The Sunken Villages Story

July 1, 1958 is remembered as Inundation Day in the region near Cornwall, Ontario. At 08:00 a controlled explosion tore open a cofferdam and four days later an area that had been home to 7,500 people disappeared under the waves of Lake St. Lawrence, part of the newly created St. Lawrence Seaway.

On the Canadian side, twelve communities, some dating back to the 1700s, were affected. Following the old King’s Highway No. 2, upstream: Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Sheeks Island, Wales, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point and Aultsville were entirely destroyed; Iroquis was demolished and moved a mile to continue on in name; and, about half of Morrisburg – including its waterfront and most of its business district and main street – were levelled.

On the American side in St Lawrence County, the community of Croil’s Island disappeared and, along Highway 37B, Louisville Landing and Richards Landing ceased to exist, and parts of Waddington were dismantled.

On both sides, large rural tracts and property, farms, cottages, and entire islands were flooded. Sacred sites were obliterated and the historic battlefield of Crysler’s farm – where in November 1813 Redcoats, local militia and Mohawk warriors staved off a larger American force intent on sacking Montreal – disappeared.

With the communities went their infrastructure. Some buildings were moved and some graves exhumed. Roads, railways, and bridges were left to be buried along with the previous system of locks and canals. All else was levelled, razed to the foundations, cut to the stumps, burned and bulldozed.

Residents were expropriated – some willingly, some not – and moved to the modern, purpose-built, planned Town No. 1 and Town No. 2 (named Ingleside and Long Sault following a community plebiscite), an equally planned and laid out Iroquois, or within a largely rebuilt Morrisburg. Some welcomed the move to brand-new houses with modern amenities or having their old houses moved to lots on higher ground. Others did not. Regardless, all had to move.

The St. Lawrence Seaway was the largest industrial project of its time. A feat of unprecedented industrial accomplishment, it eliminated the powerful Long Sault Rapids and opened the Great Lakes to the ocean-going vessels of its era. In the rapids place, Lake St. Lawrence became the headwater for a massive hydroelectric dam.

The mega-project was a source of great national pride. A reflection of its time, it was celebrated across Canada and the British Commonwealth as the height of modernity and progress. Economic prosperity was virtually guaranteed. Cornwall and the new and old communities in the freshly renamed Seaway Valley would become the “Manchester of the North” or the “Ruhr” area of North America. The Seaway was officially opened in 1959 by Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower.

The lost villages disappeared under the murky water of St. Lawrence Lake and, largely, from our history. Some historic buildings salvaged from the destruction were repurposed to represent the mid-1800s at Upper Canada Village, a popular, government-run historical theme park which owes its existence to the Seaway. In Ottawa, the Battle of Crysler’s Farm is conspicuously absent amongst the lamp-standard banners celebrating most other events of the war of 1812.  In Cornwall, Ontario Power Generation still hands out a digitally re-mastered and metrified DVD of Ontario Hydro’s 1960s promo film “From Dream to Reality” which tells us in its very brief reference to the villages that “progress is not without sacrifice or inconvenience.”

In 1977 in a community-based effort to stem the loss of artifacts salvaged from the flood, the Lost Villages Historical Society was formed. With virtually no public funding, the Society has become Canada’s only community museum without a physical town or village. Established at Ault Park in Long Sault with buildings donated from across the county (but only one from a lost village) the museum is held together on a shoestring budget by the dedicated efforts of a few volunteers.

The zebra mussel and the Lost Villages Historical Society have made this exhibition possible.

The zebra mussel – an unintended consequence of the Seaway – has clarified the water making them visible once more. The Lost Villages Historical Society  has kept the community of the lost villages alive; it provided the social network to reach those interviewed and the locale for most of the interviews, clips of which can be heard in the gallery space.