Window on the World: The Rivers of New Brunswick
New Brunswick Museum

A steam whistle blows as a tug chugs along pulling a raft of timber. A sailboat drifts by lazily, while two men in a birch-bark canoe dip their paddles in the water. A fisherman casts his line out with a snap, barely audible against the buzz of a motorboat in the distance. A salmon leaps up with a splash. On the shore, meanwhile, an artist captures the moment on canvas. The St. John River of the late 19th century is a hive of activity.

Indigenous people call it the Wolastoq, or 'beautiful river,' and call themselves Wolastoqiyik, or 'people of the beautiful river.' But Europeans change the river's name to the St. John. This great river, along with the Miramichi, Restigouche, Petitcodiac, Kennebecasis, Oromocto and numerous others, will have a profound impact on New Brunswick's development.

For centuries, the rivers of New Brunswick function as highways, moving people and goods within the region and out to the world beyond. The rivers and their tributaries, along with cultivated lands and forests, provide an abundance of food, materials and medicines. Fishing is a means of survival for some, and a sport for others. Logs are floated downstream to mills, where they are processed and shipped back upriver or around the world. All goods produced on farms or in rural industries end up on the docks or wharves for shipment.

Numerous inland waterways combine with hundred of kilometres of coastline to give access to the world. In the 19th century, thousands of Scottish and Irish immigrants arrive in New Brunswick, eventually making their way to settlements along the rivers. Along with the immigrants come numerous professionals and skilled craftsmen, who bring with them new ideas and styles of design. Ships carry thousands of people to and from New Brunswick, but they also carry other items as well. Sea-going travellers bring back souvenirs, exotic curiosities and other gifts from their distant travels.

Rapid changes in transportation technology during the 20th century modify the commercial and social role of New Brunswick rivers. Railways, automobiles, trucks and, eventually, air transportation alter communication and transportation links, leaving the waterways to the almost exclusive use of pleasure craft, sportspeople and artists.