by Craig Stevenson
In the wake of the project’s flooding, riverside residents were left to contend with a very different vision of community
Time moved slowly along the river until it did not, and the gulf created in between was enormous.
Sixty years after the Seaway project’s flooding, its impact is heightened, not lessened, by the passage of time. For the communities directly affected by the Seaway’s construction, its legacy is one of change. It brought upheaval to the St. Lawrence, a mad, compressed rush of destruction, plowed earth, rearranged communities, and flood. This was change at its greatest potential—the complete and permanent erasure of places from sight.
Above all, the Seaway was the product of the decade in which it occurred. The 1950s deeply influenced our modern world and determined what this area would look like as a result of the Seaway project. The dividing period of 1954 to 1958 draws a sharp line between an old age along the St. Lawrence and a new age that ushered in a vision of life and community that we see today as familiar.
Short days after inundation, the river and riverside were much as we recognize them today. Mere days before that, the shorn landscape retained a familiarity about it. When the modern world arrived along the St. Lawrence, it arrived quickly.
In 1954 The Beaver, a historical publication of the Hudson’s Bay Company, profiled the riverside communities in a series of photographs, a last-gasp portrayal of places soon to be razed and flooded. It portrayed life along the river as slow-moving and, while not at all disconnected from the broader world, at least focused locally in terms of daily affairs. Over it all hung a nervous, resigned apprehension that this world—their world—was soon to change beyond recognition.
And change it did.
In appearance, the riverside communities reflected a receding age, a period of deep connection to the St. Lawrence. From Iroquois to Milles Roche they stretched along the river, facing the body of water that explained their origins and purpose. These were places where the canal locks, government wharfs, small powerhouses, and ferries provided work, and where daily life was characterized by the sight of ships and the sound of rapids.
The area also benefitted from travelers and tourists drawn to the river and its sights. Both the Canadian National Railway and the interprovincial Highway 2 ran through and along the riverside towns, and brought a steady stream of people to and through the area. James Jordan’s recently-published Morrisburg: A History 1784-1958 lists, by my rough count, twenty-two inns, resorts, and guest houses in that community at the time of the Seaway’s construction. While that number may have been inflated by an influx of Seaway workers, establishments with names such as the “Ship’s Mate” and the “Ship’s Anchor” reflect the town’s relationship to the St. Lawrence.
The connection of these communities to the river was vitally important. They were maritime towns, linked on that great waterway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and the world beyond.
The Seaway project didn’t happen in isolation from other trends of its age. As a product of the 1950s, it coincided with what is perhaps the most dominant development in modern history—the triumph of the automobile. In that decade, North American society started to organize itself fully around the automobile, affecting how people lived, how they moved, and how they conducted business.
The engineers planning the resettlement of the flooded villages envisioned a world in which the automobile set the tone—and with the Seaway project, they had a blank canvas upon which to work. For inspiration, they didn’t have to look any further than the post-WWII movement toward “suburbanization.”
North of Toronto, the planned community of Don Mills presented a modern, suburban vision of life. Opened in 1954, its street design featured crescents and cul-de-sacs instead of the traditional “grid” arrangement. Commercial space—in the form of a mall—was kept separate from housing, and churches and schools were built alongside green spaces. Roadways were kept separate from these living spaces to create a division between the places where people travelled, conducted business, and lived.
Ontario Hydro engineers duplicated the Don Mills model when building Ingleside and Long Sault, and when redesigning Morrisburg and Iroquois. In each community, commercial activity was confined to malls along the edge of Highway 2, areas that could be accessed from the highway or bypassed by travelers at high speed. Gone was the slower, inconvenient “main street” business section. Highway 2 became an artery that bypassed these communities, and they in turn were physically isolated from road travel. The only visible reminders linking these communities to their past were the homes relocated from the flooded villages, as their architectural stylings and familial connections looked back as much as forward.
Modern planning also affected rail travel, once so vital to linking the river communities to each other, and beyond, after the completion of the original line in 1856. Prior to the Seaway, the riverside was served by daily freight and passenger service. One scheduled train—Number 25/26, known locally as the “Moccasin”—allowed local residents to travel and transport mail and agricultural goods to and from towns and markets beyond the immediate region.
CNR passenger schedule, 1952. Before the Seaway, communities along the river were served daily by rail.
The Seaway project forced the relocation of the CNR line away from the river. The new line was built along the outer fringes of the communities, and consigned to greatly reduced importance. Situating rail a full kilometer north of Ingleside, Long Sault, Morrisburg, and Iroquois virtually guaranteed its local irrelevance. Within a few short years, the newly-built CNR stations in each community fell into disuse, squeezed out by physical distance, modernized roads, and a growing preference for automobile travel and commercial trucking.
New ideas were brewing elsewhere that determined the character of the post-Seaway waterfront, and directly affected the connection between local residents and the river. The water’s edge came under the control of Seaway and Hydro authorities, with the justification that water levels in the newly-created reservoir of Lake St. Lawrence were to rise and fall as needed for shipping and hydroelectric purposes. Ontario authorities saw the potential to form a modern waterfront with a recreational focus, and one man—Robert Moses—deeply influenced how this new shoreline would be used.
Moses, an urban planner working for the New York Power Authority, was a strong promoter of the “parkway,” a form of car-based recreation in which people visited manicured green spaces in a managed, highly controlled fashion. The idea behind the parkway was that visitors could drive and access specific recreational opportunities while enjoying the aesthetic experience of the whole.
Two parkways were built as part of the Seaway—at the Eisenhower Lock and along Barnhart Island (what became Robert Moses State Park) and, of course, the Long Sault Parkway. The arc of causeway-connected islands was to provide a range of tourist recreational opportunities. Anchored at each end by Ingleside and Long Sault, the parkway provided the ideal complement to the form of auto-based 1950s planning that typified the modern, rebuilt Seaway riverside.
Road and rail, home and recreation—all were recast completely during the Seaway’s construction. By serving speed, size, and “efficiency,” the character of these communities—and of the entire riverside region—was changed altogether.
No longer people have to pass through these towns if it travelling from Montreal to Toronto, and no longer did maritime commerce pass by on the waterfront, a visible element of daily life. Rail service, once an important inter-community link for people and products, was severely reduced and then eliminated. In a short period of time, the St. Lawrence communities became “fly-over country,” places less visited and more often bypassed by commerce and travel.
Where people lived and how people conducted their working and personal lives were modernized as part of the Seaway reformation. The residents along the river lived older, river-focused lives when the 1950s started; before the decade ended, they were pioneers on the cutting edge of a suburban style of community that defines much of what Canada is today.
There is much from 1958 that we recognize as familiar. In the years before that, there is much that today looks quite foreign, but perhaps more sensible, comfortable, and desirable.
Here lies the great irony. Six decades after inundation, many of the features of riverside life lost in the flooding and the rebuild have found a new popularity. Walkable communities, local businesses, passenger rail, small-scale industry and power production—these have all seen renewed interest. Their proponents today would have embraced the lost villages’ main street commerce, the riverside powerhouses, the community dairies, and the local train service.
It is tempting to think of what the river would be had it been left alone, and wrong to believe that it would all have survived in its pastoral, small-town form. These changes happened across North America; we shouldn’t imagine that the character of the riverside communities would have remained intact and frozen in time.
But it would not have happened as it did. Change arrived along the river with a heavy and disorienting thud, and all at once, with consequences ranging from the merely inconvenient to the profoundly shocking. These communities were destroyed and rebuilt in a vastly different form and on a scale that no longer served the priorities of local life and commerce.
If there is a legacy of the Seaway for this area, it is the rapid thrust forward into the modern age that the project brought to the riverside communities. Coming to terms with this new reality was not a matter left behind in the Seaways’ wake; it remains a continuing question.