August 7, 1999

You're faced with an obstacle - the St. Mary's Rapids connecting Lake Huron with Lake Superior. You can either go through them, over them, or around them. A canoe or a kayak can go through; a plane (not an option in the 1800s) can go over. A boat loaded with ore or timber must go around. As the seeds of industry were planted on Superior's shores in the 1840s and '50s, a canal became a necessity. There had been one earlier attempt. In 1797 the North West Fur Company built a 9-foot lock on the Canadian side. Today you might be able to squeeze a small lifeboat in a 9 foot lock but for canoes and bateaux it was more than adequate. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by American forces in 1814 during the War with Britain.

When Michigan became a state in 1837, governor Stevens T. Mason tried to get the Federal government to build a canal at the Soo. No Sale! Okay, Michigan would build her own. A contractor was found who agreed to build it, site unseen, and posted a bond of $100,000. Only then was an engineer sent to the scene. And said to himself, "no way". Also, the commander of the local U. S. Army post didn't want the bother of guarding canal locks. The two men hatched a plot. When the workmen showed up they were met with drawn swords and rifles at the ready. End of project. No military siestas disturbed. No bond forfeited. Everybody happy. Except the shippers, of course.

In 1867 Charles T. Harvey would design and build Manhattan's first elevated railway. But in 1853 he was a 24-year-old salesman for a scale manufacturer, recuperating at the Soo from a typhoid fever attack. He saw other possibilities here and convinced his company to go into the canal construction business. Named contractor for the project, he set out to teach himself engineering and build a canal at the rapids of the St. Mary's. Traveling to Detroit, he hired a excavation foreman and 400 laborers. He purchased teams of mules and horses, construction materials and close to a year's supply of provisions. They all arrived on June first and ground was broken on the 4th. Harvey wore out three horses a day galloping from one end of the project to the other. The men dug all that summer and on into the fall. 2,000 men were now on the project as the daylight hours shrank and winter descended over the Sault. At times the thermometer would be halted at 35 degrees below zero for days on end. Meat froze solid in the cook-shacks and had to be cut up with axes to fit in the stoves. Watchmen at the top of ramps scrutinized every face closely, looking for the tell-tale patches of gray that meant frostbite, ready to instantly rub snow over the affected area. The crews worked on, meeting the challenges of nature, as well as typhoid and cholera. Finally, on June 18, 1855 the canal was opened. Lake Superior was in business. Other locks would be built, on both sides of the river that formed the international border. But a scale seller had shown the way.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte