The ruins at Meech Lake are no secret to those who know Gatineau Park, but the story of the gentleman who built them, Thomas 'Carbide' Willson is not well known.
Through out his lifetime (1860- 1915) Willson was a tireless and ingenious inventor, engineer, entrepreneur, and electrochemist, fascinated with emerging technologies of his day. While experimenting with aluminum, he discovered how to produce Calcium Carbide, a product which was to make his fortune and extend his influence to international proportions. He sold the American patent to what was to become The Union Carbide Company in the United States. By 1895 the American British, Canadian and Australian markets were controlled by syndicate, and Willson had patents in forty other countries. Fearful of losing the rights to the Canadian market, he rushed back to Canada in 1896 to build his own carbide generating plant at Merritton Ontario which turned profit for him even in its first year of operation.
By 1909 he had purchased 460 acres of land including all of Little Meech Lake and the start of Meech Creek just at the water fall where Patrick Farrel had built his dam. Thomas was delighted to further his studies on Nitrogen. Encouraged by others who said “his fertilizer was so revolutionary that I would put all the other manufacturers out of business”, Willson decided to build a plant at Meech Lake. In 1911, Willson built a dam using 1004 bags of cement, about 4 to 5 railcars worth. In the next two years he put up the power house pictured on the right. This was a hundred thousand dollar experimental station. He was proud of the acid tower he built and believed it to be the perfect acid condensation plant, the first Phosphorus Acid Condensation Plant in the world.
No sooner did the experiments begin, the local residents at the Lake were up in arms. One day there boat houses would be six feet under water the next day six feet from the water. Willson was convinced that his plant would be an overwhelming financial and industrial success. He sold his other companies and took out loans against his other patents with a single investor, American tobacco king JB Duke. His financial dreams then turned to nightmares. Duke absorbed all the assets when Willson's time limit for production ran out.
Although the Meech Lake plant fell into disrepair, Willson himself was not totally ruined. His interests in Newfoundland were not included in the Duke deal; he turned his attention to developing Newfoundland Hydro Electric capacity. In two years he formed another 20 million dollar corporation-but alas, in 1915, while seeking additional venture capital, he collapsed on a New York street, dying of a heart attack. The acid condensation tower, dam and generating plant were never maintained. The tower fell victim to a fire, now only its base stands. The dam and generating plant “windows sadly gaping” still stand to haunt the cascading water fall with memories of industry.
Location ID #BR0001