More aluminum for Victory; more power for Canada. The story of a dramatic conquest of nature

D. K. FINDLAY March 15 1943


More aluminum for Victory; more power for Canada. The story of a dramatic conquest of nature

D. K. FINDLAY March 15 1943

IT WAS a secret kept by thousands of people— Government officials, business executives, contractors and workers. The first inkling came to the country at large when the Hon. Mr. C. D. Howe referred in a speech to a power development comparable to Boulder Dam in the United States. Now the news is out and it is going to be a little difficult for Canadians to realize its scale. A hundred and thirty miles north of Quebec City, at Shipshaw on the Saguenay, there is being completed what will be the largest hydro-electric power development in the world.

It will develop more power than the Cooper Dam on the Dnieper in Russia. Probably more than Boulder Dam because of its greater flow of water. Tourists used to flock to the latter to take pictures of its shining 726-foot wall, but tourists will not flock to Shipshaw.

The Saguenay, one of the deepest rivers in the world, is more than ever part of our war effort. The new project which has changed the course of the river, moving it bodily from a valley to the top of a ridge, will have a rated capacity of 1,500,000 horsepower. This power will be used to make aluminum to make aircraft for the United Nations.

Aluminum is made from bauxite with cryolite and other materials gathered about the earth. Four tons of bauxite are required to make one ton of aluminum. Of all the electro-metallurgical operations, this reduction requires the most power. So the raw materials come from all over the world to where the power is. The main smelting plant of the Aluminum Company of Canada is at Arvida, a few miles from Shipshaw.

When it was decided to release the Shipshaw story, a party of writers and photographers were shown over the project. The dam at Shipshaw No. 1 looks like the side of a cathedral—a smooth sweep of light-colored concrete pierced by Gothic openings. Inside the powerhouse it was warm and clean and quiet, with a green-tiled floor and railed decks overlooking the generators. There are six of them, rather like inverted big iron funnels. They give off a humming noise and breaths of warm air —no other heat is required for the powerhouse even in winter. Men walk round them, looking through little windows, putting down figures in notebooks. A stair took us down below where we could see the steel drive shaft of the turbines. You expected that it would be spinning madly—it turns smoothly and rather slowly. Each one of these generators turns up 75,000 horsepower. If you ask how all that power gets out of the generators the guide points to a series of copper elbows, the bus bars which lead the electricity into the transformers which step up the voltage for transmission—just as you quicken the flow of water in a hose if you want it to carry farther.

Artificial Waterscape

WE GOT into cars and were driven to a bridge half a mile below the powerhouse. Downstream we looked over a sweep of snow-covered river a mile wide. It was explained to us that this waterscape was artificial. It used to be dry land. We were standing at the entrance of a manmade canal which now carries the main flow of the Saguenay. The canal is a mile and a half long, more than 300 feet wide and has a minimum depth of thirty-three feet. It is formed partly by five concrete dams or walls and partly by excavation through rock. A flooded area extends on either side of it. Off to our right, still looking downstream, was the ravine through which the river used to flow; some distance off to the left is the valley of the Shipshaw River which angles in to empty into the Saguenay below the new powerhouse. The canal is blasted through the ridge between the two rivers. From where we stood there was little evidence of the work involved; first the water rolled in and covered up the big cuts, then the ice and snow covered the water. The only sign of construction was the top of a derrick protruding through the ice. It had fallen into the water and it was not worth the expense of retrieving it.

We drove back to the road, through Shipshaw camp where the men live, to the downstream end of the canal. It is closed by the headblock, a great mass of concrete with control gates, flanked by 400-foot wing walls. Through the gates the water pours into six thirty-foot tunnels, cut through the solid rock and lined with concrete, to the turbines of the powerhouse. The fall of the water is 208 feet —which is the main reason for moving the river up the ridge.

We went down into the big pit in which the powerhouse sits. Here we could see for ourselves the terrific scale of the work. In the 200-foot cliff behind it were the mouths of the tunnels. The penstocks, the big pipes which carry the water from the tunnels to the turbines, were being put into place. Four of them, sealed up under rock and concrete, were already at work.

The new powerhouse, Shipshaw No. 2, was a maze of wooden staging and raw red structural steel. The central portion was partly finished and we went in. It was cold and empty, like a great concrete vault. Two generators were already working and big as they were, they were dwarfed by the setting. Another, half-installed, showed us its insides.

We went down into the substructure—down stone steps until it began to appear that a powerhouse was like an iceberg, one ninth above for eight ninths below. We went through toolrooms and workshops and stores and draughting rooms. Under all this they were still pouring concrete. The mix was steam-heated and a line of men carried it in buckets down the last flight of stairs into a dense wall of steam. The steam was generated between the hot concrete and the cold forms. The men seemed to guide themselves by practice—all we could see was a line of men going in with buckets and a line of men coming out with buckets empty.

This powerhouse when completed will be 800 feet long. It will have twelve generating units with a rated capacity of 1,200,000 horsepower. Two of these units will be taken from Shipshaw No. 1. The combined capacity of the two houses will be 1,500,000 horsepower. No other development has yet turned up this much power.

We went outside to a wooden platform overlooking the tailrace. The tailrace is the channel dug below the powerhouse to carry off the “spent” water. It took the water back to the old course of the Saguenay through cliffs whose sides were as smooth as if they had been cut by an axe. Once those cliffs had been part of a solid rock wall, the break-through was the punch scene in the drama of Shipshaw.

Finished Simultaneously

THE canal was dug through dry land, the water was held back from above by control gates built into a bridge. The work of building the canal with its five-hundred-foot dams, the headblock, the central part of the powerhouse and the tailrace was divided into sections and went on simultaneously. It was so planned that the various sections were finished about the same time. According to Mr. A. O. Hawes, the resident engineer for the Aluminum Company, the big moment came when they opened the gates at the upper end and let the water into the canal.

“Sometimes water will find crevices in the concrete. There was the danger that the canal might leak. Then we had to make sure that the headblock would stand up to the weight of the water and that the gates there would work. Well, the canal didn’t leak and the gates worked.”

So now they were ready for the last spectacular act. When they were digging the tailrace below the powerhouse they left a rock barrier between it and the Saguenay, to keep the water from backing up. The plug, they called it. They drilled this barrier—18,000 cubic yards of rock—full of holes and put in 83,000 pounds of dynamite, and on November 20, 1942, they blew it up in one shot. They’ll never forget that shot at Shipshaw. They dug a cave 1,500 feet away for the men who set it off and they put a movie camera in and got the picture. The entire mass went up, part of it fell into a natural hole in the river, part of it into a hole dug for it in the tailrace. Stones flew as high as a thousand feet. One 500-pound rock came through the roof of the powerhouse. Wooden structural work was smashed to matchwood by the rain of rock.

“It did about $25,000 worth of damage,” said Mr. Hawes placidly. “We figured it might. We knew we had to make a clean job of taking out that plug, otherwise we’d spend $25,000 in nothing flat trying to clean up under water.”

Three days later the first generating unit in the new powerhouse turned over and Shipshaw No. 2 was delivering power.

When the war broke out Canada was the third largest producer of aluminum in the world. It was immediately evident that the Aluminum Company of Canada had an important role to play. The desperate need of the United Nations was aircraft, and the wings, fuselage and airscrews of fighting aircraft are made of aluminum. The British Government asked it to increase production. United States and Australia wanted it, and in no time the British Ministry of Aircraft Production was back, urging still greater production. The battle for production became a battle for power. The Aluminum Company had two plants to draw upon, Isle Maligne, twenty miles up the river, and Chute a Caron. It came to the end of its “cushion”—its reserve of power and so Shipshaw, once an engineer’s dream on a blueprint, came into being.

Two steps in the enterprise had already been taken.

The company already had a powerhouse and dam at Chute a Caron and a storage dam at Lake Manouan, 150 miles north. These installations had been planned as part of a greater system. Chute a Caron with two generators added, producing 430,000 horsepower instead of 300,000, is now Shipshaw No. 1.

Incidentally, above Chute a Caron is the site of the famous “obelisk” dam which was celebrated in all the engineering journals. The current there was so strong that it swept away all attempts to make a coffer dam. A coffer dam is a temporary barrier to divert or hold back the stream while the permanent dam is put in place. So they built an obelisk, of concrete ninety-two feet high, weighing 11,000 tons, with its face shaped to the contour of the river bed. They built it on piers overhanging the river, then they dynamited one of the piers and held their breath. The obelisk fell to within a | foot of its calculated position and | there was their dam. The spectators said that a man could have ridden it down, it fell so gently.

War Job From Beginning

SHIPSHAW No. 2 is the big job. And besides the work already described, they had to build another storage dam at Passe Dangereuse on the Peribonka, in the country of Maria Chapdelaine.

They had to move six million cubic yards of earth and stone. It was a war job from the beginning, done to the tune of—“hurry, hurry, hurry! Get more equipment—get it somewhere!” Ordinarily they would have figured on four years to do the job—it had to be done in half the time. They started construction October 1, 1941; they expect to be finished November, 1943. They have used double the labor force they would have used on a peacetime project, and double the equipment— cranes, shovels, tractors, locomotives and trucks. They used trucks which weighed twenty tons and carried twenty tons. Men worked ten hours a day, night and day. They ran into quicksands and had to put the equipment on floats. “Time,” says Frank Mullins, the big tough construction boss, “we never had enough time.”

The work went on through the winters of ’41 and ’42 with a Russian indifference to snow and ice. It gets awfully cold on the Shipshaw—they hide the thermometers so no one will know how cold it is. It is hard to convey the maddening difficulties of construction in severe weather. Trucks and locomotives freeze. Earth freezes so hard that it cannot be dug, it has to be dynamited. Loads freeze to the trucks and have to be taken out with pick and shovel. The men suffer the hardship of frostbite. There were days when they could work only for an hour at a time, they would have to get to shelter and have a “warm.” One man, seeking relief from the wind during the lunch-hour, crawled under the truck of a crane. When it started, he was killed. Fifteen men were lost when an overheated shack went up in a puff of flame one bitter night.

A construction job of this size always entails an amount of tragedy. A single stone from a blast was hurled 700 feet and fell through the roof of a house where there were fifty men, killing one. Men were drowned, more were killed by trucks. Altogether sixty-two men lost their lives.

The cost of enlarging Shipshaw No. 1 was $5,000,000. The estimated cost of Shipshaw No. 2 is $70,000,000. The speed insisted on : here nearly doubled the cost. If you count in the original cost of Chute a Caron, the total bill for Shipshaw will be about $106,000,000. A good part of the money has come from down payments on aluminum made by the United Nations.

Shipshaw was planned by Aluminum Laboratories; H. G. Acres & Co. were the engineers; the construction at Shipshaw was done by the Foundation Co. of Canada and at Passe Dangereuse by the Dufresne Engineering Co.

The construction was dominated by the personalities of two men. A. 0. “Paddy” Hawes is the superintendent of construction for the Aluminum Company of Canada. He is grey-haired, soft-speaking, with a manner almost shy, a North Carolinian who has been in this country for 19 years. Shifting the landscape around is his life’s work. He helped build the original smelter at Arvida, he was at Beauharnois, this is his fifth hydro-electric development. He is Paddy to most everybody at Shipshaw and Arvida. When the neighboring town of Racine decided to have a city manager they elected Paddy Hawes—salary forty bucks a month, which he never gets round to collecting.

McNeely duBose is also from North Carolina and after seventeen years here he still has his southern accent. An energetic, dynamic, young-looking man of fifty, he doesn’t bother about titles. Technically, he is an electrical expert and .the general manager of the power department of the Aluminum Company. Actually he is all over the place trouble shooting, rooting about in the bowels of things with persuasion on his tongue and a timetable in his head.

At one time there were 10,000 men on the job, mostly French Canadians. Some are professional construction men moving from job to job; many are drawn from the homes and farms and bush of the Lake St. John area. It takes one man out of every seven —cooking, cleaning, maintenance, hospitals, etc. — to maintain the working force. Most of the workers live in the camp at Shipshaw. It is a town really, with a bank, post office, a priest, church, a magistrate and a police force of seventy. They play a lot of softball, and wrestling matches are popular. The buildings of the camp are visited every half-hour by a patrol, mainly because of the fire hazard, but occasionally because of what Mr. Hawes calls the “boisterous” element.

Big Labor Turnover

THE labor turnover is big—as many as 35,000 men have been employed on the job. Large bodies of men in wartime tend toward a state of flux. After every pronouncement from Ottawa on the manpower problem, the employment graph took a dive. Labor was to be frozen—the restless asked for their pay. Farm labor was to be exempt from selective service—the farmers and farmers’ sons began to drift back to the land. A camp of men, many of them illiterate, is a breeding ground for rumor. When a protective fence was being built around the property, the company found itself paying off men at the rate of two or three hundred a day. It was mystified. Eventually the trouble was traced to a rumor that the fence was to enclose the men on the job for the duration.

A laborer’s wage is fifty cents an hour plus five cents an hour cost of living allowance, and the day had ten hours. Pay rolls are big. In July, 1942, the pay roll for Shipshaw including Passe Dangereuse was $1,771,000. The relaxation of the “boisterous” element with money hot in their pants is, first a beer drunk; second, the works in a barber shop—shave, haircut, shampoo and a piercing perfume; and third, riding around in taxis. Around almost every big construction job there grows a fringe of camp followers bent on gathering in the good easy money; there are illicit liquor dives and honky-tonks. This has not happened in the Shipshaw; the country round about has preserved its air of almost rural peace. Much of the pay roll must flow back to the quiet homes of the district.

The camp is situated at the confluence of the Saguenay and the Shipshaw. The project took its name from the latter which is Indian for hidden water. The authorities, however, would not allow the post office in camp to be called Shipshaw because the town of St. Jean-Vianney de Shipshaw nearby had prior rights. This caused endless confusion until Mr. Hawes went over to St. JeanVianney de Shipshaw and asked them if they could spare the tail end of their name. The citizens of St. JeanVianney de Shipshaw, probably thinking they had too much anyway, agreed and now the camp is legally Shipshaw.

The story of the development of the Lake St. John area goes back a good many years to the time when a young American engineer named W. S. Lee was trying to interest J. B. Duke, the tobacco tycoon and millionaire, in hydro-electric developments in South Carolina. Lee finally caught up with Mr. Duke in a hospital bed, he listened, he put up the money. The scheme was a success and Mr. Duke became a hydroelectric enthusiast. He started out to find a site which would develop a million horsepower. He was in Canada heading for British Columbia when a character by the name of Carbide Wilson appeared. Wilson had been trying for years to get people to come and look at the Saguenay.

They went up the Saguenay and Duke and his engineers saw the appalling violence of the Grande Décharge where Lake St. John discharges into the river. Duke knew that he had found one of the great power sites of the world. “Count me in,” he said, or words to that effect.

He formed an alliance with Sir William Price. The Prices had been connected with the Saguenay for generations, first as lumbermen, then in the pulp and paper business. They made surveys, spent seven years trying to buy the power rights from the Province of Quebec. They spent millions of dollars in the faith that if you have cheap power, a market will come. When the powerhouse at Isle Maligne was finished, a customer did come. The Aluminum Company bought a controlling interest in the power company, laid out a new plant and a model town at Arvida. The first ingot was made there July, 1926.

This then is the chronology of the power empire of the Lake St. John area. Isle Maligne, capacity 540,000 horsepower, completed 1925. Chute a Caron, capacity 300,000 horsepower, completed 1931 with storage dam at Lake Manouan 150 miles north. Shipshaw No. 1 completed in 1942. Shipshaw No. 2, which includes the new dam at Passe Dangereuse, began to deliver power November, 1942. It is to be completed November, 1943.

It cost nearly ten million to build the dam at Passe Dangereuse on the Peribonka. The building of these storage dams far from the main stream is overshadowed by the bigger story of Shipshaw but they are epics too. To Manouan, 150 miles away, everything had to be flown in: 850 men and equipment, horses and oxen. To Passe Dangereuse they had to build a road through the bush, 137 miles from the railway. Over it was trucked every nail and tool and bag of concrete. The purpose of these dams is to create lakes —reservoirs to hold back the flow in flood time and to increase it in the dry season. Otherwise the big generators at Shipshaw might not have enough water pressing on them to turn up their full capacity.

The entire production of aluminum in Canada for the last three years has been for war purposes. Production is now ten times the production of the Thirties. It will soon be greater than the production of the whole world in 1938. United States is said to be aiming at about 2,000,000,000 pounds yearly. Our goal is a good percentage of this.

The war made Shipshaw necessary. But what of after the war—what will happen to this empire of power? No one knows the answer. We will have to wait for peace to find out. It may attract to it a ring of new industries. It may cause a revolution in our ideas on the use of electric power.

With regard to their enormously swollen power to produce, the aluminum people have plenty of faith. They believe that the age of light metals is just beginning. Furniture, cars, trains—everything that has to be moved or lifted suggests another use for aluminum. Mr. duBose is fond of telling an anecdote about an office chair he had made of aluminum and painted to look like wood. “Draw up a chair,” he would say to a visitor—and the chair would nearly fly out of the visitor’s surprised hand.

At the entrance to the offices at Shipshaw there is a quotation from John Ruskin pinned above the noticeboard: “Therefore when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone ...”

They might have carved those words in the concrete.