The Sault Ste. Marie Canal, home to the Soo Locks, is one of the greatest infrastructure achievements in the history of the Midwest. Located at the border of Sault Ste. Marie and Ontario, Canada, the Locks consist of four lock chambers that control water flow by allowing it to rush in or out from the St. Mary’s River. The river lies between Lakes Superior and Huron, effectively connecting all the Great Lakes, and until 1987, providing an international shipping route all the way from the Atlantic Ocean.
On June 18, 1855, a steamer boat named Illinois became the first vessel to lock through the Canal. At the time, it was the world’s longest lock and the first to use electricity. The ability to ship through this passageway in the U.P. was critical in developing the area after acquiring it as a result of the “Toledo War.”
Prior to the Canal and Locks, there were only rushing rapids and a 21-foot waterfall cascading down from what would later become Ontario. Ojibway tribes used this area as a prime hunting ground for whitefish. As French explorers voyaged to the area in the early 1600s, Sault Ste. Marie became the first ever settlement in the Michigan Territory (making it the oldest city in Michigan today). Beyond the water access, Sault Ste. Marie was also very popular in the 1800s as it became a top destination in “Copper Country.” The copper boom brought immigrants from all around the Midwest as the area evolved into a central hub for the Lake Superior Mining Company.
Following the War of 1812, the State of Michigan owned and operated the entire passageway. But, not too long after the locks officially opened, the State transferred ownership to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. While it no longer is a part of the Atlantic shipping route, the Canal sees 10,000 ships pass through each year to carry good throughout the Great Lakes.
Today, Sault Ste. Marie Canal is a National Historic Site of Canada. It’s also used by small passenger workboats and recreational crafts, and with the beautiful views, is adored for picnics, biking, hiking and other activities. More than 5 miles of scenic trails take visitors under the International Bridge right to the edge of the St. Mary’s Rapids. Plan your trip today and see this important site in Michigan’s history yourself!
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Photo Credit: Tony Webster