Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site of Canada

Cultural Heritage

History

A Historic Waterway

St. Marys River Rapids
The St. Marys River is the water link between Lake Superior to the west and Lake Huron to the east.
© Parks Canada / Richard Draycott, August, 1978

The Sault Ste. Marie Canal was constructed between 1889 and 1895 to bypass the turbulent rapids of the St. Marys River and to provide the last link in Canada's Great Lakes St. Lawrence shipping route.

With the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier some 12,000 years ago, the St. Marys River ultimately carried Lake Superior waters south to Lake Huron. The St. Marys rapids result from a six-metre difference between the two lakes)

 

An Ancient Settlement

Rapids - 1907
Dipping for whitefish in the rapids - 1907.
© Parks Canada

For more than 2000 years, natives settled on the shore at Bawating meaning the place of the rapids. The French, arriving in the area in the 1600s, called the natives Saulteaux and the settlements on both sides of the river became known as Sault Ste. Marie.

Père Galinée wrote in his 1670 narrative:

the river forms at this place a rapid so teeming with fish that the Indians could easily catch enough to feed 10,000 men.
 
Whitefish Island
Aerial photograph of Whitefish Island.
© Parks Canada / Richard Draycott

Whitefish Island has been designated a national historic site. In 1980, the Batchewana First Nations launched a land claim for Whitefish Island. The island is now the property of the Batchewana First Nation.

 

The Fur Traders' Canal

Wooden Lock - 1798
Replica of the wooden lock built in 1798 by the North West Company.
© Parks Canada

As they began to explore the rich fur lands of the Lake Superior area in the 17th century, European traders were hampered by the fierce rapids at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1797, the North West Company established a trading post on the north side of the rapids and in 1798 built a small lock. It was intended for the passage of bateaux and it facilitated the transfer of goods between the company's schooners on Lake Huron and Lake Superior. Destroyed in 1814, when the Americans attacked the company's nearby trading post, the canal was not rebuilt. The lock has been reconstructed on the original site, next to the St. Marys Paper administration building.

Canada Hesitates

In the 1840s, when the great mineral potential of the Lake Superior area began to be developed, the Sault Ste. Marie Canal was reborn. Several proposals envisaged a canal large enough for lake vessels but Canadian enthusiasm dies in 1855 when the Americans completed a shipping canal on their side of the river. For the next four decades, all traffic between Lake Huron and Lake Superior passed through the American canal.

The CHICORA
The American authorities refused passage to the CHICORA.
© Parks Canada

Canada's dependence on the American canal was not without conflict. In 1870, Americans has refused passage to Chicora, a vessel that has served as a blockade-runner in support of the South during the American Civil War. The Chicora was bound for the west with military supplies for the Red River Expedition. After weeks of diplomatic negotiating, the vessel was finally allowed passage on the condition that her military cargo be unloaded on the northern shore before passing through the American Lock.

Although the Chicora incident raised Canadian's concerns about the country's dependence on the Americans for access to Lake Superior, the decision to build a Canadian canal was not finally made until it was evident that the flow of wheat from the Canadian west, and of minerals form Lake Superior, justified the expenditure.

Cast Iron and Cut Stone

Construction of the lock 1889-1895
Construction on the canal began in May 1889 and was completed with the passage of the fist vessel September 7, 1895.
© Parks Canada

Construction began in 1889 and was completed in 1895, in very challenging conditions. The canal was cut through the bedrock of St. Marys Island. Red sandstone excavated from the cut was used for the construction of buildings on the site. When the lock opened in 1895, its chamber, 274 m long and 18 m wide, was the world's largest.

 
Travelling Derrick - Circa 1894
Travelling Derrick used in lock during construction - Circa 1894.
© Parks Canada / Circa 1894

Stonecutters laboured for four years, using sandstone for the approach walls and limestone from the Windsor area and Manitoulin Island for the lock chamber. Foundries in Owen Sound, Welland, Toronto, and Montréal poured the cast-iron valves and lock gate machinery parts, and the four-year old Canadian General Electric Company supplied the generators, switches, wiring, and panels to power the machinery and illuminate the canal. On September 7, 1895, the lock was officially opened with the locking through of the Majestic, a new Canadian passenger steamer. Canada finally has an all-Canadian waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of the Great Lakes.

High Technology in the 1890s

Lock Floor
In the lock floor were 152 openings through which the water would flow up or down as required.
© Parks Canada

The canal incorporated many advanced features and "firsts" of waterway engineering technology including improvements to the watering and dewatering system. This new system decreased the turbulence, during filling and emptying, by allowing the water to flow through the lock floor. Electrically operated gates and valves controlled the flow of water into and out of the new lock.

 
Water intake pipes
West side of Powerhouse showing large pipes that feed water to turbines - September 21, 1894.
© Parks Canada / September 21, 1894
2nd Floor of Powerhouse
A smaller turbine was installed to drive a dynamo to supply electric lighting for the entire site.
© Parks Canada
 

The electricity to power this new lock was produced in the Powerhouse adjacent to the lower end of the lock. Canada's Sault Canal was the first in the world to use the electrically operated machinery.

Wickets &Shutters
The Emergency Swing Dam consists of 23 wickets and shutters.
© Parks Canada / June, 1909
Emergency Swing Bridge Dam
The only Emergency Swing Dam left in the world is located here at the Sault Canal.
© Parks Canada / Richard Draycott
 

The Emergency Swing Dam, built on the north side of the upper entrance, is another of the site's unique features. Intended to reduce the flow of water in the event of gate failure, it proved its worth in 1909 when the Perry G. Walker rammed the lower lock gates while vessels were locking through the upper entrance. Although the upper gates were dragged from their anchorage, the Emergency Swing Dam enabled repairs to be carried out quickly and the canal was back in service less than two weeks later. Today this structure is the last of its type in the world.

A Commercial Workhorse

The MAJESTIC
On September 7, 1895 the Canadian Canal was opened with locking of the new Canadian Passenger steamer MAJESTIC.
© Parks Canada
The CHIEF SHINGWAUK
After 11 years of being idle, the Sault Canal re-opened in 1998 and again provides an important Canadian Link in a water route from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior.
© Parks Canada
 

From the 1890s to the 1960s, the Sault Ste. Marie Canal locked through the old and the new: tired old schooners with leaky bottoms and worn riggings, gleaming new steam-driven passenger ships, coal-blackened freighters (dubbed Upper Lakers) and private yachts with spit-polished brass.

In 1979, after 80 years of round-the-clock operation, the canal was retired from the St. Lawrence Seaway system and began a new role under the management and direction of Parks Canada. In 1987, due to a structural failure of the lock wall, the canal was closed to navigation.

In 1996, an agreement between federal, provincial, and municipal governments was signed and construction of a new recreational lock began. On July 14, 1998 the new recreational lock opened to boat traffic, after being closed for eleven years.