The Unbeatable Batteau
BEFORE THE ADVENT OF MODERN CANALS AND SHIPS, THIS UNIQUE BOAT WAS IDEALLY SUITED FOR TRAVEL ON THE TURBULENT ST. LAWRENCE RIVER.
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.