The path of progress often runs through heartbreak, and the St. Lawrence Seaway was no exception.In order for the Seaway to happen, homes had to burn, lives had to be uprooted and graves had to be left behind as the communities known today as the Lost Villages were submerged.As the Lost Villages Historical Society’s website notes, more than 6,500 people were displaced, on the Canadian side, when six villages and three hamlets were flooded out in the summer of 1958 to make way for the Seaway and a related hydroelectric project, the creation of the Moses-Saunders Power Dam near Cornwall.The villages of Mille Roches, Moulinette, Wales, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point, and Aultsville, along with the hamlets of Maple Grove, Santa Cruz and Woodlands, and the farming community of Sheik’s/Sheek’s Island, were abandoned and flooded.Jim Brownell, a former Liberal MPP for the area, was 10 years old on July 1, 1958, when the villages were flooded.The flooding didn’t come as a “wall of water,” but gradually, said Brownell.Still, it was an abrupt ending.“I saw a community where there wasn’t a thing left,” said Brownell, the historical society’s past president.“Moulinette was basically obliterated from the Earth.”The relative calm of the Seaway now, and the steady movement of commerce on the river, as well as the unhindered functioning of the international power dam, hide memories of the Lost Villages that sometimes resurface like hints of a collective unconscious.“There’s a lot of people buried under the river,” said Jennifer DeBruin, Facebook curator with the historical society, which operates the Lost Villages Museum Site in Long Sault.DeBruin, author of A Walk with Mary, based on her grandmother who lived in one of the villages, said cement slabs were laid over thousands of burial sites ahead of the flooding.The historical society exists to tell these communities’ stories.“It is a story of home; it is a story of connectedness and when that connection is broken, how do you reform?” said DeBruin.Further west, what used to be the village of Morrisburg’s downtown area was also submerged.All bear increasingly silent witness to the reality that progress, in the form of a large-scale engineering project, often comes at a cost.“It wasn’t something that was necessarily looked at in a positive light by the people who were expropriated,” said Gardner Sage, the Lost Villages Historical Society’s current president.
Undated Ontario Hydro photo of the first home to be moved from old Iroquois to the new neighbourhood as part of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Dam project.
Handout/Cornwall Standard-Freeholder /
David Hill, who grew up in Moulinette, was 13 when his family had to move. His father had built a life for the family in the village after returning from the Second World War, where he served in the air force.That changed when the villages were uprooted and the paper mill where he worked, in Mille Roches, moved to Thorold.“His whole world was turned upside-down,” said Hill.His father could not take a transfer because Hill’s grandparents, who also lived in the affected villages, had to be looked after.“The stress of moving, it was hard on the older people,” added Hill.He recalled that, a year and a half after the big move, his grandmother suffered a stroke and never spoke again.Brownell also speaks of older people who died shortly after the move.“Probably, some of them died of a broken heart,” he said.The plan was to move the inhabitants of these doomed communities to two new towns, what are now Ingleside and Long Sault.Families whose homes were flooded were offered fair market value plus 15 per cent. Many felt this was an unfair trade because news of the Seaway development had already depressed local property values.A successful local protest, however, convinced Ontario’s hydro utility to move homes that were structurally sound enough to be uprooted and transported to the new communities.But the execution was far from painless.“Some people walked away with hardly enough to buy another home,” said DeBruin.While many resettled in the new towns, others went to Cornwall and further afield.“They really were scattered to the winds,” she added.For many, Sage notes, the economic disruption was profound.“A lot of that land was farmland,” he said.Hence, farmers who were relocated to Ingleside and Long Sault ended up with much smaller lots.“They lost their source of income as well as their home,” said Sage.Hill recalls the adults around him at the time feeling the stress of negotiating with the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario .“Everybody was dealt with individually,” he said.“If you were used to negotiating, you likely got a better deal.”The Mary referenced in DeBruin’s novel also grew up in Moulinette.“Her family’s home was one of the homes that couldn’t be dismantled or moved in any way,” DeBruin recalled.Such homes were not demolished, she added, but burned to the ground.“People would stand and watch their homes being put aflame,” said DeBruin.“It was very scarring for the individuals.”The controlled burning of the remaining homes, Brownell recalls, was of interest to the National Research Council, which used the occasion to study such things as how quickly fire travelled, the better to advise how to place smoke alarms.Many people were happy to be moved, because they were going to homes with better amenities, added Brownell.Hill, for instance, remembers that, once they got to Long Sault, the homes had indoor plumbing, and the community included a new school, a new arena, a new church and what was, for the late 1950s, a state-of-the-art shopping mall.
Ontario Hydro photographer Charles Bowman’s photo from June 1957, showing the Robertson House being moved from Maple Grove to what is now known as Upper Canada Village. Photo was taken in Moulinette. Handout/Postmedia Network
DeBruin’s grandmother, Mary, was married to Fred Eamer, a stationary engineer who worked in the Seaway building in Cornwall. So, while Mary’s childhood home was lost, her husband got a job with the St. Lawrence Seaway Corporation.But others, noted Brownell, refused to move.“There were some that were carried out kicking and screaming,” he said.Along with the Lost Villages, the flooding also affected local indigenous people further east.Ontario Power Generation (OPG) acknowledges, on a website recounting the history of the power dam, that “for the Mohawk people of Akwesasne, who lived in this traditional territory for centuries, the impact of the construction and operations was considerable.”“In October 2008, OPG provided an official apology to the Mohawks of Akwesasne as part of a final settlement agreement to address past grievances associated with the station construction.”Today, observers who cast more than a passing glance at the 352-square-mile area of the Lost Villages can find vestiges of those submerged communities.“There’s evidence all over the place that there was habitation,” said DeBruin, adding shards from plates and other household items “continue to wash up.”Trees will pop up through the surface of the river, in places such as Macdonell Island, she added.“You spend the day on the St. Lawrence River and it’s very apparent that something big happened,” Sage agreed.When the water is low enough, foundations and roads are visible from the surface, while there are places where a road just disappears or bricks wash up, said Sage.In some spots when the water is low, he added, “you’re wading through water and you’re walking on a road.”DeBruin recalls the melancholy in her grandmother’s voice when she spoke of the old house and old times, adding it’s a scar that is felt by all families with roots in an area now submerged.“That whole life and memory is tragically never able to be visited again,” she said.“That leaves, I think, a scar in a family’s story.”For all the obvious merits of the Seaway, DeBruin believes, there is a prevailing feeling things could have been handled differently.“Did it have to be done in the way that it was done? Certainly there’s a consensus that says no,” she said.Sage notes that people around the area who can recount the entire experience sometimes provide living history to visitors at the Long Sault museum.But there is no stopping the passage of time.“Especially as the years go on, each generation, I think, loses a bit of the story,” said Sage.The good news, he adds, is that the historical society is succeeding in keeping that story alive, especially with the museum.“We seem to have more and more traffic every year,” said Sage.And some remnants are more solid.Hill recalls the sight of entire homes being moved away on flatbed trucks, and the house in Moulinette where he once lived still stands, on Frost Avenue in Long Sault.While the family had to move out of it when they got to Long Sault, the displacement of the old house was one move that did happen relatively smoothly.“My mother didn’t have to move a dish,” said Hill.With files from Postmedia NetworkRelated