In the 1920s, over 80 generating stations sprouted along Québec’s waterways, leading to a fivefold increase in power generation. Hundreds of electric utilities sprang up, but only a few survived and gave rise to powerful regional monopolies. In Montréal, the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company soon eliminated all its competitors, while in the Mauricie region, the Shawinigan Water and Power Company laid the cornerstone of a vast industrial complex by harnessing the Rivière Saint-Maurice.

1898

Founding of Shawinigan Water and Power

American promoters obtained letters patent for the Shawinigan Water and Power CompanyThis link will open a new window., enabling Boston financier J.E. Aldred. to lay the foundations of a company that would become one of the most diversified industrial empires in Québec in the first half of the 20th century. A young engineer from Boston, Julian C. Smith, was credited with the remarkable concept for developing the Rivière Saint-Maurice. This technical triumph was the keystone of Shawinigan Water and Power's financial success.

The company came up with one initiative after the other to harness the full potential of the Rivière Saint-Maurice as quickly as possible, despite its distance from the major centres where energy was consumed.

  • It attracted electricity-intensive industries such as pulp and paper, aluminum and chemicals to the area.
  • It promoted the use of electricity in the home by touring towns and villages in central Québec with a traveling all-electric kitchen.
  • To stimulate energy consumption, it developed a pricing system with decreasing rates for higher volume.
  • To speed up development in the Saint-Maurice region, it invested in other companies and diversified its operations.
  • It gradually extended its territory, purchasing competitors along the way and acquiring major stakes in other electric companies, such as Quebec Power and Southern Canada Power.
  • It exported some of the power it generated to the Montréal market. In 1903, it built North America's first 50-kV power line – a record voltage – which was carried on wooden poles over a distance of nearly 120 kilometres.
  • The fame of Shawinigan Water and Power soon expanded beyond the borders of Québec. In 1919, the company created the Shawinigan Engineering Company Limited to export its consulting expertise to the United States and England.
  • In the 1950s, SW&P developed an interest in the agricultural market as an important trend towards automation and aggregation was taking over the farming industry. The company recruited a team of francophone agronomists to promote the accelerated electrification of farms and thus make the market more lucrative.

Once considered to be the crown jewel of Shawinigan Water and Power Company’s generating facilities, Shawinigan-2 power plant is open to visitors. Come explore this one-of-a-kind site!

The development of the Rivière Saint-Maurice extended over a period of nearly 50 years. Eight power stations, notable for their architecture and for the ingenuity that went into their creation, harnessed the river's full potential: Shawinigan-1 (built in 1901 and dismantled in 1949), Shawinigan-2, La Gabelle, Grand-Mère (built in 1916 by Laurentian Power Company and acquired in 1925 by Shawinigan Water and Power), Rapide-Blanc, La Tuque, Shawinigan-3, Trenche and Beaumont. Flow in the Saint-Maurice is regulated by Gouin dam, built in 1917 by the Québec Streams Commission.

Slide show

The following slide show contains images from the year 1898

  • Grand-Mère generating station, on the Rivière Saint-Maurice, was equipped with the most powerful generating units in the country in 1916. The station changed owners in 1929, when Laurentide Power Company was acquired by Shawinigan Water and Power Company.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Metal badge worn by Shawinigan Water and Power Company employees in the 1950s.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    2005.0114

  • Safety helmet worn by a Shawinigan Water and Power Company line worker in the 1950s.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    2004.0041

  • This Shawinigan Water and Power Company sign indicates the voltage and warns the public of the risk of electricity-related accidents.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    1998.0071

  • Identification plates are affixed to hydro poles using dated nails. This nail is embossed with the initials of the Shawinigan Water & Power Company and the year the pole was erected.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    2004.0254

  • The Shawinigan Water and Power Company offered its employees a range of gifts to reward them and foster a sense of loyalty to the company.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    2004.0152

  • Voltmeter dating from the late 19th century, bearing the initials of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company. This type of gauge is used to check the voltage of equipment used at power plants and substations.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    1997.0118

  • Logo of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Built by the Shawinigan Water and Power Company, Shawinigan-2 generating station began producing electricity in 1911. Still in service today, it is open to visitors.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Head office of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company in Montréal, 1951.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Shawinigan-2 generating station was built in two phases: Shawinigan-2A, in 1911 (photo) and Shawinigan-2B, in 1922. The first powerhouse boasts architectural detailing inspired by the Beaux-Arts style. In the 1990s, Hydro-Québec renovated the facility’s exterior while taking care to preserve its original architectural features.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Elevation view of the main façade of Shawinigan-2A power plant, designed in 1911.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • The former control room of Shawinigan-2 generating station. Used until 2000, this control room is the highlight of the Shawinigan-2 visitor’s tour.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Urban development plan for the city of Shawinigan, prepared in 1899 for the Shawinigan Water and Power Company. This is one of the first urban development plans produced in Canada.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • View of the Shawinigan hydroelectric complex on the Rivière Saint-Maurice in 1911. At left, Shawinigan-1 generating station, commissioned in 1901 and dismantled in the 1950s. Across the river, and partially obstructing the station, you can see the Northern Aluminium Company’s small power plant, commissioned in 1901. This building was restored in the early 1990s. At right, Shawinigan-2 generating station, commissioned in 1911 and enlarged in 1922.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Map of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company distribution system in 1927.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Shawinigan-2 generating station.

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1901

Emergence of a powerful monopoly: Montreal Light, Heat and Power

The merger of the Montreal Gas Company and the Royal Electric Company was the brainchild of Herbert Samuel Holt. Holt laid the groundwork for what would become the vast industrial and financial empire of Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company (MLH&P). Faced with the immense potential for expansion offered by the electricity market, Holt succeeded in bringing together traditional competitors: gas and electricity. Arrogantly monopolistic, Montreal Light, Heat and Power consistently refused any form of collaboration with commissions of inquiry and agencies set up by the government to try to regulate the sale of electricity.

Rivière-des-Prairies and Beauharnois generating stations are some of the greatest achievements of Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated. These two run-of-river power plants are open to the public and will be sure to amaze you during your next visit.

Slide show

The following slide show contains images from the year 1901

  • The head office of the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company, at 107 Craig Street (now Saint-Antoine), in Montréal. Now demolished, the building bore witness to the power and prosperity of a company that held a monopoly on electricity, natural gas and streetcars.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Rivière-des-Prairies generating station and its spillway.

  • Rivière-des-Prairies generating station control room, 1960s.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Rivière-des-Prairies generating station and its former spillway, 1965.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Interior view of Rivière-des-Prairies generating station. The station was built between 1928 and 1930 for the Montreal Island Power Company, which was absorbed by Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated before work was completed. The facility stands near the Sault-au-Récollet heritage site, which has been home to several mills, the first of which was built in the early 18th century.

  • Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated company store.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Operators work under the head operator’s watchful eye. Fulfilling a critical role in making sure calls got through, operators had to have superior concentration skills and show unfailing patience and courtesy.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated employees pose proudly in the 1930s with their new automatic press, able to churn out 5,000 sheets an hour. The company printed its own annual report and a newspaper, among other documents.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Employees of the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company’s billing department in their “Power Building” offices, 1909. Although the telegraph was still in use, a telephone can be seen in this picture. The female employee is probably single, because women’s careers generally ended with marriage at that time.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Surveyors employed by the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company pose with their work tools: theodolites, rods and levels.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • The cafeteria at the “Power Building,” the head office of Montreal, Light, Heat and Power Consolidated.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated’s carpentry workshop.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Employees of Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated on a company vehicle.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • This inauguration plaque is one of the last vestiges of Chambly generating station, commissioned in 1899.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    1999.0005

  • Construction of Chambly generating station in October 1897. The appearance of this first hydropower plant on the Rivière Richelieu took its cues from industrial rationalism, an architectural style that first emerged in the second half of the 19th century. The power plant was torn down in 1964.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • The plate on this ammeter is inscribed with “Property of Quebec–New England Hydro Electric Corporation.” This is the only known physical trace of this company, which was founded in 1912 and then absorbed in 1922 into United Securities, which was purchased in turn by Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated in 1926.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    1996.0102

  • Construction of Les Cèdres generating station on the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (St. Lawrence River) began in 1912. After it was commissioned in 1914, the station sold most of the electricity it produced to the Aluminum Company of America under the first electricity export contract ever signed in Québec.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Les Cèdres generating station is still operating today.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

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1906

The "Ontario Model" finds a home in Québec

At the turn of the 20th century, a strong trend toward municipal ownership of electricity distribution systems was taking shape in Ontario. On May 14, 1906, under the aegis of Adam Beck, an innovative businessman and influential politician, the Ontario Legislature passed a bill creating the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPCO), or Ontario Hydro. At the outset, the organizational model was simple: electricity generation was left to the private sector, transmission was handled by the Commission, and distribution was the responsibility of the municipalities. The "Ontario Model" found supporters in Québec, where a number of towns and cities chose to place the electrical services in their territory under municipal control. In 1963, many municipalities accepted Hydro-Québec's buyout offer; the handful who kept their municipal distribution systems were Alma, Amos, Baie-Comeau, Coaticook, Joliette, Jonquière, Magog, Sherbrooke and Westmount.

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1908

Undergrounding and urban aesthetics

A growing number of companies attempted to carve out a place for themselves in the lucrative public lighting market. More and more electric wires crossed overhead, and the Montréal cityscape grew uglier and uglier. Influenced by climate and urban aesthetics, Montréal became one of the first cities in North America to adopt a policy of undergrounding—burying power lines—a practice that improved the city's appearance and protected the power grid against bad weather.

Slide show

The following slide show contains images from the year 1908

  • In the early 20th century, despite an official policy in favor of burying power lines, Montréal’s streets were cluttered with countless poles carrying telephone, telegraph and power lines.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated was nationalized in 1944, but traces of its existence can still be found in the distribution network. This nameplate, which bears the company’s initials, was removed from a utility pole on Laval Road in Montréal’s Saint-Laurent borough, in 1996.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    2004.0375

  • Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montréal, May 1921.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Montreal Light, Heat and Power Consolidated employees transport a utility pole.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

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1922

Alcan comes to Lac-Saint-Jean

Two renowned industrialists and financiers, William Price and James Duke, launched a joint project to build a powerful hydroelectric generating station on Île Maligne, at the headwaters of the Rivière Saguenay, which would meet the needs of their own pulp and paper mills and also provide power for the aluminum smelter that had just located in the region.

Over the next 40 years, Alcan (Aluminum Company of Canada) built the Chute-à-Caron, Shipshaw, Chute-du-Diable, Chute-à-la-Savanne and Chute-des-Passes generating stations, mainly to meet its own growing energy requirements.

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1926

Development of the Gatineau, a necessity for the pulp and paper industry

At the initiative of the Canadian International Paper Co., Gatineau Power Company was formed to build and operate generating stations on the Gatineau and Ottawa rivers. Over the years, the generating facilities of Gatineau Power came to include the Corbeau, Chelsea, Rapides-Farmers and Paugan generating stations. Located in Gatineau and commissioned in 1927, Rapides-Farmers generating station is open to the public.

Slide show

The following slide show contains images from the year 1926

  • Rapides-Farmer generating station is an example of industrial rationalist architecture. Constructed in 1926, it is still in service today.

  • Interior view of Rapides-Farmer generating station, 1928./p>

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Rapides-Farmer generating station and its weir, 1928.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Portable protection relay tester used at Rapides-Farmer generating station. This device amplifies the relay output to trip the circuit breaker.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    1996.0035

  • In 1927, the Gatineau Power Company completed its most ambitious hydroelectric project: building Paugan generating station on the Rivière Gatineau. The exterior envelope was inspired by the Beaux-Arts architectural style, with a touch of Art Deco.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • The generator floor at Paugan generating station. To the right of the first unit can be seen the speed governor, which keeps the turbine’s rate of spin constant.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • The generator floor at Paugan generating station.

  • Exterior view of Paugan generating station.

  • Annunciator used at Paugan generating station until 1990 or so. The control room operators switched the numbered lights on or off to indicate which generating units were operating.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Gatineau Electric Light company store in Vaudreuil. Electric utilities didn’t hesitate to sell electric appliances to encourage consumers to opt for electricity as a form of energy.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Chelsea generating station.

  • The generator floor at Chelsea generating station.

  • Interior view of Chelsea generating station, 1928.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

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1929

Mammoth project on the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (St. Lawrence River)

n August 1929, Robert Oliver Sweezey. began work on a run-of-river generating station at Beauharnois on the Saint-Laurent. But the New York stock market crash on "Black Thursday," October 24, and the subsequent depression seriously impeded the realization of Sweezey's dream. Financial problems piled up. Political scandals linked to the project damaged the engineer's credibility. Then came the coup de grâce. The Ontario government refused to make good on a contract between Ontario Hydro and Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power for the purchase of a large quantity of power produced by Beauharnois generating stationThis link will open a new window.. Driven to the brink of bankruptcy, Sweezey had no choice but to accept Herbert Holt's takeover offer. Holt got a bargain that reinforced Montreal Light, Heat and Power's supremacy in the Montréal electricity market.

Beauharnois Generating Station

The Beauharnois project was mind-boggling in size. It received worldwide press and was frequently compared to the building of the Panama Canal. The comparison was a natural one, since the headrace canal is also a strategic component of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The generating station is remarkable in a number of respects.

  • Dredging of the headrace—one kilometre wide, 24 kilometres long and an average of 10 metres deep—required more earthwork than the building of the Panama Canal.
  • The generating station is located close to the Montréal, Ontario and United States markets. This, from the outset, gave it potential beyond the local market. In fact, the financial arrangements put together by Sweezey to make his dream a reality were based on two contracts to sell the electricity generated: one with Ontario Hydro and the other with Montreal Light, Heat and Power.
  • Hydro-Québec's 1961 commissioning of the last of the station's 36 generating units marked the end of more than 30 years of construction. At that time, Beauharnois was considered the most powerful generating station in Canada; even today, it is one of the largest run-of-river plants in the world.
  • The Art Deco style of the powerhouse gives it an unusually elegant appearance, and this character has been carefully preserved, even after major renovations in the 1990s. It has been classified as a national historic site.

Power and elegance: the project is stunning in its size.

You can visit this generating station with its Art Deco styling free of charge.

Slide show

The following slide show contains images from the year 1929

  • And Man created a generating station in the middle of the fields! Taken at the start of the Great Depression, in 1930, this photo captures the sheer size of the Beauharnois Canal and generating station jobsite.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Beauharnois generating station jobsite, 1931. Launched in 1929 by Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power, the construction project involved three phases, the last two of which were executed by the Québec Hydro-Electric Commission (now Hydro-Québec). With its 38 turbines, Beauharnois is one of the largest run-of-river generating stations in the world. It is classified as a national historic site.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Map of the Beauharnois Canal.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • Aerial view of the first phase of Beauharnois generating station, completed in 1932.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

  • The generator floor at Beauharnois generating station, 1932.

  • In the early 1950s, Hydro-Québec Commissioner René Dupuis had the idea of landscaping the Beauharnois generating station site to resemble the Québec flag.

  • The generator floor at Beauharnois generating station.

  • The entrance to Beauharnois generating station’s offices has an Art Deco feel.

  • This Morris-Pelton speed governor was installed at Beauharnois generating station in the early 1930s.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    1996.0014

  • unciator used until 1990 or so to indicate the status of the generating units at Beauharnois generating station. The control room operators switched the appropriate numbered lights on or off to indicate the turbine’s status.

    Hydro-Québec historical collection
    2000.0057

  • Suction dredger used to dig the Beauharnois Canal.

    Source: Hydro-Québec archives

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