Posted by: Cornwall Community Museum | June 10, 2012

The Canaler (A Trip) by Alan Rafuse

Cornwall Community Museum’s current exhibition, The Boats of the St. Lawrence and Canal, is bringing back memories of another life.  Mr. Alan Rafuse, a long time canaler and resident of Cornwall, lent us his poem that draws upon his many years’ experience as a canaler.  Let us know if you have a story to tell.**

The Canaler (A Trip) By Alan Rafuse, *

 March, 1996 

 (*copyright : Alan Rafuse)

They were something that had to happen
When the horses and sails phased out.
The trees began to dwindle,
And metals began to sprout.

The sailing ships, they needed wind,
The wood began to rot.
The age of steel began to emerge
As the product to be got. 

Some wooden ships, they did hang on
With a layer of metal skin.
Said the engineers, as time went on,
‘Let’s make them all of tin.’

The canalers as we knew them,
Were steel and wood and coal.
The steel, the hull, the wood the hold,
The coal, the source of fuel.

The turn of the century saw the change
From sail to steam-powered screws.
The age of steel had come along,
Wooden ships went like wooden shoes. 

The canals were gradually upgraded
To accommodate this all new power.
The Great Lakes had to do the same,
To haul the wheat for flour. 

The canals along the St. Lawrence
From Cardinal to Montreal
Were dredged to the point of sufficient draft,
Handling fourteen feet o’er the sills. 

They were built to do the St. Lawrence,
These tender little ships,
But it didn’t take long, with business abound
They were Gulfers and Lakers – all fits. 

The southernmost lock at Cardinal
Was the gate to the downstream currents.
Once you left the lock, you were on your own,
Turning back, you’d be faced with deterrents. 

The pilots on these canalers
Were a breed of a kind, I’d say.
They knew every ripple of water,
Whether it be night or day. 

The ‘Rapide de Plat’ near Morrisburg
Could be exciting in ‘low-water’ years.
From ‘upper plateau’ to ‘lower plateau’
Was like a landing strip in tiers. 

Re-entering the canal at the ‘Landing’
You had to give a boot.
Failing to get her out of the current
Long Sault Rapids would be your route. 

On leaving the lock at the ‘Landing’
There was a stretch, a mile give or take,
And when you came to a broadening,
You were traversing ‘Bergin Lake’. 

Moulinette was in passing,
And then the ‘Frying Pan’.
Three blasts on the whistle about the point,
And the ‘swing bridge’ would open its span. 

Mille Roches and its busy paper mill
Were seen along the way.
The school house and the cheese factory,
You could smell the curds and whey. 

The ‘guard gate’ above Lock Twenty,
With the Maple Grove to the north,
Was a safety device within the canal
In case an emergency came forth. 

There was Hartle’s garage and Ernie’s Hotel
And Gillie’s to the northeast,
Robertson’s Creek and Matheson’s
McNairn’s farms and their beasts. 

Lock Twenty was at Maple Grove
Nineteen, near Blackadder’s Creek.
Around the bend, the Howard Smith mill,
The Roosevelt Bridge, its black peak. 

Lock Eighteen was a busy spot
Located south of the mill,
With its coal and sulphur and pulpwood docks,
Creating very huge hills. 

The Cornwall stretch of the ship canal
Was interesting, to say the least.
The closeness of industry and people
Before continuing north-east. 

The ‘package-freighters’ had a prime spot dock.
At the foot of Pitt Street, they could see the town clock.
The original canal, there dry-docks were let,
Were north of the locks, where our spear-pole was set. 

Locks Seventeen and Fifteen were quite big steps,
By-passing the cotton mills, north-east and south-west.
Leaving Fifteen, we are now on the lake,
Part of the St. Lawrence, Coteau Landing, next break. 

The pilot took over this part of the run,
Summerstown, Glen Walter, Lancaster, then none.
A four-hour jaunt, Lake St. Francis the name,
‘Coteau Lake’ was the seaman’s refrain. 

Coteau Lock was a quiet little spot,
But the Victoria Hotel –
Across the road-
Was not! 

The straight stretch of the Soulanges,
Was really boring as hell.
Three hours of dire straightness,
To the well-known Cascades Hotel. 

Lock Four, it was a guard-lock
To maintain the long, long level.
Not only was it for shipping
But had a power-house in the middle. 

Lock Four to Lock Three was quite a short stretch.
Entering Lock Three was the top of the steps.
Leaving Lock One, again on a lake,
St. Louis was proper, Lachine was fake. 

A two hour run, this part of the St. Lawrence,
Nun’s Island gas buoy, course altering point.
Above Lachine, there’s a long, long wall
To the south there’s rapids, that’s why we haul. 

The Lachine Canal was a busy haul
Ships discharging and loading, wall to wall.
‘Key-boats’ unloading at Cote LaSalle
Grain boats discharging at Cote St. Paul. 

Cote St. Luc, we’re doing fine,
Steel and lumber in a long steady line.
An interesting stretch, all in all,
Right through the heart of ‘Old Montreal’. 

The final two steps through this industrial maze,
We are entering the harbour of the good old days.
The busiest port in the world, at times,
We change our pilot to a man with the ‘fines’. 

Spending time in Montreal
Was a real treat at the end of the haul.
‘Twas time to let loose at the end of the day,
Do your thing, and be on your way. 

The canaler didn’t always stick to canals.
There were many cargoes much further away.
Montreal to the Gulf, there were many small ports,
The cargoes to carry, were many, and all sorts. 

Pulpwood was the favourite, a nice summer’s trip,
Away from the winches, a nice quiet ship.
There was Franquelin and Godbout  and Shelter Bay,
Matane and Rimouski and Anicosti. 

There were whales and dolphins and lots of cod
That played along as the ship did plod.
They followed us east and through to the west
And stopped at Saguenay, where breeding was best. 

Up the Saguenay, is a beautiful run,
A tidal fjord, second to none.
Chicoutimi and Port Alfred, the ports of call
Cargoes bauxite and pulpwood, coke and oil. 

Upbound the St. Lawrence was a very slow grind,
Against the current, and tides,
18-footers to buck and beat
We’ll wait for the flood, in order to compete. 

Three Rivers, Sorel and the Lanore,
We’re back in the harbour, the canal is at bay.
Upbound and loaded, at the grind again,
Extra locks above the Dickinson’s Landing. 

Farran’s Point had a vicious approach,
A powerful eddy, that, I can vouch.
The winches, they danced, the cables they sang,
To get her stopped without a bang. 

The lock at Morrisburg was next in line.
Out of the current, all went fine.
The Morrisburg Canal, was a nice little stretch,
Once at the head, all had breathed a nice breath. 

A pretty good fight in the current to Iroquois
The pilot would cuss if the fireman paused.
But once in the lock, he could swig at his rum,
‘Cause the next lock was Cardinal, and his job was done. 

The store at the end of the canal was a treat.
There was mail and newspapers, and all kinds of sweets.
A toot of the whistle, let’s get under way,
The fuel dock is next, fill her up, it’s a long way. 

The North Channel was a cut to the mainstream again.
Prescott elevator at the head of the chain.
Now we’re all set for the beauty of it all,
The Thousand Islands, beginning at Brockville. 

The Brockville Narrows, a camper’s delight,
But the onslaught of current, we’re in for a fight.
West of the Narrows, a split in the channel –
We had a choice – Canada or U.S. travel. 

It going to Kingston, Canadian was the choice.
Oswego or Rochester, then American the vice.
Whichever the route, the beauty was there
Among the islands for all to share. 

Clayton had a fuel dock, which most ships used.
Also a dock store where duty was abused.
Leaving Clayton, we’re full speed ahead.
Lake Ontario, we could rest in our beds. 

Out of the lake, navigation began,
As pretty soon there is now more land.
Past Duck Islands and Charity Shoal,
Abreast of Pointe Petre, you set your own goal. 

Toronto and Hamilton were well-used ports,
Oswego and Rochester, coal-loading forts.
Port Dalhousie, you go for repairs,
Fort Weller, the entrance to Niagara’s stairs. 

The Welland Canal, a feat of its time,
The height of Niagara Falls is the climb.
Eight locks in all, twinned at the flights,
Port Weller to Port Colborne, Lake Erie in sight. 

Prescott, Kingston and Port Colborne ports,
Were transfer points of grans of sorts.
Wheat, corn and barley, numbered one, two, three.
Oats, rye, flax and soya beans, came next on the tree. 

Although the Upper Lakes are big,
The canalers were there, when business was good.
On all the Lakes, there were ports galore,
And the water was good from shore to shore.

When we got our orders, the Lakehead or Duluth,
I think all hands went through the roof.
Some with glee and some with fright,
A break from the canals was only right. 

Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and the Bay,
Had ports along the shores, all the way.
Traversing the lakes in a strong steel boat,
The ‘Soo’ was next, the St. Mary’s route. 

Sault St. Marie is the last of the lifts.
The locks are parallel for quick transits.
Up through the lock, you’re in Whitefish Bay
Then Lake Superior to Thunder Bay. 

Lake Superior is a most beautiful lake.
The water is cold and very deep.
The surface can be as flat as a pan,
While at other times, doesn’t give a damn. 

Six to eight miles per hour, a canaler’s speed.
The trip was long, but the air was clean.
From Montreal to Lakehead, and back –
You were gone a month on a canaler’s path.

**All information / facts and opinions in these contributions and memories are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the Cornwall Community Museum.

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