- Historic Sites
The Way To The Big Sea Water
A century ago the Soo canal was an insignificant ditch in a remote northern wilderness. Today it serves as the busiest industrial highway on earth.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
The country club at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, looks across the great bend of the St. Mary’s River to Sugar Island, where a few Chippewas still live in the maple forest; beyond are the great spruce woods of Canada and the long dark skyline of the Laurentians. Inside the club house you can see a century-old canoe, a canot du nord built for the wilderness, sturdy and graceful, strong enough to carry tons of peltry yet light enough to portage. Under the sewn birchbark is the old tension that the Chippewa builders gave it, stout crosspieces bowing out the rim, curved ribs pressing against the bark. That worn and dented craft made long journeys—to Grand Portage, Moose Factory, James Bay, Winnipeg. Most of its travels were in the lonely north country, but once it went to Windsor to welcome the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) on his visit to Ontario. After a ride in the Detroit River, the Prince presented each Indian in the ten-man crew with a barrel of crackers. With that cargo they paddled up the wide waters of Lake Huron and along the wooded shores of the St. Mary’s. Now the canoe is beached in a club house while freighters twice as long as a football field steer past Sugar Island and into the canal.
A hundred years ago the tribesmen gathered at the Sault, pitching their camps beside the loud white water. Every spring they came, following dim trails through the great woods, paddling over the Big Sea Water. Sap was running in the maple groves, fish swarmed in the river. With whoops and cries the Chippewas shot canoes through the rapids, a bow man netting fish from swirling water, a stern man steering through the spray. There was fabulous fishing then; the Indians traded a hundred pounds of whitefish for four fingers of tobacco. They boiled maple sugar in smoky kettles and roasted fish in the coals. They feasted after the long northern winter. All night campfires twinkled on the shore.
This was the ancient Chippewa capital, and there was a Chippewa name for the water racing down from Glitche Gumme. Paiwating —shallow cataract—they called that mile of wild water falling twenty feet from the level of Lake Superior to the level of Lake Huron. But the French had been there a long time too—this is the oldest white settlement west of Montreal—and the priests gave it their most cherished name. Along with bark chapels and burial crosses they planted in the wilderness the name of the gracious Virgin.
A town as old as Philadelphia, Sault Ste. Marie was still, in 1850, a remote and lonely place. The village paths ended in spruce and maple forest. The mile-long portage street ran into shining water. Wind was a rushing voice in the great woods and water roared over the rocks. Above the rapids began the vast cold lake. It was still a savage and mysterious country.
The town straggled for half a mile along the river. At its lower end stood the picketed post of federal Fort Brady; below the fort were the Agency House and the scattered huts of Indian Town. Two hotels, a trading post, a dozen shops, a hundred dwellings lined Water Street.
Two streams of commerce met at the Soo. Out of the North came bales of beaver, otter, mink, and marten skins, barrels of whitefish, bars of copper. Tobacoo, flour, whisky, traps, knives, axes, dynamite came up from Lake Huron. It all went over the portage. For years a two-wheeled cart had carried the commerce of the North, but in 1839 cedar crossties were laid down on Water Street and a strap-iron railroad linked the upper and lower wharves. Its battered horsehair shuttled back and forth, exchanging bales of peltry for kegs of blasting powder.
There had been a canal, a half-mile ditch on the swampy Canadian shore, opened by the North West Fur Company in 1797. Workmen for Cavies, Frobisher and Company had dug a trench beside the rapids and built a 300-foot trough of timber “into a species of canal or dam,” as their rivals of the XYZ Company said, with a sawmill using the water power at its lower end. Their canal had a shallow lock, 38 feet long with a nine-foot lift, adequate for the bateaux of the fur brigades. When the North West and the XY companies united, all the Lake Superior trade used that tiny lock. But it was destroyed by American troops in 1814. Then the portage cart wore deep ruts in Water Street.
While the northern trade passed over the Soo porstage, the first Michigan legislature convened at Detroit, 300 miles away. There was heroic talk of “public improvements” for the new state—three railways to cross the southern counties, a web of plank roads radiating from Detroit, and a grandiose canal project. On January 2, 1837, Governor Stevens T. Mason, 25 years old, proposed to the legislators two canals across lower Michigan, linking Lake Michigan with Lake Huron: he went on to comment on the value of fisheries and the fur trade on Lake Superior: “It only needs a communication for our shipping around the falls of the St. Mary’s River, to enable us to realize those expectations.” A year later he was more definite. “The canal around the falls of the St. Marie river, it is ascertained, can be constructed for a sum not exceeding $114,000.” He asked for an appropriation and the legislature proceeded to let a contract.