The Place Where Michigan Was Born Sault Ste. Marie
Now a 21st Century Community
Northern Field Report
A column by Caroline Weber Kennedy
Location: Sault Ste. Marie
Two Men in a Canoe
“Two men in a canoe could obtain five thousand pounds of fish in half a day. They dipped them out of the rapids—big, rich whitefish, weighing six to 15 pounds—with a scoop net on a pole. They feasted around their campfires, and for miles the wind carried the savory odor of roasting whitefish.”
From the Long Ships Passing: The Story of the Great Lakes by Walter Havighurst (1942)
Sault Ste. Marie, known as “the place where Michigan was born,” is the oldest continuously settled place in the Midwest, dating back to a 1650s trading post. It was home to the Ojibwa or Chippewa Indians long before that, as they made their home on Sugar Island—named for the sugar maple trees—and fished the St. Mary’s River rapids which was and remains teeming with whitefish. Sault (pronounced Soo) is French for rapids.
This fascinating waterfront community is blessed with many unique features from its past that are now successfully leveraged to promote the city as a 21st century community. The Sault is an international border community with big sister-city Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada and, home to an engineering marvel, the awe-inspiring Soo Locks.
The Sault is located on the shores of the St. Mary’s River, connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron, on through to the lower Great Lakes and out to the Atlantic. A 20-foot drop at this precise location caused all vessels seeking access from Lake Superior to Huron or vice versa to “portage” around the rapids. Portage means to carry the vessel and/or cargo over land to avoid the river obstacle and today’s Portage Street is that same route.
Valuable northern commodities such as copper, iron ore, and grain were the catalyst for building the locks. Today, a freighter passes through the locks about once every hour-and-a-half during shipping season, or approximately 10,000 times a year, making it the world’s busiest canal in terms of tonnage. Smaller cruising and pleasure boats use the Canadian Sault St. Marie Canal. There is also recent renewed interest in using the Great Lakes for short-sea shipping as a more efficient alternative to trucking. Check out the Port Cities Collaborative article, pages 10-12.
The International Bridge spanning the St. Mary’s River just west of the locks is two miles long with two sets of graceful, soaring arches. I had the glorious opportunity last year to buckle into a harness and ascend the first set of arches on foot. In the first quarter of this year, nearly half a million vehicles crossed the bridge, nearly half of them passenger vehicles. Residents of both Sault cities frequently enjoy each other’s communities; the Canadians are drawn to some better-priced commodities and the U.S. to an ethnically varied dining scene. Both offer quality entertainment venues and fabulous hockey. Tourists are easily able to enjoy the many amenities of both.
Bridges and More Bridges
Another striking physical feature is the three-mile Cloverland Hydroelectric Canal that creates an island of the city’s downtown, reconnecting it via five bridges. The plant is an impressive quarter-mile-long building where the canal meets the St. Mary’s River. On Engineers Weekend, you can tour this impressive historic plant. Lake Superior State University (LSSU) also has an Aquatic Research Lab that boasts a popular Lake Superior Fish Cam, followed by many in the community. The locks, river, canal, many bridges, freighters, and some of the state’s signature sandstone architecture make the city a popular area to walk and to photograph. The city is currently working on physical design to further enhance this walkable experience.
Portage Street today is a bustling tourism area. As the original portage route, it runs parallel with the locks and is the prime place for freighter watching.
Elevated concrete allows people to stand close enough to touch passing freighters and the park features a lighted fountain and frequent musical performances. Another great place to watch freighters is from the city’s Tower of History, offering panoramic 20-mile views.
Park Place City Center
A current project on downtown’s Ashmun Street is Park Place City Center—an historic four-story building offering a mix of retail and commercial space with “modern living in historic surroundings.” The “new” apartment homes are in the heart of downtown, across from a museum, minutes from Lake Superior State University and a few blocks from the waterfront, city parks, and of course, freighter watching. How cool is that?
Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3)
The city uses all of its attributes to the best advantage. The local tribe is very active and supportive of the community. The River of History Museum highlights local Native American life and the cultures that followed. A retired freighter, Valley Camp, serves as a museum ship featuring a pilot house, crew quarters, and more than 1,000 displays. Water Street historic block offers some restored residential homes to complement the city’s other architectural landmarks, including the Chippewa County Courthouse, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the St. James Episcopal and Central United Methodist churches.
This city continually works the events angle in every season. Beyond large events such as the 44th Annual I-500 Snowmobile Race, they shake up the mix with new adventures such as this summer’s inaugural “Cruise with the Freighters” 47-mile bike ride, July 29-30 (wish me luck). The Sault enjoys great collaborative stakeholder groups who love their town and it shows in their ability to continually think creatively about how each of their unique assets might be enhanced to attract new user groups.
Caroline Weber Kennedy is manager of field operations for the League. You may reach her at 906-428-0100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.