Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why can't Londoners get the name of the Thames River right?

Years ago I wrote a column for The London Free Press called Celebrate the Thames. I'm ashamed to admit I was very careless when it came to the name of the river that I was celebrating.  I wrote about the South Branch of the Thames when I knew there was no such river. It's the Thames River: Period. There is no South Branch.

Don't believe me? Check the Geographical Names Board of Canada site. You will discover that the Thames River flows from its headwaters near Tavistock southwest through Innerkip where it turns southeast toward Woodstock and London.

Both maps reproduced above are screen grabs from the Geographical Names Board of Canada online site.

And to be exact, you might like to say pedantic, there is no North Branch of the Thames River either. It is simply the North Thames River.

You may well wonder, how did I become aware of this? Well, I wanted to do a column on finding the headwaters of the Thames River. The folk at the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority assured me the Thames River originated near Tavistock. The London river was not born in two places as suggested by use of the South Branch and North Branch labels use so carelessly by many, including, UTRCA itself and the Canadian Heritage Rivers folk.

If the river actually split into two branches, merging at The Forks of the Thames, then the Thames River proper would start in the downtown core of London, and that, as one can see by the map on the left, is the present mythology. And that is patently untrue.

Back in the days when London was in the running to be named the capital of Upper Canada, some believed the mythical Thames River of their dreams ran west almost as far as the Don River in Toronto.

These mad dreamers suggested a canal could be dug to link the two watersheds. According to this line of thought, the Thames River and the Don River together offered a short, safe route from Lake St. Clair to Lake Ontario via London. When this was shown to be completely ludicrous, it was just one more reason for not making London the capital. London was not sitting at the forks of a mighty river. The Thames River was not the Mississippi or even the Grand.

Why is all this interesting? Well London likes to profess a great love of the beautiful little river meandering through the city. Yet, it often seems that these folk love the mythical Thames River of years past more than the actual river of today.

The city planning department sees the river as central to their vision of  a renewed urban core. Gosh how they love the little river. Sadly, they don't love it enough to get the name right. Nor do they love it enough to consider abandoning the push to repair the Springbank Dam.

Given the choice between a healthy river and an almost stagnant reservoir at The Forks, the folk in charge at city hall choose a reservoir every time.The reservoir fits in with the myth better than the real, but little, river.

All around the globe the latest buzz word for river projects is restoration. Channels are being abandoned, dams are being demolished, rivers are being allowed to run free. The only restrictions are linked to flood prevention. But this is not happening in London despite all the grand talk about rethinking this and rethinking that.

As I write this I realize that I am being pedantic. The smallest, least meaningful mistake being made by the city when it comes to the river is getting the name of the river wrong. This naming error is simply par for this course.

There is a North Thames River and a Thames River but no mention of branches or a South Thames River.

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