Locally they call this river the Rhine of America, but they shouldn't. The Rhine is longer, larger, more dramatic, its banks crowded with factory cities and its surface with coal barges and excursion steamers. It also has had a ferocious history with a ghastly tendency to repeat itself generation after generation. Those romantic castles which glower at you from the Rhenish islands were wicked places.
But the St. John was never a wicked place, and apart from small-scale Indian frays in the days when Malecite war parties roamed the river in canoes, the fighting on the St. John has never amounted to more than the grotesque affair between LaTour and d'Aulnay Charnisay and the so called Aroostook War of 1839, when neighboring American and Canadian lumbermen created an international crisis over cutting rights. Almost the only structures on the St. John islands are hay barns, and on many of them the Malecites gather fiddlehead greens. Only in the Long Reach where the river strikes off at right angles northeast from Grand Bay does the St. John resemble any part of the Rhine, nor does it really resemble it here except in width, depth and the way the hills rise almost sheer from the water. But the hills of the Long Reach are covered by virgin forest glorious with colour in the fall, while on the Rhine they are terraced vineyards.
Nor does the St. John come out of a glacier. It rises in the woods of northern Maine. It curves under the hump of the Laurentian-Atlantic watershed and it reaches New Brunswick at the lower tip of the Madawaska County panhandle. It then winds through wild country more or less northeasterly to Edmundston, then curves southeasterly down through St. Leonard and Grand Falls and so on to Woodstock, through rolling farmland that produces one-fifth of all the potatoes grown in Canada. From a point in Madawaska County just above the hamlet of Connors, to a point just above Grand Falls, it forms the boundary with the United States.
These upper reaches of the St. John are as different from the lower ones as Quebec is different from Ontario. More recently settled - the original English population thinned out as it moved upstream from the mouth - it is now almost entirely French speaking. Edmundston is as Canadian as Rivière~du-Loup, and the Canadians, first overflowing from the St. Lawrence, now overflowing from the upper St. John, are steadily coming down the stream.
The St. John in its upper reaches is slim and graceful, a delicate band through fields and forests, and it looks quiet until you come to Grand Falls where suddenly you see the power of it. The flume of the falls, utterly savage, hurls itself; twisted by the contour of the rock, into a huge slide of water before it plunges into a gorge with walls about a hundred feet high. No salmon could ever surmount the Grand Falls of the St. John, but logs can go down it, and only once in a century or more of lumbering has Grand Falls been jammed. Then it was done on a bet by an old river character called Connor, who was known in the district as The Red Rover.
From Woodstock down to Fredericton the river flows in bold sweeps and curves about the width of the Thames at Oxford but after passing the head of the tide (the furthest upstream point penetrated by salt water) at Crock's Point, and receiving the Keswick, it widens at Fredericton to nearly half a mile, passes under three bridges and proceeds deep and generally still toward the majestic stretches lower down. The Long Reach is one of the fairest sections of river I have ever seen in Canada, and a little below it the stream swells into Grand Bay behind the city of Saint John. Here the Kennebecasis comes in from the east, not as a tributary but as a separate river that - ages back in geologic time - flowed in the opposite direction.
Below Grand Bay the St. John ends in the last of its many surprises; it reaches the Reversing Falls between the city and the raw new suburb of Lancaster. When the tide is low the river goes down a gorge in a drop of 17 feet into the Fundy. But when the Fundy lifts, salt water surges into the gorge and floods right into the river itself, and at high tide there is enough depth to float a sizable tanker.
A varied river this, but never a crowded one except when the logs come down in the spring drive. Most of the logs these days are cut in the forest near the headwaters and they have an adventurous journey of about 300 miles before they reach the plants at the river's mouth. They tumble over Grand Falls, they are shepherd past Beechwood and finally they come to a stop in a jam three miles long against the great boom stretched between Oromocto Island and the eastern shore by Maugerville (pronounced "Majorville"). Tugs tow mats of them downstream in barrel booms, and behind the drive come the Wangan boats, which are house-carrying scows powered by outboards and crewed by about 20 men. Within three weeks the Wangan boat men clear the river of stray logs all the way from Beechwood to Maugerville, a distance of some 200 miles. Thereafter the stream is clear for pleasure craft.
One of the beauties of the St. John at the moment is that few American small-boat owners seem to know about it; if they did the stream would be crowded with craft from half the Eastern States, for there is no river on the continent more suited to pleasure boats than this. Above the head of tide it is too shallow for cabin cruisers, but from Fredericton down to the mouth it is deep enough to carry a ship and quiet enough for a child to be safe on it.
The shores float by, the tall grasses are fragrant in the water meadows, ferns and wildflowers blow on the islands, the shadows move along the hills. As a picnic party comes round the bend a flock of startled ducks takes to the air, and like sea planes alighting they splash back again when the boat has passed. "Look!" cries a small boy. And there, upwind by the water's edge, is a deer with big eyes. As the sun sinks, the great hills above the Long Reach cast their shadows over a river violet-dark, and later in Grand Bay, the water shrimp-pink and pastel-grey from reflected cumulus clouds, the yachts becalmed on the flood, the boat party sees the lights of the city that marks the journey's end.
Along with the boating goes the sport and fascination of the river's wild life. Geese and ducks flock the shallows in such numbers that at certain seasons you cannot count them. Not long ago a moose swam the St. John at Fredericton and spent some time wandering through the city's streets. Deer emerge from the forests and eat the greens in gardens, as deer do everywhere in closed seasons. But it is in its salmon runs - unless the pessimists are right and the Beechwood Dam has spoiled them - that the St. John is supreme among rivers of the eastern seaboard.
Cedric Cooper, of Fredericton, who has the rights on the largest pool on the river, tells me that in the St. John there are no fewer than nine salmon runs in the course of the year. The first comes up in early May a few weeks after the ice breaks, when the river is so widely flooded that the Maugerville district farmers sometimes have to put their cattle in the lofts of their barns. These fish are bound for the Serpentine branch of the Tobique, where they spawn. The last run comes up in November just before the river begins to freeze.
"The St. John is a fine river equal in magnitude to the Connecticut or Hudson," with a fine harbour at the mouth "accessible at all seasons of the year, never frozen or obstructed by ice."
Such was the first report of the agents of the Loyalists who had come to Annapolis in Nova Scotia in the fall of 1782, then had crossed the Fundy and proceeded up the St. John as far as the Oromocto in search of a new homeland for a desperate people. The Revolutionary War was over in the United States, and the victors were earning the distinction later conferred upon them by the historian Arnold Toynbee, who notes that the Americans were the first people in modern times to expel thousands of men and women solely because of their political opinions. The president of the Board of Agents for the Loyalists bore one of the most famous names in the State of New York: he was the Reverend Dr. Samuel Seabury.
Americans had of course heard of the St. John long before the revolution. The river had been established on the map as early as 1604, when Champlain entered it while still a member of De Monts' expedition. LaTour had built a fort at its mouth in 1631, d'Aulnay Charnisay had destroyed it 10 years later and built another across the harbour, and nine years after that, Charnisay had been displaced by an English expedition operating in the name of Oliver Cromwell. After the fall of Louisbourg a force of 2,000 men under Colonel ( Robert Monckton had arrived, rebuilt the old French fort and renamed it Fort Frederick. Four years later New England merchants had built a post at the river mouth for fishing and burning limestone, and through their efforts a small trade had begun in fish, lime, lumber and fur. But no real development of the St. John was attempted before the British forces were defeated in America. When the agents of the Loyalists arrived, the population at the river mouth was only 145. A little over a year later the city of Saint John had been established.
For anyone wishing to study the character of the Canadian people the story of our rivers is indispensable. Adventurers peopled the St. Lawrence. Voyageurs, both Highlanders and Canadians, used the water network leading out of the St. Lawrence as avenues to adventure, trade and exploration. But the St. John was settled neither by French nor Scots; it was settled by Anglo-Saxons who had never wished to roam, much less marry au façon du nord with the Indians.
They were proud, indignant men with a bitter sense of wrong, the ones who came to the St. John. Some had "been inflicted with the Punishment of Tar and Feathers." Some had "Sheltered themselves in the Mountains." One had been "Fined, Whipped, and Tried for his Life." One had been "Robbed and Maimed by the Rebels." Many had "Had a Valuable Dwelling House burnt up by a malicious Set of Men." Edward Winslow did not exaggerate when he wrote to his son on June 20, 1783: "The violence and malice of the Rebel Government makes it impossible even to think of joining them again."
Sir Guy Carleton, still in control of the port of New York, requisitioned transports for an exodus in those days unparalleled. By late November, 1783, more than 35,000 people had been convoyed to Nova Scotia by sea, and the total number reaching the St. John was 14,162. Every trade and profession necessary in a civilized society was represented in these convoys. There also arrived at St. John 3,396 officers, NCOs and men of the British North American Regiments, and the settlers had need both of their brawn and their discipline.
"It is, I think, the roughest land I ever saw," wrote one of the settlers. "We are all ordered to land tomorrow, and not a shelter to go under."
But by the year's end, the location divided into lots, trees cut and stumps burned out, frames raised and fireplaces built, the skeleton of Saint John city existed.
With the river and its pine trees behind it, Saint John grew fast. Less than a century alter its founding it was the fourth wooden-ship owning city of the world. Its clippers were famous, and last summer, visiting the old Cutty Sark, which has been beached and turned into a museum at Greenwich on the lower Thames, I saw a print of one of the great three-masters built at Saint John. No less than six of the first seven White Star ships were Saint John built, and had it not been for a disaster, this town might easily have become the chief city of the Maritimes. But in 1877 a disastrous fire in Canadian history burned out Saint John's heart, including nearly all the buildings constructed in the splendid style of the early Loyalists.
But Fredericton, smaller and more secluded preserves the image of early New Brunswick intact. Situated on St. Anne's Point about 90 miles upstream, Fredericton is a mirror of the Loyalist mind. Here, in a Canadian terrain utterly different from England's, different again from the rich, warm fields of Westchester, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and southern Connecticut, His Majesty's loyal Americans built a living monument to their determination to keep alive on this continent the British fact.
Fredericton's little Anglican cathedral is probably the most gracious house of worship in the whole country. It is an exact replica of St. Mary's Church in Snettisham in Norfolk, and it is also claimed to be the first cathedral foundation established on British soil since the Norman Conquest. Fredericton's Legislative Building contains portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds of King George III and Queen Charlotte; the legislative library has a copy of the Doomsday book. And Fredericton's bells still chime with an English sound across this Canadian river.
They kept it alive here, the British fact in America; they kept it alive from the end of the 18th century until today. But they are threatened now, and they know it.
Just below Fredericton is the huge new Gagetown Camp with a permanent troop population seldom under 5,000, with battle ranges embracing every known kind of terrain except mountains. Canada is moving into the lower St. John, just as French Canadians have been steadily moving into the upper reaches of the river, and the power techniques of modern Canada are producing electrical energy from the stream sufficient for dozens of factories.
"I guess," said an old Frederictonian. "I've seen about the last of it. Fredericton is now a Gagetown suburb. And they tell me there are now eight of these hydroelectric stations in the whole province."
He shook his head because he did not like it, and I thought again of that legendary English remittance man who had stayed here because this was a gentleman's country, his notion of a gentleman being a man who did not work in a factory or a shop but had all the shooting and fishing he wanted at his door. I thought again of the old days when the farm people and the families from the little towns went up and down the river with the paddlewheels clanking behind or alongside, and everyone knew everyone else. I thought of the great salmon, firm from the cold north Atlantic, bracing themselves against the current at the pools, and the ducks and the geese and the small boys who learned about nature and human society so easily because nature was all around them and the societies were so small that even a child could comprehend them.
"A lovely river," the old man said. "A lovely, lovely river."
Hugh MacLennan was one of the finest writers the Maritimes ever produced. The Nova Scotia writer was author of The Precipice and Two Solitudes.