A Seaway Newcomer Comes on Board As a Seaway Giant Becomes a Legend
It is highly unlikely that Clarkson University President Anthony Collins (Tony) and the late Minnesota Congressman James L. Oberstar (Jim) ever sat down over coffee. In fact, it is equally unlikely their paths ever crossed.
But they have a lot in common: our St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Upstate New York College President was recently nominated by President Obama to serve on the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation’s Advisory Board. When confirmed by the U.S. Senate, usually routine for non-controversial appointment, he follows just a small number of St. Lawrence River region members, who have served on that five member advisory panel over the years, since the Seaway’s opening in 1959.
James L. Oberstar, the former Congressman, whose ties to the Great Lakes were strong, died in his sleep at the age of 79, early this month at his suburban Washington home. He was described by the Washington Post as “the son of a (Minnesota) coal miner who became a power in Washington during his 36 years in the House.”
Having observed Jim first hand for years, during my career as a Congressional staffer, I have always believed his personal interest and major involvement in Seaway issues, made him the most knowledgeable Member of Congress in modern history on matters concerning the international waterway which is in our front yard.
Just what is the US Seaway Advisory Board to which President Collins has been nominated?
Brief History Lesson
The St. Lawrence Seaway Act of 1954 created the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation and provided for the construction, operation and maintenance of the section of the Seaway, between the New York/Quebec border and Lake Ontario; the so-called “international section” of the 2,300 mile Seaway system. The international section is approximately 120 miles of the St. Lawrence, including our Thousand Islands paradise. The Corporation operates the two American locks at Massena, New York.
That Act provided for a Presidentially-appointed Administrator to run a wholly-owned, self-funded U.S. government entity. In its early years, the Corporation operated within the Department of Commerce, before becoming an administration under the umbrella of the Department of Transportation.
It also established the Seaway Corporation Advisory Board, comprised of five members, appointed by the President, with not more than three members of the same political party. The Board meets at least quarterly, at the call of the Administrator. The Act provides for the Board to “review the general policies of the Corporation, including its policies in connection with design and construction of facilities and the establishment of rules of measurement, for vessels and cargo and rates of charges or tolls; and shall advise the Administrator with respect thereto.”
The key words are “review” and “advise.” The Board does not establish U.S. Seaway policy, a responsibility which rests with the Seaway Administrator and his Canadian Counterpart, the President of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation. That Canadian government entity is a not-for-profit corporation, responsible for movement of marine traffic through the Canadian Seaway facilities, which consists of 13 of the 15 locks between Montreal and Lake Erie.
While the Board has been made up mostly, of members from Great Lakes area shipping, port and business interests, President Collins will be the first member from the Thousand Islands area in recent years.
Frank A. Augsbury of Ogdensburg, a prominent Northern New York entrepreneur, philanthropist and President of the George Hall Corporation, which operated a fleet of Canadian Seaway ships, became a charter member of the Board, when sworn in back in 1959. Years later Dr. Foster S. Brown, retired President of St. Lawrence University in Canton, joined the Board.
Most recently, in acknowledging his appointment, Dr. Collins said, in part, “the Seaway is a globally significant strategic asset with unparalleled opportunities to advance and balance international trade, world-class recreation and environmental stewardship.”
The late Congressman Oberstar would agree.
Oberstar’s Seaway Legacy
American and Canadian stakeholders in the Seaway; Great Lakes ports and labor unions, shippers, the coal and steel industries, ship owners and economic developers, throughout the American Midwest, considered Jim Oberstar their strongest ally in Congress.
Click here to see the CBC digital library, CBC Newsmagazine, Broadcast, April 26, 1959. Guest was Harold Snelgrove, the Host Norman DePoe. The video is 14:23 minutes and gives an in-depth historic description of the St. Lawrence Seaway; (two commercials will play at the beginning of the video.)
Canadian Seaway interests, including scores of Parliamentarians, counted him as their best friend, in the United States Congress. Many of them considered him “Congressman Seaway” because there was no one in the House or Senate, who knew more about the Great Lakes-Seaway system.
That being said, his interests of the of many who live on the St. Lawrence River were not always in synch.
Congressman Oberstar visited the American locks at Massena on several occasions over the years. He was a proponent of “twinning” the locks and expanding them to accommodate larger ships. While it was a popular notion among the Great Lakes ports and business interests it didn’t set well with Thousand Islands area environmentalists and riparian interests. The suggestion did not sit well in the Congress either, for at least two reasons: first, the expense; second, opposition from the Congressmen representing strong Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast and West Coast port constituencies; all of whom have always opposed Seaway development, fearing increased competition from their Great Lakes competitors.
Citing some existing winter navigation in the Upper Lakes, where there is a strong U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker presence, he was a proponent of winter navigation through the St. Lawrence. Just mentioning those words drew the ire of the same opponents of lock twinning;-That too, never gained support in Congress. That notwithstanding, he was representing the interests of his Minnesota constituencies.
His involvement in Seaway matters pre-dated his election to Congress in 1974, the first of his 18 successive terms. He went to Washington in 1963 to work for his hometown Congressman, John Blatnik, a powerful leader of the House Public Works Committee. He was an early Congressional supporter of the Seaway and played a key role in developing the legislation to build it. It was there that a young Jim Oberstar learned the politics of Washington, especially in the transportation area. It was no wonder that he succeeded Congressman Blatnik.
He spoke a half dozen languages. I recall sitting in his office with the first of the three Congressmen I served, Congressman Bob McEwen of Ogdensburg, who was discussing Seaway-related legislation with him. The meeting was interrupted twice by telephone calls; the first from a Canadian Parliamentarian with whom he spoke fluent French and the second from Senator/later Vice President Walter Mondale, with whom he discussed Minnesota politics.
The Interlake Steamship Company renamed one of its nine ships sailing on the Great Lakes; the “Honorable James L. Oberstar” in his honor; he rechristened the 806-foot bulk carrier in Duluth in 2011.
A Significant Seaway Anniversary Occurred This Week
It was 60 years ago this week---May 13, 1954---that President Eisenhower signed the St. Lawrence Seaway Ac,t creating the Seaway Development Corporation and mandating the construction of the international section of the Seaway. Standing behind him as he signed the legislation, were Congressman Blatnik and Northern New York Congressman Clarence Kilburn of Malone, a community just a short drive from the Massena locks. Five years later, in 1959, the President and Queen Elizabeth cut the ribbon in Montreal, officially opening the Seaway.
By Cary R. Brick
Cary Brick lives on the river at Shady Shores, near Clayton; he retired from a 30+ career in the US Congress, where he was Chief of Staff to three successive Upstate NY Members of Congress. He is currently a freelance writer; Chairs the Thousand Islands Foundation, serves as a member of the Clayton Local Development Corporation and is an elected Commissioner of the Clayton Fire District. He began his love of the River at the age of seven, in 1952, when his parents bought a summer home on Clayton’s Steele Point. His first job at the age of 16 was working at a newsstand on Riverside Drive, in Clayton where he learned to love, understand and appreciate ‘river rats.” Earlier in his post- Congressional retirement years, he was a TI Land Trust Board member, adjunct Professor of Government, library trustee, acting Clayton Village Judge, first mate on a fishing charter and co-founder of Clayton's “Great New York Food & Wine Show.” Lastly, as a retired Judge, he performs weddings up and down the river everywhere from chapels, to private islands, estates, Boldt Castle, family cottages and even dockside! He specializes in personalized ceremonies. You can reach Cary at stlawrenceriverweddings.com