Sault Locks

Category Exploration Date Status Province / State Country
Infrastructure June 5, 2011 Public Ontario Canada

Posted on: Tue, 06/07/2011 - 15:15 By: Mike


Originally, the first lock on this site was built in 1798 by the Northwest Trading Company. It was used to facilitate the shipment of goods past the rapids of the St. Mary's River. However, in 1814, U.S. forces attacked and destroyed the lock during the War of 1812.

By the 1840's, consideration was being given to rebuilding the locks to once again facilitate shipping. Those ideas dried up when, in 1855, the Americans opened a canal on their own side of the river. All shipping traffic passed through this new canal, making a second canal seem like a waste of money.

In 1870, an incident took place which would once again begin discussion about a purely Canadian canal. The cargo ship Chicora, carrying military supplies west in support of the Red River Expedition, was stopped by American authorities, and not allowed to pass. Chicora had been used as a blockade runner during the American Civil War, and the Americans believed they were not to be trusted. After considerable negotiations, Chicora was allowed to pass, but only if she offloaded her war supplies on the north side of the river before passing through the canal.

Eventually, it was decided that the shipments of wheat from western Canada, and minerals from the Lake Superior area were too important to allow to be at the mercy of American whims, and that a Canadian canal needed to be constructed. Construction began in 1889.

Rock excavated from the site was used to construct the various buildings surrounding the canal including the superintendent's house. Limestone was brought in from the Windsor area and Manitoulin Island. Finally, the canal was completed and officially opened on September 7, 1895. The first ship to pass through was Majestic, a brand-new Canadian passenger steamer.

The canal was full of innovations brought by Canadian engineering. It used vents in the floor of the lock to pump water in and out, thereby reducing the turbulence suffered by the ships. It was, at the time, the world's longest lock. It was also the first to use electric power, which they generated on site using water passing from lake to lake.

The canal also featured an Emergency Swing Dam. This bridge-like structure could, in case of damage to the lock, swing across and deploy a dam of iron plates to cut off uncontrolled flow of water from Superior into Huron. This system was put to the test on June 9, 1909 when the Perry G. Walker, owned by Gilchrist Transportation Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, rammed into the south main gate. The force of the water released by the damaged gate toppled the north gate, throwing the Walker back out, and swept two other ships downstream. One of those two again struck the south gate and ripped it diagonally in two.

The Swing Dam was deployed and served its purpose perfectly. Repairs began quickly, and the canal was able to return to service in just 12 days. There were no injuries or loss of life in this incident.

In 1979, the aging canal was retired from the St. Lawrence Seaway System, and large ships exclusively used the canal on the American side of the river again. Operation of the Canadian canal was handed over to Parks Canada who continued to operate it for smaller vessels.

In 1987, the canal was closed due to severe wall damage caused by ice. It remained closed until Parks Canada rebuilt it, and reopened it for recreational craft on July 14, 1998.

The Emergency Swing Dam is still present, and is now the last of its kind in the world.

Personal Commentary: 

A beautiful day for a walk and a step back in time to an element of Canadian pride. While I had been in and through Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario several times, I never took the time to stop and wander around near the locks. I had some preconceived notions, almost none of which proved to be true.

While this isn't abandoned, by any stretch, I felt that it was a significant part of history, and deserves a place among anything else this site offers.

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