9 October 2018:
Baie-Comeau, Quebec, Canada:
Company Town

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

I went with guests today for a tour of a recreation of an old logging camp and a pass-by of huge aluminum and paper mills. It was a cold and wet day on the Saint Lawrence, but we were met by warm Canadian hospitality.

Here is some of what we saw:

BAIE-COMEAU TODAY

Havre St. Pancrace

Fall Colors in the Saint Lawrence

Baie-Comeau is on the Côte-Nord, or north bank, of the Saint Lawrence, near the mouth of the Manicouagan River.

You’ve heard the term company town, right?

Baie-Comeau was a company town that essentially grew out of a single man’s investment and homestead.

And he wasn’t even a Canadian.

Robert Rutherford McCormick rose through the family business to become owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. He was one of those publishers who felt that his newspaper was his personal megaphone.

(He was also a part owner of the Tribune’s high-power radio station which bore the call sign WGN, as in his print publication’s modest motto, “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”

A conservative Republican, he was a fierce opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Also Democrats in general, liberal Republicans, easterners, the World Court, the League of Nations, and later the United Nations.

Oh, and also he intensely disliked the British Empire. He was an America First isolationist who strongly opposed entering World War II and supporting Britain.

So what was he doing in the Dominion of Canada, part of the British Empire until 1982?

Why, he was using the abundant water resources of Quebec and what seemed like an endless supply of soft wood trees to construct a paper mill and a hydroelectric power plant to operate it. McCormick owned 60 percent of the power plant, with the Alcoa aluminum company holding a minority stake.

Newspapers—more so then than now—needed huge amounts of paper upon which to print, and McCormick found a way to go around the middlemen by making his own.

McCormick established the town of Baie-Comeau in 1936. He modestly named the structure holding back the Manicouagan river the McCormick Dam.

MORE COMPANY TOWNS

The economy was also very much in the thrall of lumbering companies on the North Shore, and in more recent times huge aluminum smelting facilities. Aluminum is mostly made from bauxite ore, of which there is nearly none anywhere in Canada. Bauxite comes mostly from China, Australia, Brazil, Jamaica, and a few other places non-Canadian.

So why are there these huge smelters here? Because the production of aluminum requires massive amounts of electricity, and that is something Quebec has in abundance. Huge hydroelectric plants produce power and it makes economic sense to import ore from around the world to the Saint Lawrence Valley for smelting. (It’s a similar story in Iceland, where hydroelectric and thermoelectric power plants produce very low cost power for industry.)

TRAGEDY ON THE RIVER

Back out on the Saint Lawrence is the location of the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.

Not the Titanic.

The luxury liner Empress of Ireland was built in Scotland and launched in 1906. About 570 feet long (about 120 feet shorter than the Silver Spirit), she could carry as many as 1,580 passengers on her route between the United Kingdom and Canada.

In the dark, in a dense bank of fog, the ship was struck amidships by the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad. 

Water poured in through open portholes, some of which were only a few feet above the water. Most of the passengers and crew in the lower decks drowned quickly.

Only four lifeboats were launched before the ship rolled onto its starboard side. As many as 700 passengers and crew scrambled onto the side of the ship.

It seemed for a moment that the vessel had run aground. But fourteen minutes after the crash, the ship sank.

1,012 people drowned, the largest maritime disaster in Canadian history. Of that number, 840 were passengers, eight more than the number who died on the Titanic.

Happening just two years after the sinking of the Titanic, the story of the Empress of Ireland was all but ignored.

The vessel is still down there, a mere 130 feet below the surface.

1,012 dead, not in the North Atlantic, but in the river…and the poor souls did not even get a dreadful James Cameron movie to memorialize them.

All photos and text Copyright 2018 by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

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