Window on the World: The Rivers of New Brunswick
New Brunswick Museum, 2003
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 was a hive of activity.
Indigenous people call it the Wolastoq, or "beautiful river," and call themselves Wolastoqiyik, or "people of the beautiful river." Europeans changed the river's name to the St. John. This great river, along with the Miramichi, Restigouche, Petitcodiac, Kennebecasis, Oromocto and numerous others, had a profound impact on New Brunswick's development.
For centuries the rivers of New Brunswick functioned 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, provided an abundance of food, materials and medicines. Fishing was a means of survival for some, and a sport for others. Logs were floated downstream to mills, where they were processed and shipped back upriver or around the world. All goods produced on farms or in rural industries ended up on the docks or wharves for shipment.
Numerous inland waterways combined with hundred of kilometres of coastline to give access to the world. In the 19th century, thousands of Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived in New Brunswick, eventually making their way to settlements along the rivers. Along with the immigrants came numerous professionals and skilled craftsmen, who brought with them new ideas and styles of design. Ships carried thousands of people to and from New Brunswick, but they also brought other items as well. Sea-going travellers brought back souvenirs, exotic curiosities and other gifts from their far-off travels.
Rapid changes in transportation technology during the 20th century changed the commercial and social role of New Brunswick rivers. Railways, automobiles, trucks and, eventually, air transportation altered communication and transportation links, leaving the waterways to the almost exclusive use of pleasure craft, sportspeople, artists, Wolastoqiyik and Mi'kmaq.