America's Fourth Coast

Exploring the St. Lawrence Seaway's Eisenhower Locks

Through the months of June, July and August, people gather at the Eisenhower Locks in Massena, NY, to watch ocean liners make their way through the St. Lawrence Seaway System. And when the tourists come, they come in droves. Vicki Garcia, the Director of Civil Rights and Public Information Officer for the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation says that, "over 50,000 visitors anually," will come to the locks.

The observation deck is fixed with coin-operated binoculars so tourists can get a better look on board with the crew. Often, the crew of any ship can be seen smiling ear to ear while waving a friendly hello to tourists looking on as the vessel passes through the locks. Not that the visitors are the only ones interested in the proceedings taking place around them. Crew members can typically be spotted taking pictures of the locks as well, preserving the memories of what may well be their first visit through upstate New York.

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A ship passing through the Eisenhower Locks.

With everyone waiting patiently for the water level to either increase or decrease approximately 38 ft so the boat can pass through the locks safely, people can watch as ropes are swung and tied to the ships sides, a process which at times seems quite dangerous.

Ships from all over the world make their way through the Seaway system. Some travel all the way from Mexico; others come from Greece or other similarly exotic ports of call. Sometimes the ships that arrive at the Eisenhower Locks are property of the United States Military, boats which typically are twice the size of regular ocean liners.

Bryanne LaVigne, an employee at the Eisenhower Locks, says, "There are tons of ships, most from Canada." However, she goes on to say, "I've seen (ships from) Hong Kong, Russia, and U.S." According to LaVigne, yachts and pleasure craft can also be seen passing through the locks on any given day.

Visitors to the locks can enjoy a variety of activities beyond observing the operatiion of the locks themselves. Down below the observation deck is a place where dioramas of the locks, acquatic artifacts, and other locks-related memorabilia can be found. "There are several displays, maps, pictures and reading material," says LaVigne. There are also videos of how the locks were made. If taking pictures is not enough for memories, a gift shop is located in there as well.

Massena has two Lock Systems. The Eisenhower Locks, named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, has brought great prosperity to the town since the late 1950’s. The other system, smaller but still in frequent operation, is called the Snell Locks.

"I’ve seen (ships from) Hong Kong, Russia, and U.S."

Massena is known as the gateway to America’s fourth coast. It is the only American- owned locks system on the St. Lawrence Seaway. "The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System is a bi-national system," Garcia explains, "consisting of two United States and 13 Canadian locks." If a vessel transits the entire system, she continues, that vessel will have been elevated a grand total of 602 feet.

The Seaway was first brought underway by Canada in 1951, with their decision to start construction. Soon after, the United States decided to join their efforts of the St. Lawrence Seaway System in 1954. Construction of the Seaway ended in 1959, and the four year plan was met.

All told, the St. Lawrence Seaway is 2,342 miles long and consists of dams, canals, and locks, which help with lowering and raising water level for ships to pass through. The Seaway connects Duluth, Minnesota, with the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Many refer to it as a water highway.

With the construction of the Seaway and the Eisenhower Locks, many people had to abandon their homes. As water levels were being raised and lowered on the St. Lawrence, nearby farmland was being flooded, which meant towns were going to have to be moved.

Louis Seguin who lives in Massena recalls his memories.

"They had to flood a lot of water from Cornwall, Ontario, to Waddington, NY." He continued saying, "(and) literally move towns farther back from the river."

Not only were houses moved, but graveyards were dug up and moved along with churches and other brick buildings. When the whole process was finished 6,500 people lost their land and homes.

When the digging process began, Seguin said the machines were so big you could drive a dump truck into the bulldozer's scoop.

Many people came to the area to help build the Seaway. "People came up here to work from all over the United States. Some were even from Tennessee and Texas; it was such a big project," says Seguin.

When the Seaway was finished there was time for celebration. At the official opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Queen Elizabeth and President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored the opening and came to witness history in the making. Shortly after this, Queen Elizabeth ventured to Massena along with Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, in a dedication ceremony for the Eisenhower Locks.

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Photo courtesy of Bryanne LaVigne

An old pirate ship going through the locks headed to Alexandria Bay.

The Seaway has given us a lot of history to look back on. Many areas that were flooded at one time can still be seen.

Chris Bowies, a Plattsburgh State University student, visited the Massena area over the summer for the first time and says, "I've never seen an ocean liner of that magnitude before, it amazed me."

"I’ve never seen an ocean liner of that magnitude before, it amazed me."

Building the Eisenhower Locks in Massena helped make the town what it is today, bringing more jobs, and a better economy. "The Seaway brings in $11 million annually," Garcia explains. This happens to be one of the many economic benefits local communites receive.

The Seaway represents the hopes, and dreams of the hard working men who took part in building it, many putting their lives in danger.

"I’ve met some very interesting people from around the globe," LaVigne said of working at the Locks, " Elderly people have some great stories to tell." When visiting the Locks, be one of those people who can take away a story and enlighten others with the experience.

Have you ever visited the Eisenhower Locks?