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Springtime on the Detroit River

by Al Roach

No, Gentle Reader, I have not suddenly taken leave of my senses. As I sit here gazing across the 40 centimetres of snow, still ensconced truculently on my front lawn, and contemplate the frozen wastes of the Detroit River and Belle Isle, I am only too well aware that winter lingers on.

But Wordsworth’s melodic lines remind me of other days, other years when boisterous boys along the entire length of the mighty Detroit walked to its banks and endeavoured to will the ice away. Tired of winter street games, they used their battered hockey sticks to poke at the ice clinging to the shore and hurry it on its way downstream.

On the coal docks of old Sandwich, on the sloping shores below Bridge Avenue, on the rotting piers at the foot of Bruce, on the rat-infested wharves behind the British-American Hotel, on the ramps of the twin yellow and brown boathouses at the end of Hall Avenue, on the Walkerville Ferry dock, on Pillette Dock, they stood, hands in slash pockets of melton cloth jackets, and longed for spring.

Even as you and I do today.

Sniffing the still wintry atmosphere for the first “blessing in the air” which the poet promised them in their memorized lines. They looked across the icy river at the sweetwater fleet moored along the downtown Detroit waterfront and awaited the first sign of the vernal equinox.

There, all along Atwater Street, from the Grand Trunk Railway depot to the foot of Third Boulevard, each bow nosed in behind the stern of the next vessel upstream, huddled the mighty night boats of yesteryear and the saucy little pleasure boats of our youth.

Wrapped in canvas, paint peeling in the hiemal blasts, awaiting the clarion call of spring, were the famous lake boats, so familiar to boyhood in the thirties.

The Eastern States, Western States, City of Detroit III, City of Cleveland III, Greater Detroit, Greater Buffalo, the great four-stacker SeeandBee, South American, North American, Tashmoo, Put-in-Bay.

And, of course, the two Bob-Lo boats, Columbia and Ste. Claire – today’s sole survivors of that magnificent fleet whose lights are fled, whose garlands dead and all but they departed.

There was not a boy on the waterfront who could not reel off for you the vital statistics of each of those impressive lake steamers (when launched, what shipyard, length, beam, draught, tonnage, number of passengers and crew) just as boys of today can recite the facts of every make and model of automobile.

And the first sign of spring? Not the first robin. Not for the boys along the Detroit River. Rather it was the day when the work crews began to ready the Great Lakes fleet for its summer activity.

One day the boys would saunter down to the river’s edge and see the canvas being peeled from round the decks of the sleeping giants. Work crews scampering about. Painters slinging hanging scaffolds over the sides.

The great leviathans were shaking off their winter lethargy and blinking in the bright March sunshine.

The river was coming to life.

And suddenly the boys realized that the last of the ice floes had disappeared. The long winter was gone.

Time to begin planning the first dip in the numbing spring waters. (It was a matter of pride to be the first in your neighbourhood to take the plunge. “Heck, ain’t you been in yet? What’re ya waitin’ for?”)

Time to declare unilaterally a school holiday and lie shivering in the cool river breezes back of the coal piles or along the cinders of the railway tracks so as to get the first tan in your area.

Time to start construction of the annual raft (usually built of deliciously creosote-scented used railway ties “donated” by the Canadian National Railways.)

Time to go down and ask Mr. Beard when he would be putting his rowboats in the water. Time to start saving for the rental fee.

Time to start the annual competition to see the first freighter come up the river. (“I saw the Lemoyne come up yesterday.” “You did not. You’re full of hog wash!” “I did too. So there!”)

Time to begin listening in the night for the roar of the “rum-runners,” stabbing across the river in their powerful mahogany inboards, toward Wyandotte or Ecorse, without benefit of lights or law.

But in those early days of March we looked at the river as I do today, and thought that winter would never end.

Be of good cheer, Gentle Reader; we knew then what we know today: paraphrasing Shelley, when mad March days come, spring cannot be far behind.

And when that first mild day of March finally does arrive, we will take Wordsworth’s advice

And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.

from “All My Memories II” – $10 at
The Times Book & Gift Shop, 624 Chilver



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