Guest Post: Daniel Macfarlane on Border Waters and Competing Nationalisms

Daniel Macfarlane is a visiting scholar for 2013-14 in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University. He was the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Canadian Studies at Michigan State University for 2012-13. He received his PhD in History in 2011 from the University of Ottawa.

Here, he talks about his research on Canadian-American border waters,  the St. Lawrence River/Seaway and the Niagara River/Falls in particular.

My research focuses on the Canadian-American border – usually in its liquid form. To be more specific, I study transnational aspects of North American water, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin. I recently finished a book on the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project (forthcoming in early 2014 from UBC Press), and I am also working on a book about the transnational history of Niagara Falls.

The study of border waters engages a range of historical and interdisciplinary fields, and this flexibility is one of the things I like so much about my research. I like to think of myself as an environmental, water, political, technology, borderlands, transborder, and international historian. But often my work blurs the lines between history and other fields, such as environmental studies, or political science.  The border is fluid, in more ways than one.

The St. Lawrence megaproject combines a deep-draft waterway (running from Montreal to Lake Erie) and hydro-electric development. The first serious proposal for a joint Seaway dates back to the late 19th century, but a half-century of negotiations, including two failed formal agreements, ensued before Canada attempted to build the Seaway alone in the early 1950s. This ran counter to U.S. interests, and American pressure led Canada to eventually consent to a joint endeavour. Indeed, the Seaway saga is an enormously important but overlooked aspect of Canadian-American relations in the 20th century.

Construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project (1954-59) wrought huge changes in the St. Lawrence basin. A river was turned into a lake (i.e. a power pool). It inundated some 20,000 acres of land on the Canadian side, along with another 18,000 acres on the American shore. The impact was greater on the more populated Canadian side, and a number of communities – the Lost Villages – had to be relocated. As one would expect, the environmental changes were enormous.

Map of Lake St. Lawrence and Lost Villages. Copyright Lost Villages Historical Society.

Map of Lake St. Lawrence and Lost Villages. Copyright Lost Villages Historical Society.

GIS map of proposed, though not adopted, all-Canadian Seaway route at Cornwall. Note location of old Cornwall Canal, Moses-Saunders power dam, and Lake St. Lawrence. By Daniel Macfarlane. Copyright Google Earth and DigitalGlobe.

GIS map of proposed, though not adopted, all-Canadian Seaway route at Cornwall. Note location of old Cornwall Canal, Moses-Saunders power dam, and Lake St. Lawrence. By Daniel Macfarlane. Copyright Google Earth and DigitalGlobe.

Overlay of historic map of Aultsville (one of the Lost Villages) over top of contemporary Google Earth satellite imagery of former town site. By Daniel Macfarlane. Copyright Google Earth and USDA Farm Service Agency.

Overlay of historic map of Aultsville (one of the Lost Villages) over top of contemporary Google Earth satellite imagery of former town site. By Daniel Macfarlane. Copyright Google Earth and USDA Farm Service Agency.

Transborder negotiations to construct remedial works at Niagara Falls date back to the early 20th century. These works would simultaneously allow Canada and the U.S. (or their respective state/provincial governments) to divert water for hydro-electricity, while ostensibly retaining the scenic appearance of the waterfall. Niagara measures were included in St. Lawrence negotiations, but then separated in the late 1940s. By that time, a number of modifications to Niagara Falls and the Niagara River had already taken place in order to increase the amount of water that could be siphoned off.

The desire to increase hydro-electric production led to the 1950 Canadian-American Niagara treaty. Under the terms of this bilateral agreement, a control weir was built above the waterfalls, water diverted into tunnels (running underneath the twin cities of Niagara Falls for a number of miles), and the flanks and river bed leading up to the  falls, as well as the actual cataract, were modified and manipulated. The goal was to maintain the “impression of volume” despite the lack of water crashing over the precipice. It was about making less water look like more in order to retain the “natural” appearance. This had included the development of a special “telecolorimeter” to test for the desired “greenish-blue” colour of the cascading water. Under the treaty stipulations, 2/3 of the water of the Niagara River was legally diverted to the hydro stations, rather than going over the falls, during non-tourist hours (8 a.m. to 10 p.m. from April to mid-September, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the fall).

Geographic information system (GIS) map of Horseshoe Falls indicating excavation and fill from 1950s, and receding crestline. Credit: Daniel Macfarlane (2012).

Geographic information system (GIS) map of Horseshoe Falls indicating excavation and fill from 1950s, and receding crestline. Credit: Daniel Macfarlane (2012).

Niagara Falls hydroelectric waterscape showing the various tunnels, conduits, reservoirs, and remedial works connected to hydroelectric production. Credit: Anders Sandberg and Rajiv Rawat, 2012, based on a map by Daniel Macfarlane.

Niagara Falls hydroelectric waterscape showing the various tunnels, conduits, reservoirs, and remedial works connected to hydroelectric production. Credit: Anders Sandberg and Rajiv Rawat, 2012, based on a map by Daniel Macfarlane.

In addition to charting the environmental diplomacy, I explore attitudes about the natural environment and the actual ecological changes to these water systems (often using digital technologies such as GIS mapping). Another goal is elucidating how the states, governments, and their experts seek to control nature and society.

For example, the history of developments on both the St. Lawrence and Niagara are indicative of a North American confidence in the ability of technology to control, tame, and exploit the natural environment, an impulse that took on even more urgency as the Cold War dawned after 1945. The creation of both the St. Lawrence and Niagara projects speak to shared and divergent transborder notions about technology and environment, but also to the ways that competing national identities were bound up in such ideas. The St. Lawrence River was historically seen as a national, rather than a shared, river. This view of the St. Lawrence as a strictly “Canadian” river manifested itself in the attempts for an all-Canadian seaway. Niagara too resonated with Canadian nationalists for some of the same reasons, though not to the same extent as the St. Lawrence. In both cases, nationalism was bound up in the use of these waters for hydro-electricity.

In addition to working on the St. Lawrence and Niagara book projects, I am also co-editing a collection on the history of Canadian-American water relations, researching the transnational history of attempts to understand and control Great Lakes water (diversions and levels), and recently embarked on a cooperative long-term project to write the history of the International Joint Commission. I’ve got enough to keep me busy for the foreseeable future, but I’m also pretty sure I could go a whole career without running out of border water subjects!

For more information, visit: http://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com/

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