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BACK ROADS BILL: Abitibi Canyon then and now

This week Bill takes us to an almost ghost town

Looking for things to do this long weekend?

You could be deep in the boreal forest driving on a back road.

As you journey north it is the first sign of something ahead, the many corridors of transmission towers, obelisk-like, steel lattice structures that taper toward the top.

The drooping copper or aluminum parallel lines, that sometimes shimmer, lead you to Abitibi Canyon.

It was known affectionately as the canyon, and the colony, and its story reflects the early development of what was once known as New Ontario. It was once a vibrant community and most of it is now a ghost town.

It is between dichotomy and juxtaposition. As you drive along the wall of concrete - one side, holding back the vast Abitibi River and the other revealing the deep canyon of hard granite. If you are there during the peak of the spring runoff there comes a powerful feeling of energy generation and mega construction in a wilderness setting.

Abitibi Canyon

The Abitibi Canyon colony was established in 1930 to house staff and their families working at the Abitibi Canyon generating station. It was the most extensive community ever built by Ontario Hydro. After construction of the station was completed, staff living in the colony operated and maintained the plant. At one point, passengers going to the Canyon colony travelled by rail to the Fraserdale station on the main line between Cochrane and Moosonee, where they boarded the Ontario Hydro train and proceeded for a distance of 5.6 km (3.5 miles) to the colony's siding. By 1966, a 74 km road to Smooth Rock Falls was built, ending the sense of isolation.

At the time, the high school had a special dispensation from the Ontario Department of Education making it possible to take pupils from kindergarten to senior matriculation or grade 13. In later years, most teenagers were bused to high school in Smooth Rock Falls for grade nine and half of them took room and board in Timmins and Kapuskasing for the higher grades. By the mid-1970s 85 families were living at the Canyon.

The recreation centre had always been the hub of the community. Major indoor facilities included a three-sheet curling rink, hockey rink, swimming pool, four-lane bowling alley, billiard room and library, a gymnasium with a stage, dressing rooms and a 6m screen. Outdoor activities included trapshooting, basketball, croquet, horseshoe pitching, a supervised summer playground, a ski tow and cross-country ski trails.

By 1982, about 300 residents lived in the colony. The town site was costing Hydro about one million dollars per year. Due to the economies of remote locations and highway improvement, a decision was announced on April 28, 1980, to close down the Abitibi Canyon community and it was phased out over a two-year period. Today, a staff house is home to about 50 workers who stay there during a four-day week and travel home on weekends.


Through Facebook, I contacted Bob Hunter, Abitibi Bob (Abitibi Canyon page) as he is known in California. He lived at the canyon from 1951-1968 from age 2 until nearly 19 years old. He shared some of his reflections on a place that is now a ghost town.

“There were no cars in the Canyon until 1966 when a road was finally built between the Canyon and the Abitibi Power and Paper community of Smooth Rock Falls. The trip, especially in the winter, wasn't always without adventure. One winter day the bus broke down about halfway there and the kids and driver ended up gathering wood and building a roaring fire on the road to keep warm until help arrived.”

As for emergencies he said, “If a regular hospital or a doctor was required the patient would be taken out by ‘speeder’ - basically, a motorized handcar with a roof that travelled the rail lines - to the Cochrane hospital. If you survived that cold, bumpy ride you'd probably live!” (You will see the ‘speeder’ if you watch the documentary referenced at the end of this story.)

“In the Canyon no one locked their doors and there were no police until the road to Smooth Rock Falls opened in 1966. At that time Ontario Hydro hired a security guard. People didn't have to worry much about people breaking into their homes at gunpoint and stealing things. Everyone knew everyone else and, after all, where would a criminal go? Being a company town, the homes were owned by Ontario Hydro. It wasn't uncommon for families to move from one house to another during their years there. If family sizes changed, or one family wanted a smaller house while another family wanted a larger one, the thing to do was to change houses.”

And nothing was taken for granted he said, “For most of the canyon years there was no regular minister. Once a month or so an Anglican minister, Catholic priest or United Church of Canada pastor would make a special trip into the Canyon to hold a service. I was an avid reader and I'd spend hours a week reading westerns and science fiction. Every six months, a bookmobile would be loaded onto a flatcar and taken by train to the Canyon. People would come in and stock up a six-month supply of library books - and in my case, that was a lot of books!

“Hunting and fishing were popular pastimes. In the fall many looked forward to moose season. If someone shot a moose there would generally be too much meat for any one family and it would be shared with others in the community. I enjoyed hunting partridge. Food was expensive, so that helped cut costs. Many people had boats and often went fishing for trout, pike and pickerel. There was also a cabin a few miles up the Abitibi River that people could use if they wanted. It was a favourite picnic site. I certainly remember the black flies and the smog machine that all the kids would run through for fun when they tried to kill the bugs!”

Town thoughts

Jeff Fournier is a North Bay community historian, known for his involvement in helping save and move the Dionne Quints home. Now retired he spent two years travelling to Abitibi Canyon for Ontario Hydro (now Ontario Power Generation).

“During that time, I worked at the Timmins control centre and operated Abitibi Canyon remotely. But I also worked for a year in Kapuskasing and travelled to the Canyon, operating the generators whenever Timmins lost communication to it or when I had to be shut it down and prepare it for the industrial trade crews to do maintenance work on it. We stayed at the Canyon Hotel (the staff quarters) while the station and generators were being worked on. “I can remember waking up some mornings and the temperature being -35 or -45. It was dark when we went to work. Working inside the station was like working in a mine - so we went to work in the dark, and went home (to the hotel) after work in the dark.”

What did Abitibi Canyon mean to the people of Ontario? Jeff said, “Well, although much of the power it produced did end up being used in the mines, and for the sawmills and by the residents of northern Ontario, in the early years, hugely impacting the entire Ontario economy, a great deal of the power went south toward Toronto in later years when the 500,000-volt lines that went from Pinard at Fraserdale then to Hamner and finally to Barrie were built. The lines nearly always transferred power south - not often did the power go the other way. In other words, the north was producing a surplus (especially after Otter Rapids and the three Mattagami generating stations were built in the 1960s).”

Spillway tsunami

None of us want to experience a tsunami but if you want to feel and see the power of a mountain of rushing water, go to the Canyon during the drawdown or spring runoff.

You’re riveted taking in the scene of a wall of water, the sound was deafening and reverberation was intense standing on the metal roadway crossing the dam.

On the day of photos and video, Abitibi Canyon was spilling 800-1000 cubic meters per second. If you used a standard swimming pool (373 cubic meters) for comparison the spillway was discharging 2.6 swimming pools per second or 160 pools per minute. Time your spring freshet visit with this graph.


To reach Abitibi Canyon, travel north on Highway 634 from Smooth Rock Falls You are in the boreal forest and there is a distinctive change in tree species. The Esso gas bar and restaurant (705-338-4044) opens at 6 AM and closes at 10 PM, it is the closest service centre. Be aware that you will lose cell service not far north of Smooth Rock. It is 73 km to Fraserdale and you turn right or NE towards Abitibi Canyon another 3.5 km. See the map.

And if you are geared up carry on to New Post Falls, one of the magnificent waterfalls in northern Ontario, and the HBC cemetery.

The dam

If you believe in ghosts it may be here. Of interest as you approach the dam you will see a monument erected by the contractor, Harry F. McLean who had completed the construction of the Abitibi Canyon power dam. The prose was a tribute to the common labourers who had worked (apparently at least four workers encased within the concrete died during construction) on these great and difficult projects. It is a four-sided cairn facing east, west, north and south. On each side is a bronze plaque and Rudyard Kipling's poem, Sons of Martha, is embossed on these plaques, with two verses on each. Kipling recited the poem to McLean and became the source of the landmark inspiration. On the opposite side of the road, you will see the memorial plaque dedicated to the ten hydro employees who died on September 4, 1976, when their plane crashed into the hydro tower 250 meters northwest of the dam.

Give this a watch Abitibi Canyon – Call of the Canyon, will hold your interest for 21 minutes. It is an early 1960s Ontario Hydro (then) documentary on daily life in the isolated northern Ontario community just before the highway to Smooth Rock Falls was completed.

Another treat within the film is the singing of the Blackfly Song, by the Canyon children, the unofficial anthem of northern Ontario. Around 1949 Wade Hemsworth, who at one time worked at the Canyon, wrote the well-known folk song. Author Joseph Boyden has written a short fictional story about the building of a dam on the Abitibi River within his collection of short stories Born with a Tooth.

This is a back roads adventure to do.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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