Saint John River, New Brunswick

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Canoeing on the Saint John River, New Brunswick
Saint John River, new Brunswick

The Languid and Lovely St.John River, New Brunswick
Loved more deeply than mightier streams, the historic lifethread of the St. John Valley pulses slowly to the sea past the Loyalist farms and happy towns where "progress" can still be a naughty word.

Editor's note: The following essay originally appeared in the July 4, 1959 issue of Maclean's Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

   Years ago I heard one of those Maritime Province stories which nobody verifies for fear they will turn out to be untrue.

   On a tributary of the St. John River, around the turn of the century, quite a few backwoodsmen were owners of dress suits with all the fixings: boiled shirts, starched wing collars, white ties and gloves, black silk socks and patent leather pumps. They had acquired this apparel from a man they respected as the best fly-fisherman, the best bird-shot and the best still-hunter in a region where standards in these activities were high. He was an Englishman and a remittance man, and each year his family had his former tailor and haberdasher send him the kind of garments they presumed he required in the St. John River country. The remittance man, who lived in a shack and wore nothing but work clothes, passed on the parcels to his friends. He spoke little about himself, but whenever anybody asked him why he had chosen to live there, his answer was always the same.

   "One lives like a gentleman here. One has all the fishing and shooting one wants at one's door. This is a happy land."

   I hope the story is true, because happiness is the word that always comes to mind when I think of the River St. John. Rising in the wilderness of Maine and Quebec, it flows southeast across New Brunswick into the Bay of Fundy. It is one of the shortest of our principal streams, being less than 450 miles long, yet it has so much variety that a stranger travelling along it encounters a surprise every 20 miles or so. It is intimate and it is very beautiful. On fine summer days the colours in its lower reaches shift from ocean blue to delphinium blue to a deep quivering violet according to the intensity of light given out by the sky. A sudden rain in the Aroostook country can make the upper St. John look as brown as the Missouri while the lower stream is still clear. Sunsets in the Long Reach - as a broad, straight section near the mouth of the river is called - are as majestic as the sunsets in a deep fjord. At dawn and in the evening in some of the settled sections the pastel hues are as soft as in England. "Tenderly, day that I have loved. I close your eyes" - I thought of this line of Rupert Brooke the last time I heard the bells of Fredericton chime across the stream after sunset.

The St. John River passing through Fredericton earlier this century.   The happiness associated with the St. John, especially in the older communities lower down the river, is of a kind the world is losing everywhere. It proceeds from a life closely entwined with the river and the woods, which still are wild and abundant with game; with family farms, small towns, neighborly villages, and plain people living with nature at their doors. The St. John River country can still make you think of the growing years of eastern America.

   There are several reasons why it does. Not only is New Brunswick a geographical offshoot of New England; the people inhabiting the lower 150 miles of the St. John Valley from Woodstock to the Reversing Falls are nearly all descended from the original Anglo-Saxon stock that pioneered the United States. After the first tentative French occupation petered out, the Loyalists came to the Valley at the end of the 18th century and settled it. With them they brought, along with their loyalty to the Crown, most of the habits, virtues and limitations acquired by their ancestors in the first century and a half of the British-American experience. But because they were a twice-transplanted people, the lower St. John is much younger in terms of settlement than Massachusetts or Rhode Island. From the visual standpoint this has been unfortunate. The old New England towns were built in the most exquisite period of domestic architecture ever known, while most of the St. John towns suffer from the styles of the 19th century. But the way of life there belongs to an earlier period than in any place I know in the northern Atlantic states.

   "I come to Canada regularly," a retired American general said to me, "because it reminds me of home when I was a boy, I can close my eyes and hear the old folks talk."

   The St. John River people along the lower reaches are such staunch retainers of the past that conservative is too weak a word to describe them. There is something endearing about their stubborn dislike of change. Few Canadians have contributed more to the speed of modern living than Rupert Turnbull, who invented the variable pitch propeller and built the first wind tunnel in Canada. He was an individualist, disdaining big companies that would have subsidized his genius; nearly all his work was carried on in his own laboratory at Rothesay where the Kennebecasis comes in to share Grand Bay with the St. John. In his non-professional life Turnbull was so adverse to change that he lived like a country squire of the last century. He sailed, he fished, he shot ducks into his early eighties. When he reluctantly bought an automobile, he never drove it faster than 25 miles an hour. And when New Brunswick in the early 1920s reluctantly changed the rule of the road from left to right (in other words from English to American), Turnbull so disapproved of the innovation that he tried to ignore it. Finding it difficult to make progress with the traffic corning from the opposite direction, he at last decided to compromise. Instead of driving on the left-hand side of the road he drove in the middle, and in a region full of individualists who like room to display all the individuality they posses, he was not only condoned, he was applauded.

About 1870 along the St. John River (Courtesy N.B. Museum)   For years this conservatism of the St. John River country, until recently the heart of New Brunswick province, was responsible for the fact that New Brunswick had one of the lowest per capita income averages in the whole country. Power plants came late to the St. John. Though the river is a powerful stream with a most spectacular cataract, it was 1925 before a power plant was opened at Grand Falls. This plant, together with the development of industry higher up at Edmundston, changed the economy of the upper stream, but to this day there are people living lower down who regret that a pleasant village was converted into a factory town with wide streets and a moviehouse. It was not until 1950 that engineers undertook an exhaustive survey of the river basin in search of power sources for a province suddenly waking up to the fact that it was suffering the fate of all raw producers in the present age; and it was only a year ago that the great dam at Beechwood came into operation. The engineers installed fish ladders for the salmon swimming up to the spawning beds on the Tobique, but salmon cannot so easily be guided back the same way and some of them are pretty sure to perish in the turbines. I was therefore not surprised to encounter some negative reactions to Beechwood along the river last spring.

   "Suppose we do introduce new Manufactures here?" said one. "Just what good do you think it will do us? The way the rest of the country has fixed the freight rates against the Maritimes, how can we sell?"

   And another said: "This was the most beautiful salmon river on the whole Atlantic seaboard, but they've ruined it now."

   And another: "Do you want to know why they built that dam? For the same reason the Egyptians and the Burmese want to build dams where dams never were. Dams are fashionable. Some people can't live unless they're fashionable."

   The St. John River people can. Their ancestors were driven out of the eastern American states because they were unimpressed by the fashionable politics of Mr. Jefferson. Their descendants, with the pride of the unappreciated, accept the disapproval of bustling (and to them superficial) places like Toronto as a compliment. They are proud of the dignity of their own past, and they are proud of the dignity of this river they have so carefully preserved. The American general knew what he was talking about when he said that this country is an earlier America preserved.

   Narrow though the old New England small town life was, it was nonetheless a wonderful life for a growing boy because he was able to live close to nature and at the same time see a maturely integrated society reduced to a boy's scale. Until very recently it was like that along the St. John, and in some places it is still like that. No wonder so many Maritime boys, grown into successful men in the large cities, sigh for home as the grown Adam sighed for the Garden. They had wonderful childhoods there. Their selective memories have censored out the bad spots and the dull spots and have created the kind of poetry which Stephen Leacock, raised in a rawer community composed of the same racial stock, wove into his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

   That is why the pull of this land is so strong that it is like the invisible thread of Chesterton's Father Brown which could draw a man back from the remotest corner of the world. It is like the pull of the spawning beds to the Atlantic salmon. Lord Beaverbrook, to judge from anecdotes and his own writings, never found in London the inner satisfaction he knew in his New Brunswick boyhood.

A log boom makes it way through Grand Falls about 1870   There is something charming, at least to a Maritimer, in the provincial arrogance which caused Lord Beaverbrook, at a Moscow conference during the war, to make Stalin learn the old New Brunswick lumbering song about the Jones Boys' sawmill. There is something moving in the salmon-like returns of this formidable old egotist to his native land, in his desire to make Englishmen understand what a wonderful place it is and to fight a losing battle for a waning British Empire. But if I know the St. John Valley at all well, perhaps they say that Beaverbrook comes from the Miramichi - I suspect that he has more than once encountered the built-in conservatism which originally drove him out. Fredericton has a statue of him, and he has given much to Fredericton, but no part of New Brunswick would ever give him a chance to succeed as he did in London. The Daily Express could not possibly compete in Fredericton with The Gleaner, and the average St. John River man, exposed to the Express, would wonder why anyone would want to read it at all. For the Express is designed for a community directly opposite to theirs. Its metropolitan readers know nothing of a society where everyone knows everyone else, where banker, barber, cathedral dean and odd-job man, each knowing his exact place, nevertheless are bound together in a common neighborliness. Those St. John communities are still coherent.

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