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Robert Whyte's 'The Journey Of An Irish Coffin Ship, 1847', Chapter 13
Sail on, sail on, thou fearless bark,
Wherever blows the welcome wind;
It cannot lead to scenes more dark
More sad than those we leave
Monday, 2 August
It was indeed with gratefulness to the Almighty for having preserved me scatheless in the midst of the dread pestilence that I left Grosse Isle, and a more beautiful panorama I never beheld than the country through which we passed - the churches of St Thomas and St Pierre's, surrounded by handsome cottages and beautiful fields. On our right, Isle Madame, the largest of the numerous islands that clustered in the centre of the river, embosomed in the mighty steam beyond which rose Cap Tourment with the village of St Joachim at its base. And Mount St Anne, sheltering its village also - both of these lofty hills being of a deep purple hue. At sunset, we had reached the eastern extremity of the Isle of Orleans and an hour after, dropped anchor before St Francois, a sweet village composed of quaint looking cottages whose walls were as white as snow with red roofs, bright yellow doors and green Venetian window blinds. Such was the universal style, all of them appearing as if they had been newly painted. We again set sail soon after daybreak this morning with a breeze against us which compelled us to tack about. I did not regret this as I had many near views of the southern bank of the river and of the beautiful shore of Orleans Island with its luxuriant orchards and well cultivated farms flopping down to the water's edge, and dark forest upon the crest of its elevated interior. This fine island, which is 20 miles in length and 5 in width, is divided into five parishes and has a population of 5,000 Canadians. While it is an object of the greatest beauty, it is at the same time of great usefulness - affording shelter to the harbour of Quebec on the east side and producing large supplies of fruits and vegetables of the finest description. The northern shore consists of low and marshy beaches that abound with game. It is surprising that there is no regular communication between the island and the city during the summer season, but in winter it is easy of access over the frozen river when the inhabitants convey their produce to market. When Cartier visited it in the year 1535, the island was covered with vines, on which account he called it the Isle of Bacchus. It was on it also that Wolfe took up his quarters previous to the attack upon Quebec. At 8 a.m. we passed St Vallier and St John's; the latter upon the island consisting of entirely white cottages which are chiefly inhabited by the branch pilots upwards of 250 of whom find lucrative employment in the river navigation during the season, enabling them and their families to live comfortably through the long winter in which they are unemployed. At noon, we dropped anchor again before St Michel's, where we lay until 6 p.m. when we once more renewed our tacks, passing the sheltered cove called Patrick's hole, in which a fine ship rode previous to leaving port for sea. This little natural harbour is very valuable as it securely shelters vessels that arrive before the winter's ice is sufficiently broken up to allow them to gain the city. At Anseau Maraud which is adjacent, there were launched, in the year 1824, two enormous ships- the Columbus and the Baron of Renfrew - which were built with the intention of being broken up in England, the projectors thinking thereby to save the duty on the timber of which they were constructed. But their object was frustrated by the decision that a voyage should previously be made out of an English port. The Columbus traversed the Atlantic and returned in safety but was wrecked upon her second voyage. The Baron, in whose construction 6,000 tons of timber were consumed, was 309 feet long and of proportionate breadth. She sailed for London on 25 August 1825 with a cargo (it is said of 10,000 tons) of lumber, her four masts crowded with sails, and followed down the river by a fleet of steamers and pleasure yachts. After a voyage of 50 days she arrived at Dover where she took on board both deal and river pilots but, her draft of water being 30 feet, she could not be taken through the queen's channel which is safe for ships of war. She was therefore obliged to remain outside of the Goodwin sands, near the entrance of the king's channel. Having encountered a violent gale, she grounded upon the Long sands but was got off on the following day. She safely rode out a second gale upon 19 October but successive storms and strong northerly winds eventually drove her upon the Flemish banks and, after being buffeted for several weeks by the waves, she was shattered to atoms; the fragments of the wreck and her cargo being wafted along the coast from Calais to Ostend. Such was the history of these monster ships whose ill fortune deterred Canadian builders from again constructing such unwieldy vessels. We next passed Beaumont where the south bank becomes elevated, increasing in height to Point Levi, the tin spire of whose church was visible, and on Orleans Island, St Famille. The magnificent fall of Montmorenci then was revealed to view, in a sheet of tumbling snow-white foam, set between the dark green banks covered with fir and other trees. As we approached nearer, the low thundering sound of the 'many waters' broke on the ear, which died away as we sailed upon the other tack, and night spread its curtain over the splendid picture when we reached the mouth of the St Charles River where we dropped anchor.
Tuesday 3 August
I was charmed with the splendid prospect I enjoyed this Morning when I came on deck. The harbour was thickly covered with vessels, many of them noble ships of the largest class. The city upon the side of Cape Diamond, with its tincovered dome and spires sparkling in the morning sun and surrounded by its walls and batteries bristling with cannon, was crowned by the impregnable citadel, while a line of villages spread along the northern shore reaching to Beauport and Montmorenci. The lofty Mount St Anne bounding the view upon the east. Opposite the city lay Point Levi with the village of D'Aubigne. Crossing the river were steam ferryboats, horse-boats and canoes and up the stream, far as the eye could reach, the banks were lined by wharves and timber ponds while the breeze wafted along a fleet of bateaux with great white sails, and numberless pilot boats were in constant motion. We could not go ashore, neither dare any one come on board until we were discharged from quarantine by the harbour master and medical inspector. These functionaries approached us in a long six-oared boat with the Union Jack flying in her stern. When they came on board they demanded the ship's papers and clean bills of health which the captain gave them, in return for which he received a release from quarantine. Soon after they left us, a butcher brought us fresh meat, milk, eggs and vegetables to which we did ample justice at breakfast, when I went with the captain on shore. tremained with the brig during her stay in Quebec harbour land sailed in her for Montreal on the evening of Thursday, 5 August. We were towed up the river by a steamboat and by daylight the following morning were passing the mouth of the river Batiscan. The sail during the day was extremely pleasing; true the St Lawrence did not present the same grand features as below Quebec but there was something of exceeding interest or beauty to be seen every moment. The banks varied in height but did not gain any great elevation and were lined by an almost unbroken chain of settlements, with villages upon either side at intervals of about 10 miles. At noon we sailed by Trois Rivieres upon the River St Maurice which divides into three branches before it empties itself into the St Lawrence, forming two pretty islands connected with each other and the mainland by three handsome bridges. A couple of hours brought us into Lake St Peter which is an extension of the river and of intricate navigation, affording but a narrow channel which is marked out by buoys and beacons. Towards its western extremity it is full of low, marshy islands surrounded by rushes, between which lies the winding passage. At sunset we had a charming view of Sorel upon the eastern bank of the Richelieu which discharges the waters of lakes George and Champlain. The river again narrowed and presented similar features as below the expansion. We anchored for the night and early next morning were forcing our way through the rapids called current St Mary, passing the village of Longueil and the charming isle St Helens. Montreal then opened to our view, and by 8 a.m. we were moored to its fine quay. The brig, having completed her cargo, sailed for London on 19 August when I bade the captain and the mistress adieu and followed them some distance down the river until the favourable breeze that filled her sails wafted the brig out of sight. I have represented these worthy people just as they appeared to me, and if I have spoken too plainly, I would crave their pardon should they ever recognise their lineaments in these sheets (which I do not think probable). Indeed, I should much regret causing their displeasure, having received from them every attention, their conduct towards me extending even to unwonted kindness and for which I shall never cease to feel grateful. I was anxious to learn if the mate recovered and, in compliance with my desire, the captain wrote to me from Quebec and also from Green Island. The first of these letters was dated 23 August, and the following is an extract from it: I got doun hear on satterday and saled all the way down which was a great saving to me it was bubful sale we Ankered all night and saled in the day which gave hus pertunety of seeinz every Curisitv we went on Shore and got Eags and milk and sead a little of the Contry this Mornning I am gowing on Shore if there be any Letters for you I will forward them to you I have not heard of my Mate Ariving hear yet which Disapoints me Greatly I wish you had bean with hus Yeasterday we had a Drive in the Countrey 9 Miles which was a plesent drive and toke tea in the Countrey a long with Cpt --. I will sale on Tuesday Morning My Wlfe Joyns me in Cinde Regards to you. In justice I must also quote the postscript: 'you must Excuse this as I am in a hury'. The second letter was written on 27 August. In it the captain says: I am sorey to inform you of my Mate being so hill I coled at Gruss Ile for him and went on shore and it would have hurt you much to have sean him he was mostly but a Skellitan but though as hill as he was, I should have brought him on Boord if the Docter would Aload me, I have not any hopes of him, he got nerely well, and mite have come up to the ship but as I told you made two frea with is self putting Bottel to is head Docter to my Wife and we are all well at present which I hope you cape you Helth, my Wife Joyns me in Cind regards to you. I learned with satisfaction that the brig arrived at her destination in safety, but of the mate's fate I still remain ignorant. Of the passengers I never afterwards saw but two, both of them young men who got employment upon the Lachine Canal. The rest wandered over the country, carrying nothing with them but disease, and that but few of them survived the severity of the succeeding winter (ruined as their constitutions were) I am quite confident.
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