In the heart of the North American Continent, forming in part the boundary line between the United States and the British possessions to the north, lies that chain of great freshwater lakes bordered by busy and rapidly growing commonwealths, washing the water-fronts of rich and populous cities, and bearing upon their steely blue bosoms a commerce which outdoes that of the Mediterranean in the days of its greatest glory. The old salt, the able seaman who has rounded the Horn, the skipper who has stood unflinchingly at the helm while the green seas towered over the stern, looks with contempt upon the fresh-water sailor and his craft. Not so the man of business or the statesman. The growth of lake traffic has been one of the most marvelous and the most influential factors in the industrial development of the United States. By it has been systematized and brought to the highest form of organization the most economical form of freight carriage in the world. Through it has been made possible the enormous reduction in the price of American steel that has enabled us to invade foreign markets, and promises to so reduce the cost of our ships, that we may be able to compete again in ship-building, with the yards of the Clyde and the Tyne. Along the shores of these unsalted seas, great shipyards are springing up, that already build ships more cheaply than can be done anywhere else in the world, and despite the obstacles of shallow canals, and the treacherous channels of the St. Lawrence, have been able to build and send to tidewater, ocean ships in competition with the seacoast builders. The present of the lake marine is secure; its future is full of promise. Its story, if lacking in the elements of romance that attend upon the ocean’s story, is well worth telling.
A decade more than two centuries ago a band of Iroquois Indians made their way in bark canoes from Lake Ontario up Lake Erie to the Detroit River, across Lake St. Clair, and thence through Lake Huron to Point Iroquois. They were the first navigators of the Great Lakes, and that they were not peace-loving boatmen, is certain from the fact that they traveled all these miles of primeval waterway for the express purpose of battle. History records that they had no difficulty in bringing on a combat with the Illinois tribes, and in an attempt to displace the latter from Point Iroquois, the invaders were destroyed after a six-days’ battle.
It is still a matter of debate among philosophical historians, whether war, trade, or missionary effort has done the more toward opening the strange, wild places of the world. Each, doubtless, has done its part, but we shall find in the story of the Great Lakes, that the war canoes of the savages were followed by the Jesuit missionaries, and these in turn by the bateaux of the voyageurs employed by the Hudson Bay Company.