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Documentary Explores Lost Villages

A new documentary tells the story of the Lost Villages, the six villages and three hamlets that were flooded by the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and a hydro power dam across the St. Lawrence River near Cornwall, Ontario in 1958.

“Submerged”, a 90-minute DVD, was produced, directed and filmed by Cornwall scuba diver John Earle and partner Frank Burelle. While they have experience making music videos and cartoons, this is their most ambitious project so far, says Earle. The documentary, which includes interviews with former villagers, as well as scenes of the submerged communities, premiered in May.

“It is one thing to dive a shipwreck,” says Earle, “but it’s another to dive a large, man-made structure like a bridge that was once over the water. It is quite surreal.” As cameraman for the underwater scenes, he says swimming through windows and doorways with the fish was a fascinating experience.
Lost Villages Museum

Jane Craig, who grew up in one of the villages and is president of the Lost Villages Historical Society, explains that the water level was increased for two reasons: to create Lake St. Lawrence behind the dam in order to generate electricity, and to deepen the shipping channel in the St. Lawrence River. The area is in the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Between 1954 and 1958, in anticipation of the flooding, 530 houses and other buildings were hoisted onto trailers and driven to two new towns, Ingleside and Long Sault. Buildings that couldn’t be moved were demolished or burned. Some 6500 people were displaced by the flooding.

“During that era, when the hydro company said something was going to happen, that’s what happened,” Craig says. “There were no protest groups.” Nevertheless, the displacement was so traumatic for some people that they never even talked about it.

In 1977, when local teacher Fran Laflamme realized that the story of the villages might be lost, she founded the Lost Villages Historical Society. Today, the society has 380 members, many of them with roots in the area.

The society operates the Lost Villages Museum near Long Sault. It consists of 11 restored heritage buildings, including a general store and schoolhouse. Artifacts include church pews and old school books from the villages and a collection of aerial photos of Seaway construction. Volunteer guides welcome school children, seniors’ tours and other visitors from June through October.

The museum helps Craig share her memories since, as she points out, “I can’t take my grandchildren to the place where I grew up.” She admits some memories are painful. For example, she had to change schools four times when one building after another was demolished. She also remembers many happy occasions, such as Sunday picnics on Sheek’s Island, beside the Long Sault Rapids. The rapids and all but the highest point of the island have now disappeared underwater.

July 1, 2008 will mark the 50th anniversary of Inundation Day, the day flooding began, but if members of the Historical Society continue to educate people about what happened, the story of the villages will not be forgotten.

Copies of the DVD are on sale from the Lost Villages Historical Society for about $25.

For further information:
Lost Villages Historical Society
HUE (Historical Underwater Exploration)

Copyright Janice Hamilton 2007