Sault Ste. Marie – Historic Landmarks

THE St. Mary’s River, which separates the upper peninsula of Michigan from Canada, and connects Lake Huron with Lake Superior, is sixty-three miles long, and is probably the most difficult of navigation on the continent. It is between two and three miles wide at the mouth, and studded with numerous beautiful islands. As we ascend, the stream becomes quite narrow at different points, then suddenly widens out into picturesque lakelets. Reaching the head of the river, we meet the falls, where all boats had to stop prior to the opening of the canal, but now pass on freely, no matter what their tonnage may be. The ” falls ” are a succession of rapids, with a descent of twenty-two feet in three-quarters of a mile, their whole length. There is no bold precipice at any point over which the waters leap, but a gradual flow into the deep channel of the river. There are several small islands scattered among the rapids, creating different channels. The waters rush down with great fury, leaping over huge boulders and winding round the fairy islands. The fish are abundant in the rapids. Indians and half-breeds may be seen at all hours of the summer day scooping out splendid white-fish. Two of them go out in each canoe. The canoe will sit in the dashing stream by the hour, steady as though held by anchor. They go right out into the most turbulent parts of the channel. One man sits in the stern of the canoe, and with his single oar holds her in the same position for a long time, her bow parting the waters beautifully. To the spectator ashore it frequently looks very hazardous. There is quite an art in the management of the frail little shell in such a position. The Indian who handles the net dips it quickly at the right moment and locality, and takes in his fish as the noble fellow is heading courageously against the current. This fishing is laborious, but very exciting, and frequently pays well. A score of canoes out in the rapids at a time when the fish are plenty produces a scene of high excitement among spectators on the shore, who probably have just landed from the steam-boat on their first trip to Lake Superior. Adventurous strangers catch the spirit of the scene and try their hand. And now for fun. It is all very well while they are content to go out and share with the Indian; but if prompted by their vanity to take charge of a canoe—one to hold the oar, the other to fish—their ardour is soon dampened, and a good laugh afforded those who remain on terra firma. The scene is ludicrous in the highest degree. Despite the utmost efforts of white men I have seen try it, the canoe rushes down stream. They try again and again, but down, down she goes like a bird, and the only wonder is that she does not upset. Our travellers, having worked themselves into a frenzy of excitement to become expert fishermen after the style of the Sault Indian and half-breed, give up in disgust, make for the bank as soon as possible, and rarely try a second time. One chance, however, yet remains for the courageous spirits—that of having an exhilarating dance among the dashing, laughing waters. And be it known that the ladies are generally two to one in the adventure. This is to walk up the river bank to the head of the rapids, step into a canoe, and rush down some of the channels, an Indian having you in charge. I have seen this done several times, but never attempted it. If everything happens to go right, all is well; but a little oversight, and your chances of escape need not be reckoned on. Several lives were lost in earlier years in this attempt, to descend the rapids. An Indian can do it safely, because he does not lose self-control through excitement. One who has not learned the art of suppressing all excitement under the most extreme circumstances should never make the venture.

The village of Sault Ste. Marie was founded by the Jesuits over two hundred years ago. The settlement figures prominently in the history of their missions among the Indians. It was also the seat of a government fort. The town is of little importance in any way. There is nothing to build it up, there being no mineral deposits in the vicinity, and its agricultural interests cannot amount to much at any time in the future. It will always have a great deal of summer travel, on account of its location by the falls. The country around is highly romantic, and the trout fishing good in the streams. It is a delightful place at which to spend a few weeks in summer, exploring the many wild haunts around the mouth of the lake, and in fishing and duck-shooting.

It is only about fifteen years since Lake Superior was fully opened to our lake commerce by the construction of the St. Mary’s ship canal, to overcome the obstruction of the rapids to continuous navigation. This canal is a noble monument to the enterprise of the present age. The old maxim was, ” Perseverance conquers all things “; the modern reading of which is, ” Money conquers all things.” Thousands of years ago men were content to build pyramids, the tower of Babel and such like, without reference to large or even small dividends on their investments, but all that kind of building is unknown in America. We have as much perseverance as the pyramid or tower builders, but while they were content to live to work, we work to live. With us ‘everything of this kind must pay in dollars, and then we build as high as the ancients, and excavate deeper, and bore through greater mountains, and talk under the widest oceans, and span with iron rails the largest continents. We stop at nothing. And so, up here lay inexhaustible mountains of minerals, but the rocks of Sault rapids stood as an impassable barrier in the way of vessels waiting to carry these minerals to where they might augment the material wealth of the world; and presto! the rocks disappear. A million dollars’ worth of powder and muscle expended, and a highway is opened for the vessels through solid rock. The canal is wide and deep enough to admit the largest boats in the trade. I believe there are some steamers on the lower lakes too long for the locks, but these would not suit the Lake Superior trade. The locks are probably the largest in the world. The canal is a mile long. The cost of construction was largely borne by a government appropriation of lands in the State of Michigan. All vessels passing through pay toll.

We pass out of the ship canal across Tequamenon Bay into the lake with the rising of the sun. The morning is delightful. Such an atmosphere, so pure to the eye, so invigorating to breathe, one never moves through in lower latitudes. Every passenger is in ecstasy with the hour and surroundings. The lake is smooth as a sea of glass, save the gentle swell created by the motion of the boat. There is not the slightest current in the air that we can feel, except that arising from our own motion. We sit on the upper deck that we may be able to sweep the eye over the whole picture. Wild ducks by thousands are seen over toward the north shore. Some of them fly off in alarm: most remain quietly on the water, paying no attention to us. Indians are encamped on the south shore, the smoke of their camp-fires curling up snake-like toward the sun while their morning meal is in course of preparation. Some of them are gliding over the water in their canoes. And here, farther up, are white men busy taking in splendid whitefish and Mackinac trout from their gill-nets. As it is now breakfast hour, the gulls begin to gather round the boat, hovering over her track that they may pick up the crumbs that will be thrown overboard by the waiters. The captain brings out a beautiful little fowling-piece and tries to wing some of them. Shot after shot is fired, but no bird falls. With every flash the birds make a sudden curve, and instantly fall into place again, following us up closely. They have a sublime contempt for the gun, if they are gulls. They seem to know well enough that danger is threatening them, but nevertheless consider themselves masters of the situation. Some of the passengers, who pride themselves on being good marks-men, are itching to try the captain’s gun : they feel sure of success. They are gratified with the chance to shoot, but not with their ill success. Not a bird is hurt. In the mean-time, the ladies have their enjoyment of the scene by casting bread on the water, and watching the birds dip with beautiful agility and pick it up, sweeping right on without breaking their graceful curve through the air.

The rapid motion of the steamer soon carries us out on the lake, where we lose sight of land on the north, while on the south, keeping close to shore, we pass successively White-fish Point, the seat of the lighthouse; Point au Sable, a chain of barren white sand-hills, rising several hundred feet above the lake; the world-renowned Pictured Rocks, stretching like a grand panorama for five miles along the coast; and Grand Island, where there is a fine natural harbour. Immediately after passing Grand Island, Marquette looms into view.