Quebec’s St. Maurice Valley is the site of the fourth largest powergenerating system in the world

JOHN LANGDON February 15 1937


Quebec’s St. Maurice Valley is the site of the fourth largest powergenerating system in the world

JOHN LANGDON February 15 1937


Quebec’s St. Maurice Valley is the site of the fourth largest powergenerating system in the world


PLANNED economic development, made popular by Soviet Russia with its five-year plan and adopted in modified form by other countries, has its counterpart in Canada. For nearly forty years a Canadian group has worked along preconceived lines creating, in what was a wilderness, one of the world’s great power systems and, with it, an industrial area of outstanding importance.

In other lands these planned developments are backed by the resources of the State. Money and men are commandeered, and results are spectacular. Yet they are no more spectacular than what has been accomplished by private initiative in the St. Maurice Valley, midway between Montreal and Quebec City.

Shortly before the close of the last century, a small group of men ascended the St. Maurice River from Three Rivers to Shawinigan Falls. They left civilization far behind. Trees and rocks were in abundance. Before them was a mighty river, whose waters, drawn from the mountainous hinterland, rushed down to the St. Lawrence River. They were not dreamers but hard-headed businessmen, and they visioned the harnessing of this river; the erection of power plants; industries; communities; highways and railways; in fact, the subjugation of this wilderness to further the needs of man.

They planned then and there, and in the years that have passed these dreams and plans have been hewn into realities. The mighty Shawinigan Falls have been harnessed, as also have other sites. Industries and cities are thriving; employment is given to thousands of workers, and millions of dollars of new wealth are created each year.

How many Canadians know that St. Maurice Valley is the chemical producing centre of Canada? That it leads all areas in the Dominion in the production of newsprint, stainless steel. Cellophane, kraft paper, carbide, acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide.

Every day of the year Canadians use St. Maurice chemicals. They may be in the form of perfumes, medicines, solvents, varnishes, enamels, lacquers or colorants; they may be used in dry batteries, in insulators, or for laying dust on the roads.

St. Maurice Valley is the second largest producer of aluminum in Canada ; and important in the manufacture of cotton goods, shirts, shoes, silk, paper bags, steel and iron castings.

From 1900 to 1933, when Ottawa made its last survey, the capital invested in this region advanced from less than $5,000,000 to more than $130,000,000. Plants in operation increased from thirty-four to 107, and the annual industrial output from less than $3,000,000 to more than $31,000,000. More than four times as many workers were employed as at the beginning of the century, while the compensation paid to them was increased by 1,200 per cent.

Why has the Valley achieved such importance in less than four decades? Its natural resources are not greater or more diversified than may be found in other parts of the country. Why this impressive growth? Power is the answer; vast quantities of power brought into service in an orderly way as the times and demands warranted.

In its length of 240 miles, the St. Maurice River makes a descent of more than 1,300 feet. The greater part of this fall, providing all of the important power sites, is within 188 miles of Three Rivers. In this reach of the river the descent is 1,125 feet, of which 636 feet occurs in ten distinct falls. Four of these have been developed to produce 834,000 horsepower. Nor is this all—plans have been made for the development of the six other sites. Before many years have passed the Valley will have ten power plants with an installed capacity of over 2,000,000 h.p., or more than is available with the present flow at Niagara Falls.

Compared with other parts of the world, the hydro power resources of this little known area are greater than can be claimed by Australia and New Zealand ; or. to mention some European countries, the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Irish Free State and Poland combined.

Day in and day out the four plants now operating on the St. Maurice River produce energy equivalent to twentythree times the present electrical requirements of all the residences in the Province of Quebec, or enough to fill the domestic requirements of a population of 70,000.000 people.

The Search for Capital

IN BRIEF, this is where the St. Maurice Valley stands today after forty years of planning. Previously the region was the private preserve of the backwoodsman and trapper. Its development got under way when William Van Home, later president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and his compatriot. General Russell A. Alger, established the Laurentide Pulp Company and at Grand’Mère laid the foundation of the Canadian newsprint industry.

Years before this time, lumbering had been started on the Upper St. Maurice, but the operations were of little consequence because of the difficulty in handling logs over the numerous waterfalls and rapids in the river.

Van Horne and Alger realized that these obstacles to navigation could be harnessed to provide power for mill operations, and thus economically exploit the rich timber resources of the Valley.

Their success with the venture did not go unnoticed. The timber and water-power resources offered a fruitful field for capital. Especially attractive was the site at Shawinigan Falls. Complications involving title to the site delayed development, but when this point was cleared up in 1898, a group of Montreal, Boston and New York men formed the Shawinigan Water and Power Co., which was to be instrumental in or directly responsible for creating an industrial empire in the Valley and bringing electricity to the homes of more than a million people.

In this day it is difficult to appreciate the initiative and courage shown by the men who sponsored this enterprise. Success depended upon their own efforts. There was no paternal government standing by to give a helping hand if they got into difficulties. They shouldered the responsibility of finding the men who could carry through their farsighted plans; they found labor to do the work, and money to pay for wages, materials and machinery.

The raising of capital for the venture was a difficult job. The power industry was still in its infancy and had no record of accomplishment. Nor did the isolated site of the proposed plant engender confidence. Many considered it a harebrained scheme, but there was one who did not fear for the eventual out-

“We raised as much capital as we could in Montreal,” John E. Aldred, first treasurer of the company relates, ‘‘but we were left with many unsold bonds. I went to London to sound out the English money market. On my arrival I went round to see Lord Strathcona. I told him the reason for my trip, and had barely started to explain the possibilities of our scheme for the St. Maurice Valley when he interrupted to say:

“ ‘Show me the map. There’s the portage at Shawinigan Falls. I made it dozens of times for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Here’s what I’ll do, Aldred: I’ll take a $1,000 bond for every portage I made at the Falls.'

“He took $50,000 of the bonds.”

Eventually the initial capital was secured and work started. Day and night for two years 1,500 men toiled at the Falls. At the end of that time a railway line had been built to the outside w'orld and the power plant erected. A city was evolved as if by magic. Although it entailed the gigantic task of clearing the forest, laying out streets, constructing a water supply and sewerage system, and erecting public buildings and churches, this wilderness gradually took on the appearance of a modem city.

The new company undertook what was then considered an elaborate proposal of building a plant capable of eventually producing 60,000 h.p. Today there are single machines of equal capacity, but around 1900 a power plant of that size was one of the engineering wonders of the world.

Selling the Power

THE NEXT part of the plan, and by no means the least important, was to sell the power.

Laurentide Pulp had its own supply of energy farther up the river, and other industries in the Valley were few in number and required very little additional power for their operations. The promoters gauged the situation closely, and their belief that the availability of a large supply of power at low cost would act as a magnet for industry' was soon put to the test. With the same determination they

had shown in developing the power site, they went out after industries.

Canadian, American and European capital was soon attracted to the Valley. One of the first plants established at the Falls was put up by the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., manufacturers of aluminum by the electrolytic process.

Belgian capitalists quickly saw the money-making possibilities of the pulpwood-]xnver combination found in the Valley. They formed the Belgo-Canadian Pulp Co. and built a mill at Shawinigan Falls. For many years this was one of the most prosjxrous units in the newsprint industry.

The third large industry brought to the Valley was sponsored by a group of Montrealers who were backing a new process for making carbide discovered by Thomas L. (Carbide) Wilson. Vast amounts of low-cost power were needed for its success. The Falls offered material advantages, and steps were taken to form the Shawinigan Carbide Co. This was the beginning of the important chemical industry.

Another phase of the plan for marketing the power had to do with its transmission and distribution to larger urban centres. While incoming industries would absorb the output in time, a broader market had to be found if the plans of these power pioneers were to be carried out without restriction. A market was waiting in Montreal, Quebec City and Three Rivers, but the transmission of energy was a difficult and costly matter. Eventually this problem was overcome and one transmission line was built to Montreal.

Today, spreading out from the St. Maurice River power plants is a network of transmission and distribution lines north and south of the St. Lawrence River from Quebec to Montreal. More than 62,000 customers in 325 cities and towns in the province are wholly dependent upon the Valley for their electricity requirements.

Montreal also, to a large extent, depends upon St. Maurice power, as does Quebec City and the surrounding territory, and a section of the Eastern Townships. In these other sections of the province, comprising 225 cities, towns and villages, an additional 350,000 customers are served.

In the aggregate, for long or short periods, St. Maurice jxnver is used in 600 Quebec municipalities and by more than 410.000 customers.

The system of transmission and distribution lines radiating from the Valley now is equivalent to a single circuit from Halifax to Vancouver and back to a point just west of Moose Jaw. From Halifax to Chapleau, Ont., the lines would be carried on steel towers, and on wooden poles the rest of the way.

A Notable Accomplishment

FROM THE beginning it was realized that economic development of the river’s power resources could be made possible only by utilizing the flow of the whole river. In the spring an enormous flow of water would come roaring down the Valley, but only a small proportion could be used to produce power as there was no way of storing it for the low-water periods that inevitably followed.

The first step toward controlling the flow was to build a dam across the river a short distance above Shawinigan Falls. From 1910 to 1915 storage dams were completed on the upper reaches. These were preliminary to the projected task of a super-dam at the headwaters of the river.

In 1918 the Gouin dam was completed by the Quebec Government. This huge structure, over one quarter of a mile long and with a maximum height of 100 feet, creates a lake having a surface area of nearly 300 square miles extending over a distance of 125 miles.

Back of this reservoir is 1,100,000,000,000 gallons of water, or enough to fill a tank with a base of one square mile and walls reaching to a height of 1 }4 miles.

Despite the vast amount of water impounded, the opening and closing of gates regulates the flow of the river as easily as a householder opens and a tap; but, in this case, back of the “tap” is the raw material which can be translated into hundreds of thousands of electrical horsepower at the will of the operator.

Water regulation is primarily for power development, but the river is also a highway for transporting logs to pulp

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Valley of Power

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and paper mills in the Valley. The number of logs which have to pass through the power plants in a period of from two to four months will vary from ten to eighteen millions. Specially constructed chutes are used to move the logs past power dams. In some seasons, however, many reach the power plants during the latter part of the spring flood, and are usually passed through large sluice gates built into the dams when surplus water is being discharged.

By 1914 development had reached the point where 200.000 h.p. of genei ating equipment had been installed at two points on the river. Shawinigan Falls and Grand’Mère.

Lip and down the Valley, wartime needs of the Allies were making demands. Plants were enlarged. New industries manufactured magnesium, acetone, acetic acid, and other products for the British Ministry of Munitions. More and more power was needed to meet these abnormal demands.

The history of the Valley in the years immediately following the war was no different from that experienced elsewhere. Plants were closed; employment was scarce; capital was hesitant about embarking on new enterprise. The plan for the river was held in abeyance.

Confidence was restored in time. The post-war adjustments were made. Again capital flowed into the Valley. Pulp and paper mills were built or enlarged; the chemical industry took on a new lease of

life; Montreal and other places called for additional energy to meet their requirements.

The old power plants were no longer able to respond to the demand. In 1924 a 152,000 h.p. installation was completed on the river at La Gabelle, and in 1935 a 160.000 h.p. installation was put in at Rapide Blanc.

After forty years of planning, the power generating and distributing system created by Shawinigan Water and Power Co. on the St. Maurice River ranks as the third largest privately-owned system in the world, and fourth among all systems, government or privately-owned. This is a notable accomplishment, considering that it was done in a period during which Canada went through two wars and three depressions.

The work planned is by no means complete. There lias been no break in the continuity of engineering and executive direction which has made the St. Maurice one of the world’s principal sources of hydro power. John E. Aldred. Julian C. Smith, Howard Murray, W. S. Hart. James Wilson, John A. Walls and Beaudry Leman, to mention a few who have pioneered in this work, look upon the resources of the river and valley as partially developed. The plan laid down at the beginning of the century calls for an ultimate power installation of 2,000,000 h.p. It will be complete when this objective has been reached.