The languid and St. John
RIVERS OF CANADA
Loved more deeply than mightier streams, the historic Iifethread of the St. John Valley pulses slowly to the sea past the Loyalist farms and happy towns where progress can still be a naughty word
YEARS AGO I HEARD one of those Maritime Province stories which nobody verities for fear they will turn out to be untrue.
On a tributary of the St. John River, around the turn of the century, quite a few backwoodsmen were owners of dress suits with all the fixings: boiled shirts, starched wing collars, white ties and gloves, black silk socks and patent leather pumps. They had acquired this apparel from a man they respected as the best fly-tisherman, the best bird-shot and the best still-hunter in a region where standards in these activities were high. He was an Englishman and a remittance man, and each year his family had his former tailor and haberdasher send him the kind of garments they presumed he required in the St. John River country. The remittance man, who lived in a shack and wore nothing but work clothes, passed on the parcels to his friends. He spoke little about himself, but whenever anybody asked him why he had chosen to live there, his answer was always the same.
"One lives like a gentleman here. One has all
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the fishing and shooting one wants at one's door. This is a happy land."
I hope the story is true, because happiness is the w'ord that always comes to mind when I think of the River St. John. Rising in the wilderness of Maine and Quebec, it flows southeast across New Brunswick into the Bay of Fundy. It is one of the shortest of our principal streams, being less than four hundred and fifty miles long, yet it has so much variety that a stranger traveling along it encounters a surprise every twenty miles or so. It is intimate and it is very beautiful. On fine summer days the colors in its lower reaches shift from ocean blue to delphinium blue to a deep quivering violet according to the intensity of light given, out by the sky. A sudden rain in the Aroostook country can make the upper St. John look as brown as the Missouri while the lower stream is still clear. Sunsets in the Long Reach — as a broad, straight section near the mouth of the river is called—are as majestic as the sunsets in a deep fjord. At dawn and in the evening in some of the settled sections the pastel hues are as soft as in England. “Tenderly, day that I have loved, I close your eyes"—I thought of this line of Rupert Brooke the last time I heard the bells of Fredericton chime across the stream after sunset.
The happiness associated with the St. John, especially in the older communities lower down the river, is of a kind the world is losing everywhere. It proceeds from a life closely entw'ined with the river and the woods, which still are wild and abundant with game; with family farms, small towns, neighborly villages, and plain people living with nature at their doors. The St. John River country can still make you think of the growing years of eastern America.
There are several reasons w'hy it does. Not only is New Brunswick a geographical offshoot of New England; the people inhabiting the lower 150 miles of the St. John Valley from Woodstock to the Reversing Falls are nearly all descended from the original Anglo-Saxon stock that pioneered the United States. After the first tentative French occupation petered out, the Loyalists came to the Valley at the end of the eighteenth century and settled it. With them they brought, along with their loyalty to the Crown, most of the habits, virtues and limitations acquired by their ancestors in the first century and a half of the British-American experience. But because they were a twice-transplanted people, the lower St. John is much younger in terms of settlement than Massachusetts or Rhode Island. From the visual standpoint this has been unfortunate. The old New England towns were built in the most exquisite period of domestic architecture ever known, while most of the St. John towns suffer from the styles of the nineteenth century. But the way of life there belongs to an earlier period than in any place I know' in the northern Atlantic states.
I come to Canada regularly," a retired American general said to me. “because it reminds me of home when I was a boy, I can close my eyes and hear the old folks talk.”
The St. John River people along the lower reaches are such staunch retainers of the past that conservative is too w;eak a word to describe them, 'there is something endearing about their stubborn disike of change. Few Canadians have contributed more to the speed of modern
living than Rupert Turnbull, who invented the variable pitch propeller and built the first wind tunnel in Canada. He was an individualist, disdaining big companies that would have subsidized his genius; nearly all his work was carried on in his own laboratory at Rothesay where the Kennebecasis comes in to share Grand Bay with the St. John. In his non-pro-
fessional life Turnbull was so adverse to change that he lived like a country squire of the last century. He sailed, he fished, he shot ducks into his early eighties. When he reluctantly bought an automobile, he never drove it faster than twentyfive miles an hour. And when New' Brunswick in the early 1920s reluctantly changed the rule of the road from left to
right (in other words from English to American), Turnbull so disapproved of the innovation that he tried to ignore it. Finding it difficult to make progress with the traffic coming from the opposite direction, he at last decided to compromise. Instead of driving on the left-hand side of the road he drove in the middle, and in a region full of individualists who like room to display all the individuality they possess, he was not only condoned, he was applauded.
For years this conservatism of the St. John River country, until recently the
heart of New Brunswick province, was responsible for the fact that New Brunswick had one of the lowest per capita income averages in the whole country. Power plants came late to the St. John. Though the river is a powerful stream with a most spectacular cataract, it was 1925 before a power plant was opened at Grand Falls. This plant, together with the development of industry higher up at Edmundston, changed the economy of the upper stream, but to this day there are people living lower down who regret that a pleasant village was converted into a factory town with wide streets and a moviehouse. It was not until 1950 that engineers undertook an exhaustive survey of the river basin in search of power sources for a province suddenly waking up to the fact that it was suffering the fate of all raw producers in the present age; and it was only a year ago that the great dam at Beechwood came into operation. The engineers installed fish ladders for the salmon swimming up to the spawning beds on the Tobique, but salmon cannot so easily be guided back the same way and some of them are pretty sure to perish in the turbines. 1 was therefore not surprised to encounter some negative reactions to Beechwood along the river last spring.
'^Suppose we do introduce new manufactures here?” said one. “Just what good do you think it will do us? The way the rest of the country has fixed the freight rates against the Maritimes, how can we sell?”
And another said: “This was the most beautiful salmon river on the whole Atlantic seaboard, but they’ve ruined it now.“
And another: “Do you want to know why they built that dam? For the same reason the Egyptians and the Burmese want to build dams where dams never were. Dams are fashionable. Some people can’t live unless they’re fashionable.”
The St. John River people can. Their ancestors were driven out of the eastern American states because they were unimpressed by the fashionable politics of Mr. Jefferson. Their descendants, with the pride of the unappreciated, accept the disapproval of bustling (and to them superficial) places like Toronto as a compliment. They are proud of the dignity of their own past, and they are proud of the dignity of this river they have so carefully preserved. The American general knew what he was talking about when he said that this country is an earlier America preserved.
Narrow though the old New England small town life was, it was nonetheless a wonderful life for a growing boy because he was able to live close to nature and at the same time see a maturely integrated society reduced to a boy’s scale. Until very recently it was like that along the St. John, and in some places it is still like that. No wonder so many Maritime boys, grown into successful men in the large cities, sigh for home as the grown Adam sighed for the Garden. They had wonderful childhoods there. Their selective memories have censored out the bad spots and the dull spots and have created the kind of poetry which Stephen Leacock. raised in a rawer community composed of the same racial stock, wove into his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.
That is why the pull of this land is so strong that it is like the invisible thread of Chesterton’s Father Brown which could draw a man back from the remotest corner of the world. It is like the pull of the spawning beds to the Atlantic salmon. Lord Beaverbrook, to judge from anecdotes and his own writings, never found in London the inner satisfaction be knew in his New Brunswick boyhood.
There is something charming, at least to a Maritimer, in the provincial arrogance which caused Lord Beaverbrook, at a Moscow conference during the war, to make Stalin learn the old New Brunswick lumbering song about the Jones Boys’ sawmill. There is something moving in the salmon-like returns of this formidable old egotist to his native land, in his desire to make Englishmen understand what a wonderful place it is and to fight a losing battle for a waning British Empire. But if I know the St. John Valley at all—well, perhaps they say that Beaverbrook comes from the Mir^michi—I suspect that he has more than once encountered the built-in conservatism which originally drove him out. Fredericton has a statue of him, and he has given much to Fredericton, but no part of New Brunswick would ever give him a chance to succeed as he did in London. The Daily Express could not possibly compete in Fredericton with The Gleaner, and the average St. John River man, exposed to the Express, would wonder why anyone would want to read it at all. For the Express is designed for a community directly opposite to theirs. Its metropolitan readers know nothing of a society where everyone knows everyone else, where banker, barber, cathedral dean and odd-job man, each knowing his exact place, nevertheless are bound together in a common neighborliness. Those St. John communities are still coherent.
Rhine of America?
Locally they call this river the Rhine of America, but they shouldn't. The Rhine is longer, larger, more dramatic, its banks crowded with factory cities and its surface with coal barges and excursion steamers. It also has had a ferocious history with a ghastly tendency to repeat itself generation after generation. Those romantic castles which glower at you from the Rhenish islands were wicked places.
But the St. John was never a wicked place, and apart from small-scale Indian frays in the days when Malecite war parties roamed the river in canoes, the fighting on the St. John has never amounted to more than the grotesque affair between LaTour and d'Aulnay Charnisay and the so-called Aroostook War of 1839. when neighboring American and Canadian lumbermen created an international crisis over cutting rights. Almost the only structures on the St. John islands are hay barns, and on many of them the Makefiles gather fiddlehead greens. Only in the Long Reach where the river strikes off at right angles northeast from Grand Bay does the St. John resemble any part of the Rhine, nor does it really resemble it here except in width, depth and the way the hills rise almost sheer from the water. But the hills of the Long Reach are covered by virgin forest glorious with color in the fall, while on the Rhine they are terraced vineyards.
Nor does the St. John come out of a glacier. It rises in the woods of northern Maine, it curves under the hump of the Laurentian-Atlantic watershed and it reaches New Brunswick at the lower tip of the Madawaska County panhandle. It then winds through wild country more or less northeasterly to Edmundston, then curves southeasterly down through St. Leonard and Grand Falls and so on to Woodstock, through rolling farmland that produces one fifth of all the potatoes grown in Canada. From a point in Madawaska County just above the hamlet of Connors, to a point just above Grand Falls, it forms the boundary with the United States.
These upper reaches of the St. John are as different from the lower ones as Quebec is different from Ontario. More recently settled — the original English population thinned out as it moved upstream from the mouth — it is now almost entirely French speaking. Edmundston is as Canadien as Rivière du Loup, and the Canadiens, first overflowing from the St. Lawrence, now overflowing from the upper St. John, are steadily coming down the stream.
The St. John in its upper reaches is slim and graceful, a delicate band through fields and forests, and it looks quiet until you come to Grand Falls where suddenly you see the power of it. The flume of the falls, utterly savage, hurls itself, twisted by the contour of the rock, into a huge slide of water before it plunges into a gorge with walls about a hundred feet high. No salmon could ever surmount the Grand Falls of the St. John, but logs can go down it, and only once in a century or more of lumbering has Grand Falls been jammed. Then it was done on a bet by an old river character called Connor, who was known in the district as The Red Rover.
From Woodstock down to Fredericton the river flows in bold sweeps, and curves about the width of the Thames at Oxford, but after passing the head of tide (the furthest upstream point penetrated by salt water) at Crock’s Point, and receiving the Nashwaak, it widens at Fredericton to nearly half a mile, passes under three bridges and proceeds deep and generally still toward the majestic stretches lower down. The Long Reach is one of the fairest sections of river I have ever seen in Canada, and a little below it the stream swells into Grand Bay behind the city of Saint John. Here the Kennebecasis comes in from the east, not as a tributary but as a separate river that — ages back in geologic time — flowed in the opposite direction.
Below Grand Bay the St. John ends in the last of its many surprises: it reaches the Reversing Falls between the city and the raw new suburb of Lancaster. When the tide is low the river goes down a gorge in a drop of seventeen feet into the Fundy. But when the Fundy lifts, salt water surges into the gorge and floods right into the river itself, and at high tide there is enough depth to float a sizable tanker.
A varied river this, but never a crowded one except when the iogs come down in the spring drive. Most of the logs these days are cut in the forest near the headwaters and they have an adventurous journey of about 30Ü miles before they reach the plants at the river’s mouth. They tumble over Grand Falls, they are shepherded past Beechwood and finally they come to a stop in a jam three miles long against the great boom stretched between Oromocto Island and the eastern shore by Maugerville (pronounced “Majorvilie”). Tugs tow mats of them downstream in barrel booms, and behind the drive come the Wangan boats, which are house-carrying scows powered by outboards and crewed by about twenty men. Within three weeks the Wangan boat men clear the river of stray logs all the way from Beachwood to Maugerville, a distance of some two hundred miles. Thereafter the stream is clear for pleasure craft.
One of the beauties of the St. John at the moment is that few American smallboat owners seem to know about it; if they did the stream would be crowded with craft from half the eastern states, for there is no river on the continent more suited to pleasure boats than this. Above the head of tide it is too shallow for cabin cruisers, but from Fredericton
down to the mouth it is deep enough to carry a ship and quiet enough for a child to be safe on it.
The shores float by, the tall grasses are fragrant in the water meadow's, ferns and wildflowers blow on the islands, the shadows move along the hills. As a picnic party comes round the bend a flock of startled ducks takes to the air, and like sea planes alighting they splash back again when the boat has passed. “Look!” cries a small boy. And there, upwind by the water’s edge, is a deer with big eyes. As the sun sinks, the great hills above the Long Reach cast their shadows over a river violet-dark, and later in Grand Bay, the water shrimp-pink and pastel-gray from reflected cumulus clouds, the yachts becalmed on the flood, the boat party sees the lights of the city that marks the journey’s end.
Along with the boating goes the sport and fascination of the river’s wild life. Geese and ducks flock the shallows in such numbers that at certain seasons you cannot count them. Not long ago a moose swam the St. John at Fredericton and spent some time wandering through the city’s streets. Deer emerge from the forests and eat the greens in gardens, as deer do everywhere in closed seasons. But it is in its salmon runs—unless the pessimists are right and the Beechwood Dam has spoiled them — that the St. John is supreme among rivers of the eastern seaboard.
Accessible all year
Cedric Cooper, of Fredericton, who has the rights on the largest pool on the river, tells me that in the St. John there are no fewer than nine salmon runs in the course of the year. The first comes up in early May a few weeks after the ice breaks, when the river is so widely flooded that the Maugerville district farmers sometimes have to put their cattle in the lofts of their barns. These fish are bound for the Serpentine branch of the Tobique, where they spawn. The last run comes up in November just before the river begins to freeze.
“The St. John is a fine river equal in magnitude to the Connecticut or Hudson,” with a fine harbor at the mouth “accessible at all seasons of the year, never frozen or obstructed by ice.”
Such was the first report of the agents of the Loyalists who had come to Annapolis in Nova Scotia in the fall of 1782, then had crossed the Fundy and proceeded up the St. John as far as the Oromocto in search of a new homeland for a desperate people. The Revolutionary War was over in the United States, and the victors were earning the distinction later conferred upon them by the historian Arnold Toynbee, who notes that the Americans were the first people in modern times to expel thousands of men and women solely because of their political opinions. The president of the Board of Agents for the Loyalists bore one of the most famous names in the State of New York: he was the Reverend Dr. Samuel Seabury.
Americans had of course heard of the St. John long before the revolution. The river had been established on the map as early as 1604, when Champlain entered it while still a member of De Monts’ expedition. La Tour had built a fort at its mouth in 1631, d’Aulnay Charnisay had destroyed it ten years later and built another across the harbor, and nine years after that, Charnisay had been displaced by an English expedition operating in the name of Oliver Cromwell. After the fall °f Louisbourg a force of two thousand roen under Colonel Robert Monckton had arrived, rebuilt the old French fort and renamed it Fort Frederick, Four
years later New England merchants had built a post at the river mouth for fishing and burning limestone, and through their efforts a small trade had begun in fish, lime, lumber and fur. But no real development of the St. John was attempted before the British forces were defeated in America. When the agents of the Loyalists arrived, the population at the river mouth was only 145. A little over a year later the city of St. John had been established.
For anyone wishing to study the character of the Canadian people the story of our rivers is indispensible. Adventurers peopled the St. Lawrence. Voyageurs, both Highlanders and Canadiens, used the water network leading out of the St. Lawrence as avenues to adventure, trade and exploration. But the St. John was settled neither by French nor Scots; it was settled by Anglo-Saxons who had never wished to roam, much less marry au façon du nord with the Indians.
They were proud, indignant men with a bitter sense of wrong, the ones who came to the St. John. Some had “been inflicted with the Punishment of Tarr and Feathers.” Some had “Sheltered themselves in the Mountains.” One hád been “Fined, Whip’d, and Tried for his Life.” One had been “Robbed and Maimed by the Rebels.” Many had “Had a Valuable Dwelling House burnt up by a malicious Set of Men.” Edward Winslow did not exaggerate when he wrote to his son on June 20, 1783: “The violence and malice of the Rebel Government makes it impossible even to think of joining them again.”
Sir Guy Carleton, still in control of the port of New York, requisitioned transports for an exodus in those days unparalleled. By late November, 1783, more than thirty-five thousand people had been convoyed to Nova Scotia by sea, and the total number reaching the St. John was 14,162. Every trade and profession necessary in a civilized society was represented in these convoys. There also arrived at St. John 3,396 officers, NCOs and men of the British North American Regiments, and the settlers had need both of their brawn and their discipline.
“It is, I think, the roughest land I ever saw,” wrote one of the settlers. “We are all ordered to land tomorrow, and not a shelter to go under.”
But by the year’s end, the location divided into lots, trees cut and stumps burned out, frames raised and fireplaces built, the skeleton of Saint John city existed.
With the river and its pine trees behind it, Saint John grew fast. Less than a century after its founding it was the fourth wooden-ship-owning city of the world. Its clippers were famous, and last summer, visiting the old Cutty Sark, which has been beached and turned into a museum at Greenwich on the lower Thames, I saw a print of one of the great three-masters built at Saint John. No less than six of the first seven White Star ships were Saint John built, and had it not been for a disaster, this town might easily have become the chief city of the Maritimes. But in 1877 a disastrous fire in Canadian history burned out Saint John’s heart, including nearly all the buildings constructed in the splendid style of the early Loyalists. Rebuilt in the ugliest period of architecture known to man, Saint John is now considered one of the most unfortunate-looking cities we have.
But Fredericton, smaller and more secluded, preserves the image of early New Brunswick intact. Situated on St. Anne’s Point about ninety miles upstream, Fredericton is a mirror of the Loyalist mind. Here, in a Canadian terrain utterly
different from England’s, different again from the rieh, warm fields of Westchester. eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and southern Connecticut, His Majesty’s loyal Americans built a living monument to their determination to keep alive on this continent the British fact.
Fredericton’s little Anglican cathedral is probably the most gracious house of worship in the whole country. It is an exact replica of St. Mary’s Church in Snettisham in Norfolk, and it is also claimed to be the first cathedral foundation established on British soil since the Norman Conquest. Fredericton's Legislative Building contains portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds of King George III and
Queen Charlotte; the legislative library has a copy of the Doomsday Book. And Fredericton’s bells still chime with an English sound across this Canadian river.
They kept it alive here, the British fact in America; they kept it alive from the end of the eighteenth century until today. But they are threatened now, and they know it.
Just below Fredericton is the huge new Gagetown Camp with a permanent troop population seldom under five thousand, with battle ranges embracing every knowm kind of terrain except mountains. Canada is moving into the lower St.John, just as French Canadians have been steadily moving into the upper reaches
of the river, and the power techniques of modern Canada are producing electrical energy from the stream sufficient for dozens of factories.
"I guess,” said an old Frederictonian, “I’ve seen about the last of it. Fredericton is now a Gagetown suburb. And they tell me there are now eight of these hydro-electric stations in the whole province.”
He shook his head because he did not like it, and I thought again of that legendary English remittance man w'ho had stayed here because this was a gentleman’s country, his notion of a gentleman being a man who did not work in a factory or a shop but had all the shooting
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and fishing he wanted at his door. I thought again of the old days when the farm people and the families from the little towns went up and down the river with the paddlewheels clunking behind or alongside, and everyone knew everyone else. I thought of the great salmon, firm from the cold north Atlantic, bracing themselves against the current at the pools, and the ducks and the geese and the small boys who learned about nature and human society so easily because nature was all around them and the societies were so small that even a child could comprehend them.
“A lovely river,” the old man said. “A lovely, lovely river.” if