Lost beneath the waves of the St. Lawrence
July 1st 1958 is a date still marred by infamy, a time when whole communities wept for their culture and heritage.
It was on Canada’s 91st birthday that thousands of residents lined up the St-Lawrence River to witness what was considered the most amazing engineering feat ever undertaken by man, the St-Lawrence Seaway. But in order to create such a grandiose project, whole communities had to be obliterated in the name of progress.
Consisting of small villages and hamlets, the Lost Villages, a term coined by Fran Laflamme, the Lost Villages Historical Society’s first president, was a string of communities located on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. They made up the front of the townships and were the first to be settled in 1784 by Loyalists seeking safety and refuge for their family, following the American Civil War. These villages included Aultsville, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point, Maple Grove, Milles Roches, Moulinette, Santa Cruz, Sheek Island, Whales and Woodlands.
In her book titled Voices from the Lost Villages, Rosemary Rutley explains that “most of the first settlers were disbanded soldiers of the 1st Battalion of Sir John Johnston’s Corps, The King’s Royal Regiment of New York.”
The hardworking settlers cleared the dense forests and created small communities that all bordered the St. Lawrence River.
Destruction in the name of progress and manufacturing
The idea to develop the St. Lawrence River had always been present in the region. William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor and an influential leader during the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion, stated that one of his first endeavours as statesman was “the opening of the St. Lawrence to the trade of the world, so that the largest ships might pass up to Lake Superior, and the distribution of the wild lands of the country to the industry, capital, skill and enterprise of worthy men of all nations".
Following the end of the Second World War, Ontario was revolutionized and changed from an agricultural province to one of the foremost manufacturing centres of the world. In addition, spending was at an all-time high, creating a strenuous demand for manufacturing. The Canadian government was therefore faced with a need: to create an abundant source of hydroelectricity. In addition, the booming need of manufacturing meant that inland ports were busier than ever, shipping goods and receiving them from all over the world.
In 1933, the value of manufactured products totalled $958 million. In 1950, it had jumped to an estimated $6,5 billion.
The Seaway project therefore served the twofold purpose of providing the much needed hydro resources, asked by the government, as well as deepening the water levels in order for ocean ships to gain access to the many ports along the great lakes.
But the feasibility aspect of such an undertaking did not begin in 1958. Several Ontarians, prior to the event, had wrestled with the idea of creating hydro energy from the St. Lawrence River.
The Ontario Legislature passed the Power Commission Act in 1906 and created the Hydro-Electric Power Commission (HEPC), chaired by Sir Adam Beck. The Hamilton born man, who boasted hydro-power for most of his latter life, is described by The Dictionary of Canadian Biographies as “(the man who) brought the inestimable benefit of cheap electric light and power to the citizens of Ontario through the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. He had to fight continuously to build Hydro, as it came to be called, but supported by municipal allies he succeeded in creating one of the largest publicly owned integrated electric systems in the world.”
Several years following the death of Beck, another influential figure and chairman of the HEPC renewed the fight for what he called “harnessing the mighty St. Lawrence”. Robert Hood Saunders stressed not only that cheap electricity was of a tremendous and vital importance to Ontario, but that the river needed to be deepened. “I have studied Canada's ability to build the Seaway and I am convinced that Canada cannot afford to continue without the deepening of the channels in the St. Lawrence River,” explained Saunders in his 1951 address to The Empire Club of Canada. “In the interests of her own economic expansion and her own industrial expansion, Canada must have the St. Lawrence Seaway.”
Some were lost, others saved
Talks of a Seaway Project having started in the 1930’s, the now submerged villages experienced a long decline. New investments rarely occurred and growth stagnated, on accounts of what residents considered “a death sentence”. Residents of the small towns received the inevitable news in 1954. They were to be evacuated; the Seaway Project was to take place in the coming years.
Alan Daye, a then young boy of 13, living in Milles Roches, remembers the moment very well. “We all knew it was going to happen, it was in the air,” he explained, sitting at an old antique table in the Lost Villages general store where he volunteered much of his time. “But it was so surreal. We were all farming communities and we were all close to each other.”
But although some were heartbroken at the thought of losing ancestral homes, others looked forward to the thought of living in a new town site and enjoying the conveniences of big cities. “You have to keep in mind that there was probably only one running toilet in Milles Roches,” explained Daye, laughing. “Nearly no one had interior plumbing either. Some people were looking forward to having basements, instead of cellars.”
But although destruction was imminent, the residents were offered two choices. They could either move to one of two towns that were to be created, Long Sault and Ingleside, or their property were to be purchased at market value, with an additional 10% added. Yet the simple idea of the Seaway Project had considerably reduced local property values, meaning some residents were left feeling tricked.
Daye recalls how an Ontario Hydro employee knocked on the family’s home. “I remember there was a big knock on the front door,” explained Day. “The man told my father that he could either take how much they were giving him for the house or that he could swim to shore.” After his father refused, the man went back into his truck and retrieved a red NO TRESSPASSING sign, which he nailed to one of the property’s tree. “My father ran outside and ripped it off,” said Daye. “I kept it all that time, only giving it to the Lost Villages museum last year.”
The man also stressed that many of his fellow Milles Roches citizens felt robbed by the government. “There’s nothing no one could do about it,” he said. “My father built himself a bungalow not far from Cornwall and he couldn’t even afford to buy all the material he needed. You had some old people, who owned houses that had been in their family for decades. They ended up losing them and being in debt!”
Ontario Hydro did, however, offer to move some of the resident’s homes. The heavy machinery used to complete the task were behemoths. “I remember standing on the tip of my toes and barely reaching the hubs of the wheels,” recalled Day. “They would drill holes in the foundation and lift the whole house with hydraulics.”
A woman, whose house was being transported, had forgotten to take out her fine china from her cabinets and panicked. Alas, nothing could be done until the house was on its new foundation. To her surprise, barely any of her delicate plates had been broken. “They moved at around one mile every three hours,” said Daye. “And they sure made a loud noise!”
Now, the waves of the mighty St. Lawrence have all but silenced the small communities. But few hardworking volunteers strive against the current, in an effort at not rewinding time, as the disastrous flooding has already happened, but at remembering. Giving back a voice to the underwater communities that have lost theirs.