From Mrs. Simcoe to Charles Dickens: A Few Early Grenville County Travel Accounts

With warmer weather ahead and the end of another school season at our doorstep, I’ve started thinking again about how Upper Canada’s first settlers travelled and how they spent their holidays.

My experience as an interpreter reminds me that family holidays were not taken during the summer months, but during the Christmas season and winter months of the New Year when the fields lay sleeping. Travelling during the winter along the rudimentary roadways of Upper Canada was so much easier – no mud, ruts, mosquitos, dust, or blistering heat. A sleigh ride across a frozen waterway or through a few fields was a quick way to travel, and with the help of a few fur blankets, warm bricks, and small foot stoves, one could keep quite warm.

Elizabeth Graves Simcoe_Toronto Public LIbrary

An early account by Elizabeth Graves Simcoe, in 1795, tells us the following:

A great deal of snow fell these days, and the inhabitants endeavoured to persuade the Governor not to set out until the snow was beaten; but a gentleman residing with us had business at Kingston, and assured the Governor it would be excellent travelling. So we set off at eight, and met two Mr. Jones’, who were coming to request the Governor not to undertake the journey yet. When they found him determined to proceed, they said they would go also, to beat the way and to hasten our journey; they took us into their lighter carriages, or we never should have got on, the snow was so heavy. We stopped at another Jones’, where there was the largest wood fire I ever saw; he also set out to beat the road, and so did other people. One gentleman came some miles below Oswegatchie (Ogdensburg) for that purpose, and with this assistance, we went 19 miles to Mr. Jessup’s house in the woods (Prescott), where we slept…

In Statistical Account of Upper Canada compiled with a view to a Grand System of Emigration, 1822, Robert Gourlay presents an early opinion on the important role Prescott was about to play in travel and shipping along the St. Lawrence River:

Attempts, nevertheless, are in operation, to establish depots above the upper rapids, at Ogdensburgh on the right bank, and Johnstown and Prescott on the left bank, with a view to make those places, instead of Kingston, the head of the Montreal Boat navigation. Of the practicability and the eventual success of these experiments various opinions are formed, according to the different interests and views of those who reason on the subject. The application of the principle of steam, to the navigation of the river and the lake, may operate essentially in favour of the lower ports…Prescott, a village in Augusta, opposite to Ogdensburgh, is beginning to vie with that place in exertions to obtain the forwarding business of the Montreal boats, and the vessels of the lake. Although it is not so low down as Johnstown, it has a bolder shore.

In Forest Scenes and Incidents, in the wilds of North America being a diary of a winter’s route from Halifax to the Canadas, Sir George Head writes about visiting Prescott in the winter of 1829:

The river here, about half a mile wide, was frozen quite across. Some people at the inn were conversing on the subject of a lot of cattle which had been stolen, and which it seemed certain had been driven over the ice to the American side.

Thomas Burrowes_Prescott 1830s_Archives of Ontario

By 1832, Prescott had become a busy stopping place. According to Rev. Isaac Fidler in Observations on Professions, Literature, Manners and Emigration in the United States and Canada:

To descend the rapids was recommended in preference, as being speedier and easier than travelling by coach; for roads in Canada, like those in the States, are not always smooth. The rapids also afford a species of navigation, combining rapidity and safety to a degree not known on any other river in the world…The river had been recently freed from hibernal obstructions. No boats had ascended to Montreal; and few of those belonging to Prescott were remaining. There was one, however, about to descend immediately, considerably laden, and with three passengers, previous to our application…I perceived that this rivertar was already satisfied with his freight, and therefore returned to the inn; but the other unadmitted passengers remained by the boatman, cheapening his fare. Suddenly pushing off his boat, he laughed in their faces, and wished them a pleasant journey.

Thomas William Magrath dedicates several letters to a July 1833 trip from Montreal to Toronto in Authentic Letters from Upper Canada:

Prescott is the first town we have entered in the Canadas where any attempt has been made at a flag-way in the streets. The improvement is most striking; – but we had not time to avail ourselves of it, farther than in proceeding to the steamboat for York, the morning after our arrival. At this time, from the dread of cholera, all the steamers have medical men on board. Ours was a Canadian, a very elegant young man of Irish extraction, his parents from the north of Ireland…

Finally, in American Notes, Charles Dickens describes his 1842 trip through the area, as follows:

We left Kingston for Montreal on the tenth of May, at half-past nine in the morning, and proceeded in a steamboat down the St. Lawrence river. The beauty of this noble stream at almost any point, but especially in the commencement of this journey when it winds its way among the thousand Islands, can hardly be imagined. The number and constant successions of these islands, all green and richly wooded; their fluctuating sizes, some so large that for half an hour together one among them will appear as the opposite bank of the river, and some so small that they are mere dimples on its broad bosom; their infinite variety of shapes; and the numberless combinations of beautiful forms which the trees growing on them present: all form a picture fraught with uncommon interest and pleasure.

In the afternoon we shot down some rapids where the river boiled and bubbled strangely, and where the force and headlong violence of the current were tremendous. At seven o’clock we reached Dickenson’s Landing, whence travellers proceed for two or three hours by stage-coach: the navigation of the river being rendered so dangerous and difficult in the interval, by rapids, that steamboats do not make the passage.

Durham Boats_Pioneers of Old Ontario

In the 1830s to 1850s, before the building of the railroad, some 10,000 to 35,000 immigrants made their way annually, in boats, up the St. Lawrence River – many stopping in Prescott – on their way to new lives in Toronto and other areas of Upper Canada.



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