"As Though There Was No Boundary": The Shipshaw Project and Continental Integration

Article excerpt

       Here, the foundation of Freedom you've laid;
       Your weapons--the mattock, the axe and the spade,
       The crusher, the mixer, the bucket, the drill,
       A sledge or a hammer, swung with a will!

      You--men of Shipshaw--ten thousand and more,
      You're working, you're building, you're winning the war!
      Ten thousand warriors, loyal and fine
      Carrying on behind the battle line!
      --From "Men of Shipshaw," by W. Gordon Ritchie, The Aluminum
      Ingot, October 30, 1942

The Shipshaw hydroelectric project on Quebec's Saguenay River has long been celebrated as among Canada's greatest contributions to the Second World War; and justifiably so. The mammoth power plant, named for a nearby Saguenay tributary, was rapidly constructed between 1941 and 1943. It rivaled the Boulder Dam on the Colorado River, the world's largest in its capacity to generate electrical power. Together with the Chute-a-Caron (1931) and Isle Maligne (1926) generating plants upstream, Shipshaw turned the Saguenay valley into the foremost electric power-producing region in the world. As a consequence, Shipshaw also became the world's preeminent center for the production of the energy-intensive metal aluminum, the vital component of modern aircraft. At war's peak, Canada's aluminum company Alcan (the Aluminum Company of Canada, Limited) was producing upwards of 30 percent of the entire Allied aluminum supply (the vast majority of this ingot flowing out of the Saguenay valley itself). No wonder that contemporary news reporters, politicians, and industrialists employed superlatives to describe the big hydro project. Shipshaw is one of the "world's wonders" and "an achievement which ranks high among the greatest engineering accomplishments of the world," wrote journalists. It "constitutes Canada's greatest contribution to the war effort," echoed a Canadian official in the Department of Munitions and Supply. With its accompanying aluminum-production facilities at nearby Arvida, a company publicist asserted, the big dam led "Canada into the spotlight as an arsenal of democracy." "Bombers made of Canadian aluminum," Maclean's Blair Fraser reported proudly in 1944, "fly on every front in the world, under every Allied flag." (1)

This article explores the U.S. roots of this Canadian industrial project. Why, really, did Shipshaw come about? What forces and events propelled the creation of this huge, and hugely important, dam? While other aspects of the Shipshaw project have drawn the attention of researchers--including its engineering achievement, its labor force, its impact on the regional economy of the Saguenay and of Quebec, and, most recently, its wartime defense (2)--the project's North American origins have yet to be systematically explained and explored. (3)

Shipshaw was thoroughly embedded in its continental context. Alcan, the project's builder, initially expressed little interest in expanding its industrial facilities to include the gigantic power plant on the lower Saguenay River. The motive force came instead from the Canadian government, specifically from Canada's wartime Power Controller Herbert Symington, who was a close and trusted associate of the powerful Minister of Munitions and Supply, C.D. Howe. Symington, in turn, was responding to U.S. demand for an expanded electrical power pool to serve defense preparations in the eastern United States, even before the U.S. formally entered the war. In this way, burgeoning U.S. demand for energy in 1940, and Canadians' willingness to do something about it, formed the original prod to Shipshaw's construction. Other motives soon followed. American demand for Canadian aluminum ingot promised to absorb the Saguenay's much-enlarged smelting capacity and further encouraged Alcan's executives to go forward with Shipshaw. U.S. purchases of Canadian ingot coincided with Canada's acute need for U.S. dollars to redress a trade imbalance; thus the Canadian government further sweetened Alcan's incentive to build the big dam by offering wartime tax breaks. …