The River Without End

C. L. SIBLEY June 1 1931

The River Without End

C. L. SIBLEY June 1 1931

The River Without End


A graphic description of the mighty stream which is at once the greatest of Canada’s inheritances and the most mysterious and precious of all her possessions

ON HIS first trip to Canada in 1534, Jacques Cartier never got beyond the salt waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. When he came back in the following year he brought with him two Indians whom he had captured in the previous year, and these Indians were his pilots when, after reaching the Gulf, he pursued his explorations westward. Entering the open gate of Canada, he asked one of the pilots, “What river is this?” With solemn dignity the red man replied, “A river without end.”

I propose to show not only that this is literally true for hard indeed would it be for any man to put his finger on the map and say, “This is where the St. Lawrence begins, or ends” but also that it is the greatest of Canada’s inheritances, at once the most mysterious and most precious of all our possessions.

The white man has known the St. Lawrence for just three hundred and ninety-six years a mere moment of time in its history, despite the fact that it is the most

youthful of great rivers. Properly to appreciate the St. Lawrence, you have to go back beyond the history of the river that commences with the chronicles of its exploration, to the history that it has itself written in indelible characters on the bosom of this continent.

That geological history tells some strange stories. It tells us that this great river, so stately and so dependable, which never in its history, so long as white men have known it, has indulged in such rampages as have been staged by its sister, the Mississippi, is yet one of the mast abnormal of rivers: that there is scarcely a part of it which has not. undergone revolutionary changes in comparatively recent geologic epochs, even to a complete reversal of drainage in certain parts.

It tells us that the St. Lawrence once came out of Lake Ontario not by way of the Thousand Islands, but sought the sea by way of the Rome outlet in New York State and the Hudson River.

It tells us that above Lake Ontario the waters of the upper lakes forsook for a time the channel in which they now flow, crossed Ontario through the Trent Valley, and then abandoned the Trent Valley and returned in full force to the Lake Erie and Niagara River channel.

These changes were due partly to the tilting of the continent, and were followed by a fourth stage. Also

due in part, or perhaps wholly, to the tilting of the land, the waters of the upper lakes found a new outlet at North Bay, whence they made their way eastward through the Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers, and thence by Covey Hill, in Huntingdon County, Quebec, through the Champlain and Hudson Valleys. The return to the present channel is thus described in the report of the Dominion Geological Survey:

“Continued uplift of Northern lands raised the outlet at North Bay, Ontario, and sent the discharge of the three upper lakes to Port Huron, and thence to Lake Erie and Niagara. In the transition both outlets were active at once, but this arrangement did not last long. The change of outlet to Port Huron brought the Nipissing great lakes to an end and inaugurated the present lakes. Thus the present volume of Niagara River includes the entire discharge from the four Great. Lakes, and this arrangement of overflow has continued ever since the last change of outlets.”

A Prehistoric Waterway HOW long ago was this? Well, it is easy to make deceitful calculations. For instance, the gorge of the Niagara is seven miles in length, and the whole gorge has been cut by the river. At the present time the cutting is proceeding at the rate of about four feet a year, so that it would seem that not much more than 9,000 years has been required to make the whole gorge.

But, as above indicated, twice in its history the flow of the Niagara has been reduced to only fifteen per cent of normal, thereby greatly reducing the excavating force of the river. Thus it is probable that a period of nearly 30,000 years has elapsed since Niagara began to flow over the heights at Queenston. You can pick for yourself the period within that 30,000 years when the

changes which have already been described took place. Thirty thousand years and white men have known the St. Lawrence only 396 years! The tilting of the continent is still going on, for it is a fundamental principle of geological science that continents rise and fall relatively to sea level in long periods of time, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the geological history of the St. Lawrence, both past and now in the making.

Great portions of this continent that were once dry ;and are now under the sea. This is proved by the fact that in the Gulf of St. Lawrence a submerged channel 800 feet wide has been traced to the eastern edge of the continental shelf that extends under the sea about one hundred miles from the present coast line. As rivers

emptying into the sea can only cut down their channels when above sea level, it is certain that when that channel was cut the Gulf area and the continental shelf itself were dry land.

Furthermore, much of what is now dry land was once covered by the sea.

There is clear evidence that what is now the Province of Quebec was once some 600 feet below its present level, and that the sea covered a large part of this area as well as of Eastern Ontario and adjoining parts of the United States. Thus, of Montreal at any rate, it can truly be said that,

“Where now the long street roars hath been The stillness of the central sea.”

These changes affected the climate and were also accompanied by warm and cold periods. The former is evidenced, among other signs, by the fact that at Toronto and at Scarboro, near by, there are remarkable interglacial beds whose presence indicates that at one time the paw-paw tree and the osage orange flourished there. The cold periods have left evidence to show that during the Ice

Age, which only came to a complete end a few thousand years ago, an ice sheet covered an area of about four million square miles in North America, and that around Montreal the ice was from 2,000 feet to a mile in thickness.

It would make too long a story to go into the effect of the Ice Age on the St.

Lawrence, but it is interesting to know that scientists affirm the glaciers of the North to be still in full retreat, and that they declare the observations of old-timers about the winters becoming milder to be founded on fact, because it is known the temperate zone actually is warming up.

It is also interesting to note that in Canada there is clear evidence that the earth tilt which accompanied past changes in the climate is still going on. Thus it is officially established that the records of the several water-lcve gauges on the Great Lakes show a gradual steady rise of the earth’s surface on the northerly shores of Lake Superior relatively to that which is officially reported on the southern shores. This movement of the earth’s

surface is in the same direction as that which occurred in past ages, as shown by the levels of the old beaches. The axis of the present tilting as a whole is approximately twenty degrees north of west, and the rate of tilting is in the vicinity of one-half foot per hundred miles per hundred years, with a greater rate in Northern areas.

The maximum effect of the present movement on Great Lakes levels is concluded to be in the lower St. Marys River, through which Lake Superior discharges into Lake Huron. The engineers say that if the tilting of the earth continues at the present rate, it is to be expected that the depths of the channels may be reduced by one foot in a hundred years.

So, you see, the conditions which have caused the St. Lawrence to change its channels in past ages are

still going on. It makes you think of the definition of eternity as a clock which says “tick” in one century and “tock" in another.

Now let us get back to where we started from The River Without End.

Many Names but One River ONE of the extraordinary things about the St. Lawrence is that it appears and disappears many times throughout its course. For instance, suppose you were to follow its course from the sea to whatever you might consider to be its source. Coming in from the sea to land-sheltered waters, you ask, “Is this the St. Lawrence?” The reply is, “No, it is the Gulf.” Halfway between Quebec and Montreal you would see a

vast stretch of water. “Is this the St. LawTence?” you ask, and the reply is, “No, it is Lake St. Peter.” Similarly, above Montreal the St. Lawrence is lost in Lake St. Louis, then in Lake St. Francis, then in the Thousand Island Archipelago, then in Lake Ontario, and so on. Yet all the way it has been the St. Lawrence.

It is truly a river without end, for again and again you cannot tell where it begins and where it ends.

Officially the St. Lawrence is described as flowing from Lake Ontario 633 miles to Father Point, where it makes its transition to the Gulf. Treated in the more extended manner according to the ideas of the early French geographers, the St. Lawrence from source to sea has a length of some 2,388 miles. Even so, its actual source is disputed. It is certain that its farthest source west of Lake Superior is the little River St. Louis that rises among the low hills of Minnesota, down the opposite side of which flow the beginnings of the Mississippi. But as against this, others claim that its real source is not in the United States but in Nipigon Lake and Nipigon River, in Western Ontario

Still again, the claim is made that its real source is in streams flowing from the divide down whose opposite slope flow the various streum of water that feed Lake Winnipeg.

Another extraordinary thing is that, while Lake Superior is by far the largest body of fresh water in the world, few rivers of any magnitude contribute to its volume, for the basin in which it lies is surprisingly small. The lake is 420 miles long and eighty miles in average width, its whole area being 31,820 square miles. Yet the water-parting of Hudson’s Bay approaches close to its northern shore; while the divide of the Winnipeg subbasin reaches to within sixty miles of its western shore and touches on the south at the location of the water-parting of the Mississippi.

Setting aside this dispute as to the actual source of the St. Lawrence, we can agree that, while the unique features from source to sea warrant many of those features being considered and named as separate entities, it is a fact that from the

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The River Without End

farthermost streams that feed Lake Superior to the vast estuary where eventually the waters of those streams are lost, the whole is the waterway that we call the St. Lawrence.

Let us now give in detail the various names other than its own by which the St. Lawrence is called during the course of its journey of 2,388 miles to the sea. Starting from the West they are as follows:

St. Louis River, Nipigon Lake, Nipigon River, Lake Superior, St. Marys River, Lake Michigan, Straits of Mackinac, Lake Huron, St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, Detroit River, Lake Erie, Niagara River, Lake Ontario, Lake of the Thousand Islands, Lake St. Francis, Lake St. Louis, Lake St. Peter, Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Here we have nineteen separate entities, all of which are part of the direct course of the St. Lawrence, and all of which therefore form an essential part of that noble stream “The River Without End.”

Now we pass to another unique feature of the St. Lawrence, namely that it is a mighty river from its very source. In its whole length it is seldom less than two miles wide, and it is many times that width in numerous places from the heart of the continent to Quebec. Below Quebec it begins to broaden out for good, reaching in various places a width of thirtyfive miles before it comes to Anticosti Island, of over fifty miles at Cape Gaspé, and of no less than ninety miles at the point where it is lost in the gulf. Truly a majestic river!

One of Nature’s Greatest Reservoirs

STILL another unique feature is that, among all of the big rivers of the world, it is the only one whose volume is not sensibly affected by the elements. While all other rivers rise and fall in obedience to spring floods and summer droughts, this phenomenon of waterways seldom varies more than a foot in its rise and fall from these causes. It is true that the depth of the river has varied by as much as seven feet, but the causes are not the immediate ones that affect other rivers. Winds and barometric pressure may cause oscillation of the lake surfaces, raising the water temporarily by several feet in one part of a lake and depressing it by an equivalent number in another, and affecting thereby the river channel. The depth may be affected temporarily by ice shoves in the spring, although artificial prevention of these ice shoves is now well-nigh perfected. And it may be affected, too, quite gradually by a series of years of heavy rainfalls or a series of years of light rainfalls.

But normally the change in volume of flow is so slight as to be negligible. This is due to the fact that in the Great Lakes Nature has provided for the first thousand miles of the river’s course marvellous “compensating works.” Some authorities claim that half the fresh water of the whole world is contained in the lakes and rivers of Canada. Still others narrow this down to the claim that half the fresh water of the world is contained in the St. Lawrence system. Which is right does not matter.

What does concern us is that no river in the world stores in its course a tithe of the water that is stored by the St. Lawrence. This fact is of major importance not only as bearing upon navigation, in which the St. Lawrence is pre-eminent among rivers, but also upon future power developments. In building a power plant on the St. Lawrence, the engineer does not have to construct a dam to create storage. Nature has given him all the storage he wants in the Great Lakes. Even with artificial storage dams, most

other rivers are fluctuating quantities in | regard to power developments. Spring ! floods create for them a perennial probj lern; so do summer droughts. Thus where j power plants in other rivers may give | during the year seventy per cent or less j of capacity, power plants on the St. j Lawrence give a hundred per cent capac| ity all the time. Therein lies an economic j fact of significance in relation to the future harnessing of St. Lawrence power, and the creation upon Canadian soil of large basic industries that demand huge j and constant supplies of power for electro' chemical and electro-metallurgical proj duction, for one hundred per cent delivery | of power in immense quantity day and : night the whole year round ensures econj omy of production nowhere else provided ! on a scale of such magnitude—and on a I river open to deep-sea navigation at that ! !

Consider for a moment these natural “compensating works” that give such vast and steady flow to the St. Lawrence. The areas of the Great Lakes are as i follows:

Square Miles

Lake Superior.......... 31,820

Lake Michigan......... 22,400

Lake Huron........... 23,010

Lake St. Clair.......... 460

Lake Erie............. 9,940

Lake Ontario.......... 7,540

Total............. 95,170

These lakes, remember, are for the ' most part of great depth. In two cases I their floors extend far below sea level.

You have to make comparisons to get even an approximate idea of the extent of this water area of 95,170 miles. It is about the size of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which have a combined j area of 95,030 square miles. It is bigger i than the combined area of the New England States, which together comprise j 66,424 square miles. It is bigger than the i Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland put together, for these have a total area of 93,897 square miles. It is bigger than Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, for these have a combined area of 55,611 square miles.

From this you can understand how it is that a draw down of only one foot on the level of the lake system as a whole would provide the entire average flow of the St. Lawrence for more than four months. Therein lies the secret of the river’s immunity from climatic effects as regards minimum flow.

Now as regards storage. Engineers who have worked this out by elaborate calculation put the result in a way that can readily be comprehended by saying that the entire flow of the Mississippi River past New Orleans at flood time would raise the Great Lakes at a rate of but little more than one foot per month. Incidentally, for those who like statistics it might be said that the mean discharge out of Lake Ontario in the past sixty-six years has been 246,000 cubic feet per second, and the maximum discharge for any one month 318,000 cubic feet per second.

It will readily be grasped that there must be some extraordinary natural regulation of the outflow of these great storage basins. There is—-a most marvellous system which seems to suggest that in its planning the mind of some supreme architect was at work.

The Cups that Feed the Flow

THE Great Lakes are like enormous cups set in a descending series, each having a small spout to allow the brimming water to trickle into the next a little lower down.

Lake Superior is 602 feet above sea level. The fall between Lake Superior and Lake Huron is twenty-one feet. Lakes

Huron and Michigan are the only two of the Great Lakes on the same level, /rom Lake Huron to Lake Erie the fall is 8.5 feet. From Lake Erie to Lake Ontario the fall is 326 feet, of which approximately 165 feet is concentrated at Niagara Falls proper. From Lake Ontario to Montreal the drop is 226 feet, mostly over occasional rapids. From Montreal to the sea the drop, distributed through the 160 miles of river between Montreal and Quebec, is twenty feet. The whole system seems planned to hold or release water as required to preserve a steady flow.

This is not a power article, so I am not going to enlarge further upon the significance of the above in relation to future power developments, except to emphasize the value it gives to the latent power sites, some of which Canada shares wilh the United States, but the larger portion of which is wholly within Canadian territory.

Nor am I going to dwell upon its importance in the matter of navigation, except to mention that each drop in level is accompanied by a canal for ships, and to emphasize the significance of the flow in regard to inevitable future developments which will make the present use of the St. Lawrence system for navigation seem insignificant.

A notable fact is that the Great Lakes are partly in Canada and partly in the United States, and although after leaving Lake Ontario the first 115 miles of the river form the international boundary, most of the water in the Great Lakes and the river comes from Canadian territory. With one exception the tributaries on the south shore are not large. But the St. Lawrence does reach far into the south by the waters of Lake Champlain and Lake George, which discharge northward through the Richelieu River into Lake St. Peter, where, in its course toward the ocean, the St. Lawrence first begins to feel the pulsing of the tide, although over 900 miles from the open sea.

To sum up, with its tributaries the St. Lawrence drains over 400,000 square miles of country, an area approximately the size of British South Africa, much larger than Egypt, and as large as France and Germany combined. This territory is made up not only of fertile valleys and plateaux inhabited by millions of people, but of desolate barrens and deep forests, some of which are so remote that in them the foot of man has not yet left its imprint.

We come now to still another remarkable distinguishing feature of the St. Lawrence its ice. Truly it is a river of marvels without end, for nowhere is there a river which presents such problems to the mind of man as dot»« the St. Lawrence with its ice. Only for eight months in the year is the St. Lawrence navigable. For four months its channels from the Great Lakes to Quebec are for the most part covered with ice of such thickness and strength that highways, two miles in length from shore to shore, can be and are constructed across it.

This natural phenomenon in regard to the fourth largest of the world’s great rivers has made Canadian scientists the greatest authoritn»« of all on ice formation and control on a colossal scale. In the matter of water powers they know exactly how to preserve water flow without interference from ice, and they are away ahead of all others in the matter of control of ice in respect of navigation.

On account of the proximity of Lake Ontario water, temperatures opposite Kingston at the beginning of the winter, it has been found, are still nine degrees above the freezing point when the inflow from the Ottawa River at the head of Lake St. Louis reaches the freezing point. Usually ice begins to form opposite Kingston about sixteen days after the ice begins to form on Lake St. Peter below Montreal, and almost a month after ice begins to form on Lake of Two Mountains

at the outlet of the Ottawa River. Early in the spring warmer water from the depths of Lake Ontario makes itself felt, and ice gradually disappears in the stretch of water above Ogdensburg about two weeks before a through channel is available at the heads of Lake St. Louis and Lake St. Peter.

Professor Barnes, of McGill University, who knows more about ice than any man who ever lived, is of opinion that the warmth stored in the water of Lake Ontario could easily be made to keep the St. Lawrence open for deep-sea navigation the whole year round. He contends that this warmth is unnecessarily dissipated in the wide and shallow waters of that section below Kingston known as the Lake of the Thousand Islands, and that if the main flow were confined to one narrow and therefore swifter-moving channel, enough warmth would be retained to keep the water from freezing throughout, its course to the sea. This, then, is another of the interesting possibilities of the future presented by the St. Lawrence.

A Great Trade Artery

CONSIDER, also the St. Lawrence in relation to commercial geography. River valleys have always played, and always will play, an important part in industry and commerce, for it is an axiom that goods tend to drain from the interior of a country to the sea along the same lines as those by which water flows to the ocean. The ocean which receives by far the greater part of the land drainage of the world is the Atlantic. Because of this fact it has become the most important commercial ocean and, broadly speaking, the capacity of countries for commercial development may be measured by the ease and rapidity with which their products can reach its shores.

Granted that good river systems are of the utmost importance in the commercial development of a country, it will be conceded that to be commercially useful rivers must communicate on the one hand with productive belts and on the other with the open ocean. This condition the St. Lawrence fulfills to a pre-eminent degree. The greater part of civilized Canada drains into the St. Lawrence system and thence to the Atlantic, and the development of the vast plains of Western Canada has been made possible because, via the St. Lawrence, they have at their command a great navigable waterway reaching from the heart of the continent to the most important commercial ocean in the world.

Russia, about whose possibilities for commerce there is now so much talk, has no such advantage as Canada possesses in the St. Lawrence. The interior of Russia

is far from the ocean, and its rivers mostly end in seas or parts of seas which are of little or no use for commerce. The great Volga, the largest river in Europe, flows through fertile land andits valley traverses an important wheat-growing region, but it ends in a “dead” sea, and for that reason is virtually useless for foreign trade.

On the map of Central Australia the Diamantina River bulks large, but it neither communicates with productive areas nor with the ocean. The Murray River in New South Wales, with its great tributary, the Darling, are both subject to great fluctuations in the wet and dry seasons. In the wet seasons they are navigable, but the Darling River has been known to be dry for eighteen months, and even the Murray River occasionally ceases to flow. Moreover, a bar prevents the entrance of shipping of any draft from the ocean to the Murray River.

The vast Hungarian plains are watered by the Danube and its tributaries, but the outflow of that river into the Black Sea is a geographical calamity alike for Hungary and Austria, as well as in lesser part for Germany.

There is talk in the United States of developing the Mississippi as an ocean highway in competition with the St. Lawrence. The vagaries of that mighty river, as compared with the steady and orderly flow of the St. Lawrence, and the adverse effect these vagaries have on navigation, are well known; but even if these did not exist, the fact that the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico would remain a drawback. The Gulf of Mexico is far from the most frequented trade routes; which routes are the cheapest and most easily managed. The St. Lawrence, on the other hand, empties straight into the middle of them.

Added to these advantages of the St. Lawrence as a commercial highway, is the fact that it is the only river system in North America whose main stream flows from the West to the East, and the only large system except the Columbia whose main stream does not flow in the direction of the greatest extent of the continent. We sometimes hear people deplore what they call the unnatural division of the North American continent between the Americans and the Canadians. They say Nature has so devised the continent that the natural trade routes are north and south and vice versa. But this artificial division may not be so unnatural after all, for the St. Lawrence laid down the lines of that division long before the white man came to this continent, and in the division which has taken place Canada has been given the undivided ownership, and therefore the supreme control, of the greater part of the only ocean highway flowing across the continent from east to west—the greatest inland waterway trade

route not only of the continent, but of the world.

Picturesque Islands

A FEATURE of the St. Lawrence

*-which has great aesthetic value is the multiplicity of islands which dot its course. So great is their number that nobody has ever made a complete list of them. They number many thousands; some are of great importance, as for instance the Island of Montreal and Prince Edward Island. The former is ten times as large as Bermuda, and on it is situated the city of Montreal, which with its suburbs has a population of a million and a quarter people. Prince Edward Island is 2,184 square miles in extent, and is a whole province in itself. Then there are the Thirty Thousand Islands of Georgian Bay, a description literally true. The Thousand Islands below Kingston have been described as forming the most picturesque archipelago in the world, its nearest rival being in Finland. The actual number of islands in this region is nearer two thousand.

There is one other distinguishing feature which may well be emphasized. Sir J. M. LeMoine, F.R.G.S., once described the St. Lawrence as “a river as grand as the La Plata, as picturesque as the Rhine, as pure as the lakes of Switzerland—the noblest, the purest, the most enchanting river on all God’s beautiful earth.”

The purity which he dwells upon is a fact. No other river has such bright, clear water. It is so free from sediment that, once a channel is dredged, it remains clear for ever. Thus when you read of dredging being done in any portion of the St. Lawrence below Lake Ontario you may know that this is to widen or deepen the existing channel, never to keep clear a channel once dredged.

Most other great rivers carry great quantities of sediment in suspension, which entails constant dredging to keep the channel clear and open to the sea. It is calculated that the rivers of the world carry fifteen thousand million tons of suspended sediment to the oceans each year. In this respect there is a notable contrast between the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi—two great rivers which have their sources quite near each other. Every day the Mississippi sweeps about a million tons of mud and sand into the Gulf of Mexico. To transport this load of a single day would require roughly 750 railway trains of fifty cars each, each car holding twenty-five tons.

Colonel William Wood, of Quebec, once wrote of this waterway: “The St. Lawrence basin by itself is a thing to marvel at for its mere stupendous size alone. Its mouth and estuary are both so vast that their salt waters far exceed those of all the other river systems put together. Its tide runs farther in from the Atlantic than any other tide from this or any other ocean. And its Great Lakes are appropriately known by their proud name because they contain more fresh water than all the world beside. Size for size, this one river system is so pre-eminently first in the sum of these attributes that there is no competing second to be found elsewhere.

“Nature laid out the St. Lawrence basin so that it not only led into the heart of the continent, but connected with every other system from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Tropics to the Polar Sea. Little by little the pioneers found out that they could paddle and portage by the same canoe, by inland routes, many thousands of miles to all four points of the compass: eastward to the Atlantic between the Bay of Fundy and New York; westward till, by extraordinary effort, they passed up the giant Saskatchewan and through the mighty ranges that look upon the Pacific; southward to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico; northward to Hudson Bay or down the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean.”

Truly “A River Without End.”