My Home­town

One of the costs of build­ing the Saint Lawrence Se­away was a dev­as­tat­ing loss of com­mu­ni­ties—and his­tory

Our Canada - - Contents - By Jen­nifer Debruin, Smiths Falls, Ont.

For most of us, go­ing back to our child­hood home­towns, of­ten to share mem­o­ries with our chil­dren and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, is some­thing we take for granted. The former cit­i­zens of the “Lost Vil­lages” of the Saint Lawrence River and their fam­i­lies, how­ever, can never truly go home again.

Born in Corn­wall, Ont., I, like many young peo­ple, never re­ally took much in­ter­est in where I came from or what the his­tory of the area meant in the con­text of our Cana­dian iden­tity. To me it was just the place I lived. Only now, as his­tory and ge­neal­ogy have be­come pop­u­lar, have I re­al­ized that my his­tory is not only tied to the beau­ti­ful Saint Lawrence River, but lies be­neath it.

The Lost Vil­lages, as they came to be known, were nine com­mu­ni­ties in the former town­ships of Corn­wall and Osnabruck, which were dis­man­tled and then flooded in July 1958—the “price of progress” as the Saint Lawrence Se­away and Hy­dro Elec­tric project was be­ing im­ple­mented. These were, how­ever, places of our ear­li­est his­tory.

At the found­ing of Up­per Canada, the United Em­pire Loy­al­ists made their ex­o­dus from con­flict dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion to lands along the Saint Lawrence to forge a new home for their de­scen­dants. Pre­dat­ing the ar­rival of the Loy­al­ists, the area had been the tra­di­tional lands of the Mo­hawk peo­ple for cen­turies. Yet, de­spite their sig­nif­i­cance to our col­lec­tive his­tory as Cana­di­ans, these places now lie un­der dark waters.

A re­cent trip to the Lost Vil­lages Mu­seum, lo­cated in Long Sault, Ont., re­vealed just how lin­ger­ing the loss is. The mu­seum—a col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal build­ings from the var­i­ous vil­lages—had just opened for the day when a woman, ap­pear­ing to be in her late 80s, aided by a walker and her grown son, made her way to the lit­tle red train sta­tion from the vil­lage of Moulinette. Of all the build­ings there, this was the one I was most tied to as well: My grand­mother Mary, more than 80 years ear­lier, would wait on the small sta­tion plat­form to catch “The Moc­casin” steam train for the ride to high school in Corn­wall. Won­der­ing if the woman was a tourist, with one ges­ture, I knew she was not. Re­mov­ing one hand from her walker, she gen­tly placed it on the out­side of the build­ing. I knew she was re­con­nect­ing with an “old friend,” from a beloved time and place. As I watched, I no­ticed more peo­ple of the same gen­er­a­tion ap­pear­ing and go­ing to what must have been their re­spec­tive “places.” They, like my grand­mother, no longer had a home to go back to.

Many peo­ple I meet as­sume the Lost Vil­lages story was writ­ten long ago and only has re­gional im­por­tance. To set the record straight, I ex­plain that where the Saint Lawrence River flows to­day, west of Corn­wall, is not its nat­u­ral path; at one time, six vil­lages, three ham­lets and parts of towns ex­isted there and were home to about 6,500 peo­ple. Soon the in­evitable ques­tion comes, “When did this hap­pen, the 1800s?” When I re­ply, “1958,” it al­ways elic­its a look of shock. I then ask them to imag­ine their home­towns be­ing dis­man­tled, burned or moved in pieces, and I can see a flicker of un­der­stand­ing wash over them. I then re­mind them how our his­tory was changed for­ever when the Lost Vil­lages were sub­merged in 1958:

• An­cient lands of the Mo­hawk Peo­ple —oblit­er­ated.

• Lo­cales where United Em­pire Loy­al­ists forged a new fu­ture—lost.

• Fer­tile farm­land, abun­dant or­chards, old growth forests —drowned.

• An 1813 bat­tle­field, where the Bat­tle of Crysler’s Farm was waged—sub­merged.

• The thun­der­ing and once-fa­mous Long Sault Rapids—si­lenced.

• Loved ones at rest in their graves, in­clud­ing my grand­mother’s “mama,” whom she lost to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis at age 14—never to be vis­ited again.

This is a region rich in buried his­tory, with many stories to tell. The more peo­ple visit, the bet­ter the chances that the Lost Vil­lages will be re­mem­bered al­ways.

A seg­ment of old High­way 2 that once con­nected to the Lost Vil­lages. Left: Two of the build­ings on dis­play at the Lost Vil­lages Mu­seum in Long Sault, Ont.

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