Articles

THE BOATS THAT SAIL A WARPATH

Through ancient locks, past Indian battlegrounds on the Mohawk trail, these cargo boats chug down an almost-forgotten waterway from Quebec to New York City. Listed as second cook, Mrs. Staebler went along on a routine trip that turned into tragedy

EDNA STAEBLER July 1 1951
Articles

THE BOATS THAT SAIL A WARPATH

Through ancient locks, past Indian battlegrounds on the Mohawk trail, these cargo boats chug down an almost-forgotten waterway from Quebec to New York City. Listed as second cook, Mrs. Staebler went along on a routine trip that turned into tragedy

EDNA STAEBLER July 1 1951

THE BOATS THAT SAIL A WARPATH

Through ancient locks, past Indian battlegrounds on the Mohawk trail, these cargo boats chug down an almost-forgotten waterway from Quebec to New York City. Listed as second cook, Mrs. Staebler went along on a routine trip that turned into tragedy

EDNA STAEBLER

ALMOST EVERY DAY from spring breakup to winter freezing a peculiar little freighter with a crew of Canadiens leaves the paper-mill town of Donnacona, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence just above Quebec City, to take two hundred and thirty tons of newsprint to New York by way of an old Indian warpath. Always close to a friendly shore and safe from stormy seas the boats pass a chain of forts built by the French to repel the Iroquois and the English. They sail by quiet fields and sleepy Quebec villages, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Catskills and Palisades. They pass Three Rivers, Sorel, West Point, a nudist camp, Sing Sing prison and the Statue of Liberty.

The trip south takes three days and three nights. Thus a tree growing in the Laurentians can become a newspaper on Times Square in less than a week. The crews have fun in New York while the boats are reloaded, then through the land of the Mohawks they return with bags of Spanish paprika, green coffee, desiccated coconut, Japanese sewing machines, antimony ashtrays and rayon teddy bears.

Six identical barges of the Donnacona Paper Company and one used by the Gatineau Paper Company beyond Ottawa are the only vessels carrying cargo along the route which cuts the distance between Montreal and New York, from 1670 miles by sea to 452 miles by way of the St. Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers, Lake Champlain and the Hudson. Straight, narrow and flat, they were designed to fit, like a hand in a glove, the nine small locks of the Chambly Canal which, in a charming but obsolete way, circumvents the rapids of the Richelieu.

They are so carefully weighted that one extra roll of newsprint might ground them in the sixty-six miles of shallow water north of the American border. Their wheelhouses, smokestacks and masts are detachable to let them pass under the low bridges of the Champlain Canal which connects the Narrows of Lake Champlain with the upper reaches of the Hudson. Wherever they pass people stop to stare.

It was midnight when I went aboard the Newscarrier at the pier in Donnacona and waited for the tide to launch her voyage. I was there as a writer but I had been listed as second cook. Captain Armand Normandeau, a shy little man nearing sixty, showed me the quarters I was to share with her crew of seven. At the back of the vessel, in a space the size of an ordinary living room, were four cabins, a galley, a washroom hung with lilac deodorizers, a companionway and ventilators from the engine room, two passageways and stairs to the wheelhouse—all as compact as a doll’s house.

“We make for you a place with my daughter Rollande, the cook,” the captain said, and introduced a small pretty girl. She spoke no English, I no French. In the tiny cabin she made room for me and my luggage. My makeshift cot was eighteen inches below the ceiling. Through the portlight beside my pillow I watched mountains of pulpwood fade into darkness. The Newscarrier moved southwest up the St. Lawrence. At five in the morning we were roused by Rollande’s alarm clock.

At Sorel, forty-six miles below Montreal and ninety-four above Donnacona, we turned south into the Richelieu, the main line of warfare in the long-ago struggle for supremacy in America. We saw a great armament plant, freighters taking on cargo, passenger ships at anchor, a ghost fleet of minesweepers with flaking grey paint, then Canadien farmhouses, gracious stone manoirs and new little houses built like all the new little houses everywhere.

On the Newscarrier the narrow deck around the three hatches was being scrubbed by a stocky young man wearing a tuque with a bobbing pompon. Thrusting out his broom he struck an operatic pose and burst into La Traviata. “That’s Roger (pronounced Rojay), my deckhand,” the captain laughed, “he’s bouffon.”

The watch changed every six hours. At noon the captain was relieved by the mate, Josephat Hardy, 40, a man with blue eyes, a tuque on the back of his curling hrown hair and three tattoos on his thick arms. Adjutor du Four, 43, lively as a squirrel, took the place of Antoine Harvey, 31, the darkly handsome chief engineer. Tall athletic Leo Leclerc, 17, completed the drew. Rollande, always in the galley, served pea soup, boiled potatoes, steak, lettuce and Vs of chocolate layer cake covered with strawberry jam.

The rushing noisy engine sounded like a train at ninety miles an hour, but after passing through the modern lock at St. Ours, where the Richelieu is rocky, our boat was making less than half its maximum twelve miles an hour.

“Dis could be quick trip for many boat, but the government likes not to spend money here to raise up the river,” Joe Hardy told me. “For fourteen mile from Sorel to St. Ours she is dredge but for other sixty-six mile to Lake Champlain where is American border she have only six and a half foot deep water. She have no buoys, no lights; we mark our course by trees and houses. Sometime we go in the centre, sometime on one side, then on the other. You see dat first bridge ahead? We pass through right side of him; next bridge we go left. Is fine in day but night time or when is fog we do not always know. Last year there is not many rains; near Chambly we are tied up to the bottom; we wait a few hour, then east wind bring water and we go off. But one time we wait six days.”

Slowly we followed the river’s curves. The men played cards, challenged one another to wrestle and sang French songs. They pointed out Fort Chambly overlooking Chambly Basin at the foot of the Richelieu rapids, where Indians once portaged their war canoes and French, British and American troops carried stores and ammunition on their way to battle. We were forty-six miles south of Sorel up the Richelieu and twenty miles east of Montreal.

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We reached the Chambly Canal. For miles the crew had been complaining about ita channel thirty-six feet wide at bottom, only six and a half feet deep. It takes six hours to travel the twelve miles. It could be mistaken for a millrace except for its nine small locks (120 feet by 23). It was being constructed in 1831 at the time England and the United States were running their first steam railways. As soon as it was finished the government was entreated to improve it, and commissions have been petitioning governments ever since to modernize the bottleneck in the short cut between the largest city in Canada and the busiest city in the world.

“The Americans have spent many millions of dollars keeping their part of the waterway twelve feet deep,” the commissioners report. “If the Chambly was modernized and the Richelieu dredged it would save life, fuel, money and ships when there is war on the Atlantic. It would provide economical and speedy commercial traffic for a most productive area in Canada. It would make a perfect trip for vacationists.” But commissions come and commissions go and the Chambly Canal remains exactly what it has always been—a narrow, shallow, picturesque ditch.

When the Stern Stuck

The Newscarrier was nuzzled into the first log-sided lock, with a six-inch clearance all around and under. We waited for the wooden gates to be wound open by hand, then moved into the next ancient lock and the next, forty-five feet above the basin where we’d entered. The men in the crew stepped out on the quai to do a bit of tussling. They tossed each other into the air and roared with laughter while a bridge on a main highway from Montreal was swung open and sixtyfour cars waited for the News to pass.

Darkness came soon after we moved into the water lane. There were dim lights along a towpath where horses used to draw wooden barges to be reloaded at either end of the canal. The navy blue water ahead reflected fenceposts illumined by our searchlight.

Our approach had been telephoned to the next lock. When we passed through it the lock-keepers bicycled to the next one. T.vo men walked around a turnstile in the centre of a bridge to swing it open. Leo Leclerc sauntered along the towpath beside us.

In the wheelhouse Roger was saying, “We go not fast here; we touch bottom, mud and not very big rocks. Every year they dredge but the banks fall down. Now she pretty near stop.”

The captain said, “She is stop.”

The bow of the Newscarrier moved from side to side, the stern stuck.

“We don’t worry,” Roger said, “We do dat every trip, sometime five, six time same trip.”

The News was moving forward again. Soon the river was beside us, broad but. shallow. The captain pointed,

“You see over dere de dam? Dey build dat before de last war but dey spend all de money on de war and now dere is no moneys for de canal.”

“Dey use have all kind of war round here with Injuns,” Roger told us. “Dey fight with haxe and tommy hatch— don’t need moneys for dat.”

A lock and two bridges later we came to Lake Ste. Thérèse with summer camps on its shores. We crossed it in twenty minutes, then crawled between grassy banks.

Next morning the Stars and Stripes was flying from our foremast. We were half-way down Lake Champlain. Roger at the wheel exulted in *having deep water, but the little captain looked anxiously at a haze that dimmed the mountains beyond the shores. “Dis is bad lake in fog; got some rocks and islets.” He took the wheel from Roger whenever an oil barge, five times as big as the News, came toward us.

Before noon we were in the narrows of lower Lake Champlain, the mountains close on both sides, the channel edged with bulrushes. There was a feeling of Indians in ambush along the way. A little later Leo rushed to fetch me. “Joe wants you to see Ticonderoga.”

“French built dat fort,” Joe told me, “and dere Montcalm won last French victory over English before dey take Canada.”

Pink Ice Cream for Joe

Old stone walls faced our route—the way red-coated British soldiers and Yankee rebels had come. We passed mansions with long green lawns, but most of the shore was wooded. The waterway grew narrower. The first low bridge of Champlain Canal was in sight. The mate went down to steer from the lower wheelhouse. Roger and Leo took the roof off the upper one and slid it down a hatch. The walls came off next, like the flats for a stage. Roger lowered the mast while Leo took down the stacks and the brass steering wheel. The Newscarrier was now as flat as a scow.

Whitehall, at the first of the canal’s twelve locks, is a little town crowded between the mountains. “We got a lot of history around these parts,” the lock-keeper told me. “Used to be a fort up there in the hills where I guess Washington licked the English.” A cannon pointed at us from the heights. On the Newscarrier all of us seemed suddenly very Canadian. Leo walked the deck with kingly dignity.

Captain Normandeau went ashore to buy fish for Friday. Joe bought a pink ice-cream cone. Roger and Adjutor ran up the street.

“Going for a beer, boys?” the others called after them.

Roger turned and piously rolled his eyes. “Not while we are working,” he said.

The Champlain Canal’s channel is deep and wide, its locks (300 feet by 45) fill quickly and are almost large enough for six boats like our little News. We could navigate its sixtyeight miles in half a day. In spring and fall only barges go through, but in summer luxury yachts from the Hudson River and Erie Canal go to Montreal and Saguenay or on to Ottawa.

“Rich mans on dem wear white clothes and have pretty girl and fat seegar.” Roger’s gestures brought a roar of laughter and a burst of rapid French from the crew.

We were in the wheelhouse after supper. As always there was speculation about where we’d be at certain times along the way, when we’d meet another paper boat returning, what time we’d reach New York and what cargo we’d bring back. Everyone hoped for package freight.

“Takes longer to load and gives us more time in city,” Roger explained.

We would be in New York at nine o’clock the next night, the captain said. That day was the most glorious of all. When it came, warm and sunny, we were on the Hudson passing the Catskills. The crew frolicked and sang. A butterfly, large as a wren, flew along with the News, soaring and fluttering.

“Is good luck,” the captain said.

When the new watch came on the Hudson was broad as a lake and Leo had the wheel.

“Dere is Bear Mountains Park,” Joe pointed, “where dey have de ski contest. Maple Leaf and Montreal baseball team practice dere too. One trip dis summer I bring along my little boy, take him to games in New York. He talk all de time since about dat.” From his pocket Joe brought out a packet of pictures and showed me his wife who is lovely, his little'boy and girl, the new house he had built, his brother who died, ships he’d served on, icebergs, polar bears swimming, the dock at Donnacona.

We were passing a city of American ships used in the war, their hulls newly painted, waiting. Adjutor was on the deck singing to the tune of Holy Night. Men on an oil barge stared at us as they hurried by.

“Dey don’t see boat like dis before,” said Joe. “She is different. Even in New York she is not like other boat but dere everybody is too busy to see. Dey go to work with de breakfast in de pocket.”

Joe went down to have a game of casino with Adjutor on the hatch. I took their picture, then sat in the sun on the deck. Adjutor was pointing out the cars in the yard of the Chevrolet plant near Tarrytown.

“Dey got more dan dey need,” he said. “Could give me one.” Joe gleefully tossed water from a glass at Adjutor, who raced like a flash down to the galley. We expected him to come up with a bucket of water for Joe. Instead, he returned nonchalantly eating grapes. I looked out on the water.

Suddenly Adjutor had turned Joe upside down and both men were screaming with laughter. I went toward my camera on the edge of the wheelhouse, turned back to look at the men. Clutched in each other’s arms they were tussling playfully at the edge of the hatch—too close to the edge of the hatch. They overbalanced, hit an iron post on the edge of the deck and went overboard.

Leo left the wheel to rouse the watch sleeping below. I looked for the men in the water. They were swimming. I thanked God. Then, from the aft-deck, Rollande came toward me with terror in her eyes. Adjutor was splashing but his head was under. Joe was going to him. Leo had a boat hook in his hands but the men were beyond us.

Adjutor’s splashing stopped. Joe was swimming alone. He came toward the boat. The captain put down the anchor. Leo had a buoy ready to throw but Joe was still too far away. The lifeboat was lowered quickly from the stern. Roger and Leo rowed hard in the swift current.

Then we saw only the water. All water looks the same when there is nothing in it to see. 1 hsard the captain sobbing. There was anguish on his face Rollande held up two fingers and mournfully shook her head.

We kept watching the cold moving water, watching the boys in the boat who looked back at us with despair. There was nothing else to do. The rowboat circled aimlessly in the little wavelets. Time passed. The caps of the drowned men lay on the hatch.

Roger and Leo came aboard. The captain went ashore to notify the police. The rest of us paced the hatches. Roger said. “This day I have lost my best friends.” Leo told me, “These were two beautiful mans. Always dey are chums and have de joke. Adjutor have wife and four children. Two months ago his boy, who is eighteen, die when he is swimming, and his wife’s mother die too - three die in two months.”

The usual things followed—police asking questions, townspeople staring, police taking pictures of Joe’s toque and Adjutor’s denim cap on the hatch, the little captain searching the cold waters for another hour in a police boat, the ship’s agents arriving from New York.

Then there was a ride to the police station in Tarrytown, waiting for a French interpreter, long questioning and written reports of Leo, Rollande and I who had seen the accident. The men from New York and the police talked about murders and racketeering on New York’s waterfront. The little captain looked straight ahead, the lines on his strained face deepening. At last it was over and they took us back to the boat. We’d eaten little supper and thought food might hearten us but only I ate a bit of toast.

We started again next morning. The flag in the bow was halfmast. There was no singing on the barge.

The George Washington Bridge was just ahead and soon we saw Riverside Drive with its millionaires’ yachts just below. Then came the piers with ships from everywhere: Norway, Liverpool, Nantes, Le Havre, and Panama where Joe had had the tattoo put on his left arm. We passed the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen of Bermuda. New York’s skyline was lost in a haze. In a bewildering enigma of traffic the little captain steered our canal barge steadily through the harbor, round the Battery, under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges to Pier 40 in the East River.

The Newscarrier had brought another load of paper from the forests of Quebec to the concrete wilderness of New York. The people on ’Firnes Square were already reading all about it. The men of the crew went sadly ashore to phone home to Donnacona.