The Soo Locks – The Early Years – 1855 – 1888
Pictures are from the Mikel Classen Historical Pictures Collection except portaging picture from sign.
The Soo Locks began in 1855. They were dug so that ships would no longer have to either shoot the St. Mary’s River Rapids, of have the ship portaged through the town of Sault Ste. Marie rolled on logs down what is now Portage Avenue.
The St. Mary’s Rapids, sometimes called Falls because there was a drop of 21 feet from the Lake Superior level to Lake Huron river level, was the greatest obstacle to shipping in the upper Great Lakes.
The digging of the Locks was an ardous task. There was an attempt in 1839 to build a canal, but it failed miserably and the project was given up. In 1852, another attempt was made, this time sanctioned by the Federal Government and fully funded. Charles T. Harvey was chosen to head the project and he began work with around 400 men . Eventually it would increase to 1700, doubling the population of the Sault. A pump system had to be set up to keep the bottom dry enough to keep working. The route took them through the local Native burial ground! Not an auspicious start for the canal. It was completed in two years. It was a mammoth project.
The building of the State Lock was an achievement of engineering that still functions in essentially the same way it did when it was originally built. Though no longer controlled by a hand cranked windlass, the system of rising and lowering the water remains the same. The brilliance and the perseverance of the construction cannot be overstated. Battling water, disease, (cholera outbreak) and weather, the men had to work at sunrise to sunset no matter the weather and when cholera hit, many died where they stood. The completed lock opened in 1855. Suddenly, all of the construction workers and those employed to portage ships through town, were now unemployed creating a local depression. Out of work men were everywhere.
In 1881, an additional new lock was built named the Weitzel. Traffic was increasing and a new lock was imperative. The State lock would be rebuilt in 1896 as the 1st Poe Lock.
For more information on the Soo Locks check out the Soo Locks Visitor Center: https://www.saultstemarie.com/member-detail/soo-locks-visitor-center/