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The Way To The Big Sea Water

May 2024
11min read

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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