The first white settlers along the upper St. John depended almost entirely on the river as a means of communication with the outside world. In summer its waters afforded the most natural means of transport and in winter the frozen bed of the river proved equally convenient as a highway. Indeed it may be affirmed that in the eyes of the early inhabitants the river was an object of paramount interest and importance. Not only was it the most convenient highway for travel, but its waters supplied fish in abundance, its overflowings enriched the interval lands or bore the products of the forest to their intended market; in a word it may be said that the river touched the daily life and occupation of the early settlers at so many points as to render it an object of general interest and concern. How carefully its moods were studied and observed will be very evident to any person who by chance takes up one of those carefully written diaries of olden times such as that of the Reverend Frederick Dibblee so frequently quoted in this series of articles. Probably the reader will find systematically recorded incidents such as these: date when the ice broke and ran, height of the freshet, date when the first raft went by, arrrival of first boat from Fredericton, first appearance of salmon and other fishes, the lowness of the water in midsummer, and so on until the final closing of navigation and the first crossing on the ice. Commonplace as such incidents may apear to us now, they were once regarded as matters of general interest and importance. With the first settlers the very position of their houses testified to the importance with which the river was regarded. Now-a-days houses are built to face the highway road, but the first settlers always built their dwellings to face the river and the roads that were first laid out in many cases ran past the farmer's back door. This was the case with the house of Squire Bedell, Capt. T. Phillips and others of the first houses built at Woodstock.
In early times the obstacles in the way of the boatman were considerably greater than at present. Feroe's rocks, Calhoun Rock (near Nackawick), "the Flounces" and other rocks at the Meductic rapids, the "Governor's Table" (near Belvisor bar), rocks at Koac Island and elsewhere once formidable obstacles have been long since removed.
Our provincial legislature gave early attention to the improvement of the navigation of the St. John and considerable sums were expended from time to time under direction of the York County members of the House of Assembly and other supervisors in the removal of rocks and obstructions, deepening of channels, improving towing paths, etc.
It was not long before the clumsy Durham boats first employed gave place to the more modern "tow-boat," of which John D. Beardsley, Sr., was the designer; and by the year 1815 horses were used in towing these craft up stream. It is a curious fact that, despite all our modern inventions and appliances of steam and electricity as a motive power, the tow-boat has not been entirely driven off the river, and to this very day the long scow-like craft with its snug little cabin, its single mast and long sweep or rudder is not an unfamiliar object on the St. John.
In the year 1812 the House of Assembly passed an act "To encourage the erection of a Passage Boat to be worked by steam, for facilitating the communication between the City of St. John and Fredericton." The Company incorporated under this act included John Ward, Robert Smith, George D. Berton, James C. F. Bremner, James Fraser and Lauchlan Donaldson and they were to have a ten years' monopoly of the traffic. Their enterprise was certainly worthy of encouragement, for it was only five years before this time that steam navigation had its first trial in America on the river Hudson, and but three years had passed since it had been first introduced in Canada on the St. Lawrence. The war which broke out with the United States in 1812 caused some delay in the accomplishment of the designs of our first incorporated steam boat company. However the keel of the proposed vessel was laid in the old shipyard near the head of Long Whart in St. John, and in the course of a short time it was launched and fitted out. In honor of the then administrator of the government the vessel was called the "General Smyth." On the 11th May, 1816, this steamer passed through the Falls to Indiantown and on the 20th May made her first trip to Fredericton. She was commanded by Captain James Segee, who previously had had considerable experience on the river as captain of the packet Minerva, a vessel that had formerly been an American privateer but having been captured by the British cruisers was sold and placed on the river as a packet. The "General Smyth" sometimes made the trip to Fredericton in twelve hours which was then considered pretty good time.
In 1825 the same company which built the "General Smyth" placed on the route a vessel of 204 tons called the "Saint George." She was commanded by Capt. Segee, and later by Capt. Wylie. The "St. George" had a large copper boiler of English make; it was a valuable piece of machinery and the only copper boiler ever in use on the river. It was eventually cut up and sold for old copper. The first steam boats commonly occupiedf about fifteen hours in making the trip to Fredericton; they made but a single round trip each week, and passengers were charged $4.00 each way. In the year 1826 the "St. George" began to make two trips weekly.
The "John Ward" was built in 1831, the "Fredericton" in 1835 and the "New Brunswick" in 1839; these were all low pressure boats. About the years 1835-40 James Whitney of St. John placed on the river the first high pressure boats, the "Meteor," "Novelty" and "Waterwitch." The "Novelty" was a long narrow vessel difficult to steer and liable to run aground; she was however noted for speed and was the first boat to make the trip from St. John to Fredericton and return in less than a day. The late Senator Glazier of Lincoln, Sunbury County, used to relate that he was a passenger on the "Novelty" on the occasion of the first trip to Fredericton; she left Indiantown at 8 a. m. and arrived in Fredericton about 2 p. m. but on her way back to St. John burst her steam chest when about opposite Burton and had to lie there until a new piece of machinery was obtained from New York. The "Novelty" is supposed by some to have been the fastest boat that ever navigated the river, but it is doubtful if she was as speedy as the "Rothesay," and she certainly would have proved no rival to the steamer "Victoria" now being built at St. John for tourists travel by George F. Baird & Co. Residents of the Upper St. John ought to be especially interested in the "Novelty." She was the first steamer to reach Woodstock.
Some years prior to this event a small steamer had been built named the "Woodstock" for use upon the Upper St. John, but her engines were not sufficiently powerful to surmount the strong tide at the Meductic Rapids and she was employed elsewhere. On the 31st August 1832 the "Woodstock" went up the Kennebecasis river to Hampton being the first steamer to visit that place and she made several trips to the same place that season. She also went up to Grand Lake and brought from St. John a load of coal, the first brought thence.
In the year 1837, considerable improvements having been effected in the river channel at the Meductic Rapids, the "Novelty" decided to make an attempt to reach Woodstock. She accordingly left Keswick at 6 o'clock on the morning of April 30th under command of Captain Phillips and arrived at Woodstock about 10 o'clock in the evening. The population turned out en masse to welcome her and there was great excitement, firing of guns, lighting of bon fires and general manifestations of delight. The captain, engineer and pilot were the lions of the hour. The "Novelty" made an attempt to proceed to Grand Falls but only got as far as Hartland where she left her mark by running her prow on Becaquimec Island and was for a short time stranded. Emboldened by the success of the "Novelty" the little steamer "Woodstock" made a few trips up the river, horses being employed to assist her in surmounting the Meductic Falls.
A small steamer built about this time, or a little later, was placed upon the river above the Grand Falls and ran between that place and Edmundston. The enterprise however did not pay and the vessel was dismantled by her owners and with some difficulty carried around the Grand Falls and launched upon the river below. She went down to St. John and in the course of her passage aroused much curiosity and it is even said created no little consternation in certain localities by the use of her steam whistle the first to awaken the slumbering echoes along the river. Old inhabitants of Maugerville used to relate the terrible panic into which a colored lad of their neighborhood was thrown at the sight of the fiery monster that in the dusk of the evening hove in sight, heralding its appearance with such terrific screechings that the boy fled home in terror with the startling intelligence that "the devil was coming down the river!"
We shall have to defer the conclusion of this account of early navigation of the river to the next issue of The Dispatch.
W. O. Raymond