Checkin out the old Pinawa Dam Heritage site

Road tripping is one of my favorite summer pastimes. These days, as I find myself short on both time and money, road tripping around Manitoba has evolved into an art form of sorts for me. Lately, it seems this is the only type of traveling that I can swing in the summer. And surprisingly, it is both fun and informative.

My favorite local road trip is the old Pinawa Dam site. Located on the Winnipeg River, the Pinawa Dam was decommissioned in 1951 in order to make room for a larger and more efficient dam downstream. Since then, the dam has been returned to nature and now exists as a Heritage Park. It is about an hour and a half drive from the edge of Winnipeg and with free entrance, the price is certainly right.

The Pinawa Dam was Manitoba’s first hydroelectric generating station, with energy production beginning in 1906 as part of a larger network of damming projects around Manitoba. At the time, hydroelectricity was quickly becoming the energy source of choice among field experts, yet many people were concerned that a lack of demand would cause most of the produced energy to be wasted. However, by 1916, after experiencing a decade of unprecedented population growth, the city of Winnipeg finally put all of that power to use.

A complex and daunting task, the Pinawa Dam project took three years to build, with workers labouring all year round. With no paved roads or trains leading to the site, horses, steam power, and human muscle were all integral to the project. It is estimated that teams of up to 75 horses were used during construction. In fact, the horses were so essential to the endeavour that they were kept in heated barns during the winter. As a result of the dam construction, a small town also emerged around the construction site. The town was mostly self-sufficient with a community garden and log cabins, as well as a few brick homes.

As Winnipeg’s energy requirements continued to expand with the city’s population growth, more innovative damming projects were beginning to surface. After about 50 years in use, the Pinawa Dam had become outdated. It is the Seven Sisters Dam, still in use today, that ultimately replaced the Pinawa Dam. With the closure of the dam, many of the log homes that were located near the original site were moved across the ice during the winter months, to the nearby town of Lac du Bonnet. Shortly after the dam’s closure, the Canadian Armed Forces started using the original dam location for training purposes. This involved bombing the remaining brick houses that could not be moved for demolition practice.

Although this is a fascinating history of what was certainly an innovative project at the time, the damming of the Winnipeg River has had adverse effects on Aboriginal people in the area. As the water at the dam site was intentionally slowed, large tracts of land upstream were flooded. This meant that colonial encroachment was occurring again, but in a more subtle way. The flooding altered animal habitats and impacted the trap-lines of Aboriginal people who still worked closely with the land. Though this is the story of one dam, this same predicament has been happening all over the province and the world as dams continue to be built.

As well as being aware of the injustice served to the local Aboriginal peoples by the creation of the Pinawa Dam, I am reminded that the workforce that laboured to build the dam likely did so in very unsafe and unfair working conditions. However, despite this social conscious, I remain continuously fascinated by the contradictory beauty of the decaying concrete, as it slowly returns to nature. Perhaps one day in the future, people unearthing these ruins will puzzle over their function. Majestic concrete circles that used to have water flowing through them and symmetric walls of rectangular cutouts amid a forest of overgrown trees will provide numerous photo ops for the photography aficionados out there. You can also follow interpretive trails that weave through the site. The Pinawa Dam “Ruins Walk” is a 0.7 kilometere trail with 13 on-site interpretive signs that showcase the history of both the hydro-electric dam and of the people who once called the area home. The Pinawa Dam Historical site has plenty to offer and is a great travel destination for those looking to stay close to home.