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Chelsea & Farmer's Hydroelectric Dams

The Great Hydroelectric Works on the Gatineau River: Some Views From Contemporary Engineering Journals.

The Gatineau Power Company

Farmers powerhouse
Farmer's Dam powerhouse c. 1926

The particular circumstance, which led to power development on the Gatineau River, was the sudden bankruptcy of the Riordon Pulp and Paper Company, a Montreal concern that had recently bought the Gilmour and Hughson holdings in the Gatineau. It also owned valuable water rights on the Gatineau River.

[A] new buyer turned up and the deal finally settled on February 1, 1921. The new owner, a subsidiary of the Canadian International Paper Co. called the Gatineau Company Ltd. paid $3,016,777. Thus passed the old Gilmour Gatineau Empire into the hands of a paper manufacturing company.

Farmer’s Rapids, where melancholy remains of William Farmer’s and Alonzo Wright’s unfortunately timed enterprises had slowly rotted away, and the Chelsea Falls, where the Gilmour mills and community buildings still stood, were immensely changed beginning in 1926.

The force behind these changes was the International Paper Company, then the world's largest paper producer, which had established Canadian International Paper (CIP) in 1919. In 1922, it had built a plant in Trois-Rivieres which produced 350 tons of newsprint per day; expansion in 1925 increased capacity to 700 tons, making this plant the largest in the world at the time. CIP also built a plant at Kipawa, Quebec (Temiscaming) as well as installations at Grand Falls, New Brunswick.

The Gatineau Power Company was created to construct hydroelectric plants on three sites on the lower Gatineau: a 35 meter drop at Paugan Falls, a 30 meter drop at Chelsea Falls and an 18 meter drop at Farmer's Rapids. The Quebec Streams Commission was in charge of the creation of a reservoir at Bitobee, 120 miles upstream from the river's mouth, essential for regulating its flow throughout the year. To create the Baskatong reservoir, it built the Mercier storage dam, as well as two other concrete structures and seven earth-fill dams.

The Gatineau River project was certain to be successful from the outset, since half the initial production from Chelsea and Farmer's (173 megawatts) was for sale to Ontario Hydro at 25 cycles. The other half was destined for CIP's new plant at Templeton (now Gatineau) which was initially capable of producing 500 tons of newsprint per day, half its ultimate capacity. It was planned that all excess power would be used to produce steam at that plant until it could be absorbed by local demand. All of Paugan's output, 116 megawatts at 25 cycles, was for purchase by Ontario Hydro.

Throughout its history, the three large plants on the Gatineau accounted for 85% of the Gatineau Power Company's installed capacity.

Construction Work

Farmer‘s dam
Farmer's Dam c. 1930.

The engineering journals naturally concentrate on technical descriptions of the dams and plants being built and on the work programs. Occasionally, however, they afford interesting points on how the work was actually managed and carried out.

The following excerpts are taken from a 1926 address to the Rotary Club in Ottawa by the chief engineer of the Chelsea and Farmer's projects. The presentation gives a general overview of the Gatineau projects but it also deals with some less technical considerations.

The following excerpts are taken from a 1926 address to the Rotary Club in Ottawa by the chief engineer of the Chelsea and Farmer's projects. The presentation gives a general overview of the Gatineau projects but it also deals with some less technical considerations.

A dam will be built across the river at the site of the old Gilmour and Hughson Mill at Chelsea Island. The upper part of the island will be incorporated into the dam, the top of which is to be just level with its highest point. The powerhouse, which forms a part of the dam, will block the west channel. The latter enlarged and deepened will serve as the tad-race...

It is probable that at least 4,000 men will be employed on the construction work particularly covered by this address and perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 more on the other works There are also a considerable number of teams required.

As far as is practicable, it is the policy to give employment to local people. It must, however, be recognised that much of this work is of a special nature, as, for instance, work with explosives, [and] the work in and around water, and it is dangerous as well as impracticable to use men unfamiliar with its nature.

Another difficulty arises with people not used to this class of work, and especially with farmers. They do not seem to realise that it is necessary that they work steadily. Many are anxious for work. They will start in and work for a few days, then stay away to go to market or to do a little work around their farm. When they report back and find their places filled, they think they have a genuine grievance and are being discriminated against. It may be thought that with such a large force the absence of a few will not make much difference, but this is not so, for every man's duties fit in with those of many others, and if in most cases a place cannot be filled for a day, serious delay results.

A very good example of this occurred at Chelsea. Farmers' teams were being employed to haul sand from the pit to a hopper for supplying the mixers. The distance was short and four teams were just sufficient for the purpose. At this time about 100 cubic yards of concrete were being placed per day by this outfit at a total cost of $1,000.

If one team stayed away for a day and could not be replaced, as it generally could not, the entire output was cut down 25 percent, without much decreasing the cost. Accordingly, the absence of one team for a day would cause a loss of nearly $250. The farmers' teams were so irregular that it became necessary to replace them by teams hired from a man who used them for this purpose only. This is an extreme case of course, and local labour is used whenever practicable.

Construction Camps

The engineer then gave some detailed information as to how the construction camps, the sudden cities of bunkhouses and mess-halls, actually operated.

All employees are free to live outside the camps of the company. In fact, it is to the company's interests that they do so, as the charge made for board, while it is a little more than pays for the food, does not, on jobs of this character where the camps are used for a year at most, cover the cost of the camps themselves and of their equipment.

It has been difficult to estimate the camp accommodations required, as in a settled community like this, it is hard to judge how many men will prefer to be outside the camps. Up to the present, sleeping accommodations, including married quarters, have been supplied about as follows:

Chelsea 1,200
Farmer's 1,000
Gatineau 1,500

The dining room accommodations are somewhat larger than this.

At each site a number of houses of varying grade have been constructed for the married superintendents, engineers, general foremen, etc. Also at each point a staff house has been constructed for the unmarried members of the staff or for those who do not care to bring their families on the job.

Waitresses are employed for serving in the dining rooms, and dormitories similar to the staff houses are provided for their accommodation. They are in [the] charge of a matron at each camp. It is found that by their superior neatness, girls give much better satisfaction than the class of men waiters that can be secured for this work.

The men's bunkhouses are supplied with metal bedsteads, mattresses and blankets. A building used exclusively for a bathhouse and toilet is provided for each 350 men. There is a constant supply of hot and cold water and they are equipped with ample shower baths and toilet facilities.

We are preparing to feed at least 4,000 people throughout the summer, and the following is a list of some of the principal items of supply required for a month: Beef, 90,800 lbs.; pork, 32,000 lbs.; fish 11,000 lbs.; butter, 12,000 lbs.; eggs, 9,700 doz.; milk, 6,200 gals.; potatoes, 1,800 bags; flour, 650 bags; sugar, 42,300 lbs.; tea and coffee, 7,000 lbs.; canned goods, 136,000 lbs.; or a total of about 280 tons.

About 260 employees in all are required for the purpose of taking care of the camps and dining rooms.

Another interesting insight into the construction camps is given by this simpler view of things at Paugan: All men are housed and fed on the job, the usual care in sanitary details, which is characteristic of the contracting engineers, being observer Comfortable staff houses are provided for the executive staff, and stores, barber shops, etc. are maintained within the works.

All men in the camp are provided with medical attention, and a very rigid discipline is enforced, a special body of police being maintained to preserve order and to see that all camp regulations are carried out.

There seem to be no visible remain of the construction camps that once stood on the left bank of the river just upstream from the Farmers plant, on Chelsea Island and on the right bank at Paugan because the bunkhouses, mess halls and other buildings were not set on permanent foundations. Some engineers' and superintendents' cottages remained for a number of years to house plant operators, but they were eventually torn down because they were no longer used. Some of their foundations are still visible upon superficial inspection. Further investigation with site plans and photographs in hand would perhaps allow one to discover some vestiges of mixing plants as well as remains of the railway systems for the sites.

The Plants on the Gatineau

Chelsea dam
Chelsea Dam c. 1930

Today, these plants stand as testimony to human ingenuity incarnate in the engineering profession. But they also bear witness to heroic labour, harsh working conditions and environmental upheaval. We must not forget that they were the meeting place of two eras and two cultures: the traditional and the technological.

The engineering journals of the day provide interesting insights into the scope of the great works on the Gatineau. Indeed the developments on the Gatineau were perceived as a major enterprise and were described in many of these journals. In the years 1926-1928, The Engineer, Engineering News Record, The Engineering Journal, The Canadian Engineer, Contract Record and Engineering Review, Power House, The Electrical News, and Electrical News and Engineering all carried extensive coverage of the Gatineau projects.

The damming of the rapids at Chelsea and Farmer's created a reservoir 700 square kilometres in area, reaching up to Paugan's tailrace 20 kilometres upstream and partially flooding 150 farms. An engineering journal of the time describes the change in scenery thus:

Taken as a whole, the river is turbulent, and, as it winds through very hilly and rough country, it has scenic qualities hard to surpass, even in Canada. In fact, the fame of Gatineau scenery has spread far and wide, and the district has become a recognised summer resort.

Naturally, scenic effects and power projects are not synonymous in the popular mind, and there has been, as a perfectly natural consequence, some romantic moaning against possible damage to nature’s handiwork by the hand of man; but of this, more... The area around Chelsea used to be quite a famous summer resort, and a great number of summer houses will be covered by the new lake. Old haunts, bathing pools and fishing spots will be no more. The country will take on a new aspect, and, as already stated, there are quite a few people who mourn the passing of the old order. After all, it is quite natural that the hundreds, who had spent happy days in, and around, this beauty spot, should feel a wrench at the passing of the old aspect, but, though they are losing something of sentimental value, they are gaining immeasurably. In the future there will be a lake where there was only rough water before. It will be a take suitable for boating and sailing–something that was foreign to the turbulent Gatineau in the old days. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint it is probable that the scenery will be improved by the addition of a lake, and so, really, there is nothing to the lament of the ‘old timers’, and after all, there seldom is.

What is probably far more to the point than the submersion of a piece of river scenery, in the eyes of certain practised gentlemen, is the fact that the creation of this take has necessitated the moving back of the CPR for five miles, and the rebuilding of five miles of provincial highway. Items of expense which naturally, have to be borne by the Gatineau Power Company.

These days, one cannot refrain from musing about the effectiveness of such an environmental impact statement.

The total cost of the Gatineau projects was more than $50,000,000. It was therefore imperative that the work proceed rapidly and that the plants be put on line in as short a time as possible. Upwards of 6,000 men were employed at a time during the peak period of the project. Preliminary work at Chelsea was undertaken in October 1925; the plant began production in March 1927, only 17 months later. Farmer's also took only 15 months to build, from February 1926 to May 1927. At Paugan, concrete was first poured on the 25th of May 1927, and the first generating unit was put on line on May 14, 1928. By the following October, a total of six units had been installed at Paugan with two more in 1931 and 1954.

Managing a Significant Heritage

The hydroelectric plants of the Gatineau are an important part of Quebec's industrial heritage and Hydro-Quebec recognises their significance.

Chelsea, Farmer's and Paugan are now more than 65 years old. They have always performed well but, given their age, they must be refurbished in order to prolong their usefulness for the decades to come. Hydro-Quebec has therefore initiated a large modernisation program for these and many other plants of the same era, notably those on the lower St. Maurice (another fascinating chapter of (Quebec's industrial history). Modernisation does not mean disregard for the heritage value of these monuments of industry. As it should be, Hydro-Quebec's main objective is to provide the best service: production of electricity must be safe, reliable and environmentally sound. As well, the cultural heritage is part of the environment and therefore must be taken into consideration. Detailed surveys of heritage structures allow for their management in a respectful way.

The industrial heritage is often seen as an offspring of the history of technology. While this is indeed one of the major reasons for heritage preservation, we must not forget the thousands of men and women who actually built these great monuments. The human dimension of the industrial heritage is of the greatest interest: after all, these resources are significant because they are human creations.

Information such as has been presented here is therefore extremely valuable. Knowledge of historic industrial properties rests on numerous and varied sources: professional journals, construction photographs, manufacturers' catalogues, company promotional materials, original plans and specifications. Hydro-Quebec's archives are a repository of such material. In a related vein, its developing oral history program will bring life to archival materials and field surveys.

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