- 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
He got an engineer to make a preliminary survey. In Detroit, with the help of a lawyer for the Michigan Central Railroad, Harvey outlined a canal bill which was passed by the Michigan Legislature. It called for a canal with tandem locks 350 feet long, each with a nine-foot lift, to be constructed within two years. A company taking the contract would be awarded 750,000 acres of public land, to be selected by its agents. That winter, Harvey persuaded the Fairbanks brothers to form the St. Mary’s Falls Ship Canal Company and apply for the contract. The agreement was signed on April 5, 1853. The Canal Company appointed Harvey general superintendent in charge of operations at the Soo.
Harvey chartered the steamer Illinois . While it loaded mules and horses, log chains and dump buckets, hammers, drills, and blasting powder, he recruited 400 men and herded them aboard. When they arrived at the Soo, on June i, the population of the town was doubled. Clatter and clamor drowned the ancient voice of the rapids. In two days Harvey raised barracks for his men, a warehouse and commissary, a mess hall with its chimneys smoking. In a week he had crews dragging out logs on Garden River and hewing stone on Drummed Island. On the fourth of June he spaded up the first bite of earth for the mile-long cut.
While the work went on—powder blasting, timber falling, horses straining at dump buckets—Harvey moved into the Agency House at the lower end of town. It was a Soo landmark, a rambling fifteen-room house of many gables, built by Henry Rowe School-craft in 1826 in a grove of spruce above the river. There Schoolmate, Indian agent on the northwestern frontier, had lived with his wife, granddaughter of a Chippewa chief, daughter of an English trader. He had his office for receiving Indians—some threatening, some begging, some merely curious about the big soft-spoken man who had brought his hooks and specimen cases to their makeshift town. In hard winter seasons he issued rations of flour, beans, and tobacco. In summer he coasted the murmuring shores of Lake Superior (which he called by the old strong name “Agama”) and visited the scattered Chippewa camps.
In the Agency House, Harvey kept his records, met official visitors, bent over survey maps with his engineers. Then he was on his gray pony, loping along the growing ditch, visiting shops and forges, galloping between the foremen’s shanties and the digging crews. Every tool, every horse, every man on the job had to come from hundreds of miles distant. Harvey kept the supplies coming and the barracks growing. That winter he had 1,600 men at work, and Sault Sate. Marie was more populous than Lansing. For ages the northern winter had muffled the rapids, but now the shore was noisy—picks ringing on iron ground, drills punching into rock, teamsters shouting, drag chains clanking, dynamite booming back from the snowy hills. In January the meat froze solid in the storeroom and the cooks hacked it like firewood.
The second year was harder than the first. Soo villagers complained about the loss of their portage business. The Indians were sullen and surly. But the grimmest threat came unseen on a steamer from Detroit. It was cholera, and it struck clerks, cooks, laborers, teamsters, blacksmiths. Soon the bare hospital was full of men with sweat-drenched bodies and rolling glassy eyes. They died, first one a day, then five, then ten. At night, to keep the living from numbering the dead, they were carried through the sleeping camp and buried in the woods. Harvey sent to New York for German and Irish immigrants.
The construction lines ran over a rounded knoll beside the river. All winter it was humped with snow, but when spring came the mound was bare, with a few weathered slabs of cedar jutting from the withered grass. On its crest leaned a cedar cross, grayed by the sun and snow of nearly two centuries. This was a Chippewa burial ground, blessed by the French priests who had given the river its Christian name. The canal crews pulled down the sagging cross and spaded up human bones.
While work went on the tribes gathered for their annual government bounties. Day and night tawegan drums throbbed beside the river. Rumors of Indian agitation went through the town; old men recalled the massacre at Old Fort Mackinaw. To the Agency House, where Harvey looked out at hundreds of leaping campfires, came Chief Segued to protest the destruction of the graveyard. It was an old place, long venerated by his people, beside the rapids which the Chippewa's revered as the home of many Manitou's; he asked the canal man to spare that burial ground. Harvey shook his head; he could not move the construction lines. That night the drums boomed louder.