The unforgotten memory of a lost village

The unforgotten memory of a lost village

Canadians reflect on losing their childhood homes during the expansion of a seaway designed to give cargo ships access to the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean
Published: May 30, 2019 | Updated: May 25th, 2020 at 10:40 pm
Historical Photos of Cornwall, Ontario

At 13, Alan Daye lost his home outside of Cornwall, Ontario. Now, at age 74, he still hears the offer the local energy provider made before demolishing his childhood home.

Five thousand dollars, the man from Ontario Power Co. said. If you don’t take it, you’ll get nothing, he said, as Daye and his father sat in the living room. You can swim to shore, the power-company negotiator added.

“The man said to my dad, ‘This is our best offer. You can take it or leave it,’” Daye said of the 1957 meeting. His family took the offer, worth about $40,000 today.

Now, that family plot is a part of a lost village, a community at the bed of a river, swept away by the currents.

Daye’s family was one of 6,500 displaced to make way for the Saint Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. The loss of his home was one tiny piece of building the 370-mile long network of locks, dams and canals that connects trade from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Ontario, and for certain stretches, separates the United States from Canada.

For some in Cornwall, the seaway remains a symbol of national pride – one that held broad public support both during and immediately following its construction.

But many say it wasn’t worth it. Thousands of people lost more than just their homes. From dug up gravestones to cut-off barbershops, entire communities were forced out of existence.  And by the time the seaway was built, it was still too small for the ever-growing cargo ships it was meant to serve.

The project in Cornwall in some ways is reminiscent of the building of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, which leveled a historically black neighborhood, helped fuel white flight to the suburbs and split the city in two. Now almost 60 years after that massive federal infrastructure investment, the construction of I-81 through the city center is considered a mistake by many, and millions more will likely be spent to remove the highway and re-establish a more natural traffic flow. None of that will undo the damage the highway has already inflicted.

The former residents of the communities destroyed by the seaway project in Cornwall can relate, and 60 years later, the memory of their displacement remains raw.

Daye still remembers the drowning of the neighborhood he called home.

“It went dead silent, dead silent. Some people saw the dams blow up, and that’s all you heard. Without a word being spoken. Everybody went back to their cars and went home,” said Daye, describing the inundation that followed the demolition of the dams. “That was the moment of realization. That’s our past. Our past just went down with that loud flushing.”

Daye remembers when Ontario Power tore down his home in Mille Roches, one of nine former villages – now referred to as The Lost Villages – flooded to make way for the seaway project.

His family moved a few miles outside of Cornwall where they built a new home bit by bit with the money they received from the negotiation.

“Some people got what they considered to be, well, I mean the property value was dropped because of … you know, your property isn’t going to be there,” Daye said. “So they were bargaining on already artificially lowered property values.”

While most families rebuilt from scratch, others were given the option to lift their houses to lay them down on new foundations a few miles from the Saint Lawrence.

David Hill, who was 12 years old when the dam was completed, remembers the excitement he felt on the day his house was moved.

“They drilled holes in the basement and hoisted the house up on a truck,” Hill said. “It was amazing.”

But Hill’s childhood home was among the exceptions. Many houses were structurally incapable of handling the move. The home of David Hill’s grandparents, for example, could not be lifted and was instead torn down and then burned. That house was attached to a barbershop that Hill’s grandfather owned and operated. Though they managed to separate the physical shop before the torching of the house, the business itself could not be saved.

Historic photo: St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project
Cornwall-area residents look at a house that was knocked over during the relocation process in 1957.

“A farmer bought the barbershop and moved it north to his farm and used it as a chicken coop,” Hill said.

Hill recognizes the shield his adolescence provided him. As he grew older, boyish excitement over the construction was replaced by an acute understanding of the sacrifice endured by the people he loved. Bulldozing not only buildings, this project tore through the heart of community life.

“For a young person, it was very exciting,” Hill said. “But what I like to emphasize is that, as I became older, I realized the tremendous stresses and strains and impact that it had on people like my father and mother and grandparents.”

On top of working in the paper mill, Hill’s father was tasked by his church to ensure that the waterfront cemetery – in the now-submerged village of Moulinette – was carefully excavated and moved to a new location. Working with Ontario Power, he transplanted most of the tombstones and bone fragments to a site just south of Cornwall.

Jim Brownell, who was 6 when construction began, lived on a farm along a county road on the outer edge of Moulinette. Located just outside the eviction zone, his family home did not require demolition. Through seeing the daily hardship of his neighbors and classmates, Brownell felt the brunt of this project.

Brownell remembers standing with his friend, Delbert, looking out across a canal to a home that was being burned down. That home turned out to be Delbert’s.

“They had torched it that morning. And I’ll never forget, oh my God, that poor fella, he was so upset and I really felt for my friend.” Brownell said.

Now 71 and a former head of The Lost Villages Historical Society, Brownell wants to look at the project with a degree of balance. While he accounts for the social strain felt by the residents of the nine villages, he wants to make clear that it was not all bad.

Prior to the seaway project, Brownell says that the majority of homes were built on foundations of rubble, used backyard surface tanks for waste and lacked modern heating. The negotiations allowed many families to create new homes with sturdier, concrete block foundations, running water, proper plumbing and a basement furnace. But Brownell said that the benefits were not always equal, and that some residents were pushed out.

Historic photo: St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project
Maple Avenue on Mille Roche Island near Cornwall as seen from Alan Daye's childhood home after most of the homes on the block had been destroyed. Daye's home was demolished minutes after this photo was taken,

“There were some people who were carried out kicking and screaming,” Brownell said.

Hugo Rodrigues, the editor of Cornwall’s daily newspaper, finds it valuable to remind his readers that there were both positive and negative effects of the seaway project. When asked about the lasting communal benefits, Rodrigues points to the many parks and riverside pedestrian paths the seaway allowed for.

“Cornwall did gain an absolutely outstanding corridor of publicly owned, recreationally available green space along the river,” said Rodrigues.

But he finds that for the most part “all this stuff that happened in the 1950s was this huge sales pitch for progress; 60 years later, that hasn’t materialized.”

Historic photo: St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project
The Power Project Viewing Station as seen in 1957.
Historic photo: St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project
Seaway construction workers Geof Leff and Jean Drouin inside the Iroquois Locks on July 5, 1957