Mary Lynn Johnston was a Mille Roches girl
She had an important chore, while her Mother ran a rooming house
And her Dad ran the general store
Making sure her cats didn’t drown, as the water rose more and more...
Songs from the Lost Villages
It was a moment a child would never forget.
All morning, people were gathering around the high hill where Percy and Estella Johnston had moved their new cottage. Last year, the men had moved the small building across the ice from Sheek’s Island to this new spot so far up and away from the river. It made no sense to 9 year old Mary Lynn Johnston. But then, nothing made sense these days.
Bulldozers were pushing down buildings. Workmen were wrecking everything in the village. Neighbours houses on huge trailers being moved, but to where? What was happening to Mille Roches? And workmen by the hundreds were everywhere, including other villages, too. Older kids were saying a big flood was coming and we better get out or we’ll drown. Men were even tearing down their store while her dad and older brother in law Bill saved cupboards and things for the new cottage. Her family had already moved into the big city of Cornwall but again, she didn’t know why.
Finally, out of her new school for the summer, Mary Lynn and her family were heading to their cottage. Something big was supposed to happen today. Her Mom and Dad were talking in the front seat, talking about the water coming, and using that big word, inundation. Now, driving to the high hill, Mary Lynn looked out the car window from a road that was almost as high as the hill itself. Down below, the farmer and his buildings that she remembered were all gone. No cows grazing, no barn, no fences, nothing. And who were all these people standing around?
They didn’t go directly to the cottage. Instead, everyone walked to the edge of the hill where it started to slope down toward the empty fields. Mary Lynn stood with her parents by the road just in front of her cottage. People are excited and most of them are looking off in the distance. “It’s gonna happen any minute now,” someone said. Some of the nearby women started crying.
Suddenly, the hill had a slight tremor. At the same time, birds flew upward from every direction screaming in protest, and flying erratically. Then KA-BOOM! The sound of a hundred thunderstorms going off at once as thirty tons of dynamite blew the last cofferdam apart, holding back the river. Huge clouds of dust and particles filled the sky. People started edging down the hill. Mary Lynn, scared stiff, started trembling as she saw the black clouds billowing upward and then her mother start to cry. Everything was going crazy in her world and nobody was telling her anything. Something is really wrong and her own eyes started to fill with frightened tears. And then the strangest thing happened.
Wild, little animals, down in the lower, barren fields came out of nowhere, confused, scattering in every direction. Hundreds of them, running for their lives. Raccoons, beaver, rats with long tails and even snakes of every size came up toward the people and rushed by. Overhead, flocks and flocks of birds continued shrieking as their nests in the fields were slowly covered over with the rising water. The sound of the screaming animals and birds was almost as loud as the initial explosion and equally deafening. Frightened children and adults held their ears. Mary Lynn, shaking uncontrollably, stared wide-eyed through tears at a scene that would be etched in her mind forever.
It has been more than fifty years since Inundation Day, July 1, 1958, the day the villages drowned, but for Mary Lynn Alguire, those scary moments continue to haunt the retired school teacher to this day, but for a good reason. “Nobody told me anything,” Alguire says, stopping for a minute to wipe her eyes. “That’s the way it was. And the water kept coming up and up. Afterward, a lot of flotsam came drifting down, including a lot of dead animals.”
Today, Mary Lynn Alguire has put those haunting memories to good use. “Susan Lopez was principal where I taught at Rothwell-Osnabruck School in Ingleside. She and I decided it was time that the students came to understand the Seaway Story, since it was literally right in their own back yard.”
Tears gone, Alguire’s eyes light up now. “Fran Laflamme, a retired teacher and one of the original founders of the Lost Villages Historical Society, answered all our questions and so began the annual three week program with grades seven, eight and nine students to study the story of our lost heritage. I planned and scouted out a bus tour for the classes that would show them the location of the six villages and three hamlets. I would explain why paved roads disappear into the undergrowth and into bodies of water, why many people of the area speak of places that no longer exist except in their memories.” Jim Brownell, then president of the Lost Villages Historical Society asked if Alguire could expand her student trips to include a bus tour for tourists and members of the society. Teaming with bus driver Blythe Watson, Alguire soon found herself doing eight four hour tours a summer from July to the end of October, passing near the lost villages of Mille Roches, her former home, Moulinette, Dickenson’s Landing, Wales, Farron’s Point and Aultsville. Every tour was soon sold out. That was fifteen years ago. A favourite story she likes to tell is how nervous you were to swim in the ‘new lake’ after the flooding. “If anything touched your leg while swimming,” she says, and then stops. “What do you think it is?!”
“Don’t forget, many of the gravesites were not moved,” said Maggie Wheeler, touching Mary Lynn’s arm. “Cement blocks and gravel were put down to keep ‘everybody’ where they were supposed to be. Even after I moved here, once in a while, someone’s old relative would POP UP! And float along one of the beaches somewhere.”
Wheeler has a taste for mystery and the macabre. She is author of the Farron Mackenzie Seaway mystery series. These novels are based on character Farron Mackenzie, a history professor from the University of Waterloo who returns as a complete stranger to the area of the Lost Villages after forty years, with a purpose. Her mother grew up in the village of Farron’s Point, hence her name, while her father, whom she never knew, grew up in nearby Aultsville. “Mackenzie’s father was murdered the night before the flooding, the night before Inundation Day,” says Wheeler, “and his body is discovered forty years later, tied in a sleeping bag, stuffed in an old foundation in the area of Aultsville during a low water period. It was after her mother’s death when they found the body.”
Wheeler’s first novel is called A Violent End and begins with Inundation Day, and four days of flooding. “I wrote it for myself, trying to understand the area I moved into, the new town of Long Sault, in 1967. My father was an OPP officer who decided to stay here in the area, turning down promotions if they involved a transfer. Anyway, I noticed the resounding silence from my neighbours regarding their traumatic move. I was only seven at the time. I started writing years ago and started asking questions.” Those questions led to several residents talking about the eerie silence, when the Long Sault Rapids were drained after the barrier was constructed. “The people of Farron’s Point had a new noise, silence,” she said. “I thought about that, and in my childish brain, it didn’t sound like a good thing. That was the first negative thing I heard. Later, as parents and grandparents, these people can’t show their children where they themselves grew up and went to school. And many years later, this still bothers them. It hit me personally; as an individual to wake up and all your markers are gone.” Mary Lynn nods in agreement.
So what does a kid, who wasn’t even born until long after Inundation Day, and another kid, who witnessed everything of the flooding through terrified eyes, have in common today? “I’d heard of Mary Lynn’s tour,” said Wheeler, “and I had always wanted to attend. They were so popular that finally, I squeezed in through a cancellation; this was in 2001, just after A Violent End was published. Anyway, I’m listening to the points of interest and she starts talking about my book and the characters. It’s hilarious, because she doesn’t know I’m aboard.” During a walk around, the two women met, face to face.
“Are you Maggie Wheeler?”
“Why yes, who told you?”
“About forty people!” replied Alguire. “I certainly hope I got things right?”
Wheeler laughs. “You? It’s me who hopes I got things right!”
The two women became fast friends and today, partner for the Farron Mackenzie History/Mystery Bus Tours. Passengers are entertained with historical background, novel bits and bites and personal anecdotes of memorable moments from Wheeler’s novels which include: A Violent End, The brother of Sleep and All Mortal Things. The tour ends at the Nightingale House in Ingleside, for a tea in the garden hosted by owner Lesley O’Gorman, the good sported model for the character of Mildred Keeps. It’s here where Maggie will give a special reading from On a Darkling Plain, slated for publication later this October. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Wheeler. “We feed off each other.”
“A Violent End left me breathless,” said Mary Lynn. “I couldn’t stop the tears that flowed like the flood waters, bringing to life the deep emotions of the people who drowned a little themselves as they turned and walked away from their flower gardens, their ancestral foundations and their personal histories for the final time. Never again will a project of this magnitude ever be repeated without a voice raised in protest because the government says it’s a good thing.”
Listen to the children.
By Brian Johnson
Brian Johnson wrote these two articles on the Lost Villages for the Kingston Whig Standard two months ago. This is an important story and we asked if we could share it in TI Life for our readers on both side of the border. We also recommend you research the Lost Villages on the Web. One resource can be found in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, published on Friday, Jun. 26, 2009 “Canadians recall how their lives were uprooted by the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway”.
Brian is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for 28 years, recently celebrating 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and current president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.
This story was first published by Captain Johnson as an assignment from the Kingston Whig Standard as a series in celebratoin of the 50th Anniversary of the St. Lawrence Seaway which started on February 16, 2009. There were eleven stories. The story submitted here, first published on June 27, 2009, as "Remembering Inundation Day".