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Abitibi Canyon - a world of its own
This writer (Bob Hunter) has been asked on several occasions - well, once or twice, anyway! - to write about growing up in an isolated Canadian community. To date he hasn't done that, even turning down a couple of television interviews on the topic. That silence comes to an end today and Abitibi Canyon will be described through the eyes of Abitibibob, who lived there from 1951-1968. (I will occasionally update this article as I think of more things to add. Last updated September 23, 2017)
Founding of Abitibi Canyon
In 1930 the Ontario Power Service Corporation began building the Abitibi Canyon Generating Station. The company went into receivership and construction was taken over by Ontario Hydro in 1933. Several construction workers died during the building of the plant. Some are are buried at the top of a nearby hill, known by various names over the years - to this writer it was called Bear Hill. Others are literally buried in the concrete of the power plant.
The community of Abitibi Canyon, located 100 miles south of James Bay, was built in 1930 along the Abitibi River to house the families of the construction workers and later those who would man the power plant. Abitibi Canyon was the James Bay watershed - from the "Canyon" the waters flowed north to James Bay. Over the 52 year existence of the Canyon the population ranged from 130 to 300 people. This writer grew up in the community between the years 1951-1968, or from the age of 2 until nearly 19 years of age.
Abitibi Canyon was an isolated community, with several homes, one grocery store, one truck, a nurse's office, a recreation hall and a staff house to house visitors and the unmarried Ontario Hydro employees. The main means of access to the Canyon was by railroad, although sometimes float planes or helicopters would land. The Ontario Northland Railroad (ONR) traveled daily between the Ontario communities of Cochrane and Moosonee, located on the shores of James Bay. The closest the train came to the Canyon was the railway station at Fraserdale. Fraserdale consisted of a handful of buildings owned by the ONR, and was three miles from Abitibi Canyon. Ontario Hydro had a small train of its own that ran the remaining three miles to the Canyon. The ONR train - later called the Polar Bear Express - would generally travel from Cochrane to Moosonee one day and return to Cochrane the next, but the schedule would vary throughout the years. It would stop at Fraserdale and drop off food and mail on its way to Moosonee. For some reason mail going to Fraserdale, Ontario would sometimes go instead to Fraserville, Nova Scotia, and vice versa.
Traveling on the ONR train could be aggravatingly slow at times. It was 69 miles from Cochrane to Fraserdale but the train would often stop on its way to shuffle box cars around. The crew would even stop to do some fishing alongside the rail line or to pick up a hunter!
However, there was a dining car where travelers could go and get something to eat - but not without some dangers attached. I remember one occasion when the train came to a sudden stop and entire pots of coffee went flying.
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 Canyon was small enough that the residents would walk to where they had to go or use a bicycle in the summer. Summers were short. July was the only month one could guarantee no snow. August was sometimes wet and cool.
This writer 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!
There was an outdoor swimming pool that was popular in the Summer months. I remember it being built and putting my name, along with other names, in the concrete beside the pool entrance gate.
For many years there was a community garden where people would have plots to grow whatever vegetables they could in the relatively short growing season. Usually that would be such things as potatoes, onions, carrots or tomatoes.
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.
Card tournaments were big - bridge, cribbage, gin rummy and other card games took place regularly in peoples homes.
Baseball was popular in the Summer, of course!
Whenever it was time for the kids to come indoors for the evening you'd hear the mothers shouting out the door for their sons or daughters to come in. Since the Canyon was so small their voices would carry throughout the community, so there was little excuse for not heading for home!
Starting around 1956 television arrived in the Canyon. I think the Beamish family may have been the first to have a set and gradually a few others bought them, including the Hunters. We had a black and white Viking television purchased from Eaton's catalogue, very similar to the one shown here. There was only one television station, that being CFCL in Timmins, which was owned by J. Conrad Lavigne. The picture was snowy and we considered ourselves lucky if we could see the hockey puck on the ice during a hockey game. Other shows of the 50s and 60s included Razzle Dazzle, The Friendly Giant, Chez Helene, Front Page Challenge, Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Perry Mason and my favourite - when I managed to sneak into the living room to watch it - the Twilight Zone! In the early days it was common for people to drop in to the homes of those with TV sets to watch a show.
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.
The first house I lived in was on top of a hill - but we had to share the house with the mice! During the seventeen years there we lived in four different houses.
"The Rec Hall"
The recreation hall was used for dances, movies and church. Every Saturday afternoon there would be a movie, opening with the latest newsreel, followed by a cartoon or two for the kids, then the main movie. My father was one of the projectionists and I would often join him in the projection room. It was too noisy to actually hear the movie, though, so I'd sit on the stairs outside the room and watch. The basement of the hall housed a - oh, no! - pool room.
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 in to the Canyon to hold a service. During the mid-60s there was a regular United Church minister who would cover the Canyon, Island Falls and Clute area. My mother was a pianist for the United Church services for many years.
The rec hall was also used for parties for the kids - especially Halloween and Christmas. I vividly remember the Christmas parties and Santa Claus bursting through the back door, down the steps and into the hall. I could never figure out why this Santa Claus looked different from the Santa Claus that appeared regularly on CFCL television during the Christmas season and never got a satisfactory answer from my parents.
Speaking of Christmas, because there were no stores in the Canyon most of our shopping, especially at Christmas time, was done through the Eaton's and Simpsons catalogues. In our house we'd often browse through the Christmas catalogue and put our initials beside whatever items interested us. Then an order would be placed to Eaton's or Simpsons in Toronto.
It's Hockey Season!
When winter came along, skiing, skating, hockey and curling were popular sports. Naturally, snowball fights were popular with the kids, along with building forts and tunnels in the snowbanks (dangerous, yes, but we survived!).
When the power plants at Little Long Rapids, Harmon and Kipling were built the school kids had a curling tournament between the Canyon and Little Long. I was the Skip for the Canyon team and we won! I still have the trophy.
Being Canada, hockey was big. In that day there were only six NHL teams - the Toronto Make Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and the Chicago Black Hawks. In my opinion, the quality of hockey player was much higher because comparatively few players made it to the professional leagues.
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 in to their homes at gunpoint and stealing things. Everyone knew everyone else and, after all, where would a criminal go?
There was no hospital, as such, in the Canyon, during the 50s and 60s. There was a building that housed a nurse who would take care of any emergencies (such as a certain nameless writer getting a fishing hook in the back of his head!) At one time one of the nurses, Louise Corriveau, had also served as a nurse to the Dionne Quintuplets. In later years she wrote a book that included a chapter about the quints called Quints to Queens. If a regular hospital or a doctor was required the patient would be taken out by "speeder" - basically, a motorized handcar with a roof and that traveled the rail lines - to the Cochrane hospital. If you survived that cold, bumpy ride you'd probably live!
When I was about 5 years old I got bronchial pneumonia and was running a temperature of up to 105. I remember it to this day. As it turned out a doctor from Cochrane was on a hunting trip near the Canyon and my father went out and found him. He came and gave me a shot of penicillin. Not sure why the nurse didn't do that, come to think of it. In any event, I was left with bronchitis for many years that limited the physical activity I could do. I'm sure my father's smoking habit didn't help any either.
School, during the early years this writer attended, was a two-room schoolhouse that would teach the children from Kindergarten through the tenth grade. Later extra classrooms were added. One teacher would teach four or five grades at once. Every year a Christmas concert was put on by the school at the recreation hall. That was our favourite time of year, getting time off of classes to build sets, learn our lines, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!
Most kids probably had a favourite teacher. Mine was Margaret Glendinning. She was tough, but everyone knew she cared. She saw my potential as a writer (being an author herself) and encouraged me. Some may remember her book "Gertie the Horse Who Thought and Thought," published in 1951, You can read the first chapter here.
Firing spitballs was a popular way to get into trouble. I remember shooting one at a kid in front of me, missing and hitting the chalk board, inches from Miss Glendinning. Boy, I was in trouble and felt bad about it at the same time!
One of the most memorable events that took place during my time there was in the fall of 1961 when the school kids wrote a letter to Sir Winston Churchill, congratulating him on his 87th birthday. The students each wrote a letter and the three best ones were then sent to the former British Prime Minister. The Canyon students were thrilled when Sir Winston hmself sent a personal reply back thanking the kids for the well wishes. To add to the excitement, the Toronto Telegram did an article on the event.
When a road was finally built to the Canyon the older kids were bused to the grand opening which took place at the Smooth Rock Falls end. Ontario Premier John Robarts along with Minister of Education Bill Davis took part in the ribbon cutting. Davis would later become the Premier. Several of the kids in grades 11 and 12 were bused every day the 45 miles each way to the high school in 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.
Before the road, for the most part the only time people would see "civilization" was when they would go on vacation. Every summer my family would take a two or three week vacation - usually visiting friends and family throughout Ontario, but sometimes taking a trip to British Columbia or to relatives in Montreal. It was a real novelty to see cars, pavement, stores, and the one escalator in Northern Ontario at that time, located in Timmins. Yes, the Hunter family did have a car - in fact, they co-owned a car with another family from the Canyon and when the car wasn't being used it was stored at a garage in Cochrane.
The Blackfly Song
Not All a Bed of Roses
From the description one might get the impression that Abitibi Canyon was another Mayberry, but it wasn't. Humans being what they are, there were problems. Additionally, during the winter temperatures could drop into the 50s and 60s below zero. In the summer the mosquitoes, blackflies, deerflies and horseflies were merciless. Around 1949 Wade Hemsworth, who at one time worked at the Canyon, wrote a well-known folk song, The Blackfly Song, describing the little monsters (the flies, not the children!) that would torment anyone who dared to step outdoors in the Summertime. You can hear that song as sung by the Canyon children in the video below, "Call of the Canyon," or the National Film Board's humorous version of it here.
There was a high turnover rate, but those who stuck it out were tough! It was hard to get people to move to the Canyon and once there it was difficult to get transferred to another community. For many Canyon children Abitibi Canyon was the only place they had ever known, and so it was perhaps easier for the them than for the adults who had known a different type of life.
Undoubtedly there are other similar communities in Canada, but Canyonites have a common bond that draws them together. Although they may have lived there at different times over a period of fifty years and under different living circumstances than other Canyonites, nevertheless it was rugged country and there is something about the Canyon that binds the former residents together. Many, like this writer, would jump at the chance to move back there again. An Abitibi Canyon website was started several years ago by myself that reunited a lot of Canyonites that had become separated. There is now a Facebook page for Abitibi Canyon as well. Several Canyon reunions have been held and undoubtedly there will be more in the future.
Two videos talk about life at the Canyon:
1. Call of the Canyon
In the mid-1960s a 21 minute documentary was done on Abitibi Canyon called "Call of the Canyon." Below you can watch that film and learn more about life there. For those who lived there they will recognize the places and people. Enjoy!
2. Patty's Page
On February 7, 2015 I was a guest on my wife's TV show talking about growing up in the Canyon.
Call of the Canyon
Patty's Page - Memories of Abitibi Canyon
Also of Interest
- Stompin Tom Connors - Canadian Music legend
Meet Stompin' Tom Connors, a truly unique Canadian music legend, with such songs as Bud the Spud, The Bug Song, The Ketchup Song, and The Hockey Song!