A historic waterway
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 east to Lake Huron. The St. Marys rapids result from a six-metre difference between the two lakes.
The fur traders' canal
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.
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.
Canada's dependence on the American canal was not without conflict. In 1870, the Americans refused passage to Chicora, a vessel that had 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 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 from Lake Superior, justified the expenditure.
Cast iron and cut stone
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.
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 had an all-Canadian waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of the Great Lakes.