A bigger canal for bigger boats!

Following the American Revolution and until the turn of the 19th century, the arrival of the Loyalists significantly spurred trade between Upper and Lower Canada. Since these trades were largely done by waterways, the increased volume of goods in transit forced the British to use increasingly larger batteaux, such as the Durham boat.

The first St. Lawrence canals designed to let batteaux pass through were too narrow and shallow to accommodate the new boats. To solve this problem, between 1814 and 1817 the British government allocated considerable funds to enlarge the canals.

The Durham boat

The Durham boat, of American origins, was introduced in Canada around 1810. This flat-bottomed boat, with a low draught, could get past rapids and shoals without running aground. Equipped with a steering oar, the Durham had no keel or centreboard. Nevertheless, it navigated with ease on the turbulent waters in North America. The Durham boat was propelled by oars to navigate downstream and by poles to navigate upstream. The crewmen were able to hoist the sail only when they navigated leeward.

The Durham boat measured up to 27.4 m long by 3.65 m wide and could carry ten times more merchandise than the flat batteau. Four to five men were enough to sail down the St. Lawrence River, whereas about ten men were required to sail upstream. The men slept on the deck under tarps. The Captain was the only person who had a small cabin to sleep in, which was at the back of the boat. The maximum carrying capacity of a Durham boat was 350 barrels of flour or 35 tons. In 1835, around 800 Durham boats were used to transport goods on the St. Lawrence River. Its mast was ten to twelve metres tall. Installed above the deck, it could be folded down easily without displacing the cargo, when passing underneath a canal bridge. Once inside the canal, men towed the boat with ropes for it to cross the locks.

Opened to navigation in 1781, it was not until the War of 1812 that the Coteau-du-Lac Canal reached its peak. Boats headed towards the Great Lakes transported food, spirits, agricultural equipment, hardware, clothes, and tools intended for the Loyalists living in the Upper St. Lawrence. In return, they sent their surplus wheat, flour, potash, pork, and lumber back to Montréal.

Did you know? The Durham boat was equipped with a foldable mast allowing it to pass underneath fixed bridges? In Coteau-du-Lac, this feature was essential since the top end of the locks’ gate-posts were attached together with a crossbar which significantly limited air draught.

“All the boatmen sang in time with the oars. The French traveller Marmier described them in 1850,

‘[…] I doubt that any other river has heard as many professions of love as the St. Lawrence; for no Canadian boatman has gone up or down it without repeating at every splashing stroke of his oars, this national refrain : it’s been a long time that I’ve love thee, never shall I thee forget’” (E.A Talbot, 1824)