Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Napoleon Bonaparte Is Indirectly Responsible For One Of The Best Walking Trails In Toronto

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.

There was just one big, floating, wooden problem: the Royal Navy. The British fleet had ruled the waves for the last 100 years. And they could beat Napoleon. People still talk about how badly Lord Nelson's fleet pwned the French at the Battle of Trafalgar. It left Napoleon's navy in tatters.

But the Emperor did have another way of screwing with the Royal Navy: he could take away their wood.

People in England had been chopping down their forests since the Stone Age. They barely had any left. And it took thousands of oak trees just to build one ship. The masts were especially hard to find — they had to come from big, strong, old-growth pines. The British were having to ship them in from the far north-east corner of the continent, from the towering forests on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

The same Baltic shores that Napoleon now controlled.

In fact, Napoleon now controlled just about all of the shores in Europe — which meant he could seriously mess with the British economy. He declared an embargo. No one was allowed to trade with England. Not France, not Napoleon's allies, not the nations he had conquered, not even neutral countries. If he found anyone trading with the British, he would arrest the Britons and burn all the goods. He even threatened to invade Russia if they didn't agree. And just like that, Napoleon had robbed the Royal Navy of their Baltic masts.

The Mast Trail, Rouge Park
That's where Toronto comes in. While all of this was happening in the early 1800s, our city was still a brand new little frontier town. It was surrounded by ancient forests that had been growing here for thousands of years. They'd occasionally been cut down too — the First Nations cleared land for villages and corn fields — but they'd never suffered anything like the permanent, wholesale deforestation English forests had. There were still woods all over eastern Canada. And they were full of masts.

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
Napoleon never was able to invade England. Eventually, his embargo broke down. The Russians finally got sick of it and started trading with the British again. Napoleon responded by invading Russia — which was a terrible idea. His army was devastated by the Tsar's scorched earth campaign and the bitter cold of the Russian winter. It was a turning point. Within a couple of years, his empire had crumbled. He was defeated and then exiled... and then escaped, raised another army, and was defeated and then exiled again. This time for good.

But even with Napoleon gone and the embargo lifted, the British still wanted Canadian lumber. The trees kept coming down and the exports kept going up. They doubled and doubled and then doubled again. Soon forestry had taken over from the fur trade as the engine of the Canadian economy. Today, it's still one of our biggest industries.

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.


P.P.S. — Another kind of interesting note: Lord Nelson. He died fighting Napoleon's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, and became a national hero in England. They named the public square in the heart of London "Trafalgar Square" and built a giant column to honour Nelson's memory. It's one of the most iconic landmarks in Britain. But he was also a hero over here. Defeating Napoleon's navy meant the trade route between Canada and England stayed open. People in Montreal were so happy about that they built their own column to honour Nelson in their own public square more than 30 years BEFORE the Londoners built theirs. It's still there in Old Montreal at the top of Place Jacques-Cartier.

Nelson had also played an important earlier role when it came to those Baltic masts. Long before Napoleon's embargo, some of the other most powerful countries in Europe wanted to keep England from being able to trade with the Baltics. So they shut down the narrow channel between Sweden and Denmark — the only way into the Baltic Sea. Nelson was the hero of that episode too. He led the British fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen. When his commander gave him permission to retreat, Nelson famously lifted his telescope to his blind eye so that he couldn't see the signal. He kept fighting and won. It meant that the British got to keep trading with the Baltics right up until Napoleon's embargo.

Oh and Nelson was famous for other stuff too: for having lost an arm in addition to that eye, and for openly living in a sinful threesome with the young Lady Emma Hamilton and her elderly husband William. 


You can learn more about the Mast Trail here and in a PDF here. The Toronto Star has more about the plans to turn Rouge Park into a national park here. There's a whole report on the state of the Rouge watershed, with lots of heritage info, in a PDF here. And there's another one with some info about Rouge Valley heritage and wildlife here. You can learn more about Napoleon's embargo here and here. Or the entire Napoleonic Wars here. The Canadian Encyclopedia has some more information about the Canadian timber trade here. And the federal government has a military heritage website with more information about it here. Meanwhile, Wikipedia's got you covered here if you want to learn about the British timber trade instead. If you'd like to know more about warships on the Great Lakes, head on over here. And Wikipedia also has a little page about the Naval Shipyard, just west of the foot of Bay Street, where the HMS Isaac Brock was being built. You can check that out here.

Oh and photos by me.

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