By Jeff Fournier
Electricity touches nearly every aspect of our lives. Can you even imagine life without it?
People living prior to the 20th century had to face such a reality. Homes were heated by burning coal or wood, while light was produced by burning kerosene gas or candles. Machinery was operated by horse or steam power. Life was simple, but labour-intensive.
Today, electricity is abundant and helps make our lives so much easier. We can produce it by using fossil fuels such as uranium or gas, or by using renewable resources, such as wind, solar energy or water.
In Canada, hydro power is the leading source of electricity, accounting for more than 60 per cent of overall generation. Hydro power is so deeply rooted in Canada, that many people use the terms “hydro” and “electricity” interchangeably.
“Hydro” is a Greek word for “water.” It was during the 1800s that we first learned to use water to make electricity, thanks to the invention of the generator early in that century. This machine, in its simplest form, is composed of wires wound around a stationary casing, electromagnets wound around a movable shaft and a propeller or turbine that is attached to the end of that shaft. To keep the shaft spinning, a hydroelectric station uses falling water that is directed at the turbine.
Most stations use either the natural drop of the river, or the drop created when a dam is built across the river to raise the water level. Water at the higher level goes through the intake into a pipe, called a penstock, which carries it down to the turbine. When the turbine is set in motion, it causes the generator to rotate, and electricity is produced. The process takes advantage of the scientific phenomenon that a conductor passing through a magnetic field will cause a flow of electrons in that wire.
Hydro power facilities are designed to have long lives that can be extended indefinitely through refurbishment and upgrades. It is quite common for hydroelectric generators to operate for decades and oftentimes a century or more. At 100 years old, the Eugenia Hydroelectric Generating Station in southwestern Ontario is a perfect example.
Eugenia’s hydro station
Located on the Beaver River in the small community of Eugenia, in the municipality of Grey Highlands, the station is the oldest operating hydroelectric plant in Ontario constructed by the Hydroelectric Power Commission of Ontario, the predecessor of today’s Ontario Power Generation.
After approval was granted, construction began in 1914. It was officially opened by Adam Beck – the Hydroelectric Power Commission’s first chairman – on Nov. 18, 1915. This was the second plant that the commission had built, the first being Wasdell Falls Generating Station on the Severn River.
One of the outstanding features of the Eugenia plant is its steep operating head which, at 180 metres, ranks it the highest operating head of any hydroelectric facility in Ontario.
The first settlers in the Eugenia area began clearing land around 1850. In the process, they discovered a small river that had its source in numerous tamarack swamps and springs. The stream wound its way through the hills until it came to the edge of a nearby valley. Here the river hurled itself over a precipice to land in a pool 25 metres below, before roaring down to the bottom of the valley in a series of raging cataracts that drop 125 metres. Both the river and the valley were soon named after the plentiful beaver in the area, while the falls were named for the small village of Eugenia built beside them on the edge of the valley.
Practical-minded settlers soon put the river to good use and by 1870, no fewer than four different mills were doing various tasks along the upper reaches of the river.
Eugenia has become a tourist and cottage destination. Lake Eugenia, created when the area was flooded for the dam that would provide water to the power station, is home to about 400 cottages. Anglers are drawn by the lake’s largemouth bass, rock bass, perch, sunfish and bullhead catfish.
The Bruce Trail, which follows the Niagara Escarpment through southwestern Ontario, runs through Eugenia, part of a large network of nature trails and conservation areas in the vicinity.
Of special significance to numismatists is the fact that a commemorative medal has been issued this year to mark the Eugenia generating facility’s centennial.
Featured on the obverse of the 50-millimetre (diameter) medal is a view of Eugenia Falls, as it appeared before the development of the generating station. On the reverse side of the medal is a portrayal of one of the generators that still operates inside the plant today.
Only 255 medals have been produced in seven different finishes including (mintages in brackets): antiqued gold plate (50); antique bronze plate (50); bright copper plate (25); satin nickel plate (25); antiqued silver plate (50); bright nickel plate (five) and antiqued copper plate (50).
While the bright nickel plated medals are sold out, the others are still be available at gift shops in the Eugenia area.
This piece continues a tradition of medals and tokens that feature Canadian hydroelectric generating stations, including a municipal token struck in 1967 for the Saunders Hydroelectric Generating Station in Cornwall, Ont., and three medals for Churchill Falls, a large hydroelectric generator in Labrador.
The first piece was produced as a memento of the plant’s official ground-breaking ceremony, officiated by then-Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood in July 1967.
Five years later, the station was officially opened and commemorated on a medal, presented at the ceremonies in May of that year.
A third medal, also struck in 1972 for the opening ceremonies, was presented to the directors of the Churchill Falls Corporation. This 95-millimetre piece presents quite a challenge to most collectors, as a mere 25 were produced.