by Craig Stevenson
Special to Nation Valley News
“The ocean,” sang 1970s rock group America, “is a desert with its life underground—and the perfect disguise above.”
Their lyric shares a degree of similarity with the flooded St. Lawrence River, where remnants of the past lie just below the water’s surface.
The section of river between Iroquois and Cornwall is a reservoir that can be raised and lowered to fit various needs and circumstances. Recent high levels in Lake Ontario have required large-than-usual volumes of water to be drained downriver to prevent flooding. As more water flows through the dams at Cornwall and Massena, the river’s flow quickens and its level drops.
When that happens, a shallow-water curtain is pulled back—and takes time with it.
Many of us know at least a bit about the St. Lawrence Seaway project and the inundation that altered the river and erased a historic landscape. The flooding did not erase all signs of the past, with several concentrated along a stretch of riverfront along the front of Dundas County that I refer to informally as the river’s “lost mile”.
The glimpses of that old riverfront can be brief, requiring fortunate timing and proper preparation. If one is prepared for a hike — sometimes through ice and snow — it can make for a splendid walk into local history.
Before the Seaway flooding, the river dropped dramatically between Iroquois and Cornwall. Its consistent level today conceals the fact that all is not the same underwater. Old communities like Milles Roches are under fifty feet or more of water, but further upstream the flooding covered less of the old shoreline and left some features submerged only slightly below the waterline.
The core of this mile of history runs along the pre-Seaway railway bed, a spine of raised gravel that plays a game of hide-and-seek with anyone trying to follow its route. Once the thunderous path of Grand Trunk and Canadian National trains, the rail bed now forms a spotty line connecting places long gone, vacant, and overgrown. That line has become more evident at the end of the past two shipping seasons. With no need to keep the river at navigable levels, it has been dropped periodically to as low as 234 feet above sea level.
What emerges at that point is a river shoreline of shoals and sandbars and features seen rarely since the 1958 flooding, tied together by a ribbon of gravel running parallel to the water’s edge.
If only that railbed could speak of what it carried over its century of service—a century coinciding with some of Canada’s most crucial national developments.
The local “milk and mail” train from Brockville to Montreal and back trod this path daily, providing a crucial transportation service to the riverfront communities. So too did a variety of colourful elements in Canada’s history. Manufactured good from Montreal industries headed to the Canadian west along this line, as did a stream of new arrivals intent on settling across the nation. Soldiers of two world wars heading east for overseas deployment, farm workers off to the prairies for the seasonal wheat harvest, raftsmen returning upriver to pilot another load of timber down the St. Lawrence—they all once travelled this line.
And that is only the railway. The river’s flat expanse along this stretch conceals some of the area’s most important historical episodes.
Just below the surface lies a lost shoreline of United Empire Loyalist farms. The Crysler’s Farm battlefield is submerged here too, as is the roadside memorial mound that once marked its location. Between here and the American shoreline in the distance stands the shipping marker and light on Crysler’s Shoal—once an island and later the scene of shipping tragedy when the Eastcliffe Hall ran aground on it in 1970. Remnants of the wreck remain there, just below the surface. Running down the middle of that river is the international boundary marked by cartographer David Thomson in 1819 as a part of the Treaty of Ghent that settled the War of 1812.
It is all there in a short stretch of the river. All there, save for the visibility.
What we have left are remnants. Sections of the original railbed remain and are more visually defined at low water. So too are the railway stone works left in place during the Seaway’s construction. Along its length one encounters culverts and arch bridges constructed of stone blocks quarried downriver at Milles Roches. The rough-hewn blocks are monuments of a sort, cut and chiseled by hand during the 1880s when the Grand Trunk line was upgraded from a single to a double track.
They are vivid reminders of the work required to build Canada’s foundational infrastructure. That time and effort—much like the old river itself—has been largely forgotten in a Canada far stretched from these roots.
This section of the shoreline can seem surprisingly distant in the quieter months of autumn and winter. Getting there depends upon one’s comfort with undertaking a venture that poses some challenges along the way.
At its eastern end, the railbed rises from the river a short distance from the historic site of Aultsville Station and the Grand Trunk 1008 train. The space between runs through thick brush at the edge of Crysler Park Marina.
The route can still be accessed at the eastern end of the marina basin by paddling around the point or—when the bay is frozen—by foot along the shoreline’s edge. At its western end, the rough and muddy track of Church Road gets one close enough to the old village of Riverside. Midway along, the beach at Riverside Cedar campground provides access along its shoreline, provided a person sticks to the shoreline and avoids the deeper water up the middle of the creek mouth.
From there, you are on your own. It is a route travelled rarely and one is not likely to encounter another person. Good footwear is required to navigate wet, muddy, and icy sections, as is clothing sufficient to protect one from the river’s buffeting winds. Step cautiously.
There is more to see than pieces of the past. Ships, shorebirds, and waterfowl all have their seasons here, and are elemental to the river. They remind us that the St. Lawrence is a living, working river with a character that transcends time and change.
Above all, it is a personal trip into the past that can be enjoyed independently as one so chooses. In a region stripped of many historical landmarks it is a glimpse of what once was, together with what a river has become.