Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes--St. Lawrence Seaway

Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes--St. Lawrence Seaway

by Jeff Alexander


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870138720
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 01/28/2011
Pages: 431
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jeff Alexander is an award-winning environmental journalist and author of The Muskegon: The Majesty and Tragedy of Michigan's Rarest River.

Read an Excerpt



Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2009 Jeff Alexander
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-872-0

Chapter One


Niagara Falls is one of the most breathtaking and commercialized natural wonders on the planet. Its massive liquid curtains, created by water from four of the five Great Lakes spilling over the shale and dolomite edge of the Niagara Escarpment, measure a half-mile wide and 175 feet high. Words cannot adequately convey the magnificence of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the Niagara gorge, and the American and Bridal Veil falls on the United States side of the border. The trinity of waterfalls is the second largest on Earth, but it has no equal. The beauty and fury of 750,000 gallons of Great Lakes water pouring over the American and Canadian falls each second—a thundering white wall of water that crashes onto a rocky gorge and explodes into a tower of mist 50 stories tall—is at once mesmerizing and terrifying.

The tourist havens that line both sides of the river below the falls are in sharp contrast to Niagara's natural beauty. The cities of Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, are gaudy, loud, and visually confrontational. High-rise hotels, observation towers, casinos, and countless souvenir shops line the river gorge. Those manmade structures create a menagerie of concrete, glass, and bright neon lights above the natural canal that the raging Niagara River carved out of stone over the past 12,000 years. Gift shops dominate many street corners in both cities, all hawking a remarkable quantity and variety of trinkets bearing images of the glorious falls—hats, shirts, cups, spoons, pencils, ashtrays, lighters, and place mats. Some merchants even peddle tiny vials of colored water that supposedly "survived going over the falls." Just $3.98.

Perhaps it is the combination of natural beauty and commercial glitz that lures 50,000 newlywed couples and 12 million visitors to the falls each year. Tourism promoters boast that the falls attract more visitors each year than Disney World or the Grand Canyon. I choose to believe that people are drawn to the falls by their beauty, raw power, and mystery. Surely, some are attracted to the brink of the falls by a morbid desire to see where daredevils have gone over the edge in barrels and other contraptions. Whatever the attraction, visiting the falls seems to be a sort of required pilgrimage for people from many countries and cultures. On any given summer day, it is common to see Jews and Muslims, Africans and Asians, Germans and Brits standing shoulder to shoulder, all eyes locked on the churning, turquoise Niagara River as its water races over the precipice and bursts into a falling sheet of mist.

The falls, for my money, are the best place to grasp the immensity of the Great Lakes. It is one thing to read about the lakes' vital statistics. Carved into the continent roughly 10,000 years ago by glaciers, which then filled the massive basins as the mile-thick layer of ice melted, the lakes contain 18 percent of all fresh surface water on the planet. The five lakes hold six quadrillion gallons of water spread across 95,000 square miles of surface area. If water from the lakes were spread evenly across the continental United States, it would create a pond 9.5 feet deep from coast to coast. Those are impressive facts, to be sure. Now conjure this: Nearly all the water from Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie that doesn't evaporate eventually spills over the brink of Niagara Falls. It takes decades for water from the lakes to reach the falls. Lake Superior has a retention time of 191 years, meaning its water is completely replaced every two centuries. Lakes Michigan and Huron have a 99-year retention time. The water from those three lakes flows quickly through Lake Erie, spending about three years in the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. By the time water from the four upper lakes flows out of Erie and feeds the raging Niagara River, some of the liquid assets have been moving toward the falls for roughly three centuries.

A volume of water slightly greater than that found in an Olympic-sized swimming pool spills over the falls every second of every day, every day of the year. That amounts to about 65 trillion gallons of water each day, enough water to supply about 21 cities the size of Chicago. Only a phenomenally huge, deep body of water could lose that much volume each day without running dry. If that doesn't drive home the immensity of the lakes, consider this: These freshwater seas are visible from outer space.

Paleo-Indians were the first humans to lay eyes on the falls, thousands of years before European explorers began trickling into the region in the seventeenth century. They were followed by Woodland Indians and, later, by five distinct bands of the Iroquois Indian Nation. When Europeans finally reached the falls, they found the area occupied by warring factions of the Iroquois Nation. The Iroquois called the mighty river Onguiaahra, meaning "the strait." European immigrants, determined to make peace with the feuding Iroquois tribes, settled on a neutral Indian term for the falls, one that meant "thundering water." It was a fitting moniker. Standing on a rock outcropping at the side of the falls, the cascading water roars past, creating a constant rumble as it pounds the rocks below. Talking to a person next to you requires a strong set of lungs. Conversations are all but impossible.

Father Louis Hennepin, a French missionary who claimed to be the first white man to see Niagara Falls in 1678, described a scene of sheer terror. "When one looks down into this most dreadful Gulph [sic], one is seized with horror." The falls, he said, were "a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the universe does not afford its parallel ... the waters which fall from this horrible precipice do foam and boil after the most hideous manner imaginable, making an outrageous noise, more terrible than that of thunder." Hennepin was known to exaggerate.

Canadians took the first steps toward making the falls a tourist attraction, building Portage Road along the river gorge in 1790. The first inn near the falls opened the next year, and the race was on to squeeze every possible dollar of tourism revenue from the natural spectacle. A visitor to the area in 1847 bemoaned the commercialization of the falls. "Now the neighborhood of the great wonder is overrun with every species of abominable fungus—the growth of bad taste, with equal luxuriance on the English and American sides—Chinese pagoda, menagerie, camera obscura, museum watch tower, wooden monument and odd curiosity shops." In the late 1800s, the falls became the backdrop for an increasingly circus-like atmosphere. Daredevils flocked to Niagara to test their mettle against the mighty falls. One of the most bizarre spectacles took place in 1859, when a famous Canadian tightrope walker named Jean Francois Gravelet, aka "The Great Blondin," walked across a rope spanning the 1,100-foot wide gorge near the falls. He accomplished the amazing feat 21 times, including one journey with his manager sitting on his shoulders.

A widowed schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel. Taylor was a destitute teacher from Bay City, Michigan, who was hoping to cash in on her feat, provided she lived to tell about it. She figured such an experience would bring instant fame and fortune. On the afternoon of October 24, 1901—her 46th birthday—Taylor climbed into a 160-pound oak barrel and went over the Horseshoe Falls. Inside the barrel was a 100-pound anvil to keep it upright in the river. Taylor lived to tell about the terrifying ordeal, but vowed never to go over the falls again. "If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. I will never go over the falls again," she said. "I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the falls." Several other people duplicated Taylor's feat in subsequent years; many others died trying.

I found it striking how Niagara Falls was a magnet for one form of commerce (tourism), while another (shipping) avoided the falls at all costs. For nineteenth-century entrepreneurs eager to extend the reach of global shipping into the heart of North America, the falls were a deadly obstacle that could not be overcome. Business and political leaders in the United States and Canada knew they had to find a way around the falls, and create a safe passage around its deadly wall of water, if they hoped to expand their empires west of the burgeoning cities of New York and Montreal.

The Niagara Falls region of western New York was a rugged wilderness in 1800. The uncharted frontier, occupied by just a few thousand Indians who didn't believe in the concept of owning land, was ripe for the taking. There were just 16 states in the United States at the time. But there was a strong desire among politicians to expand the young nation's sphere of influence to the vast expanse of land west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachian range, which extended from Quebec to what is now northern Alabama, were as formidable an obstacle to western expansion as was Niagara Falls. Efforts to extend the western boundary of the United States began shortly after George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. "If nothing were done, the young United States would be left squeezed between the mountains and the sea, a constricted minor league nation compared with the growth and power developing on the other side of the mountains," historian Peter L. Bernstein wrote in his book Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. Washington organized the Patowmack Company with a mind toward converting the Potomac River into a canal extending from the Atlantic Coast at Alexandria, Virginia, to the Appalachian Mountains. Construction stalled shortly after it began, and the company fell into bankruptcy after Washington died in 1799. It was during that era of expansionist desire, when the French government in Canada was trying to monopolize trade with Native Americans in the western frontier, that New York became a focal point for efforts to build a shipping canal through the Appalachian Mountains and into the promised land of the boundless frontier. A fearless leader was needed to shepherd the construction of a canal across New York and through the stone wall of the Appalachian range. DeWitt Clinton, New York's governor in 1810, enthusiastically took up the cause. Clinton made construction of a shipping canal linking Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean, via the Hudson River, one of his top priorities. He was undeterred by the magnitude of the project or opposition from powerful federal leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, who derided the project as "little short of madness."

The result of Clinton's tireless effort was the Erie Canal, a 363-mile-long ditch with 18 aqueducts and 83 locks that formed a shipping channel four feet deep and forty feet wide. The canal bypassed Niagara Falls by connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River. Side channels connected the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario, which lay below Niagara Falls. The canal allowed ocean ships from the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Great Lakes by traveling north up the Hudson River and heading west into the Erie Canal a few miles north of Albany. No longer would ships from Europe have to travel to the St. Lawrence River, north of Maine, to gain access to rivers that led into the heart of North America. The Erie Canal, which could handle low-draft boats carrying up to 30 tons of freight or human cargo, provided a time-saving shortcut into New York and the unsettled territory that surrounded the massive lakes above Niagara Falls: Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior.

Building the Erie Canal was a stroke of technological and economic genius, one that expanded business markets and secured vast areas of the frontier for a burgeoning world power. Some called the canal the eighth wonder of the world. It reduced travel time from the East Coast to Lake Erie by half, and cut shipping costs by 90 percent. But there was a tradeoff. Clinton's Ditch was the first of many canals that neutralized the Great Lakes' natural defense mechanism by linking the lakes, hydrologically and biologically, to the Atlantic Ocean. In their natural form, the lakes had a natural barrier that shielded the freshwater ecosystems against invaders from the sea. Niagara Falls kept the four lakes above it biologically isolated from the Atlantic Ocean. The impenetrable falls, and the fact that the lakes were above sea level, made it impossible for ocean species to enter the freshwater seas without human assistance. If the powerful St. Lawrence River wasn't enough to ward off potential invaders from the North Atlantic, Niagara Falls was. The Erie Canal changed that. Its locks enabled boats from New York City and Europe to travel uphill, essentially, to Lake Erie and the vast waters of Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior.

Completion of the canal was a momentous occasion, economically, technologically, and socially. To celebrate the canal's historic opening, Governor Clinton and other dignitaries gathered in Buffalo on October 26, 1825, to fill a keg with Lake Erie water before traveling down the canal to New York City. They were greeted by cheering crowds, bonfires, and cannon salutes nine days later as their flotilla entered New York Harbor at 7 a.m. on November 4. Standing aboard his boat, the Seneca Chief, Clinton poured the barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean and declared the "Wedding of the Waters" to be complete. "May the God of the heavens and Earth smile most propitiously on this work and render it subservient to the best interests of the human race," Clinton said. A similar ceremony was held in Buffalo, with a keg of Atlantic Ocean water emptied into Lake Erie.

The Erie Canal was justifiably heralded as an engineering marvel and agent for social change. It gave European immigrants eager to claim their piece of the American dream easy access to what is now the Midwest. The canal opened the nation's heartland to commerce and made New York the trading capital of North America. Its influence on the settlement of the Great Lakes region cannot be overstated. The combined population of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio increased fifteen-fold between 1810 and 1850, swelling from 273,000 people to 4,217,000. Many of those settlers were European immigrants who began their American odyssey in New York City before boarding boats that took them north up the Hudson, west along the Erie Canal, and, finally, into Lake Erie. From there, the possibilities were endless.

No one realized at the time that creating an unnatural link between Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean also opened a conduit through which ocean species, not just European immigrants on boats, could stream into the world's largest freshwater ecosystem. For all its benefits, and there were many, the Erie Canal was the first in a series of Pandora's Locks that opened the doors for invasive species now wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes. The Erie Canal lit the fuse on a biological time bomb that exploded in the lakes a century later. The world's largest freshwater seas would never be the same again.

The Erie Canal wasn't the first canal to modify the Great Lakes and its connecting rivers. Nor was the dream of opening the lakes to ocean ships born in the 1800s. French explorer Jacques Cartier, the first European known to traverse the St. Lawrence River, discovered in 1535 that the river was impassable near Montreal. Fierce rapids made paddling or sailing up that steep stretch of the river impossible. Sailing down the stair-step rapids was, at best, dangerous. At worst, the rapids could be deadly. That roiling stretch of river, which became known as Lachine Rapids, kept French explorers from proceeding further up the river for a century after Cartier arrived in Montreal. It wasn't until 1680 that a religious leader named Dollier de Casson began work on a five-foot-deep canal around the rapids. His efforts were slowed by endless amounts of seemingly impenetrable rock, and later by Iroquois Indians who opposed the canals. The Iroquois harassed workers to the point that the project was finally scrapped.


Excerpted from PANDORA'S LOCKS by JEFF ALEXANDER Copyright © 2009 by Jeff Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


[01] DOMINION....................11
[01] Conquering Nature....................25
[02] Vampires of the Deep....................37
[03] Salt in the Wound....................55
[04] Alewife Invasion....................63
[02] PLAGUE....................81
[06] Fatal Error....................89
[07] Dangerous Cargo....................105
[08] The Reckoning....................121
[09] Ruffe Seas....................137
[10] Smoke and Mirrors....................153
[03] THE DREISSENA EFFECT....................169
[12] Something Amuck....................181
[13] Blue, Green, and Deadly....................193
[14] A Cruel Hoax....................207
[15] Caspian Sea Diet....................221
[16] Whitefish and Green Slime....................231
[17] Paradox....................245
[04] BETRAYAL....................259
[19] Dirty Secrets....................271
[20] Who's in Charge?....................287
[21] Mission Impossible....................311
[22] Seaway Heretics....................329
[23] Westward Ho!....................349
[24] Saving Paradise....................363
[EPILOGUE] Hope amid the Ruins....................377

Customer Reviews