The city of Montreal sees the nearby meeting of the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, and the city’s port sits on the river gateway that travels from the Great Lakes and opens up into the Atlantic Ocean – specifically, through the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, which is one of the world’s largest estuaries. The Saint Lawrence River is 744 miles long and now marks a small portion of the international boundary between Canada and the U.S., but what role has it played in the continent’s history?
Lawrence of Rome, supposedly given the Holy Grail to guard for a time, was martyred on what is now his Feast day (August 10); it was on that day that French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived at the estuary and began his trip upriver with his Iroquoian guides in 1535, so he named the river after the Saint.
During World War II, the Battle of the St. Lawrence involved German U-boats sinking multiple merchant ships – as well as three Canadian warships. The residents who lived along the river were some of the only sources of information about these attacks and their resulting damage, since the Canadian government tried to censor much of the media reports during wartime. Later it was discovered that Canadian shipboard sonar systems, meant to detect submarines, were hampered by ice, temperature fluxes, and the mixing of fresh and salt water in the estuary region.
In the summer of 1976, a barge carrying crude oil through thick fog spilled 300,000 gallons of it into an 80-mile stretch of the river. It was the then-worst inland oil spill in North American history. Marshlands and wildlife were greatly impacted; cleanup efforts costing millions of dollars were achieved in part by volunteers and students, taking around four months to complete.
In the U.S., there are only five other European place-names that are older than the Saint Lawrence River’s. It’s a body of water that has for centuries carried people, goods, violence, peace, and discovery along for the ride.