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The Missing Link

For the week of Monday September 10, 2007

On September 10, 1895, the Sault Ste. Marie Canal opened after six years of construction. The canal, which transported people and supplies around the St. Mary’s Rapids, was the final link in an all-Canadian waterway from Montréal to the head of the Great Lakes.

Construction on the canal began in May 1889 and was completed with the passage of the fist vessel in September 1895
Construction on the canal began in May 1889 and was completed with the passage of the fist vessel in September 1895
© Parks Canada
Sault Ste. Marie has long been considered an important transit way. Due to the high concentration of whitefish there, First Nations settled at the rapids for millennia. The first Europeans in the region were French explorers following the natural waterways west, and Jesuit missionaries set up a permanent mission shortly afterward. In the late-18th century, British fur traders were the first to bypass the rapids with a modest canal. The North West Company established a trading post on the north side of the rapids in 1797, however, the importance of the site decreased with the decline in transatlantic trade and the expansion of the American railway system.

In the 1840s, there was renewed interest in a Sault Ste. Marie canal, but the opening of a large canal on the American side of the river in 1855 discouraged construction. All Canadian water traffic flowed through this American canal for four decades until Canada’s economic interests justified an improved water transportation system. The need for an all-Canadian water route to the west intensified when a Canadian ship was denied passage through the American canal during the First Riel Rebellion.

The Sault Ste. Marie Canal was a marvel of engineering technology in its day. Able to hold one upper laker and two smaller vessels, the lock was the largest in the world. The lock was also the first to generate its own electricity and to use it to power the lock gates, control valves, and lighting system. Allowing water to flow through the lock floor reduced turbulence during “watering” and “dewatering” and the innovative emergency swing dam controlled the flow of water during accidents so that repairs could be finished faster.

Boat entering the recreational locks, which were opened in 1998
Boat entering the recreational locks, which were opened in 1998
© Parks Canada / H.06.644.08.10(05)
After 80 years of round the clock operation, the Sault Ste. Marie Canal was withdrawn from the St. Lawrence Seaway and put under the administration of Parks Canada. In 1987, a structural failure closed the canal to navigation. Today, residents and visitors to Sault Ste. Marie enjoy a new, recreational lock as well as the surrounding park and heritage buildings, such as the superintendent’s residence, canalmen’s shelter, and powerhouse. For its technical innovation and its place in Canada’s national canal system, the Sault Ste. Marie Canal was designated a National Historic Site in 1987.

For more information, please visit Sault Ste. Marie National Historic Site of Canada  on the Parks Canada Website.

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