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Through The Locks

June 2024
5min read

The sunlight on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has an amazing clarity. It skids over the steely blue of Lake Superior, penetrates the endless forests that run along the southern coast, and renders the pebble beaches with a precise, silvery light. Eighty percent of the UP., as it’s called, is wilderness. And the landscape is so quiet, so remote, so primeval that it seems impervious to time. In fact, for the most part, modernity has flowed by this region without splashing onto its borders.

Sault Sainte Marie is both an exception and a case in point. Poised at the eastern end of the peninsula, where Lake Superior spills down the St. Mary’s River into Lake Huron, this modest city is home to the world’s busiest canal system: the Soo Locks. It accommodates a staggering volume of international commerce. Yet, remarkably, the place retains the cozy character of an old fishing town. It’s a wonderful combination.

When my sister and I visited late last August, I spent the first evening in a riverside park, reveling in the glorious sun, listening to the rumble of the nearby rapids, and watching a mammoth Yugoslavian freighter carry its thirty-eight-thousand-ton cargo into a lock and sink twenty-one feet right in front of me. The black-stenciled “ DUBROVNIK ” on its bow slowly descended below the guardrails of the observation walk and out of sight. By then the ship had been effectively transferred from Superior’s level to Huron’s.

Dozens of other observers gathered along the waterfront to watch the procedures—one of technology’s everyday miracles. It seems absurd to think that a man-made piece of steel and concrete could contain Superior’s power long enough to raise or lower a dinky tugboat, much less a thousandfoot freighter. It’s even more mind-boggling when you witness the operation. But it happens up to about eighty times a day. And while the structures have certainly been updated, the process hasn’t really changed since the locks opened in 1855, enabling the development of the American Midwest. It’s not surprising that the spectacle is one of Michigan’s most popular and enduring tourist attractions.

Though one might presume that the city sprang up around its famous locks, Sault Sainte Marie was around long before the canals. French explorers first traveled here in 1618 in search of a westward passage from Quebec to the Orient. Instead they found a furious cascade of rapids and the dense pine forest that seemed an inexhaustible source of fur—Canada’s most lucrative export at the time. Jesuit missionaries followed fifty years later. They set up camp and named the river after St. Mary. The site has been known as Sault Sainte Marie, or “the rapids of St. Mary’s,” ever since. (When they christened the locks, practical Americans chose Sault’s less elegant phonetic equivalent: “Soo.”) The fur trade flourished, as did Christianity. The first permanent building here was a chapel, built by the missionary Jacques Marquette in 1668.

The chapel is no longer around, but the riverfront site is still marked, as I discovered when I explored the town after watching the Dubrovnik set off to the east. Though Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, has continued to develop across the river, much of Sault Saint Marie, Michigan’s larger industries (lumber, pulp, and paper products) moved to more convenient locations during the 1960s, and the city hasn’t built much since then. Today its population hovers around fifteen thousand, and the main industry is tourism, with thousands of hunters and fishermen coming through every year.

The town was built around the riverfront’s Portage Avenue, whose two sides clearly belong to different eras. Turn-of-the-century boat docks, warehouses, and a handsome, ivy-covered hydroelectric plant of 1902 spread out along the north, toward the river. Across the street a series of wooden houses from the first half of the nineteenth century is tucked neatly along the sidewalk, including a white clapboard structure that was home to the Indian scholar Henry Schoolcraft.

Despite the abundance of surrounding resources, by 1812 Sault Sainte Marie was viewed as a city whose time had passed. When Michigan sought to become the twenty-sixth state in 1837, the Detroit-based government had no intention of including Sault Sainte Marie, or, indeed, any of the Upper Peninsula within its boundaries. But when the federal government awarded the coveted Toledo strip to Ohio, it tacked the nine thousand square miles of the Upper Peninsula onto Michigan as a sort of consolation prize.

The UP. was embraced slowly, with geologists leading the way. First, they heralded the region’s beauty. Two American explorers in 1850, J. W. Foster and J. D. Whitney, were so captivated by the sights that they urged Eastern artists to come document the area’s majesty. “None of our artists have visited this region, and given to the world representations of scenery so striking, and so different from any which can be found elsewhere,” they wrote. Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran were among those who took their advice. Likewise, Schoolcraft’s descriptions of the landscape and its history were so compelling that they inspired his cousin Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write the “Song of Hiawatha” in 1855.

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.

—Catherine Calhoun

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