BY GARY MAY
On July 1, 1958, 30 tonnes of explosive split apart the last temporary coffer dam that was holding back the waters of the St. Lawrence River above the new Moses-Saunders power plant at Cornwall. Some had predicted a huge gush of water but instead, what transpired was more of a trickle. It took four or five days before the enlarged river settled, as expected, into what would become Lake St. Lawrence, which is today an integral part of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
It was a man-made and planned “disaster,” designed as part of the construction of the Seaway, which would allow larger freight-hauling ships to sail between Montreal and the heart of the North American continent, and create an important new source of hydroelectric power.
The day of the explosion was called “Inundation Day.” As a result, 10 communities — six villages, three hamlets and an island farming centre — were obliterated. In preparation, 6,500 people were relocated and cemeteries and monuments were moved. Parts of Highway 2 were rebuilt to bypass the new watercourse, leaving old sections under water, occasionally to pop up on high points, which became newly formed islands in the St. Lawrence.
The flooded communities became known as The Lost Villages.
Many of the displaced residents moved to the new planned towns of Ingleside and Long Sault, but the story of how these people lost their homes lives on today. The Lost Villages Museum at Long Sault is dedicated to their memory and recounts this period of history through film and exhibits.
Now, a $12-million visitor centre at the Moses-Saunders power dam and Robert H. Saunders Generating Station tells the broader story — the remarkable feat of constructing the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project at a cost of $470 million. The project is considered one of the most remarkable engineering achievements of the 20th century.
Opening to the public on Aug. 16, the visitor centre recounts, through exhibits, artifacts and video, the many colourful stories associated with the facility, including the flooding of the Lost Villages and relocation of residents, explains Linda Halliday of Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which operates Cornwall’s Robert H. Saunders power plant.
The centre also tells the history of power generation in Ontario, construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project and the more recent creation of OPG, when Ontario Hydro was split into separate generating and transmission companies. An exhibit also recounts the history of the Akwesasne First Nations People, whose lives were significantly changed by the project.
'Magnificent viewing spot'
The St. Lawrence Power Development Visitor Centre is located just outside the generating station and includes what Halliday tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com is “a magnificent viewing spot” from which to observe the dam and river. Admission to the visitor centre is free.
Halliday agrees the centre is “unique” for OPG. “OPG has information centres for the nuclear generating stations at Pickering and Darlington,” she says, “and we have a tour at the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station at Niagara Falls. But this centre tells quite a different part of OPG’s story.”
She says the centre also offers an exhibit dedicated to the life of Robert H. Saunders, who was chairman of the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario from 1948 to 1955, and a leading advocate for the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project.
From the outside, the building, with its soaring windows offering a beautiful view of the river, resembles a modern art gallery. Inside, the 13,000-square-foot space includes plenty of room to tell the tales associated with the site, starting with a timeline of the Seaway and power project, the City of Cornwall and the Mohawks of Akwesasne. You can also watch a film showing dramatic scenes from Inundation Day. One room with huge windows shows off a beautiful view of the dam. Nearby is a patio. A model turbine offers opportunities for hands-on demonstrations that are bound to be popular with the kids. School classes are invited to use a newly built theatre.
The building was designed and constructed to LEED specifications, the latest in green, energy-saving technology.
The centre is located right next to the bike trail that runs along the St. Lawrence River as part of the Waterfront Trail, an on- and off-road route that also follows the coastline of Lake Ontario. A smaller visitor centre was previously located inside the generating station, but security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States caused it to be shut down.
The Saunders power station produces more than six billion kilowatt hours of water-generated, renewable electricity and meets the needs of more than 600,000 households. It represents more than three per cent of Ontario’s total power generation.
On the U.S. side of the dam is a generating station operated by the New York Power Authority.
Harness the power of the Long Sault Rapids
Construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project began in 1954 to ease shipping on the St. Lawrence River and to harness the power of the Long Sault Rapids, through construction of three large dams and several smaller ones. After construction was completed in July 1958, it was officially opened in April 1959, followed by a ceremonial opening in June during a visit by the Queen.
The opening of the visitor centre represents an important milestone in the campaign to remember and comprehend what was lost when the riverside communities were flooded to make way for the seaway and power dam.
For years, few people spoke of the incident, says Jane Craig, who lived in the former village of Moulinette, one of the Lost Villages. She says those who did would be accused of trying to hang on to the past. Craig was 13 on Inundation Day. Today, she is helping to keep those memories alive as president of the Lost Villages Historical Society.
She recalls the huge tractors drawing some 530 homes through the streets of the communities that were about to disappear. She recalls the day in 1956 when her mother looked on sadly while Hydro workers took a chainsaw to the willow trees her father had planted in their backyard. Everything had to be cleared away to make way for the deluge.
Craig says the society welcomes the new visitor centre and is “thrilled” with the input it has been allowed into the planning. “They’ve listened to us from Day 1,” she tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. She says a Lost Villages display at the centre, which will be changed and updated from time to time, will increase the museum’s profile in the community.
The first exhibit consists of commemorative plates depicting scenes of each of the Lost Villages.
Craig says many people in the area still know little, if anything, about the events that took place when the Seaway was created. “People drive by the museum without stopping, and one woman on my street said, ‘Oh, I always wondered what that was all about.’ Well, why did she never stop to find out?”
Finally, they can laugh again
Craig says it took a generation before people began to openly talk about the events of that era. Nevertheless, over the years some interviews with former residents of the Lost Villages were taped, and in the 1970s, that led to the play, A Seaway Story
, being created. It has been presented several times at the Upper Canada Playhouse in nearby Morrisburg.
Craig recounts how she took one elderly woman to an event in the Encore Seniors Education Centre program at Cornwall’s St. Lawrence College that looked at The Inundation. Encore is a not-for-profit organization that provides academic courses and activities of special interest to adults over age 50. All the way there, she recalls, the woman insisted she would not talk about those long-past events.
But once she got there, someone asked her a question and the woman didn’t stop talking for two hours. She didn’t speak about it in a melancholy way, though, says Craig. “She relived it in a happy light. She laughed. I think she got rid of all that frustration that had built up over all those years.”
Craig also recalls attending a production of the Inundation play and during intermission, “there were tears in people’s eyes. It’s still very emotional for so many. I get emotional about it. Over a four-year period (during which the move took place), we cried a lot.”
There have been other efforts to keep the story alive, too. For example, local novelist Maggie Wheeler has written several mysteries based on unsolved crimes that occurred during the construction years.
More recently, Montreal educator Anne-Marie Shields, who retired to the area, produced the book, Lost Villages, Found Communities: A Pictorial History of the Lost Villages of the St. Lawrence Seaway
, based on her own watercolour paintings. And folk singer James Gordon has written original songs based on some of the tales of survivors.
The OPG visitor centre is located at 2500 Second St. W. in Cornwall and is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Call 613-932-4563 for more information. The Lost Villages Museum is located on Fran Laflamme Drive, three kilometres east of Long Sault, and is open daily, from mid-June to the end of September.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — July 2010