Brig Laurel, St. Laurence, below Montreal,
August 17, 1832
IT was after sunset, and a glorious evening, when we left Quebec, which we did in company with a fine steam-vessel, whose decks and gallery were crowded with passengers of all descriptions. A brave sight she was to look upon; ploughing the bright waters which foamed and sung beneath her paddles; while our brig, with her white sails, followed like a butterfly in her wake. The heavens were glowing with the richest tints of rose and saffron, which were reflected below on the bosom of the river; and then came forth the stars, in the soft blue ether, more brilliant than ever I saw them at home, and this, I suppose, I may attribute to the superior purity of the atmosphere. My husband said this evening resembled the sunsets of Italy.
Our voyage has proved a very pleasant one; the weather moderately warm, and the air quite clear. We have within the last few days emerged from a cold, damp atmosphere, such as we often experience in Britain in the spring, to a delightful summer, moderated by light breezes from the river.
The further we advance up the country the more fertile it appears. The harvest is ripening under a more genial climate than that below Quebec. We see fields of Indian corn in full flower: it is a stately-looking crop, with its beautiful feathery top tinted with a rich purple hue, below which tufts of pale green silk are waving in the breeze. When fully ripe they tell me it is beautiful to see the golden grain bursting from its silvery sheath; but that it is a crop liable to injury from frost, and has many enemies, such as bears, racoons, squirrels, mice, fowls, &c.
We saw several fields of tobacco along the banks of the river, which looked healthy and flourishing. I believe tobacco is cultivated to some extent in both provinces; but the Canadian tobacco is not held in such high esteem as that of Virginia.
There is a flourishing and very pretty town situated at the junction of the Richelieu river with the St. Laurence, formerly called Sorel, now called Fort William Henry. The situation is excellent. There are several churches, a military fort, with mills, and other public buildings, with some fine stone houses. The land, however, in the immediate vicinity of the town seems very light and sandy.
I was anxious to obtain a near view of a log-house or a shanty, and was somewhat disappointed in the few buildings of this kind that I saw along the banks of the river. It was not the rudeness of the material so much as the barn-like form of the buildings of this kind, and the little attention that paid to the picturesque, that displeased me. In Britain even the peasant has taste enough to plant a few roses or honeysuckles about his door or his casement, and there is the little bit of garden enclosed and neatly kept; but here no such attempt is made to ornament the cottages. We saw no smiling orchard or grove to conceal the bare log walls; and as to the little farm-houses, they are uglier still, and look so pert and ungraceful stuck upon the bank close to the water's edge.
Further back a different style of building and cultivation appears. The farms and frame-houses are really handsome places, and in good taste, with clumps of trees here and there to break the monotony of the clearing. The land is nearly one unbroken level plain, apparently fertile and well farmed, but too flat for fine scenery. The country between Quebec and Montreal has all the appearance of having been under a long state of cultivation, especially on the right bank of the river. Still there is a great portion of forest standing which it will take years of labour to remove.
We passed some little grassy islands on which there were many herds of cattle feeding. I was puzzling myself to know how they got there, when the captain told me it was usual for farmers to convey their stock to these island pastures in flat-bottomed boats, or to swim them, if the place was fordable, and leave them to graze as long as the food continued good. If cows are put on an island within a reasonable distance of the farm, some person goes daily in a canoe to milk them. While he was telling me this, a log-canoe with a boy and a stout lass with tin pails, paddled across from the bank of the river, and proceeded to call together their herd.
We noticed some very pleasant rural villages to the right as we advanced, but our pilot was stupid, and could not, or would not tell their names. It was Sunday morning, and we could just hear the quick tinkling of the church bells, and distinguish long lines of caleches, light waggons, with equestrians and pedestrians hastening along the avenue of trees that led to the churchyard; besides these, were boats and canoes crossing the river, bound to the same peaceful haven.
In a part of the St. Laurence, where the channel is rendered difficult by shoals and sand-banks, there occur little lighthouses, looking somewhat like miniature watermills, on wooden posts, raised above the flat banks on which they are built. These droll little huts were inhabited, and we noticed a merry party, in their holiday clothes, enjoying a gossip with a party in a canoe below them. They looked clean and smart, and cheerful enough, but I did not envy them their situation, which I should think far from healthy.
Some miles below Montreal the appearance of the country became richer, more civilized, and populous; while the distant line of blue mountains, at the verge of the horizon, added an interest to the landscape. The rich tint of ripened harvest formed a beautiful contrast with the azure sky and waters of the St. Laurence. The scenery of the river near Montreal is of a very different character to that below Quebec; the latter possesses a wild and rugged aspect, and its productions are evidently those of a colder and less happy climate. What the former loses in grandeur and picturesque effect, it gains in fertility of soil and warmth of temperature. In the lower division of the province you feel that the industry of the inhabitants is forcing a churlish soil for bread; while in the upper, the land seems willing to yield her increase to a moderate exertion. Remember, these are merely the cursory remarks of a passing traveller, and founded on no personal experience.
There was a feeling of anxiety and dread upon our minds that we would hardly acknowledge to each other as we drew near to the city of the pestilence, as if ashamed of confessing a weakness that was felt; but no one spoke on the subject. With what unmixed delight and admiration at any other time should we have gazed on the scene that opened upon us.
The river here expands into a fine extensive basin, diversified with islands, on the largest of which Montreal is situated.
The lofty hill from which the town takes its name rises like a crown above it, and forms a singular and magnificent feature in the landscape, reminding me of some of the detached hills in the vicinity of Inverness.
Opposite to the Quebec suburbs, just in front of the rapids, is situated the island of St. Helens, a spot of infinite loveliness. The centre of it is occupied by a grove of lofty trees, while the banks, sloping down to the water, seem of the most verdant turf. The scene was heightened by the appearance of the troops which garrison the island.
The shores of the river, studded with richly cultivated farms; the village of La Prairie, with the little island of St. Ann's in the distance; the glittering steeples and roofs of the city, with its gardens and villas, -- looked lovely by the softened glow of a Canadian summer sunset.
The church bells ringing for evening prayer, with the hum of voices from the shore, mingled not inharmoniously with the rush of the rapids.
These rapids are caused by a descent in the bed of the river. In some places this declination is gradual, in others sudden and abrupt. Where the current is broken by masses of limestone or granite rock, as at the Cascades, the Cedars, and the Long Sault, it creates whirlpools and cataracts. But the rapids below Montreal are not of this magnificent character, being made perceptible only by the unusual swiftness of the water, and its surface being disturbed by foam, and waving lines and dimples. In short, I was disappointed in my expectation of seeing something very grand; and was half angry at these pretty behaved quiet rapids, to the foot of which we were towed in good style by our faithful consort the British America.
As the captain is uncertain how long he may be detained at Montreal, I shall send this letter without further delay, and write again as soon as possible.