• UNIT-Local History Component
    Title: The First Shipping Canal
    Focus: The first canal and locks at Sault Ste. Marie were built here in 1853-1855 by the State of  Michigan.
    Connection: Remember when we talked about portaging around the rapids.  Large amounts of copper and iron ore were being shipped by boat across Lake Superior, through the Saint Marys river.  A need for a shipping canal was becoming necessary.
    Teaching Point:
    1. A shipping canal was to be built so that ships could be raised or lowered in a lock.
    2. Charles T. Harvey was hired as the construction superintendent.
    3. The job was very difficult due to the weather and illness, but the first lock was completed in just two years.
    Resource Material for Teachers:

    When Michigan became a state in 1837, there was already a desire for a shipping canal and locks at the Sault. Plans were drawn to construct a canal with three locks in tandem; each lock would lift a boat six or seven feet, to overcome the 20-foot difference between the level of Lake Superior and Lake Huron. A contractor was hired, and work began in May 1839. But the route of the proposed canal crossed the millrace of the sawmill for Fort Brady, and troops from the fort were used to force the contractor to stop work.

                Mining activity in the western Upper Peninsula, which began only a few years after this abortive attempt, forced the issue. In 1846, the American Fur Company quoted a price of $8.50 to ship one ton of ore from western Lake Superior to Buffalo, New York. This was broken down as follows: from mine dock to head of rapids in Sault Ste. Marie: $2.50; cartage around the rapids: $1.00; from foot of rapids to Buffalo, N.Y.: $5.00. Thus, the one-mile trip around the rapids accounted for almost 12% of the total shipping cost!  In 1853, the U.S. Congress was finally convinced (after years of struggle by canal supporters) that a canal was needed; Congress allowed Michigan to offer a contractor the right to choose 750,000 acres of federal land within the state, as payment for constructing a canal and locks of specified dimensions.

                The St. Marys Falls Ship Canal Company was incorporated with eastern capital in the state of New York, specifically to bid on the contract — which it won. The canal was built with two locks in tandem, each providing a lift of 9 to 10 feet. Given the remote location, some unanticipated difficulties, difficult weather conditions, and the cholera which struck, it was an amazing feat to successfully complete the project in the two-year time span allotted by the contract. See pp 118-128 of City of the Rapids. For a much more detailed description of the first canal and locks, see the book To Build A Canal: Sault Ste. Marie, 1853-1854 and After by John Dickinson (Ohio State University Press, 1981).

    Active Engagement:  Color Book with descriptive text pages 30-31student pages.

    Share:  Have students visit the Soo Locks web page (http://www.lre.usace.army.mil/_kd/go.cfm?destination=page&pge_id=1324) and explain the operation of the lock.  Have students select the links, How Navigation Locks Operate and Animated Lock Operation  found below the ariel picture of the locks to learn this information. A field trip to the Soo Locks is recommended.

Last Modified on February 14, 2018