Online articles, commentaries, papers
Navigation links at the bottom of the page

Hydro-power development in Labrador

Several times a year, sometimes all year, large projects underway in northern Canada advertise for skilled workers. The advertisements run in major centres in the west for mines in Northern Alberta, in east and Maritime provinces for Wabush, Schefferville and other mines in Northern Quebec and Labrador.

One of the great Canadian phenomena of the forties, fifties and sixties was the periodic migration north by men to earn money in vast development projects, which are in good part a record of Canadian history: logging and mining operations, oil rigs and power developments such as those at James Bay, Churchill Falls and Snake Rapids that feed the eastern seaboard of the United States and industrialized Canada.

The men and women involved in these projects can be numbered in tens of thousands. Initially perhaps they were trying to wrench themselves free of situations in the south or reacting to the salary ranges advertised. But such projects can easily become a way of life.

Labrador: Location of Twin Falls power project, Labrador

When one project is finished, the ribbon cut and the official visitors departed, the same workers who toiled to get it in shape drift away to turn up at the next project. They work hard for high wages, accept fairly limited amenities and swear that each job they do in the north will be their last. It never is. They are either born to a nomadic life or. drawn to it as a compass needle is attracted to magnetic north. Among them, such names as Peace River, Kitimat, Grand Rapids, Menihek and Manicouagan are as commonplace as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

The story of the Twin Falls power development in Labrador, between 1960 and 1963 was typical of many northern developments in the sixties and seventies. What happened is a repeat of what occurred in some now-forgotten spot in the Canadian north 50 years ago and will, no doubt, be repeated wherever there is free-running water to attract a power-hungry society.

Twin Falls is on the Unknown River, a tributary of the Churchill River that drains the central Labrador basin and flows into Lake Melville and the Atlantic Ocean. Power development rights on the river were acquired by the British Newfoundland Corporation or Brinco as it was known. In partnership with Wabush Mines Limited and the Iron Ore Company of Canada, the two mining corporations operating in Western Labrador, Brinco created the Twin Falls Power Corporation to deliver power 115 miles west to the two mining operations being developed near the Labrador-Quebec border.

Twin Falls Basin: Catchment area of water flowing through Twin Falls
Power Project: General arrangement to dam the river and divert water to the power station in the dry canyon
Twin Falls original: Twin Falls in its natural state before construction began.  
Unknown River: View of the canyon of the Unknown River

Access to Twin Falls was by air or, for equipment and supplies, a 125-mile up hill and down dale transport road connecting one esker to the next, from Esker, a maintenance of way station on the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway, the QNS&L. An esker is a sinuous, narrow ridge of sediment formed under glacial ice during the ice age. The Labrador eskers rise to a height of up to two hundred feet and run in a northwest to southeast direction for anything up to 20 miles. To build the construction road, we used a fleet of D8 Caterpillar bulldozers to move the trees aside and compacted the gravel that remained into road that took heavy transporters.

The QNS&L, built in the early 1950s at a cost of $250 million, connect the St. Lawrence north shore port of Sept Isles to the Knob Lake iron ore mines at Schefferville 350 miles to the north. The railway snaked like a black thread up the gorges and river valleys coming from the plateau. It ran alongside roaring cataracts, across interminable miles of muskeg, and the shores ofplacid lakes. At the height of the shipping season, ten and twelve trains a day rumbled south, passing empty trains moving north, but shunted on to spur lines to give the loaded ore cars right of way. Each train, hauled by four monstrous diesel locomotives ran to 120 cars more than a mile in length.

Schefferville (pop. 10,000), a mining town of pastel coloured houses under a mantle of red dust, provided the mines with a work force of 1,500 men. Wabush was then under construction, served by a branch line from the QNS&L Railway maintained by a work force of 2,000 construction workers and their families.

The road from the railhead at Esker was an endless, twisting roller-coaster of a land connection, a veritable boneshaker that ruined the trucks and trailers in less than two seasons of operation. Under ideal conditions, which is to say in fine weather and after grading, the journey from Esker to Twin Falls took three and a half hours travel time in a Land Rover, the chosen vehicle of the senior managers. Heavy transport vehicles took twice as long.

Conditions were seldom ideal. In the spring there were washouts from the run-off; in summer potholes, in winter mountainous snowdrifts. The road width accommodated one tractor-trailer combination, so drivers traveling in opposite directions had to negotiate a right of way on meeting. The loaded vehicles took precedence over the empties. In the dry season, an oncoming vehicle could be seen approaching from two miles distance by the telltale plume of dust kicked up. Driving in the seven month winter was hazardous enough to require our building survival huts every 20 miles, which meant a journey of ten miles or less to reach safety when a vehicle broke down.

The construction camp stood on the brow of a thickly-wooded escarpment 300 feet above the power station canyon. When I arrived as the Twin Falls operations manager, the bulldozers had just finished nosing their way through the bush from the top of the canyon to provide access to the power station work site. The road, driven straight down the thickly-timbered canyon at a steady incline, was a marvel of skilled bulldozing. Gravel pits were being opened up, a road was under construction to begin work on the concrete dams, sluice gates and retaining dykes. Tree-felling crews were hard at work clearing and burning the bush to make a clean basin for the reservoir. The whole site was crawling with men and earth-moving equipment, as industrious as any ant colony.

The canyon itself, a geological freak of nature that would be transformed into the power station, was the focal point of our activities. At one time, the river flowed into the canyon in a single drop of 300 feet. Some upheaval in geological history had altered the course of the river and created a new canyon. The long-since dry canyon and the new water course that we called Twin Falls were about one mile apart.

The construction plan for development was simple. This would be to locate the power station at the foot of the dry canyon and anchor four 3-foot diameter penstock pipes from the escarpment, an almost vertical drop down the rock face to feed the turbines. When these structures, built in the dry, were ready, we would dam the river at the Twin Falls site to form a reservoir and raise the water to the height of the old channel's escarpment. Water diverted to the penstocks would then power the turbines. When the miners in Wabush said, 'Let there be light' there would be light. They would also have power aplenty to power the shovels and ball mills for the iron ore.

Dry Canyon: View of the geologically dry canyon with a pool of water from spring run-off from the escarpment

During spring and summer, faces took on shape and meaning. The construction camp caterers, Crawley and McCracken, who at that time boasted they could feed a man for a dollar a day and did, maintained their reputation by turning out superb meals for hungry workers at any time of the day or night. The slabs of pound cake, trays of sugar pie for sweet-toothed French Canadians, fly-cake, steak, pea soup and mountains of scrambled eggs were fed to the hungry workers. Without good, plentiful food and an unending supply of hot tea and coffee little work would have been achieved.

The supervisors and managers revealed their personalities at the weekly progress meetings so that one soon learned to equate character and competence. The multitude of equipment operators, the men who ran the Caterpillar bulldozers, Bucyrus-Eyrie power shovels, the draglines, dump trucks and the concrete-batching plant were more difficult to get to know. They were the real nomads of the north, French Canadians and Newfoundlanders mostly, but a good mix of Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, East Indians, Indigenous Indians, Eskimos (now calling themselves Inuit) and men of numerous other nationalities made up the work force. Their reasons for working in the north were many and diverse.

The foreman responsible for road maintenance and construction of the main dyke had a single tooth remaining in his lower jaw. He reminded me of a narwhal and, given his age and weather-beaten face, ought to have retired ten years ago. He said he had moved north in the mid-twenties to make enough to retire to the peach orchards and vine fields of Southern Ontario. He had earned his retirement money many times over, but never went home for more than a few weeks at a time.

One Copper Eskimo (I'll stick with that for the period) couldn't speak a word of English or French, but that was no impediment to his skill as an equipment operator; for he was the finest dragline operator in the north, much sought after by contractors who knew him. Excavating the canyon channel, called the tailrace, that would carry water away from the turbines, he used his bucket to shape the channel as though he'd cut it with a knife. Using his machine to swing the rig, he could throw his 5-ton bucket eighty feet across the canyon, the sheaves whining and the steel rope cables twanging as the bucket flew.

The dragline operator was so skilful and nonchalant an artist we used to take our visitors to watch him at work. They always hung back to watch him make just one more throw.

Men like these filtered on to the site with the onset of the spring break-up. They worked for high wages, long hours, and disappeared as soon as freeze-up was upon us. Some were well-known, remembered at every site for a trait they carried like a chevron on their arms, or for the trouble they caused.

One man from Trois-Rivieres operated a D8 bulldozer summer and winter wearing nothing but an open plaid shirt and a hard-hat comforter with his thick black hair sticking out in hanks. He was the operator who cut the access road into the canyon. He handled his bulldozer with the dedicated care of a true craftsman, oiling, fuelling and maintaining it himself. Every couple of months he took off for Montreal, rented the best suite in the Queen Elizabeth on Dorchester Street, and lived like an eastern potentate until he was totally broke. At that time, there was one firm in Montreal who knew him and would lend him his return fare; he'd arrive on site with a happy grin and get back up on his D8.

The transmission line engineer for the contractor erecting the power line from Twin Falls to the Wabush arrived in one fine summer's day armed with impeccable credentials. He expressed himself with the eloquence of an English public-school graduate learned in the classics, which he was. Two months after his arrival, we discovered him thirty miles along the transmission line right-of-way living on the shore of a tranquil lake. In the bell tent he had the line crew erect, he had wall-to-wall carpeting ordered from an Eatons department store in Montreal. He furnished his accommodation with the finest suite of furniture in the French Provincial style that credit could buy and, for company, had a large supply Johnny Walker Whiskey to pass the hours away by his tranquil lake side. His line crew with which he had long since lost contract, was then at mile 101.

Like Aunt Martha's cake after it has been put in the oven and begins to rise, the power development project began to take on real shape and colour by the second winter. We had been hard at it for 18 months before we began installing the guts of the station: the turbines, generators, switchgear, pumps, motors, transformers, power bus and miles of wiring that goes into any power generating station.

At the weekly progress meetings, the main contractors Dufresne Engineering, the consulting engineers Shawinigan Engineering and peripheral characters such as myself gathered to hash over the past, present and future. The contractors wanted money, the owners wanted results and between these limits of need the weekly encounter took place. Sometimes an encounter or skirmish developed into a battle royal for which the schedules, CPM (Critical Path Method) networks and bar charts served as battle plans for the combatants.

As owner and operator of the power dam, the Twin Falls Power Corporation (TFP Corp.) had to hire and train a permanent operating staff, a responsibility that fell to my lot. The difficulty of attracting skilled help to the wilds of Labrador was soon appreciated when our national advertising programme fell flat on its face. Not a single applicant applied despite our placing 'help wanted' notices in every newspaper, trade and engineering journal. Nothing, it seemed. would entice engineers, electricians and station operators to come to a place as remote as Twin Falls.

The Iron Ore Company of Canada and Wabush Mines, huge mining operations as well as TFPCo's customers, had their problems with employees. Their annual average turnover was one hundred per cent, which meant that while some employees stayed on the job, others came and went monthly. We needed a stable community, employees and their families who would stay put. The obvious solution was to hire and train people already living in Labrador.

This answer should have hit us from the very beginning, but the solution was not quite as simple as it appeared. The established population of Labrador numbered about 10,000, largely settled in established coastal communities. They were a mixed population of Eskimo, Nascaupi, Montagnais Indians, and the original white settlers who called themselves liveyeres (meaning 'those who live here'). The people were largely hunters and fishers. The territory had not a single technical school to its credit. To have attended school at all was an accomplishment.


Sluice Gates: Dam sluice gates open in the depth of a Labrador winter

Despite these drawbacks, we organized a scouting tour through the nearest settlements of North West River, Happy Valley, Cartwright and Hopedale. In retrospect, the way we chose our fitters, electricians, linesmen and operators seems simple and straightforward. Working with Dr. Tony Paddon of the Grenfell Mission to Labrador and Dr. Bill Peacock of the Moravian Brethren, the pattern went something like this.

I am introduced to Clayton Montague of North West River, a Liveyere from a long line of trappers. "What have you been doing for the past couple of years?" I ask.

"Working around," he says. "I looked after the diesel at the hospital for a while and last summer drove a forklift truck on the Goose Air Force Base.

"Good!" I say. "Then how about becoming a power station operator?"

"Sounds all right to me."

"Then it's settled. You've got yourself a job."

Although we had to give our technicians and operators a six-month crash course in hydro-power generation (when asked what would happen if you poured water on to the buckets of a waterwheel, Montague said the buckets would freeze – very true in a Labrador winter), the fringe benefits of employing local residents far outweighed all disadvantages. The locals knew the country like a glove, they were no strangers to long hard winters and short wet summers; they had no ambition to make a pot full of money and retire to the sunny south. Over the first three years of operation, not one local employee left the company. The annual turnover was less than ten per cent.

While the staff was under intense training, the village being built for them began to take shape. We were opposed to the approach taken in Schefferville and other northern communities of bulldozing building sites bare and pancake flat. We wanted the trees left, so had the houses built to a minimum of destruction of the timber. If tenants wanted the trees out of the way it was up to them. The threat to this alternative approach in northern communities is the risk of forest fires, which is real and present danger.

As time passed the confusion of activity in the canyon and surrounding area began to sort itself out. The huge concrete structures of the sluice gates, stripped of the timber forms in which they had been poured, took on a sleeker outline and towered above the flat country like monuments to a recently-dead Pharaoh. The rock and earth-fill dykes which were to contain the reservoir took shape as an endless succession of dump trucks rumbled back and forth with fill. Graders smoothed out the dumped loads; bulldozers followed up with sheep's-foot tamping rollers to compact the grade. In the canyon the power station steelwork began to rise and took on a structural shape.

Power site: Aerial view of Twin Falls site nearing completion of the work

Whether we liked it or not we all got caught up in a race to maintain and beat the schedules devised by the consulting engineers. Convoys inched along the road from Esker with mammoth loads for installation by the mechanical crews, sluice gates for the control dams, turbine casings for the power house, steelwork and transformers for the switching yard, and lengths of large diameter penstock pipes.

At the close of each construction season most of the workers departed, leaving a reduced crew to maintain the equipment during the winter. Yet there was always some last minute job be done. It was hard to persuade men to stay when they had a mind to leave. During the lead-up to Christmas 1961, the contractor's project manager had an important job to be done and pleaded with the remaining Newfoundlanders to stay another three days. He offered double time, a bonus and a special flight to take them home. They refused.

"No, b'y," their spokesman told him. "We has to be on our way. The season's bin over a long time since."

"But double time and a bonus! You can't refuse an offer like that."

The leader shook his head. "We've got to be home to chop the wood, b'y."

They left the next day.

Such setbacks aside, the contractors and commissioning engineers completed the project by the end of 1963. When finished, the station had a total capacity of 240,000 horsepower, two 115 mile long transmission lines at 230,000 volts (or 230 Kv), with remote switching at the far end from the station. It was a masterpiece of hydro engineering constructed at a cost of $47.5 million at 3 parts (or 3 mills) of a cent per kw hr. Electrical power doesn't come any cheaper.

Dr Fieldler and wife:
Dr Fielder of the Boston Pops Orchestra and Mrs Fieldler attend the grand opening.
  Premier Smallwood: Premier Joseph Smallwood of Newfoundland and Labrador getting instruction in putting a turbine generator on line.
Joey Smallwood, the Premier of Newfoundland, officially opened the Twin Falls Station on 21 July 1963. In his speech, he said, "It gives me real pleasure that Newfoundlanders can show those mainlanders how to build a hydro-generating station" and after a debate about cutting a ribbon, which Joey declined, we had him synchronize and connect a generator to the transmission line. After all, what a liveyere of Labrador can do a premier of a province can surely repeat.
The next job:
The author in conversation with the chairman of Brinco and a colleague of TFPCo.
  Twin Falls final:
The Twin Falls hydro-generating station in the first winter of operation, 1962.

As soon as the opening was accomplished, the contractor lost no time in removing his men and heavy equipment off the job, back to Esker, the rail head and on to the next project. Five years later, the BRINCO poured a billion dollars into building the six million horsepower Churchill Falls project to supply power to Quebec Hydro and New York State. Twin Falls Power supplied the electrical power for construction at Churchill Falls.

North magazine
September 1971

Delta Tech Systems Inc
Duke of York's Royal Military School
Royal Hibernian Military School
Reminiscences of a Queen's Army  Schoolmistress
World War I - The war to end all wars
Books and Militaria
Publications and Papers
Wellington on Waterloo
Related Links

© A. W. Cockerill 2005

Site Map     Contact me