A broken plate, a piece of carpet, a drawer submerged in weeds—these were some of the rusted objects that students from Timothy Christian School (TCS) in Williamsburg discovered during their day trip to the St. Lawrence River in Ingleside, Ontario. The items were remnants of a community once known as Aultsville, whose inhabitants were forced to leave their homes in the late 1950’s due to the St. Lawrence Seaway Project.
On July 1st, 1958, a planned explosion shattered the last temporary coffer dam that held back the waters of the St. Lawrence River above the new Moses-Saunders power plant in Cornwall, Ontario. As the river swelled, ten hamlets and villages (among them, Aultsville) were submerged. To prepare for the flooding, over 500 buildings were moved and over 6,500 people were forced to relocate. The man-made disaster, referred to as “Inundation Day”, made it possible for larger freight-hauling ships to travel between Montreal and North America. It also created an important new source of hydroelectric power for Canadians.
More than five decades have passed since Inundation Day, but at Timothy Christian School the villages that vanished under rising water are hardly a forgotten or abstract concept. The 1950’s era artifacts, pulled from shallow waters last month, have made the topic a tangible and relevant reality for students.
“The objects were definitely remnants of houses of the lost villages” explained Elizabeth Van Dyke, a teacher at the school. “There were foundations, cutlery, pottery, stumps of trees that had to be cut down, sidewalks…”
“It was perfect weather” she said. “The water was lower than it’s ever been in a long time. We could see so much and find so much.” In fact, some of the students were so intrigued by what they saw, they later returned to the site with their parents.
According to Van Dyke, the trip was a wonderful way to build on rich learning that has been happening in her class. Before heading to the river, students responded to an important driving question together: How was the St. Lawrence Seaway Project helpful and harmful to the community? From that question came other “I wonders” which students brain-stormed together.
This is the first time that TCS has taken a crossgrade Project Based Learning (PBL) approach to the study of history. Van Dyke and other teachers at the school are thrilled with the results so far. Students are engaged and excited about what they’re learning, and, judging by journal entries, they’re emotionally connected to the topic.
“I would feel devastated if I had to go through the same experience as the people from the Lost Villages,” reflected Elizabeth, a student in grade 8. “The place I had grown up in for years, maybe even my forefather’s before me, being flooded right before my eyes.”
“Hearing what these people had to go through on top of the Seaway Project really makes you feel for them. Through this project we get a chance to learn and teach at the same time,” wrote Laura , a student in grade 6.
After the trip to Ingleside, students were divided into cross-grade groups and asked to research one of The Lost Villages. They started by asking themselves two questions: How did this community that is now a lost village start? Who were the important people? Groups used their findings to create a presentation. This part of the project was beneficial on a few different levels, according to Van Dyke. The kids had the chance to work together, hone their presentation skills and share what they were learning to an authentic audience. In this case, that audience included ten members of The Lost Villages Historical Society.
Meaningful conversation followed the presentations. Audience members brought pictures of their homes, maps of their villages and other documents to show students. Each member of The Lost Villages Historical Society had a unique perspective to offer—pointing out both the positive and negative outcomes of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project.
“The kids were so receptive,” said Van Dyke, “and the people from the society were so open to sharing with the kids. It was great.”
The school’s culminating project will be a book made by students for the broader community. The plan is to have the finished product on display at the Lost Villages Museum and available in local public libraries.
“Each classroom will take a couple of pages,” said Van Dyke. “And that’s where we will be giving the students a bit more voice and choice on what they want to include in the book.”
While the assignment will serve as a culminating wrap-up activity of sorts, Lost Village experts hope that communities like Aultsville will continue to catch the attention of young people. Tom Brownell, President of the The Lost Villages Museum, was particularly encouraged by the TCS student presentations. The topic carried emotional resonance among children and pre-teens alike.
“To see the older students teamed up with the younger ones working on this project was fantastic. As a retired educator, when you see that, you can’t help but get excited. This is a great learning experience for the kids. Learning about an aspect of history, an aspect of life that I’ve overheard kids say, ‘This was rather sad…’ they got the feeling of it!”
“The memories will never be forgotten when you have educators and kids working so hard on a project like this,” he said.
Interested in watching some of the student presentations about The Lost Villages? You can find them on YouTube! Check out the links below.