by Doug Riley
It’s 9 pm. In the wheelhouse of the C.L. Churchill, it’s quiet for now. The museum’s tugboat is tied alongside a massive steel-sided pier at the west entrance of the Lachine Canal on the island of Montreal. The tug’s bow faces a gentle westerly breeze. The canal schooner Lois McClure is tied up just behind. Ahead lies the broad St. Lawrence River. An hour ago, there was rain and then a hint of sunset. The sky quickly darkened again though. It is now a deep wet gray.
A few raindrops spatter on the tug’s windshield, then a squall explodes like a bomb over the docked boats. Walls of rain collapse one after another onto the Churchill. The tugboat bucks violently in the sudden gale.
The Lois McClure and the C.L. Churchill spent the previous week down the Lachine Canal, tied to a peaceful tree shaded bank at the edge of a city park. The canal looks new, with restored stonework, the latest in lock mechanisms, and a modern visitor’s center. However, today’s Lachine is a modern incarnation of an old, urban industrial canal that opened in 1825.
The canal slices into Montreal near the island’s south shore. It leads directly into the old industrial heart of the city. In the heyday of smokestack industries, the canal lay at the bottom of a canyon formed by the block walls of massive factories. With the vast St. Lawrence River at its head, the canal provided not only a direct path to the city’s industries, but their water power as well.
The canal carried freight, first in wooden vessels similar to the Lois McClure, then in substantial steel ships. A series of lift, swing and draw bridges on the city’s cross streets allowed the passage of towering steamers as well as sailing vessels.
In the late 1950’s, however, the Lachine lost one of its original purposes – that of bypassing the rapids on the St Lawrence River southwest of the island. The enormous St Lawrence Seaway Project included a larger, newer canal on the south bank of the river, around these rapids. The Lachine canal closed in 1969. There was even talk of filling it in to create a highway.
Instead, in the 1990s, the canal was reborn as a recreational waterway. A large marina now occupies an unused segment of the old canal at the west end. Bicycle and pedestrian paths cris-cross the waterway on small bridges and across tops of the restored lock doors. Many of the Lois McClure‘s visitors during our stay in Lachine arrived on two wheels, enjoying these paths.
The squall at Lachine’s west end does not last long. It subsides to a light rain, and then finally to a cool, still darkness, interrupted now and then by far away lightning. Tomorrow, the Lois McClure and C.L. Churchill head upstream for their first trip on the Ottawa River.
Special Thanks to:
Hailing from Essex Junction, VT, Doug Riley is a lawyer and sailing instructor. A lover of New England “antiquities” since his childhood near the Connecticut shore, he volunteers his help with LCMM activities several times a year.