The Un­beat­able Bat­teau


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Joe Cal­nan

Be­fore the ad­vent of mod­ern canals and ships, a unique boat was ide­ally suited for travel on the tur­bu­lent St. Lawrence River.

“Ifa trav­eller go­ing down the river has his choice,” ad­vised the Glaswe­gian travel writer John Dun­can, “let him by all means pre­fer the bat­teau.” Dun­can se­cured a pas­sage in the dis­tinc­tive craft for a trip down the St. Lawrence River from Lake On­tario to Mon­treal in the autumn of 1819, dur­ing his tour of the United States and Canada. His pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence trav­el­ling the same route on one of the Durham boats that New York traders had re­cently brought to the re­gion con­vinced him of the su­pe­ri­or­ity of the bat­teau for nav­i­gat­ing the wild rapids of the St. Lawrence.

Dun­can was far from alone in his praise of bat­teau travel — for the cen­tury and a half be­fore canals al­lowed steam­boats to by­pass the many rapids of the St. Lawrence, the bat­teau was the pre­ferred ve­hi­cle for travel be­tween Mon­treal and Lake On­tario. Along this route, a sub­cul­ture of hardy FrenchCana­dian voyageurs de­vel­oped. They were men whose lives were spent guid­ing these craft, and their pas­sen­gers and cargo, up and down the rag­ing rapids of the St. Lawrence. While the boats and the way of life of the bat­teau­men have van­ished vir­tu­ally with­out a trace, sev­eral of the pe­riod’s trav­ellers left vivid de­scrip­tions of their ex­pe­ri­ences on the river.

Bateau is, of course, sim­ply the French word for boat. So how did it — via a slight spell­ing vari­a­tion — come to re­fer to a spe­cific type of wa­ter­craft? Search­ing for the an­swer re­quires a trip back to sev­en­teenth-cen­tury New France. When Sa­muel de Cham­plain, the founder of the colony, reached what are now called the La­chine Rapids, at Mon­treal, he re­al­ized that his heavy boats were un­suit­able for travel on the fast rivers of Canada. With round bot­toms and straight keels, the boats typ­i­cally car­ried on Euro­pean ships were ideal for deep open wa­ter but too slug­gish to ma­noeu­vre in rapids and too heavy to be car­ried around them. In the early 1600s, Cham­plain adopted the birch­bark ca­noe used by First Na­tions peo­ples for in­land travel and ex­plo­ration. Gen­er­a­tions of Cana­di­ens fol­lowed Cham­plain’s lead and learned to travel in ca­noes, though it was of­ten re­marked that new ar­rivals from Europe were daunted by the skills needed to nav­i­gate safely us­ing these frag­ile and un­sta­ble craft.

When a reg­i­ment of 1,200 French sol­diers was dis­patched to New France in 1665, the lead­ers of the colony sought more durable and less costly al­ter­na­tives to birch­bark ca­noes for mov­ing the troops up the Riche­lieu and St. Lawrence rivers. The so­lu­tion turned out to be a boat the same size and shape as the largest bark ca­noes in use at the time, but which was nailed to­gether out of in­ex­pen­sive pine boards us­ing the con­struc­tion tech­nique of the

bat­teaux plats (lit­er­ally, flat boats) that were com­mon on the shal­low es­tu­ar­ies of western France. Like ca­noes, these new boats had the sleek shape needed to ma­noeu­vre through shal­low, rocky chan­nels. Like Euro­pean boats, they could be rowed with con­ven­tional oars, fit­ted with sails, and run up on shore when beach­ing.

The new boats were called bat­teaux plats for the first few decades, to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them from the other types of boats in the colony. When, year af­ter year, hun­dreds more were built, the ad­jec­tive was no longer needed, and in New France they be­came sim­ply bat­teaux. To­day, the ar­chaic spell­ing is gen­er­ally used to dis­tin­guish the colo­nial craft from other uses of the mod­ern French word bateau.

When the ves­sel spread to the English colonies to the south, it was quickly put to use for trad­ing on the shal­low, rocky Mo­hawk River route lead­ing west into Iro­quois coun­try from Al­bany, New York. Iron­i­cally, the boat that was de­vel­oped to make the wa­ter­ways ac­ces­si­ble to French sol­diers be­came the key to the demise of New France when

thou­sands of Bri­tish troops in vast fleets of bat­teaux streamed north in the late 1750s dur­ing the Seven Years War. Dun­can, whose Trav­els through part of the United States

and Canada was pub­lished in 1823, tells his read­ers that the bat­teaux ply­ing the route be­tween Kingston, in what was then Up­per Canada, and Mon­treal were “nav­i­gated by Cana­dian voyageurs, vet­er­ans who have been trained from their youth to the use of the pad­dle and the set­ting pole, and who know ev­ery chan­nel, rock, and breaker, in the rapids, from the Long Sault to Mon­treal.” From all re­ports, these men were an ex­cep­tion­ally tough breed, seem­ingly im­mune to fa­tigue, cold, dis­com­fort, and fear.

John How­i­son, a med­i­cal doc­tor from Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land, jour­neyed up the river in 1820 and wrote about it in his book

Sketches of Up­per Canada. He de­scribed the scene he found on the river­front in what is now Brockville, On­tario, where steam­boats from Lake On­tario would com­monly trans­fer pas­sen­gers to bat­teaux for the voy­age through the rapids to Mon­treal. “I ac­cord­ingly se­cured a pas­sage in a bateau, and in the evening, af­ter it got dark, I strolled to the side of the river, that I might as­cer­tain whether or not my bag­gage was safely put on board; and there I found the crew carous­ing, af­ter the fa­tigues of the day. They had kin­dled a fire upon the beach, and were mak­ing ready sup­per. Some re­clined around the fire, talk­ing bar­barous French, and ut­ter­ing the most hor­rid oaths; others sat in the boats and sung Troubadour songs; and a third party was en­gaged in dis­tribut­ing the pro­vi­sions. They re­sem­bled a band of free­boot­ers. Most of them were very ath­letic and had the sharp phys­iog­nomy and sparkling eyes of a Cana­dian. The red glare of the fire com­mu­ni­cated ad­di­tional an­i­ma­tion to their rude fea­tures; and their bushy black beards and dis­cor­dant voices ren­dered them rather a for­mi­da­ble look­ing set of peo­ple.”

The Mon­treal re­gion was home for the ma­jor­ity of the bat­teau­men. The for­mi­da­ble La­chine Rapids pre­vented ships com­ing from Europe from nav­i­gat­ing any far­ther than Mon­treal. Car­goes des­tined for points far­ther in­land were car­ried around the rapids by wagon to the vil­lage of La­chine. This was the point of de­par­ture for bat­teaux head­ing to Lake On­tario, as well as for the large fur trade ca­noes des­tined up the Ot­tawa River to the far north­west.

If bat­teaux were eas­ier to nav­i­gate than bark ca­noes, a great deal of skill was nonethe­less re­quired. Steer­ing a loaded open boat into white­wa­ter re­quires steady nerves and knowl­edge that can be gained only through long ex­pe­ri­ence. At­tempts

to save the ex­pense of hir­ing ex­pe­ri­enced hands could end in dis­as­ter. In 1756, Bri­tish Gen­eral Wil­liam Shirley em­ployed some of his reg­u­lar troops to take bat­teaux up the Mo­hawk River route to Lake On­tario and found him­self ex­tremely dis­ap­pointed. “The men were ter­ri­fied at places; easy to those ac­cus­tomed to bat­toes,” wrote a con­tem­po­rary ob­server, the Philadel­phia sci­en­tist and car­tog­ra­pher Lewis Evans, “and thought it less risk of hang­ing for de­ser­tion, and leav­ing the bat­toes and lad­ing, than of drown­ing by run­ning down the sev­eral rifts and falls.” A few years later, in 1760, eighty-four men drowned in the Cedars Rapids when Bri­tish Gen­eral Jef­fery Amherst led his army down the river to Mon­treal with­out enough ex­pe­ri­enced men to pi­lot the bat­teaux.

Isaac Weld, an Ir­ish writer who toured the United States and Canada from 1795 to 1797, left this de­tailed de­scrip­tion of how the bat­teaux were or­ga­nized and pro­pelled: “Three men are found suf­fi­cient to con­duct an empty bateau of about two tons bur­then up the St. Lawrence, but if the bateaux are laden, more are gen­er­ally al­lowed. They as­cend the stream by means of poles, oars, and sails. Where the cur­rent is very strong, they make use of the for­mer, keep­ing as close as pos­si­ble to the shore, in or­der to avoid the cur­rent, and to have the ad­van­tage of shal­low wa­ter to pole in. The men set their poles al­to­gether at the same mo­ment, and all work at the same side of the bateau; the steers­man, how­ever, shifts his pole oc­ca­sion­ally from side to side, in or­der to keep the ves­sel in an even direc­tion. The poles com­monly used are about eight feet in length, ex­tremely light, and headed with iron. On com­ing to a deep bay or in­let, the men aban­don the poles, take to their oars, and strike if pos­si­ble di­rectly across the mouth of the bay; but in many places the cur­rent proves so strong that it is ab­so­lutely im­pos­si­ble to stem it by means of oars, and they are obliged to pole en­tirely round the bays. When­ever the wind is favourable, they set their sail; but it is only at the up­per end of the river, be­yond the rapids, or on the lakes or broad parts of it, where the cur­rent is not swift, that the sail by it­self is suf­fi­cient to im­pel them for­ward.”

Travel by sail and oar on the St. Lawrence River is con­ducted at the mercy of the weather. Row­ing and pol­ing against the cur­rent is difficult enough, but add a strong head­wind and progress be­comes im­pos­si­ble. Bat­teau­men and their pas­sen­gers of­ten trav­elled right through the night, even in the rain, in or­der to make dis­tance dur­ing favourable winds. Although the hours were long, the row­ers were al­lowed to take fre­quent short breaks along the route, as well as longer breaks to cook a meal and to sleep. Pas­sen­gers were re­quired to bring their own food and bed­ding on a bat­teau voy­age, and they were fre­quently as­ton­ished by the abil­ity of the bat­teau­men to thrive on the coars­est of food and the most mea­gre bed­ding. The pro­vi­sions brought on the voy­age were sup­ple­mented by what­ever food could be caught, picked, shot, or bought along the way.

How­i­son recorded the men’s prodi­gious eat­ing habits. “Af­ter row­ing nearly two hours, we landed upon a small is­land, and the boat­men be­gan to make ready break­fast for them­selves. They take a meal reg­u­larly ev­ery four hours dur­ing the four and twenty, and it is to be sup­posed that the great labour they un­dergo must cre­ate a pro­por­tion­ate ap­petite; but it does seem as­ton­ish­ing that they should be con­tented with the qual­ity of

the pro­vi­sions they sub­sist upon. Pork, pease-soup and bis­cuit, com­pose their daily fare; and though they give their meals the ap­pel­la­tions of break­fast, din­ner, &c., this dis­tinc­tion is founded upon the time at which they are taken, not upon the dif­fer­ence of the ar­ti­cles pre­sented at each.”

How­i­son also noted that the dif­fi­culty of life on a St. Lawrence bat­teau did not seem to faze the crews. “But not­with­stand­ing all this, they are the hap­pi­est race of peo­ple imag­in­able. In­ured to hard­ship, they de­spise it; and af­ter toil­ing at the oar dur­ing the whole day, and light­en­ing their labour with songs and jests, when night comes, they kin­dle a fire and sleep around it, in de­fi­ance of the el­e­ments and ev­ery­thing else.”

Weld was sim­i­larly im­pressed with the en­durance of the bat­teau­men on his voy­age. “The men were or­dered to the oars, and not­with­stand­ing that they had laboured hard dur­ing the pre­ced­ing day, and had had no rest, yet they were kept closely at work un­til day-break, ex­cept for one hour, dur­ing which they were al­lowed to stop to cook their pro­vi­sions. Where there is a gen­tle cur­rent, as in this part of the river, the Cana­di­ans will work at the oar for many hours with­out in­ter­mis­sion; they seemed to think it no hard­ship to be em­ployed in this in­stance the whole night; on the con­trary, they plied as vig­or­ously as if they had but just set out, singing mer­rily the whole time.”

Weld de­scribed what the crew mem­bers ate dur­ing his voy­age: “On set­ting out each man is fur­nished with a cer­tain al­lowance of salted pork, bis­cuit, peas, and brandy; the peas and bis­cuit they boil with some of the pork into por­ridge, and a large ves­sel full of it is gen­er­ally kept at the head of the bateau, for the use of the crew when they stop in the course of the day. This por­ridge, or else cold fat salted pork, with cu­cum­bers, con­sti­tutes the prin­ci­pal part of their food.”

Like the voyageurs who pad­dled freight ca­noes into the North­west, the bat­teau­men of the St. Lawrence kept rhythm with tra­di­tional call-and-re­sponse songs, chan­sons à répon­dre.

Trav­ellers of­ten wrote of how much they ap­pre­ci­ated the way these songs livened the long voy­age on the river. El­iz­a­beth Sim­coe, the wife of the first Lieu­tenant-Gover­nor of Up­per Canada, wrote in her di­ary in 1792: “The evening calm and so very pleas­ant as al­most to per­suade me it is worth­while to cross the At­lantic for the plea­sure of voy­ag­ing on this de­light­ful, lake-like river, the set­ting sun re­flect­ing the deep­est shades from the shores and throw­ing rich tints on the wa­ter. This re­pose is finely ac­com­pa­nied by the songs of the bat­teaux men, which ac­cord in time to the reg­u­lar stroke of the oars and have the best ef­fect imag­in­able. Af­ter a day of fa­tigue and where strong cur­rents re­quire pe­cu­liar ex­er­tion they sing in­ces­santly and give a more reg­u­lar stroke with the oars when ac­com­pa­nied by the tunes. We ad­mired one of their songs —‘Trois Filles d’un Prince’ — so much that we de­sired it to be of­ten re­peated.”

Dun­can found his fel­low bat­teau pas­sen­gers al­most un­bear­able, but he man­aged to en­joy his soggy voy­age in spite of them, thanks to the mu­sic pro­vided by the crew. “To­wards evening it be­gan to rain; but some of the com­pany on board were more dis­agree­able than the weather. But for their pres­ence, I could have en­dured the rain for an hour or two, to lis- ten to the boat songs of the Cana­dian voyageurs, which in the still­ness of the night had a pe­cu­liar pleas­ing ef­fect. They kept time to these songs as they rowed; and the splash­ing of the oars in the wa­ter com­bined with the wild­ness of their ca­dence, gave a ro­man­tic char­ac­ter to our dark­some voy­age.”

As the pop­u­la­tion of the Great Lakes re­gion in­creased, busi­ness re­quired greater and greater ship­ping ca­pac­ity. Canal-build­ing along the St. Lawrence River, which had be­gun in the mid-1700s, al­lowed ever-larger boats to by­pass the rapids. One by one, canals were com­pleted to cir­cum­vent each set of rapids, di­min­ish­ing the role of the bat­teau in com­mer­cial trans­porta­tion on the St. Lawrence. In 1848, the fi­nal canal link was com­pleted, al­low­ing large steam­boats to as­cend the St. Lawrence all the way from the At­lantic Ocean to Lake On­tario. No longer was it nec­es­sary for pas­sen­gers and cargo to be trans­ferred into bat­teaux to

Trav­ellers of­ten wrote of how much they ap­pre­ci­ated the songs that livened the long voy­age on the river.

travel through the rapids of the St. Lawrence un­der hu­man mus­cle power. Af­ter a cen­tury and a half, the trade of the St. Lawrence River bat­teau­men in­stantly be­came ob­so­lete.

As of­ten hap­pens, when one door closes, another opens. Even though em­ploy­ment for bat­teau­men on the St. Lawrence waned, other op­por­tu­ni­ties ap­peared. The Bri­tish de­mand for Cana­dian tim­ber fu­elled a log­ging boom in the St. Lawrence wa­ter­shed. Fear­less men who “knew ev­ery chan­nel, rock and breaker in the rapids,” as Dun­can had ob­served, were sud­denly in high de­mand to pi­lot enor­mous rafts of logs down through the St. Lawrence rapids and on­ward to the wait­ing ships in Que­bec City. Other men were needed to trans­port the log­gers safely to their back­woods shanties, and the “lum­ber­man’s bat­teau” ap­peared in the forests of Canada and the north­ern United States. Even far­ther afield, the bat­teau type de­vel­oped into the fish­ing dory of the At­lantic coast and from there be­came known across the con­ti­nent.

With the di­as­pora of the bat­teau­men, their craft faded from mem­ory on the ves­sel’s home waters. Few re­minders re­main to­day of the era when al­most all pas­sen­gers and car­goes trav­elled by bat­teau be­tween Mon­treal and Lake On­tario. Near Kingston, On­tario, the thir­teen-kilo­me­tre-long Bateau Chan­nel marks the route trav­elled by John Dun­can and Lady Sim­coe through the Thou­sand Is­lands. Far­ther down­stream at Coteau-du-Lac, Que­bec, vis­i­tors can see the re­mains of some of the old­est canals in Canada, which were built specif­i­cally to ease the pas­sage of bat­teaux. It was here that the wave of canal con­struc­tion be­gan that would con­sign the St. Lawrence River bat­teau­men to his­tory.

A bat­teau with its sail raised floats on Lake On­tario in front of York Bar­racks in Up­per Canada, 1804. 44

A ten-me­tre-long lum­ber­man’s bat­teau, a more mod­ern ver­sion of the hardy craft used on the St. Lawrence River, navigates through the La­chine Rapids. The pic­ture was staged by famed pho­tog­ra­pher Wil­liam Not­man in the yard be­hind his stu­dio to recre­ate a real in­ci­dent from Jan­uary 1, 1878.

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