Forty Miles of Ice*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Steamer Travel
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“One of the reasons there are so many terms for conditions of ice is that the mariners observing it were often trapped in it, and had nothing to do except look at it.”
~Alec Wilkinson

The scenery just before entering the St Marys River, which unites Lake Huron and Lake Superior, is very fine. As the steamer threaded the group of islands with their high, rocky, picturesquely wooded shores, we were sometimes near enough to distinguish the many varieties of mosses and ferns just springing into life; then, steaming across the rippling water, we reached some point whose distant beauty had made us long to carry away more than a memory of its outlines. And so, winding in and out among the islands of this North American archipelago, we “fetched” the Sault Ste Marie about sunset.

The island-studded northern expanse of Lake Huron is known as Georgian Bay. As the level of Lake Superior is 30 to 40 feet higher than that of Lake Huron, there is a corresponding fall at the head of the St Marys River. This difference of water level prevents direct navigation between the two lakes. Consequently, the Americans have constructed across the extreme northeastern point of the State of Michigan a fine canal, which gives them exclusive possession of the entrance by water to the great inland sea of Lake Superior.

When, in 1870, the Red River Expedition, under Colonel (now General Sir) Garnet Wolseley, sought to make the passage, in several steamboats, to Thunder Bay, the state authorities of Michigan prohibited it. Fortunately, Washington overruled this prohibition, and the expedition was permitted to pass; not, however, until valuable time had been lost. Considering the importance of this canal to Canada, and that at a crisis the United States could close Lake Superior to our vessels of war, I think some steps should be taken by which the two countries would become joint proprietors of the canal, with an equal share in its management at all times.

The “Sault,” as it is generally called, is a pretty little village, situated at the foot of a hill on the north shore of the canal. Having to remain an hour there, we went ashore, up the long straight street, to a frame house, or store, where there was an extensive display of Indian work. Lake Superior and Huron Red Indians are particularly noted for the beauty of their embroidery on skins, silk, birchbark, and cloth, in beads, porcupine quills, or silk. Their imitative genius is so great that the squaws can copy anything, and I know people who have had their crests and coats-of-arms embroidered on their tobacco pouches and belts, from an impression on paper or sealing wax.

Generally the Indians copy flowers and ferns, invent their own patterns, or, what seems even more wonderful, make them by chewing a piece of bark into the form they require—the bark assuming the appearance of a stamped braiding pattern. As the white people put an exorbitant price on the flour and trinkets they give in exchange for the Indians’ work, the latter ask, when selling for money, what seems more than its full value; but many who travel that way, provided with cheap trinkets and gaudy ribbons, get the work cheaply enough.

There is quite a large Roman Catholic church in the village; but we had to be content with a tiptoe peep through its windows, as after the “angelus” [Catholic devotion] the door is locked. There are some small trading stores, a few scattered houses, long, pretty winding roads up the hills, skirted by cozy little farmhouses and wheatfields, and one or two dwellings of more pretension occupied as summer residences by Americans. A little higher up, on the other side of the canal, lie the low white buildings of the American fort. That fortification, with its sentries and the national flag floating over the chief bastion, looked merry enough in the rays of the fast-setting sun.

After remaining several hours to coal, we left the little village in the darkness, and when day dawned, again found ourselves out in the broad waters of Lake Superior—called by the Indians “the Great Sea” (Kichee Kumma). For hours no land was to be seen on either side, but we were visited by two little birds, quivering with cold, weary from their long flight, almost too timid to alight on our boat, yet too tired to resist the resting place. Poor little wanderers! Many a lonely immigrant, who had left all he loved behind to try his fortune in an unknown land, felt sympathy for them.

Seeing nothing but water and sky to interest us, we turned our attention to our fellow passengers. At one end of the long saloon [large comfortable seating area] a zealous Cecilite [cf Plymouth Brethren], the center of a mixed group, was “improving the occasion,” Bible in hand—exhorting his hearers to turn from the error of their ways and denouncing the world and its wickedness, as exemplified in the group of card players close by. Their “I’ll order it up!” “Pass!” “I’ll play it alone!” mingled with the grave accents of the preacher, whose exhortations were answered by shouts of laughter and ringing glee from the other end of the boat, where stood the piano and its satellites.

In vain the poor Cecilite tried “to stem the torrent” of what he considered “Satan’s doings.” His obstinacy and want of tact only increased the mischievous delight of his enemies. At the sides of the saloon [commons] small knots of French Canadians chattered merrily; at the top of the stairs an immigrant or two was allowed to infringe the rule of “no deck passenger,” because of the crowd on board. Poor things! One did not wonder that they escaped gladly from the jarring sounds and offensive smells below.

Early on Saturday morning we passed Silver Islet, that mine of wealth to our neighbors across the line. It lies in an island-dotted bay, and is so covered with mining works that it looks like a pile of buildings rising out of the water. The crushing-mills are on the mainland close by. Silver Islet first belonged to a Canadian company; but from lack of enterprise or capital it was sold to an American company for a nominal sum, and, as is often the case, the sanguine nature of Cousin Jonathan, acting on the motto, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” has been successful, and the company is now (1879) shipping $20,000 worth of silver ore a day. The islet can be visited only by those who have special permission to see the mines and works, or who have friends among the officials, neither of which we had.

The adjacent village, at which the Manitoba stopped, did not look as if times were prosperous. Two smoky little tugs lay idly at the small wharf, and the few red wooden houses built against the rocks, their flat roofs piled up with bales of goods and boxes—the ever-present blue barrels of coal oil being most conspicuous—seemed tenantless.

Leaving Silver Islet far behind, we rounded Whitefish Point, with its tall lighthouse, and saw a distinct mirage—a long stretch of cold blue water, filled with great blocks of ice. It was rather amusing to see the eagerness with which glasses were leveled at the “counterfeit presentment” of a scene, of whose reality we should soon have even too much.

At the entrance of Thunder Bay, we passed Thunder Cape on our right and Pie Island on our left, the former a bold promontory, rising 1,300 feet above the sea level, and wooded with a short stunted growth of bush, principally poplar. Except for its picturesquely-situated lighthouse and log hut, where the keeper lived, no other sign of habitation was visible. Thunder Bay and Cape probably take their names from the fierce and frequent storms that rage there; Pie Island, from the peculiar formation of its northern end.

Passing many rocky islands, with tiny waterfalls zigzaging down their sides, we arrived at “Prince Arthur’s Landing” and walked up the long pier, partly roofed to form a temporary warehouse for a pile of freight, in the teeth of a blistering hot land breeze, which drove the dust in blinding, choking eddies about us. After looking at some specimens of Lake Superior agate, on exhibition in a dusty shop, and buying some lemons at what we thought the exorbitant price of $1.50 a dozen, we were glad to retrace our steps to the steamer, where we found the captain ready and anxious to start.

Half an hour’s steaming brought us to the mouth of the Kaministiquai, or Dog River, and entering it, we were at once in another country. No more dusty road, baked-looking pier, nor begrimed aborigine. Only bright, rippling water, cool green fields, dotted here and there with leafy trees, cattle grazing or lying lazily in their shade, trim fences, long grass-grown country roads, and soon the white walls and flowery garden of Old Fort William, the Hudson Bay Company trading post.

The rockery in the center of the garden would have gladdened the heart of an Ontario gardener. I believe that wealthy people there have had large fragments of Lake Superior rock brought down to adorn their lawns and gardens. We found friends at the fort in the factor [representative] and his family, with whom we spent a pleasant half-hour. Mr McIntyre is well known, and many will owe him gratitude for kindness as long as Old Fort William or the Canada Pacific Railway remains in their memory.

We left Thunder Bay for Duluth [Minnesota] at 3 o’clock. The day had become cloudy, and showers fell all the evening, but not heavily enough to prevent every man, woman, and child from rushing out to “speak” the down-coming boat Ontario, and hear her report on the state of the icefields. She had been six days icebound at Duluth and the answer to our captain’s inquiry was “Forty miles of ice; only one passage. If you hit that, all right; if not, you won’t get through.”

And wishing us luck and good night, with three hearty cheers from either deck, we parted. Naturally anxious as we were for a speedy journey, the possibility of failure in hitting the one open passage lent the additional charm of uncertainty to our voyage—not charming, however, to the poor immigrants whose stock of provisions was too scanty to admit of a long stay on board, while the commissariat [store, shop] of the steamer was not prepared to supply them. Knowing this, the captain—a pleasant, handsome man—quoting “Fortune favors the brave,” put on steam.

By 8 o’clock on Sunday morning we had met great blocks of ice, and grown accustomed to hearing them bump against the side of the boat. Before noon we were well into the icefields, with loose blocks of ice on every side, and a rough surface of piled-up masses as far as the eye could see. Up a narrow strip of blue water we steamed, the passage closing in our wake. Then the way became blocked ahead, while the vessel heeled to one side with a lurch, as a great block went under her keel. The captain held on steadily but slowly, stopping the machinery until a large berg was passed, and taking advantage of an opening created by the waves as they bore the floes on their crests. As the ice blocks closed in behind us, the certainty of being unable to return, and the difficulty of going ahead, gave increased excitement to our adventure.

One of its strangest features was the heat. Though clothed in the lightest summer dresses, we were uncomfortably warm—and this with miles of ice around us! The warm land breeze, and our captain’s promptitude and determination, enabled us to reach Duluth that evening. A change of wind the same night drove the ice back into the bay, and from the hotel windows we saw and commiserated [sympathized with] four vessels locked fast, their crews and passengers suffering from cold and short rations for four days. The change of wind made us thankful for our fur jackets.

Duluth, situated on the rocky north, or Minnesota, shore of the extreme western end of Lake Superior—St Louis Bay—was apparently planned in expectation of its one day becoming the principal center of commerce between America and Canada—in short, the great capital of the Great Lakes. Everything is on a large scale. The streets are broad; the wharves and warehouses extensive; the hotels immense; the customhouse and other public buildings massive and capacious enough to accommodate any number of extra clerks when the rush of business shall come—a rush that is still in the future.

During the day and a half we spent there, the hotel omnibus and one other team were the only locomotives, and a lame man and a water-carrier with a patch over his eye the only dwellers in Duluth we saw, while the people from our boat, it seemed, were the only visitors who woke the echoes in the sleepy place. It was like a city in a fairy tale, over which a spell had been cast; its very cleanliness was depressing, and so suggestive of disuse, that I think a mass of mud scraped off the road might have given some appearance of traffic and life to the scene.

There are people in Duluth, however, though it is difficult to say where they hide themselves, for some of our party went to service in a little church on a hill, and came back charmed with the eloquence of the clergyman and the sweetness of the voices in the quartet choir, to say nothing of several pretty girls they noticed in the congregation. Still, Duluth will always seem to me like a city in a dream. On the opposite, or Wisconsin shore of the lake, is Superior City, a pretty, half-built town, rising slowly into commercial importance. Unfortunately we were unable to cross to it.

I cannot leave Duluth without speaking of the “girls” in the hotel, as they were called, in order not to wound the sensitive democracy of the Yankee nature, which abhors the word servant. There were three in the great dining room, whose superabundance of empty chairs and tables gave even greater dreariness to the house than its long, empty corridors. Pretty fair girls they were, neat in dress, but so tightly laced that it was painful to look at them. Their slow, stiff, automatic movements were suggestive of machinery, and in keeping with the sleepy spell cast over the town. All the lithe, living gracefulness of their figures was destroyed for the sake of drawing in an inch or two of belt. Watching them, I attacked my breakfast with greater energy, to prove to myself that there was something substantial about the premises.

One word respecting the treatment of luggage in that part of the world by porters and officials, whose organ of destructiveness seems abnormally developed. Boxes were thrown pell-mell into the hold, or tossed on end out of high baggage-vans, with such unnecessary violence that nothing less than cases of solid iron or stronger metal could have stood it. Trunks, “stationary” boxes warranted to stand any ill-usage, were cracked and broken; and the poor immigrants’ boxes, of comparatively slight construction, soon became a mass of ruins, with their contents scattered on the ground.

It was the same everywhere—at Duluth, at Glyndon, and at Fisher’s Landing, where we took the Red River boat. At Glyndon half the baggage was piled on an open truck, and the heavy rain we passed through that night completed the ruin the officials began. A member of the Hudson Bay Company, who had traveled a great deal over this continent, said he found it best to carry his baggage in a small hand valise [carryall], or in a large trunk so heavy that it required two men to move it; anything between the two was invariably smashed.

“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what it is built for.” ~Anonymous

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Whitefish Point, Michigan

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 2. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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