Lake shippers and observers alike were shocked by the closure of the St. Lawrence Seaway on November 21st, 1984, when the Larocque railroad and highway bridge near Valleyfield, Quebec, stuck in a partially opened position. What has come to be known as the "Valleyfield Bridge Blockade" caused a back-up of some 170 vessels, many of those being anchored in the river and others laid up at various ports pending the reopening of the Seaway. No traffic was moving on the St. Lawrence canal system for nineteen days, and many salties were in danger of being trapped in the lakes for the winter. The accident resulted in many suits and countersuits, and the litigation arising out of the blockade will likely go on for years.
Shippers lost millions of dollars as a result of the unexpected inactivity of their vessels and the situation for many of the companies was worsened by the sluggish traffic movements of the summer of 1985. This autumn, however, large quantities of grain again began to move down the lakes as a result of a substantial sale of wheat to the U.S.S.R. But just when lake shipowners were getting their boats running again and were looking forward to putting some black ink in their ledgers instead of red, traffic came to another unexpected halt, again as a result of a problem in the Seaway system.
On Monday, October 14th (the Canadian Thanksgiving Day, oddly enough), the salt-water vessel FURIA was being lowered in Lock 7 of the Welland Ship Canal when a large section of the west wall of the lock collapsed and fell between the wall and the port side of the ship. FURIA could not be moved out of the lower end of the lock because of the obstruction, and the lock had to be filled and the vessel backed out of the lock and along the upper tie-up wall. Obviously, no other traffic could be passed through the lock until the problem could be rectified, and so other vessels in the system were simply laid up where they lay. CANADIAN PIONEER had been upbound below Lock 7 at the time of the occurrence, and she was removed from the canal by backing her down through the lower six locks and out into the lake at Port Weller.
The lock was dumped in an attempt to ascertain the extent of the damage, which began some ten feet above the low water level. Then to equalize pressure on the damaged wall, the lock was filled again, for Seaway officials feared for the stability of the entire west lock wall and the land behind it. A contract was let to Canron Inc., Toronto, for the installation of steel braces between the lock walls to support the damaged west wall during further dewatering and repairs, and the firm began its work on October 17th. It was arranged that the Pitts Engineering Corporation of Markham, Ontario, was to attend to the final repair procedure, but the extent of that work could not be determined (nor could the length of time it would take) until the lock was completely drained.
With the bracing completed, the lock was finally drained late on the afternoon of October 23rd but, in the process, another large chunk of concrete fell out of the damaged wall. With the water gone, it was determined that the damaged section of the wall was some 140 feet in length and 40 feet in depth. The hole was roughly triangular in shape, extending back into the wall as far as the penstock which fed water down past the flight locks to the Seaway's electrical generating plant, which is located at the foot of Lock 4.
It was announced on October 24th that the Pitts firm would begin the repairs immediately, and a cautiously optimistic forecast was that the canal might be reopened about November 6th if all went well. It was planned that about four feet of water would be left in the lock during the repairs so that the Pitts crews could use floating barges for platforms on which to work. It was also said that the penstock (which may or may not have had anything to do with the wall collapse) would be filled up and thus rendered permanently unusable. The Seaway intends to discontinue generating its own power for the Welland Canal and instead will purchase electricity from the local Hydro authorities.
Even if the reopening of the canal should be delayed somewhat past the suggested date of November 6th, the length of the closure will undoubtedly be less than originally had been feared. Not only had shippers worried about getting in the necessary movements of grain before winter closes the system, but they had been agonizing over the possibility that the damage to the lock wall might be so extensive that the canal could not open at all before freeze-up. Those fears now appear to have been allayed, but shippers are facing millions of dollars in losses as a result of the blockade, and many of them have served notice of intent to take legal action against the Seaway Authority.
Meanwhile, vessels have been forced to tie up wherever they could. Canadian ports are filled with ships, and some have even gone into U.S. ports such as Buffalo. As an example, eleven ships laid up in Toronto Harbour. MANTADOC and PATERSON went to Pier 27, GOLDEN HIND and FRANQUELIN to the foot of Jarvis Street, and CANADIAN TRANSPORT and QUEBECOIS to the north side of Pier 35. In the ship channel were MONTREALAIS, BEECHGLEN and TARANTAU, while CANADIAN MARINER and CANADIAN LEADER tied up in the turning basin. As well, the coast guard vessels C.C.G.S. MONTMORENCY, C.C.G.S. SIMCOE and U.S.C.G. MARIPOSA were in port for various periods of time during the blockade.
It seems almost impossible to believe that two major Seaway blockades could occur in consecutive years. Shippers have begun to express fears concerning standards of maintenance on the Canadian canals, and it is entirely likely that salt-water vessel operators may be reluctant to send their boats into the Seaway on late-season trips in the future. There is, however, as yet no evidence that there is anything the Seaway Authority could have done either to foresee or to prevent the Lock 7 problem, and the true cause of the accident will not be known until engineers, already retained by the Seaway, have had a chance to make a full study of the lock wall collapse.
It is indeed unfortunate that what was beginning to look like a rosy conclusion to a thoroughly unsatisfactory shipping season has been marred by an incident such as this. It is only to be hoped that the canal will reopen soon and that the grain shipments can begin moving downbound again shortly. It is also to be hoped that future navigation seasons on the lakes will not see any further blockades of the type which we have experienced in 1984 and 1985.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.