- 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
When a somber old Chippewa strode up to the gashed burial place with a rifle in his hands, the workmen dropped their shovels. The Indian grew impatient when the white chief could not understand him; he spoke louder, pointing over Whitefish Bay, brandishing his gun. Harvey sent for the agent. The tribesman spoke again and the agent turned to Harvey. “He is an old man who has come a long way over Lake Superior. He understands you are the government blacksmith, and he wants his gun put in good order.” (One clause in the Treaty of 1842 promised repair of Indian firearms.) Harvey led the way to the blacksmith shop and watched the work on the rifle. With a grunt of satisfaction the old Chippewa tried the trigger. Harvey hurried back to the digging.
In April, 1855, the last scoopbuckets came up and the mules were led away. A final powder blast threw up sand and water. Lake Superior rushed into the canal. But the walls began to give. More stone was needed to line the cut, more ballast for the canal banks. Two months later the job was done.
On June 18, 1855, with all Sault Ste. Marie gathered at the locks, the steamer Illinois , 927 tons, nosed through the timber gates. As water streamed in, the ship rose to the middle level. Another lock opened, Captain Jack Wilson worked his vessel forward. The ship inched up, up, up to the level of Lake Superior. With a clamor of hells and a roar of steam the Illinois steered into the Big Sea Water. The “closed sea” was open to the nation’s commerce. Two months later, on August 17, the brig Columbia , down-hound, locked through with a deckload of 132 tons of red iron ore.
Within twenty years Harvey’s canal was too small to carry the trade. The canal was widened and deepened, and a new lock was ready in 1881. A bigger lock came in 1896; twin locks 1,200 feet long in 1914 and 1919; finally the MacArthur lock, built to the specifications of the St. Lawrence Seaway on the site of Harvey’s old tandem locks, was opened in 1943. In 1953 the canal floated 18,030 vessels, carrying 128,000,000 tons of cargo. Past the old portage street moves the greatest commerce in the world.
Winter seals the northern hays in ice, but the rapids are a steady voice under the flashing borealis and the cold Canadian hills. Then the icebreakers crunch up the St. Mary’s and sap begins to run in the maple forest. As winter goes, the voice of the rapids deepens. Then comes another voice, the deep whistle of a freighter steering into the canal. That voice becomes a chorus, night and day, as the Great Lakes commerce moves again on its way between the sea-blue harbors of Superior and the smoking cities of the lower lakes.