River walking …

We recently took a field trip for first-year course I’m co-teaching on the history of the St. Lawrence River and Seaway. I’ve written before about the value of field trips, especially for environmental history courses, so I won’t go over that in detail again. Let’s just say I’m a big fan of field trips.

This course is part of the unique First Year Program (FYP) at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, which I’m teaching at this semester at as part of my Fulbright position. All incoming first-year students are required to take one of the FYP offerings, regardless of the field in which they plan to major. This program is designed so that all the students, regardless of different interests and aspirations in terms of majors and fields of study, all learn the basic skills fundamental to a liberal arts education.

It is also co-taught with someone from a different department, which is a unique pedagogical experience that I am enjoying, and thus really is interdisciplinary. The St. Lawrence River/Seaway makes for a good FYP because there is something in it for everyone – a prospective engineer can study the power dams, a future biologist can examine invasive species, an environmental studies major can look at ecological succession, and a politics/government major can study the congressional process.

The university provided a bus and driver for the whole day, as well as lunches. So two Saturdays ago we all met up at 8am and departed Canton for Waddington, and then followed along the St. Lawrence to the locks and dams at Barnhart Island near Massena.  They eye-rolling and ennui characteristic of 18-year olds, only exacerbated by having to get up early on the weekend, began to give way to some excitement as we watched a vessel go through the Eisenhower lock and scouted out the Long Sault control dam and Moses-Saunders powerhouses.

Then it was over the bridge to Cornwall – for several of the students, this was their first in Canada, which required that we stop at Tim Horton’s (only after we were detained an absurdly long time at Canadian customs). After a detour into the Lost Villages Museum, which was in the midst of hosting a wedding, we walked into the river.

That’s right – we walked into the river. The water along much of the shoreline of Lake St. Lawrence, created by the flooding from the Seaway and Power Project, is quite shallow in many places; this means that some of the former communities – the Lost Villages – displaced by the St. Lawrence project are under only a few feet of water.

The remains of the town of Aultsville, for example, are quite easy to find if you know where to look and if the water is low (and easy to see from the air if the water is clear – see the wonderful photography by my friend Louis Helbig: http://www.louishelbig.com/sunkenvillagesst.html)

Highway into Aultsville – building foundations visible on the left side

The remains of the road and sidewalk into Aultsville are quite visible – one can walk around half a kilometer out into the water. One of the students found the year “1918” stamped into a concrete sidewalk.

And foundations of houses and building are quite visible. I’ve also gotten a kick out of exploring these, and some of my more adventurous students did as well.

After we most of got wet, we headed to Morrisburg and Iroquois before heading back to Canton. In class the following week, it is clear that the field trip not only whetted their appetite for the topic, but helped them better conceptualize the scope and nature of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project.

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