The St. Lawrence Seaway: A Moving History
The old saying is that history belongs to those who write it.
As a Seaway historian and mystery writer, I do have a somewhat biased view on that. Since 1999, I have worked closely with the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway construction and the communities that were changed in the face of it. The writing of history is the creation of a new snapshot in time, which then through the sharing and response becomes part of the history itself.
The St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project of the 1950s was the greatest show on earth in its day and the world’s first billion dollar project. Achieving its two goals of fully harnessing the hydroelectric potential of the St. Lawrence River and opening up the river to allow ocean-going vessels transit to the Great Lakes earned it the title of the Eighth Wonder of the Modern World for the 20th century.
But the big success came with a big price tag on our side of the river. Standing in the way of the flood zone for the generating station’s head pond were eight villages and three hamlets between Cornwall and Cardinal, villages established two centuries before by United Empire Loyalists and still populated primarily by their descendants at the time of the project. Iroquois was moved almost two kilometres north of its original site and Morrisburg lost two streets to its south. The rest—now referred to as the Lost Villages—vanished forever from the map, becoming two new town sites we now call Ingleside and Long Sault. From August 1955 to late 1957, the local landscape became mobile as over 500 houses and 7000 residents were moved into the new locations.
It was also a moving experience for the residents of the Lost Villages. In the face of the technological miracle of the construction and the global media interest in the project, the villagers were losing generational homes and farms, a life attached to the river and the river itself. The Old Front was expropriated, stripped, bulldozed and burned before being buried for all time under the new Lake St. Lawrence. The residents found themselves in planned communities set aback from the river, expected to embrace a whole new way of life in only four years. It was an unprecedented loss of history and beauty right through the cradle of Upper Canada, one that probably would not go forward today based on historical, social and environmental concerns. But this was post-war North America and progress for all was the mantra. While officials celebrated the Seaway construction completion in 1958 and 1959, the locals (not part of the events) buried the past and got on with their lives.
Those of us who “write the history” understand that the past is all about today. The intervening decades since the construction of the Seaway and the loss of the villages have seen a move from acceptance and silence to capturing the lost past and celebrating the sacrifices of the villagers. We also now acknowledge and examine the loss of culture, history and place—and its accompanying disorientation, trauma and grieving. As time moves forward with the Lost Villages, they have become more real in memory than they might have been by now in existence, more shared in Canadian awareness, more understood as symbols of the price sometimes paid for progress. This growing remembrance is an unexpected but moving silver lining from the past I have been privileged to be part of.
The St. Lawrence River, like time and history, also never stops moving. In 2018, we will mark 60 years since the completion of the Seaway construction and flooding of the Old Front. The big E-word begs the question: Have we handled the massive environmental impact of damming a river powerful enough to run a 32-turbine generating station and turning much of it into a pond? The answer continues to be no. On April 12, 2016, American conservation watchdog American Rivers placed the St. Lawrence on a list of most endangered rivers in the United States. In response, Ontario Senator Bob Runciman called on the Canadian government for action in adopting Plan 2014—an update submitted two years ago by the International Joint Commission from the current operating plan for the river still in effect from the inception of the Seaway. Without change, the antiquated plan dooms the environmental impact from the Seaway construction to be what American Rivers has termed a “slow death for the river.” Half a century ago, the public had little voice in this decision-making. The same cannot be said today. It is time to ramp up the conversation, not just for the international powers that be and those with waterfront concerns, but for all six million North Americans who call the St. Lawrence River Basin our home.
The slow death of the St. Lawrence River. That’s one murder I’d prefer not to write about.
**This article first appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of The Prescott Journal.
A Pedestrian Tribute to the North Channel Bridge
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2016 Ministry of Natural Resources Conference, Kemptville District. Presentation of “Ruptures on the River: Cultural Wellness and the St. Lawrence Seaway.” February 26, 2016.
2014 Ontario Heritage Conference, Cornwall. Lost Villages history and tour. Presentation of “The Damming Silence: Eradication and Reconstruction of Memory, Story and Community in the Seaway Valley.” May 24, 2014.
Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences: The Canadian Historical Association Conference, Concordia University, Montreal. June 1, 2010. “The Damming Silence: Eradication and Reconstruction of Memory, Story and Community in the Seaway Valley” (paper presented).
Memory as Medium: Experience, Exchange, Representation. Third Annual Conference of the Communication Graduate Caucus at Carleton University, Ottawa. March 14, 2008.