Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan, and among the oldest cities in the United States. Over the course of our history, the flags of several sovereign nations have flown over the Sault.
Over 2,000 years ago, Native Americans began to gather here for the wealth of fish and fur found along the rushing waters of the wide, turbulent river that linked the Great Lakes of Superior and Huron. Spring and Fall were important seasons for these original settlers, and they called the area “Bahweting,” or, “The Gathering Place.”
The area’s first full-time residents lived in lodges framed of wood poles, sheathed with bark or animal hides. The river below the rapids provided an abundance of fish for Native peoples, as well as several tribes from throughout the region, who migrated here during the peak fishing season. It continues to remain a world-class spot for sport fishing.
In the 1600’s, French missionaries and fur traders began to venture into this beautiful territory. The traders began calling the wild area Sault du Gastogne. In 1668, the legendary Jesuit missionary and explorer Fr. Jacques Marquette renamed this burgeoning European settlement Sault Ste. Marie, in honor of the Virgin Mary—the first “city” in the Great Lakes region.
While there is some debate on the exact meaning of “Sault,” scholars of early French note that the word translates into jump, referring to the place where one needs to “jump”, or put into the St. Mary’s River. This translation relates to the treacherous rapids and cascades that fall 21 feet from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes. Hundreds of years ago, this prohibited boat traffic and necessitated an overland portage from one lake to the other. This is how Portage Avenue, the main street running along the river, acquired its name.
Due to the strategic location of the river and the abundant natural resources found here, the French and British often fought over the area and the right to trade with Native Americans in the 1700’s.
In 1820, the Treaty of the Sault was signed, which turned control over to the United States in 1823. Fort Brady was built on the grounds of the old French Fort Repentigny, as the new Americans were concerned about possible British invasions from nearby Canada. This fort, on Water Street, was eventually abandoned in the 1890’s, and a new Fort Brady was constructed on the grounds of present-day Lake Superior State University. Throughout all this turbulent history, the St. Mary’s River continued to dominate the life and events of Sault Ste. Marie—as it continues to do so today.
Natives of the Sault Tribe are shown here gathered around the “Baweting Drum” at a modern-day Pow Wow. These gatherings have been going on along the banks of the St. Marys River for hundreds…perhaps thousands of years.
To learn more about the history of “The Soo,” we recommend “City of the Rapids” by Bernie Arbic.
In 1797, the Northwest Fur Company constructed a navigation lock 38 feet long on the Canadian side of the river for small boats. This lock remained in use until destroyed in the War of 1812. Freighters and boats were again portaged around the rapids.
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. The Fairbanks Scale Company, which had extensive mining interests in the Upper Penninsula, undertook this challenging construction project in 1853.
In spite of adverse conditions, Fairbanks’ aggressive accountant, Charles T. Harvey, completed a system of two locks, in tandem, each 350 feet long, within the 2 year deadline set by the State of Michigan. On May 31, 1855, the locks were turned over to the state and designated as the State Lock.
The federal government took control of the property and the lock system in the 1870’s. Their stewardship continues today, administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Soo Locks are the busiest locks in the world, and include the largest lock in the Western Hemisphere, completed in 1968.
Interested in learning more about the history of the Soo Locks? Visit the Soo Locks Visitors Center during your next visit to Sault Ste. Marie and enjoy a number of exhibits, historic photographs, and more.
A detailed history of the Soo Locks can also be found on the website of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Click here to read more.