- 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 canal survey ran directly through the grounds of Fort Brady and across a millrace which served an old government sawmill. Here was a collision of the state of Michigan with the U.S. War Department. On May 11, 1839, the eighty-ton schooner Eliza Ward arrived at the Soo with horses, wagons, wheelbarrows, and fifty frontier workmen. The contractor hitched up his teams, rolled his wheelbarrows along the Fort Brady millrace, and told his men to start digging. By that time a bugle was shrilling on the parade. As the first shovels dug in, the commandant marched his thirty regulars to the millrace, ordering them to defend the property of the United States. In bright May sunshine the garrison cocked their rifles and the workmen leaned on their shovels. That comic-opera tableau ended the canal project. The contractor, who had already concluded that the job would not be profitable, happily sent his men back aboard the schooner. They sailed down the St. Mary’s and caught a hold full of whitefish.
A few years later news of copper and iron outcrops sent men swarming into the rough Lake Superior country. By 1845 there were camps at Copper Harbor, Eagle River, Eagle Harbor, Intonation, L’Anise—all on the great dark cape of Keenan. By 1850 copper was coming out of the hills and iron was smelted in the rough ridges above Marquette.
Lake Superior needed a commercial fleet. In addition to their bateaux the fur companies had built a few decked vessels— Alhabasca, Otter, Invincible, Mink, Discovery, Siskawit . But larger ships were wanted, and soon they were steering over the cold northern sea. A couple of them were put together of timbers and gear shipped to the Soo for assembling. Others made the portage, inching along Water Street past the shops and cabins of the village. First came the fifty-ton schooner Algonquin , cribbed up in timbers and hauled on rollers by a horse and capstan, with Achilles Calotte shouting orders in the frosty air. The vessel reached Lake Superior in the spring of 1839.
The largest ship to make the portage was the steamer Independence , 365 tons. She was a wonder in the north country, with two rotary engines, a pair of clumsy propellers, and a steam whistle that scattered the Indians like blackbirds out of a rice swamp. In the winter of 1845, with rollers creaking and horses tramping out black circles on the snow, the big ship crept through the town. A dozen other vessels followed over the portage before 1850. They had hazardous and lonely missions, sailing the vast and unmapped lake, crouching under capes and islands in hard weather, poking into rocky harbors to exchange whisky, flour and blasting powder for peltry, fish and copper.
In the summer of 1847 after the River and Harbor Meeting in Chicago, the eastern delegates of the convention embarked on the steamer St. Louis for Sault Ste. Marie and Buffalo. Thurlow Weed, editor of the Albany Evening Journal was moved by the north country. In his record of the trip he commented on the little portage town and the great wilderness, the succulent platters of whitefish in the hotel, and the thrill of shooting the rapids in a Chippewa canoe—though three visitors had drowned in that sport a few weeks earlier. He watched the tramcar hauling goods between ships in shouting distance of each other; inevitably he thought of a canal. “I shall be disappointed if Messrs. Corwin, Butler King, and Schenck, who are with us, do not press this Improvement in the next Congress.”
But the Soo was a long way from Washington—it was “beyond the remotest settlement in the United States, if not in the moon,” said Henry Clay—and Congress took no action. However, in his first annual message to the legislature, in 1851, President Fillmorc observed that “a ship canal around the falls of St. Mary of less than a mile in length, though local in its construction, would be national in its purpose and benefits.” In August, 1852, a bill was passed, donating to the state of Michigan 750,000 acres of federal land as subsidy for a canal project and granting a 400-foot right of way through the Fort Brady Reservation.
History sometimes finds the right man at the right place. At this time a 23-year-old Yankee, Charles T. Harvey, was in the Northwest, talking with traders, prospectors, speculators, and selling Fairbanks scales in the iron and copper towns.
Late in August he arrived at the Soo, burning with typhoid lever. While recovering, he watched the porstage car trundling freight down Water Street and he studied the swirling river till he could see it in his sleep. Then he began to burn with another fever. He wrote to the scales company at St. Johns, VerMont: “A three quarter mile canal here not costing over $400,000 would enable any lake craft to load at Buffalo and go through to Fond dub Lace, 600 miles west of here, without breaking bulk.”