Mactaquac means power, but its critics claim alternative sources would save a beautiful and fertile area. Result: a battle that is dividing New Brunswick

IAN SCLANDERS October 2 1965


Mactaquac means power, but its critics claim alternative sources would save a beautiful and fertile area. Result: a battle that is dividing New Brunswick

IAN SCLANDERS October 2 1965


Mactaquac means power, but its critics claim alternative sources would save a beautiful and fertile area. Result: a battle that is dividing New Brunswick


SOME IN THE GROUP were old, some young, some prominent, some obscure. They photographed the mansion inside and out, drew detailed plans of its rooms, and numbered each sill, each joist, each beam. Then, almost tenderly, they took it down piece by piece, and trucked it off to store it safely until they could get a suitable place and enough money to reassemble it.

They were members of the Historical Society of Carleton County, New Brunswick, determined to preserve for posterity one of the fine houses that the United Empire Loyalists built by the St. John River above Fredericton, the provincial capital. It had belonged, originally, to Colonel Jacob Ellegood, a wealthy Virginia planter before the American Revolution.

While they were dismantling it, a letter written in September 1791 by the notorious Benedict Arnold, fluttered from a wall partition into which it must have dropped a century and three quarters ago. The letter, in which Arnold, who was leaving New Brunswick for England, offered to sell Ellegood his furniture, was a discovery of much interest to a region that relishes its past, yet it wasn't publicized.

Indeed, the whole salvage operation was wrapped in a sort of cloak-and-dagger atmosphere, like a secret plot by patriots to snatch a treasure from the path of an advancing enemy. The crews of construction companies with contracts from the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission were the enemy in this case. For the Ellegood home stood in the area to be flooded by the Mactaquac dam. New Brunswick’s biggest, costliest and most controversial hydro project, and the crews might have demolished and burned it, as they have other less distinguished structures.

While Mactaquac will generate no electricity until 1968. in the last two years it has been generating suspicion, doubt, distrust and acrimony, wrecking friendships, threatening political careers and, in a sense, dividing a province.

To comprehend this you must realize that the St. John is no ordinary river. It is the river the United Empire Loyalists settled in 1783. Winding through New Brunswick for more than two hundred and fifty miles, it’s the largest river emptying into the Atlantic between the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. And a pre-Mactaquac tourist folder describing it as “incredibly beautiful” didn't strain the truth. But Mactaquac, / continued overleaf continued / at least at the present stage, is turning the beauty into appalling ugliness in long stretches where the banks and islands are being denuded of trees, where bulldozers gash the scenery, where smoke rises from piles of burning debris.

Ancient graveyards (thirty-one of them) and white churches and villages that look as though they had been painted by Grandma Moses are part of the doomed beauty. So. perhaps, are the silver salmon that leap the rapids that will be erased. So are thousands of acres of rich intervale land in a province where good soil is so scarce that millions of dollars have been spent to dyke tidal marshes.

So are hundreds of dwellings — three hundred and twenty-five by the estimate of the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission, and nine hundred by the far higher estimate of Dr. George Frederick Clarke, of Woodstock. a town of forty-five hundred population that will lose Island Park, where its racetrack, swimming pool and other sports facilities are located. Woodstock may also lose the artesian wells from which it now' obtains its cold clean water supply.

Clarke, who is a novelist, poet, archaeologist. Loyalist descendant and a retired dentist, is a leader in what he regards as a desperate fight to “save” the river he has lived beside, and in which he has fished, for most of his eighty-two years-—-a river from whose shores he has dug more than two thousand stone arrowheads and other Indian artifacts.

His daughter, Dees, and her husband, Kenneth Homer, a former English teacher and radio and television commentator, have devoted their entire time since early in 1964 to enlisting opposition to Mactaquac. They have, by their reckoning, traveled seventy-five thousand miles, mostly in New Brunswick itself, waging their campaign to stop the “damn dam.” Homer has been the main organizer and spokesman of the Association For The Preservation And Development Of The St. John River In Its Natural State, and he has been behind angry demonstrations in villages and hamlets marked for inundation. Dees and Ken Homer still cling to a hope that they will win their struggle against Mactaquac. but the hope grows thinner and thinner as the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission, solidly supported by the Liberal government of Premier Louis Robichaud, presses on with the expropriation of property and the awarding of contracts. The dam itself, at the confluence of the Mactaquac River and the St. John, fourteen miles above Fredericton, is already taking shape, with gigantic machines pushing around four and a half million tons of clay, gravel and rock. The dam will have a height of one hundred and eighty feet, and a length of seventeen hundred feet, and be forty feet thick at the top. It will back up the flow of the St. John for about sixty miles, roughly to the town of Hartland, to form a lake-like storage pond which, at normal level, will cover twenty-two thousand acres, more than half of which is either still being farmed or has been until recently.

“A people is being dispersed,” charges an opponent of the Mactaquac dam. “A valley is being destroyed”

The power commission contends—and tens of thousands of New Brunswickers obviously agree—that the Mactaquac scheme is essential to progress and the most practical and economical method of providing more and cheaper electricity. It asserts, further, that the electricity is needed as soon as possible for industrial expansion, and that the lake-like storage pond, instead of ruining the river, will enhance it by creating new opportunities for parks, tourist resorts, boat marinas.

What happens to the inhabitants — fewer than a thousand, according to the power commission. but three thousand according to the Association For The Preservation And Development Of The St. John River—who will be flooded out? The power commission has issued statements assuring them that they will be dealt with fairly and may expect to be “probably a little better off financially.” although it pointedly adds it cannot compensate them for the loss of “sentimental values.” There are those who have been happy to sell out for a bit more than they figured their farms were worth, but there are others who will never reconcile themselves to the idea of being uprooted. When Randolph Kilburn died the day construction gangs moved in on the farm five generations of Kilburns had farmed, neighbors attributed his death to a broken heart.

Dees and Ken Homer will see their own century-old farm at Woodstock submerged unless the unlikely miracle they pray for halts Mactaquac. “I can’t bear to think of the water rising over our fields,” Mrs. Homer says, “so I try not to let myself think of it.”

“A people.” says her father. Dr. Clarke, “is being dispersed. A valley is being destroyed.” Clarke’s red-brick house is on a ridge the river will not reach, but his backyard, which slopes down to the shore, will be cut off. He has always been able to cast for salmon from his own backyard. “Now,” he asserts glumly, “the salmon will be gone.”

He has no faith in the power commission’s elaborate plan to prevent the extinction of the salmon, which involves a “collection gallery” to trap the eleven thousand fish authorities claim pass the dam site each season. One thousand of the trapped fish would be assigned to a hatchery downstream from Mactaquac to produce an annual crop of half a million young, while the remaining ten thousand would be transported sixty miles upstream in special tank trucks and released.

Clarke says—and most anglers I met hold the same view—that this is a wild and unworkable dream. Salmon fishing on the St. John has been damaged seriously by the lesser Beechwood dam. seventy-five miles upriver from Mactaquac and by a dam on the Tobique, a St. John tributary. The anglers claim pessimistically that Mactaquac will cause stagnant-water conditions in which salmon could not survive. Certainly, the Beechwood dam has impaired the water above it. “We can’t hear the river any more.” says Violet Gillett, an artist who lives by the Beechwood headpond. “We used to hear it ripple — now we smell it. And in the spring the ice doesn’t break up and flow out — it just gets dirty and finally sinks.”

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Tough old George Davis, a taxidermist who has stuffed five thousand moose and has hunted animals around the world, mounting them as museum specimens, lives at the Barony, midway between Fredericton and Woodstock. When power commission representatives have approached him to dicker over the price of his land, he has glanced meaningfully at his rack of well-oiled hunting rifles and snapped. "1 do not intend to be guilty of destroying the face of the St. John River.”

Davis says that “it looks like they are trying to drive us (people of Loyalist stock) out and put the Acadians back in”—a reference to the fact that Premier Robichaud is an Acadian, and that the Acadians themselves were once the victims of a brutal expulsion. Because the St. John is the river of the Loyalists and Robichaud. the man primarily responsible for Mactaquac, is an Acadian. there has been a faint revival of dead and buried hostility.

“Is this a democracy?”

But Robert Speer, a quiet, lean, pleasant, hardworking farmer who is president of the Association For The Preservation And Development Of The St. John River, does not criticize Robichaud for being an Acadian. He criticizes him for being dictatorial. One evening on the outskirts of Woodstock I strolled with Speer over his intervale farm, which follows the river shore for more than a mile and is separated from the highway by a steep tree-clad hill. Proudly, he showed me his corn, tall as the corn in Kansas, and his outsized raspberry canes, and his fat purebred cattle, and his century-old buildings.

“This is my place, the one place I want to live, here under the hill where it’s so peaceful,” he said. “I’ve put more than thirty years of my life into this place, and I love it. Is this a democracy, when a government can take away a man’s right to live where he wants?”

At Bear Island, Harry Ingraham, a York County councillor, asks the same question. One day, when he was away from home, and without his leave, a bulldozer ripped through his oat field. Others on the river tell similar stories. The explanation of the Hon. Graham Crocker, chairman of the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission, and Reginald Tweeddale, its general manager, is that when a lot of men are employed on a huge project, a few inevitably make mistakes. They say, with conviction, that in spite of the hardship it imposes on some people, Mactaquac is for the greatest good of the greatest number.

Ingraham is by no means sure of this. Mactaquac is expensive—more than a hundred million dollars by the smallest estimates—and while it will come into operation in three stages, spaced between 1968 and 1976. it will ultimately have turbines with a generating capacity of six hundred thousand kilowatts. The mean annual flow of the St. John at Mactaquac, the experts admit, won’t keep turbines with a capacity of two hundred thousand kilowatts going steadily. Thus,” Mactaquac is a “peaking” proposition, which will store water for use at periods of the day and the year when the power load is at a peak. On this basis, is it economically sound? This depends on its final cost and on what it does to the river and the province. It is a question that may dominate New Brunswick politics for years.

P. B. Waite, professor of history at Dalhousie University, says the impact of Mactaquac on the St. John will he "catastrophic” and that it is unnecessary “because power can be made nearly anywhere, from coal, oil, and within practical possibility, atomic energy, but the St. John River is unique and once destroyed is destroyed forever.”

Countless New Brunswickers want to know why the power commission couldn’t have waited for nuclear power, or why it couldn’t have harnessed the enormous tides of the Bay of Fundy, or why it couldn't have erected more thermal generating plants fueled by coal or oil. There are others who ask other questions. David Ormstead, a University of New Brunswick student, has asked why New Brunswickers have let a handful of engineers and politicians determine their fate and why the supposed leaders of thought, such as university professors, haven’t spoken out. And Edgar Fournier, chairman of the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission under the former Conservative regime, has recalled that engineering studies in his time indicated the Mactaquac site was unsafe, and asked what will become of Fredericton if the Mactaquac dam “should let go.” Fournier is not talking through his hat or his politics — there actually is an artesian layer under the site that presents problems, although engineers say these can be controlled.

Fournier has raised questions, too, about the adequacy of the water flow. This flow may be increased if the U. S. constructs the Dickey dam on the headwaters of the St. John in Maine. Even without the Dickey dam, Mactaquac may fulfill some of the promises of the politicians, some of the dreams of such men as Charles Allen, editor and publisher of the Observer at Hartland, the town where the St. John is crossed by the longest covered bridge in the world. Allen says, “I’m one hundred percent for it because Em one hundred percent for progress.”

Only two things are sure. One is that it will be a long while before the bitterness fades, before the Loyalists of the river stop circulating the satirical poems George Frederick Clarke has composed about the men who “quacked” consent to Mactaquac, before the scars are healed. 1 he second is that the St. John and New Brunswick, for better or for worse, will never be the same again.