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The Great Fresh-Water Seas of Canada
A sentimental journey in Canada is not like Sterne's, all about
corking-pins and remises, monks and Marias, nor is it likely,
in this utilitarian age, even if Sterne could be revived to write
it, to be as immortal; nevertheless, let us ramble.
The Welland Canal naturally leads one to reflect on the great
sources of power spread before the Canadian nation; for, although it
will never, never be la nation Canadienne, yet it will
inevitably some day or other be the Canadian nation, and its limits
the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.
President Polk—they say his name is an abbreviation of Pollok—can
no more dive into "the course of time" than that poet could do, and
it is about as vain for him to predict that the American bald eagle
shall claw all the fish on the continent of the New World, as it is
to fancy that the time is never to come when the Canadian races,
Norman-Saxon as they are, shall not assert some claim to the spoils.
Canada is now happier under the dominion of Victoria than she
could possibly be under that of the people of the States, and she
knows and feels it. The natural resources of Canada are enormous,
and developing themselves every day; and it needs neither Lyell, nor
the yet unheard-of geologists of Canada to predict that the day is
not far distant when her iron mines, her lead ores, her copper, and
perhaps her silver, will come into the market1.
I see, in a paper lying before me, that Colonel Prince, a person
who has already flourished before the public as an enterprising
English farming gentleman, who combines the long robe with the red
coat, has, with a worthy patriotism, obtained a very large grant of
lands from the government to explore the shore of Lake Superior, in
order to find whether the Yankees are to have all the copper to
themselves; and that, in searching a little to the eastward of St.
Mary's Rapids, a very valuable deposit has been discovered, which
has stimulated other adventurers, who have found another mine nearer
the outlet of the lake and still more valuable, the copper of which,
lying near the surface, yields somewhere about seventy-five per cent2.
We know that rich iron mines exist, and are steadily worked in
Lower Canada; we know that a vast deposit of iron, one of the finest
in the world, has lately been discovered on the Ottawa, a river in
the township of M'Nab; and we know that nothing prevents the Marmora
and Madoc iron from being used but the finishing of the Trent
navigation. Lead abounds on the Sananoqui river, and at Clinton, in
the Niagara district; whilst plumbago, now so useful, is abundant
throughout the line, where the primary and secondary rocks intersect
each other. Mr. Logan, employed by the government, ex cathedra,
says there is no coal in Canada; but still it appears that in the
Ottawa country it is very possible it may be found, and that, if it
is not, Cape Breton and the Gaspé lands will furnish it in
abundance; and, as Canada may now fairly be said to be all the North
American territory, embraced between the Pacific somewhere about the
Columbia river, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, for a political union
exists between all these provinces, if an acknowledged one does not,
coal will yet be plentiful in Canada.
Canada, thus limited, is now, de facto, ay, and de jure,
British North America; and a fair field and a fertile one it is,
peopled by a race neither to be frightened nor coaxed out of its
The advantages of Canada are enormous, much greater, in fact,
than they are usually thought to be at home.
The ports of St. John's and of Halifax, without mentioning fifty
others, are open all the year round to steamers and sea-going
vessels; and when railroads can at all seasons bring their cargoes
into Canada proper, then shall we live six months more than during
the present torpidity of our long winters. John Bull, transported to
interior Canada, is very like a Canadian black bear: he sleeps six
months, and growls during the remaining six for his food.
Then, in summer, there is the St. Lawrence covered with ships of
all nations, the canals carrying their burthens to the far West and
the great Mediterranean's of fresh water, opening a country of
unknown resources and extent.
These great seas of Canada have often engaged my thoughts.
Tideless, they flow ever onward, to keep up the level of the vast
Atlantic, and in themselves are oceans. How is it that the moon,
that enormous blister-plaster, does not raise them? Simply because
there is some little error in the very accurate computations which
give all the regulations of tidal waters to lunar influences.
Barlow, one of the mathematical master-spirits of the age, was
bold enough once to doubt this vast power of suction on the part of
the ruler of the night; and there were certain wiseacres who, as in
the case of Galileo, thought it very religiously dangerous indeed,
to attempt to interfere with her privileges.
But, in fact, the phenomenon of the tides is just as easy of
explanation by the motion of the earth as it is by the moon's
presumed drinking propensities, and, as she is a lady, let us hope
she has been belied. The motion of the earth would not affect such
narrow bodies of water as the Canadian lakes, but the moon's power
of attraction would, if it existed to the extent supposed, be under
the necessity of doing it, unless she prefers salt to fresh liquors.
One may venture, now-a-days, to express such a doubt,
particularly as Madam Moon is a Pagan deity.
The great lakes are, however, very extraordinary in their way.
Let us recollect what I have seen and thought of them.
We will commence with Lake Superior, which is 400 miles in
length, 100 miles wide, and 900 feet deep, where it has been
sounded. It contains 32,000 square miles of water, and it is 628
feet above the level of the sea.
Lake Michigan is 220 miles long, 60 miles wide, and 1,000 deep,
as far as it has been sounded; contains 22,400 square miles, and is
584 feet above tide-water; but it is, in fact, only a large bay of
Lake Huron, the grand lake, which is 240 miles long, without it
averaging 86 miles in width, also averaging 1,000 feet deep, as far
as soundings have been tried, contains 20,400 square miles, and is
also about 584 feet above the tidal waters.
Off Saginaw Bay, in this lake, leads have been sunk 1,800 feet,
or 1,200 feet below the level of the Atlantic, without finding
Green Bay, an arm of Michigan, is in itself 106 miles long, 20
miles wide, and contains 2,000 square miles.
Lake St. Clair, 6 feet above Lake Erie, follows Lake Huron; but
it is a mere enlargement of the St. Lawrence, of immense size,
however, and shallow: it is 20 miles long, 14 wide, 20 feet deep,
and contains 360 square miles.
Then comes Lake Erie, the Stormy Lake, which is 240 miles long,
40 miles wide, 408 feet in its deepest part, and contains 9,600
square miles. Lake Erie is 565 feet above tide-water. Its average
depth is 85 feet only.
Lake Ontario, the Beautiful Lake, is 180 miles long, 45 miles
wide, 500 feet average depth, where sounded successfully, but said
to be fathomless in some places, and contains 6,300 square miles. It
is 232 feet above the tide of the St. Lawrence.
The Canadian lakes have been computed to contain 1,700 cubic
miles of water, or more than half the fresh water on the globe,
covering a space of about 93,000 square miles. They extend from west
to east over nearly 15 degrees and a half of longitude, with a
difference of latitude of about eight and a half degrees, draining a
country of not less surface than 400,000 square miles.
The greatest difference is observable between the waters of all
these lakes, arising from soil, depth, and shores. Ontario is pure
and blue, Erie pure and green, the southern part of Michigan nothing
particular. The northern part of Michigan and all Huron are clear,
transparent, and full of carbonic gas, so that its water sparkles.
But the extraordinary transparency of the waters of all these lakes
is very surprising. Those of Huron transmit the rays of light to a
great depth, and consequently, having no preponderating solid
matters in suspension, an equalization of heat occurs. Dr. Drake
ascertained that, at the surface in summer, and at two hundred feet
below it, the temperature of the water was 56°.
One of the most curious things on the shallow parts of Huron is
to sail or row over the submarine or sublacune mountains, and to
feel giddy from fancy, for it is like being in a balloon, so pure
and tintless is the water. It is, like Dolland's best telescopes,
The lakes are subject in the latter portion of summer to a
phenomenon, which long puzzled the settlers; their surface near the
shores of bays and inlets are covered by a bright yellow dust, which
passed until lately for sulphur, but is now known to be the farina
of the pine forests. The atmosphere is so impregnated with it at
these seasons, that water-barrels, and vessels holding water in the
open air, are covered with a thick scum of bright yellow powder.
A curious oily substance also pervades the waters in autumn,
which agglutinates the sand blown over it by the winds, and floats
it about in patches. I have never been able to discover the cause of
this; perhaps, it is petroleum, or the sand is magnetic iron.
Singular currents and differently colored streams also appear, as
on the ocean; but, as all the lakes have a fall, no weed gathers,
except in the stagnant bays.
The bottom of Ontario is unquestionably salt, and no wonder that
it should be so, for all the Canadian lakes were once a sea, and the
geological formation of the bed of Ontario is the saliferous rock.
I have often enjoyed on Ontario's shores, where I have usually
resided, the grand spectacle which takes place after intense frost.
The early morning then exhibits columns of white vapor, like
millions of Geysers spouting up to the sky, curling, twisting,
shooting upwards, gracefully forming spirals and pyramids, amid the
dark ground of the somber heavens, and occasionally giving a peep of
little lanes of the dark waters, all else being shrouded in dense
People at home are very apt to despise lakes, perhaps from the
usual insipidity of lake poetry, and to imagine that they can
exhibit nothing but very placid and tranquil scenery. Lake Erie, the
shallowest of the great Canadian fresh-water seas, very soon
convinces a traveler to the contrary; for it is the most turbulent
and the most troublesome sea I ever embarked upon—a region of vexed
waters, to which the Bermoothes of Shakespeare is a trifle; for that
is bad enough, but not half so treacherous and so thunder-stormy as
Huron is an ocean, when in its might; its waves and swells rival
those of the Atlantic; and the beautiful Ontario, like many a lovely
dame, is not always in a good temper. I once crossed this lake from
Niagara to Toronto late in November, in the Great Britain, a steamer
capable of holding a thousand men with ease, and during this voyage
of thirty-six miles we often wished ourselves anywhere else: the
engine, at least one of them, got deranged; the sea was running
mountains high; the cargo on deck was washed overboard;
gingerbread-work, as the sailors call the ornamental parts of a
vessel, went to smash; and, if the remaining engine had failed in
getting us under the shelter of the windward shore, it would have
been pretty much with us as it was with the poor fellow who went
down into one of the deepest shafts of a Swedish mine.
A curious traveler, one of "the inquisitive class," must needs
see how the miners descended into these awful depths. He was put
into a large bucket, attached to the huge rope, with a guide, and
gradually lowered down. When he had got some hundred fathoms or so,
he began to feel queer, and look down, down, down. Nothing could he
see but darkness visible. He questioned his guide as to how far they
were from the bottom, cautiously and nervously. "Oh," said the
Swede, "about a mile." "A mile!" replied the Cockney: "shall we ever
get there?"—"I don't know," said the guide. "Why, does any accident
ever happen?"—"Yes, often."—"How long ago was the last accident, and
what was it?"—"Last week, one of our women went down, and when she
had got just where we are now, the rope broke."—"Oh, Heaven!"
ejaculated the inquisitive traveler, "what happened to her?" The
Swede, who did not speak very good English, put the palm of his
right hand over that of his left, lifted the upper hand, slapped
them together with a clap, and said, most phlegmatically—"Flat as a
I once crossed Ontario, in the same direction as that just
mentioned, in another steamer, when the beautiful Ontario was in a
towering passion. We had a poor fellow in the cabin, who had been a
Roman Catholic priest, but who had changed his form of faith. The
whole vessel was in commotion; it was impossible for the best
sea-legs to hold on; so two or three who were not subject to
seasickness got into the cabin, or saloon, as it is called, and
grasped any thing in the way. The long dinner-table, at which fifty
people could sit down, gave a lee-lurch, and jammed our poor
religioner, as Southey so affectedly calls ministers of the
word, into a corner, where chairs innumerable were soon piled over
him. He abandoned himself to despair; and long and loud were his
confessions. On the first lull, we extricated him, and put him into
a birth. Every now and then, he would call for the steward, the
mate, the captain, the waiters, all in vain, all were busy. At last
his cries brought down the good-natured captain. He asked if we were
in danger. "Not entirely," was the reply. "What is it does it,
captain?"—"Oh," said the skipper, gruffly enough, "we are in the
trough of the sea, and something has happened to the engine." "The
trough of the say?"—my friend was an Irishman—"the trough of
the say? is it that does it, captain?" But the captain was gone.
During the whole storm and the remainder of the voyage, the poor
ex-priest asked every body that passed his refuge if we were out of
the trough of the say. "I know," said he, "it is the trough of the
say does it." No cooking could be performed, and we should have gone
dinnerless and supperless to bed, if we had not, by force of steam,
got into the mouth of the Niagara river. All became then
comparatively tranquil; she moored, and the old Niagara, for that
was her name, became steady and at rest. Soon the cooks, stewards,
and waiters, were at work, and dinner, tea, and supper, in one meal,
gladdened our hearts. The greatest eater, the greatest drinker, and
the most confident of us all, was our old friend and companion of
the voyage, "the Trough of the Say," as he was ever after called.
Such is tranquil Ontario. I remember a man-of-war, called the
Bullfrog, being once very nearly lost in the voyage I have been
describing; and never a November passes without several schooners
being lost or wrecked upon Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario; whilst
the largest American steamers on Erie sometimes suffer the same
fate. Whenever Superior is much navigated, it will be worse, as the
seasons are shorter and more severe there, and the shores iron-bound
Through the Welland Canal there is now a continuous navigation of
those lakes for 844 miles; and the St. Lawrence Canal being
completed, and the La Chine Locks enlarged at Montreal, there will
be a continuous line of shipping from London to the extremity of
Lake Superior, embracing an inland voyage on fresh water of upwards
of two thousand miles. Very little is required to accomplish an end
It has been estimated by the Topographical Board of Washington,
that during 1843 the value of the capital of the United States
afloat on the four lakes was sixty-five millions of dollars, or
about sixteen millions, two hundred thousand pounds sterling; and
this did not of course include the British Canadian capital, an idea
of which may be formed from the confident assertion that the Lakes
have a greater tonnage entering the Canadian ports than that of the
whole commerce of Britain with her North American colonies. This is,
however, un peu fort. It is now not at all uncommon to see
three-masted vessels on Lake Ontario; and one alone, in November
last, brought to Kingston a freight of flour which before would have
required three of the ordinary schooners to carry, namely, 1500
A vessel is also now at Toronto, which is going to try the
experiment of sailing from that port to the West Indies and back
again; and, as she has been properly constructed to pass the canals,
there is no doubt of her success.
Some idea of the immense exertions made by the government to
render the Welland Canal available may be formed by the size of the
locks at Port Dalhousie, which is the entrance on Lake Ontario. Two
of the largest class, in masonry, and of the best quality, have been
constructed: they are 200 feet long by 45 wide; the lift of the
upper lock is 11, and of the lower, 12, which varies with the level
of Lake Ontario, the mitre sill being 12 feet below its ordinary
surface. Steamers of the largest class can therefore go to the
thriving village of St. Catherine's, in the midst of the granary of
The La Chine Canal must be enlarged for ship navigation more
effectually than it has been. I subjoin a list of colonial shipping
for 1844 from Simmonds' "Colonial Magazine."
Number, Tonnage, and Crews of
Vessels, Which Belonged to the Several British Plantations in the
Cape of Good Hope,
Prince of Wales Island,
Cape Breton, Sydney,
New Brunswick, Miramichi,
Newfoundland, St. John,
Nova Scotia, Halifax,
Prince Edward's Island,
|West Indies, Antigua,
|Jamaica, Port Antonio
Savannah la Mar,
|[* Transribers note: This figure is not
It will be seen, from the foregoing statement, that the tonnage
of the vessels belonging to our colonies is about equal to that of
the whole of the French mercantile marine, which in 1841 consisted
of 592,266 tons—1842, 589,517—1843, 599,707.
The tonnage of the three principal ports of Great Britain in 1844
On Lake Erie, the Canadians have a splendid steamer, the London,
Captain Van Allen, and another still larger is building at Chippewa,
which is partly owned by government, and so constructed as to carry
the mail and to become fitted speedily for warlike purposes.
Lake Ontario swarms with splendid British steam-vessels; but on
Lake Huron there is only at present one, called the Waterloo, in the
employment of the Canada Company, which runs from Goderich to the
new settlements of Owen's Sound.
Propellers now go all the way to St. Joseph's, at the western
extremity of Lake Huron; and the trade on this lake and on Michigan
is becoming absolutely astonishing. Last year, a return of American
and foreign vessels at Chicago, from the commencement of navigation
on the 1st of April to the 1st of November only, shows that there
arrived 151 steamers, 80 propellers, 10 brigs, and 142 schooners,
making a total of 1,078 lake-going vessels, and a like number of
departures, not including numerous small craft, engaged in the
carrying of wood, staves, ashes, &c., and yet, such was the glut of
wheat, that at the latter date 300,000 bushels remained unshipped.
Upwards of a million of money will be expended by the Canadian
Government in protecting and securing the transit trade of the
lakes; and the Canadians have literally gone ahead of Brother
Jonathan, for they have made a ship-canal round the Falls of
Niagara, whilst "the most enterprising people on the face of the
earth," who are so much in advance of us according to the ideas of
some writers, have been, dreaming about it.—So much for the welfare
of the earth being co-equal with democratic institutions, à la
The American government up to 1844 had spent only 2,100,000
dollars on the same objects, or about half a million sterling,
according to the statement of Mr. Whittlesey of Ohio. But that
government is actually stirring in another matter, which is of
immense future importance, although it appears trivial at this
moment, and that is the opening up of Lake Superior, where a new
world offers itself.
They have projected a ship-canal round, or rather by the side of
the rapids of St. Marie. The length of this canal is said to be
only, in actual cutting, three-quarters of a mile, and the whole
expense necessary not more than 230,000 dollars, or about £55,000
The British government should look in time to this; it owns the
other side of the Sault St. Marie, and the Superior country is so
rich in timber and minerals that it is called the Denmark of
America, whilst a direct access hereafter to the Oregon territory
and the Pacific must be opened through the vast chain of lakes
towards the Rocky Mountains by way of Selkirk Colony, on the Red
1 Since I penned this, a company is
forming to work valuable argentiferous copper-mines lately
discovered on Lake Superior. The Americans are actually working rich
mines of silver, copper, &c.
2 A recent number of "The Scientific
American," published in New York, contains the following:—Some of
the British officers in Canada have lately made an important
discovery of some of the richest copper-mines in the world. This
discovery has created great excitement. Some of the officers, en
route to England, are now in the city, and will carry with them
some specimens of the ore, and among them one piece weighing 2,200
lbs. The ore is very rich, yielding, as we learn, seventy-two per
cent. of pure copper. Some of the copper was taken from the bed of a
river, and some broken off from a cliff on the banks. The latter is
six feet long, four broad, and six inches thick.
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Source: Canada and the Canadians, Volume I, 1849
Canada and the Canadians |