The human side of progress

The final house in Morrisburg being moved. – Image courtesy the Lost Villages Historical Society collection.

SOUTH DUNDAS – Canada Day this year marks the 60th anniversary of Inundation Day in our region. It was the day that the coffer dam that held back the waters of the mighty St. Lawrence River was be blown, to send a tidal wave of water to fill Lake St. Lawrence and drown the former villages in the valley.

Visitors and residents lined the shores of the new dyke in Cornwall, and up the shoreline to Iroquois awaiting the wall of water.

That was the hyperbole. However when the dam was finally blown, the expected tidal wave was more like a trickle.

“Loretta Burgess created ‘The Seaway Song’ which was played every day,” said Jim Brownell, past-president of the Lost Villages Historical Society. “And it said that ‘This great wall of water, will make its way into the old Cornwall shore’”

It took four days for the water levels to rise and cover the old towns as far away as Iroquois.

An overview of the facts show just how large the Seaway project was. Over 64,000 acres of land was flooded to create Lake St. Lawrence. Six villages and three hamlets were consolidated into two new towns (Ingleside and Long Sault). In addition the village of Iroquois was relocated 1.5 kilometres north of its original location, and parts of Morrisburg’s downtown and east side were leveled and relocated. Fifty-five kilometres of Highway 2 was moved north of its original route; 50 kilometres of Canadian National Railway lines were relocated out of the flood zone.

To prepare the final area for the coming flood, the remains of Aultsville, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point, Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Santa Cruz, Sheek’s Island, Wales and Woodlands were leveled to the ground.

When the project was completed, it cost $470.5 million in 1959. According to the Bank of Canada, that amounts to $4.1 billion today.

There were many material or physical costs in building the Seaway and power project. But there was much more to it: The human factor.

To move a project like this along required the Ontario government of the day, through the Hydro-Electric Commission of Ontario, to purchase homes from their owners, sometimes using the law to push a family out. In the worst cases, the province moved to expropriate. Many people in the area however went along with it.

“People here expected this to happen at sometime,” Brownell said. “Governments had been talking about a hydro-electric project on the river for decades, so many didn’t bother keeping their properties up. Why paint or fix something when it’s going to be torn down?”

That pragmatism carried through much of project.

“Many wanted to make sure they were getting the best deal they could from the government,” he said. “There were offices in every village for appealing offers, and advocates to help.”
Brownell said that some hydro officials did not always treat residents fairly.

“They [hydro officials] would hit at the elderly, the spinsters, widows, and the vulnerable, to get them to sign right away.”

The impact on people was much wider than just the business dealings though.

“There was my best friend at the time, Delbert. We were at recess one day, and they were burning his house,” Brownell explained. “His old house couldn’t be moved across the construction bridge that crossed the Cornwall Canal, so the workers had to burn it. And that guy cried and cried. It tore my heart out. That is what sticks with me.”

Brownell said that many did not talk about how they felt, but carried it in their hearts “for years.”

For many the promise of progress in the area was appealing. To some it was an exciting time to be around.

“I was six when the project started, and ten when it ended,” Brownell said. “For a young fella, to see these big earth movers and what not, that was just the most exciting thing.”

That sentiment was echoed by South Dundas resident Jim Millard, who lived in Iroquois at the time of the village relocation.

“I was a kid then, and that was just an adventure,” said Millard. “There was construction equipment and lots of places to explore. It was an adventure.”

He explained that kids would go through the job sites and empty houses bought by Hydro, looking for beer and pop bottles to return.

“We didn’t see [the project] as a negative, it was just progress. We had a modern shopping center, a new school,” Millard said.

“By the 1960’s we knew that the promise of jobs and development was false,” he said.

“There was so much left unfinished,” explained Brownell. “The parkland and plans that were for all along the water, from Cornwall to Iroquois, all fell fallow.”

For those who lived through the project, or who want to find out more about people’s experiences with Inundation Day, there will be a roundtable discussion at the pavilion at Iroquois Beach from 10 a.m. to noon on July 1st. Howard Kirkby is moderating the discussion. The roundtable is open to everyone. Millard told The Leader that the discussion will be recorded and made available online later.