By MAGGIE M, Wedgee-in-Chief, Editor, theWedge.LIVE 💛 TO SHARE click icons at story’s end. TO SUBSCRIBE go to top-right column.
I drove slowly into this ghostly, beautiful place. The gravel crackled under my wheels. It was eerily quiet. The sky was overcast. It was atmospheric to say the least.
I had heard the stories, the grand scheme “the largest construction project in the world” that was the catalyst to the founding of this memorial place.
Small buildings appeared, remains from villages sacrificed in the name of progress in 1958. Aultsville, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point, Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Santa Cruz, Sheek Island, Wales, Woodlands, parts of Iroquois and parts of Morrisburg–gone. All were submerged below the waters forever.
6,500 East Ontarians were displaced and many rendered temporarily homeless.
Smaller homes were moved to Ingleside and Long Sault. Larger homes and buildings were burned to the ground–while their residents watched tearfully. One matriarch refused to move from her chair as her house was carried away. She was one of the “lucky” ones.
This was not an act of nature, but the engineered enlargement of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Bob and Mary Fyckes, Dorothy and John Moss, the Raymonds and the Whitesides were relocated willy-nilly to Long Sault. Communities built were lost forever.
On this lugubrious late afternoon, I did not expect to trip into a wedding party cheerfully employing the painful patina of The Lost Villages Museum for dramatic photos. Apparently, this is a common event.
It is sweet sorrow to consider that out of its ashes new life is born.
What happened sixty years ago persists in the memories of those too young to grasp the severity of the event they were witness to.
The wedding party could not see the carnage. They did not hear the cries of a father watching his family’s home burn, his trees razed to stumps. They did not hear the lamentations of villagers whose churches and schools burned.
They did not witness inundation day, July 1, 1958.
I stood quietly peering in the old window panes. I imagined the men sitting in the barber shop’s chair while their spouses ran errands steps away at the charming general store. They had no idea their lives would soon be turned upside-down in the name of progress.
The building of the R.H. Saunders dam had long been planned, a collaboration between two nations, Canada and USA, and two provinces, Ontario and Quebec. The Governor of New York put the first shovel in the ground in June 1954. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and Ontario Premier, Leslie Frost, were at Maple Grove for this inaugural event.
The St. Lawrence Seaway was to be the source of unprecedented economic growth for the two nations, permitting the transport of goods on large ships through the Great Lakes. Until then, the canal was too narrow and too shallow.
Jim Brownell was only six years old when he shook hands with then Prime Minister St-Laurent at the dam’s opening ceremony in 1958. The sod was turned. The last coffer dam was blown and water flooded 40,000 acres of land including the villages over four days.
“The Lost Villages Historical Society was founded right there in that kitchen,” Brownell adds as we discussed our image of Stuart House. It was important for the group who gathered around the table to memorialize this time and place in history. And so they did and the museum was born.
“The water is so low today that foundations are now visible on dry land,” Jim Brownell announced excitedly.
The heart yearns to return home.
(This reminds me of a beautiful movie, “Trip to Bountiful,” where the protagonist played by Geraldine Page is an aging lonely widow who longs to return home. She succeeds against all odds, finding it derelict; yet, she is comforted by her memories.)
The Lost Villages Museum is opened to the public daily during warm seasons. It is closed now but the archives can be accessed by appointment. It is located east of Long Sault along Highway 2.
On June 27, 1959, Queen Elizabeth and Richard Nixon unveiled the monument that delineates the two nations’ borders on the eastern side of the R. H Saunders dam. It was a “fait accompli.”
Watch this excellent video produced by students of Carleton University on the villages and its inhabitants’ plight. It is very moving.