|The Mast Trail, Rouge Park|
Freaking Napoleon. Nobody could beat him. Ever since the beginning of the French Revolution, France had been fighting wars with pretty much every single other big country in Europe. And while Robespierre and his gang of paranoid mass murderers were busy guillotining everybody in Paris, Napoleon was leading the French army to one victory after another. Before long, he had taken over the country, crowned himself Emperor, and built a network of conquests and alliances that stretched from one end of Europe to the other. The only country left to fight was England. So an invasion of England was next on Napoleon's list.
But the Emperor did have another way of screwing with the Royal Navy: he could take away their wood.
The same Baltic shores that Napoleon now controlled.
|The Mast Trail, Rouge Park|
Napoleon could keep the Baltics from trading with England, but his navy couldn't keep England from shipping wood across the ocean from Canada. All over the Canadian colonies, lumberjacks started cutting down trees. Timber exports went up by something like 1000% in just three years. Tens of thousands of masts headed across the Atlantic.
Some of them came from the forests of Toronto. The woods of the Rouge Valley — now the verrry eastern edge of Scarborough — were very tall and very old. They were home to wolves and bears and cougars and elk, wild beasts roaming beneath enormous white pines — the perfect tree for making masts. Some of them rose twelve storeys above the forest floor.
By then, the mouth of the Rouge River had already seen plenty of history. The very first people to walk along the valley's forest trails had been prehistoric nomadic hunters. They arrived thousands and thousands of years ago, leaving behind traces of their campsites and the rock they chipped into tools. More recently, it had been the First Nations. By the middle of the 1600s, the Seneca had built a village — Ganatsekwyagon — on a high hill overlooking the valley. It was a hub for the fur trade. Famous French explorers Jolliet and Marquette stopped by on their way deeper into the continent. Coureurs de bois came to trade, or to travel up the Rouge in canoes toward Lake Simcoe. One missionary spent a famously harsh winter there, starving and desperate, living off squirrels and chipmunks and eating moss off the base of the trees. Even the Governor of New France once paid a visit to Ganatsekwyagon during his war with the Seneca. His allies, the Mississauga, took it over.
Now, the Rouge Valley was part of the British Empire. And with the Empire at war with Napoleon, it was ax-wielding lumberjacks making trails through those woods. The great old pines came crashing to the ground, were floated down the Rouge to Lake Ontario and then shipped out the St. Lawrence to make the long journey across the Atlantic. They rose again as masts from the decks of British ships fighting the French half a world away.
|The mouth of the Rouge River|
There are no more lumberjacks in the Rouge Valley, though. The forests growing there today are protected — Rouge Park is slated to become a national park. There are still enormous white pines towering above the forest floor. Some of them have been growing there since those Napoleonic days — the trees that were, at the time, too small for masts. The old logging trail is still there too. It's called the Mast Trail now. Twenty-first century Torontonians and tourists can walk in the same place those lumberjacks did 200 years ago. And where missionaries and explorers, coureurs de bois and First Nations, prehistoric hunters and wild beasts were walking long before that.
P.S. — Those pine trees weren't just used to build ships in England. Before the Napoleonic Wars were over, we'd be building our own warships over here.
That's because Napoleon wasn't the only one with an embargo: the British had one against him too. This meant that neutral countries like the United States were caught in the middle — they were at risk of having their goods seized no matter which side they traded with. Even worse: the English were using the embargo as an excuse to board American ships and arrest any man who was British — or sort of British, or maybe kind of seemed like he might be British and couldn't prove he wasn't — so they could force him to join the Royal Navy and fight the French. Impressment, they called it. And it pissed the Americans off. It was one of the main reasons they declared war in 1812. While the British were still fighting Napoleon in Europe, the Americans invaded Canada.
Suddenly, the Great Lakes were a battlefield too. Control of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario became vitally important — it meant that you could supply your troops on the ground, support them in battle, and move them around. And so, a naval arms race broke out, with both sides rushing to build the biggest and most powerful fleet they could. Canadian lumber was now being used to build warships in Canada.
Toronto played an important role. The main reason the Americans invaded and occupied our city in 1813 was because we were building one of the biggest ships on the Great Lakes — the HMS Isaac Brock — which would have shifted the balance of power in our favour. The Americans were hoping to seize it, but we burned it first. They retaliated by burning down our parliament and other public buildings. A few months later, one of the war's most pivotal naval battles happened just outside our harbour.
But I'll save those stories for a future post.
Oh and photos by me.