Old Man River

Ellie S. Thomas   

© Copyright 2012 by  Ellie S. Thomas


Canadian stamp honoring Jacques Cartier.

The ship plowed through the blue-green waters while the men crowded the rail, marveling at the magnificent waterway in which they found themselves. The mouth and estuary were so huge that their salt waters were bigger than those of all other river systems put together. This was the mighty St. Lawrence, an area still virtually unknown and uncharted, and the naval officer at the rail was Captain Cook; THE Captain Cook, a famous explorer, although not quite so famous at this point for he'd yet to discover the Sandwich Islands, and other places accredited to his name. Still, he made the first accurate soundings of the St. Lawrence River and helped pilot the fleet upriver to Quebec.

The St. Lawrence River had OFFICIALLY been discovered in 1535 when Cartier sailed into the bay on the feast day of St. Lawrence. In honor of the event, Cartier named the splendid river for that unfortunate person who'd met his death on a red-hot grid iron by order of the Emperor Valerian. Why? He'd refused to turn over the treasures of the Christian Church and the lists of names of those now professing the new Christian religion. In years to come, his name would proliferate over the north country, in towns called Lawrence, Lawrenceville, North Lawrence, and other adaptations, and there would be streets, counties, and rivers also bearing that name.

Although Cartier was given credit for being the first to discover the St. Lawrence River, it had been used as a main highway for 'who knows' how long by Native Americans. Each spring the mighty Mohawk Confederation raided northwards, laying ambushes for their detested enemies, the Algonquins and their Black Robe friends. The Black Robes and their Algonquin guides and converts used the waterway to travel southerly and westerly into the Georgian Bay area to establish religious outposts; they also continued south along the river and then branched off into the Richelieu and into Lake Champlain. This gave them access to the Mohawk Valley and the tribes living there. They converted many throughout that area, including the Lily Of The Mohawk, the Venerable Kateri Tekakwitha. It had been in the area of Lac St. Peter, on the St. Lawrence River, a hundred years before HER time, that the three Jesuits, the Rev. Isaac Jogues, Lalande, and Goupil had been seized at ambush, carried southerly to the Mohawk Valley and massacred. The river had been used by so many, and for such diverse reasons, that it is a wonder that it's waters didn't run red.

As explorers continued to come, impressed by the virgin wilderness along the shores and the teeming waters rich in fish, seafood and furbearing mammals, they sent word back to Europe. There were accounts of the huge island at the river's mouth which was at least the size of Ireland..and there was room at the river's mouth to hold all of Great Britian! It was a marvelous place for ships of any draft because soundings went down beyond an average hundred fathoms. Naturally, the ardor of such reporting stirred great excitement in lands depleted by centuries of over-population and devastating warfare. The settlers and colonists were on their way...the trappers and coureurs de bois were on their way, and the religieuse came right along, too.

As mankind proliferated over the continent, the river became the scene of much warfare. The French and Indian Wars, 1689-1763 were fought for domination of the northeast, and the forts along the river and it's tributaries offered strategic control points. These wars were barely settled, (if they ever were), when we segwayed right into the American Revolution, 1775-83, and again the river carried contestants backwards and forwards, northwards towards Quebec and south towards Ticonderoga. It's a wonder that the waters didn't spew skyhigh by the time the War of 1812 erupted, but once more they echoed to the sound of cannon and explosives, securing more time for people to settle in and think of that elusive ephemera: peace.

And so the river saw every side of humanity, but it went it's own way, biding it's time and basking in the sunshine. Incredibly even that would someday change as men found ways to alter nature and harness it to his own convenience. They had used the river for so long, gliding over the surface and relishing the swiftness of traveling by such means as compared to trying to force a path through a tangle of wilderness, but it still had it's limitations. There were many areas where it was necessary to portage, either because there was an inexact jointure of the various waters, or because of falls and rapids which made travel hazardous. So men begun a series of canals and bridges.

People on both sides of the mighty river were related by marriage, or blood ties, and others were affiliated by business and it was very difficult to get back and forth, except during the winter when one could cross the ice. They built ferries and river boats and, as they became more adept, long bridges spanned the river but even these became stop-gap measures as the country emerged from its isolation. There was a need to commerce with foreign markets, and it was vital to find some way to get the deep water ships on to the Great Lakes. And so the St. Lawrence Seaway was built. Huge freighters now wended their way where cattle used to feed- Presidents, Kings, and Queens glided over the surface.

Much of the area was now under water; areas at Louisville Landing where the young Normal Rockwell used to come to visit his wife's family, and many beautiful, old-time homes. As Margaret Bourke-White, photographic founder of LIFE Magazine became increasingly handicapped by Parkinson's disease, she was given assignments that required little walking; one of those was to do an aerial coverage of the new St. Lawrence Seaway- and Thomas Hart Benton, "the best damned painter in America", according to Harry S. Truman, was commissioned to paint the huge murals of American life that adorn the public buildings at the power dam. Harry S. Truman came to Massena to view work on the Seaway and 'Eike' arrived to look at his namesake, the Eisenhower Lock.

The St. Lawrence River today is an area devoted to trade, travel, and pleasure. Once again it is something to be fought over because should we lose control of this vital artery of the nation, it would be disastrous. Such a possibility was abruptly called to mind during World War ll when secret plans were discovered, plans for blowing up the aluminum plant at Massena. Further possibilities were examined when the German pilot, Ulrich Steinhilper escaped from a POW camp in Canada and crossed the ice into New York State.

People come from all over the country to vacation on the shores of the St. Lawrence, still others travel to view the locks, and many are called for the excellent fishing. The temperate climate appeals to many during summer months and, during the winter the skiing and various winter sports appeal to others. It is a place yet unvisited by the huge traffic jams and pollution that cripple so many areas but who knows about tomorrow? We have seen first hand how man may progress and change his environment; now it is urgent that we do not regress and make any ill-considered alterations that could rob us of this wonderland in which we live.

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