Hydro Hall of Fame: Shawinigan-2: Ahead of Its Time and Still Running Strong

Hydro-Quebec’s 200-MW Shawinigan-2 powerhouse has been operating for 100 years, providing electricity to power industry in the province. This historic plant is the most recent inductee into the Hydro Hall of Fame.

By Jacques Chauvette and Mario Lachance

For 100 years, the Shawinigan-2 powerhouse has harnessed the fast-moving waters of the Saint-Maurice River in the province of Quebec, Canada, to generate electricity. With its total installed capacity of 200 MW supplied by eight generating units, it ranks 31st in size among Hydro-Quebec’s 60 hydro generating stations.

Shawinigan-2 is the oldest powerhouse belonging to the public utility, and it is one of the oldest generating facilities in Canada. Its architecture is outstanding. It is also one of the few stations in North America that contains both horizontal-axis and vertical-axis generators. And in 1987, Engineers Canada designated the Shawinigan-2 powerhouse as one of the top 25 achievements in Canadian engineering.

Discover the oldest powerhouse in Quebec still in operation, which is now the latest inductee into the Hydro Hall of Fame.

200-MW Shawinigan-2 powerhouse
Work on the 200-MW Shawinigan-2 powerhouse began in 1910, and the first two generating units began operating in 1911. (Photo courtesy Archives d’Hydro-Quebec)

Its origins: Shawinigan Water and Power

In North America, the Age of Electricity began in 1882 in New York State, when Thomas Edison started the first generating station, with steam turbines. Canada soon followed suit. In 1885, the first hydro plant in Canada was built near the falls at Montmorency to provide light to the city of Quebec. The first hydro facility in the Montreal area was built in 1892 on the Lachine canal. In 1897, the 480-kW Saint-Narcisse station, in Mauricie, supplied electricity to the city of Trois-Rivieres by means of a 27-kilometer-long line, the longest in the British Empire at the time.

North American engineers considered the falls at Shawinigan, 150 kilometers east of Montreal, to be one of the best hydropower sites on the continent, and the falls attracted the attention of a number of businessmen from Canada and the U.S. In 1897, the government of Quebec put the rights to develop the falls up for sale but required the future buyer to generate $4 million in economic spinoffs for the region within the first 30 months after the sale.

In September 1897, the rights to develop the 44-meter-high falls were granted to John Joyce, a Boston businessman. He soon sought out partners, and John Edward Aldred joined him in founding Shawinigan Water and Power Co. (SW&P). Aldred, from Lawrence, Mass., was treasurer from 1898 to 1909, then chairman and the company’s true leader until 1933.

After receiving the concession, SW&P began developing the site and even building a new town, called Shawinigan, with amenities designed to attract a skilled workforce, as well as builders and investors like Belgo and Shawinigan Carbide, to the region. Thanks to its plentiful supply of electricity, Shawinigan was to become one of Canada’s busiest industrial sites, with the country’s first aluminum smelter, a pulp and paper mill, chemical plant and textile mill.

Shawinigan’s industrial complex was inspired by that of Niagara Falls, and it became known as the “Niagara of the East.” As at Niagara Falls, developed in 1895, it was engineer Wallace C. Johnson who oversaw construction of SW&P’s 43-MW first powerhouse, called Shawinigan-1. Johnson also supervised construction of a 24-MW generating station for the Northern Aluminum Company (later known as Alcan), which set up Canada’s first aluminum smelter in 1901. To meet the growing demand for aluminum, other potrooms were built, thus necessitating a second powerhouse, AL-16, commissioned in 1907. (A potroom is a building unit at an aluminum reduction plant that houses a group of electrolytic cells in which aluminum is produced.) The two Northern Aluminum powerhouses were just a few meters away from Shawinigan-1.

The machinery for the Shawinigan-1 facility was also supplied by the same manufacturers as the equipment used at Niagara Falls: the turbines by I.P. Morris of Philadelphia and the generators by Westinghouse. At both locations, the hydropower facilities gave birth to major industrial centers focusing on the production of aluminum and chemicals.

In early 1902, SW&P started building a 135-kilometer-long transmission line to supply electricity from the Shawinigan-1 powerhouse to the city of Montreal. This was a major technological challenge, as to date the longest transmission line east of the Mississippi was only 35 km, between Niagara Falls and Buffalo, N.Y. (In 1899, the Colgate generating station on the Yuba River in California supplied the city of Sacramento with power over a 98-kilometer-long line.) In March 1903, SW&P achieved a major feat when it commissioned its aluminum line with a capacity of 50,000 volts. The next year, it put a second transmission line to Montreal into operation.

original units installed at Shawinigan-2
The original units installed at Shawinigan-2 were horizontal-axis generating units with a capacity of 15,000 kV. (Photo courtesy Hydro-Quebec)

The sale of electricity on the Montreal market, combined with the strong demand from Shawinigan companies, led to construction of Shawinigan-2 in 1910. The work was supervised by SW&P’s chief engineer, Julian C. Smith, who was chairman of SW&P from 1933 to 1939. In 1911, Shawinigan-2 started producing power when the first two horizontal-axis 15,000-kV generators were commissioned. At the time, they were among the most powerful generators in North America. A third generating unit was added in 1913 and two in 1914. In 1922, the first vertical-axis generator was installed; it could produce 30,000 kV. In 1928 and 1929, two more equally powerful vertical-axis generators were put into production. To accommodate all the generators, the powerhouse was expanded in 1913, 1921 and 1928.

To meet the needs of its customers and the ever-growing market, SW&P built seven generating stations on the Saint-Maurice River between 1913 and 1958. The 400-kilometer-long river, with a 400-meter difference in elevation between the source and the mouth, had considerable hydroelectric potential, especially after the Gouin Reservoir, covering an area of 1,789 square kilometers, was built in 1917 to regulate the flow of the river. One of the noteworthy power plants on the Saint-Maurice is at Rapide-Blanc, built in 1930, in the middle of the woods more than 130 kilometers north of Shawinigan. It would take four years to build the 204-MW generating station and a new village. The huge worksite set an example for future large-scale hydroelectric projects in Canada, such as the 335-MW Manicouagan project in Quebec.

A unique complex

Owing to its geographical situation, the Shawinigan complex has some specific design features that distinguish it from the other sites in the Mauricie region. The powerhouses, including Shawinigan-2, are not built on the natural course of the river. They are at the bottom of the natural slope a few dozen meters west of the gorge that is the natural outlet of the falls. The two spillways, the headrace, the water intakes and part of the penstocks of Shawinigan-2 can clearly be seen, along with those of the 194-MW Shawinigan-3 facility, built in 1948. Two inclined railways were installed in 1910 and 1946 to move heavy machinery up the cliff during construction of the powerhouses. The railways, still in use, are a technological wonder and very few industrial sites have them.

Intake No. 2, which supplies Shawinigan-2, was built in 1910. The five external penstocks that channel water to the first five generating units in Shawinigan-2 were installed between 1911 and 1914 and are built into the steep slope that drops 42 meters over a distance of 180 meters. Construction demanded bold efforts for the period. The penstocks are 4.27 meters in diameter, and their sheer size makes them a point of interest at the complex. Three other 6.1-meter-diameter penstocks, tunneled through the bedrock, were built between 1921 and 1928 to supply Shawinigan-2’s vertical-axis generators.

The Shawinigan-2 powerhouse’s design is also unique in Quebec. Inside, there are two well-defined areas: the machine and control rooms. The five horizontal-axis turbines on the floor are all in the same room. A wall between the generator room and turbine room provides fire protection and some soundproofing. And the ingenious space-saving placement of the transformers in front of the generators made it unnecessary to build another section.

final three units at Shawinigan-2, vertical-axis generators
For the final three units at Shawinigan-2, vertical-axis generators, which became common after 1910, were used. (Photo courtesy Hydro-Quebec)

An overhead crane was installed in each of the two parts of the machine room to move equipment. On the floor above the turbines and generators are the circuit breakers and switches of the transformer substation. This arrangement was copied when the powerhouse was expanded in 1921 to install the vertical-axis units.

The Shawinigan-2 powerhouse is also remarkable architecturally. Its steel structure relieved the walls of the building’s weight and made it possible to install large windows with semicircular arches. The symmetrical openings, fancy brickwork, three concrete loggias (feeder bays) and large balcony at the main entrance lend the building a certain elegance. The architecture is inspired by the Chicago school and classical revival, influenced by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The trend developed in the late 19th century in the U.S. The part of the station built in 1928 also deserves special mention. It features tall Art Deco windows.

SW&P was proud of the Shawinigan-2 powerhouse and used it in its marketing efforts. Investors and customers were given tours of the facility. Because electricity itself is invisible, the building stood in its stead. It wasn’t enough for Shawinigan-2 to have a handsome exterior; the interior was also intended to be shown off, so the company didn’t skimp on quality. The description of the powerhouse in a 1912 issue of Electrical World shows the importance of aesthetic considerations:

The walls inside are faced with pressed buff brick and up from the floor to about 10 ft. with glazed enameled brick. The floor is tiled with English red quarry tiles and conforms with the general interior finish of the power house to give it a neat and bright appearance.1

The aesthetic concern extended to the landscaping of the entire site. In the late 1920s, SW&P began landscaping around the two powerhouses. According to environmental specialist Carole Fernet and her firm, a study of photos from 1928 suggests that the grounds may have been designed by the Olmsted Brothers (whose father, Frederick Law Olmsted, is renowned for creating New York’s Central Park and Montreal’s Mount Royal Park).

The Shawinigan-2 powerhouse is the second of five built as a complex in the first half of the 20th century. From 1911 to 1948, four of them were in operation at the same time. There are few places in North America with as many powerhouses on the same site. Known as the cradle of hydropower in Canada, Shawinigan now has five powerhouses in operation, four of them belonging to Hydro-Quebec. The fifth powerhouse is a 4.9-MW facility that was commissioned in 1996 by private producer Thibaudeau-Ricard Inc. They have a combined capacity of 723 MW, putting the complex second, after Beauharnois, among urban generating facilities in Quebec.

Boosting the economy

The Shawinigan-2 powerhouse is in the center of a town that has made a huge contribution to industrializing Canada. When the plant was commissioned, Shawinigan companies, especially electrochemical plants, could ramp up production. As early as 1911, part of the output from Shawinigan-2 was transmitted to Montreal over a 100,000-volt double-circuit line. By 1916, the powerhouse was supplying the city of Quebec with electricity, and four years later, another line, this time 60,000 volts, was installed.

The powerful generators greatly enabled the establishment of pulp and paper mills in Trois-Rivieres, which, between 1930 and 1960, was the paper capital of the world. The installation in 1919 of the longest overhead line, across the St. Lawrence, made it possible to supply a number of municipalities on the river’s south shore.

Shawinigan hydro complex
The Shawinigan hydro complex, on the Saint-Maurice River in Quebec, Canada, contains five powerhouses, including 200-MW Shawinigan-2 (foreground), one of the oldest generating facilities in Canada. (Photo courtesy Hydro-Quebec)

Nonstop generation

In the late 1950s, SW&P planned to build other generating stations on the Saint-Maurice River, but those plans were not carried out. Hydro-Quebec has owned the Shawinigan complex since 1963. In 2004, Hydro-Quebec brought on line the 227-MW Rocher-de-Grand-Mere generating station. In 2008 and 2009, Hydro-Quebec commissioned the 79-MW Rapide-des-Cœurs and 62-MW Chute-Allard plants.

Starting in 1993, the utility began to make significant investments to keep Shawinigan-2 and Shawinigan-3 in good working order. Each component — spillways, intakes, penstocks, turbines, generators, control room and transformers — was refurbished and upgraded. A new 120-kV substation was built to combine the output of Shawinigan-2 and Shawinigan-3. Architecturally, the substation blends with the site as a whole, thus accentuating its rich technological heritage.

Enhanced heritage site

Aware of the heritage value of the Shawinigan-2 powerhouse and the entire complex, Hydro-Quebec began conducting studies in the early 1980s with a view to developing an industrial history project on the site. It also purchased the Northern Aluminum powerhouse (built in 1899 and decommissioned in 1945), restoring it and making it into an exhibition space. In 1985, Hydro-Quebec provided funds to help set up a local community organization that, in 1997, opened the Cite de l’energie. This tourist attraction, which includes the Northern Aluminum powerhouse, showcases Canada’s industrial history and promotes science.

The Shawinigan-2 powerhouse is an accessible milestone in the history of hydropower in Canada. It teaches the public how electricity is generated from waterpower and raises awareness of the value of the utility’s industrial heritage. Hydro-Quebec is proud to have a century-old powerhouse among its facilities and proud to help preserve it.

1Smith, Julian C., and F.T. Kaelin, “New Hydroelectric Plant of the Shawinigan Water & Power Co.,” Electrical World, Volume 59, May 4, 1912, page 957, www.archive.org/stream/electricalworld59newy#page/956/mode/2up.

Jacques Chauvette is regional manager, Mauricie and Centre-du-Quebec and production manager, Des Cascades for Hydro-Quebec. Mario Lachance is a historian in Quebec, Canada.

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