By M.A. MacDonald
AT the beginning it was New Brunswick's rivers that linked the peoples. The annals of our water highways are filled with stories of wars and raids, as well as peaceful trade and settlement. The waterways link us to both past and future, and in recognition of this, a River Heritage Conference in Fredericton is being planned for early summer, to celebrate these connections and the art, music and literature that have arisen from them.
"Our Waters" is also the theme of Heritage Week, starting Feb. 12, when the array of topics will include sport and recreation, transport and shipbuilding, and preservation of the vibrant histories of the rivers.
First there were the native peoples, paddling canoe loads of furs to barter with French traders. In the 18th century, after defeating the French, the English force sailed up the St. John River to burn the French Acadian settlements, clearing the way for incoming settlers from New England. As the American Revolution took hold, thousands of displaced Loyalists created a city at the mouth of the St. John River. Soon little communities started to spread up the St. John and Kennebecasis Rivers, as the refugee families move out onto their land grants and begin to rebuild their lives.
The valley of the Kennebecasis would come into its own as a focus for development and settlement, and from this region come many colourful stories.
Once upon a time, and not so long ago, some New Brunswickers were champions of the world, and the world knew about it and came here to see them.
In the late 1860s Saint John's champion crew of oarsmen had defeated all contenders at a great international meet in Paris, France, to be declared best in the world. They'd been extolled in verse:
Away in a far foreign
But the famed Paris crew went down to defeat later, in a meet at Lachine, Quebec, between the Saint Johnners and the Tyne crew of Newcastle, England. When news spread that there'd be a return grudge match between the Tyne and Paris crews here on the Kennebecasis River, people came from far and wide to see it. Newspapers from as far away as England, from New York, Boston, Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto sent reporters to cover the contest, and on August 23, 1871, a crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 assembled to enjoy the great race.
They came to the little upriver community that was hosting the match on sailboats, steamboats and on wide two masted wood boats, by horse and buggy and by train - more than 9,000 train tickets alone were sold. People overflowed the grandstands, covered the hill slopes and the riverfront. Bands played, and hawkers selling food and drink found eager customers among the hungry crowds. All sorts of watercraft lined the three-mile race course, which ran from Torryburn Cove past Johnson's Hotel at Appleby's Wharf (today Riverside) to just past Rothesay, where the scullers would turn to race back to their starting point, covering six miles in all.
The local boat, the St. John, flew a deep pink flag, and its four-man crew were all big, tall men; the rival shell, Queen Victoria, bore a white, flag with a broad blue border and the royal arms centered. Its Tyne crew could not match the others for size and stroke. James Renforth, a renowned athlete, stood just a powerful 5 foot 7 1/2. The race had barely begun - less than a mile had been covered - when Renforth collapsed over his oar, "seized with apoplexy, which was probably superinduced by over-exertion," as a newspaper report put it. He was carried to the crew's headquarters at Claremont House, near Torryburn, and in spite of the best efforts of teammates and doctors he died a few hours later. The next day all flags in the city flew at half mast, and as a further tribute, the little community which had hosted the match, then known as The Chalet, was officially named Renforth.
Interestingly enough, another of the international rowing races at Renforth, held a couple of years later, drew so many spectators that factories, foundries and mills in the city shut down for lack of workers. The crowd of about 15,000 sports fans seem to have had a rousing good time which included heavy drinking, some exciting fist fights, and pistols firing off shots into the air.
In this era the banks of the Kennebecasis were also the sites of flourishing shipyards - the Appleby, Mayes and Titus concerns. Benjamin Appleby, a Loyalist descendant, had set up a business at Riverside in the early 1830s because the riverbanks "abounded in dense prime timber, and the river and bay were excellent for launching vessels". In its heyday Applebys employed a hundred ship carpenters, sailmakers and shipwrights, all living nearby, who built about 90 vessels, brigs, barkentines and barques, some of more than a thousand tons.
But Applebys had to close when, in 1858, construction of shoreline tracks for the new European and North American railroad took away the yard's access to the river. Today, Appleby Drive commemorates the shipyard whose wharf once lay at its foot.
A Mayes shipbuilding enterprise prospered for a few years along the Rothesay shore, not far from the present-day boatclub, while the Titus yard, farther upriver at Fairvale, launched sizable barques and schooners during the heyday of the wooden ships.
The rivers carried winter traffic, too, for an ice road, well marked by lines of cut evergreens, ran from Renforth across to the Kingston Peninsula and on over the frozen St. John River to Fredericton itself. Skaters, both men and women, also used these winter thoroughfares for travel, and thought little of skating long distances between the settlements.
On land, the main route from Saint John to the bend of the Petitcodiac (now Moncton) skirted the river. It had begun in the early l9th century as a post road, served by regular stagecoaches which carried passengers and goods, with stops to pick up and deliver at post houses along the way the Three Mile House, Nine Mile House, and so on. An even earlier road ran from Saint John to the Hammond River, following an old aboriginal and Acadian trail along the high land to Glen Falls and on to the French settlement beside the Hammond, a few miles southwest of Hampton. The English called the place French Village.
This one takes the prize for longest recorded history, for it went back to the late 17th century seigneury of the Sieur de Breuil. Its inhabitants, who survived the Acadian Expulsions, figure in land records and on the books of the Pre-Loyalist trading company, Simonds, Hazen and White. These merchants employed the French Villagers in various enterprises, in dyking, draining and reaping on the Great Marsh, in the woods, and as trusted couriers because, it was said, they were such adaptable and reliable employees. When the mass immigration of Loyalists engulfed the area, displacing many earlier Acadian and English settlers, some of the French Villagers at last managed to get grants to their lands. A 1785 petition for a grist mill, filed by one Joseph Terrieau shows part of this process.
After the days of overland trails, then post roads, it was the railroads that gave convenient access to the riverside communities. They helped to carry holiday crowds from Saint John to a succession of royal visits, two of which, by Princes of Wales. It was in August 1860 that the 18-year-old slim, good-looking heir to Victoria's throne stopped by. (Who would have thought he would become the rotund playboy Edward VII?)
After stops in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Prince Albert Edward arrived in Saint John by steamer, to drive in a handsome carriage through streets crowned by triumphal arches and lined with flag-waving crowds on his way to a succession of receptions and levees before leaving on August 4 by train for, eventually, Fredericton.
A special railway car took him along the. shores of the scenic Kennebecasis to Nine Mile Station. Here he disembarked to make his way through a welcoming press of people who lined the way down to a wharf where the paddlewheel steamer Forest Queen awaited him. The trainstop community had borne various names - Kennebecasis, Scribners' Corner. Now it would be given the name of Rothesay for the Prince of Wales, one of whose titles is Duke of Rothesay. Declaring himself well pleased with this honour, His Royal Highness left for a cruise down to the St. John and on up that river to Fredericton - where he faced three more days of levees, church services, openings, plus a grand dinner and a magnificent ball, before leaving for a cross-continental international tour.
Another Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, also stopped in Rothesay 40-odd years later, in 1919, also on a continental tour and soon after his First World War service with the Canadian Corps. This was the future Edward VIII, who would abdicate for love, in 1936. The blond good looks and charming manners of this then 25-year-old prince won admirers everywhere, and a smiling photo of him, taken on the veranda, became a prized memento of his visit to Bircholme, the spacious and comfortable residence of the lieutenant-governor, William J. Pugsley - a colourful personality known throughout New Brunswick as Wild Bill, Slippery Bill or Sweet William, according to the politics of the speaker.
In today's push for amalgamation, the roughly 12,000 residents of the valley communities - Renforth, East Riverside-Kingshurst, Rothesay, Fairvale, and Wells with part of French Village - have become one, as a larger Rothesay. Each, however, cherishes the traditions of its past and strives to preserve its own heritage.
A good example of this happened in 1975 when the Canadian National Railway - bowing, in its turn, to changing modes of transportation decided to close the Rothesay train station. Determined not to lose this distinctive, broad-roofed building, the town's Heritage Trust bought and renovated the Station House, which went on to become a successful photographic studio. Today, the varied communities of the area continue to work to maintain some of its earlier relaxed, rural aspect, and to safeguard the characteristic old houses that keep alive a sense of history.
M.A. MacDonald is a historian and writer with special interests 'in the early history of this region.