The History of Churchill Falls

Reprinted Courtesy of Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corpororation
Compiled by Peter Green - IEEE

A Brief History

Churchill Falls, originally known as Grand River, starts from Ashuanipi Lake and empties into Lake Melville and drops a total of 528m (1735ft).  In 1839, John MacLean was the first white man to visit the Churchill River and its 75m (245 ft) waterfall. MacLean renamed the river to the Hamilton River after a Newfoundland Governor, Sir Charles Hamilton, who held his position in office from 1818 to 1825.  It was not until 1965 that the name change to Churchill River to honour the former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. 

Churchill Falls River
The Churchill Falls River (Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation Limited

In 1894, Albert Peter Low of the Dominion Geological Survey reached the Grand Falls during his journey to documented the large number of iron-ore deposits in western Labrador and northeastern Quebec. However, the Grand Falls was not considered as a potentially huge source of hydro-electric power until it was discussed by the Senate in 1907. In 1915, Wilfred Thibaudeau surveyed the Labrador Plateau and engineered a channel scheme which could be used to divert the water from the river before it arrived at the falls. The scheme would use the nature capacity of the basin, thereby eliminating the need for the construction of massive dams.

In 1947, Commander G.H. Desbarats, under the direction of the Newfoundland Government, completed a preliminary survey that confirmed Thibaudeau's findings. However development did not proceed due to; the inhospitable terrain, severe climatic conditions, geographic remoteness, long distance transmission requirements and the lack of markets for such a large block of power.

With the development of the iron-ore mines in western Labrador came the construction of the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway which was completed in 1954. By 1962 further field surveys, power studies and basic planning, proved the feasibility of development of Churchill Falls as a power source. 

The significant advantages of Churchill Falls as a potential hydro-electric power site would enable the disadvantages of the area to be overcome. Precipitation and run-off patterns were forecasted to be dependable and extensive storage of water on the elevated plateau was readily achievable. The river's natural drop of over 300 meters (1000 feet) in less than 32 km (20 miles) was perhaps its most significant feature, with respect to hydro power development.


A great many people shared a vision that Churchill Falls would not only provide a world class source of hydro-electricity but the opportunity to bring other economic development activity to Newfoundland and Labrador. In response to the province's desire to see its largely untapped water and mineral resources developed, a group of banking and industrial firms established the British Newfoundland Corporation Limited (Brinco) in 1953.

River Crossing Cable Car (Churchill Fall (Labrador) Corporation Limited) 

Brinco was granted exclusive mineral and water rights for a 20 year period over more than 129,450 square kilometers (50,000 square miles) in both Newfoundland and Labrador, including the right to develop the river systems in both areas. Under the terms of its agreement with the province, Brinco undertook to carry out extensive exploration within Newfoundland. To carry out its commitment at Churchill Falls, the Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation Limited was established in 1961 and granted a 99 year lease authorizing development of the upper Churchill River watershed.

The Twin Falls hydro plant on the Unknown River, a tributary of the Churchill River, was constructed in the early 1960's. This facility, with a capacity of 225 mw, supplied the power requirements for the iron mining industries in western Labrador. 

Twin Falls power was essential to the development at Churchill Falls. It helped open up the area and supplied the power required during the construction phase of the project. In the planning however, it became apparent that greater efficiency in the production of electricity could be achieved by diverting the flow of water from the Ossokmanuan Reservoir into the Smallwood Reservoir. Utilizing this water at the Churchill Falls plant enabled approximately three times as much electricity to be produced from the same volume of water In July, 1974 the Twin Falls plant was closed and the water diverted into the Smallwood Reservoir.


Right of Way
Right-of-way (Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation Limited

For mile upon mile through swamps and muskeg the right-of-way for the Churchill Falls hydro-electric development's three transmission lines was cleared across Labrador.  The 710-foot wide clearing accommodates three lines of huge V-type guyed towers up to 170 feet high.  About 400 towers were required for each of the three 735,000 volts a.c. circuits from the Churchill Falls plant, 126 south-west to the point of delivery to Hydro-Quebec, Churchill Falls' main customer.

The development of 735 kv transmission lines permitted power to be moved over long distances. Negotiations for the sale of the power started in 1963 and continued until 1966 when a letter of intent with Hydro-Quebec provided the market and removed a significant barrier to development of the project. A further three years of negotiations were required to finalize the power contract and financial agreements concluding in 1969.


Machine Hall (Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation Limited

The machine hall of the power facility at Churchill Falls was hollowed out of solid rock, close to 1,000 feet beneath the Labrador plateau.  Its final proportions are huge:  in height, it equals a 15-storey building; its length is three times that of a football field.  When completed, it housed 11 generating units, which collectively will have the capacity to generate 5,225,000 kilowatts (more than 7,000,000 horsepower), producing enough electricity to feed three cities the size of Montreal.

Excavation of the 972-foot long Churchill Falls powerhouse was completed in 1970 and the emphasis in 1971 was on civil work, particularly concreting operations at turbine-generator units 1 through 4.  Concrete embedment of the first units shown in this photo.  Scroll case sections for subsequent units await installation further down the powerhouse floor.  At this point first commercial deliveries of Churchill Falls power were scheduled for spring, 1972 and by the end of 1971, installation of the first two of eleven units was to be completed.

Many years of planning, five years of non-stop field work by approximately 6,300 workers and 946 million dollars of construction costs culminated at 5:17pm on December 6, 1971 when the first two generating units began delivering power to Hydro-Quebec, five months and three weeks ahead of schedule.

Project Management

The challenge of developing this project was not so much about developing complex technology as it was about scale and planning. The construction team met this challenge and completed the project on schedule and within budget, in spite of the harsh climate and remote location. The development of the Churchill Falls power project was a great engineering achievement and it continues to be one of Canada’s great success stories.

A significant feature of the Churchill Falls development was the retention of project management functions by the owner, Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation Ltd. (CF(L)Co), a separate and autonomous company set up by Brinco to deal with all aspects of engineering, construction, public and government relations.

Switchyard and Transmission Lines (Churchill Fall (Labrador) Corporation Limited)

The Acres Canadian Bechtel (ACB) consortium acted as agents for CF(L)Co, charged with responsibility for engineering and construction management. The construction organization in the field had ultimate responsibility for contract administration, inspection and construction coordination.

All work on the project was carried out by contractors. More than 180 construction and services contracts were awarded, ranging widely in value, but with a maximum of $75 million for a single contract.

Owner supplied transportation and catering services removed an item of uncertainty from bids. The controls established by ACB/CF(L)Co ensured that materials were shipped according to priority and delays were not experienced. During construction, a total of 663,000 tonnes (730,000 tons) of material equipment and fuel were moved to the site.

Schedule and financial control was exercised by monitoring progress continuously, enabling early warning of significant variations and allowing time for remedial action where required.

CF(L)Co took over operation of permanent facilities as they were completed, including the townsite and airport. A uniformly high standard of accommodations and mess facilities were provided by CF(L)Co for a work force which peaked at 6,300 workers.