“Flows of Illusion: Waterways to
Christopher W. Lane
For three and a half centuries, from the earliest days of the discovery of North America, the notion of a water passage across the continent was an idée fixe for many explorers, geographers, and politicians. In the sixteenth century, there was thought to be but a narrow land bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and even when the vast size of the interior of North America became known, many still believed that there was some system of rivers and lakes, with short portages, which would offer a practical channel to reach the western coast. These postulated and hoped for mythical waterways were a product of misinformation, misinterpretations of reports and observations, and just plain wishful thinking and it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that the absence of any practical watercourse across North America was established once and for all. This lecture is a look at the theories and searches for these flows of illusions, quests which did not realize the hopes of the seekers, but did help unfold the physical reality of the continent.