Saturday, June 6, 2015

Stretching our imagination and the Thames

An old French map shows the river now known as the Thames flowing above the Grand River.
In an earlier post I mentioned that at one time I wrote a weekly column, Celebrate the Thames, for the local paper, The London Free Press. (If you are thinking my writing doesn't seem good enough for a daily paper, you're right. I thank the excellent editors at the paper for cleaning up my prose for publication. Oh, how I wish I had those people helping me now.)

While writing that column, I would hear from local history keeners who had their own take on a local stories and were eager to get these stories, their stories, given a public airing. One story I heard repeatedly was that the Thames River, contrary to local folklore, was part of the reason that London did not become the capital of Upper Canada. The little river was simply not up to the task.

According to this interpretation of history, it was the myth of the Thames River and not the river itself that encouraged thoughts of London as the capital of Upper Canada. When reality hit, the truth doomed the dream and the growth of London was stalled for decades. This, of course, is not the version of history bandied about by city and river boosters today.

According the folk who contacted me, years before all the talk about a city at The Forks there were people in Europe who believed the Thames River, known then as La Trenchée (among other names), was a mighty river offering hundreds of miles of navigable waterway as it carved a path through thick, wooded wilderness. Maps at the time showed the river headwaters in the Halton Hills northwest of present day Toronto.

A quick search of the Internet found a map of Upper Canada done for John Graves Simcoe. Note the length of the Thames River and the placement of the Forks of the Thames on this map. The forks are shown many miles west of the true position. The river flows north of the Grand River, extending all the way to a spot a little northwest of Toronto.

Clearly, the Thames as depicted almost reaches a river flowing south into Lake Ontario. This map hints at the possibility the military could use the Thames River to travel safely from Lake St. Clair all the way to Lake Ontario after the completion of just a little river work and the addition of a short canal. (Click on the map to see an enlarged version.)

The Forks of the Thames are circled and are wrong - much too far east.

It is interesting to note that one can easily find backing for these revisionist arguments. Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe’s conviction that the capital of Upper Canada should be build at the Forks of the Thames River did not come to him as a revelation inspired by a visit to the site. No, Simcoe selected the Forks of the Thames as the ideal site before he left England.

Early in 1791, Simcoe wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society:

I mean to establish a capital in the very heart of the country, upon the River La Tranche, which is navigable for batteauxs for 150miles—and near to where the Grand River which falls into Erie, and others that communicate with Huron and Ontario, almost interlock.

A city built on such a long, navigable river would not be as open to an attack by the Americans as a city built right on the edge of one of the Great Lakes. It would be a city protected by location but not isolated by it. One not only had the Thames River to carry military craft but the nearby Grand River as well. To a military man, it was the perfect site except for one thing — it was perfectly wrong.

Simcoe did not visit the Forks until 1793. The position of the Forks was well east of where he had imagined. The location of the Forks and the small size of the river itself may have come as a surprise to the Englishman. Simcoe, who fought openly with Lord Dorchester on many matters, did not completely dropped his plans for a capital at the Forks but he did acquiesce quickly to Lord Dorchester and soon Toronto was the chosen capital.

With Back to the River calling the Forks of the Thames "the heart of London: past, present and future" and pressing hard for a river revitalization project, it may be a good time to fight for the true Thames River and not the mythological one.

As should now be clear, when "Sir John Graves Simcoe stood at the forks of the Thames and imagined it to be the site of the provincial capital," as local journalist and historian Larry Cornies recently wrote, Simcoe was not having a sudden, and quite unexpected, revelation. Simcoe sought out the Forks for confirmation of his already formed thoughts on where to best place the capital of Upper Canada.

The Thames River may be small but the river of public opinion against Simcoe's decision was huge and growing. In the year before Simcoe's historic visit and pronouncement, Kingston merchant Richard Cartwright called the idea "perfectly Utopian " in a letter to a friend. Cartwright appeared to mock the Thames River as a navigable waterway saying an "ingenious invention" was needed and suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, hot-air balloons might fill the bill.

It is a little early to know what direction the London Back to the River movement is heading but the early signs are not all promising. The plans seem more Disneyland than necessary. The talk is all fountains, splash pads, man-made beaches beside huge swimming pools, sweeping sidewalks and a constant flow of major riverside events. Pittsburgh has been mentioned as a model to follow.

City insists the broken Springbank Dam will be repaired.
Simcoe was out of touch with the river. When he formed his opinions he was still in England on the other side of the Atlantic. Are the Londoners pushing Back to the River also out of touch? One can only wait and see but there are signs folks in power still do not appreciate the true Thames, the little Thames, the natural Thames.

Think of the Springbank Dam that failed some years ago after undergoing expensive repairs and modifications. CTV London reported the dam plays no role in flood protection. Its only value is to keep water levels unnaturally high during the summer.

John Fleming, city planner
The dammed river, more accurately called a reservoir, is a crucial part of the city's new Downtown Master Plan. John Fleming, city planner, is quoted as saying, "That higher water level really is important."

Is it really important? According to the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, removing the dam is what is important to the river, if by important we mean beneficial. Read: Springbank Dam’s Benefits Far Outweighed by Damage to River’s Ecosystem by Barry Wells.

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