By Anatolijs Venovcevs and James Williamson
Twin Falls is one of the cornerstones for the rapid industrialization of the Labrador Peninsula, but you won’t find much about it in the history books.1
Situated on the Unknown River, a tributary of the Churchill River (known locally as Mishta-Shipu or the Grand River), Twin Falls was part of the iron ore developments in western Labrador facilitated by the construction of the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway to Schefferville in 1954. To secure power for new iron mining communities of Labrador City and Wabush, construction at Twin Falls began in 1959. At its peak, Twin Falls was a community with over 600 workers and 21 families divided between the Till Hill workcamp and the Twin Falls settlement that hugged both sides of the Twin Falls power station. What made the place unique among contemporaneous industrial projects is that it had a large Indigenous workforce, having been recruited from military, commercial, and other settler institutions in coastal and central Labrador.
Twin Falls is also unique in the speed of its abandonment. After producing first power in 1962, the power plant was expanded twice, in 1966 and in 1968, following the energy demands in the mining communities. The official end of Twin Falls came in 1972 with the construction of Churchill Falls – a much larger hydroelectric facility that dwarfed the earlier project. The power plant was mothballed until such a time it would be needed again while the community was dismantled with many residential buildings moved to Churchill Falls.
This brief historical account tells of the rapid rise and fall of Twin Falls but misses the last 50 years where the power plant slid from a vital node in the colonization of the Labrador Peninsula to the heavy conflicted heritage of the last industrial age. Archaeology offers an alternative account – an account not based solely upon people and recorded events but rather upon the materiality of abandonment, of persistence and transformation.
To create an archaeological account of Twin Falls, we surveyed the remote hydroelectric facility and settlement earlier this summer. The survey primarily consisted of drone-based orthographic mapping of the main parts of the facility but also included image capture for photogrammetric modelling, site visitation, photography, audio recordings, and the excavation of two 50 x 50 cm test units.
“Archaeology, as a discipline, relies upon the fact that things persist long after their use for humans has ended.”
Archaeology, as a discipline, relies upon the fact that things persist long after their use for humans has ended and, even at a site like Twin Falls, where efforts were made to remove traces of human occupation from the settlement and work camp areas, vestiges emerge to delineate the past. Former locations of settlement and the hydroelectric reservoir, once deforested and flooded, are clearly marked in the drone imagery by the thick forest of speckled alders (Alnus incana rugosa) that creates a dense habitat for mosquitos and blackflies to thrive. In this canopy, variations in alder height delimit locations of former roads that once ran through the settlement.
While many of the buildings were either burned, dismantled, or hauled wholly out of the community on tractors, the footprints of at least nine buildings remain as concrete or asphalt footings – the surfaces of some footings are ladened with artifacts like nuts and bolts, pull tabs, electrical insulators, and tags from vanished machinery; the surfaces of others display spectral stains from walls and tiled floors evoking the rooms occupied by people half a century earlier.
“It would be inaccurate to say that the settlement of Twin Falls is gone. Rather, it changed forms and persists.”
It would be inaccurate to say that the settlement of Twin Falls is gone. Rather, it changed forms and persists.
The only standing structures at the site are those related to the energy production – the power plant, penstocks, intake facilities, spillway, and dams are much like they were in 1972. The machines still stand ready to be used even though the facility itself has been mothballed into obsolescence. In conversations with the current landowner, Nalcor Energy, we learned that the plan originally was to one day possibly reuse the plant. Now, it is too expensive to remove and too impractical to renovate.
Beyond the concrete remains and the vegetal afterlives there is the heritage of chemical rubble left at the site. Signs posted around the standing industrial facilities warn about PCBs, dioxins, and furans both in the buildings and in Bonnell Creek, downstream from the power plant.2 However, our encounter with toxins at the site was more personal – upon excavating one of our test units inside of what appeared to be a building addition, we came down on a thin layer of buried asbestos, in addition to the fragments of asbestos tiles that once covered the floors we were standing on. Soil samples were taken to see if what we excavated contained concentrations of heavy chemicals.
These encounters increased our suspicions about the water around us – was it safe for us to clean with or to brush our teeth? In fact, our entire time at the site, camping in a former settlement, running a generator by a former power plant, struggling for water when practically surrounded by it, highlights the contradictions that arise through the rapid cycles of development and abandonment that broadly characterize this latest stage of modernity.
This disassociation is heightened by the fact that the few oral testimonies we have look back upon Twin Falls with fondness and nostalgia. Twin Falls was a nice place to live and work, and many lives intersected with it. Why did it end up as something so forlorn and polluted? One possible way to reconcile these depictions is to reflect on the everyday pollution that characterized Twin Falls’ systematic operations. Our archaeological work reveals that, rather than creating a sacrifice zone by design, Twin Falls became a sacrifice zone through the normal, everyday actions of its creation, operation, and abandonment.3
By way of conclusion, if things make history slow, what slow history does the archaeology at Twin Falls espouse?4 Twin Falls has been abandoned for five times longer than it has been in operation and yet the traces of the former settlement have not disappeared nor has the ground returned to an imagined pre-industrial condition. The material at the site is still ladened with the spectral traces of walls and tiles while the machines stand ready to supply power once again. In this slowness, the chemical and the concrete rubble linger as involuntary heritage cast aside during the rapid industrialization of Labrador – a valuable lesson for today, when the region once again is viewed as a trove of hydroelectric potential.
Feature Image: Twin Falls intake station. Photo by Anatolijs Venovcevs.
1 In their corporate history on the Iron Ore Company of Canada, Richard Geren and Blake McCullough discuss the site on pages 264-267 and Bill Rompkey, in his history of Labrador, only briefly mentions Twin Falls on pages 134-135. G., Richard, and B. McCullough. (1990). Cain’s Legacy: The Building of Iron Ore Company of Canada. Sept-Iles, Quebec: Iron Ore Company of Canada. Rompkey, B. (2003). The Story of Labrador. Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
However, we should not overlook the small collection of short but invaluable transcribed oral stories gathered by Them Days Magazine and Archives which capture first-hand accounts from Labradorians about life at Twin Falls. These include: M. McLean. (1989). “Twin Falls”. Them Days: 5-25. B. Katie. (2008). “Lots to Do in Twin Falls.” Them Days: 20-32; B. Katie. (2011). “Katie’s Stories.” Them Days 2011: 41-44. B. Dick. (2013). “It Was a Good Way to Live.” Them Days: 58-65.
2 Term derived from S. Ureta. (2016). “Chemical Rubble: Historicizing Toxic Waste on a Former Mining Town in Northern Chile.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia.
3 Lerner, S. (2010). Sacrifice Zones. Cambridge: MIT Press.
4 Olsen, B. (2013). “Reclaiming Things: An Archaeology of Matter.” In P. R. Carlile, D. Nicolini, A. Langley, and H. Tsoukas (Eds.), How Matter Matters: Objects, Artifacts, and Materiality in Organization Studies (pp. 171-196). Oxford Scholarship Online.