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Plying the Sea Lanes of the St. Lawrence in a Steamboat Replica


Courtesy of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines. "What river is this?" asked Jacques Cartier of his Indian guide as he looked on the St. Lawrence. "A river without end," the Indian replied.

I boarded with trepidation. At first glance the 32.9-metre, 66-passenger replica steamboat seemed unreal, almost like a child's model. The MV Canadian Empress gently stirred a swizzle-stick of recollections from a childhood past I only vaguely remembered: floral carpets, a trifle worn; cane chairs puffed up with chintz cushions; the pungent aroma of freshly waxed oak floors and the piped-in sounds of a happy ukulele strumming "Oh Susanna." But like the river below us, I knew the era we would discover was deep as well as scientific and historic. We were going back to the time when steamboats plied North America's great rivers. We would turn back the pages of history.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.Still docked at the Market Basin, the small port within Montreal Harbor, we marveled at the twirling spires and 17th-century etched stone churches beneath a summer sky of clouds as soft as a baby's fleece blanket. Beneath the replica steamboat, circa 1908, with its candy-stripe smoke stack, not a ripple marred the green surface of the mighty St. Lawrence, a river engineered in the 1950s to operate like an elevator in Canada's Hudson's Bay Department Stores. The St. Lawrence Seaway's seven locks move vessels and their cargo up and down to the appropriate levels.

I admired the mind staggering engineering feat, but like a wayward child my first impulse was to bolt. The cruise was targeted to the over-50's crowd and that number was too close to my age for vanity's comfort. Besides, I dislike ukulele music, player pianos, Trivial Pursuit and especially shuffleboard. For a moment, I struggled with the notion of The Old Port of Montréal and downtown buildings. © Canadian Tourism Commission, Pierre St-Jacques.jumping ship to join the Cirque de Soleil. Or I might dance at one of Montreal's six tango clubs; drink French pressé at one of the city’s 249 café terraces; don roller blades and shoot the Old Port promenade to Place Jacques Cartier, one of the oldest marketplaces in Montreal; or best of all, sip Pernod from Baccarat crystal with fashionable francophones in a smoky bar. All this was just a stroll away in Old Montreal, the City of Festivals that never sleeps.

But the ropes were cast and I was to float for four days with 52 just-passed-middle-age passengers, and (thank goodness) my husband, Guy, on a boat where all the entertainment options were kitschy.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.I anticipated both a steamboat blast from the past and a mirror into my aging baby boomer future.

The riverboat's whistle blew long and hard. The diesel engine chugged. Then the boat unslipped its moorings and it was too late to turn back. A reeling paddle fan turned in the ship's cozy Grand Salon where the staff and passengers were gathering for opening ceremonies. The impressively large windows were reassuring and the polished bar was open for business. The twenty- something female staff, dressed in long heritage-style skirts and crisp, pale aprons and blouses, offered complimentary cocktails, "Old Fashioneds" topped with a red maraschino cherry.

The owners themselves were in attendance. The jovial husband and wife team treated their guests like long lost cousins.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. Caption: The owner, Bob Clark, charts a course. The captain, a sober man in his early thirties, and immaculate in his dress uniform whites, spoke with authority about the river, the MV Canadian Empress, and the feats of engineering that had made the St. Lawrence an international seaway.

It was smooth going with not a wave on the surface of the mighty river, hardly a ripple to rock the Volvo twin-diesel driven riverboat. The jagged Montreal skyline was still with us. The Victoria Bridge was strung like a necklace of metal across a slowly deepening sky. We were fast approaching the Côte St. Lambert Lock, the first of the seven locks we would pass through on our St. Lawrence Seaway and river journey from Montreal to Kingston, Ontario. The seven locks, constructed by 500 men and completed in 1959, are similar in size and change the sea level an incredible 246 feet. When a panel of lights displayed at the entrance to each lock turns from flashing amber to steady green, we would enter the 766-foot long locks and be lifted seven times, from 17 to 48 feet, depending on which lock we entered. Today we would be lifted 17 feet in the St. Lambert Lock, and then an amazing 30 feet in the St. Catherine Lock before being deposited near the grassy banks of the Upper Canada Valley.

****

Copyright Victoria BrooksA horse-drawn sleigh stands waiting. The driver, silent and stoic, wears a black-watch cap and sports a straggly handlebar moustache. Two Clydesdales, eyes hidden behind leather blinders, shift their huge hooves and switch their forelocks and tails. There is not a single cloud in the sky. A tangle of young girls dressed in pinafores and holding hands (one is a pretty aboriginal girl) skip down the earthen road singing.

We alight, taking our places on the wooden benches of the horse-drawn cart. Our driver cracks his whip high and we clip-clop past a memorial plaque that marks the War of 1812. Copyright Victoria BrooksWe are a mix of Canadians and Americans. There is silence as we read the stone plaque. It tells of American President Thomas Jefferson and his prediction that invading Canada would be "a mere matter of marching." Jefferson gravely underestimated the strength of the British fortifications on the St. Lawrence and the determination of the British Army, the Canadian militia and their Indian allies. Costumed guides, who mimic the history of their men-at-arms forefathers, man the nearby Fort Wellington National Historic Site. Copyright Victoria Brooks.

We pass a broom maker's shop and time is swept away, whisked back to the year 1860. A blacksmith, his face smeared with soot, shoes a horse. Sparks fly from the fire and anvil as he works. Loucks farm is complete with ducks, cattle, sheep and farmhands tilling fields planted with cabbage, potatoes, carrots and onions.

The bell at Christ Church Chapel rings. Kitty-corner at the Lutheran pastor's home, the pastor's wife rocks on the verandah and knits. "Are you new to town?" She asks and points in the direction of a lake. "That-away is the woolen mill. It's where I buy my yarn. Go and see the spinning water turbine that powers the mill." While Copyright Victoria Brooks.she adjusts her flowered cap around white hair secured demurely in a bun at the nape of her neck, she glances furtively toward the chapel. Finished with us, she chats with her old friend, a Mrs. McDermott who saunters by with a loaf of freshly baked bread still warm from the bakery's wood-fired ovens. A Miss Jones in a farmer's hat and woolen vest is chopping wood nearby. The sound of her axe resounds through the quiet town.

These original buildings from the past and their contents have been moved from surrounding villages and restored with painstaking accuracy. The wooden shelves at the general store are cluttered with old-fashioned remedies like "All-Imported Kidney Tonic" and "Bristol's Sarsaparilla." The green-tinted sarsaparilla bottle proclaims, "This great purifier of the blood cures cold sores, boils and is the only true and reliable cure for syphilis."

Copyright Victoria Brooks.The store proprietress, a Mrs. Robins shows us the bottle of laudanum she keeps under the counter. "If the patent medicine don't work, laudanum do," she says. "Our Doctor Prescott prescribes it for hysterical women. It's an opiate in alcohol and it's sure to dull the pain." Mrs. Robins warns that if we were to take it we might get the habit. She tells us opium costs a mere 70 cents an ounce and for a quart bottle of her best gin she'll only want a half-dollar. Back at the chapel, the pastor's wife admits to giving a certain John Hurley, a United Empire Loyalist, refuge in her home. An American, Hurley is wanted for being loyal to the British Crown.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.Our journey into the past rolls along, round and round like the rumbling wheels of the horse-drawn carriage that we ride. Then the MV Canadian Empress toots its horn and we scurry towards our candy-stripe replica steamboat like a passel of school children after a school outing.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.By now I am happy with the older and old-fashioned company we keep. Tomorrow we explore again: the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York; cowboys and Indians and the Remington Art Museum; the rocky promontories of the Thousand Islands and two riverine castles.

It is like being a child again and hearing the voices of the past speak. It is seeing our historic past recreated for pure enjoyment and thoughtful edification. I realize I am looking forward to my continuing and serendipitous journey. I might even play a game of shuffleboard on the top deck of the MV Canadian Empress while the smooth green waters of the historic St. Lawrence stream slowly by.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.

De la Commune Street and Bonsecours Market in Old Montréal. © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin. When you go:

 

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines offers steamboat trips from May to October. Cruises run between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec; Kingston and Ottawa; Kingston and Quebec City; Montreal and Kingston; Ottawa and Kingston; Quebec City and Kingston. The ship carries up to 66 passengers, with a crew of 12 to 14.

For more information on St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, visit their Web site at www.stlawrencecruiselines.com or call toll free for reservations 1-800-267-7868. To contact the head office, Tel: 1-613-549-8091, Fax: 613 594-8410.

To contact Tourisme Montréal: 1555, Peel Street, suite 600, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3A 3L8. Tel: (514) 844-5400, Fax: (514) 844-5757.

For more information on Thousand Islands located in Southeastern Ontario visit www.thousandislands.com/tisite/.

For information on speed boating on the St. Lawrence, contact Lachine Rapids Tours, 105 de la Commune West, Montreal, Quebec, H2Y 2C7. Tel: (514) 284-9607, Fax: (514) 287-9401, Website: www.jetbaotingmontreal.com.

Upper Canada Village: call toll free 1-800-437-2233.

Frederic Remington Art Museum: 303 Washington Street, Ogdensburg, New York, 13669. Tel: (315) 393-2425, Fax: (315) 393-4464

Copyright Victoria Brooks. Caption: The owner, Bob Clark, charts a course. The captain, a sober man in his early thirties, and immaculate in his dress uniform whites, spoke with authority about the river, the MV Canadian Empress, and the feats of engineering that had made the St. Lawrence an international seaway.

It was smooth going with not a wave on the surface of the mighty river, hardly a ripple to rock the Volvo twin-diesel driven riverboat. The jagged Montreal skyline was still with us. The Victoria Bridge was strung like a necklace of metal across a slowly deepening sky. We were fast approaching the Côte St. Lambert Lock, the first of the seven locks we would pass through on our St. Lawrence Seaway and river journey from Montreal to Kingston, Ontario. The seven locks, constructed by 500 men and completed in 1959, are similar in size and change the sea level an incredible 246 feet. When a panel of lights displayed at the entrance to each lock turns from flashing amber to steady green, we would enter the 766-foot long locks and be lifted seven times, from 17 to 48 feet, depending on which lock we entered. Today we would be lifted 17 feet in the St. Lambert Lock, and then an amazing 30 feet in the St. Catherine Lock before being deposited near the grassy banks of the Upper Canada Valley.

****

Copyright Victoria BrooksA horse-drawn sleigh stands waiting. The driver, silent and stoic, wears a black-watch cap and sports a straggly handlebar moustache. Two Clydesdales, eyes hidden behind leather blinders, shift their huge hooves and switch their forelocks and tails. There is not a single cloud in the sky. A tangle of young girls dressed in pinafores and holding hands (one is a pretty aboriginal girl) skip down the earthen road singing.

We alight, taking our places on the wooden benches of the horse-drawn cart. Our driver cracks his whip high and we clip-clop past a memorial plaque that marks the War of 1812. Copyright Victoria BrooksWe are a mix of Canadians and Americans. There is silence as we read the stone plaque. It tells of American President Thomas Jefferson and his prediction that invading Canada would be "a mere matter of marching." Jefferson gravely underestimated the strength of the British fortifications on the St. Lawrence and the determination of the British Army, the Canadian militia and their Indian allies. Costumed guides, who mimic the history of their men-at-arms forefathers, man the nearby Fort Wellington National Historic Site. Copyright Victoria Brooks.

We pass a broom maker's shop and time is swept away, whisked back to the year 1860. A blacksmith, his face smeared with soot, shoes a horse. Sparks fly from the fire and anvil as he works. Loucks farm is complete with ducks, cattle, sheep and farmhands tilling fields planted with cabbage, potatoes, carrots and onions.

The bell at Christ Church Chapel rings. Kitty-corner at the Lutheran pastor's home, the pastor's wife rocks on the verandah and knits. "Are you new to town?" She asks and points in the direction of a lake. "That-away is the woolen mill. It's where I buy my yarn. Go and see the spinning water turbine that powers the mill." While Copyright Victoria Brooks.she adjusts her flowered cap around white hair secured demurely in a bun at the nape of her neck, she glances furtively toward the chapel. Finished with us, she chats with her old friend, a Mrs. McDermott who saunters by with a loaf of freshly baked bread still warm from the bakery's wood-fired ovens. A Miss Jones in a farmer's hat and woolen vest is chopping wood nearby. The sound of her axe resounds through the quiet town.

These original buildings from the past and their contents have been moved from surrounding villages and restored with painstaking accuracy. The wooden shelves at the general store are cluttered with old-fashioned remedies like "All-Imported Kidney Tonic" and "Bristol's Sarsaparilla." The green-tinted sarsaparilla bottle proclaims, "This great purifier of the blood cures cold sores, boils and is the only true and reliable cure for syphilis."

Copyright Victoria Brooks.The store proprietress, a Mrs. Robins shows us the bottle of laudanum she keeps under the counter. "If the patent medicine don't work, laudanum do," she says. "Our Doctor Prescott prescribes it for hysterical women. It's an opiate in alcohol and it's sure to dull the pain." Mrs. Robins warns that if we were to take it we might get the habit. She tells us opium costs a mere 70 cents an ounce and for a quart bottle of her best gin she'll only want a half-dollar. Back at the chapel, the pastor's wife admits to giving a certain John Hurley, a United Empire Loyalist, refuge in her home. An American, Hurley is wanted for being loyal to the British Crown.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.Our journey into the past rolls along, round and round like the rumbling wheels of the horse-drawn carriage that we ride. Then the MV Canadian Empress toots its horn and we scurry towards our candy-stripe replica steamboat like a passel of school children after a school outing.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.By now I am happy with the older and old-fashioned company we keep. Tomorrow we explore again: the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York; cowboys and Indians and the Remington Art Museum; the rocky promontories of the Thousand Islands and two riverine castles.

It is like being a child again and hearing the voices of the past speak. It is seeing our historic past recreated for pure enjoyment and thoughtful edification. I realize I am looking forward to my continuing and serendipitous journey. I might even play a game of shuffleboard on the top deck of the MV Canadian Empress while the smooth green waters of the historic St. Lawrence stream slowly by.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.

De la Commune Street and Bonsecours Market in Old Montréal. © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin. When you go:

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines offers steamboat trips from May to October. Cruises run between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec; Kingston and Ottawa; Kingston and Quebec City; Montreal and Kingston; Ottawa and Kingston; Quebec City and Kingston. The ship carries up to 66 passengers, with a crew of 12 to 14.

For more information on St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, visit their Web site at www.stlawrencecruiselines.com or call toll free for reservations 1-800-267-7868. To contact the head office, Tel: 1-613-549-8091, Fax: 613 594-8410.

To contact Tourisme Montréal: 1555, Peel Street, suite 600, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3A 3L8. Tel: (514) 844-5400, Fax: (514) 844-5757.

For more information on Thousand Islands located in Southeastern Ontario visit www.thousandislands.com/tisite/.

For information on speed boating on the St. Lawrence, contact Lachine Rapids Tours, 105 de la Commune West, Montreal, Quebec, H2Y 2C7. Tel: (514) 284-9607, Fax: (514) 287-9401, Website: www.jetbaotingmontreal.com.

Upper Canada Village: call toll free 1-800-437-2233.

Frederic Remington Art Museum: 303 Washington Street, Ogdensburg, New York, 13669. Tel: (315) 393-2425, Fax: (315) 393-4464