History of
Sault Ste. Marie Canal
Chippewa Co MI

Source: History of the Sault Ste Marie Canal
By Dwight H. Kelton 1885

Father Dablon named the mission established by him at the foot of the rapids in 1668, Sainte Marie du Sault, "Saint Mary's of the Rapids." Saut, is the modern spelling; "Soo" the popular pronunciation.

From the word Saul, "falls," or "rapids," the Ojibwa tribe obtained its French name, Sauteux. At first, thoso only whose home was at the "Soo" were called by that name; but by degrees it passed to all Indians of the same speech. The spelling "Sauter" though very common, is wrong; this word is pronounced differently and denotes "a springer," or "a jumper."

The Indian name of the town or rapids is Bawiting, from bawitig, "rapids." This is an abbreviation of bawitigweya, "the river is beaten into spray." (Some Indians pronounce it bagwititig, " where the river is shallow.")

The Ojibwa band residing at the Saut were called Bawitgowininiwag, or Bawiting dazhi-ininiwag, " Men of the Rapids."

The Indians have no general name for St. Mary's River ; but have for the lakes into which it expands. The mouth of the river is called Giwideoonaning, "where they sail around a point."

Pawtuckety Powatan, Pawcatuck, Pawtuxet (Ojibwa Bawitigoeing, " at the little falls"), and many other similar names in different dialects, are of the same root as bawitig, and denote a fall or rapids. The root is baw, " to scatter by striking."

Lake Superior is 602 feet above the level of the sea. The only water-way between Lake Superior and the lower lakes is the Saint Mary's River, which flows from Lake Superior at its eastern extremity, and empties into Lake Huron 37 miles east of Mackinac Island. The channel between the two lakes is about 75 miles long, and was, before improvement, obstructed in many places, but especially at the Rapids of Saint Mary, 15 miles from the head of the river. In their natural state these rapids formed a barrier to transportation by water, and made a portage necessary.

The fall of the river from Lake Superior to the rapids of St. Mary is one tenth of a foot; in the half-mile stretch of these rapids the fall is 18 feet; and from the foot of the rapids to the Lake Huron level, which is reached at Mud Lake, 35 miles below, the fall is 2.3 feet.

In 1837, the governor of the newly admitted State of Michigan called the attention of the State legislature to the advisability of constructing a canal around the rapids at Sault Ste. Marie, and three years later the subject was brought up in the United States Senate. In spite of violent opposition a survey was ordered, which was made by officers of the Topographical Engineers, IL S. Army. In 1852, a grant of 750,000 acres of public land was made to the State of Michigan, from the proceeds of which the canal was to be built.

The grant was attended with the conditions that the canal be at least 100 feet wide and 12 feet deep; the locks at least 250 feet long and GO feet wide; that work he begun within three years and finished within ten ; that tolls be limited to the amount necessary to keep the canal in repair, after the expenses of construction had been paid; that Government vessels be free of tolls; and that the donated land should not be sold until the location had been established and filed.

The State accepted the conditions and the grant, and handed the latter over to a private company, which undertook to build the canal for the proceeds of the land.

Ground was broken for the work on June 4, 1858. The certificate of its completion was signed by the commissioners on May 21,1855. The first boat, the steamer Illinois, Captain Jack Wilson, was locked through on June 18, 1855.

The canal was 5,400 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 12 feet deep at an average stage of water. The banks had a slope of 1 vertical to 2 horizontal, and were revetted with stone oxcept in rock cuttings.

The locks wore at the eastern or lower end, and were two in number, placed one in immediate prolongation of the other. Each lock was rectangular iu plan, 350 feet long by 70 feet wide and 24 feet 8 inches deep, with a depth of 11$ feet of water over the miter-sills, and a lift of 9 feet The capacity of each lock was 2S1.750 cubic feet.

The walls were of cut limestone from Marblehead, Ohio, and Maiden, Ontario, hacked with stone from Drummond's Island, Saint Mary's River.

Lock of 1881 - Lower Gates Open

Lock of 1881 - Lower Gates Closed

Water was admitted to the locks through openings in the leaves of the up|>er gates, by means of butterfly valves. The valves were worked with a rack and pinion. Seven minutes were required to fill the upper lock-chamber, and fourteen to fill the lower. The volume of water in the upper lock when tilled to the level of the canal above, amounted to 3,757,000 gallons. The water was let out of the locks by means of valves in the lower lock-gates. Fourteen minutes were required to empty each lock-chamber. Five minutes were required to open or close the lock-gates. The gates were operated by means of a boom, worked by a hand-capstan.

The dimensions of the locks permitted the passage at one time of a ti:g and three vessels of the size then usual. There was a gnard-gate of the ordinary mitering pattern 2,100 feet above the upper lock-gates.

The original survey was made by Capt. Augustus Canfield

Topographical Engineers, U. S. A.

The entire cost of the canal was $990,802.46.

The last boat, the steam tug Annie Clark, Captain Edward Martin, was locked through Nov. 2, 1886.


The first contract for the improvement of the canal, which resulted in its enlargement and the building of the lock of 1881 was dated October 20, 1870; the first stone of the lock (the largest ship canal lock in the world) was laid July 25, 1870, and the first boat, the steamer City of Cleveland (now City of Alpena), Captain Albert Stewart, locked through on September 1, 1881.

The length of the canal is 7,000 feet. Its width is variable. The least width is 108 feet, at the movable dam. The depth of water is 16 feet. Vessels are protected against injury from the rocky sides of the canal by a revetment of pier work, the general height of which is 4 feet'above mean water level. The material is pine timber 1 foot square There, are 12,000 linear feet of wooden piers, and 3,100 linear feet of masonry connected with the canal.


The chamber of the lock is 515 feet long between the gates, 80 feet wide, narrowed to 60 feet at the gates; the depth is 39$ feet. Its capacity is 1,500,000 cubic feet. The depth of the water on the miter-sills is 17 feet; the lift of the lock is 18 feet. The volume of water in the lock chamber when tilled to the level of the canal above, amounts to 7,888,000 gallons. The sills arc placed 1 foot below canal bottom, so as to be protected from injury by vessels. A guard gate is placed at each end of the chamber, making the length of the walls 717 feet.

The walls are of limestone. The cat stone was obtained from Maiblchcad, Ohio, and Kclloy's Island, Lake Erie.

There are 34,207 cubic yards of masonry, in the construction of which 35,000 barrels of cement were used, every barrel of which was tested before it was taken on the wall.

The face stone, the miter and breast walls, and portions of the wall adjacent to springs of water, are laid in English Portland cement; the remainder of the wall is laid in American cement. The cements were mixed with sand in the proportion of 1 to 1. Tho foundation is on rock throughout, a Potsdam sandstone of different degrees of hardness. A floor of timber and con- crete extends across the bottom of the lock and 5 feet under each wall; the rest of the foundation of tho wall is concrete $ to 2 feet thick on the rock. All the timbers used in tho foun- dation are of pine 1 foot square. They are laid in concrete and fastened to the rock with bolts 3 feet long, which are fox wedged and cemented in the rock.

The miter-sills are oak tirnl>ers 12 by 18 inches, and fastened in place by bolts 10 feet long, fox-wedged and concreted in tho rock, and also by timhor braces bolted to tho rock.

The estimated capacity of tho lock is 96 vessels in twenty-four hours. At the close of the season of 1887, the greatest number of vessels ever through the canal in one day, was on Juno 14, 1887, when 84 vessels were locked throngh.

The original plans and specifications for this lock wore pre- pared under direction of Gen. Orlando M. Poo, U. 8. A. Later, they were somewhat modified under direction of Gen. Godfrey Waited, U. S. A. Mr. Alfred Noble, was the Assistant Engineer in local charge of the work from beginning to end. The total cost of the canal enlargement was $2,150,000.


Two minutes are required to open or close the lock-gates. There are four gates, designated as upper and lower lock-gatee and upper and lower guard-gates. The frame work is of white oak and sheathing of Norway pine. Tho weight of one leaf of the upper lock-gate is 40 tons and of one leaf of the lower lockgate 76 tons.

The guard-gates are only used when repairs are l>eing made to the lock. They are opened and closed by means of temporary block and tackle operated by a power capstan. Both leaves of the upper guard-gate are provided with valves, with which to fill the lock after it has been pumped ont. The valves are worked with a hand wrench from the top of the leaf. The lock can be tilled through these valves in about one hour.


Eleven minutes are required to fill the lock. The water is lot into tho locks from two cnlverts under the floor. These culverts are each 8 feet square, and extend from the well above tho upper lock-gate to the well above the lower lock-gate. The water is admitted into the culverts through a well which is covered with a grating.

The covering of the culverts is the floor of the lock. The water passes into the lock chamber through 58 apertures in the lock floor. Each aperture has an area of 3 square feet; the 58 apertures 174 square feet. This area is increased to 190 square feet by the man-holes left in the bulkhead at the lower end of the culverts.

The filling valves through which the water enters the culverts are two in number, and are located in the well just above the upper look-gate. Each valve, when shut, closes the entrance to one of the culverts. Each valve is 10 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The valves are made with horizontal castiron axles, and frames, to which a covering of boiler iron is bolted.


Eight minutes are required to empty the lock. The water in passing out of the lock goes down through a well which is covered with a grating, thence through two short culverts aud up through a well below the lower lock-gates. The emptying valves, through which the water escapes from the lock, are two in number and are located in tho well just above the lower lock-gate. Their construction is similar to that of the filling valves, just"described. Each culvert is complete in itself. If an accident should occur to one culvert, or to its valves or engines, the other culvert could still be used.


Tho power is obtained from two 30 inch turbines. The computed effective energy of the two wheels combined is 50 horse- power. Water is brought to them through a supply pipe from tho canal above the lock. Roth are connected by spur gearing to tho main shaft. The power for operating the different parts of the machinery is taken from this main shaft by means of pulleys and bolts in tho usual manner. Two pumps forco water into an accumulator loaded so as to give a pressure of about 120 pounds to the square inch. Water is taken from the accumulator to tho engines which open and close the gates and valves. Heavy West Virginia mineral oil is used in the cylinders whenever the temporature is so low that water would, be likely to freeze. There are four gate engines, one for each leaf of the upper and lower lock-gates, and four valve engines, one for each of the filling and emptying valves.

The machine house is of stone. There is a cellar, ground floor, and Upper floor. The main shaft, accumulator, pumps, etc are on the upper floor; the pen-stock, dynamo, tool-room, etc. are located on the ground floor. Tho accumulator passes from the collar up through the upper floor.

The turbine irou supply pipe lies on the south aide of the lock. The inlet is 45 feet above the upper guard-gates and ?? feet below the surface of the water, and is covered with an iron grating. It has a cut-off valve 0 feet from tin; inlet. Its nterior diameter is 36 inches.

The pump for emptying the lock is in the cellar of the nachino house. It is a centrifugal, run by a belt from the main haft It is about 8 feet below the surface of the water. When the water is to be pnmped out of the lock, the gnardgates above and below it are closed. Seventeen hours are required to empty the lock with the pump.

The dynamo for the electric lights, used in lighting the locks, a ten-arc-light machine of the "Brush" patent. It is run by a belt from the main shaft. The force required is eight horse-power. The power capstan is on the lock wall near tho machine house, is run by belts from the main shaft The capstan is used for carping vessels into and out of the lock. A system of lines and natch-blocks extends around tho lock,'so that vessels can be carped in from either end and to either side.

The movable dam is about 3,000 feet from tho lock, and is designed to check the flow of water bo that the upper guardgates can be closed in case the lock-gates are accidentally carried way. It consists of an ordinary swing-bridge, one end of which can be swung across the canal. A series of wickets are suspended side by side from a horizontal truss hung beneath the bridge, and abutting, at either end (when the bridge is closed), against heavy buffers securely anchored to the masonry, one end of each wicket can be let down until it rests against sill in the bottom of the canal. When the wickets are all own they form a vertical bulkhead or dam. The wickets are 3 in number; each wicket is supported in an iron frame. The bottom of the canal under the movable dam is covered with a floor. The dead weight on the truss due to the wickets id frames is 1,600 pounds per running foot. This is counterised by brick work at the opposite end of the truss. The teral pressure of the water against the wickets, is 3,400 pounds of running foot.

The canal, upon which the General Government had spent large sums, was still in the possession of tho State of Michigan. Congress on June 14, 1880, authorized the Secretary of War to receive the canal from the State of Michigan. The transfer was made June 6, 1881. Since that time the canal has been in the possession of the General Government, and all vessels have been passed through free of toll.

The chamber of the lock now building on the site of the two , old locks of 1855, will be 800 feet long between the gates, 100 feet wide and 43 feet deep. Its capacity will be 3,440,000 cubic feet. The depth of water on the miter-sills will be 21 feet, and the lift of tho lock 18 feet. The volume of water in the lock chamber when filled to the lovol of the canal above, will be 23,338,000 gallons. The estimated capacity of the lock is four vessels, each 350 feet long and 46 feet wide, at one lockage. The canal will be deepened to a navigable depth of 2iť feet. The estimated cost of the lock and enlarged canal is $4,740,000. Work was begun in the Spring of I8S7. Gen. Orlando M. Poe, U. S. Army, is the Engineer in charge of the improvements.

There are now engaged in the commerce of the lakes nearly 2,000 American vessels. They represent an investment of $50,000,000 capital. Some of these vessels are of sufficient capacity to carry at a single trip the grain that would load five freight trains of thirty cars each, with over 600 bushels per car. The entire wheat crop of a 4,000 acre Dakota wheat-farm went through the canal on one of these great carriers.