Michigan Transportation History

Construction of the Soo Locks

Public Michigan Canal Sault Ste MarieSoo LocksBuildingEvent

See also
Soo Locks-Bibliographic Info
Charles T. Harvey
Soo Locks-Historical Marker

The rapids on the Saint Mary's River had always been a barrier to large ship transportation. Canoes could navigate the rapids easily enough downbound and could be portaged upbound, but for larger vessels access to Lake Superior required a lock. Because of its interest in improving access to the fur lands, the North West Company? was the first to invest in a canal on the river. In 1797, the company built a small lock to raise and lower canoes between the two lake levels. In 1814, because of the War of 1812, an American raiding party destroyed this lock.

Ships hauled up to Lake Superior remained in Lake Superior. Shipments downbound had to break bulk at the Sault. A cartage company, the Chippewa Falls Portage Company?, hauled cargo over a tramway between the upper river and the lower river. Lower-lakes ships then re-loaded the freight to continue its down-bound travel. John T. Whiting served as general agent for the portage company during the 1840s.

In 1837, the state's Internal Improvements program started the construction of a new lock on the Saint Mary's River but the general collapse of the internal improvements program caused by the Panic of 1837 forced the state to abandoned the Sault project in 1839. As a last effort to keep construction of this lock moving forward, Michigan's Senator John Norvell introduced in 1839 legislation in the Senate for federal funding of the canal. The Senate passed the measure but the House did not, largely due to the ineffective lobbying of Michigan's sole Representative, Isaac E. Crary.

With the canal project dead and no other way to get large ships on to Lake Superior, ambitious Michiganians began to manually haul ships over the rapids. Over the winter of 1840, a team of men moved the schooner Algonquin? on rollers above the rapids. In 1845, the same technique was used to move the steamship Independence? above the rapids, and again in 1846 the process was applied to the wooden side-wheel steamer Julia Palmer.1 Later in the 1840s and early 1850s, several more ships were hauled into Lake Superior by this method.

As copper and iron production increased, support for improving the efficiency of the mining industry grew. Eastern (mainly Bostonian) capital largely financed the copper and iron companies. Dozens of mills in places like Chicago and Cleveland were dependent on Michigan ores. The bottleneck at the sault was throttling production in unacceptable ways. Congress passed in 1852 new legislation for the construction of a canal. This law provided for a canal to be built through Fort Brady. The canal would be 100 feet wide, 12 feet deep, and the locks would be at least 250 feet long by 60 feet wide. Congress granted Michigan 750,000 acres of land to finance the project provided it was started in three years and completed in ten.

While Congress was moving forward with this legislation, private investors also got involved in the project. Charles T. Harvey, a young scale salesman who had come to Sault Ste Marie to recover from a bout with typhoid fever, quickly realized how necessary a canal around the falls was. He also realized that the company that built the canal would be profitable. On his own initiative, he contracted with an engineer in Detroit to begin a survey. He met with James F. Joy of the Michigan Central Railroad for assistance. Joy, through his contacts in Lansing, got a favorable law through the Michigan legislature. The Michigan law proposed locks larger than the federal law: 350 feet long by 70 feet wide. Governor appointed a commission to oversee the project. The law also authorized the state to transfer the federal land grant to any private company that built the lock within two years.

Harvey's employer, the Fairbanks Scale Company, owned by brothers Thaddeus and Erastus Fairbanks, had many investments in the Lake Superior mining district and quickly grasped this opportunity. They formed the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal Company?. Subscribers and backers included Joseph P. Fairbanks (another Fairbanks brother), Erastus Corning, John W. Brooks?, August Belmont, Henry W. Dwight, Thomas Dwyer?, Franklin Moore?, George F. Porter, John Owen, James F. Joy, and Henry P. Baldwin. Harvey was appointed agent for the company at Sault Ste Marie in charge of construction.

Workers for the Chippewa Falls Portage Company were hostile to the project (because it would put them out of work), but Harvey soon won them over by employing them as construction workers on the canal and at better wages than they received from the portage company. Even the portage company's general agent John Whiting became a backer of the canal project, making trips to the east to consult with the investors on the progress of the project. Unfortunately for the canal, Harvey was young and inexperienced. His decisions troubled investors and nearly brought the project to ruin. For example, Harvey failed to take into account the variable seasonal depth of Lake Superior. After a year of construction, he discovered that he had excavated the canal at too shallow a depth requiring at least another foot of excavation for the entire length of the canal. Because of these and other mistakes, the Fairbanks brothers came to the conclusion that they needed a competent engineer to lead construction. They hired John W. Brooks?, who was then the chief construction engineer for the Michigan Central Railroad.

The canal was dug, or blasted, through solid rock for most of the distance. 3,157 kegs of black powder were used in the excavation.

The canal was opened on May 31, 1855, although it was not until June 18, 1855, that the first ships went through the locks. The first ship upbound was the steamship Illinois. The first ship downbound was the steamship Baltimore. Upon completion, Harvey turned over control and operation of the canal to the state superintendent of public works.

The canal cost the St. Mary's company over one million dollars to build. The company received the 750,000-acre federal land grant and got their pick of available sections. Some of the lands the company chose included land on which the famous Calumet and Hecla Mine? would be found. But in all cases the company selected rich lumber and mineral lands and profited greatly from the sale of land and lumber.


1. See Thurlow Weed, "An Interesting Description of the Lakes in 1847," letter dated July 12, 1847, in J. B. Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes, vol. 1 (Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1899), 209 - 218.


Arbic, Bernie, and Nancy Steinhaus. Upbound Downbound: The Story of the Soo Locks. Allegan Forest: The Priscilla Press, 2005.

Arbic, Bernie, and Nancy Steinhaus. "How the Soo Locks Were Made." Lake Superior Magazine, July 27, 2015.

Dickinson, John N. To Build a Canal: Sault Ste. Marie, 1853-1854 and After. Columbus, Ohio: Published for Miami University by the Ohio State University Press, 1981.

Dickinson, John N. The Canal at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan: Inception, Construction, Early Operation, and the Canal Grant Lands. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1968.

Dunbar, Willis F., and George S. May. "Out of the Wilderness," chapter 13 in Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1995.

Goodrich, G. Carter. Government Promotion of American Canal and Railroads 1800-1890. New York: 1960.

Mason, Philip P., ed. "The Operation of the Sault Canal, 1857." Michigan History 39 (March 1955): 69-80.

Newton, Stanley. The Story of Sault Ste. Marie and Chippewa County. Sault Ste. Marie, MI: Sault News Printing Co., 1923.Norton, Clark F. "Early Movement for the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal." Michigan History 39 (Sept. 1955): 257-80.

Rankin, Ernest H. "Canalside Superintendent." Inland Seas 21 (Summer 1965): 103-14.

United States. Department of the Army. Corps of Engineers. North Central Division. Detroit District. Draft Interim Feasibility Report Great Lakes Connecting Channels and Harbors Study. Appendix A: Historic Resources at St. Mary's Falls Canal, Michigan. March 1984.

A detailed technical account concerning the construction of the canal and its various improvements over the years. Also included are studies concerning the operations of the locks during the early 1980s. The report was part of a feasibility study and environmental impact statement for a possible rebuilding of ship access through the sault. 538 pages.

United States. Department of the Interior. National Parks Service. National Register of Historic Places. Inventory Nomination Form for the "Soo" locks. May 7, 1975.

The application for the Soo Locks to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places and for an NPS historical marker. Part of the application includes a short history of the construction and significance of the locks.

Taylor, Paul. Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer, Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009.

Weed, Thurlow. "An Interesting Description of the Lakes in 1847," letter dated July 12, 1847, in J. B. Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes, vol. 1, pp. 209 - 218. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1899.

Other Sources not as critical as those above

See also
Soo Locks-Bibliographic Info

Moore, Charles, ed. & comp. The Saint Marys Falls Canal: Exercises at the Semi-Centennial Celebration at Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, August 2 and 3, 1905; together with a History of the Canal by John H. Goff, and Papers relating to the Great Lakes. Detroit, Michigan: By the Semi-Centennial Commission, 1907.

Open Library edition —•— Internet Archive edition

Because this account is celebratory, it is not a critical analysis of the construction of the canal and tends to over-celebrate the accomplishments of Harvey (who was the honorary Grand Marshal of the celebration). This is the history of which Dunbar and May are most critical.

Fowle, Otto. Sault Ste. Marie and Its Great Waterway. New York, 1925.

Bald, F. Clever. The Sault Canal through 100 years, Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1954.

Newton, Stanley. The Story of Sault Ste. Marie and Chippewa County. Sault Ste. Marie, MI: Sault News Printing Co., 1923.

The Michigan County histories tend to be more celebratory and less critical than the histories in the above section. This text has a lengthy history of the construction project, the 50th anniversary celebration, and a transcription of the historical markers.

Ratigan, William. Young Mister Big: The Story of Charles T. Harvey, Builder of the Soo Canal. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955.

Ratigan has been best praised as a writer of children's books about Michigan and/or the Great Lakes. But his forays into historical writing have been criticized for poor writing and inaccuracy. See John A. Kouwenhoven's review of Ratigan's Highways over Broad Waters: Life and Times of David B. Steinman, Bridgebuilder (Technology and Culture 2, No. 2 [Spring, 1961])) or Julius F. Wolff Jr.'s review of Ratigan's Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals (Minnesota History 37, no. 4 [Dec., 1960]).

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "Construction of the Soo Locks," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on March 20, 2020, at 11:56 AM EST

Page last modified on March 20, 2020, at 11:56 AM EST