What’s Really in a Name?
Michigan is filled (both the Upper and the Lower Peninsulas) with place names derived from the French language. From early 17th Century onwards, French-Canadian trappers knew well the lands that were to become the Wolverine State. And one can now find cities such as Charlevoix, Sault Sainte Marie, and even the once and perhaps future great city of Detroit. You can travel on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit or visit Montmorency County farther north and just below Presque Isle, near Fort Michilimackinac, but no, that’s an Iroquois word. You can visit Marquette, or ride the Bois Blanc (“Bob Blow”) boat to the amusement park of the same name.
As a child I was always fascinated by these names, but none held quite the fascination of Belle Isle, truly a beautiful island. Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s our family visited this jewel of a city park very often. Smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River it was entirely given over to leisure times and maintained by the City park service. My dad would try his hand at fishing in the rank and polluted river, my mom would busy herself with laying out a picnic lunch while my brothers invested time in doing brotherly things. I, on the other hand, would like as not find myself on the bank of the river, looking south toward the Canadian shore.
Now here’s a pop-quiz for you geographically challenged: When one looks due south from Detroit, the first country one locates is, wait for it; O, CANADA! Canada to the South? Check out a good map and you too can verify that Windsor Canada is actually directly south of Detroit and their Red Wings.
But I wasn’t really interested in Canada during those times, I was looking for smoke stacks. Not the stationary ones, though both Detroit and Windsor had more than their belching fair share. I was looking for smokestacks atop the Great Lakes freighters that sailed from late March to the beginning of November each year, bringing iron ore down from Minnesota’s Mesabi Range to Cleveland steel mills, bringing Chicago livestock to New York processing plants, and coal to Eire Pennsylvania and so much more.
I had a notebook that I used to keep track of the insignias on each of the smokestacks because each of these insignias was unique to a particular shipping company, and like nations’ flags, each was a beautiful design that set that particular fleet of ships apart from competitors. Yet even while I kept a log of the big US firms like Cleveland Cliffs, and Ford Motor Company (bringing iron ore down to its River Rouge automobile plant, another French name), I really had my eye out for the foreigners.
In April of 1959 the first ocean-going vessels could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of the US heartland with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. A series of locks and canals built to skirt the rapids of Canada’s St. Lawrence River which emptied the Great Lakes into the sea, this water highway opened up new worlds for me and fanned the fires of my dreams to travel which were already burning brightly.
I spotted ships from Antwerp and Panama, São Paulo and Liberia, and more, each one setting my mind alight to the possibilities of knowing at least some of those places. And now I’m here in Guayaquil, South America’s 3rd largest Pacific port.
I discovered this morning that there’s a boat tour of the city. How could I not get on board?