St. Lawrence River, QC - Elizabeth Oldfield
While most Watermark stories focus on the author’s personal memories and a particular body of water (as was the one I submitted about Lake Huron a couple of years ago), this Watermark is historical and a bridge is at the heart of the story.
Water is often seen as “separating” land, an obstacle. One of humans’ responses to that is to build bridges to get “to the other side”. I’m from Buffalo, New York, which like many Great Lakes communities has built up and around a series of lakes, rivers and creeks that make up its watershed. Long before I associated the Great Lakes region with water, as a small child, I associated the entire region with bridges. It’s partly because I was too small to see the water down below as we drove over this bridge and that, partly because public access to the shoreline was limited. The water was unhealthy and very dangerous in parts (such as long stretches of the Niagara River and of course the Falls). Those were reasons we were often told that we weren’t allowed to go into or close to the water. I sometimes got a little closer to the water if I was on a small boat or ferry, like to go to Crystal Beach, but I was “on” a bridge much more often.
Emphasis on bridges was further enhanced by my older cousins filling my imagination with tales of bridges with giant mouths (weighted bascule) that could easily scoop you up, slowly turn in the other direction, and spit you out on the other side. Bridges lifted, lowered, separated. They could be rusty, steel-colored, painted blue. They could be up or down, dictating your route and if you’d be on time or late. Bridges are out if there’s flooding, closed if it’s very windy. Some beautiful old bridges were only for trains. Sometimes you saw people biking or walking across them, such as the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls.
Some of my earliest memories are of going over bridges to get almost anywhere, including the weekly ice-skating lessons that I loved to go to in Fort Erie. Or crossing bridges in the Thousand Islands region in the pouring rain. Even before I went to kindergarten, I remember my father leaving the house early in the morning wearing his work clothes and carrying his metal lunch box and thermos. My mother would say, “Your father is going to work on The Bridge.” Because my maternal grandmother often mentioned that her father had been an ironworker and “worked on bridges”, I concluded that my father was also building a bridge, somewhere out there. In reality, he worked for the U.S. Customs Service and was inspecting trucks that were crossing into the U.S. from Canada over the Peace Bridge.
A bridge story that is a significant part of my personal family history was the tragic collapse of the Quebec Bridge on August 29, 1907 at what is now called Lévis. That was the last bridge my grandmother’s father “worked on”, as he died with 75 other men at the end of their shift. My great-grandmother was there with two of the three children (my grandmother would be born later, in early 1908) and the trauma of the event stayed with her for the rest of her life. It was also a shadow over my grandmother’s life.
It’s taken me quite a few years to associate the St. Lawrence River with more than just that horrible tragedy. Visits to Aquarium du Québec, boat rides out on the river, reading, and following water advocacy groups has broadened my view of the magnificent river. My great-grandparents were happy during their time along the St. Lawrence River with their two small children, socializing with the other ironworkers and families. During the summer of 1907, my great-grandmother wrote a letter to an ironworkers’ union journal, stating “We have quite a nice place here on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and the job is quite good, so we manage to get along very well. I have never met such friendly people before…”
From the perspective of a body of water, this Watermark is about the stretch of the St. Lawrence River between Lévis and Québec City, its amazing tides and peaceful parks. Personally, it will always be the place where my great-grandparents had their last happy days as a young married couple, where I met lovely and dedicated people when attending Quebec Bridge related anniversaries and dedications. Though the area is tinged with sadness, especially knowing that my great-grandfather’s remains were never recovered and returned to Buffalo, it’s a place in Canada that’s well cared for and woven into my American family history.
If we live near water, or love to visit water, we just might be connected to it by a bridge. It’s good to stop and think sometimes about the bridge builders and their families whose histories are also part of that Watermark.