In search of the “lost villages” of the St. Lawrence River

Downtown Aultsville

Excerpts from “The Lost Villages” By Louis Helbig

Introduction By Julie Houle Cezer


Downtown Aultsville
Downtown Aultsville, Ontario and the intersection of King’s Highway No. 2: Along the sides of both roads, the viewer can see the outlines of businesses and homes. Established in 1787, the village was named after Samuel Ault, who sat in Canada’s first parliament in 1867. About 400 of its residents were displaced in 1958.
Aerial art photographer Louis Helbig, who is based in the Glebe, is no stranger to flying solo when it comes to capturing the lay of the land. In his single engine, two-seater Luscombe, he has logged many air miles to create large-format photographs of landscapes – natural, urban and industrial. As in his series Beautiful Destruction, his photos are often a study in startling contrasts between small but recognizable details to the large expanses portrayed in the aesthetically beautiful abstracts. The photographs challenge the sense of scale and proportion of viewers who then feel compelled to question the meaning of the layered portrait of reality hanging before them. For an artist to truly see, compose and frame such images takes a disciplined eye, equally able to embrace shifts from the norm and to recognize and work with established patterns. This applies to perceiving changes in any visual field – in an airplane, the visual field just happens to extend farther than on the ground.

Imagine, then, the surprise and puzzlement that Helbig must have experienced in 2009 when, from his plane, his well-trained eye spied “the oddest thing, the familiar pattern of a house foundation in a most unfamiliar place, the blue-green water of the St. Lawrence [River]. My imagination was surely making things up, reading meaning into a familiar pattern. Very real, and very surreal, scattered here and there under clear, aquamarine water were stark foundations of houses and barns, the subtle curves of roads, the shadows of bridges, the oval of a quarter-mile horse track, locks with gates closed or ajar, the outlines of entire towns.”

Straight Stretch Highway
Straight Stretch Highway No. 2, Santa Cruz, Ontario: With its view of the Long Sault Rapids from the highway, Santa Cruz was a popular tourist stop, on the route between Toronto and Montreal.
Between that day in 2009 and now, Helbig, undeterred and clearly as intrigued as he was perplexed, has steadily plumbed the depths of this many-layered story, to understand how this underwater vista along the St. Lawrence River came to be. He is still seeking to comprehend the human costs that have rippled through the generations from the project that resulted in the 1958 inundation. Envisioned for some 50 years and finally built between 1954 and 1958, the mega-engineering project consisted of a hydro-electric power generating station and the St. Lawrence Seaway, constructed and operated bi-nationally to allow clear shipping routes from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. Both parts of the project were fuelled by post-World War II pent-up demand and an anticipated expansion in both Canada and the United States that called for more transport and energy.

Like many Ontarians, Louis Helbig had little or no knowledge of the Seaway, and how it happened that in a stretch of 50 kilometres of water between Cornwall and Prescott, 10 towns and villages were flooded out of existence and 6,500 people lost the homes, farms, schools and churches that made up their communities. As he researched what he had photographed, he was left wondering why so little attention has been paid to the lost villages, given how large the Seaway once loomed in Canada’s narrative of progress and modernity. Post-war promises of economic prosperity, against a backdrop of the domestic political imperatives of the era, drove the project and made it, for a time, a fixture in the national imagination.

Ultimately, as Helbig has presented his images, feedback from those affected by the inundation has revealed a significant gap between official history, that glosses over the fate of communities and residents, and the real and personal histories recounted by individuals, who provide far more complex insights into what happened 55 years ago, both in the communities and in the massive industrial undertaking that the Seaway represented.

Helbig’s current project is to bring those stories together with his imagery. He is now collecting personal stories of anyone or any family directly or indirectly affected by these events, or by the consequences of this man-made flood. An audio recording of these personal stories will provide a living memoir for the Sunken Villages photograph series, to be exhibited in Brockville in the fall of 2013. These “sunken villages” – Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Sheek’s Island, Wales, Dickinson’s Landing, Santa Cruz, Woodlands, Farran’s Point and Aultsville – still lie submerged in the St. Lawrence River.

Excerpts from “The Lost Villages” By Louis Helbig

(The full article can be found in Rural Urbanism On Site 27, spring 2012, and on Louis Helbig’s website at

Barn with Octagonal Silo
Barn with octagonal silo, Moulinette, Ontario: This photo of the Snetsinger dairy barn shows an octagonal structure which was the base of a silo while the structure on the right was used to store milk cans for pickup. Settled by Loyalists in the 1780s, Moulinette was home to the first grist mill powered by water from a dam built in 1810 between the mainland and Sheek’s Island. A tourist town in the 1950s, most of its 300 residents moved to Long Sault in 1958.
Sixty-five hundred people once lived in these small towns, now under the waves of a 50-kilometre stretch of water. They lived and loved, worked and played, were born and buried; they were little different, in their time, from people in any other Canadian community, except for the misfortune of living close to the mighty Long Sault Rapids, a significant barrier between the ocean and the Great Lakes. As part of the modern St. Lawrence Seaway project, between 1954 and the explosion of a coffer-dam on Dominion Day 1958, the rapids were silenced – first by draining, then by drowning. All the small towns near the rapids were dismantled, sometimes moved in bits and pieces, trees cut down and the remainder burnt or bulldozed before the St. Lawrence was flooded. The water rose over three days and nights, and the inundation was absolute.

En route between Upper and Lower Canada, and between Canada and the United States, the sunken villages were amongst some of Canada’s oldest communities of European descent. They dated in part from the days of La Salle and New France, or were drawn from Loyalists who settled there in the 1780s swearing Canada’s fealty to the British crown. In the War of 1812, local militia, allied with Tyendinaga Mohawk warriors and Canadien Voltigeurs and Fencibles in support of British redcoats, successfully defended themselves and a nascent Canadian identity against a much larger American force at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm. This battle and the Battle of Chateauguay, fought south of Montreal a few days earlier, are two of the battles and victories in the 19th century that are probably responsible for defining Canada’s borders. Crysler’s Farm lies with the sunken villages, unmarked and almost forgotten except for a “wandering” official monument first erected in 1895 at the Battlefield of Crysler’s Farm and then re-erected in the late 1950s on higher ground and at some remove.

The nearby Long Sault Rapids had long constituted a major obstacle to access to the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Lakes, and successive waves of technology emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries in attempts to circumvent the problem. In the 1840s and 1890s, canals and locks were built to skirt the rapids but each was obsolete before it was finished, for none could keep pace with the increasing size of sea-going vessels. Note that the Cornwall and Galop canals and locks also lie in the company of the villages.


King's Highway
King’s Highway No. 2, Woodlands, Ontario: This submerged highway which disappeared on July 1, 1958 ran through Woodlands, a hamlet founded in 1784. In the 1950s, it had a population of 70 people and was known for the cottages that lined the banks of the St. Lawrence. In the seaweed you can see the shapes of fish including muskies.
A reflection of its time, the Seaway Project came into existence as a paean to progress and modernity, a triumph of man over nature, an awe-inspiring achievement that would, with utter certainty, generate boundless new industry, wealth and prosperity. The plan was a child of its time in an era enamoured of mega-projects – the Americans had their Tennessee Valley Authority and Hoover Dam, the Soviets were working on their “great plan for the transformation of nature” which eventually drained the Aral Sea. It was Canada’s turn in “Canada’s century” to create its own eighth wonder of the world.

Thirty-five thousand acres of prime land were flooded. The project morphed to include three dams: the Iroquois and Long Sault control dams and the Moses-Saunders hydro dam between Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York. It is variously estimated that between 22,000 and 40,000 workers completed the project over four years, at a cost of a billion dollars. Postage stamps were issued, textbooks printed throughout the Commonwealth to teach children about this achievement, and a young and beautiful Queen Elizabeth officially opened it with President Eisenhower in 1959.

Ingleside and Long Sault, epitomes of modern planning and design, were built to absorb the displaced villages. Iroquois was entirely uprooted, moved and re-built, as was a third of Morrisburg, including much of its business section. The project spawned a plethora of official institutions – a Seaway commission, a bridge corporation, a parks commission, a power-generation authority, all of which linger on under one name or another. Next to one of these institutions – Upper Canada Village, a prominent, publicly funded museum with old houses and barns salvaged during Seaway construction – there stands a series of low-slung brick walls with embedded gravestones removed from the villages. A commemoration to the lost villages, it gets scant attention.


Flagg Street Bridge
Flagg Street Bridge, Mariatown, Ontario: this underwater scene shows the old bridge that extended King’s Highway No. 2 over the bottom of Flagg Creek.
The lack of attention is the most curious thing about the sunken villages. In no other place in Canada or North America have so many people had their places and spaces deliberately wiped from the map by flooding. It is simply remarkable this could be so rapidly forgotten. Where they are mentioned on the occasional official placard, the references are cast in the supporting role of a glorious, grand narrative of industrial progress and enlightened public policy. The official story is rarely about the people affected or the community left behind.

In visual terms, one could say that the villages have reappeared, thanks to an unintended consequence of the project, the invasion of zebra mussels with their incredible water-filtering capacity. With the villages’ reappearance, it becomes clear just how much the story of the villages and their inhabitants has also been filtered.

It may seem odd to us today, but most of those affected seem to have embraced the move or resigned themselves to it. Some people were certainly upset by the destruction of their homes, communities, livelihoods and landscape, but it is remarkable how little resistance there was. It was a heady time. Local businesses and community organizations called themselves – and still do – “Seaway” this or that, and the whole area is now known as the Seaway Valley. The sense of loss was, it appears, soothed by the lure of being part of a larger national purpose, the promise of industrial development, wealth and employment, the possibility of material benefits such as new housing or other compensation, and the reality of immense social pressure to conform.

Local prosperity never arrived. Local promises were never fulfilled. Cornwall never became the industrial centre once thought inevitable. Today, the only industrial reality, adjacent to the old Cornwall Canal, is a huge vacant area where a Domtar pulp mill and a C-I-L chemical plant once stood. Iroquois, once slated to become one of Canada’s textile manufacturing centres, had its small Dominion Textile plant close in the 1990s.

The Seaway never achieved what was envisioned for it. Following the precedent set by the earlier canals and locks, the Seaway cannot handle the massive container ships that now carry much of the world’s commerce. Its tonnage peaked well shy of its intended capacity in the 1970s, and has declined ever since. Only the Moses-Saunders Dam and its hydro-generation station have lived up to its promise, generating about three per cent of Ontario’s electrical power, little of that consumed locally.

The narrative of progress and industrial prosperity explains in large part the impetus behind the construction of the Seaway. That the people of the sunken villages paid an enormous price is more than a little inconvenient for this narrative. By itself, the story of prosperity and industrial progress – without mention of its consequences – rings hollow. Glossing over the consequences and with that, historical reality, sets us up to make the same mistakes when the next grand project is proposed, as the truth and anything we might have learned from the story is largely discarded.

However, the official record is not the only record, and universal mythology not the only credible touchstone. There are thousands of personal stories: intimate personal accounts, first-, second- or even third-person, of those with living memories or stories already transmitted across one or two generations. Pay attention to these, and the curtain rises on a drama, real, contradictory, nuanced and meaningful. The very finality of the inundation gives the stories a twist, a particular time, a particular event, a clear “before” and “after” by which to understand what was, and what, since July 1, 1958, now is.

Louis Helbig is an aerial art photographer and economist who undertakes large-scale photography projects with a story to tell.

Louis Helbig invites those with stories about the “lost villages,” and what they have meant to them and their families, to contact him at He plans to record interviews (audio and video) and play the audio at the exhibition of his works at the Marianne Van Sifhout Gallery in Brockville, September 12 to November 2, 2013. He invites anyone interested in assisting him in the interview
process to get in touch as well.

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