Sailing Up the River to Quebec


For several weeks sailing ships battled wind and waves as they made their way across the Atlantic carrying their passengers ever closer to their new home. Finally, making their way towards the mouth of the mighty St. Lawrence River the weary passengers caught the first sight of land since leaving their homes, friends, and families, to settle in a land so very different from what they had known.

Ships continued to sail around the southern tip of Newfoundland and into the relatively narrow forty-two mile passage of Cabot Strait separating Newfoundland from the northern tip of Cape Breton. Although passengers could not view both islands at once, land could be seen on one side of the ship or the other depending on the channel the vessel was using.

Those with access to the deck area hung over the rails gazing hungrily at the rocky shores of Newfoundland.

On approaching the Cape Breton coastline passengers were much gratified to see the gentler, greener, images of Cape Breton.

In early days both islands were sparsely settled, usually with only temporary shelters along the coast where fishermen processed their daily catch and slept in their rustic shelters.


The waters around their vessel were filled with small fishing vessels of various styles and sizes, bobbing about as fishermen went about gathering their catch.

Here the captains of other sailing ships some arriving, but mostly leaving, flew their flags to identify themselves and, if possible, drew near to exchange news. This would be the first word they had received since leaving port.

Once through the strait the ship entered the Gulf of the St. Lawrence the high spirits on board quickly disappeared. The joy felt at the first sighting of land was soon lost as here land was no longer visible and their destination was still many days ahead.

The cold Atlantic waters meeting the warmer waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland tended to create dense fog. The shift of the winds determined where, and how thick, the fog would be. At times it was so dense ships would have to weigh anchor and wait.

Captains were reluctant to weigh anchor and face the grumbling of the impatient passengers at every new delay.

The delay could be considerable, the duration and intensity of the fog a day or more was lost.

Weighing anchor was not just pitching an anchor overboard. The procedure was a long, laborious, procedure taking four or more hours involving several sailors manning the ropes and pulleys to ease the anchor down. Raising the anchor was the same procedure in reverse.

A much happier occurrence in this area was the sight of other ships, some heading home, fishing vessels from the French Islands of St Pierre and Miquelon. The ships passed close enough there was an exchange of news between the captains wouldn’t convey conditions ahead and possibly the latest news. When approaching another vessel, they always raise their flights to identify themselves. Often times captains of various ships would recognize an acquaintance’s flag and the ship would heave to near enough to shut greetings and exchange news. To people who have been at sea for too long month contact with other human beings was a great relief.

After making its way slowly through the Cabot Strait the ship proceeded towards Cape Ray and Cape North where the Isle of St. Paul, actually a huge rock rising from the water, divided to form three conical peaks. The water on either side of the island was it deep enough for ships to pass through but passage was difficult and there were many shipwrecks in this area.

Remnants of these disasters, including human bones, was visible to those on board the SS Lively. Not a very and heartening site.

As the Lively continued on its way towards the mouth of the St Lawrence the monotony of life on board the little ship would occasionally be broken by the glimpse of a distant shore or even small ‘islands’ that were in reality huge rocks jutting out of the water. At this time of the year these rocks were home to thousands of large white sea birds called gannets. Here they built their nests every spring and spent the summer fishing in the Gulf waters coming back to nest on the rocks at nightfall.

Smaller birds would also have entertained the passengers. They followed passing ships crying for bits of food to be thrown away. Incoming ships like the Lively would be poor pickings compared to those heading out but the birds were ever hopeful as they flew and squawked behind the ship.


Miramachi Settlement
Hervey Smyth

Miramachi, on the shore of what became New Brunswick, on a clear day might have been visible from the deck of a passing boat. Although this might seem a very primitive settlement, in 1811 when the first settlers were coming to the Canadas, the Miramichi had been settled by Europeans for 163 years. The Mi’kmaq nation had long been in the area previous to the arrival of the French.

After the Treaty of Paris, 1765 – 1800 many Scottish immigrants settled in Miramichi. Irish immigrants began arriving in 1815.

Ship building and the export of lumber dated back to 1765. This industry suffered greatly when steel hulled ships replaced wooden hulls, as well as when over cutting of the white pine greatly depleted the forests. The great fire of 1825 was another blow to this production.

The Magdalen Islands on the port side were much more visible to passing ships. Although there was no farming done on this isolated cluster of small islands the dwellings of a few fishermen and their families were visible from the decks of the many vessels sailing through the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.

Sailors were known to be very enthusiastic tour guides pointing out the landmarks as S S Lively proceeded towards their destination of Quebec City.

Occasionally the passengers would be able to catch a glimpse of a distant shore or even small ‘islands’ that were in reality huge rocks jutting out of the water. In early July these rocks would be home to literally thousands of large white sea birds called gannets. They built their nests here every spring and spent the summer fishing in the Gulf waters coming back to nest on the rocks at nightfall.

The Gaspé not only had fishermen settled along its banks but there were shipyards scattered along the coast, as well.

Continuing on, the shores of the Gaspé Peninsula drew ever nearer as ships slipped past the south side of Anticosti Island which divided the entrance to the St Lawrence River. The south channel was used as it was wider and better sailing than the northern channel. Here it is about 90 miles across between Cap Rosier on the tip of the Gaspé and the nearest shores of Anticosti Island which was uninhabited at this time. In winter it was used by a native tribe for hunting but none actually lived there.

If the winds were favourable this trajectory of the Gulf of St Lawrence to the mouth of the river would take about twenty four hours. Bad weather could delay the progress for days.


Gaspé Bay
Hervey Smyth

Gaspé Bay was known as the cradle of New France. It was here in 1534 that Jacques Cartier, having put ashore due to stormy weather, raised a cross and claimed the land for France.

The area was sparsely settled with about 300 fishermen along the banks of the river. In 1758 General Wolfe raided this area in an attempt to demoralize the people into surrendering to the British. In this he was not successful, however the Treaty of Paris in 1763 saw it under British rule. In the interest of laying claim to their new land, the British were anxious to see this area settled by their own citizens. British officers and soldiers were given grants of land and encouraged to establish in the Gaspé. The newcomers soon had an important fishing industry, mostly cod but salmon and herring, as well.

Ten years later, in 1773, there was a thriving ship building industry as well as an important lumber export business in the Gaspé. The year 1784 saw the arrival of several United Empire Loyalists to the areaIn 1804 the first post office was opened in Gaspé.

Although finally sailing in the mighty St. Lawrence River, there was still another 400 miles to go before arriving at Quebec City. The trip up the the river could take as much as two weeks depending on the weather.

The current often negated the wind power and sudden storms and violent wind squalls tended to cause frequent, frustrating delays. At times sail boats were completely stilled, at other times the wind was so ferocious they had to weigh anchor to avoid being thrust upon the rocks or islands that dotted the river. In certain places, due to narrow passages, hidden rocks, fickle shoals, or devilish currents, captains of vessels going upstream were required to take on special pilots to guide them through the water.


Percé Rock Hervey Smyth

Ships sailed near enough to this already well known phenomenon for passengers to catch a good view of Percé Rock which jutted out into the Gulf. Its majestic appearance with the intriguing holes was the subject of many articles on travel as well as seen in paintings and drawings. In 1607 Samuel de Champlain, the first known European to see this rock, had described it in his log a hundred years earlier.

As the river gradually narrowed the passengers could enjoy the scenery on the shore from both sides of the ship. And what a view it was! The thick green forests of the mountains coming down to meet the river as it flowed past, sparkling and dancing on sunny days, or dark and threatening in foul weather.

There was little or no settlement on the banks of the lower St. Lawrence River but as the river continued to narrow and the Saguenay River came rushing into it, small settlements came into view. On the north shore the settlements were mostly to do with the fur trade or fishing. The south shore was spotted with farms running back from the river. There were also a few small shipyards along both coasts. Tadoussac was already established as a harbour for ships and port of entry for the Saguenay River.

At LaMalbaie there was another kind of settlement. Every spring fishermen trapped porpoises to extract the oil that was in great demand. This was a very lucrative business. One could get as much as a barrel of oil from even the smallest porpoise.They also caught seals and sea cows for the fisheries. Rough buildings to house the land operations and work crew of this industry were to be seen scattered around the bay.

Porpoises were still plentiful in 1811 and they would follow the ships on the river, racing and playing around the vessels as they proceeded upstream much to the delight of passengers, especially the younger members. Sometimes the porpoises travelled as far as Ile d’Orleans seeming to welcome the new comers.

Some forty miles farther upstream Les Eboulements came into view. These huge masses of rock came jutting out into the sea several hundred feet in height seeming to stand guard over the river.

On the south shore the town of Kamarouska nestled on the riverbank. Farm houses, side by side, faced onto the river which was still the main means of travel for the settlers. This little town with its white washed buildings contrasting with the green of the fields and the dark forested mountains rising behind, was the first promise of real civilization. In the village houses and commercial buildings clustered around the church with its white spire pointing skyward.

From here on, the south shore was completely settled by farms that grew ever more fertile as the river advanced to the interior. These farms, settled under the French Regime in the Seigniorial system, were long and narrow, the fields stretching back from the river. The settlers were still mostly of French descent.

In early the summer season the many sailing vessels heading upstream passed along fields lush with green grass and grain, with cattle grazing contentedly in the pastures.

A scarce twenty miles further Ile aux Oies lies off the south shore, a little island about seven miles long and three miles at its widest. As the name indicates, this was a nesting place for wild geese whose activities could be seen from on board ship. The sight of thousands of these magnificent white birds flying and honking as they went about their business was a very impressive sight indeed.

Here there was a settlement of about thirty families. They lived off the land, logging, farming, and fishing. The buildings and fields of this island were visible from the ship’s deck.

The St. Lawrence River gradually loses its salt as the river penetrates further inland the water becomes fresh.

La Traverse, a little further upstream, was considered the most hazardous part of the journey. A local pilot had to be taken on to guide the ship through this channel. This could delay the arrival at Quebec City for a few hours or even a day, depending on the availability of a pilot.

Immediately after Ile aux Oies, Ile d’Orléans came into view. The river having narrowed considerably, the island almost blocks the river on the north channel.

Only very small vessels could use this north channel. The usual practice was to use the south channel. As they eased their way through this passage, they had a close view of island life.


Ile d’Orléans
Thomas Davies

Ile d’Orleans presented a picturesque view rising from steep banks in some places, a more gradual ascent in others. It was divided into five parishes, St. Pierre and Ste. Famille on the north, St. Francis, St. John, and St. Laurent on the south. About 2000 people lived on the island.

Typical of the French settlements, the farms were on narrow lots with houses sitting relatively to the other facing along the waterfront. These houses appear to be made of stone although the majority of homes on the island were constructed of wood.

Ile d’Orléans was one of the earliest and most densely populated settlements in New France. It was also the most fertile area providing food for Quebec City and the surrounding area. Most of the farmers on the island were descendants of the original owners. Today this is still true.

Farmers brought their produce the mile across the river on barge or by boat. During the winter months when the river was frozen they they crossed on what was called the pont.

A few years earlier, for two consecutive years, a plague of grasshoppers had ravished the island but by 1811 it was once again thriving and supplying the Quebec City region with its produce.

While Ile d’Orleans was known as the breadbasket of the Quebec City area, surrounded by water, they also profited from the river’s bounty. Eel traps are seen set out along the shore.


Quebec City Seen from Levi

The sail boats rounded the end of the island, here, at last, was Quebec City!