"The Biggest Dam' Dam I Ever See!"
15 November 1949
Des Joachims, Ottawa River, Ontario/Quebec, Canada
Freelance writer Bruce McLeod of North Bay visited the des Joachims construction site and created the following insightfull article. It was published in McLeans Magazine 15 Nov. 1949 bringing a very human touch to the des Joachims story.
"THE BIGGEST DAM' DAM I EVER SEE!"
By Bruce McLeod
A riviter, one of the 2,500 men who have slugged night and clay for three years to tame the Ottawa River for the Des Joachims dam project, stopped work on Canada's biggest current construction job long enough to scratch the. hair on his chest.
Then he patted the orange fibre helmet tilted back off his head. "See this hard hat?" he said "That's just in case I get hit by a falling statistic."
Everybody at Des Joachims, which will eventually produce 480,000 horsepower, seems a bit statistic happy. Carpenters boast of the 18 million board feet of lumber used in constructing the camps, forms and falseworks for the project's three giant dams. "They'd fill a train six miles long," Harry Dickson, the boss carpenter, told me. "It takes two mills working full time to supply us."
Over the ear-splitting clatter of the four-story concrete mixing plant, Bill Bonn, superintendent of Camp 3 at Des Joachims, shouted out that before the job was done they'd have mixed 860,000 cubic yards of the, stuff . "Enough to build a 3,300-mile sidewalk," he roared.
In the, construction offices the engineers needed no urging to talk about the power they're harnessing-enough to light one fifth of Ontario or run 3,600,000 washing machines nonstop.
The Des Joachims project straddles the Quebec-Ontario border about 38 miles upstream from the town of Pembroke, Ont., in the same general area as the Petawawa military camp and the Chalk River atom project.
The main dam (with its adjoining wing dam) squats on the river like a great white wall, its feet anchored in the bedrock of the Ottawa, its framing and scaffolding lacing the frosty sky. Above it runs a Bailey bridge and conveyor system which is slowly being dismantled as the work of pouring concrete draws to an end. Here, where Champlain once paddled and savage Iroquois shot the rapids in war canoes, a new chapter is being added to the story of Canadian engineering.
The big dam is almost half a mile long (2,400 feet), 190 feet high, and will cost $86 millions to complete. Its first units will be ready in 1950.
What do you do with a river when you dam it?
On September 15 the final sluiceways in the big dam were closed, cutting off the flow of the Ottawa below the great concrete wall. Hundreds of sturgeon, stranded on the black rocks, flopped helplessly until dam workers took them home to frying pans. And the river? It was shoved over into a parallel valley to the north into McConnell Lake, to spill out again into its original water course miles below the Des Joachims rapids.
On this lake another dam is being built-1,600 feet long and 115 feet high. Its 40 spillways and six sluiceways will control the level of the lake and the flow of the river. It is the safety valve of the project.
When the dam was finally closed in September a great flood began to creep up the valley behind. By next May its effects will be felt upstream almost as far as Mattawa, 55 miles west. In preparation for this day 11,000 acres of ground were shorn of their forests, homes were abandoned, 23 miles of railroad were diverted and 12 miles of Highway 17, now swallowed by the flood, were rebuilt.
Just three years ago when Des Joachims was still a blueprint baby only a strip of deserted farmland, rock, bush and water marked the site of this future power giant Today the baby has doffed its diapers.
An abandoned farm, skirting Highway 17, has been transformed into what is known as Camp 1. It is a small city with bunkhouses for 800 men, a 30-bed hospital, model school, police office, fire house, cafeteria, canteen, theatre, baseball diamond and portable bank which handles $15,000 every payday.
Des Joachim-which everybody there pronounces "Swisha"-in a far cry from the roaring poker-and-crap-game construction camps of another day. Night life consists of a softball game, a few frames of bowling, a coke at the canteen or a movie. A couple of miles downstream is the sleepy little village of Des Joachims itself. Here in the very shadow of a gigantic hydro job you can buy quart-sized beers served under lamplight.
There are two other big camps. Camp 3, home of 600 construction men is perched high on the rocky bluffs of the Quebec side of the dam. Camp 2, where 900 men of the Atlas Construction Company live, lies at Dam No. 3 on McConnell Lake.
But it is the main dam that is attracting the visiting engineers, hydro experts, teachers, steel men, reporters, municipal officials and hundreds of sightseers.
Visitors get their best look at the main dam either from the suspension bridges slung across the gorge upstream, or from the yawning, dizzy depths of "the hole," a monstrous excavation blasted and dug deep into the bedrock of the river on the downstream side.
Keith Scott, who left a Toronto movie outfit for a job in the "Swisha" carpentry department, guided me out on one of the swaying wood-slatted catwalks. It was like trying to walk in a hammock.
Out near the centre of the gorge Scott grabbed a steel cable and pointed 70 feet straight down through apace. "A couple of years ago," he told me, "one of these cables snapped and threw four men into the river. They drowned."
"Thanks," I said.
I squinted into the ringlets of heat curling, up off the crown of the Dam which towered 60 feet above us. Laced with scaffolding and formwork it resembled a giant honeycomb. Men teetered on ribbons of timber. Hammers clattered. And caught on the ugly hook of the cableway strung high overhead a steel girder danced drunkenly against the cloud-spattered sky.
"You've got to be a part monkey on this job," a voice said at my elbow.
It was Harry Dickson, chief carpenter. Beside him on the catwalk was Archie Gervais, his assistant. Dickson wagged a sunburned arm up toward the formwork where one of his men was walking over space on an eight by eight timber. "We don't hire nervous guys," he said, fingering the long peak of big Halsey-type cap. "You get the jitters up there and you'll wind up in the morgue."
"We bad one fella freeze up on us," Gervais said, rolling a cigarette. "He was up there about 100 feet when be looked down. Went stiff as a poker. Couldn't move. Had to send a man up on the hook to pry him loose."
Dickson at 45 is a wiry, greying man who has two sons on the job with him. Since 1922 he's been living wherever construction calls him. His wife says she doesn't mind the moving from job to job which has taken her to Maryland, Virginia, Rhode Island and several provinces in Canada.
Keith Scott pushed his hard hat back off his forehead and flicked sweat off the tip of his nose. "Standing here, you get an idea of how big this job really is," he said. "And why, despite all the safety precautions, we have accidents. There's always risk on a construction job. Men die or get broken up. You eat breakfast and you wonder if you'll be around for lunch.
"Sometimes, though, a little luck helps. Like it did with, Albert, Puuk or George Carron."
Puuk, a carpenter on the McConnell Lake dam, was climbing up scaffolding one day using steel wing nuts as handholds when he slipped and fell 107 feet. Doctors gave up trying to count his broken bones. He spent two months in a hospital but lived.
Carron's brush with death happened on a sultry July afternoon last year. Carron was sitting near a tower of a Bailey bridge which had been pushed 1,100 feet out over the gorge. Farther out, over the raging rapids of the interprovincial channel, six riggers were waiting for the quitting whistle.
"Suddenly," Carron says, "the section seemed to 'rainbow' upstream. There was a terrible crack. I threw myself on my belly and grabbed the tower. I saw the other six tumble 130 feet into the river. They never had a chance."
The next morning Carron was back treading steel on the "death bridge" with the stoicism typical of construction men.
Olaf Naas owes his life to his hard hat. He was working inside a wooden form when a 100-pound key box fell 25 feet right on his head. "My knees buckled," Olaf grins. "But I'm still here."
Today his dented hat hangs in the camp cafeteria alongside the key box-a grim reminder to all workers that it takes more than a hard head to stay alive at Des Joachims.
In the steaming noisy hell that is "the hole" I talked with Jack Ruston and John Karliski. Here, where one channel of the Ottawa had been pumped dry behind protecting coffer dams, 180 men working day and night tore a gaping hole more than 50 feet deep into the solid rock bed of the river.
Huge steam shovels grunted and .screeched as their steel jaws mauled massive chunks of dynamited rock. Twenty-ton Euclid trucks, exhausts thundering like aircraft motors lumbered along the dirt roads. Drills biting into solid rock, bounced crazily in the hands of the grey-dusted drillers. And clinging to the steel sides of a huge draft tube, curled down the wall or the main dam, half-naked men pumped rivets into metal.
"Let's get out of here where we can talk," Ruston shouted, his voice a whisper in the din. Trickles of sweat gouged ruts in the dust caked on his cheeks. "Rock work's always like this. Noise enough to bust your ears. You drill it, blast it, get it out. But rock gets in your blood. It's my job and I like it."
At 35, Ruston, who comes from Sudbury, Ont., has spent 15 years in construction and mining jobs. He's a rock specialist who looks a bit like Cary Grant in a pith helmet.
Karliski, a native of Poland, is Ruston's drill foreman and powder boss. He's a chunky man with a square jaw, high cheekbones and pale blue eyes. He's spent 23 of his 49 years in Canada, is married, has three boys and two girls, owns a farm in Manitoba. The burned skin of his cheeks crinkles into a grin when you ask him how he likes working with explosives.
"Dynamite okay," he shrugs, "if you don't fool with it. I set many big blasts. Never hurt a man yet. Never scratch myself."
Karliski has seven powder men and 50 drillers working under him. It's his job to see that holes are loaded and wired right. Some are drilled as deep as 21feet and once, into 650 holes, Karliski packed three and a half tons of dynamite. "A big lift," he says.
Often blasts are touched off within inches of dam structures. "A single bad shot," explains Ruston, "could make an awful mess of things."
Like most big construction jobs "Swisha" is packed with interesting people. There's Steve Mahut, a carpenter foreman. Steve, whose grandfather was a Hindu, came to Canada from Warsaw a year ago. He's 28, a veteran of the Polish underground.
In the machine shop, which looks like an airplane hangar, I met Ed Jordon, quiet-spoken, greying blond hair, large brown eyes. Ed's family is in New Liskeard, Ont., but he's been at Des Joachims for two years. He's followed construction jobs all over the north since 1907 and has watched most of the north's great mining towns being built.
"If it's made out of steel," a hydro official told me "we say, 'See Ed Jordan.' Anything from a turbine part to a fishhook."
"It's push, push all the time," Jordan says. "We service everything on the job-tractors, the (Uke) trucks, bulldozers, cement mixers, steel parts for turbines, the screening plant, crushing plant, shovels. Everybody's in a rush. Brother, what a life!"
Down below the rapids where they're launching a new coffer dam in preparation for the tailrace excavation I met Alphonse Laframboise who is 73.
"Got to block off almost a mile of river," he explains, "pump'er dry and then the rock boys will tear out 1,500,000 cubic yards of rock. She'll be 7,000 feet long, 30 feet deep and 175 feet wide. It'll take about 10 months. Yep, quite some job."
The tailrace, an engineer explained, is a channel which will carry water away from the powerhouse after it has passed through the turbines. The river as it now stands isn't big enough to handle the discharge.
Laframboise is now the oldest, man on the job. He inherited the title from 83-year old Howard Lowry, of Toronto, who was in charge of concrete inspection. Lowry has just retired.
Among the many new Canadians on the job you find a former opera singer shoveling rock, a Viennese surgeon, nervous as a child, struggling to utter a simple English sentence at the basic English classes supervised by Victor McIntosh, of Ottawa.
Over in the ultramodern four-room school I talked with Walter Hougham of Toronto, the principal. We watched the children of the new Canadians romping at play with their French-Canadian and English-speaking classmates. "We started in September 1948, with 38 pupils," Hougham told me. "Today we have 130 and are thinking of a fifth room."
This is no ordinary grade school. "They come from many countries; speak seven different languages," Hougham told me. "Many display remarkable ability."
Supervisor of female personnel is smiling Anne Boylan, a former Nova Scotia schoolteacher who came to Des Joachims in 1947. Anne is "mother" to the 65 girls on the stenographic and cafeteria staffs and sets up a rigid set of rules for her girls to obey. "We handpick our girls after careful screening," she says. "Applications come front all over Canada."
With only 65 girls to 2,500 men romances blossom freely. "Unlike their city sisters," chuckles Anne Boylan, "our girls never need to worry about a date. Diamond rings fly like
snowflakes and Des Joachims is one place where there are no wallflowers."
It's an old rule on construction jobs that men only work as well as they are fed. And at camp No.1 Rosaire "Rockey" Savard of Dolbeau, Que., wears his white chef's hat like a crown. A former ship's cook he and his five cooks, two butchers, two bakers, two pantrymen and 13 waitresses have dished up 2,500 meals in one day. At one record meal 1,050 diners passed through the cookhouse in 45 minutes.
I watched one cook chopping barrels of carrots; another shredding 250 pounds of cabbage for salad. On large trays were 350 pies and 700 rice puddings and fruit salads.
Thursday is steak night and more than 1,000 sirloins and T-bones come sizzling off the battery of stoves. In case that's not enough there's 125 pounds of cold ham as a teaser.
At breakfast time 150 pounds of bacon and four cases of eggs go down the hatch. For a typical night meal dessert "Swisha's" cooks whip up 19 slabs of cake each a yard long. 100 pounds of cherry Jello and 150 pounds of plums. Milk is a favorite drink-225 gallons a day; 200 pounds of butter a day is normal.
It costs the Ontario Hydro Commission about $35,000 a month to feed its men, but good food pays off. Des Joachims is running ahead of schedule.
Despite all the statistics flung at me, despite all the eye-popping things I saw during my visit, it was a little French-Canadian bartender in the, village of Des Joachims who described the project, in the shortest, most explicit sentence of them all.
Swishing bottle marks of a tabletop, he nodded at me, said, "Big, M'sieu? Oui, she is big. Biggest dam' dam I ever see!"