Memories flood back at inundation anniversary

Featured guests shared memories at the inundation commemoration event held July 1 at the Iroquois Beach. In front (l-r) are Lorne Strader, Mike McInnis and Bonnie Adair. Standing (l-r) are Jim Millard, Howard Kirkby, moderator and Jim Wilson, Waterfront Committee chair and Scott Robertson. (The Leader/Gibb photo)

IROQUOIS – “July 1, 1958, I experienced a range of great emotions. But one thing was for sure. That day the landscape along this river changed and changed forever.”

Lorne Strader, now 92, was one of a special panel of South Dundas residents who gathered at the Iroquois beach on Canada Day, 2018.

At the invitation of the Iroquois Waterfront Committee, the group came together to share their memories of the days of the Great Inundation with others in the South Dundas community. Joining Lorne for this roundtable presentation were Mike McInnis, Scott Robertson, Bonnie Adair and Jim Millard, with Howard Kirkby acting as the moderator.

Later in the presentation, others in the crowd also came to the mic to share their memories of that momentous day 60 years ago.

Jim Wilson, chair of the Waterfront Committee, put it this way.

“Remembering the old village is one of the mandates of our Waterfront Committee. Today we are not celebrating the (opening of the Seaway), we’re remembering it on the 60th anniversary of the Inundation.”

Moderator Howard Kirkby, in his opening remarks, had the crowd laughing as he recalled the “slow trickle” of water that resulted from the blowing of the coffer dam. Howard also pointed out that the Seaway was built by people with “calculators” not computers, who probably didn’t know just how much their 20th century engineering feat would change communities forever.

Lorne was present at the moving of the very first house in Iroquois: that of Arnold Johnston, who lived down by the station.

“There were 525 homes moved out of the Old Town,” he said. “I remember June of 1959, when PM Diefenbaker, President Eisenhower and the Queen all came to town to officially open the Seaway. The Seaway wasn’t a perfect time: still it was a time full of heart and soul.”

Mike McInnis, who was away in Law School during the building of the Seaway, saw the changes in the community on a monthly, rather than a daily basis.

He made it home for the big Inundation Day.

“I suppose we didn’t have a lot of common sense,” Mike laughed. “We went to the dike west of Cornwall, and climbed the ramps to the top with our radios on, expecting this huge gush of water. We saw the blast at the dam, about a mile away, a great cloud of dust – then nothing. We sat for hours. Still nothing. It took three days for the water to come in.”

Scott Roberston laughed that his parents had also invited friends to sit in lawn chairs with the family to see the big inundation that never happened. “What I missed most after the Seaway was the fast water of the old river. You used to be able to jump in, float down, walk back. I loved the old Iroquois Regatta. I also miss the country side, the farms that used to be all along the road by the river. Now it’s all built up. I suppose no one can stop progress,” he said.

There were times, panel members recalled, when the Old Town resembled a war zone.

Familiar buildings were bull dozed, or reduced to broken shells: fires burned day and night. Mud piles and huge tracts of empty sand eventually covered what had once been rich with orchards, fields and gardens and dotted with bridges, churches, family homes and cottages.

Jim Millard was only in grade six in the last days of Old Iroquois. He was actually at recess one afternoon when he saw the Millard family home go by on the back of one of the giant movers. He recalled sitting in a classroom “and looking out the window to see the entire old town on fire. For a child, it was creepy.”

Bonnie Adair, who was a member of the last graduating class of the Old Iroquois High School, described coming home from university one night in 1957 as houses in Iroquois were being moved out on gigantic machines, family furniture and possessions still inside them.

“Everything I had known (in the Old Town) on my street was gone. My family was actually staying in one of the Hydro “guest houses” (she didn’t know exactly which one) but I decided to go looking for my own old house that night. I found it finally. It was actually up on one of the huge movers and all lit up, poised over the hole (that would be the new foundation.)

I climbed up on to the mover, and pushed open my front door. Later, I climbed our stairs, got into my own old bed and that’s where I went to sleep. It was quite a shock the next morning to wake and find the house full of masons, carpenters and workmen. To this day, I still miss my old home.”

The members of the panel also felt that the promised dreams of great prosperity for everyone, of an on going economic boom for all the communities affected by the construction of the Seaway, never materialized. Many had mixed views about how the Hydro agents behaved during the time of the meetings, the expropriations, the moves.

“Some hydro agents were decent and treated people very fairly,” said Mike. “But many were bastards, and took advantage of people.” He described individuals and families having to do battle with Hydro for years in order to be compensated for damages and losses during the project. “And,” he added, “rents all over the area doubled after the Seaway; wages did not.”

For more reminiscences from the round table presentation, and other fascinating perspectives about the 60th anniversary of the Seaway, see next week’s issue of The Leader.