Decew 1 Generating Station and Morningstar Mill

photo 1 F1998-442-79B single penstockThis year marks the 120th anniversary of Decew 1 Generating Station. On August 25, 1898, the Cataract Power Company of Hamilton (now Ontario Power Generation) began generating and transmitting electricity from St. Catharines to Hamilton. Their entrepreneurial project resulted in the transmission of electricity a staggering 56 kilometers! At this time, 56 kilometers was the longest distance electricity had been transmitted in Canada, and the second longest distance in the world.

Decew 1 Generating Station is located about one kilometre north of Morningstar Mill. It was a massive infrastructure project that involved building a powerhouse, creating power canals and reservoirs, and transporting and installing the associated equipment. The Morningstars must have been very interested in the construction project on the property behind them. Photographs and glass negatives in the Mill’s collection include the site under construction, the horse-drawn delivery of a generator and the interior of the powerhouse (photos 1 – 6).

When the power was ‘switched on’ in 1898, Hamilton proudly became Canada’s premier ‘Electric City’, while Wilson Morningstar’s mill and home next door remained in the dark. Wilson, being the do-it-yourselfer that he was, adapted quickly. He connected a small generator to his turbine and produced his own electricity for lighting from about 1902/4 until 1914 when the St. Catharines Public Utility Commission began distributing electrical power. Wilson’s daughter, Jessie, writes that her father ‘wired the house and mill himself… [he] would turn [the generator] on at dusk and off when he went to bed at night!’

The Morningstar’s also have personal connections to the Decew Plant. Wilson and Emma’s eldest daughter, Nora, would eventually marry David Robson who would become Chief Operator of the Decew Plant under Ontario Hydro (photo 7). Nora and David were married in Wilson and Emma’s home in 1911.  When they returned from their honeymoon trip to Buffalo and Boston, they lived with Wilson and Emma until 1920 when they purchased a home in Power Glen. photo 7 F1998-442 emma david Nora

David Robson began working at the ‘brand new Decew Falls Powerhouse’ as a handyman in April 1900. At this time, David was 18 years old and had moved to Power Glen from Beamsville. In 1901, he earned $230 as an electric labourer, and in 1911, he earned $1,110 as 1st Operator of the Station. In those days…

‘operators worked seven days as week, 2 weeks on each shift, 7 to 3, 3 to 11 and 11 to 7. No days off a week and 10 days vacation in the summer, and that only by doubling up on the work. To the present day worker, that seems incredible, but nevertheless, it is true.  Also, every six weeks each operator worked 16 hours, 7 – 11, in order to change over and give one operator a shift off.’

David became Assistant Superintendent in 1918, and Chief Operator in 1930 when ‘Ontario Hydro bought out the Decew Falls Plant and Dominion Power and Transmission Company.’  He held this position until he retired in 1949. Over his career, there were…’Fires, floods, ice and some bad accidents to employees… Dave was badly burnt himself in November 1943, and another employee was fatally burned.’

The objects in the Morningstar Mill collection also reveal other day-to-day goings-on at the Decew Plant.  The Morningstars all had Station Passes to the ‘Power Station and Grounds’. Donald Robson, Wilson and Emma’s grandson, caught a 30 lb sturgeon at the gate house in 1927 (photos 8 – 9).  There were company activities which included ‘dances of both the square and round varieties’, sleigh rides in the winter, and a bowling team which placed first in 1929. The plant also won many ‘Certificates of Merits’ for the appearance of the power house and its good operation.

While there are personal connections between Morningstar Mill and Decew 1 Generating Station, the importance of water and the technology used in harnessing its power are also showcased at both locations. Wilson and the Power Company used falling water in the same way, however, the difference in product was revolutionary and marked the end of 19th century technology and the beginning of 20th century technology in our area.  In Wilson’s case, he used falling water to spin a turbine which produced about 25 kilowatts. This power could only be transmitted mechanically over a few feet with shafts, gears, pulleys and belts. The operations of the mill were directly tied to the water flow located right beside the mill. The Power Company, on the other hand, used falling water to produce several thousand kilowatts that could be transmitted electrically over many kilometres. The electrical transmission of power now gave manufacturers the flexibility and freedom to locate their businesses anywhere. This was extraordinary at the time, and in 1904, the area became known as the ‘cradle of hydro-electric power’ in Ontario and Canada.


  1. This is a delightful post. Decew is now overshadowed by the giant generators at Niagara Falls, but it was the first! No more giant sturgeon, alas.

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