Essay 13

Legible Spaces: Urbanism, Environmentalism, and the Canadian Thames


Andrea Cabajsky


The settlement of the Thames River Valley in southwestern Ontario was stimulated by both economic and political forces and its development was affected not only by the impulse of the settlers to survive on the new continent, but also by their nostalgically-driven need to reshape it in the image of their homelands. As Donald Creighton explains in The Empire of the St. Lawrence (1956), the first European immigrants to Canada "had to come to terms with the new continent. From it they had to wrest a living; and since they were Europeans…a living meant not merely food to sustain life but the amenities of West-European civilization which alone could make it tolerable…. They had to live in and by the new world; and they were driven, by this double compulsion, to understand the possibilities of the new continent" (2). To understand these possibilities meant, in short, to possess the land and to exploit its abundant resources in the name of Imperialism and the policy of expansionism. By the late eighteenth and, especially, the early nineteenth centuries, the area surrounding what is now London, Ontario, had become the object of strategic attempts at colonization on the part of the British government, whose emigration policies relied for their success on the dissemination of notions of Canada as a land of infinite possibility whose resources would be naturally responsive to the needs and goals of its industrious and ambitious European inhabitants. By the early nineteenth century, the immigration policies of the British government involved "the appointment of several government recruiters and the commission of promotional artwork" that was intended to market such material "assets" of the region as its "industries, building projects and [the] picturesque [Thames] [R]iver" (Rediscovering London’s River 9), all of which became implicated in the colonial agenda of building lives and livelihoods and, eventually, constructing a myth of nationhood that borrowed heavily from inherited British concepts of social order, progress and acculturation.

In the early nineteenth century, the commercial (and, by extension, cultural) success of any settlement in Canada was heavily contingent upon its proximity to water "for sustenance, energy, and, not least, transportation" (Bentley Introduction xxiv). In the mid to late nineteenth century, however, technological developments occurred that limited the role of the Thames in the local economy. Most significantly, the advent of electricity stripped the River of its function as a source of power and resulted in the relocation of much industrial and commercial activity away from the city centre, a shift that left the Thames all but bereft of commercial purpose. Furthermore, like the St. Lawrence, but on a much smaller scale, the role of the Thames River in "aiding the mobility of people and [in]transporting goods and raw materials to and from mills and industrial sites" was limited by its tendency to freeze in winter and by variations and fluctuations in its water levels. Indeed, "[p]oor water transportation was a major impediment to economic development [in the London area] and…early export trade had to be carried out through Port Stanley" (Rediscovering 24-25). Even the limited role of the Thames River as a means of transportation was significantly diminished by the advent of the railway and, especially, with the opening, first, in 1853, of the line of the Great Western Railway from Hamilton to London, then, in 1856, of the London and Port Stanley Railway and finally, in 1858, of a branch of the Grand Trunk Railway.

Because the advent of the railway brought an end to the function of the Thames as a primary (if unreliable) mode of commercial trade and transportation and greatly diminished its economic utility, its social function was eventually restricted to the recreational possibilities which have persisted to the present day and have left it the object of current conservation policies whose discourse relies heavily on the romanticization of a historical landscape. Such a romanticization of the local landscape is significant in its presumption that a wilderness exists in the heart of London and that this wilderness is somehow related to, or metonymous of, the heart of Canada, the spiritual essence of the nation "awaiting discovery." The heavy therapeutic investment in the local landscape as "the antidote for the poisons of industrial society," is homologous with the need to maintain nature as a space of exact legibility and its conceptualization as part of the "healing wilderness" renders it "as much the product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden" (Schama 7). Schama rightly suggests, in Landscapes and Memory (1996) that "[l]andscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock…. [I]t should also be acknowledged that once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery" (61).

There is an element of "deja vu" implicit in current conservationist discourse that promotes the Thames as a cultural landscape, as a place within the parameters of London "to get away from it all," for such representations of the River are not unsimilar to the past objectifications of the landscape that led to the employment of the Thames (as with all major rivers throughout history) as an economic currency in the gospel of commercial imperialism and consumer ideology. The perpetuation of the River’s commercial use appeals to a current market that demands the convenience of urban existence in close proximity to a semi-rural environment. Such demands call into question the motivation behind conservation policies that are supposedly directed at negotiating, if not solving, the paradox of Canada being—to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination (1995)—a "nature-loving and resource-consuming" nation (4).

In order to interrogate these issues, it is useful to consider the Thames as what M.M. Bakhtin terms a "chronotope,"1 as a text in space-time whose representational history begins, for present purposes, with the advent of British colonists in the late eighteenth century. By tracing the industrial and recreational uses of the River, it will be possible to reveal the extent to which the local landscape is the discursive product, rather than the cause, of conservation policies that acquire an intellectual, popular, and legal authority (Mazel 143) in the region by perpetuating the use of the River "in the service of local, regional and national particularism" (Buell 32).

The Empire of the Lower Lakes

TO BE LET, several valuable MILL SCITES, situated on the River THAMES at the flourishing town of LONDON, Upper Canada, have a constant supply of water throughout the year, for machinery to any extent. In order to induce persons of sober industrious habits, with a moderate capital, to settle there, the following advantageous terms are offered to personal of respectable character only, who will expend this year not less than 100 pounds sterling, in erecting either a brewery, fulling mill, turning lathe, paper factory, trip-hammer, furnace, tannery, saw-mill, oil-mill…. One acre of land with a good mill scite thereon, will be given at 12 pounds sterling per annum, on a lease for 50 years, with the liberty of cutting as much oak and pine timber, gratis, as may be used in the necessary erections.

—Joseph Strangeman, The Courier of Upper Canada (1835), qtd. in                                                  Rediscovering London’s River (1996) (12)

According to Donald Creighton, each portion of immigrant society in Canada, "after long trial and recurrent error, ha[s] read the meaning of its own environment, accepted its ineluctable compulsions and prepared to monopolize its promises. And each, in the process of this period of adjustment, ha[s] acquired an American character, a purpose and a destiny in America" (3). During this process, the knowledge and use of the lands that became Canada were integral to the building of lives and livelihoods which, in turn, became implicated in the self-conscious agenda of nation-building in a North American environment. Nevertheless, while eyes were turned forward, they were also turned back, to the motherland, for the settlers brought with them the attitudes and prejudices of the societies they had left behind. These attitudes played themselves out symbolically in the topography of the so-called New World which was ordained, by its English-speaking inhabitants, a political, judicial and religious extension of the British Empire. Much of the topographical poetry that is contemporaneous with the settlement and development of Lower and Upper Canada celebrates the coming of an new age for Britain and imposes British values on the Canadian landscape. As D.M.R Bentley puts it with regard to Cornwall Bayley’s Canada (1806), Britain was seen by early writers as having "implemented a new golden age on the banks of the St. Lawrence and, with names like Kingston and Prince Henry,…made the River itself an emblem of the ‘regal sway’…from which….the British Constitution derives its strength" (Early Long Poems 78). The successful prevention of Canada from experiencing the same fate as the Thirteen Colonies was seen as one justification for the British presence in the area. This political and ideological purpose was read, in turn, onto a landscape that seemed to exude imperial sentiment and embody renewed hopes for a society "grounded in Christian faith and conservative ideology" (Bentley Early Long Poems 78).

The St. Lawrence River was responsible, as Creighton explains, for linking the industrial nation of Great Britain with the more agricultural economies of Lower and Upper Canada. According to Creighton, "the lands which spread out north and south and westward of the Great Lakes were claimed and largely exploited by the commercial state which was centralized at Quebec and Montreal" (14). The merging of these two economies via the waterway is a key component of that which Creighton terms "the empire of the St. Lawrence:" "[i]t was the one great river which led from the eastern shore into the heart of the continent…. The whole west, with all its riches, was the dominion of the river. To the unfettered and ambitious, it offered a pathway to the central mysteries of the continent. The river meant movement, transport, a ceaseless passage west and east, the long process of river-craft—canoes, bateaux, timber rafts and steamboats—which followed each other into history…. [A]nd from the river there rose, like an exhalation, the dream of Western commercial empire" (6). The product of similar discourses, the Thames River at London microcosmically embodied analogous notions of dominion, transport and commerce. But while the St. Lawrence River signified both internal and international trade, the Thames, owing to its central geographical position and location in an optimum agroclimatic zone, embodied primarily the opening up of intercontinental trade and presented the possibility of reaping commercial prosperity form locations deeper and deeper in the heart of the prosperous and responsive new continent. As Creighton indicates, the year of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles was a crucial one for the lower Great Lakes Basin: "1783 began an economic and social revolution in th[e] region of the Great Lakes which lasted form nearly four decades after the peace. The new international boundary partitioned the northern commercial state, the coming of the Loyalists initiated a radical change in its character. Both these changes were of great importance…and in the next forty years the merchants had to revise their commercial machine…in response to the settlement of the lower lakes" (87). In the years following 1783, the local fur-trading economy was rapidly superseded by the agricultural economy of the Loyalists who quickly transformed the region in a manner that anticipated its present agrarian function and appearance. Montreal soon saw its position of centrality threatened by the export power generated in the Great Lakes region of Upper Canada and the fur-trade was eventually replaced by the trade in the staple of wheat, timber and potash.2

Because agriculture and industry relied on water for grist, saw, and other machinery, the presence of a river was crucial in deciding the location of the first settlements in North America. The Thames River Valley, with its strategic inland position (a significant factor given the political unrest between the two Canadas and the United States), industrial and recreational potential, and rich, responsive soil, offered strong incentive for settlement. Perhaps the most famous assertion of the region’s potential is to be found in Major Edward Littlehale’s account of Lieutenant Governor Simcoe’s visit to London on March 2, 1793:

We walked over a rich meadow and at its extremity reached the forks of the river. The Governor wished to examine this situation, eminently calculated for the metropolis of all Canada. Among many other essentials, it possessed the following advantages: Command of Territory—internal situation—central position—facility of water communication up and down the Thames[,] superior navigation for boats to near its source…the soil is luxuriously fertile and the land capable of being easily cleared and soon put into a state of agriculture.
                                                                                               (qtd. in Armstrong 80)

Simcoe envisioned a London that would skyrocket in growth and prosperity to become the predominant political and economic centre of Upper Canada. Although he lived to see the city of Toronto surpass London in terms of political, economic, and cultural centrality, his endorsement of the area (especially his desire to see the more commercially-oriented Loyalists settle the region) led to the rapid settlement of the Thames Valley and forms the basis of the claim that London was "the site of the first successful commercial agrarian society in Canada" ("The Thames River" 5).

In an earlier essay in the present volume, "Tokens of Being There," D.M.R. Bentley quotes Ronald L. Meek to the effect that one of the most important ingredients in post-Enlightenment thinking was the so-called "four stages theory" of social development.3 Simultaneously conceived in Britain "by Adam Smith and in France by A.R.J. Turgot," the four stages theory maintains that "all societies develop through four distinct stages, each defined by its modes of subsistence: (1) a savage stage based on hunting and gathering; (2) a barbaric (or pastoral) stage based on herding; (3) an agricultural stage based on farming; and (4) a commercial stage [encompassing commerce, science and philosophy] based on trading." As the northern economy moved into the interior of the continent in the drive to achieve the agricultural and commercial stages of development, the nature of settlement became more complex and farmers and merchants relied on more elaborate and efficient methods of production and transportation. In short, the development of the large agricultural and commercial centres in the interior of the continent that would signify the society’s achievement of cultural maturity was contingent upon a great deal of capital. For Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe it thus seemed imperative "to attract American settlers to his government and to win their loyalty by its excellence. He believed that Upper Canada, which jutted like a huge projection into the central waters of the continent, would be inevitably the focus of the trade in the new staples on the Great Lakes" (Creighton 116). The change in the economy of the region, however, signified more than just a change in crops culturated and goods traded; it indicated a transition in the cultural growth of the continent. As Creighton rightly points out, "[t]he fur trade had been based upon a hunting society, but the new economy was agricultural and its basis was land." And since the four stages theory presented commercial development and prosperity as the objective of all societies, "the novel interest of the merchants in landed property is one of the best indicators of the great transition in the economy of the north" (122) to the fourth stage of commerce, with all that it promised in terms of leisure and culture.

In his A General Description of Nova Scotia (1823), Thomas Chandler Haliburton observes that "[t]he origin and growth of a modern Colony affords much matter of curious speculation," for "[t]o trace the difference between the state of man rising in the progress of years to civilization, and that of an enlightened people operating upon uncultivated nature, is at once an interesting and useful pursuit" (163). As if expanding Haliburton’s observation into the urban realm, in what Frederick H. Armstrong calls "the favoured theory of metropolitan expansion" around the turn of the twentieth century (and certainly the one most relevant to the development of London), Norman Gras (1884-1956), an early graduate of the University of Western Ontario who went on to head the business school at Harvard, argues that "in the course of its rise to metropolitan status a town passes through four stages: first, it becomes a market centre, then a focus of industry, next a hub of communications, and finally a centre of finance" (Armstrong 84). In a statement reminiscent of Haliburton, Armstrong modifies this theory slightly by adding that "by the time Upper Canada was being opened up, the level of technology was such as to make a more or less concurrent development of the first three stages possible" (84). Indeed, the topographical poetry from the period of colonization, such as Adam Hood Burwell’s Talbot Road (1818), deals with the development of young but prosperous settlements in Canada and addresses the facile simultaneity of the first three stages by emphasizing the availability in southwestern Ontario of staple goods, ownership of land, natural resources, industry and a waterway servicing the imperial market. In Burwell’s words, settlements such as these were "created for delight," on a land that invited "enterprising freemen forth, / …[to] transform the rugged wilds / To fruitful fields, and bid tam’d nature smile" (85-90).

In The Environmental Imagination, Buell discusses the substantialization of pastoralism "in locodescriptive poetry and, more grandly, in the representations of Europe’s colonies as pastoral abodes, first by promoters and explorers, later by the settlers themselves as an article of cultural nationalism" (32)—and, of course, as a marketing tool for potential immigrants to the colonies. A source of regional pride for southwestern Ontario was the Talbot Road on the north shore of Lake Erie, the settlement which provides the primary subject for the area’s first long poem. Local pride in Adam Hood Burwell’s Talbot Road functions as an attempt to turn nostalgic eyes to the present, to mythologize the landscape in order to influence attitudes regarding possession of the land and, in turn, to promote emigration and facilitate its ultimate end, the grand and noble task of colony-building. A belief in the divine justification of the possession of the land by the Talbot settlers was at once necessary in validating their perception of the landscape as virginal and submissive and in justifying their perceived messianic role in transforming the land through agriculture into a site of commerce. Towards the end of the poem, Burwell credits "commerce" with near divine qualities and powers:

Commerce, the first of friends to human kind,
That opens a new creation in the mind;
That tames the hardy savage, rough and rude,
And forms society for mutual good,
Shall here unfurl the broad and ample sail,
To court the favours of the rising gale;
The barque, deep laden, press the foaming tide,
And safely on vast Erie’s bosom ride.
Freighted with wealth from India’s distant shores,
Whose burning climes the dauntless tar explores.

The cultural advantages that coincided with agricultural and commercial prosperity are epitomized in Talbot Road, where the two stages of development follow one another in the conventional sequence and appear willingly to cooperate with the inhabitants of the Settlement to allow them the prosperity, physical health, and mental well-being that comes with living in such close proximity to a commercial trade route that participates in the network of the Empire:

Beneath the blessings of their native skies,
The Town, the Village shall be seen to rise;
The stately mansion, and the costly hall,
The labell’d office, neat, convenient, small,
The ample warehouse, and the clean fireside,
Where friendship, love, and harmony reside.
The Bustling town, the morn shall usher in,
And close the evening with a constant din,
The din of business—Wealth already stands,
And drops profusion from his open hands.

Burwell’s portrait is of a settlement perfectly positioned to reap the wealth of a navigable St. Lawrence and Great Lakes waterway, a community poised to become part of an industrious and, therefore, wealthy land inhabited by a virtuous populace. Like Oliver Goldsmith’s The Rising Village (1825, 1834), Talbot Road describes a landscape "that generates admiration, affection, and, hence, poetry" (Bentley Early Long Poems 196). Watching over Talbot’s settlers "is a God whose managerial approach to ‘Hope’ and ‘Anticipation’ shows that he understands the spiritual needs and commercial aspirations of emigrants to Upper Canada" (Bentley Early Long Poems 106) and, by extension, approves of the dream of Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe to bring settlers both to the Talbot Settlement and to London, the city that Simcoe hoped would be instrumental to the growth and development of Canada.

Not only did the immense agricultural changes implemented by the settlers change the physical topography of Upper Canada, but they also altered its sociopolitical landscape. The feudal structure of society, represented by the outmoded "French" structure, had been replaced, as Creighton observes, by a "new social organization" in which "the merchants were clearly the dominating economic and social groups…. The British governors came slowly to look upon the Canadian merchants, along with the churchmen, professional men and landowners, as the pillars of society and the national support of government" (125). In short, the merchants became, literally and figuratively, the representatives of commerce which, in turn, dictated the organization of society. In a society that sees commerce as its goal, the heroes are, not surprisingly, the merchants and manufactures. In London, therefore, commercial control was in the hands of the merchants who owned the shops, mills, and breweries that formed a major part of the city-centre and lined the banks of the River. Traveling up the Thames from Lake Erie, the new economic imperialism determined the course of history in London, where merchants became local heroes and their products a source of local pride and, in time, cultural nationalism.

Man vs. Man

Standing pre-eminent as an industrial centre, giving precedence only to one rival in all Canada as a wholesale and distribution point, the hub of the garden of the Dominion and the keystone of Western Ontario, a place of unequalled advantages and a thriving city of prosperity and constant development, London, the county seat of Middlesex, proudly presents herself.

—H.W. Gardner, London, Ontario, Canada (1914) (2)

The emigration policies of the British Empire coincided with another development in British society in the late eighteenth century: the enclosure of the English countryside. As Ann Bermingham explains in Landscape and Ideology (1986), the enclosure of the countryside for agricultural purposes raised the "commercial and monetary" (1) worth of the land in support of a burgeoning urban market. Consequently, the British landscape acquired a new economic, social and political value and the "natural world" was again called upon to clarify and justify social change. The enclosure of the countryside radically altered the British landscape; precisely because of this marked "historical change, it was offered as the image of the homely [and] the stable" in the artwork of the period (Bermingham 9). In Canada as well as in Britain, images of a homely countryside were embodied in artworks that depicted appreciative people benefiting from their exposure to a rustic landscape. In this way, the actual loss of open, or public, land was, in turn, compensated for by its imaginative recovery. In the service of expansionism, the Canadian Thames was depicted as a picturesque balance of labour (on a rich and responsive soil) and leisure. Pre-Confederation artists depicted the River as both a site of labour and a site of pleasure, and its surrounding countryside as the orderly and obedient manifestation of an ordered and cultured society.

Henry Nesbitt McEvoy, Scene from Springbank Park (London) (1880). (Courtesy of the London Regional Art and Historical Museums.)

Reservoir Hill in what is now London’s Springbank Park became a significant focal point for artistic depictions of the City for two reasons: (1) as the highest point of land in the area, it provided a panoptic view, allowing the City, countryside and River to be surveyed from a single, central vantage point; and (2) due to its geographical position, it allowed no traffic sounds from the City to take away from the illusion of a rural retreat along the banks of the Thames. Furthermore, the significance of Reservoir Hill lay in its marketability as a site of ideal and "painterly" surroundings from which the prospective settler, with "careless eye" (Burwell 69), could survey his prospects—that is, both a pleasant scenery and its commercial potential. The artistic renderings of London and the Thames during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries address the loss of the English countryside by suggesting the availability of land similar to that of Britain—hence the names London and Thames for the City and its River. In the eighteen thirties, Anna Jameson would go as far as to quote a passage from William Wordsworth’s sonnet "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge…" (1807) on the banks of the Thames near Chatham: "[W]e emerged from the forest-path onto a plain, through which ran a beautiful river (my old acquaintance the Thames,) ‘winding at his own sweet will’…" (300).

During the pre-Confederation period, the role of the River in both the commercial development of London and the agenda of colonial settlement was subject to change with the social economy. While the countryside, in response to the enclosure of land in Britain, was employed to procure cultural and economic capital, trends of urbanization, in the meantime, were affecting London’s own perception of its River. Having fallen short of becoming the metropolis envisioned by Simcoe, Londoners, in the years prior to Confederation, took consolation from the idea that the Thames was "a key section of Canada’s most important axis of urban development" ("The Thames River" 6). In this way, the River’s value as an object of economic trends and a key conceptual metaphor in the encouragement of urban and commercial expansion was sustained.

Because the seasonal and annual growth of industry was, in many ways, at the mercy of the climate, the River, as a primary source for industry, came increasingly to be seen as a nuisance. The potential of ice damage in winter, flooding in the spring, and droughts in the summer was perceived as a threat to the industrial progress of the City and as a hinderance to its commercial growth. Ironically, "[f]armers were often a chief cause of flooding because they drained natural swamps for cultivation, increasing run-off. Likewise, the cutting of trees along the Upper Thames River watershed between 1848 and 1854 contributed to run-off and in turn led to heavy spring flooding" (Rediscovering 46). Nevertheless, shifts in expectation that came with the rapid industrialization of London affected its perception of the River and lessened tolerance of the regular inundations that were beneficial for the soil. In order to continue to serve in the gospel of progress, the River had to be harnessed and its natural inundations contained to allow the industrial and commercial growth of the City to proceed unhindered.

Rediscovering the River

Rising 23 feet above its normal level, on April 26 and 27, 1937, the Thames River once again reminded Londoners of its wrath. The torrent left one fatality, damage to about 1,000 houses, and nearly $1,000,000 in losses…. In spite of this renewed reminder of the power of the river and warnings from environmentalist…it took ten years and another flood threat (in 1947) before any practical steps were taken to control the capricious Thames.

—Orlo Miller, London 200: an Illustrated History (1992) (187n, 188)

"There is an irony to the picturesque early landscapes of London" which depict "non-threatening meadows and [a] timid river" maintain the authors of Rediscovering London’s River (1996), for "the works of nineteenth-century military topographers do not reflect the experience of those who were inconvenienced by the annual spring freshets or faced devastation in the great flood…. The unpredictable Thames brought death and despair to Londoner’s living too close to its banks" (47). In contradistinction to the threat of flooding and the inconvenience it posed to those living along the banks of the River in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, however, were the attitudes of the settlers who populated the region in the early stages of settlement. As Pat Morden explains in Putting Down Roots (1988), "Thames Valley pioneers accepted the fact that the river burst its banks from time to time" (Morden 27). Not only were the floods perceived as beyond people’s control, they were also accepted as a natural means of enriching the soil. Until well into the nineteenth century, the settlers were still "careful to build their homes a safe distance from the water. The silt deposited by flooding was considered a boon to agriculture, and logs and rafts of lumber could be floated downstream on the crest of spring freshets. Settlers were more concerned if, after several dry, wild years, the river shrank and could no longer power the mills" (Morden 27). Once Londoners began to build their homes along the banks of the Thames in the mid to late nineteenth century, however, they were motivated to protect their investments—what today would be called their human heritage—by damming the River and repeatedly constructing and reconstructing dikes. In order to be conducive to further settlement and development, the capricious and unpredictable River had to be rendered constant and predictable and millennia of meandering to be arrested.

According to the authors of Rediscovering London’s River, since 1792 more than one hundred floods and freshets have been recorded on the Thames. The worst recorded floods in local history occurred in 1883 and 1937; in April 1937, over four hundred and thirty acres of the City flooded and over "one thousand buildings suffered damage" (Rediscovering xiii), thereby prompting initial measures at "conservation" to stop once and for all the devastation of human habitations along the banks of the Thames. While many Londoners lost their homes, their livelihoods and their possessions, the tragedy of the flood of 1883 came also to be measured in terms of the victims’ loss of social standing. Meanwhile, the continuing and extensive massive clearing of trees along the banks of the Thames to make room for industrial and residential development resulted in ever greater run-off during normal spring-time flooding. Morden explains that "[d]eforestation and ice jams caused by the increasing number of mill dams and bridges made floods more dangerous. The flimsy wooden bridges which connected London to the south and west were quickly swept away when the river rose. As…houses were built on the river flats…flooding threatened not only fields and bridge, but also people" (27). Nevertheless, houses continued to be built and rebuilt on the river flats. In the aftermath of the flood of 1883, Londoners’ attempts at "conservation" included the construction of break walls, channel improvements, dikes and dams, yet these were often hastily and sloppily constructed. For example, "a flimsy dike constructed in West London collapsed under the force of water in March, 1898." It was rebuilt, but "proved inadequate again only six years later" (Morden 28). In 1905 the dikes were again rebuilt and extended but, as Morden again makes clear, in 1918, 1925, 1935, 1936 and, of course, 1937, flooding caused massive damage to the buildings along the riverbanks (28).

Implicit in the view of the natural environment as a threat to "fields…bridges [and]…people" (Morden 27) is a refiguring of a well-constructed "natural" world whose "authentic realism" is contingent upon its resemblance to popular picturesque representations of landscape. In other words, as the role of the Thames in industry gradually waned, its picturesque attributes rose to prominence, ensuring the River’s continuing objectification in order that it be appreciated as a thing of tranquil beauty. Made to coincide with images of landscape that were themselves the products of the Romantic and picturesque traditions, "nature" was to be appreciated voyeuristically like the "pristine form" that has been stripped of her natural covering and clothed with the "richer, variegated vest" of agriculture in Talbot Road (472, 104). In the meantime (and as intimated earlier), another force was playing a great role in the gradual redefinition of the Thames: the railway quickly displaced the River as the region’s primary mode of transportation and trade.

Sleight of Hand

A canal or railroad, running from Toronto and Hamilton to London, then branching off on the right to the harbor of Goderich on Lake Huron, and on the Left to Sandwich on Lake Erie, were a glorious thing!—the one thing needful to make this fine country the granary and storehouse of the west.

—Anna Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838) (145)

The visitor will find evidence on every hand that London is a business and railway centre, a city of churches, of schools and colleges and beautiful parks…in short, all that tends to make the ideal city for all classes.

 —H.W. Gardner, London, Ontario, Canada (1914) (4)

The rapid industrialization of the London region in the mid-nineteenth century brought with it the railway, a more convenient method of transportation and continental trade than either rivers or roads. Emphasis shifted from waterways to the railway as primary mode of transportation to and in Southwestern Ontario, and the image of the railway became a valuable tool with which to attract immigrants to the area. As a document of 1914 states: "[w]hen the citizens [of London] decided to spend over half a million dollars to electrify and equip this line [to Port Stanley] for the city’s own use, leading manufacturers, with an eye to the future growth of the city, voiced the opinion that the citizens had taken one of the most progressive steps in the building of a great city. By using this line, the manufacturers are in a position to secure not only coal at a small cost, but other manufacturing material and merchandise from across Lake Erie and up and down the Great Lakes" (Gardner 2). According to Armstrong, "[w]ith the coming of the railways the urban pattern of Canada West / Ontario was set for a century, until the throughways began to supplement them, and London was fixed in its place as the economic hub of Southwestern Ontario" (92). These fundamental changes in the economy of Southwestern Ontario would prompt ever larger portions of the populace to abandon the countryside and move to urban centres. The rapid industrialization of the area was concomitant with a shift in attitude that would restrict the River’s social role to that of recreational pleasure, thereby fixing it as a "spiritual" location, a reproduction of "nature" to which the city-dweller, at his or her convenience, could retreat "to bear witness" to an image of "nature" cast "with a naive resemblance and a touching fidelity" (Baudrillard 14).

While rivers symbolized Canada’s "power, wealth and political health" (Hemingway 217), the Thames also became a vehicle for, or emblem of, London’s moral health. As some four stages theorists argued, and as Oliver Goldsmith cautions in The Rising Village, "the blessings of ‘Commerce’…would be mixed if leisure and luxury were permitted to weaken the moral fibre of society" (Bentley Early Long Poems 196) and "vice" to spread "her miseries o’er the village plain" (Goldsmith 289-90). These same thoughts are reflected by Jameson during her stay in London in 1837:

[There] is, I fear, a good deal of drunkenness and profligacy; for although the people have work and wealth, they have neither education nor Amusements…. Hear Dr. Channing, the wise and the good:—"People," he says, "should be guarded against temptation to unlawful pleasures by furnishing the means of innocent ones. In every community, there must be pleasures, relaxations, and means of agreeable excitement…. Man was made to enjoy as well as to labor, and the state of society should be adapted to this principle of human nature…. Men drink to excess very often to shake off depression, or to…satisfy the restless thirst for agreeable excitement, and these motives are excluded in a cheerful community."

Concomitant with the same therapeutic attitudes that led to the creation of Central Park in New York and the building of cottages on the shores of lakes and rivers throughout the central and eastern United States and Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the city of London too saw changes that brought with them a greater emphasis on playground activities, sporting leagues, steamboat rides up and down the River, and other elaborate schemes to make available various year-round recreational activities that centered on the River and nearby parks. With the construction of the waterworks dam at Springbank Park in 1878, steamship travel along the Thames became a popular pastime.

Shifts in the role of the River throughout the nineteenth century are implicit in the conservation mentality that began in the region in the late nineteenth century and became increasingly popular throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The need for area residents not only to protect their material and ideological investments, but also to preserve the Thames as a means of recreational therapy, a means of relieving partially the burden of urban living, led to the conservation measures responsible for the formation, in 1947, of Ontario’s first Conservation Authority which quickly commissioned the construction of the Fanshawe Dam to ensure the material security and psychological well-being of Londoners. Maintaining the River and the City’s parks as therapeutic facilities for the community required the implementation of an elaborate conservation mechanism both to prevent flooding and to preserve the "natural" integrity of the Thames and Riverside parks:

It had been the removal of trees and the very construction of homes now being flooded that had loosened the river-banks so much that the earth had failed to constrain the floodwaters…. But in the mid-1940s, the Upper Thames Valley Authority worked toward the construction of a dam that would eliminate thirty-seven percent of the floodwaters of the Thames watershed. In the late ’40s, the reservoir of the new dam at Fanshawe was made a centre for domestic water supply. The dam itself was finished in 1952. So although Fanshawe Park today stands for pleasure and summer entertainment, the land also embodies a decades-long struggle against the potential menace of the Thames.
                                                                                                              (Bowley 24)

It is problematic to suggest that the land embodies (that is, remembers) its struggle against the Thames, for the supposed conservation of the Thames River Valley then becomes contingent upon maintaining the perception of a struggle to protect the land against its natural antagonist, the River, while the need to preserve London for such a menace and to conserve the Thames as a (tranquil) place for pleasure acquires centrality within a discourse of self-preservation redirected through the rhetoric of ecological sensitivity and concern.

The advent of parks such as Fanshawe and Springbank brought with it a kind of spectacle that coincided with and supported a sense of local self-importance. As the city grew, it was refashioned in the image of Victorian and Edwardian ideals of social order. In an "equation between the character of peoples and the regions they inhabit" (Hemingway 218), the city was made to contain within its parameters an appropriate balance between sires of labour and sites of organized pleasure that was deemed conducive to maintaining a healthy, happy and prosperous populace. Yet, while Springbank Park was originally conceived by Alderman James Egan in the late nineteenth century as an ideal site for a waterworks plant and reservoir, the river park soon grew into a sort of amusement park. In the 1890s, as Morden explains, the Board of Water Commissioners began to make "improvements" to it, adding paths, shade trees, benches, swings and eventually moonlight excursions on streetcars. Later, the tracks and grounds "were electrically lit, creating a romantic setting" (15). In 1897 an open air theatre was constructed. In 1906 a permanent gardener was hired. In 1907 tennis and bowling lawns were added and in 1914 three raccoons and three owls were purchased to form the Springbank Zoo (Morden 15). Meanwhile, excursions on the River and frolics on its banks "could easily be turned into a symbol of a mythical social unity" (Hemingway 278) in the service of promoting London as the ideal city in which to live, providing just the right amounts of commerce, leisure and prosperity to contented and well-rounded residents.4

The Science of Nature

Parks are not only desirable from the point of view of creating an amenity for the enjoyment of the citizens. In the modern city, they are essential for the preservation of city life. [emphasis added]

—Thomas Adams, Report on Town Planning Survey (1922), qtd. in Pat                                                     Morden, Putting Down Roots (1988) (53)

Since the therapeutic assumptions of Adams’ 1922 report have gained rather than diminished in currency since the Second World War, it is now deemed imperative that the modern city provide its time-consumed resident with convenient access to natural environments. As the topography of North American cities has changed and populations have moved from city centres to suburbs, it has become increasingly important that the city be remodeled to serve the cultural and recreational (as well as the economic) needs of its residents. The employment of the natural environment as a vehicle for the cultural and spiritual growth of the city-dweller is showcased in most current documentation concerning the revitalization of London’s downtown core, and presented as an urban necessity in London Walks (1975), a document produced to encourage Londoners’ active exploration of the city’s human and "natural" heritage sites: "[a]wareness of urban problems and of life in the city has spawned a tendency to…explore the details of the urban environment on foot…. [O]ne is no longer able rigidly to equate recreation with getting out of the city, as the city increasingly becomes the city-dweller’s closest, and best, source of both educational and healthful recreation" (Davis i).

While pollution resulting from over two centuries of industrial development along the bank of the River has problematized the City of London’s attempts to shape and market the Thames River Valley as a principal source of inner-city recreation, Londoners are nevertheless encouraged to improve their "quality of life" and "nurture the spirit within" by rediscovering their "eternal connection with the world of nature" (Rediscovering 101) and their associations with an area resonant with historical significance. City dwellers and tourists alike are encouraged to enjoy features of the City such as the Thames Valley Trail and various inner-city parks in renewed and organized attempts at refashioning the Thames Basin into a "one-stop" spot for physical relaxation and spiritual replenishment, the success of which is undoubtedly contingent upon the creation of short-term conservation measures such as tree-planting, the allocation of park lands, the repopulation of endangered fish and wildlife species and, of course, damming: "[t]oday the Thames River water levels are continuously monitored at several bridges in London," write the authors of Rediscovering London’s River; "[i]f the Conservation Authority warns of imminent flooding, city teams measure water levels, inspect dams and diversion channels, and patrol the city’s five kilometres of dikes. If severe flooding is anticipated, emergency crews will erect barricades, place sandbags at trouble spots, and close inlet valves at sewage control plants" (59). The popular perception of highly-technologized methods of conservation as conducive to increasing the environmental awareness of the general public is grounded in a fundamentally liberal definition of progress inherited from the nineteenth century that holds technological proliferation to be both proper and necessary. The result of such idealizations of nature is, again, to reduce it to an image, to the level of a public currency that requires "the proper means (technology) to actualize" (Poster 4).

For Jean Baudrillard, the investment of nature with a utilitarian value is representative of the "anthropology of man seeking his telos in the conquest of nature, an anthropology that becomes mystifying when the system begins to create ecological catastrophes" (Poster 4). With the rapid perfection of damming and anti-erosion techniques, the contemporary ecological catastrophe concerns not flooding but the rapid extinction of many wildlife species. While wildlife was dealt with by the early settlers as an obstacle to economic advancement and commercial development, it has no become the crucial ingredient for contemporary representations of "well-rounded" natural environments. In other words, wildlife preservation and the repopulation of endangered species is, more often than not, seen as a potential boon to economic growth of the City of London (as well as, of course, various other urban centres and rural retreats) in which species are put on display to make the city more attractive to tourist and residents alike and to emphasize the availability of both cultural and recreational entertainments to enrich the lives of city-dwellers. It is thus scarcely surprising that the borders of The Thames: Our Heritage (1997), a map produced by the Celebrate the Thames Steering Committee, in partnership with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, swarm with the various species to be found along the banks of the Thames in London.

Hunting and fishing pressures, together with pollution and the destruction of natural habitat, have effected the decline of many fish and wildlife populations in and around the Thames River. Unfortunately, current appeals for the repopulation of these species leave unanswered many questions regarding the ecocentrism of recent concerns for the environment. The Thames River Valley is home to many endangered species, as the current proposal for Canadian Heritage River status for the Thames maintains: "[t]he Thames watershed has particular significance in terms of the presence of a large proportion of rare or endangered species. At least 40 of the 275 species (14.4%) listed on the 1996 Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) Endangered Species List spend all or a major part of their life cycle in the watershed" ("The Thames River" 4). Yet as Buell suggests, "how we image a thing, true or false, affects our conduct toward it" (3) and the proposal’s discussion of the recreational value of the River and its watershed overshadows its allusions to the fragility of the ecosystem. Its assertion that "[t]here is unrealized potential for increased tourism linked to both natural and human heritage" (8) reveals instead a perceived equation of the natural world with tourist dollars and betrays a continuing association between the Thames River and affairs of politics and economics.

Furthermore, the proposal’s assertion that "some of the impoundments on the North and South branches [of the Thames] built for flood control have greatly increased and enhanced the recreational value of the river" (7) overlooks the fact that the network of dams installed to protect the human heritage (including the recreational value) of the River has greatly damaged the potentiality of the Thames to support its (declining) fish populations. In this way, an increase in fishing and hunting opportunities can be marketed in the proposal for Canadian Heritage River status via the rhetoric of conservation by appealing to the need for species repopulation: "[f]ishing is popular throughout the watershed…. The Thames is a nationally renowned walleye river. Walleye were successfully stocked into Fanshawe Lake…to extend year round fishing for this prized species…. White-tailed deer and upland game birds (pheasant, ruffed grouse and wild turkey) are hunted throughout the watershed as well. Efforts are underway to reintroduce bobwhite quail to its former range which includes much of the Thames watershed" ("The Thames River" 7). Appeals for the necessity of conservation policies to undo the harm done to the biota contain an attempt to convince by appealing to nostalgia, by addressing a sense of local responsibility through the implied recollection of a time when "nature" was not exploited by humans and the waters of the Thames were crystal clear and teeming with life. By restricting the use of the River and making it available exclusively for recreational, rather than industrial or commercial, purposes, one can assuage the perceived guilty conscience of society by creating the illusion of its participation in an ecological enlightenment that supposedly fosters an environmentally-friendly attitude to counter, and eventually replace, ecocentrism’s discursive opposite—that is, the anthropocentrism responsible for the abuse of the River.

Celebrating the Thames

By positioning use value as the beyond of exchange value, one locks all transcendence into the single, internal alternative of the field of value. But qualitative production is now the realm of rational, positive finality; the transformation of nature is now the place of its objectification as a productive force under the sign of utility.

Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (1975), qtd. in Mark Poster,                   Translator’s Introduction, The Mirror of Production (1975) (4)

A recurring marketing motif in conservation policies is that of a "(re)turn from the city to the rural place of cultural origin and spiritual centredness" (Buell 20). In a similar vein, not only has the Thames River been made to signify (outdoor) adventure and mobility but, in an attempt to recapture a romanticized and "otherized" past, it has also been made to stand for the heart of the City and, in many ways the heart of national history. Schama believes this to be "an innocent ritual…. [B]ehind it [lies] a long, rich pagan tradition that imagine[s] forests as the primal birthplace of nations; the beginning of habitation…the beginning of our place in the world, the nursery of the nation" (6). Yet as a ritual, a belief, or a habit, this romanticization should not be dismissed as innocent or merely "imaginative." For Buell rightly suggests, as trends of urbanization increase, the need to negotiate the place of "nature" will spawn new (or seemingly new) definitions of nature and its perceived role in society. The conservation measures applauded by the general public rely for their efficacy upon recycled definitions of an objectified Thames River that predates the human presence (an example of the "postlapsarian" state of nature desperately in need of human intervention in order to nurse it back to its "naturally" prelapsarian state), yet is inextricably linked with human destiny.

Texts dealing with the Thames River Valley that are seemingly environmentally-directed are not immune to the widespread trend to promote societal guilt regarding centuries of industrial and agricultural abuse of the land. Most such texts loudly lament that "human activities in the Thames watershed areas have had a detrimental effect on wildlife, fauna, potability and water resource management…. [T]he impact of exploitation…[has] rendered the flood plains in the Upper Thames region unsuitable for residential or industrial land uses" (Rediscovering xiii). Moreover, the ubiquitous demand for a conservation ethics leads the public conscience to be assuaged by claims that "provincial and municipal organizations have recognized the need to provide restoration and conservation policies and programs. Consequently, many undeveloped areas lying within the Thames River flood plains have been reserved for recreational use which promotes conservation ethics" (Rediscovering xii). The weakness of this statement rests in its association that betrays a popular tendency to lump governmentally-directed pollution control mechanisms and wildlife conservation policies with a concern for the environment based on establishing limits on technoeconomic growth. In this way, definitions of "real" nature become predicated upon the assumption that, because of their restriction of industrial and commercial land development in favour of exclusively recreational land use, policies of landscape preservation, with their attempts at creating therapeutic locales for the city-dweller, are ecologically sensitive.

According to Buell, the current "environmental crisis involves a crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends on finding better ways of imaging nature and humanity’s relation to it" (2). It is difficult, however, to differentiate current ways of imaging the Thames River Valley from previous ones, as both tend to define nature by its use value. With the environmental crisis, then, comes a vilification of commercial and industrial land use and a celebration of recreational land use as essentially conducive to a conservation ethics. The need to re-image nature also precipates a crisis of definition which enables the meshing of conversation ethics with ecological awareness, thereby reconfiguring the social order around the myth of a new, environmentally-oriented ethic attuned to the needs of an ecologically-sensitive populace.

The Thames River Valley is representative of the ways in which changing societies have employed their available technologies to extract from nature the means necessary to create and maintain a culturally and commercially prescribed way of life. As Baudrillard observes, "there is no symbolic exchange in this perspective, there is no reciprocal play of meanings and acts" (Poster 4). As for the Thames River at London (and no doubt for countless other rivers and cities in North America and elsewhere), nature has been and continues to be reduced, as Buell explains, to an "ideological theatre for acting out desires that have very little to do with bonding to nature as such and that subtly or not so subtly valorize its unrepresented opposite—complex society" (35). Considering the Thames as a line of space-time, beginning with the advent of the British settlers, offers a perspective considerably different from that put forward in much current literature about London whose prematurely celebratory tone regarding projects aimed at preserving the Thames River can produce in the public a predilection towards conservation policies presented and packaged as progressive—that is, socially, morally and environmentally responsible. This serves, in turn, to underscore the paradox implicit in current conservationist discourse that relies for its efficacy upon perceived attempts to destabilize current market trends while preserving a concept of nature conducive to the maintenance of attitudes homologous with those of mass resource consumption.




I am grateful to the members of the Celebrate the Thames Committee for their assistance at a time when my enthusiasm for this project was more apparent than its direction; and to John H. Lutman, Head, The J.J. Talman Regional collection, D.B. Weldon Library, The University of Western Ontario, for having given me the answers when he knew them and for having helped me to find them when he did not.Special thanks go to Dr. D.M.R. Bentley for months of patience and guidance.

  1. For a definition of Bakhtin’s term see Bakhtin, "Forms of the Chronotype and of the Chronotope in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination. [back]

  2. While the St. Lawrence’s commercial empire grew to encompass the Lower Lakes basin, its centre remained, in the late eighteenth century, Montreal. By, 1821, however, Lower Canada, having failed to negotiate successfully the transition from trade in fur to a trade in staple goods, saw its position of politicoeconomic centrality ceded to Upper Canada, whose inhabitants used the resources at hand simultaneously to build their lives and to take advantage of the changing continental economy (Creighton 89). The result was the substantiation of the area as a major player in commercial production and intercontinental trade and the marketing of the region to potential immigrants as an ideal place for settlement. [back]

  3. See Essay 2: Tokens of Being There: Land Deeds and Demarkations in Volume 1:47-92 of the present collection. [back]

  4. On Victoria Day, 1881, in what has been documented as one of the worst disasters in London’s recent history, the balance of such endeavours quite literally overturned when a dangerously overloaded steamship "Victoria" left the docks at Springbank Park. As the authors of Rediscovering London’s River explain: "[w]hen the ‘Victoria’ left the docks of Springbank it proceeded on a fairly steady course until some of the passengers started moving from one side to the other….[T]he fatal moment came when someone on the lower deck spied a race against two oarsmen on the north side of the boat and yelled: ‘Look at the race!’ When the crowd rushed over to one side the steamship capsized…. Nearly 200 people lost their lives" (27-8). [back]


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