It’s hard to imagine Sault Ste. Marie without its locks, what a different place this would be if the Sault Locks were never built. Sault Michigan is home to one of the busiest locks in the world. The Canadian side, not so much. But there was a reason why a Canadian lock was built in the 18th century, long before the locks became a vital link across the river.
Prior to that, canoes and small boats used a small passage in 1797 built by the Northwest Fur Company on the Canadian side of the river. The navigational lock measured 38 feet long . This lock remained in use until destroyed in the War of 1812.
The canal was part of the shipping route from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior. It includes a lock to bypass the rapids on the St. Marys River.
On July 20, 1814 an American force destroyed the North West Company depot on the north shore of the St. Marys River. Since the Americans were unable to capture Fort Michilimackinac, the British forces retained control of the Sault. The lock was destroyed in 1814 in an attack by U.S. forces during the War of 1812.
Congress passed an act in 1852 granting 750,000 acres of public land to the State of Michigan as compensation to the company that would build a lock permitting waterborne commerce between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes.
In 1870, the United States refused the steamer Chicora, carrying Colonel Garnet Wolseley permission to pass through the locks at Sault Ste Marie. The Wolseley Expedition incident led to the construction of a Canadian Sault Ste. Marie Canal, which was completed in 1895.
The construction of the canal and lock was completed in 1895. At that time it was the largest lock and first electrically operated lock in the world. The canal is about 1.6 kilometres long and originally the lock portion was 274 metres long and 18 metres wide.
This canal formed the last link in an all-Canadian navigation system stretching from the St. Lawrence River to Lake Superior. Designed and built by Canadians, the canal incorporated several engineering innovations. It was the world’s longest lock and the first to operate with electrical power. It was also novel in using an emergency swing dam to protect the lock in case of accident. Electricity was generated on site in the powerhouse.
On June 9, 1909 the locks were seriously damaged when the Perry G. Walker, owned by the Gilchrist Transportation Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, crashed into the south main gate, forcing it back and allowing the force of water to push the north main gate over. The rush of water threw the Perry G. Walker back and carried two other ships downstream, one of which struck the south main gate, breaking it diagonally in two. The rush of water through the destroyed locks was stopped by activation of the Emergency Swing Dam, allowing repairs to commence. Amazingly, there was no loss of life or injury associated with this disaster, and repairs required only 12 days, with the bridge reopening on June 21, 1909.
Due to a wall failure in 1987, the historic lock was shut down indefinitely. A new lock, built within the old lock, was opened in 1998 and is 77 metres long, 15.4 metres wide, 13.5 metres deep, The canal is used for recreational and tour boats; major shipping traffic uses the U.S. locks.