What it's like to cruise halfway across Canada
Robert Thomas Allen
rides a Dutch ocean liner through the St. Lawrence Seaway and takes a close look at the fascinating people and awesome commerce of our inland coastline that runs 2,300 miles
THE GREAT LAKES, on a good map, look like a delicate sprig of leaves at the end of the long stem of the St. Lawrence River. In reality, they lie enormously throughout one of the world’s biggest industrial jungles. Their canals and tributaries hold great cities like Chicago, Detroit and Toronto in a web of waterways and lift bridges. Their shipping lanes, docks and warehouses bustle with trade in everything from Royal Doulton toilet bowls to wheat and scrap iron. Great ships from Oslo, Hamburg, Hong Kong and Manchester, caught in the heaviest inland shipping in the world, wait their turn in river traffic jams, their screws churning
the water red. black and the color of egg plant. For a particularly sharp and memorable picture of this great commerce, the best vantage point is a working, ocean-going passengerfreighter. I took such a trip, from Montreal to Chicago, on the Oranje Line’s Prinses Margriet. This is an opulent, majestic buff-blackand-white passenger-cargo vessel of nearly ten thousand tons, built especially for the European-Great Lakes trade by the Merwede Yard at Hardinxveld, Holland, and launched and christened on Dec. 10, 1961, by HRH Crown Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands on behalf of her sister. The Prinses Margriet has five holds, with twelve hydraulic winches and thirteen derricks, including one for twenty tons. She has fifty-five rooms, accommodating 115 passengers, with such shipboard facilities as a hairdressing salon, bar, and gift shop, and carries a crew of 101, about a third of whom are in the catering department. The Prinses Margriet can carry passengers between Canadian and American ports but can’t take passengers between two ports in one country. Usually a handful of the passengers are returning from Le Havre and continuing to Toronto, Detroit or Chicago; the rest are taking the Great
Lakes portion of the cruise, a ti ip that seems particularly popular with Californians.
When I embarked at Montreal, in the pouring rain, my first glimpse of the Prinses Margriet was under a long canopy. It was like looking into a brightly lit night club. The rest of the ship was an indistinguishable part of the black night. My cabin was something like a good roomy motel room with two bunks, a big clothes closet, private bath with a tub and large rectangular windows, instead of portholes, for the convenience of sight-seeing passengers. All that was visible now was a dripping concrete wall about three feet away so 1 went to bed.
I awakened to a gentle but powerful shudder throughout the ship, and went up to the observation deck. In the pale, early morning light, two tugs silently towed and nudged the Prinses Margriet out from the dock and began to turn her, end for end, in the channel. We blew our horn at the Emma Johanna of Hamburg as she passed, and moved slowly under the Jacques Cartier bridge.
When I was a boy, my father, who was born and raised on the Montreal waterfront, used to tell of the river pilot, a legendary
“The world's heaviest
inland shipping "
figure who became one of my gallery of heroes. Now, as I looked down on the bridge of the Prinses Margriet, sure enough there he was, after all these years, standing beside the captain. He wore a small, sharp-looking felt hat, a blue trench coat and a white shirt with no tie, which marked him off as someone special. He had a walkie-talkie slung from his shoulder and talked quietly to the tug captains, making little gestures with his hands as it helping someone park a car. When we were fairly headed downstream, he and the captain waved to the tugs and they took off, tough little workmen that gave the appearance of traveling slightly sideways.
Leaving Montreal is an intricate and deceptive process. You seem to be circling the Montreal skyline for a couple of hours, as it you're traveling in a huge circle, with the distant white water of the l.achine rapids at the vortex. We headed up a long concrete-walled channel toward St. Lambert lock. The gates ahead seemed just wide enough to take the ship only if they greased the sides and punched it through. A sailor in wide pants and ribboned hat sat on a kind of kids’ swing, and was swung out over the water by a loading boom until he w;as gliding along over the water like a gull. The ship moved almost imperceptibly toward the wall and the sailor w'as finally traveling right over it. The boom lowered and the sailor jumped off. holding a light line and hauled a hawser ashore. One ot the most fascinating sights of the trip was a stretch of the canal where, for perhaps a quarter of a mile, the crews of ships waiting their turn to go through the lock, have painted inscriptions on the concrete wall in big, brilliantly colored and surprisingly artistic lettering. There was Greek. Hebrew' and Chinese lettering. As space became limited, messages were lettered between messages, and the effect was of a crescendo of pattern and color. A strong theme was home. ‘*WE MAY NEVER GO HOME,” read one. Another said simply, “i AM TIRED AND I AM THURSTY.” There was one charge of sexual deviation, but the general tone was of solemn creative expression.
The seven locks on the St. Lawrence lift ocean-going vessels about 220 feet to Lake Ontario. (The Welland Canal lifts them another 326 feet to Lake Erie, including, in effect, over Niagara Falls.) The vessel sails into a concrete reservoir, like a great rectangular bathtub. The water is locked off with steel gates of a strength sufficient, in some locks, to hold back a thirty-foot cliff of water. The water level is adjusted, hoisting the vessel or lowering it so that it can sail out at the new level. This section we were going through, known as the Beauharnois Canal, leads to Lake St. Francis. The channel is fifty to sixty feet deep, over two hundred feet wide, running parallel to. and a thousand feet from, the shore. The Jacques Cartier bridge, which is over two miles long and carries about seventeen million cars a year, was jacked up fifty feet, and a new span was slipped into place, all without interrupting traffic more than a few hours. The operation gave Seaway ships a total clearance of 120 feet, and cost in the neighborhood of seven million dollars. The Victoria bridge, which carries both rail and road traffic, has two branches, each with a lift
“The world’s biggest
span. When the ship, passing through St. Lambert lock, goes under one branch the traffic goes over the other.
All this operation is on such a gigantic scale that the ship's passenger, trotting from rail to rail with a diagram in his hand, gets about the same view of it as a soldier gets of a major invasion. The sailor, dragging the hawser by the noose, plods along at the same pace as the ship, up a stairway to the high lock wall, looking like a Dutch boy determined to pull his enormous toy boat all the way to Chicago. Far ahead is another pair of gates, forming a giant step, and behind this can be seen the superstructure of another ship. You feel like an ant looking up a staircase. Sight-seers line the locks to watch the ships go through. Apparently this is a popular place to bring the kids. You’re at eye level with these people, maybe trying to catch the eye of a little girl six feet away who studiously avoids looking at you. Between you is a crevice so deep you have to crane to see the water at the bottom. Bells ring. The water comes in. Everything operates on such a vast scale that you can hardly believe anything is happening, but before long you are somehow at the same level as the other ship, looking down thirty feet or so directly at the part in the little girl’s hair.
During the day we alternately passed through the cluttered, earth-bound mechanisms of the locks and belted along open stretches of the river with whitecaps and a thin distant shore. We passed a ship from Ireland and another from Hamburg, and overtook an Esso tanker, traveling so low in the water that it looked like a moving derelict, sending our wake washing over its side. It kept right on, completely unconcerned. At times when I went to my cabin the view from the window gave the impression that we were floating through a field. Once we passed within perhaps sixty feet of some telephone wires with thousands of birds perched on them, and I floated past them like a field marshal inspecting troops. We came so close to land that I could count the separate blades of grass.
The statistics on this project seem to belong to some remote matter difficult to connect with the stately progress of the ship up river. At Beauharnois locks, which get shipping around the rapids between Lake St. Louis and Lake St. Francis, the builders had to pour about 750,000 cubic yards of concrete, build a four-lane tunnel under one lock and divert the N. Y. Central Railway while concrete was poured, and dredge a couple of million cubic yards of earth from Lake St. Francis. The Beauharnois Company dug more ground than the builders of the Panama Canal. At Iroquois, nine million tons of limestone and glacial till were carted away and 600,000 tons of concrete poured and a hundred-square-mile lake was created by the power installations, submerging Long Sault Rapids and the farms, houses and businesses of 6,500 people. Three new towns were built, an entire business section of forty stores was hoisted to a new site, and hundredyear-old houses were moved to newly planned, prim suburban subdivisions like old gentlemen wheeled onto a launching pad.
I woke next morning to look out my window
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The captain sailed into the bar with something of the majestic motion of the Prinses Margriet
at pink Pre-Cambrian rock. We were still in the St. Lawrence, but the scenery had changed from flat gentle green slopes to landscape like that of Northern Ontario. We passed very close to some small islands of pink rock and pines with their branches all pointing one way. After breakfast, the wind, coming out of the northwest, made me clutch railings on my way to the observation deck. We had come out of the Thousand Islands and were in a great sweep of open lake. Astern, the beginning of the St. Lawrence was a clear-cut, narrow opening at the east end ol the lake. Great swells were coming in from the northwest and the horizontal line of the windscreens around the observation deck were at an angle to the horizon. The prow of the Prinses M ar p riet was sending up a spray ten feet high and creating a rainbow. The sky was still covered with low cloud, but with clear patches, so that the lake was a pattern of colors from deep blue to emerald green, flecked with whitecaps. The land to the north was a thin mist of powder blue along the horizon, with the moraines showing a pale pink and the occasional distant building picking up the sunlight.
Twenty-five years on the Great Lakes
Before lunch I arranged to meet the captain, whose name was Groenew'eg, a tall, frightening old seadog with a high-colored, veiny face and booming voice. He sailed into the bar with something of the serene, majestic movement of the Prinses Marpriet, shook hands with me, warped me tow'ard him. sat down and growled amiably, “Go ahead and ask me w'hat you want to know but ask me if I’m used to the Great Lakes. I’ve been sailing them for twenty-five years and I’m used to them." 1 asked him if all ships had to carry a pilot through the Seaway and he said they did. He told me that technically the pilot is supposed to say to the captain, “I suggest that you go a point to starboard," and that the captain then considers whether he’ll take his advice. In practise the pilot gives his orders directly to the wheelsman. He said that the really tricky part of navigating the locks is getting a ship into them in a wind, particularly in the case of the bigger ships, some of which go through with just inches to spare. The Seaway Queen and the Whitefish Bay. both bulk carriers, have beams of seventy-five feet. The locks are eighty feet wide, so the skippers have to bring them in bangon. He said that the Americans were taking over the Seaway and that the Canadians just seemed to sit back and take it. The American authorities at the Eisenhower locks wanted him to let them know' when he would be in Toronto and what the hell business was it of theirs when he arrived in Toronto?
We approached Toronto around six
o’clock. I could make out Scarborough bluffs, the spectacular clay cliffs just east of the city, and soon we were coasting along the lake side of the long, low green streak of Toronto Islands, an unusual view for a Torontonian, like seeing the other side of the moon. We swung slowly around into the western channel, entered Toronto Bay and passed along the harbor to our berth at the foot of Jarvis Street. We were to be in Toronto until six o’clock the following day. A bus tour to Niagara Falls had been arranged for the passengers but I decided to go home.
I was back by five o’clock the following evening and was well into some roast duckling when the Prinses Marpriet nosed slowly out into the bay and headed in the direction of Niagara Falls. It was a cloudy evening. The lake was a rich, dull green and looked very deep. Toronto was receding over the stern, taking in an enormous arc of the shoreline. When I went to bed that night we were anchored somewhere out off the southern shore.
When I drew my cabin curtains next morning I looked out on a sea wall and realized that we had moved into the Welland C anal. I was dressed and up on deck in fifteen minutes, just as we were entering the first lock. A different kind of countryside than any we had passed through—orchard land and low hills and Lombardy poplars—spread out around us. The Welland Canal struck me as even more spectacular than the St. Lawrence. From a folder that a fellow passenger loaned me, and from subsequent reading in my cabin, I learned that the present canal is the third renovation of the original, which was built in the early 1800s by a young tradesman named Merritt who was born in the U. S. but fought against the States in the War of 1812, spent time in a Massachusetts prisoner-ofwar camp and returned to Canada to connect Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with a ditch seven feet six inches deep. It was fitted with forty wooden locks which a critic likened to bird cages, and prone to cave-ins and collapsing dams, but it was the beginning of one of the busiest canals on earth. Today’s Welland Canal has four single locks, three twin locks that handle simultaneous two-way traffic, and a control lock at the Erie end. It cuts right across southern Ontario west of and roughly parallel to the Niagara River, takes eight hours to traverse and accommodates about thirty vessels a day during the 260 days that it isn't frozen. In 1961 it carried about thirty-one and a half million net tons of freight, hauled in 7,747 shiploads. These ships are more than twice the length of a football field and nearly half as wide and almost all cargo space. An all-time record for lakers was established on Dec. I, 1961, when the Canadian steamer Red Winp pulled away from Picton, Ontario, with 25,004 gross tons of iron ore.
I’d read a bit about the geology of the area we were going through (most of the passengers had a hard time figuring out what country we were going through) and the thing that intrigued me most was that these giants of the Great Lakes, with their massive cargoes, are lifted by the Welland
Canal right over the Niagara escarpment. the soaring lift of land over which Niagara Falls have poured since the glaciers melted enough to unplug Lake Erie. The escarpment is the eroded, exposed edge of a great sweep of sedimentary rock laid down by the warm seas that covered sixtyfive percent of North America over three hundred million years ago. It can be seen in section as a towering ridge by motorists driving between Toronto and London on Highway 401, forms Hamilton "mountain” and rises as it extends northward to the ski slopes of Collingwood, a thousand feet above the surrounding land. This was what the Prinses Margriet was mounting as she followed the canal.
From the stern we looked down a long slope of countryside that fell away to the north. The country was very beautiful, hilly and wooded, and the sun had come out. A red freighter was high up on the shelf ahead of us. The boat slid along another concrete lock wall. We passed a freighter from Newcastle and the Bentang from Amsterdam, a huge dirty old ship with junk and garbage around the deck, and the Seaway Queen out of Toronto. an enormous hull with sides that seem to flare out slightly at the bottom. Toward evening we were floating endlessly between two rows of trees and the green southern Ontario countryside, past picnickers on the canal banks and a few people swimming in the peaceful - looking water. It was after dark when we finally passed through the last part of the canal.
We spent the next day tied up in Cleveland and that night headed out in the lake again for Detroit. The Lake Erie-Detroit River area is part of the Great Lakes that presents some tricky geography—a section of the international border where, due to the curve of the Detroit River, the U. S. lies north of Canada, and where part of Canada, Pelee Island, lies farther south than Crescent City, California. It’s also a famous haunt of ornithologists, the chain of islands—Pelee, Put-In-Bay, Middle Bass, Rattlesnake and Green Islands, which form giant stepping stones right across the lake to the Ohio shore—being on a direct line of bird migration. But it w'as dark as we moved slowly along the shipping lane between Pelee Point and Pelee Island, and when I went to bed all that was visible was a bright patch in the sky far to the north, which 1 took to be the reflection of the lights of Detroit.
Next morning when I pulled the curtains 1 looked out on the east shore of the Detroit River. Up on deck 1 could see the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, a graceful suspension structure, and beyond it the buildings of downtow-n Detroit, looking enormous and very far off. There w;as talk of a ship having been sunk in the river up ahead of us, and looking to the north 1 could see a careened red bottom rising trom the surface of the river. Collisions are nothing unusual in this area. Great Lakes navigation in general is largely difficult pilotage, and salt water men don’t like it as a rule. They're used to the whole ocean to bash around in, and dock perhaps twenty-five times a year. A lake boat sometimes docks
three times a day, navigates channels in which the skipper can have thirtysix feet of water in one spot and a few yards away a hundred yards of deep water. Parts of the lakes, such as the one we had just come through, are dotted with islands, fishing nets and small pleasure craft, and fog is another constant hazard.
During the afternoon, the Prinses Margriet turned slowly and headed down the Detroit River again, amid much tooting, and turned into the Rouge River through a fantastic land of hydro towers, coal piles, scrap iron, terraces of warehouses, grids of smokestacks spouting smoke of every conceivable color, freight cars, oil tanks, piles of logs, piles of sulphur and a variety of smells. We moved in behind the Suderholm from Kiel, in water that shaded from chartreuse to rust red. We passed under a lift bridge, holding up a considerable line of automobile traffic, and I recognized the place where I’d sat in a taxi a few weeks earlier waiting for the bridge to close.
The Dutch have a way with steel
The Prinses Margriet put on a magnificent show for us from about six that evening to eleven at night. Big traveling cranes began unloading her holds. Almost the whole passenger population, along with several of the catering crew, turned out to watch. The cranes unloaded bolts and bicycles, steel rails and European automobiles. Standing there at dead centre of the U. S. steel industry, two miles from the Ford Motor Company Dearborn plant, we found it as surprising as if the Dutch had shipped the U. S. apple pie and chewing gum. A young lounge steward explained that the Dutch could do something to steel rails that the Americans couldn’t do. and said he couldn’t understand these matters of commerce. A French Canadian beside me at the rail said happily, “That’s business,” and i couldn't help feeling that there couldn’t be a more appropriate person to say so than a descendant of the men w'ho first traded on the Great Lakes.
Late that night, two tugs made an incredible manoeuvre with the Prinses Margriet, turning her stern into a channel about the size of something you’d expect to fish for catfish in, so that we could turn right around in the River Rouge. At one point the Prinses Margriet lay right across the river, her stern about two feet from a low grassy bank. The manoeuvre was conducted so slow'ly that sometimes the movement was just perceptible by lining up some spot on the bank and sighting against part of the ship. There were a few lusty blasts of the tug whistles and a regal pronouncement from the Prinses Margriet’s horn, and we were set free on the Detroit River. We had a good look at the capsized boat, lying on her side on the bottom, with a smooth, whale-like sweep of her red side and bottom above the w'ater. The ship was the 4.993-ton English cargo ship, Montrose, carrying wine and olives from the Mediterranean to Chicago. It had been rammed by a cement barge and the crew of forty-four
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taken off without accident. The Prinses Margriet’s bridge put the spotlight on the hull. A coast guard boat met us and accompanied us past the wreck. Oddly, the capsized boat, lying right under the Ambassador Bridge, brought the whole scene, the city, the bridge, down to a toy scale, as if some youngster had forgotten it and left it in a park pond when he went home for supper. It was a sad sight.
I woke up the next morning, the second last day of the trip, to look out on the cold, dark brilliant blue waters of Lake Huron. The horizon was drawn sharply across a pale blue sky. The vibration of the ship gave the feeling that she was going all out now, with no more stops, headed for the straits at the head of the lake. An announcement was made over the loud speaker that a tour of the ship’s engine room would be conducted from the lounge at 10.30 a.m., and a tour of the bridge at eleven. The engine room was just as spie and span as the dining room. Ben Casey could have performed an operation absolutely anywhere in this ship without danger of the patient becoming infected with anything but Dutch efficiency. The most impressive sight was the propeller shaft, which looked about twelve or fourteen inches in diameter, the part visible inside the ship about thirty feet long, polished, greased and turning. We went above to gather in the wheelhouse and stare hopelessly at compasses, charts and wheels and read Great Lakes navigation regulations. The captain arrived, took one look and left, and we all were taken on a tour of the pantry where everything was bright and polished and in its place, with biscuits all set out for an afternoon snack in the lounge.
Chicago was a wrinkle on the horizon
Around five o’clock we approached the bridge linking upper and lower Michigan across the straits of Mackinac, a tremendous suspension structure held up by enough wires, 1 learned from some tourist literature, to wrap around the world twice at its equator. It was visible for about fifteen miles, draped over the straits with one enormous suspension span in the middle. For an hour we seemed to be getting no closer to it, then as we began to see the details and really come close, instead of the structure of soaring strands hanging from the sky that had been before us for the past hour, the bridge became a very ordinary bridge with cars and trucks crossing it so close over our heads that we could almost see the mud underneath the fenders. We slipped under it in a few seconds.
When 1 woke on the last day of the trip we were coming down Lake Michigan at a steady speed, out of sight of land. It was clear and sunny. At mid-morning. Chicago appeared to the south, a slight wrinkle on the horizon, taking substance and crystallizing as the morning went on, until we were opposite it, but a considerable distance out from shore. The buildings were cream colored with plum-colored shadows in the morning light. Chicago is an enormous city, the high buildings of its suburbs
spread along a great segment of the coast, yet approaching it by boat makes you realize what a diminutive thing on the earth’s surface are the greatest works of man. The tallest buildings, against even such a relatively small body of water as Lake Michigan, are a bit of floating stuff at the edge and the distant automobile traffic was just a train of pale specks gliding busily to and from the city.
We sailed past the main part of the city, coming closer to shore. Finally we started what for me was the most spellbinding part of the trip. We were taken in charge by two tugs, turned slowly opposite a sprawling maroon-colored industrial section, and entered the Calumet River. We entered a no man’s land of industry that dwarfed that which we'd been through at the Rouge River. We moved deeper and deeper into a weird forest of industrial structures that looked as if they had been broadbrushed against the sky by someone gone mad. The Prinses Margriet had so little water on either side of her that she looked as if she were being pulled on trolley tracks across an Olympian car-wrecker’s lot. We became caged in by bridges that lifted to let us by, then closed behind us. Between Lake Michigan and Calumet harbor, the Prinses Margriet went past fourteen of them. One time we came up to a bridge at perhaps three miles an hour, with the Prinses Margriet's great momentum behind us, and the bridge remained closed. One of the tugs which was so close to us that we couldn’t see it, broke into a prolonged series of hysterical whistles and still the bridge remained closed. Finally the ship’s engines vibrated and the Prinses Margriet came to a stop just as the bridge lifted. As we passed under the open span, the only visible signs of life were two pigeons looking for food on a concrete shelf beneath the uplifted span. One of the things that give an industrial wilderness like this a strange quality of other-worldliness is that there arc never any humans visible. We finally tied up at the Chicago Regional Port District dock and two U. S. Customs inspectors went through the staterooms. While a group of us waited out in the passageway on the lower deck, the captain came down, looked around in stately mystification and said, “How do you get out of these ships?” A steward pointed down a stairway and the captain sailed down majestically saying, “Well, isn’t that something?” apparently having always left the ship before from an upper deck.
I took a bus into Chicago through one of those gigantically congested and structurally littered sections of a great city which give me the feeling that the next day, or the next moment, the whole thing will grind hopelessly to a halt in one great snarl of traffic and collapse in a tangle of rust and old bricks. But the bus emerged eventually into a spacious serene section of parks, trees and tall buildings, with the lake at the right, and I was let out at a downtown hotel. I said goodbye to some people from the boat, caught an airport bus, and flew home in less time than it would have taken one of the first Great Lakes tourists— the French explorers — to pack his canoe. ★