Eels and ladders.
That’s what’s making news around the sluice gates of the huge Moses-Saunders Power Dam in Cornwall these days. But let’s go back a few years, before the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project began. Before armies of construction workers descended upon small villages, disrupting people’s lives. Before the course and topography of the river were changed forever.
American eels — those long, snake-like fish with slimy skin — swam unimpeded and unobtrusively upstream, accompanying scores of Frenchvoyageursor British men of war on their way up to the Great Lakes.
Eventually, the warships and voyageursdisappeared, as commerce and peacetime came to the rocky shores of the restless river. Still, the eels their seemingly endless trek, year in, year out, starting in mid- June and continuing until late September, fighting against the roaring waters of the Long Sault rapids until, one day, somebody drained the river.
“The international sod-turning ceremonies at Cornwall and Massena on Aug. 10, 1954, marked the official start of work on the 1,600,000-kilowatt St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project,” writes Cornwall historian Ian Bowering in his bookFrom Factory Town to Seaway City.”Undertaken jointly by Ontario Hydro and the power authority of the state of New York, with the necessary enabling legislation from the United States Congress (the Wiley-Dondero Act) and the Canadian Parliament, the building of the seaway has been called, by some, the first step towards ‘free trade’ and the eventual annexation of Canada to the United States.”
To accomplish this feat, several Ontario villages, along with a highway and a railway, had to be moved. Graveyards were exhumed, farmland was flooded and three dams were built.
At Iroquois, the Iroquois Dam was built to replace the natural flow of the river. Thirty-two gates in the dam are operated by two gantry cranes to permit the necessary flow of water downstream to the Canadian and American powerhouses.
Next, the Long Sault Dam, constructed at the foot of the former turbulent waters of the Long Sault Rapids, operates in conjunction with the powerhouses to bypass water not required for power generation.
And then there is the big dam at Cornwall and its powerhouses.
“The Moses-Saunders Dam is more than one kilometre long,” says Linda Halliday, public affairs officer for the Ottawa/St. Lawrence Plant Group. “It houses two completely separate generating stations: the Robert H. Saunders St. Lawrence Generating Station of Ontario Power Generation and the St. Lawrence-FDR Project of the New York Power Authority.”
The dam stretches between Cornwall and Barnhart Island, near Massena, New York. Extending acrosstheSt. Lawrence River for the equivalent of nearly 11 football fields, the massive concrete structure is made up of two 16-turbine generator sections operated independently by the New York Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation.
“At 8 a. m. on July 1, 1958,” wrote Bowering, “30 tons of dynamite was detonated to blow up the last cofferdam, allowing the inundation of the river and the creation of Lake St. Lawrence, which extends 45 kilometres from the powerhouse, just west of Cornwall, to the Iroquois Dam.
“With a head pond holding approximately 23 billion cubic feet of water, the Cornwall dam was the world’s first international hydro electric power dam. It is 1,006 metres long, 49 metres high and has 32 generators with an installed capacity of 1,800 megawatts.
“On the Canadian side, the dam is known as the Robert H. Saunders-St. Lawrence
Generating Station, after Ontario Hydro’s former chairman, killed in a fatal 1955 air crash. The American half was named after Robert Moses, the chairman of the New York Power Authority. In its heyday, the dam is estimated to have drawn over a million tourists.”
Not any more. The events of 9/11 have changed all that, and security is very strict in the area.
“The Energy Information Centre that used to be located on the sixth floor of the Robert H. Saunders Generating Station is now closed to the public, and security has increased considerably here since 2001,” said Halliday. “We are now building a new visitor facility off site and broke ground on the St. Lawrence Power Development visitor centre in May of this year. This centre is anticipated to be opened in summer 2010 and will provide a year-round visitor centre for people to discover more about OPG, electricity generation, the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project and the stakeholders who were affected by the construction of the project.”
Marian Wilkins, who was born in the “lost village” of Moulinette, Ont., one of the villages that has to be relocated, remembers the construction of the huge dam very well. A stenographer who worked in a construction office near the site, Wilkins was 21 on July 5, 1955, the date she started typing amidst the concrete dust and endless noise.
“We were the ‘turncoats’, ” she laughed, remembering feelings and events from back then. “We were working for the enemy. But, you know, you had to make a living. [The seaway] was going to happen anyway. There was a hospital, too, on the grounds nearby. One death occurred that I can remember, when a crane toppled over. There was so much going on.”
And there were sentimental memories, too. “We — my late husband Charles and I — were the second-last ones to be married at St. David’s Anglican Church in Wales before it was torn down. Charles was one of the official photographers for the project, along with John Phippen and Carl Malcolm.”
So, whatever happened to the American eels and their plight? And why was it so important?
During the 1980s, the American eel was one of the top three species in commercial value for Ontario’s fishing industry. It is also a predatory species that keeps other invasive fish species, such as goby, in balance.
In recent decades, the number of young American eels entering the upper St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario has declined dramatically. These eels are found in coastal freshwater areas ranging from Greenland along the east coast of North America to northern South America. They are found in Ontario in the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, as well as other inland lakes and rivers. They feed and mature in fresh water for 10 to 25 years before migrating back to the Atlantic Ocean, where they spawn and die.
After construction of the Moses-Saunders Power Dam, the only route for these creatures was through the lock system just south of the dam. Many became trapped in the sluices of the locks and the sump pumps used to drain the turbines at the dam. Dewatering is necessary for maintenance of the turbines, so how to fix the problem of the congregating eels? And what to do to ensure these endangered species reach their destination: the upper lakes?
To solve the problem, a modified wooden fish ladder was constructed in the early 1970s. It was a three-sided trough 156 metres long that traversed the sluice face 8.5 times in a vertical distance of 29 metres. Water was jetted through the trough to provide a current, and artificial vegetation and baffles were placed in the trough to provide cover.
It cost $265,000 to build the fish ladder, and the costs were shared between Ontario Hydro and the Ministry of Natural Resources. This fish ladder was the only one in North America at the time and the highest one in the world. Today, the eel ladder at the Moses-Saunders Power Dam has been extended by 300 metres to return the eels to the river well above the dam. The new ladder has also been equipped with a new surface that allows the eels to climb faster. A photoelectric counter keeps tabs. According to Ontario Power Generation statistics, about 6,400 eels passed over this new ladder in 2008.
“While the dam leads some Cornwallites to gloomily speculate how fast the town would be flooded if it were to break,” wrote Bowering, “it is unlikely that the five-and-a-half-kilometre dike made of five million cubic yards of glacial till and concrete would give way. It is true, however, that it funnels 55 million gallons of water per minute through a 29- metre drop into 16 turbines to generate 7.1 terawatt hours of electricity into the Ontario Hydro grid system.”
“This station is part of the Ottawa/St. Lawrence Plant Group, which generates 2,600 megawatts of clean, renewable power for the province of Ontario,” said Halliday. “With its upgrades and regular schedule of maintenance, this station will continue to produce power for many years to come.”
Brian Johnson is captain of the Wolfe Islander III and president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society. This is one of a monthly series of columns marking the 50th anniversary of the St. Lawrence Seaway.