Deep Voices of the Soo
Excerpt from "The Long Ships Passing"
"The Story of the Great Lakes"
By Walter Havighurt 1942
Picture Sault Ste. Marie on a summer evening. The long northern twilight lingers over the town; over the broad river below the rapids where the current runs in an amber light, over the green riverfront hillside that once was an army barracks and a trading compound, over the wooded park that skirts the canal. It is a quiet town, with the forest around it. You can see the spruce fringes beyond Fort Brady and the maple groves across the narrow channel on Sugar Island, and the dark range of the Laurentians above the Canadian Soo across the river. There arc the stacks of the carbide works, smoking up a dusk of their own, a sawmill whining from the upper end of town and a train huffing in on the Soo Line.
Then you hear a deep-throated whistle, not like a sawmill whistle, or a locomotive, or any factory in the world. Its echoes wander over the town and you can sec black smoke drifting above the maple trees. The long dark hull grows in the river, a big freighter moving up into the Third Lock, while another comes down out of the Fourth. The upbound ship is light, a long band of red lead showing above the water, the deck inclined toward the storied superstructure at her bow, her engine room pulsing, a stream of water pouring from her side and the portholes glowing astern. The gates swing open. The deep whistle sounds again, shortly, and the ship moves into the great cold lake ringed in hills of iron; Another 14,000 tons of ore move down the linked lakes to the smoking cities.
Darkness settles over the Soo and a chill wind freshens. People in this northern town don't put their overcoats away.
Around the big bend of the St. Mary's the riding lights are moving stars and the long ships come on. All night the whistles sound, deep and mellow and haunting. The locks open and close. The ships pass through. A hundred million tons of cargo in an eight-month season. And you realize that this border town is a place like Port Said and Cristobal. It is a strategic town with the currents of a continent's life passing through it and the smoke of an enormous commerce blowing over.
It has a rhythm, the rhythm of a northern city and a land that knows the tight grip of winter. The rhythm that the Indians knew for centuries, huddled in their lodges waiting for the ice to go and the whitefish to run in the rapids. Nature still makes the rules in that country. The snows fall, fall. The channels harden and farmers drive their teams across the ice. The roads drift full and fences are buried. The long piles of cordwood shrink around the farmhouses. The river is a white, curving road and at the Soo the locks arc sheathed in ice. Then in April the air changes. The ice goes out. A whistle echoes up the winding river, over the islands and around the rocky shores. The church bells of Canada and America used to ring across the river when the first vessel came. It is still an event. The loosed tides of commerce flow through that living river. Coal comes up and ore goes down, the black and red cargoes under the hatches of that procession of ships, one every twenty minutes, that will not cease till the ice forms on Whitefish Bay in December.
No other canal in the world carries such a tonnage. But the vital waterway was not opened without political, financial and physical struggle.
There was a canal, with a nine-foot lock, on the Canadian side of the rapids a century and a half ago. It was built by the Northwest Fur Company in 1797. That canal, reconstructed, appears now, nearly obscured by the industrial plants of the Canadian Soo, on its original site, and it is just about large enough to float a lifeboat from one of the big freighters that pass through the Third and Fourth locks every third of an hour. But that primitive lock served the laden bateaux of the fur traders until it was destroyed by American troops in the War of 1812.
For the next forty years the only route around the rapids was the portage road.
When Michigan was admitted into the Union in 1837 Governor Stevens T. Mason in an address to the legislature pointed out the need of a passage for shipping around the falls of the St. Mary's River. He spoke of it as a project for the federal government, but when the federal congress rejected the proposal he prepared the way for the state of Michigan to undertake the task. The fledgling state legislature then proceeded to contract for the construction of a canal with three lifts of six feet each, thirty-two feet wide, a hundred feet long, and ten feet deep. They estimated the cost at slightly more than $100,000.
In October 1838, one of the contractors went to the Soo to look over the ground. He wore a worried face as he surveyed the project, realizing that his firm had big losses ahead of them. As the story goes, he was dined and wined by the commanding officer of the garrison at Fort Brady. In the course of a convivial evening the contractor confessed his worries over the undertaking ahead of him, and added that they could not throw up the contract without forfeiting their bond. They stood to lose a tidy sum whether they built the canal or not.
Captain Johnson, who had no more imagination than was required to head a small and idle garrison, found this agreeable news. lie didn't want the routine of Fort Brady disturbed and the canal survey ran directly through the military reservation. Furthermore he had instructions from Washington to prohibit the contractors from cutting the mill race which served an abandoned sawmill on the military grounds. Quickly a solution occurred to Captain Johnson, who had a certain head for business if not a prophetic sense of history. The solution was simple: should the contractor begin his work where the line of the canal intersected the race-way, then the armed might of Fort Brady would be drawn up to prohibit his operations.
Next spring, on May 11, the contractor arrived on the Eliza Ward with fifty laborers and a load of tools and provisions. The strategy was acted out in solemn manner. The contractor set his men to work at the race-way and was promptly stopped by the thirty regulars of the garrison. The contractor, playing his part to the end, remonstrated, insisting that he had a contract to fulfill for the state of Michigan, and that the Congress had granted permission to build the canal through the military grounds. Captain Johnson went into his act, with a sharp word to his regulars. Their bayonets glinted in the bright May sun. So the baffled, happy contractor led his men down the river bank to McKnight's dock. They loaded picks and shovels, crowbars and hammers and wheelbarrows onto the schooner Eliza Ward. They sailed down the St. Mary's and went fishing.
It was thirteen years before a federal grant was made for the construction of the canal. During that time some noisy debates engaged the floors of Congress, and two of America's foremost statesmen dismissed the project in ringing language. Daniel Webster declared he would never vote one penny to bring the bleak, barren, rocky and uninhabitable shores of California one step nearer Boston; and Henry Clay made his famous wrong guess when he denounced the project of the St. Mary's Canal as "a work beyond the remotest settlement in the United States, if not in the moon."
Now the citizens of the Soo remember that derision with a peculiar American pride. "Beyond the moon" is a favorite man for the Vermont firm of E. T. Fairbanks and Company, manufacturers of scales, and he was in he Northwest to establish agencies for the Fairbanks products in that new country. While he recovered from typhoid he became victim to another fever, the fever of the Lake Superior country. He was young enough to see its tremendous potential riches, and as his health returned he had strength enough to drive the canal to completion. He forgot about scales and persuaded his company to enter a bigger business—to take over the granted lands and construct the canal. They made millions before the entire lands were disposed of, and young Charles Harvey, a Yankee salesman, became construction agent for the Soo Canal.
Harvey went to Detroit, engaged an excavation foreman, loaded the steamer Illinois with mules and horses, lumber, provisions, supplies, and four hundred men, and arrived at the Soo on the first day of June, 1853. In forty-eight hours he had the men housed in improvised barracks. On the fourth day of June his men, organized in work gangs, marched to the site where Harvey planted his spade in the ground and wheeled the first load of earth from the cut.
That was the beginning. Before the task was done young Charles Harvey had some new lines in his face. At that time there were only a dozen white families at the Soo. Indian camps dotted the shores and the islands. Voyageurs and fur traders gave color to the town, singing and swaggering down Water Street. But these men and these Indians had no taste for a pick and shovel. All of Harvey's labor crews had to come from hundreds of miles away; all the equipment, tools, and provisions had to be transported from the lower lakes.
But Charles Harvey was a man of prodigious energy. He lived at the Agency House near the bend of the St. Mary's, and he wore out three horses a day galloping over the canal works, between the workmen's quarters, the foremen's offices and the trampled portage road. He led his men and he kept their shovels swinging. The pounding of his horses' hoofs was a rhythm that drove them all.
That winter two thousand men were working in the frozen pit that would receive Lake Superior water. The temperature dropped below zero and stayed there for bitter weeks. Down in the pit the mules breathed jets of steam from their nostrils, the picks rang on the frozen ground, and the drills punched into the rock with a slow, cold din. A watchman was posted at the head of each wheelbarrow runway to rub snow on the gray faces that betrayed frostbite. For one stretch that winter it was 35 degrees below zero. In the mess barracks the meat froze solid. The cooks chopped it with an ax and rammed it into their ovens. They dug vegetables from frost cellars in the ground.
In the winter of 1854 typhoid and cholera struck the camp. Then a new pit was dug, out of sight in the woods. Burials were held quietly at night, to keep the knowledge of epidemic from the men. At the same time hundreds of workmen were lured by high wages to the copper and iron country, and scores went out to seek their own homesteads. To keep his gangs working Harvey sent company foremen to New York to board immigrant ships in the harbor. They signed on Irish and German workmen, herded them into trains for Detroit and delivered steamer loads of them to the growing excavation beside the rapids. The picks kept swinging.
There were other problems, besides engineering and labor and sanitation. Hie canal lines ran through a traditional Indian burial ground, above those rapids that the Chippewa's had venerated as the home of many Manitous. Chief Shegud protested earnestly, then bitterly, but Charles Harvey could not move his lines. When the cut began to gnaw at that burial place he had reason to be fearful. Four thousand Indians came to the Soo every fall to receive their government payments. As the workmen threw up skeletons and bones Charles Harvey heard the muttering thump-thump-thump of the "wabeno" drums all along the shore where the Chippawas were camped. Rumors of Indian agitation grew and men recalled the bloody massacre at Old Fort Mackinac.
Then an old chief appeared on the excavation site with a long-barreled gun threatening in his hands. He had come from Lake Superior and he had an urgent mission. The old chief made his speech over and over, pointing his gun. He grew vehement, but he spoke in Chippewa, which Harvey could not understand. At last the Indian agent came and translated the old chief's speech.
"He says that he understands you arc the government blacksmith, and he has brought his gun, which he wants to have put in good order."
One of the provisions of the treaty of 1843 was that the government would provide free repair service for Indian firearms. Charles Harvey went immediately to work on that rifle. Soon the chief, grunting with satisfaction, returned to Lake Superior.
In twenty-two and a half months the job was done. The drills ceased to hammer. The last wheelbarrows came up the runways. The mules were hoisted out of the cut just before the gates were opened. Then Lake Superior flowed into the locks. The canal had cost just under a million dollars. Nearly that much was collected in tolls before the canal was transferred to the federal government and made free for public use.
On June 18, 1855, the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal was opened. Captain Jack Wilson took the side-wheel steamer Illinois, with seven flags on her halyards, up through the locks for the first passage. The first vessel down was the steamer Baltimore. Ten others waited in line. Captain Wilson lost his life, along with 286 others, in the fog-shrouded waters of Lake Michigan when the topsail schooner Augusta, loaded with Muskegon pine, rammed his fine new steamer Lady
Elgin on a tragic September night in 1860. But he had a proud hour in his life, when the upper locks opened that summer day in 1855 and he steered the Illinois into Lake Superior. Fifty years later, in June of 1905, Sault Ste. Marie celebrated the first half century of that vital waterway. By that time the locks that Captain Eber Ward had considered too large were replaced by the eight-hundred-foot Poe lock, in addition to the Weitzel lock, which had been opened to traffic in 1881. It was a part of the celebration to point out that those locks were inadequate to serve the growing commerce. Time brings dramatic changes on the lakes. Now the freighter Orlando M. Poe, loaded with iron ore from Lake Superior's ranges, cannot pass the lock bearing its builder's name. Its draft is too great.
Theodore Roosevelt was present for that fifty-year celebration. Bells rang from the American shore and the sound came back from the church steeples of Canada across the river. Whistles blared up and down the channel, echoing over the islands and the deep green woods. On the embankment of the canal, where Indians stared at silk-hatted Congressmen, history was recounted and the future was proclaimed. The town received gifts of commemoration: a Japanese Tori gate, a kiosk, an obelisk and many other markers. They still give the Soo a slightly incredible cosmopolitan air, with the Chippewas stalking through the streets and sawmills screaming at the upper end of town.
Since that celebration two more locks have been added the great Davis and Sabin locks. They can take in one lockage, in tandem, two of the largest vessels in service. In a single day, on September 6, 1926, the canal carried 752,000 tons of freight—or the equivalent of 376 trainload's of forty cars each, which would mean one train passing every four minutes during the twenty-four-hour day. Now a bigger lock is in project on the site of the old unused Weitzel lock. The engineers have already drawn plans and made test drills for a new structure to fit in with the proposed St. Lawrence Seaway system. But its need and value are apparent in terms of the lakes trade alone.
A hundred years ago the Indians shouted as they ran the
rapids. Today the steamers send their rich blend of bass and
treble echoing over the ancient town that the Jesuits gave
their most cherished name. No place in America has a more
(Excerpt from "The Soo Canal" by William Ratigan. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co 1954)
(Excerpt from "The Soo Canal" by William Ratigan. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co 1954)