Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Soo

In November of 1621, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. In January of 1622, the 1st day of the year was moved from March 25th to January 1st on the Gregorian Calendar. In March of that year came the Jamestown Massacre. It would be four years yet before the Dutch bought New Amsterdam from the Lenape Indians and not until 42 years later that the place was renamed New York.

In 1622 (or maybe 1623, no one can say for certain), Etienne Brule likely became the first white man ever to see Lake Superior. He did that from the rapids at the Saint Mary's river. Archaeologists tell us that human habitation at the site goes back at least to 7,000 BCE. Called Bawating by the Ojibwa who fished the river for whitefish, Brule named the place Sault du Gaston after the brother of the King of France. The Ojibwa he called Saulters, or Dwellers on the Rapids.

Lake Superior pours everything it has into the Great Lakes via the Saint Mary's River. From Superior to Huron, the water level drops some 21 feet, mostly through the narrow channel at the Sault. It was an impassible obstacle to commerce and remained so for 233 years following Brule's visit.

The Saint Mary's River from space, with the Soo to the left

Today the place is commonly referred to as the Soo. Through it has flowed more human history than at any other place on the Superior Basin. It's the pivot point upon which exploration and then exploitation of Superior resources turned.

In 1668 the famed Jesuit missionary Father Pere Jacques Marquette built a mission there, between the Ojibwa village and the rapids. It was the first permanent wooden structure built in the State of Michigan which, of course, wasn't yet anything like a state. Father Marquette renamed the site Sault Ste. Marie.

Then in 1671 came my own personal favorite event in the history of the place -- The Pageant at the Sault.

Mindful of being encircled by the English from Hudson's Bay on the north and the British colonies to the east and aware of the potential mineral riches along the Superior shore, a French gathering was held at the Sault that by fiat declared pretty much the rest of North America as New France. So colorful and strange was this event, we'll lean on the estimable Grace Lee Nute, who describes the Pageant in her seminal book "Lake Superior":

...Seventeen tribes (were represented), including all those on the shores of Lake Superior and immediately beyond. The ceremony took place on the southwest shore of the rapids near the palisaded mission and the native village. The gates of the mission opened and out came the black-robed Jesuits, traders in gay sashes, Perrot the interpreter and De Saint Lusson, the personal representative of (the Sun King, Louis the XIV) in the bright uniform of a French officer. From his helmet fluttered the royal ensign, gold lilies on a field of white. The priest's crucifixes were held aloft as a Latin hymn was sung en route to the little hill where the Indians stood impassive in all the finery beloved of them.

Lusson beckoned the natives to approach...telling them that the Great Father beyond the sea was now their father and that he had sent them tokens of his concern for them. At this point, bales of presents were opened and distributed among the Indians. In return they presented the King with furs. Then the standard bearing the royal arms was set up, while the Exaudiat was sung and Latin prayers were chanted. Finally, as part of an old feudal custom, De Saint Lusson bent, broke off a bit of sod and holding it aloft proclaimed in a loud voice:

"In the name of the Most High, Most Mighty and most Redoubtable Monarch Louis the Fourteenth, most Christian King of France and Navarre, we take possession of the said place Saint Marie du Sault, as also of Lake Huron and Superior, the Island of Manitoulin, and all the other countries, rivers, lakes and their tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereto, those discovered and to be discovered, bounded on one side by the Northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea, this land in all its length and breadth."

Pretty nifty, eh?

The accord was signed, everyone raised their voices in song, shot off their weapons at the sky (careful, don't hit that Sun King), then got down to party. Of course, the accord didn't last.

In 1731 the first wooden boat to sail Superior was hauled past the Sault to make the lake, the same year Alexis de Tocqueville visited the place.

 By 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave the British dominion over French claims in the New World. British fiat lasted only until 1783, when yet another Treaty of Paris granted control over what then became the American side of the Sault to the fledgling United States of America.

The Copper Rush hit the Keweenaw Peninsula in 1845. As a result, the Independence was hauled over the Sault to become the first steamship upon the waters of Superior.

By the time iron ore was discovered near Negaunee in 1851, the necessity to alter the Saint Mary's River to allow for commerce was pressing. So in 1852, Congress conferred 750,000 acres of public land as compensation for the building of a set of transportation locks. The Fairbanks Scale Company, which had extensive mining interests in the UP, took the bait.

The State Canal opened on the St. Mary's River in 1855. Copper, iron and other goods flowed freely.

The rest, as they say, is history.


The canal immediately assumed critical national importance. The Army Corps of Engineers quickly took over the thing and remain in control to this day. The locks have been expanded many times and commerce passes through them free of charge. All costs associated with the locks are born by you and I.

Not so the International Bridge, which this year celebrates its 50th Anniversary. Drive across that and it'll cost 'ya, coming and going. 'Course, you're no Job Creator...

The problem with covering Sault Ste. Marie today is that despite a memorial here, an old house there and commemorative plaques all around, being the prime conduit for more than 150 years of industrial activity on the Superior Basin has pretty much destroyed the place for any other purpose.

On the American side is a splendid park and while that highlights the history, its main attraction is a viewing platform immediately beside the locks. It draws all manner of visitors, especially those most wanting to catch a close up view of the mighty freighters that ply the lakes.

In the Visitor's Center is posted the arrival time of the big boats, both up bound and down. After hours there's a hotline you can call for the schedule and no matter day or night, when one of these massive boats pulls through, there're folk on the platform to greet it.

During recent years, our somewhat more inclusive cultural views have allowed for a renewed presence of the Ojibwa in their native home. The ancient burial ground along the river is once again treated as a sacred place, even if it is hard by an industrial canal and next to a river no more.

On the Canadian side, the South St. Mary's and Whitefish Islands are being reclaimed from post industrial wasteland and nudged back towards their natural heritage. The morning I walked the place, I savored the first wild raspberries of the season:

And it's here that you can get a close-up view of what remains of the fabled St. Mary's Rapids.

All the same, neither the Canadian nor the American side of the Soo presents a particularly attractive face, though in the long run the Canadians seem to have gotten the better part of the deal, as Sault Ste. Marie Ontario is a city of 79,800 souls, compared to the American's 14,253 and steadily shrinking, as populations are all across the U.P.

For me, the significance of Sault Ste. Marie is exactly what it was in 1622 and for all the explorers, missionaries, fur traders, armies, Captains of Commerce & Industry and tourists that followed: to get to the north shore of Superior from the south, you must cross it.

And as it's the north shore where Agawa is found, across the Sault we go...

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