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History Happened Here

Crossing Borders

June 2024
6min read


New Brunswick, the oldest province in Eastern Canada, shares a long border and just as long a history with the state of Maine. Over centuries, the region saw plots, raids, and wars, as France and Britain and later the nascent United States fought for control of a land rich in the bounties of forest and the sea.

Roosevelt Campobello International Park, on Campobello Island at the southwestern tip of the province, reflects the more harmonious Canadian-American relations of the last century. At the heart of the park, the carefully preserved summer home of Franklin Roosevelt draws about 150,000 visitors each year to a patch of “Canadian soil that has become part of America’s heritage,” as the late Sen. Edmund Muskie once put it.

You can reach Campobello by ferry or automobile from either country. My route took me from the Canadian resort community of St. Andrews, along a fragrantly spruce-fringed route with vistas of Passamaquoddy Bay gleaming at every turn. This involved four border crossings: from Canada to the United States, then back to Canada as we crossed the bridge to Campobello, then the same trip in reverse. Each time we showed our passports and fielded a different set of questions: 1. Any alcohol, tobacco, or firearms? 2. Where are you going, and did you make any purchases in the United States? 3. Is this your car? 4. How many passengers in your car?

One wonders if the original investors in Campobello from Gilded Age America, Roosevelt’s father among them, encountered even as much as this mild interrogation when they traveled by rail and ship to the island they planned to develop as a luxurious resort. Roosevelt was a one-year-old when he first came here in 1883, and he returned almost every summer after that until polio struck him here in 1921. By then, he and Eleanor had moved from his mother’s house on the island to one of their own, which was called a “cottage” despite its 34 rooms.

This is a place of eclectic and rambling comfort, unpretentious in its simply furnished bedrooms, some 17 in all, its splotchy flowered wallpaper, and its airy living room where chintz-covered easy chairs cluster to provide magnificent vistas of the bay.

As a boy, FDR learned from the local fishermen to love and manage the moods of the wild tides that pour into the Bay of Fundy. When he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he sometimes arrived aboard a destroyer. Presenting an image that reads like a metaphor for Roosevelt’s Presidency, Stephen Muskie, the senator’s elder son and the author of a book about the island, writes, “Although it was against naval regulations, he persuaded the captain to let him take the helm and piloted the ship at full speed ahead through fog-bound waters.”


During one day in August of 1921 that echoes the manic energy of his cousin Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin had sailed with visitors and fallen into the bay, remembering later that he had “never felt any-
thing so cold as that water.” He tried to shake off a sudden malaise by leading his children on a two-mile jog through the woods to swim in a lake, and then they all helped put out a fire on a deserted island. That night he collapsed into a painful, paralytic illness that was only diagnosed as polio at the end of several awful weeks. After that, FDR revisited his beloved island only three times.

A good information center at the park gives an overview of the life and times of Franklin and Eleanor through photograph and film, and, at the house, docents stand by to explain (or interpret , as modern terminology has it) each room. They urge visitors not to restrict themselves to the house but to explore the length of the nine-mile island and get a sense of the natural splendors that remain virtually as they were when Roosevelt roamed its beaches, wetlands, and wooded paths. It was the island’s physical self as much as the house he lived in that shaped the character of the future President and, writes Stephen Muskie, “helped Franklin Roosevelt gain the courage and self-reliance which scorned the handicaps of a great affliction.” Eleanor, who loved the place as passionately as her husband did, remembered that he “was always on vacation when he came to Campobello.”

Campobello, only a mile or so off the coast of Maine, belongs to Canada as a result of a tangle of border squabbles between the two countries that officially ended with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. This fixed boundaries and allowed for free navigation along the St. John River, the province’s main artery. British sympathizers who had settled in Castine, Maine, before 1776 had felt sure their turf would remain British soil, but in 1783, at the end of the war, they dismantled their houses, put them on schooners, and sailed with them from Penobscot Bay to St. Andrews, where they reassembled them. Many of these structures survive to this day, forming the historic kernel of St. Andrews.

A nice bonus of a June visit to St. Andrews is that you can catch up with early spring all over again. Tulips and daffodils will have just come into bloom, and the sweet perfume of lilacs will be vying for attention with the tang of ocean air. The sprawling Algonquin Hotel presides over the town. It was built in 1889 by William Van Home, an American and the genius of the Canadian Pacific, who wanted to encourage vacation travel by rail. Designed in a style that could be called Tudor Resort, with timber-framed whitewashed walls and turreted red roofs, the hotel is embraced by a huge porch where contented guests set in motion battalions of rockers.

About a two-hour drive north of St. Andrews, along scenic Highway 1, lies Saint John, site of the earliest Loyalist landings in New Brunswick. In May 1783, about 3,000 of them came ashore at an old trading post at the mouth of the St. John River. They were known as the Spring Fleet, and as local history has it, they and two subsequent fleets founded the city virtually overnight, surviving the severe winter in huts and tents. A boulder placed at Market Slip in 1923 marks the spot where they landed. Nearby Market Square was from the first, and remains, the city’s social and commercial center. But the bustle of the major port has been replaced by that of a mall of shops and eating places, formed from seven handsome brick warehouses that managed to survive for a century or so before a preservation movement arose in the 1980s.

In July and August, walking tours of the city head out from Market Square. To set the stage for the attractive Victorian cityscape that forms much of the downtown area, the guide relates in vivid detail the story of the horrific 1877 fire that in a day leveled 50 percent of Saint John. The survivors built it all back in just five years, but the fire had burned itself into the city’s collective consciousness. On peaceful Germain Street, a great melted blob of metal measuring three feet across stands as a memorial to this holocaust. It was all that remained of a neighboring hardware store.

With its traditions of Loyalist settlement still alive today, Atlantic Canada has a very English feeling. Driving farther northeast to the city of Moncton leads to a different world. Ironically, this revived center of Acadian culture bears the name of the British general who directed the mass expulsion of the indigenous French population in 1755. Caught in the middle of the imperial ambitions of the French and English were the Acadian people, who had arrived from Northern France as early as 1604. After they refused to sign a loyalty oath to the victors, nearly all of them, some 15,000, were forced into a diaspora that brought them to the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, and, in the greatest numbers, to the Louisiana territory.

Some managed to escape the roundup, and others slipped back home later to launch a revival of Acadian cultural pride inspired in part by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s immensely popular 1847 poem Evangeline . The author had never traveled to the Acadian lands, but he poignantly recalled the dispersal and the permanent scars it had left: “Wives were torn from their husbands, and mothers, too late, saw their children / Left on the land, extending their arms, with wildest entreaties.”

Today, descendants of those Acadians populate New Brunswick again, and they hold their story close. There is an immediacy to it that for them chimes with modern-day headlines of ethnic cleansing. Université de Moncton’s Musée Acadien provides an excellent introduction to the subject. Beyond Moncton, at Bouctouche, a spit of land reaching out into the bay of the same name, Le Pays de la Sagouine is a fascinating "1950s village” fashioned around the characters in a popular novel from the late seventies, La Sagouine . The title character of that name is a tough, humorous washerwoman who embodies the spirit of her people—worn to the bone but indomitable. In Caraquet, up in northern New Brunswick, the Village Historique Acadien portrays the world Acadians rebuilt as they began to return to their homeland later in the eighteenth century.

Acadians have recently begun crossing borders again, this time willingly. In 1994 tens of thousands of people of Acadian descent traveled from the United States and Europe to New Brunswick for the Congrès Mondial Acadien. Five years later, they held another Congrès in Louisiana. These events have had a huge emotional impact, as families torn apart nearly 250 years ago have begun to restitch their histories. “There’s something people kept saying, and it’s true,” recalls Angela Simoneaux, who reported on the Congrès for the Lafayette, Louisiana, Advocate . “You go to these events and find people who look like your grandfather who died twenty years ago, people who have the same shaped eyes. . . . Like that.”


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