Researching the Nipigon River by Sarah Maine
Posted on: 19/04/2017 with tags: 19th Century, Canada, Nipigon river, research, Scotland, 19th Century
I have two prints on my wall. One is a hand-coloured wood engraving by T. Weber dated 1890 Vue Prise sur la Rivière Nipigon which shows the lower reaches of a mighty river flowing past pine-clad cliffs and down to the north shore of Lake Superior in Canada. The other is a black and white photograph of one of the islands in these lower reaches and is dated 1893 – spot on for the year in which Charles Ballantyre, a wealthy Scottish landowner brings his party to fish on the Nipigon. The photograph shows a fishing camp with three or four tents, a cleared area and figures down by the shore. And one of the figures is a woman! There she is, an intrepid soul, living under canvas and enjoying the sport and the thrill of the river, and I have since read accounts by these Victorian rule-breakers which offer passionate descriptions of the river and the freedoms it offered.
In 1887 the magazine Forest and Stream dubbed the Nipigon ‘the finest trout stream in the world’ and it drew wealthy ‘gentlemen anglers’ there in pursuit of the river’s legendary brook trout. In 1919 it even lured Edward, Prince of Wales, to try his luck although by then the river was already famous. There is nothing to see now of the wooden hotels which housed these early tourists or of the outfitters who supplied them, but the excellent little museum still commemorates the world record-breaking brook trout caught in 1915, weighing in at 14.5lbs. Nipigon seemed to have been set for glory and there were hopes that the railhead of the transcontinental railway would finish at the large wharf constructed there in optimistic anticipation. But it was not to be and Nipigon is now a quiet little town, still supplying fishermen who come to fish below the great railway viaduct.
I later discovered that the photograph on my wall had come from a book entitled America’s Wonderland (though Nipigon is, of course, in Canada) produced to coincide with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in that same year. This inspired me to use the Exposition as a pivotal point in the book where Evelyn Ballantyre muses not only on the lot of women as she gazes at the murals in the Woman’s Building but also begins to understand the difference between illusion and reality. Those classical buildings which she so admires lose something of their lustre when she learns that they are straw and plaster on steel frames and won’t last the winter. And 1893 is, of course, the year of The Panic when finances crumbled and the characters who people the sleek steam yachts moored at Chicago are going spectacularly bankrupt.
Evelyn has grown up on an orderly Borders estate, living the sheltered life of a late Victorian girl emerging into womanhood. She sees only tranquillity in the pastoral scenes before her, listens to the gentle babbling of the river Tweed at the end of manicured lawns and yet the scent of roses is stifling her.
It is the cold-blooded murder of a poacher on her father’s estate which will change all that for Evelyn. Her father might be wealthy and successful but he is also a philanthropist and has taken into his household a feral boy, James Douglas, proving to his sceptical neighbours that such miscreants can be redeemed, and James becomes Evelyn’s youthful confidante. When he flees, accused of the crime, Evelyn’s world is sent into disarray. She believes James to be innocent but it is her father’s behaviour which disturbs her more.
Events take Evelyn, with a party of her father’s guests, first to Chicago and then through the Great Lakes to what is now Thunder Bay. In 1893 the city was still Fort William, once a Northwest Company fur trading post, and a booming port, Port Arthur, which shipped grain brought east by the railways onwards through the Great Lakes system to the St Lawrence seaway. Port Arthur was dubbed the ‘Little Chicago of the North’ and one or two buildings, notably the Whalen building, still survive to mark that high ambition. In 1911 my great grandfather was chief engineer on steam yacht, not unlike Larsen’s yacht in the story, owned by the entrepreneurial James Whalen and this too fed into the story.
In Port Arthur Evelyn sees woman in unimagined roles and her dissatisfaction with her life increases. But, once in Nipigon, it is the discovery that James Douglas has found refuge there, working as a guide for wealthy anglers, which brings matters to a head. As the party gradually moves up the river, away from the constraints of civilization, illusions are swept away in the turbulent river revealing what really happened five years ago along the tranquil Tweed, and Evelyn and her father are freed to deal with the consequences.