- Historic Sites
Through The Locks
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
On the shores of Gitche Gumee, On the shining Big-Sea-Water…, Thus departed Hiawatha, Striding over moor and meadow, Through interminable forests, Through uninterrupted silence.
About the same time (1840s), surveyors were stunned to find vast deposits of ore and copper in the western reaches of the peninsula. Thousands of prospectors stampeded to the area, pushing small steamboats up the Soo rapids on rollers or frantically portaging canoes around the site. As mining towns sprang up in the western U.P., make-shift railroads were set up at Sault Sainte Marie to transport Superior’s precious cargoes to vessels waiting on the other side of the rapids. Commerce and, thus, profits backed up miserably at this bottleneck. The sault had to be dealt with; a canal was the answer.
Charles T. Harvey, a twenty-four-year-old salesman with an engineering background, a flair for promotion, and the financial support of several Eastern companies, took charge of the construction in 1853. His two-thousand-man crew worked for months, drilling by hand in sub-zero weather. Flimsy housing and a cholera epidemic killed hundreds of workers, and new recruits had to be brought in. But just two years and one million dollars after work had begun, the first locks were complete. On August 14, 1855—right on schedule—the brig Columbia passed safely through the new canal with the first cargo of iron ore, 132 tons of it.
Early explorers were so captivated by the peninsula’s sights that they urged artists to come document the area’s majesty.
During the years that followed, locals proudly referred to the canal as “the busiest one mile in the world,” and in 1905 the ore magnate Peter Hoyt claimed that “the opening of the Sault Canal has been of the largest benefit to the whole of the U.S. of any single happening in its commercial or industrial history. Every state has benefitted from it.”
Of course, the locks we see now have been rebuilt several times since. Currently the canal consists of four American locks, which are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and a fifth on the Canadian side of the river. We learned more about the Soo Locks on a delightful two-hour boat tour that took us up the St. Marys, through the canal, and back. The boat’s deck was full of sweat-shirted kids, who sat mesmerized as we rose and sank between the locks’ concrete walls. A quick tour of the Soo Locks Visitors’ Center explained the technology further.
The next day we packed a picnic for a forty-minute excursion out of town to Tahquamenon Falls, a much smaller, more secluded version of Niagara. The drive takes you deep into the woods, and just when you think you’re completely enveloped by the towering firs, breathtaking views emerge to the right, flickering through the tree trunks like images on a kinetoscope. We pulled over at one scenic outlook to look east over the expanse of Lake Superior, with a distant freighter gleaming in the midday sun. Industry moves gracefully through the wilderness here. Even Hiawatha would be impressed.