hard his father worked to get the bill passed.
"He worked on it for almost 25, 30 years of his life," Mr. Danielian said of his father, N.R. Danielian, who directed a massive survey of the project for the Department of Commerce in the late 1930s and later worked for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence
Association to help pass the bill.
Mr. Danielian remembers his father bet a railroad lobbyist a few hundred dollars that the seaway would be built one day.
The day after the bill was passed, he attended a party with his father, and the lobbyist showed up.
"There was a table set out with a cover on it, and he withdrew this cover, and there was a pile of pennies on the table," he recalled. "And there was this big gigantic Tonka toy truck that would ostensibly scoop the pennies as a payoff for the bet."
Construction of the seaway's two American locks, the Snell Lock and the Eisenhower Lock, caused a population explosion in Massena.
Sharon Marsh said there were so many more children in the town that Massena High School split up its students into morning and afternoon sessions. She went to school from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., while another group attended from 12:30 p.m. until 5 p.m.
Archie Gilbert drove trucks over the top of the water dams that had to be built to control the river flow. It was hard work, with temperatures in the winter going lower than 40 degrees below zero, but it was the only work at the time.
"I was home with the children, thinking, 'Oh my God, he's going to go off the edge,'•" his wife, Betty, said. The couple remembers an incident when a tractor tumbled into the water and the driver drowned.
Claire Parham, a history instructor at Siena College in Albany, N.Y., who recently published an oral history of the building project, has interviewed dozens of people who worked on the project
They told her it was the most memorable project they'd ever been involved with.
On Thursday, she spoke at a celebration specifically for those workers and current workers on the seaway.
"They all got up and spoke about their experiences like it was yesterday," she said. The sense of camaraderie between them all was still strong, even 50-some years later. "It's a club it was almost like being in the military."
The seaway brought prosperity to the region into the 1960s, but many say it is outdated and gradually becoming defunct.
Today's supertankers would never fit in the Eisenhower Lock, which can accommodate ships about 700 feet long and 78 feet wide.
In 2008, vessels in the seaway moved 40 million to 45 million tons of cargo, compared to more than 65 million tons in the 1970s.
Efforts by Miss Kaptur and others to widen and deepen the seaway have been met with fierce resistance and the reality of high costs and environmental concerns.
Since foreign ships flooded the seaway, the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes have been plagued with invasive species that have contaminated the water.
The impact has been felt particularly in the nearby Native American territory - causing the expected number of Akwesasne Singers at the celebration to dwindle to just one.
Theresa "Bear" Fox, a member of the nearby Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, said that her fellow performers felt that attending would be consenting to the billions of dollars of development that Miss Kaptur and Mr. LaHood proposed would modernize the seaway.
She said tribal elders recalled when they were able to drink the water and eat the fish without fear before the seaway was built.
"I felt I needed to come as a reminder for everyone to think ahead for the future before they make the developments that they do, to ensure that they don't hurt anyone in the environment or the surrounding areas," she said.
But speakers at the ceremony said the seaway is crucial for economic development as it sustains about 150,000 jobs in America and Canada, 3,000 of which are in the Toledo area.
And Miss Kaptur has proposed borrowing $3.5 billion to develop a broadened power or energy authority in the Great Lakes region.
She's worked on the idea for 20 years, and said that with a President from Illinois and vice president from Delaware - neither of which have major power-marketing authorities worried about competition - it might actually get done this time.
After the ceremony, a ship passed through the lock and waited to be lowered so it could continue through the river.
Valves opened at the gates on one side to release 22 million gallons of water, lowering the ship by 44 feet in just 7 minutes.
Roger Paradis, who works on maintenance in the area, helped to steady the ships to be lowered from 2005-2008.
A Massena native, he loves his job and said that the employees here stay for life.
"They don't leave," he said. "Once you come here, you come here to die."
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