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Impressions of a company town: Churchill Falls

20 Feb 2013 by Sandra Phinney in Hiking & Walking , Nature , History and Geography
Region: Labrador

Remember those long, very long dirt roads? Yup—lots more on the way to Churchill Falls. At some point we passed Ranger Lake where we saw a camp and an RV. It was such a startling change from miles and miles of black spruce and sky, Barrie piped up “Jeez—it’s built up around here.” (I’ve heard it said that you know you’re a Labradorian when your idea of a traffic jam is two cars waiting to pass a moose. Although we didn’t see a moose on our way to Churchill Falls, seeing a camp and RV on that long and lonely stretch struck my funny bone.)  

Barrie (left) and Carvey Noble

Just outside of Churchill Falls, we pulled off into Bowdoin Canyon to meet up with Carvey Noble who took us for a handsome 30-minute hike along a ridge to see the remains of the original waterfall. The river was actually called the Hamilton River until Joey Smallwood changed it to Churchill River in 1965—ostensibly after Sir Winston Churchill (and so it wouldn’t be confused with other “Grand Falls” in Canada.) So that’s how Grand Falls became Churchill Falls. 

Now, although the waterfall isn’t 500 feet wide nor does it roar down the canyon anymore, it’s still a lovely sight and well worth the hike. There’s also an interesting story connected to the falls. In 1891 four young men graduated from Bowdoin College and sailed from Maine to Labrador with one of their professors. Part of their journey was to gather artifacts and scientific specimens but they also wanted to be credited with discovering Grand Falls. (I don’t think they knew that the first white man to visit the mighty falls was John McLean, on an expedition for the Hudson Bay Company.) 

Following the hike we ventured into Churchill Falls and had lunch with Carvey at the Midway Travel Inn. He’s the manager there. (It pays to have friends in high places. Ha!) The “inn” is part of one humungous building called the Donald Gordon Centre. It houses not only the motel with 20 rooms, but also a restaurant, school, skating rink, library, fitness centre, pool, curling rink, gym, post office and grocery store. 

Aside from this big complex, at first sight there doesn’t seem much to see in the town save for a few hundred non-descript mobile or pre-fab homes on a rather barren plateau. The homes here are only on one side of the road—to facilitate snow clearing (up to 15 m per year) and to allow for more privacy. Rent is $40/month for an apartment and around $100/month for a house. Electricity is free so heat and power is included in the rent. Easy to see why there are no wood stoves in Churchill Falls.

Along with the complex I mentioned, there are a few other buildings including an arena, medical clinic, pub, gas station, convenience store and small church. Anglican/United, Salvation Army/Pentecostal and Roman Catholic have their own time slots in the church and share the facility. Brilliant! 

Although the town of Churchill Falls would never win an award for natural beauty or design features, the big story here is the power plant and the fact that this is a “company town.”  About 650 live here and you can only live here if you are working for Nalcor Energy, or provide a service such as a teacher, minister, police, nurse, or store owner. Once you retire from the company, you have three months to pull out. Kind of creeps me out but it’s understandable. 

Looking around it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t road access here before 1967. But once the potential for harnessing the power of Churchill  Falls was set into motion, it was all systems go. Five years, 6,300 workers and $946 million dollars later, the first two generating units delivered power from the largest generating plant in the world.

Inside the generating station at Churchill Falls

Travellers are welcome to sign up for a free tour at the head office. (Plan on  2-3 hours). We learned a ton of information —like how there are 88 earth dykes totalling 40 miles in length and that the plant generates approximately 34 billion kilowatt hours of energy per year. The actual powerhouse is carved out of granite, 1327 feet underground. (It took us 1 minute and 30 seconds to go that far underground by elevator.) The inside of the plant houses massive penstocks and turbines and the “machine hall” is the length of three football fields. It also looked like what I imagine a space station to look like—only bigger. Think Star Wars. 

It all seemed a bit surrealistic, although there were human touches here and there. For example, we saw bits of loose change tucked into holes in the wall of the “refuge chamber.” It’s considered good luck to leave money. 

After the tour we bid goodbye to our tour guide and headed out of town en route to Happy Valley Goose Bay. Road sign read: NEXT SERVICE 294 K. CHECK FUEL 

We did.