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fourth in a series

The historic waterway that brought about the birth of the nation, powered its economic development – and yet paid a heavy price in the process

The Chateau Frontenac, left, and Dufferin Terrace in Quebec City overlook the St. Lawrence River, whose story is elemental to the development of Canada. (Mathieu Belanger for The Globe and Mail)

Who was Mary Kelly?

She might have been a wife, a mother, a daughter, sister. She could have been both infant and grandmother – for there are 10 Mary Kellys buried here, all 10 lying in mass graves below the fresh-cut grass in an eerily quiet meadow that is buffeted by high rock from a strong nor’easter turning the St. Lawrence estuary into whitecaps and flying spray.

All 10 Mary Kellys died during the summer and fall of 1847, when some 100,000 desperate Irish fled the potato famine. No fewer than 398 ships put in at Grosse Île to discharge the sick passengers and place the remainder under quarantine until officials were able to declare them free of typhus and allowed to continue on to Quebec City.

Rivers of Canada

This is the fourth in a Globe series on Canada's rivers, from coast to coast. 

Part 1: The story of the Red River Valley

Part 2: The story of the Ottawa River

Part 3: The story of the Muskoka River

The graves at Grosse Île hold 5,424 dead – most of whom escaped Ireland but not disease. Mary Kelly was at least left with her name listed 10 times on the memorial that sits in one corner of the meadow. The 10 Mary Kellys are joined by 1,500 “unknown” who are also buried on this thin, rocky island that is today a national park.

Grosse Île – situated 48 kilometres downstream, where the fresh water of the St. Lawrence River begins mixing with the salt water of the Gulf – served as a convenient health precaution for the residents of Quebec City who justifiably feared typhoid and cholera.

Established in 1832 following fears of an outbreak of Asiatic cholera, the island quarantine station operated until 1937, a century in which more than four million immigrants from 60 countries entered through the port of Quebec. While names like Kelly, Fitzpatrick, Kennedy, and McCormick speak to the Irish tragedy, the memorial near the mass graves also tells the heartbreaking story of British, Scandinavians, Germans, Russians ...

The great Canadian biblical scholar Northrop Frye once wrote that immigrants arriving from Europe by ship would have felt “like a tiny Jonah entering an inconceivably large whale” and would have been terrified by this “alien continent” that was swallowing them.

A brilliant metaphor, perhaps, but utter poppycock. While it served his rather paranoid theory that Canadian literature holds a “deep terror in regard to nature,” the preposterous whale image comes from looking at a map, not the horizon.

In 1847, the average sailing time across the Atlantic was 45 days. Those fleeing the famine were crammed into filthy quarters – some ships carrying more than 400 passengers – and dealing daily with vomit, human waste, death, often of family members, and rolling, slamming breakers that never seemed to pause. There would have been nothing but joy and celebration once they entered the Gulf and then the quieter waters of the lower St. Lawrence.

Even pioneer writer Susanna Moodie, who had arrived by ship the year Grosse Île opened, gushed in her journal that it seemed “Nature had lavished all her noblest features in producing that enchanting scene.”

Surely the passengers would have felt far more that they were entering the embrace of vast green and granite arms than the mouth of a whale.

The memorial in a corner of the meadow near Grosse Île, Que., where the remains of at least 10 Mary Kellys rest. (Mathieu Belanger for The Globe and Mail)

No, we may not know exactly who Mary Kelly was – in any of her 10 lives – but we do know that all 10 Mary Kellys shared the same dream.

That here they would find a better world.

When Jacques Cartier entered the estuary beyond Grosse Île in 1535, he presumed that he had come across the fabled Northwest Passage to China. The Lachine Rapids soon convinced him otherwise. What he had found, however, was the river that would, essentially, create the country that would be Canada.

The St. Lawrence – Cartier called it “La Grand Rivière” and “La Rivière de Hochelaga” – would be the entry point for European exploration and settlement. It would make the fur trade possible, then the timber trade. It would see wars and change hands, further highlighting its obvious import.

“The St. Lawrence has made nations,” author Hugh MacLennan claimed. “It has been the moulder of lives of millions of people, perhaps by now hundreds of millions, in a multitude of different ways.”

In MacLennan’s opinion, the river that flowed not far from his office at McGill University is “the greatest inland traffic avenue the world has ever known.” From voyageur canoes during the fur trade to today’s huge international cruise ships putting in at the Port of Quebec, the St. Lawrence has been, and remains, the inarguable entry point.

The river between Quebec City and Kingston is complicated: It includes one major metropolis, Montreal; several smaller cities; multiple ports; vast First Nations holdings; more than a dozen international bridges; tributaries that include the Ottawa, Richelieu, Saguenay and St. Maurice – not to mention commerce that includes recreational and commercial fishing, scuba diving among centuries of shipwrecks, whale watching, cruises, major shipping. From cigarette smuggling to lighting up much of the continent with electricity, the St. Lawrence is far more than merely part of the Canada-U.S. border.

In fact, it has many talents.

River or economic indicator?

“You know,” says first (and only) mate Gene Carson of the General Brock II, “you can tell how the economy is going by the St. Lawrence.

“I don’t give a damn what they say about the GDP or what you read in the newspapers, you come out here, day in and day out, and you see the number of boats and the people on the tour boats and the big ships going through – you’ll know immediately if it’s good or bad.”

This particular Saturday in July is very good indeed – for the United States. The small cruise ships operating on the New York side, mostly out of Alexandria Bay, are stuffed with tourists. The cruise ships touring the Thousand Islands join the yachts, personal watercraft and gigantic ocean-going cargo ships that have turned the upper St. Lawrence into a jumble of competing wakes.

On the Ontario side, maybe not so good. The cruise ships operating out of places like Kingston, Gananoque and Rockport have plenty of space this day, despite the attraction of a sinking dollar.

Mr. Carson has sailed almost all of his 58 years. He has worked on the traditional “tall ships,” sailed luxury yachts in the Caribbean, seen much of the world’s water, but he believes there may be no more beautiful place to be found than these Thousand Islands – actually, there are 1,864 – that lie approximately half in Canada, half in the United States.

The islands range from those preserved as a national park in Canada to one in America adorned with a full-blown castle. It stands six storeys, has 120 rooms, and was built by George C. Boldt, the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, as a gift of love to his wife. When she died suddenly in 1904, he abandoned the project, unfinished. Today, restored by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, Boldt Castle is the major tourist attraction of the area.

Boldt Castle was started by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria as a gift for his wife. When she suddenly died, work stopped and he never returned. (Lars Hagberg for The Globe and Mail)

Many of the islands belong, or belonged, to North America’s richest families and the sumptuousness is mind-boggling. But some hold cottages that are tiny, others none at all.

There are even two islands that boast the shortest international bridge in the world, a 9.75-metre span that joins one little Canadian island to a little American one.

It is at this point that the St. Lawrence becomes a true river, though it can be argued it extends all the way to the tip of Lake Superior.

The General Brock II has returned to its dock near Rockport. Ralph Ogilvie, who has captained the small ship the last five years since the former aluminum manufacturer grew bored in retirement, pauses a long moment when asked what it is about the St. Lawrence that makes it so special.

“This river,” the 70-year-old captain finally says, “is the lifeblood of the country – of both countries.”

Downstream from Rockport, a short drive east of the village of Long Sault, there is a curious collection of buildings known as the Lost Villages Museum.

If Gross Île is about lost lives, then this small park is about lost ways of life.

Maps of the St. Lawrence River up until what is known in these parts as “Inundation Day,” July 1, 1958, included the villages of Mille Roches, Moulinette, Wales, Dickson’s Landing, Farran’s Point and Aultsville, as well as the smaller hamlets of Woodlands, Santa Cruz and Maple Grove.

That day the floodgates opened and the communities vanished under what is now known as Lake St. Lawrence, as the river widened significantly from damming required by the St. Lawrence Seaway. More than 6,500 people lost their land. While more than 500 buildings were moved – including the handful that make up The Lost Villages Museum at Ault Park – many more homes, schools, small businesses and churches were lost forever. Even the area’s favourite teenage necking spot, Sheek Island, disappeared into the collective memory of those who had called this “home.”

“They took a lot away from us, the seaway did,” Harriet Donnelly of Farran’s Point told a local historian decades later. “They took away our river.”

The St. Lawrence Seaway, with its system of locks and channels, was what finally opened up the Great Lakes system to sea-going vessels and international trade, turning the year-round port at Montreal into one of the world’s busiest, annually handling nearly 30 million tonnes of cargo.

The idea of a seaway dates back to the early 1920s. Though then prime minister Mackenzie King was lukewarm to the notion, he did sign a treaty of intent with the U.S., but it failed to gain ratification in Congress.

Passengers on a tour boat take pictures of the famed Thousands Islands Bridge, which was built in 1937 and spans 13.7 kilometres. (Lars Hagberg for The Globe and Mail)

In the 1930s, then prime minister R.B. Bennett argued its case but could not win over such powerful opponents as New York, Boston and Philadelphia, which understandably feared losing business to the likes of Chicago, Detroit and Toronto. The railroads, of course, were strongly against ships carrying cargo they thought was exclusively their business.

Mr. Bennett did have the support of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the political reality once again proved too delicate for Washington.

In January, 1949, the federal government’s Throne Speech spelled out a long list of high ambitions, including bringing Newfoundland into Confederation, joining NATO, completing the Trans-Canada Highway and, once again, constructing the Seaway. Canada would go it alone, if necessary.

The new prime minister, Louis St. Laurent, travelled twice to Washington and gained support from President Harry Truman. But still there was stalemate. Finally, with Dwight Eisenhower (who also gave the U.S. its interstate highway system) in the White House, the Americans began to come around.

Canadians were wildly in favour. The seaway struck a patriotic vein in a country coming into its own following the Second World War. In his 2014 book, Negotiating a River, Daniel Macfarlane says that “the people of the sunken communities were asked to sacrifice for the greater good” – and did so willingly.

“In hindsight,” writes the professor of environmental studies at Western Michigan University, “there was a societal deference to government and a willingness to believe its grand promises, and pervasive belief that the St. Lawrence project would usher in a grand new era of prosperity, which was particularly appealing for an economically depressed area.”

The acronym NIMBY had not yet been created, though some were vocally against this backyard project. Construction began in 1954 and involved 15,000 labourers excavating 200,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock. Its cost – $330-million for Canada, $130-million to the U.S. – seems minuscule by today’s measure.

In a fascinating foreword to Prof. Macfarlane’s book, Graeme Wynn, a historical geographer at the University of British Columbia, quite properly links that massive 1950s North American project to today’s pipeline debate.

“To date,” he writes, “the project remains ensnared (just as the plans for a seaway once were) in U.S. domestic politics and conflicts between the regions and groups.”

The great difference, Prof. Wynn suggests, is that back then it was all formal diplomacy, whereas today the debate profoundly involves the public. What was once hammered out in back rooms is today hotly debated in social media.

Little fight was put up by those who were to be flooded out in the 1950s. Some argued for more compensation, but basically they obediently pulled up stakes and moved to new homes.

The Mohawks of Akwesasne claimed that the flooding was destroying traditional lands and had negatively affected fishing in the area. A half-century later, in late 2008, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) officially apologized to the Mohawks for what the Seaway had caused.

No one ever apologized to the people of drowned communities. What they left behind is on vivid display at the Lost Villages Museum: empty desks in the old school, faded sports photographs on the walls, formal portraits of long-forgotten councils.

“I don’t think the seaway will make up for what it caused,” Evelyn Empey of lost Woodlands told local historian Rosemary Rutley years later.

“I think the less you interfere with nature, the better. I’m a strong believer, if the Lord wanted it one way, he’d have made it that way.”

Shared by the U.S. and Canada, the Thousand Islands boast the world’s smallest international bridge: a 9.75-metre span that joins one little island to another. (Lars Hagberg for The Globe and Mail)

The price of progress

There are times, however, when nature is the one who interferes. The Great Lakes fishery, once so vibrant, was severely damaged by the sea lamprey's arrival via man-made canals. The opening up of the St. Lawrence Seaway brought ocean-going freighters to the Great Lakes, their ballast bringing in zebra mussels, an annoying invasive species that plays havoc with shorelines, vessels and, most significantly, water-treatment plants.

Then came the goby.

Gobies constitute a vast fish family of more than 2,000 species, mostly tiny, and they have quietly taken over much of the Great Lakes system in the past two decades. Research scientist Matthew Windle of the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences in Cornwall, Ont., estimates the species now makes up no less than 50 per cent of the fish biomass of the Great Lakes.

The tiny fish are unstoppable, though it can be argued they are both good and bad immigrants to North America. They feed on fish eggs, which is disastrous for the Great Lakes fishery. They are, on the other hand, ready feed for larger predators, producing trophy-size bass along the upper St. Lawrence. They also eat zebra mussels.

The stretch of river alongside Cornwall and including the Akwesasne reserve and the town of Massena on the New York side has been identified as one of 43 “areas of concern” by the International Joint Commission and the various governments dealing with the Great Lakes system. Once heavily industrialized, the area is today carefully monitored for pollution and species change by the 21-year-old non-profit river institute.

“Our research means nothing if we don’t share it with others,” says Pamela Maloney, the institute’s development officer.

As well as the invading goby, Mr. Windle’s research includes a species that is disappearing: the American eel, once a staple for First Nations living along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers.

The eel’s life cycle is fascinating – born in the Sargasso Sea, in the mid-Atlantic, they travel 2,000 kilometres to the St. Lawrence and move up river between the ages of four and seven, returning to the Sargasso to spawn only in their twenties. But the need to make that return migration is why they are vanishing.

Scientists used to count more than a million eels a year moving into the Great Lakes, but no longer.

“We know how to move them up rivers,” says Mr. Windle, an aquatic biologist. “It’s moving them down safely that we’re working on.”

The seaway has had ladders in operation since the 1970s to help the creature move up the river, and between 2006 and 2010 the watershed has been stocked with more than four million eels.

But the return of the mature females is of particular concern. The larger ones, especially, are doomed once they enter the turbines of the power stations.

“We have lost 98 to 99 per cent of our American eels,” Mr. Windle says. “They used to be one of our most important fish.”

Now scientists are trying to “herd” the ocean-bound eels to safer passage through audio technology. There is even a program to capture them at the top of one major dam and truck them downstream in the hope they can then reach their spawning grounds safely.

Some progress is being made, but the sad truth is that the American eel is now very much an endangered species.

“It’s sort of like the American bison being wiped out,” muses Mr. Windle. “They were both a very important species to First Nations. But basically they’ve been wiped out by the European arrival.”

Gazing out at the St. Lawrence River on the Dufferin Terrace in Quebec City on August 6, 2015. (Mathieu Belanger for The Globe and Mail)

A river that sells

It is a sunny Saturday morning in Quebec City, the Dufferin Terrace packed with tourists taking selfies and group portraits, the mighty St. Lawrence a treasured background.

The river where Cartier first sailed almost 500 years ago is alive with sailboats, cabin cruisers, an oil tanker, several box container ships, a large ocean-going cruise ship docked as its passengers flood the streets of the Old City and come to marvel at the magnificent Château Frontenac.

“It is our Eiffel Tower,” David Jones says of the famous hotel. “It’s the most photographed hotel in the world.”

Mr. Jones was born and raised in Quebec City and today represents five street artists in Rue du Trésor, the small alleyway not far from the Frontenac where the tourists go to buy their special memories of the city.

Near the bottom of the little alley, Jean-Philippe Vogel sits on a small stool, carefully colouring in a sketch of the hotel overlooking the St. Lawrence.

“Every time I show something of the river, it goes immediately,” says the 62-year-old artist.

“You feel you can touch the river from up here.

“It’s just a very special place.”

Roy MacGregor is a Globe and Mail columnist and the author, most recently, of Canoe Country: The Making of Canada, scheduled to appear in September.