Villages v. Progress.

Sunday, March 1st, 2020

I have lately watched more old films from the 50s and 60s than I probably should admit. No, not the fine fiction you’d more likely find on Turner Classic Movies, but the juddery nonfiction you’d most likely had experienced through a Bell and Howell projector perched on a couple of a World Book Encyclopedia volumes in the back of your elementary school classroom.

The kind of experience where the martial music starts slow and wows up to speed, and the stentorian narrator speaks of American progress with a boomy optimism that these days makes me squirm a bit. There are splices and jumps at the beginning because the film has been shown and threaded and rewound and rethreaded so, so many times. But after 30 seconds or so the scratches subside and the opening titles conclude and we are deep into 20 minutes of exploring…

Detroit! Building those cars!

Freeways! Blasting our way through to our transportation future!

The miracle of touch tone dialing!

And most recently, I came across one entitled “The Eighth Sea,” an epic story of dam-building and river-rerouting and trenching and blasting and power generation as the rapid-filled St. Lawrence River was forged into the St. Lawrence Seaway, an engineering triumph of the late 50s. I was particularly interested in this because when we left the Upper Peninsula last fall, we drove through Canada and along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence, all the way out to Montréal and then Québéc City. We could see sections of the Ottawa with picturesque rapids, and we could see the results of the industrial labor along the St. Lawrence that made it possible to get freighters upriver to Lake Ontario and beyond.

This film starts with actors, all older white guys playing engineers talking in front of chalkboards about the challenges and plaintively saying “it couldn’t be done” followed by a sudden burst of confidence: “gentlemen, we can do this!” and then, well into the film, suddenly a youthful Walter Cronkite appears and takes us through in extensive detail, using models and tiny ships, the challenges of damming up this and trenching that and oh by the way, moving a village or two.

Walter Cronkite explains progress! From periscope’s YouTube upload.

Uh…what? Yeah, turns out that a lot of people, their homes and farmland were displaced by this project. Cemeteries. Roads. Railroads. One town, Iroquois, Ontario was moved “in its entirety” more than a mile from its original location. There’s a great article at the Canadian Encyclopedia on The Lost Villages and the effects that are still part of their lives.

But they made it work. And big ocean-size freighters could lock and steam up into the Great Lakes and bring…well, eventually zebra mussels.

That’s progress?

Oh, and did I say big ocean-size freighters? Well, now the shipping industry bemoans the Seaway’s 1960s-era size because those massive ‘Neo-Panamax‘ container ships…ah, well, they’re too big.

That’s progress.