THE ST. LAWRENCE PROJECT
It was July 1st, 1958, Canada’s 91st birthday. On that historic day, Canadians gathered coast to coast for the usual rounds of parades, memorials, fireworks and general revelry. There was much to celebrate. The economy was booming, times were good and there was an exciting spirit of optimism in the air. In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, residents had even bigger things to celebrate. They were about to be treated to a spectacle of huge magnitude - the opening of one of the most amazing engineering feats ever undertaken by man - the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The years following the Second World War had brought a huge wave of prosperity to all of North America. For those still struggling with the all too recent memories of war rationing and the great depression, pent-up demand along with the baby boom unleashed a torrent of spending, the likes of which had never been seen before. Manufacturing was at an all time high and to keep up with the seemingly endless demand for more and more products, the need for an abundant source of hydroelectric power was essential. The vast St. Lawrence river was targeted to fulfill that need.
During Ontario’s early days, the St. Lawrence River was the earliest navigable route or “highway” into the Great Lakes, its smooth flow broken only by the mighty Long Sault Rapids just west of Cornwall. Once into the Great Lakes system, ships could travel onward into the interior of Canada or southward into the United States. Navigators had been wrestling with the Long Sault for hundreds of years. Fierce and formidable, they dropped thirty feet over a span of three miles. At the end of the drop, the water poured into small channels that encircled a group of islands, shooting up a plume of spray a hundred feet into the air. Only a highly skilled mariner would dare to challenge the might Long Sault.
Although the rapids couldn’t be tamed, they could be circumvented. The first series of canals to bypass the rapids began to open in 1783. In 1834, construction began on the Cornwall Canal. When it was finally completed in 1842, the canal extended inland from Cornwall to Dickinson’s Landing and could handle vessels up to 186 feet long. Between 1876 and 1904, the canal was enlarged even further. By 1900 Lake Superior was finally connected to Montreal through a series of shallow canals via the Welland Canal. Improvements to the canal were ongoing and continued until around 1940.
The arrival of the twentieth century brought escalating demands for greater sources of power and the newly formed Ontario Hydro began to take a more serious look at the St Lawrence River. If it could only be dammed and harnessed, it had the potential to become a vast source of seemingly unlimited hydroelectric power. Exploration of the project began as early as 1913. In 1924 a Joint Board of American and Canadian engineers embarked on a two year study, which culminated in a recommendation for bilateral Canadian-American development. An International Treaty was signed in 1932 but the U.S. Senate refused to ratify it. In 1941 there was another attempt to get the project rolling. Once again it was stymied, this time by the U.S. Congress. The project was put on the backburner until after the end of the Second World War.
CANADA DECIDES TO GO IT ALONE
By the early 1950s Canada had been waiting almost thirty years for the Americans to come around and finally had had enough. Robert Hood Saunders, former lawyer and mayor of the city of Toronto from 1945 to 1948, provided much of the impetus for the St Lawrence Seaway and Power project. After his departure from politics in 1948, he assumed the Chairmanship of Ontario Hydro and immediately grasped the seriousness of the situation, in a series of speeches made from 1948 to 1951, he began forecasting that massive price increases would need to be put in place by the late 1950s, unless the seaway project was completed.
In 1951 the Canadian government, finally convinced the situation was becoming urgent, announced it would be going alone with the seaway project if necessary. They also added that if they went alone on the project, it would be built entirely on Canadian soil. The play worked and in 1952 the U.S. and Canada negotiated a agreement and sought the necessary approvals to get the project rolling. Licenses were issued in 1953 and construction of the International St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project officially began on August 10th, 1954. Unfortunately Robert Saunders didn’t live to see the completion of the seaway. He was killed in an airplane crash in 1955. The Robert H. Saunders Dam was named in his honour.
The seaway project was actually a twofold venture. On one hand it was designed to provide Eastern Ontario and Upstate New York with much needed low-cost hydroelectric power and on the other, it involved replacing the antiquated 110 year old Cornwall Canal with a system that could handle the larger ocean going shipping vessels and provide greater access to the inland ports on the Great Lakes.
The project involved building three dams and two powerhouses. The center dam would be used for hydroelectric power with a powerhouse sitting on each side of the border. Two more dams, one on each side of the hydro dam, would regulate the water height behind the hydro dam. In the process, the water height would be raised; forming a 30 mile long man made lake or headpond, 90 feet deep, over top of the Long Sault Rapids. The rapids would finally be tamed and harnessed. Two new locks would replace the six old locks on the old Cornwall Canal. The lake would be called Lake St Lawrence. More than 25000 people were employed in the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the total cost ended up at more than a billion dollars.
The sheer scale and magnitude of the seaway project was almost impossible to fathom. Although the American lake ports would be the prime beneficiaries, the project was conceived and initiated by Canada, which also paid two thirds of the cost. From 1954 to 1958, local residents watched with excitement and fascination as the engineers diverted the water first into the north and then into the south channels surrounding Long Sault Island. Eagerly they combed the dry rocks of the once fearsome Long Sault looking for relics, treasures and souvenirs. However the project was not without its casualties.
Along the shore of the St. Lawrence lay a group of small riverside villages, first settled in the 1600s and 1700s. Many of the residents were direct descendants of loyalist settlers who had come to Canada during the American Revolution in support of the British cause. Upon their arrival, the British provided them with land, food and provisions to carry them through for three years while they established themselves. In 1954, residents of these small, tightly knit communities were given the long awaited news that their villages would be flooded and submerged under the new Lake St. Lawrence.
The affected villages were Aultsville, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point, Iroquois, Mille Roches, Moulinette and Wales. Also included were the three tiny settlements of Maple Grove, Santa Cruz and Woodlands as well as three islands, Sheek Island on the Canadian side and Barnhart and Croil’s on the American side. A portion of the village of Morrisburg also lay in the flood line along with over two hundred farms.
The early British system of land distribution or land grants was, for the most part, determined by military standing. Those who held high military ranks or had distinguished themselves in battle received the largest packages and most choice lands. Following the War of 1812, with the threat of military invasion diminishing, many of the large landowners and their subsequent descendants focussed their attention on the needs of the surrounding residents. Slowly they began to harness the waterpower, build dams and mills and develop services for the burgeoning farm communities and other industries in the vicinity.
A number of these small riverside villages had started out as steamer stops and lock stations offering respite and services to mariners making their harrowing journey up the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes. After the mills arrived, the villages grew into small service centers, offering the usual stores, hotels, trades and an assortment of small agricultural industries. Over time some of the larger villages were able to attract additional industries on their own.
The villages had been in decline for years, ever since discussion of the seaway project first began, more than forty years earlier. Most people in the area considered the project inevitable and with the weight of the “seaway” looming over their heads like a death sentence, the villages had been unable to attract new industries, investment or income. Over the years their growth stagnated and their stature deteriorated to little more than small rural backwaters. By the mid twentieth century a couple of mills were still operating but most of the trade came from a few small farm based industries and summer tourism.
Response to the news was mixed. When the pact finally was signed and construction began in 1954, many breathed a sigh of relief and began to celebrate. It was finally over. Quite a few residents looked forward to the thought of living in a new town site and enjoying the conveniences of running water, paved roads, street lighting, mall shopping and all the other amenities that people in larger towns took for granted. Others were heartbroken at the thought of losing riverside homes that had been in their families for generations.
Initially many of the residents were not impressed with the relocation plans. It called for the formation of two new towns called Long Sault and Ingleside. Residents from the villages of Mille Roches and Moulinette would be offered comparable new homes in Long Sault and those from the communities of Wales, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point and Aultsville were offered homes in Ingleside. Farmers and business owners could obtain farms or businesses of similar size and quality. The alternative was cash at market value plus 10 per cent. However, since the seaway plans had been in the works for many years, property values were depressed and a number of people, particularly those living alongside the river, believed they were not receiving fair replacement value for their property.
Although Ontario Hydro’s first offer was on a “take it or leave it” basis, late in 1954 they came up with a new plan, offering to relocate as many houses as could feasibly be moved. As always, there was a catch. Homeowners would have to negotiate their property valued on a one-to-one basis with Ontario Hydro. Some came out ahead and others felt they had been taken. Nevertheless, 152 homes in the village of Iroquois were saved and relocated to a new Iroquois village about 2 km north on higher ground. The destroyed section of Morrisburg was replaced by a new development on the north side of the village. All told, relocation affected 6,500 people, 550 homes, 225 farms, 17 churches and 18 cemeteries, which included re-interring more than 2,000 bodies. Those buildings that couldn’t be moved were demolished. (some buildings were test burned and the results led to the development of the modern day smoke detector. Prior to this, it was thought that a heat detector would save lives but these tests confirmed that one would have already succumb to the smoke long before the heat would be detected.)
Ontario Hydro’s plan included an ambitious waterfront rehabilitation program that added nine parks and beaches between Lancaster and Iroquois. A few of the more historic buildings were moved to Upper Canada Village, near Crysler Park, a newly created pioneer and historical theme park, which remains popular with tourists from all over the world. A new Ault Park was created to replace the park on Sheek Island, donated by Levi Addison Ault in 1914. In 1955 the province of Ontario created the St. Lawrence Parks Commission with a mandate to manage and promote the various historical and recreational resources stretching along the St. Lawrence from Kingston to the Quebec border.
It was 8:00 on July 1st when the historic event began to unfold. It started with the sound of a distant muffled blast, the sound of 30 tons of dynamite tearing open the cofferdam that had been holding back the water over the last four years. Although many had expected a huge wall of water to come gushing in and wash up against the new dike where most of the spectators congregated, it didn’t happen like that at all. The water began as a trickle, flowing slowly and steadily, gradually covering the foundation and roads of the historic villages. By the second day, the water had made its way to Moulinette, Wales and Dickinson’s Landing. By day four, all the villages, islands and farmlands were lying at the bottom of their watery grave.(the cofferdam that was [ceremoniously] blown up was a small earthen structure in the small channel between Sheek’s Island and Barnhart Island. Inundation would still have taken place because the doors on the Long Sault Control Dam were partially closed, forcing the waters to rise and form the new Lake St Lawrence. The water couldn’t be completely closed off because the water levels downstream would have dropped and left ships stranded in the mud.)
THE LOST VILLAGES HISTORICAL SOCIETY IS BORN....
Although the villages have been gone for fifty years as of 2008, they continue to attract a considerable amount of attention, probably much more so than when they actually thrived. Divers from all over search underwater for remnants of old locks and foundations.
In 1977, a group of former residents founded the Lost Villages Historical Society, a group dedicated to commemorating the memory of and preserving the history of the lost villages. The museum, located at Ault Park, contains a number of artifacts and restored heritage buildings, which either originated from or were characteristic of the buildings that were once part of the doomed hamlets.
Memories and images of the villages themselves remain frozen in time. In reality they were probably not much different from the many other small riverside farming hamlets that continue to dot the shores of the St. Lawrence.
As one of the main objectives of any historical organization is to preserve their communities’ unique and distinctive heritage and stories. Rightly so, in the case of the Lost Villages Historical Society. It is not merely the gathering and acquiring of a collection of artifacts and documents. It is to keep alive the rich heritage and history, in the hearts and minds of the 6500 displaced residents of Eastern Ontario whose lives were drastically changed by one of North America’s greatest engineering feats of the past century and the first megaproject utilizing the combined efforts of Canada and the United States, costing over 1 billion dollars, unheard of in the 1950's.
This great undertaking drastically altered and changed the lives of over 6500 people it displaced. It is their stories and history that we must keep alive and be prepared to educate the new generations. Exactly what did happen to so many people and their villages, all for the sake of progress, is a story that needs to be told.
With little government help or financial support, the Lost Villages Historical Society has developed into a successful entity over the last 30 years. Relying solely on the support, dedication and generosity of its members, The Lost Villages Historical Society has become one of the only museum sites in the world dedicated to the St. Lawrence Seaway and Hydro Project and its effects on Eastern Ontario and parts of the Mohawk Nation and Northern New York State.
Although, like so many other volunteer organizations, we have reached a very difficult and serious barrier. Small in size, with only 250 members, the majority of our members are now well into their seventies and health reasons prohibit most of them from active participation in the restoration of buildings or maintenance of our museum grounds like they have been doing for the past thirty years.
During the 1950s and early 60s, casualties of industrial progress were viewed as being an unfortunate but sometimes necessary by-product, particularly when society in general was viewed as being the principal beneficiary. By the late 1970s that line of thinking had shifted somewhat as people began to focus their attention on the past and on whether the sacrifice of many of our historical symbols and structures was worth the price. However given the need for greater power resources and better transportation routes for shipping, it seems likely the same decisions would be made today!