The blunder of Saskatchewan's northern dam, 100 years on
La Colle Falls project nearly drove Prince Albert into bankruptcy
An avid history buff is marking the 100th anniversary of the day the plug was pulled on a massive hydroelectric project that was started on the Saskatchewan River, north of Prince Albert, Sask.
What was launched as the La Colle Falls Hydroelectric Development instead became a multi-million dollar monument to lofty ambitions, and a financial millstone for Prince Albert taxpayers for decades to come.
"The dam was one-third finished, into the river," Paul Van Pul, a hydraulic archaeology surveyor who has written extensively on the La Colle blunder, said Tuesday. "They never managed to start building the power station."
According to Van Pul, who checked out the remnants of the project, there are only a few holes in the ground that could have been the start of foundation work for a power plant.
The unfinished dam, however, is a prominent — if odd-looking — feature on the river.
By the time the project was halted two years of construction work had gone into it and Prince Albert had spent $3 million, or about $62 million in today's terms, adjusting for inflation using a Bank of Canada calculator.
"The project was, in fact, too big for the engineers from Prince Albert," Van Pul believes, when asked how it was that the plan was scrubbed. "They had to depend on the city engineer at the time who had no experience at all building such a big, complicated project."
The city was sold on a hydroelectric dam by the engineer who developed Niagara Falls. That expert, however, rarely checked in on how the La Colle venture was proceeding.
Van Pul said design changes, during construction, also added to the costs.
The burden of loans used to finance a project that was never completed nearly drove Prince Albert into bankruptcy, and it wasn't until 1965 that the debt was paid off.
"P.A. never became the second-largest city of Saskatchewan just because of La Colle Falls," Van Pul believes.
"And the thing is, they almost got there," he added, wistfully.
Van Pul is hoping the concrete structure that remains is designated a heritage site.
"It's a cautious reminder," he said, even as cities embark on large-scale projects today. "Something can go wrong and then we're stuck with it for the next 50 years."