Posts Tagged ‘St. Lawrence Seaway’


The Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary, east of Morrisburg, encompasses an area that was once the site of the town of Aultsville. The village, like nearly a dozen small communities along the St. Lawrence, was flooded during the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway and hydroelectric project. The towns have been dubbed the “Lost Villages“. In the fall, when water levels are low, you can follow the hiking trails at the bird sanctuary to the part of the river where Aultsville once stood and still see foundations from the old community. Standing on the little beach, above, you can just make out the remains of a roadway running off into the water.


Looking south, you can see a row of gulls resting on foundations submerged just below water level. We met an old-timer on the beach who told us that the water level was rising again. When he had visited a couple of weeks earlier, much more of the foundations and roads were visible. He attended high school in Aultsville more than 60 years ago and still returns regularly to visit the town.

It’s a pretty spot. Looking out over the river, you can see mountains on the horizon, the Adirondack Mountains in New York State.


As I was standing on the beach, I noticed that there were lots of little shells scattered about my feet. I picked up a half a dozen of them and brought them home to look at more closely. The shells are all worn and scuffed and their original shell patterns have disappeared, but some of them were likely striped. They’re foreign invaders: zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha).


Like the flooding of the “Lost Villages”, the introduction of Zebra Mussels to the great North American inland seas is a result of the Seaway development. But while the people of the Lost Villages were relocated and moved on with their lives, the Great Lakes ecosystem has been irrevocably damaged. Native to the Black and Caspian seas, the mussels were inadvertently introduced to North America via the ballast water of ocean-going ships traversing the St. Lawrence Seaway. They were first detected in the Great Lakes in 1988, in Lake St. Clair, located between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario.


Crayfish encrusted with zebra mussels

Young zebra mussels are small and can be easily spread by water currents. Older zebra mussels attach themselves to hard surfaces using ‘strings’, byssal threads, which come out of their hinged side. Native mussels do not attach themselves to surfaces in this manner, but bury themselves in sand. Often, the hard surface zebra mussels attach themselves to on the silty bottom of rivers and lakes belongs to a native mussel. Thus encrusted, the native mussel cannot function and dies. Thus, zebra mussels are decimating the native mussel population.


Zebra mussels cause millions of dollars worth of damage every year. For example, it will cost the city of Buffalo four to five million dollars to remove zebra mussels that are clogging the city’s water intake pipe .

Zebra mussels do have some positive impacts. For example, many native fish species eat zebra mussels. However, they do not feed heavily enough on zebra mussels to keep the populations under control.

From an initial stronghold in Lake St. Clair, zebra mussels have been widely introduced to other waterways, often as hitchhikers on recreational craft. The map below shows their range in 2008, two decades after they were first identified in the Great Lakes region. Stars indicate where zebra mussels have been found on boats on trailers, but have not been confirmed in local waterways. Yet.


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The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels. McClelland & Stewart, 2009.

The Winter Vault is Anne Michaels’ second novel. Her first, Fugitive Pieces, was very well received, and as I never got around to reading it, I made an effort not to let this second outing pass me by as well. Michaels is primarily known as a poet, and the language of The Winter Vault, beautiful and evocative, reveals the novel to be an extension, in some way, of her poetic works. The story is one of love, loss and longing.

The two lovers are Jean and Avery. From the very beginning, their relationship is tinged by the losses they have both experienced. Jean’s mother died when Jean was just 9 years old, and years later, Jean still feels her loss. Avery’s beloved father died recently, not long before he met Jean. The themes of loss and longing continue to be woven into their life together.

Jean and Avery meet when Avery is working on the St. Lawrence Seaway project and together they experience the empty river bed, the river held back by coffer dams as work progresses. They witness the sense of loss felt by the 6,000 villagers who must relocate to new towns to make way for the Seaway, leaving much of their former lives behind. After the Seaway project, Avery, an engineer, takes Jean to Egypt with him, where he works on another river project, the damming of the Nile and the relocation of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel. Again Jean and Avery witness the grief and loss of the people, this time numbering over 60,000, as they must relocate their lives. Their loss becomes personal and intimate when Jean’s pregnancy ends with the loss of their baby. The loss overwhelms her. She and Avery separate and back in Toronto, Jean meets Lucjan, a Polish artist who suffered great losses in wartorn Warsaw.

The sense of place that Michaels invokes is central to her story. I especially liked the interesting juxtaposition of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project and the construction of the Aswan Dam. The two events do have notable similarities. Michaels briefly addresses some of the consequences of the Aswan Dam: the huge loss of invaluable water through evaporation from the new lake, the loss of silt for fertilizing fields, the loss of fish populations. I was disappointed that she makes no mention of the considerable environmental costs of the Seaway. The fate of Warsaw under first the Nazis and then the Soviets was also interesting. I appreciated her brief introduction of poet Andrei Platonov.

Perhaps I’m unsympathetic, but Jean began to wear on me. She’s exhausting. Talk about the glass is half-empty! Her life isn’t too shabby and includes a good education, a loving husband, the adventure of travel. She doesn’t appear to have any particular interests outside a mild taste for gardening and only works when her husband’s step-mom finds her an office assistant job. Happily, things are beginning to look better by the end of the book.

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On June 23rd, Iroquois recognized the 50th anniversary of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The headline event of the celebration, held at the Iroquois Point park beside the seaway lock, was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride. The weather was perfect, a bright sunny day set off by a brilliant blue sky. It was fun to see the horse vans parked in the shade at the west end of the park, and the troop of horses being prepared for their show. Above, the ride assembles amongst the park trees in readiness for their entry into the ring.


Here they come! There was a large and enthusiastic audience seated in bleachers and chairs around the ring. There was a bit of a delay in starting because the shuttle buses, bringing people from the parking lot at the shopping centre, were in big demand, with long lineups of people waiting for a ride. Those who arrived earliest seemed content to enjoy the warmth of the sun as they anticipated the beginning of the ride.


The ride members line up for the introduction and salute. The performance takes about half an hour. The ride is set to music and the 24 horses and riders perform a set of intricately structured figures. The display is best observed from a height so that the designs created by the horses can be appreciated. Still photos can’t capture the flow of the ride, but hopefully these pictures will give you an idea of what it’s like.




Every imaginable variation on intersecting lines is included. Crossing in single file, in pairs, in foursomes, at the trot, at the canter, it’s all there.


In “The Cartwheel”, horses at the centre of the wheel revolve slowly, while those in the ‘spokes’ and on the outside rim, must move at a trot or canter.


“The Dome” was featured on the Canadian $50 bill.


The ‘Grand Finale” of the ride is the charge, a real crowd-pleaser. After the ride is finished, the riders fan out and position their mounts around the perimeter of the ring so that the audience can come up and admire the horses at close range and ask questions. Below, the mare Visty and her happy, beaming rider are admired by fans. The Musical Ride made a great centerpiece for the celebration.


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A Violent End by Maggie Wheeler. General Store Publishing House, 2001.

After Farran Mackenzie’s mother dies in a house fire, Farran is haunted by questions about her mother’s mysterious past and her father’s identity. Taking a sabbatical from her position as a university history professor, Farran travels to her mother’s childhood home to find answers. She ends up uncovering more than she bargained for when murder follows in the footsteps of her inquiries.

The narrative alternates between Farran’s present-day visit to the Lost Villages region and events that took place 40 years earlier when the residents of Aultsville and the other villages disrupted by the St. Lawrence Seaway project prepared for the flooding of their homes. Although based on an interesting premise, the mystery that weaves the story together is a bit transparent. The strength of the book lies with its historical aspects. Wheeler does a nice job of bring to life the events of the era immediately preceding the flooding of the St. Lawrence communities and puts a human face on the impact of the project on their lives.


In the story, Farren rents a cottage on Ault Island for the duration of her visit. After reading the book, I visited Ault Island, a little community comprised of one long road running the length of the small, land-linked island, lined with a mix of cottages, modest homes, and newer, upscale houses. It’s a lovely spot, well-treed, with a peaceful, private feel. Along the road, I encountered this deer, who didn’t seem at all alarmed by my presence.


As the St. Lawrence Seaway is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2009, this is perhaps a particularly appropriate time to look back on its early days. An engaging look at the changes the Seaway project brought is provided in DVD form by A River Lost, which makes a good followup to A Violent End. I found the story as told by Wheeler and the details presented in the video mesh well.

For more on A River Lost , visit their website. For more on A Violent End, and its sequels, visit author Maggie Wheeler’s website.


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On Saturday, when I was in Iroquois, I noticed a ship out on the river, so I made my way down to the lock to watch it pass through.
At the lock, there is a billboard with information about the lock, showing its position in the St. Lawrence Seaway system. According to the sign, the lock is 934 feet between gates and 80 feet wide. The largest ship it can accommodate is 730 feet long, with a 75 foot, 6 inch beam. Looking down at the lock from the viewing area, it appears mighty narrow. It is hard to credit that the incoming ship is going to fit.


Here she comes! Not only does the ship fit into the lock, it glides right through as if the Captain knew just what he was doing. Probably he does know just what he is doing.


When I was a youngster, we would occasionally have a family outing and picnic down by the Welland Canal. There, ships are lifted or lowered in each lock in the system as they bypass the abrupt water level change at Niagara Falls. As the water level doesn’t need to be adjusted here, the ship is able to continue straight through the lock without stopping. As the entrance gate closes behind the ship, the exit gate opens.


The lock gift shop/ snack bar was open and outside was a sign listing the ships passing through the lock for the day, and whether they are travelling upstream or down. The Pineglen, the second ship of four listed, was headed upstream, bound for Lake Ontario. There was a small turnout of ship-watchers on hand to witness her passage.


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Trains played an important part in the development of Canada. Today, various historical sites pay tribute to their role. RailGuy and I set out to visit some of the railroad-related sites in the area. We visited the Aultsville Staion, near Morrisburg, first. Aultsville was one of the “Lost Villages”, one of ten villages that were flooded to accommodate the St. Lawrence Seaway project. The station was moved to its current location in the late 1950s. You can see a photograph of the station in its original location at the Lost Villages website. Grand Trunk locomotive 1008 stands beside the station on an original piece of the Grand Trunk Railway track. It is an 8 wheeler 2-6-0 Mogul built by the Canadian Locomotive Company at Kingston in 1910.


We then carried on to the Brockville waterfront. This steel caboose was built for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) at their Angus Shops in Montreal in 1954. Originally destined for the Winnipeg salvaging yards, the retired caboose was donated to the City of Brockville by CPR in 1987. It probably began its life as an “assigned” caboose, used by just one conductor, but was later “pooled”, remaining hooked up to a train over an extended route, while the crew of at least one conductor and one brakeman, would change periodically.


The caboose is situated close to the entrance to Canada’s first railway tunnel. The tunnel was originally constructed to allow rail access to the Brockville waterfront, and was in use from 1860 to 1956. The tunnel was purchased by the City of Brockville in 1983. On September 16, 1990, there was a re-enactment of the laying of the cornerstone, 136 years to the day after the original ceremony.


Inside the south portal of the tunnel are a set of posters displaying more information about the history of the tunnel and the railroad. The first 85 feet of the tunnel are open to visitors, with an iron grill closing off the tunnel to the north. You can examine the stone arch construction and a section of 5 foot 6 inch Provincial guage track and looking to the north, away in the distance, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel!


We completed our outing with a visit to a Brockville restaurant that features train memorabilia. The restaurant is located close to the Brockville Via Rail station and during our meal, 2 Via trains and a long freight trail rolled by.


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The Iroquois plaza is our closest shopping centre. Though unprepossessing, it is quite handy, having a bank, grocery store, drug store, and a Mac’s where I can pick up the weekend paper. Still, who would have thought it had an illustrious history?

Iroquois is situated on the St. Lawrence River. To accommodate the St. Lawrence Seaway project of the 1950s, 10 villages were flooded and substantial sections of Iroquois and neighbouring Morrisburg were relocated. As part of the redevelopment, a new shopping plaza was built in Iroquois. At the time that the shopping plaza opened in 1957, it was considered the most modern in Eastern Ontario. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Canada in 1959 and viewed the Seaway project, a 10 minute stop at the Iroquois shopping plaza was included in her itinerary.


Here are a much younger Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.


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