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“An Engineering Curiosity and an Economic Fantasy”: The Passamaquoddy Tidal Project, 1948-65

Thu, March 30, 3:30 to 5:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Superior


Throughout the period 1948-65, engineers, politicians, and community leaders in the northeastern United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada promoted the construction of a novel hydroelectric mega-project on the international Passamaquoddy Bay designed to harness the Bay of Fundy’s powerful tides. Although the project dated back to the 1920s, it only gained traction in the 1950s when influential New England politicians, concerned about the region’s growing electrical demand, successfully lobbied for an IJC reference on the project’s feasibility. Although the IJC concluded that the project was financially questionable, supporters, including Maine Senator Edmund Muskie and President John Kennedy, pushed the project, arguing that normal economic criteria should not apply to a project so revolutionary and symbolic of a “scientific society.” Others argued that this project, which was to be built by the Corps of Engineers, was to be New England’s own TVA. Ultimately, the project was rejected due to rising interest rates, the opposition of private power, and, perhaps, the death of its most influential supporter (Kennedy).

This paper explores the history of ‘Quoddy, paying particular attention to the environmental dimensions of the debates surrounding it. Supporters saw tidal power as a more dependable alternative to river-based hydro and thermal sources and also as less environmentally damaging. Opponents, especially Canadian fishers, worried that tidal dams would negatively impact Passamaquoddy Bay’s sardine fishery and the Bay of Fundy’s herring industry. Others argued that altered water temperature and flow within the Bay might hurt other species. However, the most influential opposition came from New England’s private power companies, who resented the intrusion of the federal government in the region’s electricity sector and who saw nuclear plants as the future of electrical generation.