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The Lakes of Canada
The lakes of Canada have not engaged that attention at home which
they ought to have had; and there is much interesting information
about them which is a dead letter in England.
Their rise and fall is a subject of great interest. The great
sinking of the levels of late years, which has become so visible and
so injurious to commerce, deserves the most attentive investigation.
The American writers attribute it to various causes, and there are
as many theories about it as there are upon all hidden mysteries.
Evaporation and condensation, woods and glaciers, have all been
brought into play.
If the lakes are supplied by their own rivers, and by the
drainage streams of the surrounding forests, and all this is again
and again returned into them from the clouds, whence arises the
sudden elevation or the sudden depression of such enormous bodies of
water, which have no tides?
The Pacific and the Atlantic cannot be the cause; we must seek it
elsewhere. To the westward of Huron, on the borders of Superior, the
land is rocky and elevated; but it attains only enormous altitudes
at such a distance on the rocky Andean chain as to render it
improbable that those mountains exert immediate influences on the
lakes. The Atlantic also is too far distant, and very elevated land
intervenes to intercept the rising vapors. On the north, high lands
also exist; and the snows scarcely account for it, as the whole of
North America near these inland seas is alike covered every year in
The north-east and the south-west winds are the prevalent ones,
and a slight inspection of the maps will suffice to show that those
compass bearings are the lines which the lakes and valleys of
Northern America assume.
In 1845, the lakes began suddenly to diminish, and to such a
degree was this continued from June to December, when the hard
frosts begin, that, at the commencement of the latter month, Lake
Ontario, at Kingston, was three feet below its customary level, and
consequently, in the country places, many wells and streams dried
up, and there was during the autumn distress for water both for
cattle and man, although the rains were frequent and very heavy.
Whence, then, do the lakes receive that enormous supply which
will restore them to their usual flow?—or are they permanently
diminishing? I am inclined to believe that the latter is the case,
as cultivation and the clearings of the forest proceed; for I have
observed within fifteen years the total drying up of streamlets by
the removal of the forest, and these streamlets had evidently once
been rivulets and even rivers of some size, as their banks, cut
through alluvial soils, plainly indicated.
The lakes also exhibit on their borders, particularly Ontario, as
Lyell describes from the information of the late Mr. Roy, who had
carefully investigated the subject, very visible remains of many
terraces which had consecutively been their boundaries.
It is evident to observers who have recorded facts respecting the
lakes, that but a small amount of vapor water is deposited by
northeasterly winds from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the great estuary
of that river, of which the lakes are only enlargements, as the wind
from that region carries the cloud-masses from the lakes themselves
direct to the valley of the Mississippi. For it meets with no
obstacle from high lands on the western littorale, which is low. A
north-east gale continues usually from three to six days, and
generally without much rain; but all the other winds from south to
westerly afford a plentiful supply of moisture. Thus a shift of wind
from north-east to north and to north-west perhaps brings back the
vapor of the great valley of the gulf, reduced in temperature by
the chilly air of the north and west. If then an easterly gale
continues for an unusual time, the basin of the Canadian lakes is
robbed of much of its water, which passes to the rivers of the west,
and is lost in the gulf of Mexico, or in the forest lakes of the
Perhaps, therefore, whenever a cycle occurs in which north-east
winds prevail during a year or a series of years, the lakes lose
their level, for, their direction being north-east and south-west,
such is the usual current of the air; and therefore either
north-east or south-westerly winds are the usual ones which pass
over their surface.
The parts of the great inland navigation which suffer most in
these periodical depressions are the St. Clair River and the shallow
parts of those extensions of the St. Lawrence called Lakes St.
Francis and St. Peter, which in the course of time will cause, and
indeed in the latter already do cause, some trouble and some
The north winds, keen and cold, do not deposit much in the valley
of the lakes, whose southern borders are usually too low also to
prevent the passage of rain-bearing clouds.
From that portion of the dividing ridge between the valleys of
the St. Lawrence and Mississippi, only seven miles from Lake Erie,
says an American writer, there is to Fort Wayne, at the head of the
Maumee river, one hundred miles from the same lake, a gradual
subsidence of the land from 700 to less than 200 feet.
From Fort Wayne westward this dividing ridge rises only one
hundred and fifty feet, and then gradually subsides to the
neighborhood of the south-west of Lake Michigan, where it is but
some twenty feet above the level of that water.
The basin of the Mississippi, including its great tributary
streams, receives therefore a very great portion of the falling
vapor, from all the winds blowing from north to north-east.
The same reasoner agrees with the views which I have expressed
respecting the probability of the supply to raise the level, which
must be the great feeder derived from the south and south-westward
invariably rainy winds, when of long continuance, in the basin of
the St. Lawrence, and generated by the gulf stream in its gyration
through the Mexican Bay, being heaped up from the trade wind which
causes the oceanic current, and forces its heated atmosphere north
and north-east, by the rebound which it takes from the vast
Cordilleras of Anahuac and Panama; thus depositing its cooling
showers on the chain of the fresh water seas of Canada, condensed as
they are by the natural air-currents from the icy regions of the
western Andes of Oregon, and the cold breezes from the still more
gelid countries of the north-west.
The American topographical engineers, as well as our own civil
engineers and savans, have accurately measured the heights and
levels of the lakes, which I have already given; but one very
curious fact remains to be noticed, and will prove that it is by no
means a visionary idea that, from the great island of Cuba, which
must be an English outpost, if much further annexation occurs,
voyages will be made to bring the produce of the West Indies and
Spanish America into the heart of the United States and Canada by
the Mississippi and the rivers flowing into it, and by the great
lakes; so that a vessel, loading at Cuba, might perform a circuit
inland for many thousand miles, and return to her port via
From the Gulf of Mexico to the lowest summits of the ridge
separating the basin of the Mississippi from that of the St.
Lawrence or great lakes, the rise does not exceed six hundred feet,
and the graduation of the land has an average of not more than six
inches to a mile in an almost continuous inclined plane of six
thousand miles. The Americans have not lost sight of this natural
assistance to form a communication between the lakes and the
My attention has been drawn to the subsidence of the waters of
the lakes of Canada by the unusual lowness of Ontario, on the banks
of which I lived last year, and by reading the statement of the
American writer above quoted, as well as by the fact that in the
Travels of Carver, one of the first English navigators on these
mediterraneans, who states that a small ship of forty tons, in
sailing from the head of Lake Michigan to Detroit, was unable to
pass over the St. Clair flats for want of water, and that the usual
way of passing them eighty years ago was in small boats. What a
useful thing it would have been, if any scientific navigators or
resident observers had registered the rise and fall of the lakes in
the years since Upper Canada came into our possession! An old naval
officer told me that it was really periodical; and it occurred
usually, that the greatest depression and elevation had intervals of
seven years. Lake Erie is evidently becoming more shallow
constantly, but not to any great or alarming degree; and shoals
form, even in the splendid roadstead of Kingston, within the memory
of young inhabitants. An American revenue vessel, pierced for, I
believe, twenty-four guns, and carrying an enormous Paixhan,
grounded in the autumn of last year on a shoal in that harbor,
which was not known to the oldest pilot.
By the bye, talking of this vessel, which is a steamer built of
iron, and fitted with masts and sails, the same as any other
sea-going vessel, can it be requisite, in order to protect a
commerce which she cannot control beyond the line drawn through the
centre of the lakes, to have such a vessel for revenue purposes? or
is she not a regular man-of-war, ready to throw her shells into
Kingston, if ever it should be required? At least, such is the
opinion which the good folks of that town entertained when they saw
the beautiful craft enter their harbor.
The worst, however, of these iron boats is that two can play at
shelling and long shots; and gunnery-practice is now brought to such
perfection, that an iron steamer might very possibly soon get the
worst of it from a heavy battery on the level of the sea; for a
single accident to the machinery, protected as it is in that vessel,
would, if there was no wind, put her entirely at the mercy of the
gunners. The old wooden walls, after all, are better adapted to
attack a fortress, as they can stand a good deal of hammering from
both shot and shells.
But to revert to matters more germane to the lakes.
Volney, the first expounder of the system of the warm wind of the
south supplying the great lakes, has received ample corroboration of
his data from observation. The fact that the deflection of the great
trade-wind from the west to a northern direction by the Mexican
Andes Popocatepetl, Istaccihuetl, Naucampatepetl, &c., whose snowy
summits have a frigid atmosphere of their own, is proved by daily
Whenever southerly winds prevail—and, in the cycle of the
gyration of atmospherical currents, this is certain, and will be
reduced to calculation—the great lakes are filled to the edge; and
whenever northern and northeasterly winds take their appointed
course, then these mediterraneans sink, and the valley of the
Mississippi is filled to overflowing.
But the most curious facts are, that the different lakes exhibit
different phenomena. The Board of Public Works of Ohio states that,
in 1837-38, the quantity of water descending from the atmosphere did
not exceed one-third of that which was the minimum quantity of
several preceding years.
Ontario, from the reports of professional persons, has varied not
less than eight feet, and Erie about five. Huron and Superior being
comparatively unknown, no data are afforded to judge from; but what
vast atmospheric agencies must be at work when such wonderful
results in the smaller lakes have been made evident!
People who live at the Niagara Falls, and I agree with them in
observations extending over a period since 1826, believe that these
Falls have receded considerably; and, although I do not enter into
the mathematical analysis of modern geologists respecting them, as
to their constant retrocession, believing that earthquake split open
the present channel, yet I have no doubt that the level of Lake Erie
is considerably affected by the diminution of the yielding shaly
rocks of their foundation. Earthquake, and not retrocession, appears
to me, who have had the singular advantage, as a European, of very
long residence, to have been the cause of that great chasm which now
forms the bed of the Niagara, from the Table Rock to Queenston, in
short, a rending or separating of the rocks rather than a wearing;
and this is corroborated by the many vestiges of great cataracts
which now exist near the Short Hills, the highest summit of the
Niagara frontier, between Lakes Erie and Ontario, as well as by the
great natural ravine of St. David's. But this is a subject too deep
for our present purpose, and so we shall continue to treat of the
Great Lakes in another point of view.
Chemically considered, these lakes possess peculiar properties,
according to their boundaries. Superior is too little known to speak
of with certainty—Huron not much better—but Erie, and particularly
Ontario, have been well investigated. The waters of these are pure,
and impregnated chiefly with aluminous and calcareous matter, giving
to the St. Lawrence river a fresh and admirable element and aliment.
The St. Lawrence is of a fine cerulean hue, but, like its parent
waters of Erie and Ontario, rapidly deposits lime and alumine, so
that the boilers of steam-vessels, and even teakettles, soon become
furred and incrusted. The specific gravity of the St. Lawrence water
above Montreal is about 1·00038, at the temperature of 66°, the air
being then 82° of Fahrenheit. It contains the chlorides, sulphates,
and carbonates, whose bases are lime and magnesia, particularly and
largely those of lime, which accounts for the rapid depositions when
the water is heated.
A very accurate analysis gives, at Montreal, in July, atmospheric
air in solution or admixture 446 per cent; for a quart of this
water, 57 inches cubic measure, evaporated to dryness, left 2.87
|Sulphate of magnesia
|Chloride of calcium
|Carbonate of magnesia
|Carbonate of lime
The waters of the Ottawa, flowing through an unexplored country,
are of a brown or dark color. Their specific gravity is only
(compared to distilled water) as 1·0024 at 66°, the temperature of
the air in July being 82°.
The 57 cubic inches of this water gave
||sulphate of magnesia.
||chloride of lime.
||carbonate of magnesia.
||carbonate of lime.
The difference of the colors of these waters is so great, that a
perfect line of distinction is drawn where they cross each other;
and there can be no doubt that it is caused by the reflection of the
rays of light from the impregnation of different saline quantities.
Thus as, in the old world, the waters of the Shannon are brown,
and Ireland, speaking generally, as Kohl says, is a "brown" country3;
so, in Upper Canada, St. Lawrence and the lakes are blue and green;
and in Lower Canada, St. Lawrence and the Ottawa are brown of
various shades, a very slight alteration of the chemical components
reflecting rays of color as forcibly and perceptibly as, in like
manner, a very slight change of component parts develops sugar and
sawdust. Nature, in short, is very simple in all her operations.
Before we proceed to the lower extremity of these wonderful
sheets of water again, let us just for a moment glance at what is
about to be achieved upon their surfaces, and place the Sault of St.
Marie or St. Mary's Rapids, which separate Superior from Huron,
before an Englishman's eyes. There at present nothing is talked of
but copper mines and silver or argentiferous copper ores.
The Falls of St. Mary are only rapids of no very formidable
character, the exit of Lake Superior into Lake Huron. Fifteen miles
from the end of the Great Lake, as Superior is called, are the
American village of St. Mary and the British one of the same name,
on the opposite bank of the River St. Mary.
The Americans have so far strengthened their position, that there
is a sort of fort, called Fort Brady, with two companies of
regulars; and in and about the village are scattered a thousand
people of every possible color and origin, a great portion being,
of course, half-breeds and Indians. The American Fur Company has
also a post at this place, one of the very few remaining; for the
fur trade in these regions is rapidly declining by the extirpation
of the animals which sustained it.
The American government have projected a ship canal to avoid
these rapids; and, if that is completed, a vast trade will soon grow
About a mile above the village is the landing-place from Lake
Superior, at the head of the rapids; there the strait is broad and
deep; but, until steamers are built, sailing vessels suffer the
disadvantage of being moveable out of the harbor by an east wind
only, and this wind does not blow there oftener than once a month.
It is probable that a proper harbor will be constructed at the foot
of the lake, fifteen miles above.
These rapids have derived their French name Sault from
their rushing and leaping motion; but they are very insignificant
when compared to the Longue Sault on the St. Lawrence, as the
inhabitants cross them in canoes.
I cannot describe them more minutely than Mrs. Jameson has done
in her "Summer Rambles." She crossed them, and must have experienced
some trepidation, for it requires a skilful voyageur to steer the
canoe; and it is surprising with what dexterity the Indian will
shoot down them as swiftly as the water can carry his fragile
vessel. The Indians, however, consider such feats much in the same
light as a person fond of boating would think of pulling a pair of
oars, or sculling himself across the current of a rivulet. I was
once subjected to a rather awkward exemplification of this fact.
Being on a hurried journey, and expecting to be frozen in, as it is
called, before I could terminate it; I hired an Indian and his
little canoe, just big enough to hold us both, and pushed through
by-ways in the forest streams and portages. We were paddling merrily
along a pretty fair stream, which ran fast, but appeared to reach
many miles ahead of us; when, all of a sudden, my guide said, "Sit
fast." I perceived that the water was moving much more rapidly than
it had hitherto done, and that the Indian had wedged himself in the
stern, and was steering only with the paddle. We swept along merrily
for a mile, till "The White Horses," as the breakers are called,
began to bob their heads and manes. "Hold fast!" ejaculated the Red
Man. I laid hold of both edges of the canoe, firm as a rock, and in
a moment the horrid sound of bursting, bubbling, rushing waters was
in mine ears; foam and spray shut out every thing; and away we went,
down, down, down, on, on, on, as swift as thought, until, all of a
sudden, the little buoyant piece of birch-bark floated like a swan
upon the bosom of the tranquil waters, a mile beyond the Fall, for
such indeed it might be called, the absolute difference of level
having been twelve feet.
When at ease again, I looked at the imperturbable savage and
said, "What made you take the Fall? was not the détour
passable?"—"Yes, suppose it was! Fall better!"—"But is it very
dangerous?"—"Yes, suppose, sometime!"—"Any canoes ever lost
there?"—"Yes, sometime; one two, tree days ago, there!" pointing to
a large rock in the middle of the narrowest part above our
heads.—"Did you come down there?"—"Yes, suppose, did!"
Then, thought I to myself, I shall not trust my body to your
guidance in future without knowing something of the route
beforehand; but I afterwards got accustomed to these taciturn sons
of the forest.
The Falls of St. Marie are celebrated as a fishing place; and the
white fish caught there are reckoned superior to those taken in any
other part of Lake Huron. The fishery is picturesque enough, and is
carried on in canoes, manned usually by two Indians or half-breeds,
who paddle up the rapids as far as practicable. The one in the bow
has a scoop-net, which he dips, as soon as one of these glittering
fish is observed, and lands him into the canoe. Incredible numbers
of them are taken in this simple manner; but it requires the
canoemanship and the eye of an Indian.
The French still show their national characteristics in this
remote place. They first settled here before the year 1721, as
Charlevoix states; and, in 1762, Henry, a trader on Lake Huron,
found them established in a stockaded fort, under an officer of the
French army. The Jesuits visited Lake Superior as early as 1600; and
in 1634 they had a rude chapel, the first log hut built so far from
civilization, in this wilderness. At present, the population are
French, Upper Canadians, English, Scotch, Yankees, Indians,
The climate is healthy, very cold in winter, with a short but
very warm summer, and always a pure air. Here the Aurora Borealis is
seen in its utmost glory. In summer there is scarcely any night; for
the twilight lasts until eleven o'clock, and the tokens of the
returning sun are visible two hours afterwards.
The extremes of civilized and savage life meet at St. Mary's; for
here live the educated European or American, and the pure heathen
Red Man; here steamboats and the birch canoe float side by side; and
here all-powerful Commerce is already recommencing a deadly rivalry
between the Briton and the American, not for furs and peltry, as in
days gone by, but for copper and for metals; and here a new world is
about to be opened, and that too very speedily.
Here are Indian agents and missionaries, with schools, both the
English and the United States' government considering the entrance
to the Red Man's country, whose gates are so narrow and still closed
up, to be of very great importance, both in a commercial and a
political point of view; but it is notorious that, after the French
Canadians, the Red Man prefers his Great Mother beyond the Great
Lake and her subjects to the President and the people, who are
rather too near neighbors to be pleasant, and who have somewhat
unceremoniously considered the natives of the soil as so many
obstacles to their aggrandizement.
I shall end this sketch of the lakes, by a few observations upon
the magnetic phenomena regarding them, and respecting the variation
of the compass.
Fort Erie, near the eastern termination of Lake Erie, and close
to the Niagara river, presents the line of no variation; whilst at
the town of Niagara, on the south-west end of Lake Ontario, not more
than thirty-six miles from Fort Erie, the variation in 1832 was 1°
The line of no variation is marked distinctly on the best maps of
Canada, by the division line between the townships of Stamford and
Niagara, seven miles north of Niagara.
At Toronto in 43° 39' north latitude, and 78° 4' west longitude,
twenty-four miles north-east of Niagara, the variation in 1832 was
more than 2° easterly.
The shore of Lake Huron at Nottawassaga Bay, forty miles
north-west of Toronto, is again the line of no variation.
Thus a magnetic meridian lies between Fort Erie and Nottawassaga.
A magnetic observatory is established by the Board of Ordnance at
Toronto, near the University, and placed in charge of two young
officers of artillery, which says a good deal for the scientific
acquirements of that corps. I shall perhaps hereafter advert to this
subject more at large, as the volcanic rocks have much to do with
the needle in Canada West.
3 Canada is a blue country; for, a
very short distance from the observer, the atmosphere tinges
everything blue; and the waters are chiefly of that color, the sky
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Source: Canada and the Canadians, Volume I, 1849
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