The Town of Churchill Falls was created from scratch to allow for the construction and operation of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric generating station.
As some of the 650 residents told The Telegram recently, the company town has served its purpose and then some — with a sense of community continuing through to today.
According to “Brinco: The Story of Churchill Falls,” by Philip Smith (1975), contracts for camp buildings for construction of the Upper Churchill were issued within two weeks of a final decision to move ahead with the project.
“I think a lot of people at the time were still skeptical about Churchill Falls starting up,” former resident Stan Baikie said, recalling his family’s move to Churchill Falls from Twin Falls. “It was something, I guess, like Muskrat Falls starting today.”
The construction work employed about 6,300 workers over five years, including Baikie’s father, who worked as a heavy equipment operator.
Despite challenges during the construction, the Churchill Falls hydro station came in about five months ahead of schedule and on budget, at $946 million.
Life in a company town
“I saw pretty well everything. I can remember when Churchill Falls was nothing only trees and bog,” Baikie said, recalling the build.
“I was actually there when Joey pushed the button and blew the top off the hill,” he said, laughing at the memory.
The detonation was to allow the start of work on the penstocks — added to direct water to the underground powerhouse.
“There was a fair bit of traffic on the road (to the nearest rail station), all the transport trucks with the big transformers coming down for the switchyard and the powerhouse. It was a 24/7 operation at the time. There was a day shift and a night shift,” Baikie said.
Baikie followed in his father’s footsteps and became a heavy equipment operator.
He said most of his work time was spent maintaining the dykes and dams around the reservoir, as the hydro power station moved into day to day operations.
Outside work, downtime meant excursions into the woods, community events, or time playing hockey, broomball, softball and other sports.
“The town was like one big family. I guess today it still is — if something comes up, everyone’s there to help you out,” he said. “For raising a family, it’s an excellent place.”
Baikie said plenty of things changed at Churchill Falls from the time of construction to his retirement earlier this year, namely in transportation.
As an example, his first trip to Happy Valley-Goose Bay was by road in 1976. “I left after I got off work that evening and I got into Goose Bay the next morning. It was probably a 10 or 12-hour trip,” he said. Today a few hours will get you there.
Following retirement, Baikie moved from Churchill Falls to Badger, making way for new staff in the town of Churchill Falls. “I spent 35 years in CFLCo. And it was time to go,” he said.
A great opportunity
The current deputy fire chief in Churchill Falls, Jeff Ivany, moved to the town from Grand Falls-Windsor with his wife and children about 20 years ago.
“I was a firefighter home in Grand Falls for seven or eight years. I (had) seen this job posted, went up to ask my buddy about it and he said yeah, stick in an application,” he told The Telegram.
“Back in the day it was big money. Right now it’s on par with everybody else,” he said.
Yet while the pay scale might not be as dramatic as it once was, other benefits often tip the scales. For example, company housing offered at a low rental cost is a draw, particularly for a skilled worker in, say, Happy Valley-Goose Bay or Labrador West.
“If you took what the kids had growing up ...,” Ivany said, making note of snowmobile trips, the ski hill and other amenities.
Looking around the emergency vehicle bay, he said “the company,” Crown corporation Nalcor Energy, supplies everything the employees need, including the vehicles and equipment for regional rescue services.
On June 6, the Mary’s Harbour Volunteer Fire Department received a donated Jaws of Life, courtesy of the team at Churchill Falls Fire and Security Department. A new Jaws of Life had been purchased for the firefighters at Churchill Falls.
Ivany laughed when asked about living in a “company town,” where everyone seems to know everything.
“You’re going to get that in any small town,” he said.
“Anybody who says they don’t like it here doesn’t need to be here,” he said. “But I love it here.”