Compared to a hundred years ago, the Columbia River is almost unrecognizable. Stretching from British Columbia to Oregon, the Columbia River now has over 60 dams in place. Used primarily for hydroelectricity, these dams are critical pieces of infrastructure for life in Canada and the United States. However, their construction did not come without consequences.
Stories Beneath the Surface is a Revelstoke Museum and Archives exhibit, focused on the construction of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam and the lives it affected. Recently, this exhibit joined the Community Stories program by Digital Museums Canada. Through funding, the program aims to bring local stories to life with digital technology. So far, the online version of the exhibit will include 20 pages of photos, video interviews and audio recordings.
“This will give visitors to the site a chance to learn about this aspect of our region’s history and will reach a broader audience than we are able to through the physical exhibit at the museum,” says Cathy English, Revelstoke Museum and Archives curator. Currently, the museum has an interactive map of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam available online. History buffs can step back in time and explore the area virtually with this feature.
Background: The History of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam
Located just outside Castlegar, the Hugh Keenleyside Dam changed the landscape of the Columbia River valley all the way to Revelstoke. The project also created the Arrow Lakes reservoir, which is a whopping 230 kilometres long. By the time construction finished in 1969, over 2,000 people were displaced.
Entire communities were sacrificed for this project, under the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty was originally signed in 1961 by former prime minister John Diefenbaker, and former United States president Dwight Eisenhower. However, the Treaty Protocol and Canada-B.C. agreement were not fully ratified until 1964.
“There was no consultation with the people living in the valley, and many felt that their rural lifestyle was not valued and that compensation was not adequate,” explains English. Submerged communities include Mount Cartier, a Ukrainian farming settlement approximately 12 kilometres south of Revelstoke, and Arrowhead, a former steamboat port in Upper Arrow Lake.
There are also elements of Indigenous history highlighted in Stories Beneath the Surface. The Sinixt, Ktunaxa and Secwepemc lived in the area long before Europeans began settling. However, many of the Indigenous people in the area were displaced before dam construction began. Nonetheless, the flooding of the valley affected these groups as well.
In the process of flooding the Columbia River valley, massive amounts of habitat and farmland were lost. Approximately 212 kilometres of river, lakes and valley bottomland flooded. While this destroyed many habitats, it also formed new wetlands along the banks of the flood zones. Looking underwater, there is still evidence of the previous settlements. Heritage, history and sentimental items mark the lives uprooted by Hugh Keenleyside Dam construction. Nature is slowly reclaiming these artifacts, as they rust away underwater.