Steamboats and Lighthouses Key to Growth of St. Croix Valley

By Lura Jackson

 

The St. Croix River narrows and curves notably in certain areas, as this photo demonstrates. Vessels traveling in conditions with poor visibility would run aground without the aid of lighthouses. 

The St. Croix River is the arterial waterway of the St. Croix Valley, and it is through it that the communities that have existed here have thrived throughout its long history. For the Europeans that would later found Calais and St. Stephen, the river connected the communities with economic prosperity and a means to bring in necessities. Enabling that to happen required the introduction of two important elements along the riverway: steamboats and lighthouses.

“Money is the root of most things, and for Calais, it surely was,” said Brand Livingstone, former president of the St. Croix Historical Society. At a recent meeting of the SCHS, Livingstone described how the rapidly growing wood industry in the region prompted the need for better navigational aids for vessels. The challenging tides of the St. Croix River—as much as 33’ in the narrows—made it impossible for larger sailing vessels to make it to the Calais waterfront. “When it was low tide, you couldn’t turn a boat in that channel,” Livingstone said. 

Developments were slow in traveling up the coast. While steamboats were functional as early as 1807, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that they arrived in the St. Croix River. Just prior to that, a lighthouse was built on St. Croix Island, and the need for a second lighthouse at a particularly dangerous curve was cited. That lighthouse—known as Whitlock’s Mill lighthouse—was not built until 1909. 

With the arrival of the steamboats, schooners as large as 200’ could navigate the river. “That’s what made Calais and St. Stephen able to get the boats up river, turned around, away from the bad stuff and back out to the bay,” Livingstone said.

Even with steamboats and lighthouses in place, the river remained challenging for vessels. Having spent time on the St. Croix River since his birth in the 1920s, Livingstone himself is a lifelong sailor that is well familiar with the “difficult river”. He recalled one instance where he was traveling downriver in his 1928 Whalen brothers’ boat, and he spotted an 80’ long oil boat traveling towards him around the river’s curve. Looking behind him, he saw the steamboat Grand Manan coming up around the opposite curve. 

“I held my breath and watched,” Livingstone said. With no way to warn the vessels and no radio contact between the boats, there was little that Livingstone could do. “The oil boat couldn’t change course, so the Grand Manan came around to the right, running over the rocks and mud on the American side,” he recalled. The boat was undamaged afterwards and Livingstone praised the quick actions of the captains. “It was a matter of seconds to decide what to do.”

Driven by the allure of economic prosperity, more than 1,500 vessels were recorded as having come to Calais to either bring in cargo or to pick it up. In turn, the town grew to nearly 10,000 people at its peak, Livingstone said.

 

At the next public meeting of the St. Croix Historical Society, personal accounts of the lighthouse keepers of Whitlock’s lighthouse will be shared. The meeting will be held on October 3rd at 7:00 pm at the Holmestead on Main Street.