art architecture urbanism landscape culture infrastructure
The Lost Villages
Article and Photography by Louis Helbig
In the St Lawrence River lie the Sunken Villages – Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Sheek’s Island, Wales, Dickinson’s Landing, Santa Cruz, Woodlands, Farran’s Point and Aultsville. Sixty-five hundred people once lived in these places, now under the waves of a 50km stretch of water. They lived and loved, worked and played, were born and were buried; little different, in their time, than people in any other Canadian community. Little different, save for the misfortune to be near the mighty Long Sault Rapids, a significant barrier between the ocean and the Great Lakes. As part of the modern St Lawrence Seaway project, between1954 and the explosion of a coffer-dam, broadcast on national radio on Dominion Day 1958, the rapids were silenced – first by draining, then by drowning. All the small towns near the rapids were dismantled, sometimes moved in bits and pieces, trees cut down and the remainder burnt or bulldozed before the St Lawrence was flooded. The water rose over three days and nights, the inundation was absolute; the water murky and opaque covered all from sight, except a few places where one could, and still can, wander knee-deep down old streets.
I knew nothing of this. In September 2009 – from my little airplane – I saw the oddest thing: the familiar pattern of a house foundation in a most unfamiliar place, the blue-green water of the St Lawrence. My imagination was surely making things up, reading meaning into a familiar pattern. Very real, and very surreal, scattered here and there under clear, aquamarine water were stark foundations of houses and barns, the subtle curves of roads, the shadows of bridges, the oval of a quarter-mile horse track, locks with gates closed or ajar, the outlines of entire towns.
The beauty and solemnity of what is under the St Lawrence between Prescott and Cornwall is primordial, instinctual and universal. Rising water finds ample space in our creation myths: Noah’s Ark, Turtle Mountain or Atlantis. The Sunken Villages are equal to any narrative of annihilating flood anywhere real or imagined.
On the route between Upper and Lower Canada, and between Canada and the United States, the Sunken Villages were amongst some of Canada’s oldest communities of European descent. In New France, LaSalle built a fur trading post at the base of the Long Sault Rapids (which became Dickinson’s Landing), its cultural legacy is the large Franco-Ontarian population in eastern Ontario. Loyalists settled here in the 1780s, marking Canada’s fealty to the British crown as distinct from American republicanism. In the War of 1812 local militia, allied with Tyendinaga Mohawk warriors and Canadien Voltigeurs and Fencibles in support of British Redcoats, successfully defended themselves and a nascent Canadian identity against a much larger American force. This battle and the Battle of Chateauguay, fought south of Montreal a few days before, are probably the two most important battles and victories to define Canada’s modern existence. The Battlefield of Crysler’s Farm – where between 3,500 and 5,000 troops engaged and 133 lost their lives – is presided over by a ‘wandering’ official monument first erected in 1895 at the battlefield and then re-erected, in the late 1950s, on higher ground nowhere near it.
Canada must be the only country in the world that could summarily bury and shuffle into obscurity one of its most important battlefields. While there is some awareness of Chateauguay within and outside Quebec, Crysler’s Farm lies with the Sunken Villages almost entirely forgotten. It requires little counterfactual imagination to understand what the consequences of losing either would have meant. Montreal would have been sacked, the tie between Upper and Lower Canada would have been severed and Canada, as we know it today, would likely not exist.
For about as long as Europeans have known about the Great Lakes there have been schemes to connect them with each other and the wider ocean. The Long Sault Rapids, through which the entire St Lawrence tumbled 30 feet over 3 miles in volumes larger than that of Niagara Falls, was the biggest barrier blocking these fresh water seas from their salt-water brethren. In the 1840s, and again in the 1890s, canals and locks were built to skirt the rapids and their permanent clouds of mist. Alas, each was obsolete before it was finished for none could keep pace with the increasing size of sea-going vessels. The Cornwall and Galop canals and locks also lie in the company of the Villages. Some clearly visible, others too deep to see from the surface.
In the first half of the twentieth century plans to link the lakes with the St Lawrence were made and remade; on the Canadian side, in particular, the project became an increasingly nationalistic one, a focus of institutional imperative, a manifestation of progress and modernity, a triumph of man over nature, an awe-inspiring achievement that would, with utter certainly, generate boundless new industry, wealth and prosperity. The plan was a child of its time in an era enamoured of mega-projects – the Americans had their Tennessee Valley Authority and Hoover Dam, the Soviets were working on their Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature which eventually drained the Aral Sea. It was Canada’s turn in ‘Canada’s Century’ to create its own eighth wonder of the world.
And a wonder it was. Thirty-five thousand acres of prime land were flooded. The project morphed to include three dams, the Iroquois and Long Sault Control Dams and the Moses-Saunders hydro dam between Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York. Forty thousand men worked to complete the project in what today is an unimaginable four years. It cost an unheard of billion dollars. Postage stamps were issued, textbooks printed throughout the Commonwealth to teach children about this achievement, newspapers and radio reported breathlessly, and a young and beautiful Queen Elizabeth officially opened it with President Eisenhower in 1959.
Being Canadian and bi-national, the project spawned a plethora of official institutions – a Seaway commission, a bridge corporation, a parks commission, a power generation authority, all of which linger on under one name or another. Dams, locks, entire new towns were invented. Ingleside and Long Sault, the epitome of modern planning and design, were built to absorb the displaced of the villages. Iroquois was entirely uprooted, moved and rebuilt as was one third of Morrisburg, including much of its business section. The best known institution is Upper Canada Village, a prominent, publicly funded museum where re-enactors celebrate the mid-nineteenth century in period costume by tending real chickens, pigs and gardens and populating old houses and barns salvaged during Seaway construction. Next to Upper Canada Village a commemoration of the lost villages, a sequence of low-slung brick walls with embedded gravestones removed from the villages, gets scant attention.
The lack of attention is the most curious thing about the Sunken Villages and their history. It is impossible not to identify with the evident loss of those who once lived there; it is easy to imagine what once was, or to imagine what would be there if the flood had never happened. There is no other place in Canada or North America where so many people have had their places and spaces deliberately wiped from the map by flooding. It is simply incredible this could so rapidly be forgotten.
The forgetting might lie, in good part, with how the institutions spawned by the Seaway treat the Sunken Villages. In simple terms the villages have visually reappeared thanks to an unintended consequence of the project, the incredible filtering capacity of invasive zebra mussels. With their reappearance, it becomes clear just how much the story of the villages and their inhabitants has also been filtered, selectively, in support of an official record, or entirely from that record.
Whenever the Sunken Villages are mentioned on the occasional official placard, the references are often cast in a supporting role of a glorious, grand narrative of industrial progress and enlightened public policy. Two examples jump out: we see photographs of houses perched on house moving machines from New Jersey; the accompanying captions tell how these were moved, with great public approval, without so much as disturbing the crockery in the cupboards. The story is not about the people in them or the community left behind. The second example is of houses being deliberately set on fire, but this too was all for the good – these acts, we learn, were instrumental in the study and perfection of smoke alarms that now serve the public good. Overall, one senses a palpable unease, discomfort, maybe even a sense of guilt, about the Sunken Villages, that they do not quite fit, even 50 years later, with what is institutionalised, official and publicly funded.
Though difficult to imagine today, most of those affected seem either to have embraced or at the very least resigned themselves to the move. Some people were, most certainly, upset by the destruction of their homes, communities, livelihoods and landscape, but seen from today’s perspective, it is remarkable how little resistance there was. It was a heady time. Local businesses and community organisations called themselves – and still do – Seaway this or that, and the whole area is now known as the Seaway Valley. The sense of loss was, it appears, salved by a combination of being part of some larger national purpose, the promise of industrial development, wealth and employment, individual material benefits such as new housing or other compensation, and immense social pressure to conform.
Local prosperity never arrived, local promises were never fulfilled. Cornwall never became the industrial centre once considered inevitable. Today, the only industrial reality, adjacent to the old Cornwall Canal, is a huge vacant area where a Domtar pulp mill and a C-I-L chemical plant once stood. Iroquois, once slated to become one of Canada’s textile manufacturing centres, had its small Dominion Textile plant close in the 1990s. Only one bit of the dreamed-of industry continues; on the other side of the river is the Alcoa aluminum plant in Massena, New York and it pre-dates the Seaway project.
As the local chapters of the seductive Canadian narrative have dissolved with time, so to have the national chapters. None have ended as anticipated. The Seaway never achieved what was envisioned of it. Following the precedent set by the earlier canals and locks of obsolescence by technological change, the Seaway cannot handle the massive container ships that now carry much of the world’s commerce. Its tonnage peaked well shy of its intended capacity in the 1970s and has declined, more or less, ever since. Only the Moses-Saunders dam and its hydro-generation station have lived up to its promise, generating about 3% of Ontario’s electrical power, albeit little of that consumed locally.
The narrative of progress and industrial prosperity explains the impetus behind the construction of the Seaway. The hoped-for ending – that Shangri-La of endless jobs and wealth – is so crucial to that story that it still seems impossible at an official level in our public institutions to admit that what was hoped for and promised was largely not achieved. That the people of the Sunken Villages paid the highest price is even more inconvenient. It is a circular story: unable to reconcile its inconsistencies for doing so undermines its initial premise, the inconsistencies are glossed over, and the truth and anything we might learn from this story is largely discarded. We are left to other devices to understand the continued relevance, meaning and importance of the Sunken Villages – universal myths of destruction and creation might provide a more satisfactory insight into the project and the Villages than the official record.
However, the official record is not the only record and universal mythology not the only credible touchstone. There are thousands of personal stories; intimate personal accounts, first, second or even third-person, alive within living memory or already transmitted across one or even two generations. Pay attention to these, listen and learn, and the curtain rises on a drama, as real, contradictory, nuanced and meaningful as anywhere; indeed, perhaps more meaningful than most. The very finality of the Inundation, gives the stories a twist, a particular time, a particular event, a clear before and after by which to understand what was and what, since July 1, 1958, now is.
A 14 year-old whose grandparents owned a dry-goods store in Farran’s Point and whose mother was born near Wales, wrote a poem in 1958 about his conflicted feelings. The first four stanzas are a heartfelt ode to what was lost, the last two (skipping to another track on a much different LP) justify it as a celebration of progress and industry. When he sent me his poem, he explained that those last stanzas squeezed his feelings into a mould of what he thought he should feel or say in light of the project’s progress and modernity. The social pressure was immense.
A sailor from Mille Roche passed through his home area after almost a year away, one of the first to traverse the Seaway. The captain called him to the bridge, half-jokingly asked him to navigate because he knew the area. Staring out from that bridge across an expanse of unfamiliar water in a familiar place, the distant look in his eyes 50 years later takes the listener right to that bridge and all its emotion. That same sailor points out just how gorgeous those girls sitting in a rowboat at Farran’s Point Lock, staring back from a black and white photo, are, as though it were yesterday not 1955.
An aerial reconnaissance pilot flying a re-purposed Lancaster bomber photographed, officially and systematically, the incremental change to the landscape, the slow motion dismantling of the landscape and, then, its sudden disappearance. In the story, relayed by the son, his father was asked by those assembling an official record, which were the best, most dramatic images of the project. His reply – the dismemberment and moving of Iroquois a mile or two west – was dismissed as ‘not real’.
A diver, leading tours or just diving with his buddies, lets the current of the St Lawrence guide him along King’s Highway 2 through villages, past bridges and driveways and the foundations of farm houses. ‘It’s like they’re still there’, he says. Everything is encrusted by zebra mussel shells, ready to cut those who are not careful. He reports that the water is beginning to become murky again, the result of yet another invasive species, the Round Goby, which feeds on zebra mussels.
Polite ladies, young like everyone once was, but without the backyards, fields and streets of childhood that most everyone else can return to. Frustration, even anger, seeps out between mild words about the living museum, Upper Canada Village – with its fence and its admission fee around buildings salvaged from the flood, only there because of the flood but celebrating the 1850s or the 1500s, but never their 1950s. Upper Canada Village advertises ‘two [mediaeval and nineteenth Century] historic and entertaining experiences for the price of one!!’ The third one, the Sunken Villages, not mentioned.
A boy from Moulinette listens to authorities explain to his parents a difficult choice: to have their parents, his grandparents, exhumed to a new cemetery or left to lie where they are. They’re still there; others are not. Riding his bicycle on the road past those graveyards, sheets appeared around some graves, and, thus shrouded, gravediggers proceeded in reverse of their normal order. Their jobs done, the churches levelled, the headstones removed and then one last act of permanence, rock and rubble were dumped on those graveyards so no coffin or remains could ever emerge again.
A truth permeates these stories. It is more than simple animation, the colouring-in of 1950s black and white photos of streets, rows of trees, locks, farms or period automobiles – the only visual record until a few years ago. The stories are not sentimental; there is nothing of the saccharine gauze through which present culture commonly peers back into the past. Though there is anger here and there which certainly shreds sentiment, the real antidote to shallow sentiment and its cohorts of superficiality and half-truth is just how real, unflinching, human and universal these stories are. There is a lot to learn here, in the Sunken Villages, in the stories.
The Lost Villages Historical Society was formed in 1977 with an assemblage of buildings donated from surrounding Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry counties (almost none from the affected communities because Upper Canada Village has them or they were otherwise dispersed or destroyed twenty years before). It is a community museum, authentic, fascinating and relevant, its volunteers struggling with little or no public funding to keep their organisation and, by extension, their communities and history alive. It is the keeper of the personal stories, memories, opinions, feelings and emotions of those who witnessed and were affected by the loss of the villages. It is like most village museums, except that their villages no longer physically exist, and is quite unlike the other, official, publicly funded institutions in the Seaway Valley. It embraces the past with all its contradictions.
Peering across Canada’s history and geography, the narrative of endless prosperity and boundless opportunity that justified the Seaway project is perhaps the only single consistent story Canada has about itself. The cod of the Grand Banks in 1500s, the fur trade run largely by the Hudson’s Bay Company through royal charter, the gold rushes of the Cariboo, the Klondike and Northern Ontario, the logging of ‘endless’ forests of pine, spruce, and fir in eastern and, then, western Canada, and now the rush on the ‘world’s largest’ petrochemical reserves in Northern Alberta – each is a variation on the same theme, which arrives each time with fresh, contemporary promises of forever and ever. Each project begins anew and must, by its logic of endless growth and prosperity, ignore all previous booms, for these have always been followed by busts, if not complete collapse, and shattered promises.
Though it is easy to fault the public institutions and their representations of the Sunken Villages, it might be better to understand them as something of a fossilised record of the era of their formation, embodying the imperatives fundamental to their initial creation. It might be a little too easy with the perspective of hindsight to simply judge what was done in the 1950s with the Seaway as wrong, but by the standards of the time officials were probably acting in good conscience. Consider the almost concurrent Alcan project in northwestern BC: here authorities told the Cheslatta people a few weeks before the flooding of the Nechako River for a reservoir that they were going to need to move. Coffins and human remains floated on the surface for years. Where the failure largely resides is not in previous actions or mistakes, but in not being prepared to acknowledge, re-examine and ask hard questions about these past actions.
Canada’s record suggests we have a great deal of difficulty dealing with anything that challenges whatever particular myth happens to be in fashion and, for that matter, whatever bureaucracies posit as their version of history; we appear to be doomed to be a-historical, to forever be captive to our peculiarly Canadian myth of boom but no-bust, never to learn from our past experience and mistakes.
If the two hundred years since the War of 1812 have dimmed our understanding of the relevance of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, we do have, well within living memory, the personal stories, experiences, opinions and feelings from these drowned small towns – the best conduit to whatever truths can be gleaned from the experience of the Seaway project. Making an effort to understand this is to make an effort to understand ourselves; to ignore this is something that we as a country do at our own peril.