New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Electrical Power From the Reversing Falls

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Electrical Power From the Reversing Falls

Reversing Falls 2

The Reversing Falls

From between 1915 and 1921.

The lower reaches of the Saint John River have flood plains, levees, bayous and everything that it takes to demonstrate that the river is ‘old’, having been there, eroding a lazy course, for a very long time. Glaciers dammed off the mouth of the river at Musquash, however, and forced the water to find a new course through a narrow gorge where it now rushes to the sea in a violent torrent. At high tide, the water in the harbour rises above the level of the water in the river and the flow through the gorge is equally violent, but in the opposite direction. The gorge is therefore called the Reversing Falls. There are a couple of hours between the tides when the water is as calm as a lake, and ships can pass. This is called ‘slack tide.’

In the early part of the 20th century there was a rush to develop the new source of energy that would eventually replace steam. Dams were being built to harness the hydraulic power of streams and to convert the energy into electricity. It was obvious to everyone that there was a lot of energy in the Reversing Falls and that it could cheaply power Saint John homes and businesses – if only it could be harnessed. This prospect was especially attractive, since the days of sail were gone, and very many jobs with them. Saint John needed new industries.

The prospect of developing the Falls as a power source posed some significant difficulties. It was not a conventional stream in that it flowed in opposite directions at different times of the day. There was also a period between the tides when no power could be generated. Finally, the Falls could not be dammed in a conventional way since ships needed to pass. And so, a project to generate electricity from the Falls remained a matter of speculation. It was just a dream.

The possibility of such a project again entered the public debate in around 1905, and many people had opinions about it. The Saint John Daily Sun therefore commissioned a report by an Ontario engineer who, they said, was an expert on the subject. His opinion was published in their newspaper on January 4, 1906, wherein he said that the project was possible, but only by the utmost stretch of technology, and that it would be enormously expensive. The site was unlike any other that had been tackled previously. The only practical method would be a modest installation of undershot wheels1, but such things were inefficient and would generate so little power as not to be worth the trouble.

The undershot wheels idea was a reference to Elijah Ross, who proposed to use such a device to pump water into a storage tank at a higher elevation, for release during slack tide when the Falls were not producing power. There was a campaign to build a railroad car building plant at Saint John, and Ross’s contribution to that idea was that power for the plant could come from the Falls.

The Daily Sun had presented an opinion, but they were not advocating for or against the idea. People with innovative ideas are also not often swayed by others’ opinions, and the Daily Sun published a letter to the editor from J.E. Fraser only six days later. Mr. Fraser insisted that it could be done.

Fraser did not like Ross’s idea to pump water into a reservoir because, he said, it would be too expensive and would only provide a pressure of about 70 psi upon release. Fraser proposed instead to build an underground bunker strong enough to contain compressed air at a pressure of up to 230 psi, and to use this during slack tide. Fraser’s invention would be fairly modest and inexpensive, or so he said, and would not require the shipway to be obstructed.

The Daily Sun article with the opinion of an Ontario engineer had been published only a week earlier, and Fraser was moved to “warn the city council not to expect too much from an engineer even when brought from a distance, for frequently engineers are engineers only through education, lacking entirely the quality which education cannot give – the faculty of inventiveness on the power to adapt true mechanical principles to new conditions.”

Dreams of developing electrical power from the Reversing Falls were not   quite dead when, on March 8 of 1911 the Dawson Daily News reported that some Ontario businessmen thought that they had a means of storing the energy generated by the Falls to overcome the problem of the slack tide. This does not seem to have been a serious proposal, since they were not even prepared to send an engineer to examine the site until the city provided photographs and flow data.

That was the debate from the first decade of the 20th century, over the possibility of getting electrical power from the Reversing Falls. There is no doubt that there is a lot of energy in the Falls, but it seems that the Ontario engineer was probably right in one respect at least: developing the Falls potential would have been enormously expensive.

  1. An undershot wheel is a paddlewheel of the type seen on a water powered saw mill or a river steam boat, for example.

Written by johnwood1946

March 10, 2015 at 3:11 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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