A Harrowing Adventure up the St. Lawrence Rapids in 1833


Rapids West of Montreal, Quebec

Rapids West of Montreal, Quebec

David Cragg climbed aboard a decrepit Durham boat at Montreal with his exhausted family  in June, 1833. His final destination was York–present day Toronto, Ontario–a hard week’s journey away. They, along with scores of other beleaguered travellers still had to face the La Chine and Cascade Rapids.

David and his family had journeyed long and far, setting sail from England over two and a half months earlier upon an emigrant packet sail ship.  They had survived stormy seas, violent winds, rogue waves, cramped quarters, rationed food, and foul water.

But their perilous trip was far from over. The treacherous La Chine and Cascade Rapids west of Montreal awaited…

Navigation Plaque at the La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

Navigation Plaque at the La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

I visited the La Chine Rapids west of Montreal in August 2009. Several things struck me as I walked the banks of the St. Lawrence River:

    • There were no fences or guard rails to keep people (including curious children!) from toppling into the Rapids should they get too close.
    • The written history of the area along a marked trail stated steamship travel didn’t attempt the Rapids until the 1840s, at least seven years after David made his voyage. David and his fellow travellers truly were pioneers.
    • I had underestimated the ferocity of the rapids. The water not only babbled, it swirled. There was a ferocious undercurrent – its desire to churn and flip anything that got in its way as it rushed over the huge shale and granite rocks. The Quebec people referred to emigrant ships as having to deal with the “Confrontation of the Rapids.” I couldn’t imagine any ship navigating such precarious waters, or how naive (and courageous!) emigrants would have been to so willingly take them on.
Navigation Plaque at the La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

Navigation Plaque at the La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

    David writes of “Confronting the Rapids”:

“June 6th, 1833, Thursday – We went out of the canal into the river and was attached to the “Henry Brougham” steamer along with 12 other Durhams. Made me think of Gulliver carrying away the fleet of the Liliputians.

“The steamer took us 24 miles up to the rapids. Then we had to pass around other rapids as we went along. A great number of passengers were ordered out on shore to lighten the vessel. We struck upon a sand bank about four o’clock. We was fast upon one rock for an hour. Seven sailors, ten horses and 40 passengers going on foot. The St. Lawrence is a test of navigation. The day was very hot, the country land good.”

Then, the next day, he writes of the Cascade Rapids further up the St. Lawrence River:

Confronting the La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

Confronting the La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

“June 7th, Friday – A very fine day, hot. Hauling up the river St. Lawrence Cascade rapids. Got fast upon the rocks every now and then. When not balanced the captain tumbled our boxes about as he thought fit, much to our displeasure. Our sailors all Irish. We are not very desirous of a long voyage in this vessel but it is what we must endure for a few days at any rate. From Montreal 120 miles. Afternoon we have been upon the rocks or aground three times more. Horses stalled and we backed into one impediment three times for want of proper management of the horses and sailors. One of them lost his staff twice in the critical point. I think the captain is ignorant of the river. They are many islands in the river St. Lawrence.”

La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

And this, a few hours later:

 “If we had got to _______ (illegible writing) at night we should meet a steamer to tow us forward 36 miles to Cornwall but we got fast upon the rocks and aground two times and one time took two hours to get off so we did not get up in time. We got about five miles today for seven sailors and ten horses and putting 30 passengers on shore to walk.”

David sums up his harrowing trek up the St. Lawrence rapids a couple days later when he writes:

“June 8th, Saturday – It was after midnight when we got to Cornwall. The vessel sprung a leak by beating on the rocks.”

And this:

“June 9th, Sunday – Nippy and cold. We had some heavy rain this morning. Our hammock got wet and we had an uncomfortable night and sleeping little and are quite too many for the room appointed for us and cannot properly lay down in any sort decent. We are getting on in having changed vessels we make worse and worse so that I am of the opinion at this time if the next change is for the worse again we shall be in the place the parsons talk so much about as likely to be inhabited by transgressors but at present we are pumped by a dose of cold water in plenty to our dissatisfaction.”

La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

A sure sign people were fed up with travelling up the St. Lawrence is described by David when one of his own sons deserts the boat:

“Isaac Cragg (David’s son) and Thomas Willson set off this morning to walk by the road to Prescot 50 or 60 miles. They being sick of our quarters upon the Durham in the rapids of the river St. Lawrence as they can readily walk it in two days and by the river we take three times that long…”

Their last encounter with rapids occurs after leaving Cornwall, making their way to Prescot.

“June 10th, Monday – Cold day. Some rain at times overcast. We got under way by four this morning. We had a great struggle in getting up the emigrants and their beds to make way for placing a post to drag the boat by shore. Women and children, beds and bedding in heaps together without regard for decency or time to get out of the way.”

11 o’clock – “We came at some strong rapids and we were all obliged to get out and walk. Myself, son David and Robert Standing walked on the road many miles.”

La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

La Chine Rapids west of Montreal

When I read about the harrowing experiences of folk who risked life and limb to start new lives in the New World, I am truly humbled. I suspect I wouldn’t have been so committed to such a journey. I may have accepted my dreary lot in life back in the Old Country, and lived a meagre life, out of fear of the unknown. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the countless hundreds of thousands – my ancestors included – who dared make the trek across the sea to tame the Wilds of Canada.

To the David Craggs of the world, I tip my hat in humility and awe. Thank you for venturing forth.

3 comments for “A Harrowing Adventure up the St. Lawrence Rapids in 1833

  1. Theresa Cragg
    May 20, 2016 at 11:28 am

    I am Theresa E. Cragg, a descendant of David Cragg. How can I get a copy of his diary? I am 64 years old, David’s age when he left England, and I cannot imagine leaving my home, traveling, with children, by ship across the ocean and starting life anew in a foreign land! What a courageous man!

    • May 20, 2016 at 9:15 pm

      Nice to hear from you, Theresa. I agree. David Cragg was a very courageous man. The copy of David’s diary that I have is quite marked up from reading it several times and making lots of notes. I’ll try to find someone who can make a fresh copy for you. If I can, I’ll e-mail them your contact details. Here’s hoping! Take care, Barbara

  2. Eric Johnstone
    October 4, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    I am working on a family, husband, wife and six children, who are travelling the same route from Montreal to Cornwall in 1835. I found the story about travelling the rapids in Durham boats very revealing and helpful to the story I am writing.

    Thank you.

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