St. Marys River
The St. Marys River flows in the narrow, geologically constricted passageway, which links three of North America’s Great Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan. One has only to glance at a map or satellite photograph to recognize the strategic importance of the St. Marys. It is the “Hub of the Great Lakes”, the key hydrological, ecological and transportation link in the Great Lakes system.
Archaeological evidence tells us that the river has been a focus for human settlement, travel and commerce for more than 4,500 years. For at least 2,200 years, it has been the cultural heartland of the Qjibwe people. The St. Marys was the key link in the route to the west for explorers, fur traders, settlers and the military in the 17" and 181’ centuries and for commercial traffic in the 19" and 2oth. Travel, settlement and political events along the St. Marys served to preserve British sovereignty in the Upper Lakes and Western Canada and furthered early 20th century resource and industrial development in the “New Ontario” of the North. The St. Marys River is bisected by the Canada-United States boundary drawn in 1822–23.
Notable among the river’s 20 recorded archaeological and historical sites are the navigational and industrial structures of the Sault Canal. In 1895 the canal the most technologically advanced system in the world at that time.
The recreational opportunities provided by the St. Marys River are well known to outdoor enthusiasts, sportsmen, nature lovers, historians and tourists. Excellent fishing, boating in all types of craft, commercial boat tours through the Sault Locks, viewing of Great Lakes freighters as they pass through the shipping channels and the enjoyment of the scenery, wildlife, and the cultural and historic heritage are highlights of the recreational experience it offers. To recognize and protect the outstanding heritage and recreational values of the St. Marys River, Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources officially nominated its entire 125 kilometer length to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System on June 3, 1998.
The St. Marys stretches from Gros Cap, at the mouth of Whitefish Bay (183.5 meters above sea level) through Sault Ste. Marie, and divides into two channels around St. Joseph Island to the east. The North Channel, or St. Joseph Channel, extends to the community of Bruce Mines; the southern or Neebish Channel is the upbound shipping channel and extends to Detour where it emerges through a tangle of islands into Lake Huron (178.6 meters above sea level).
The river has three distinct hydrological reaches: the 22.5 kilometer upper reach from the narrow outflow of Lake Superior to Sault Ste. Marie, characterized by strong winds, clear cold water, and a generally shallow, sandy coastline with offshore sand and gravel shoals; the 2.5 kilometer long rapids reach at Sault Ste. Marie where 6.1 meters of the river’s 6.7 meter drop occurs through a long, shallow fall over boulders and sandstone outcrops, past Whitefish Island, the Sault Canals and power dams; and the 100 kilometer lower reach to Bruce Mines and Detour along which broad shallow lakes and rock-fringed channels alternate.
The river is heavily industrialized and urbanized around the rapids at the twin Saults, but open space and access to the waterfront have been preserved, even in this area. Elsewhere, communities along the river, which include Desbarats, Hilton Beach, Richards Landing and Bruce Mines, are relatively small but are particularly important to residents, cottagers and tourists as service centres. An estimated 80% of the river valley is forest and wetland, and 10% is marginal, low-intensity agricultural land.
Flowing through 2.5 billion year-old Precambrian rock sculpted by Pleistocene glaciers, the St. Marys River stands at the geological crossroads of the continent, as well as at the hydrological and ecological junction of the Upper Great Lakes. The environment of its valley provides dynamic evidence of the major processes that have shaped the northern half of the North American continent.
The river valley lies within the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Mixed Forest Region typified by coniferous black and white spruce, balsam fir, red and white pine and hardwoods such as birch, poplar and maple. Species such as beech, ash, basswood and horse chestnut are here close to their northern limits.
Rare plants occur at Gros Cap. Mark’s Bay and Whitefish Island, and significant wetlands at Gros Cap, Mark’s Bay, Echo Bay and Hay Point.
Historically, the St. Marys Rapids were one of the most productive habitats for fish in the continent: whitefish were the dominant species, and pike, lake trout, pickerel and sturgeon were abundant. Salmon and rainbow trout are recent introductions designed to enhance the region’s sports fishery. To preserve the fishery, a programme, introduced in the 1960s to control sea lamprey populations, is still operational.
It is estimated that 86 species of birds are found along the shores of the St. Marys River; these include shore birds, waterfowl and raptors such as ospreys, hawks and bald eagles. Potagannissing Bay near St. Joseph Island is a designated bird sanctuary.
While the river environment known to the First Nations and to the first white men that explored this area has under-one changes, the combinations of rocks, trees and water that distinguish Northern Ontario remain largely intact. The Canadian Shield, mixed coniferous and deciduous forest, clear, cold water and rocky shores – these are the elements that form the foundation of the area’s cultural heritage and recreational attractions and continue to attract tourists every year.
The relatively short St. Marys River is one of the most historic rivers in Canada. As early as 2,500 BC. The Ojibwe people had established settlements on islands and along the shore of the river to harvest the abundant whitefish. Whitefish Island, once one of the largest Indian settlements in the upper Great Lakes, was occupied from 200 BC to 1895. The Metis people of Canada originated in the valley, and the Batchewana and Garden River First Nations occupy reserves along its shore. The river was the key segment of the transcontinental fur trade route which opened up Western Canada. The first European to explore the St. Marys was Etienne Brule in 1621. The North West Company constructed a trading post at the rapids in 1796 and a portage road and canoe lock in 1798. The potential for controlling traffic in the Upper Great Lakes was recognized by the construction of Fort St. Joseph in 1796. The Fort later played a crucial role in the War of 1812. one that ensured the region stayed under British control. Many were on hand to celebrate the re-opening of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal on July 14, 1998.
Forts T Joseph: In the 19th century the river continued to act as a connector between western resources and eastern commerce and industry. The first commercial lock around the rapids was built on the American side of the river in 1855, but the Chicora incident of 1870, in which right of passage through the lock was denied to the Chicora on the grounds that it was a military vessel, heightened the demand for an allCanadian route. In 1895, the Canadian Sault Ship Canal, at the time the most advanced in the world, was completed. The application of electricity, generated on site to operate the gates and fill and drain the lock, and the novel Emergency Swing Bridge Dam marked it as unique.
For many years, the combined American and Canadian ‘Soo Locks’ were the busiest such systems in the world. In 1985, the operation of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal was transferred to Parks Canada whose responsibility it is to preserve and interpret the Canal’s natural and cultural resources. Following the failure of the lock wall in 1987, a recreational lock was built into the original structure, and the Canal reopened to great fanfare on July 14, 1998.
Among the other notable heritage features along the river are the fine sandstone buildings of the Canal, the St. Mary’s Paper Company head office and mill buildings and the Ermatinger Old Stone House, the oldest stone house north of Toronto, which was built by fur trader, Charles Oakes Ermatinger in 1813–14. In its heyday, the Old Stone House was the centre of the Sault’s commercial and social life.
Between 1899 and 1903, Francis Hector Clergue, an American entrepreneur, established Canada’s first integrated industrial empire, the Lake Superior Corporation, beside the St. Marys Rapids; here, in 1902, Ontario’s first steel was poured and its first steel rails rolled. The descendants of Clergue’s empire still dominate the industry of the river valley in the forin of Algoma Steel Inc., the St. Mary’s Paper Company, and the Great Lakes Power Corporation.
Ermatinger Old Stone House: The first commercial mining in Canada began at Bruce Mines in 1845; today a tour of the re-opened Simpson Shaft offers visitors a look at the community’s mining history.
The establishment of the Ontario Provincial Air Service at Sault Ste. Marie in 1924 and the construction of its waterfront hangars, marked a new era in the aerial supervision of Ontario’s forest resources and in the use of float planes in fighting fires from the air. The Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre on the original site, is a tribute to this important aspect of Canada’s forest history.
The significance of the events which took place along the shores of the St. Marys, and of the people who lived there, has been recognized nationally by Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaques dedicated to them; these include Fort St. Joseph (1796). Fort St. Joseph Cemetery (1796–98), the first Sault Ste. Marie Canal (1797–98), Ermatinger House (1814–21), the Sault Ste. Marie Canal (1895) and Francis H. Clergue (1899). Ontario Heritage Foundation plaques have been erected to commemorate Point Aux Pins shipbuilding (1735), the American raid on Sault Ste. Marie (1814), the Chicora Incident (1870), Col. John Prince and Anna Jamieson (mid-19th century), The Bruce Mines (1846), Shingwauk Half (1873) and Precious Blood Cathedral (1875).
The St. Marys River offers countless opportunities for natural and cultural heritage appreciation and for land-and water-based recreational activities. Public parks. Conservation Authority properties and the Voyageur Trail provide access for hiking and for viewing and photographing northern Ontario scenery, birds and animals. The Sault Canal has long been recognized as a major North American tourist destination; museums, art galleries, historic sites and year-round celebrations on the waterfront contribute to the Cultural dimension.
In recent years, municipal parks, boardwalks and marinas have replaced industrial and commercial development along community waterfronts. Watching lake – and ocean – going freighters pass by at close range and taking a tour boat ride through the lock system from May to October are fascinating experiences. Boating of all types is popular – the lower river leads to the North Channel of Lake Huron, recognized as one of the world’s finest sailing areas. Public marinas at Sault Ste. Marie, Bruce Mines, Richard’s Landing and Hilton Beach provide all necessary services to boaters. Canoe, kayak, tugboat and stock outboard races are popular summer spectator events.
Fishing for whitefish, lake trout, perch, walleye, pike and bass is excellent all along the river, but fishing for introduced salmon and rainbow trout has become extremely popular and now dominates all other types. Special platforms along the downtown municipal boardwalks and on the Canal property offer easy access for land-based fishermen.
Sandy beaches and campgrounds are plentiful in the area, and swimming, water skiing, wind surfing and scuba diving are common summer pursuits. Snowmobiling, skating, crosscountry skiing and ice fishing are popular winter activities. The shorelines of Squirrel Island, Pine Island, St. Joseph Island and of the lower river have become preferred sites for vacation homes or cottages, many of them, especially in the North Channel. being owned by American residents.
Access: Mid-way between Thunder Bay and Ottawa (800 kilometers or 500 miles), about 640 kilometers (400 miles) northwest of Toronto and 480 kilometers (300 miles) north of Detroit, the St. Marys River is accessible by major highways. From Bruce Mines to the Sault, the Trans-Canada Highway (17 North and West) borders the river. The bridge to St. Joseph Island brings visitors to cottages, marinas and beaches and to Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site. Roads, parks, campgrounds, trails, marinas and downtown boardwalks provide direct recreational access all along the river. The Sault Canal is accessible by road. Gros Cap and Point des Chenes are major park and viewing areas accessible by Highways 550 and 565. The International Bridge provides access to the U.S. side of the river and to Interstate 75. Flights by major carriers arrive and depart the Sault Airport daily.
Accommodation and Services: The St. Marys River lies in Algoma Country, an area well served by fly-in, train-in or drive-in lodges and camps. Its location on major travel routes affords visitors the full range of accommodation and services. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (pop. 82,000) and Michigan (pop. 20,000) are the major service centres but most services are also available in other communities along the North Shore, such as Thessalon and Bruce Mines. Full service marinas for powerboats and sailing craft are located at several shoreline centres. More detailed information is provided by the tourism offices listed and on community websites.
Maps: National Topographic Series Maps (1:250,000) – 41 K and 41 J and (1:50,000) - 41 K 1, 8, 9, 10, 41 J 4, 5 are available from the Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street, Ottawa, KIA OE9 (http://maps.NRCan.gc.ca ). A trail map may be obtained from the Voyageur Trail Association (705–253–5353 or 1–800–393–5353) and a water trail map from the Friends of the St. Marys River (705–759–6191). Detailed 3:20,000 topographical maps are available from the Ministry of Natural Resources, Room 1640, Whitney Block, Toronto, Ontario, M7A IW3.
Services, Permits and Regulations: Ontario Government Licences and Permits required for hunting, fishing and other activities, can be obtained from the Sault Ste. Marie District Office, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 64 Church Street, Sault Ste. Marie, P6A 3H3 (705–949–1231), www.mnr.gov.on.ca/MNR/csb/message/mnroffices.html. To fish on, or travel through an Indian Reserve, contact the local Band Office. For matters relating to watershed coordination and drainage. contact: Sault Ste. Marie Region Conservation Authority, 1100 Fifth Line East. Sault Ste. Marie P6A 5K7, (705–946–8530), www.ssmrca.ca/.
Tourist Information: Algoma-Kinniwabi Travel Association 485 Queen Street East, Sault Ste. Marie, P6A I Z9 (1–800–263–2546 or 705–254–4293, Fax 705–254–4892, www.algomacountry.com. Ontario Travel Centre, 261 Queen Street West, Sault Ste. M4rie, P6A I A4 (705–945–6941 or 1–800–461–6020). Sault Ste. Marie Tourism Council (705–759–5310 or 1–800–361–1522)
Canadian Heritage Rivers System: Ontario member, CHR Board, c/o Ministry of Natural Resources, P.O. Box 7000, Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 8M5 (705–755–1700, Fax 705–755–1701) or Secretary, CHRS, 25 Eddy Street, Gatineau, Quebec KIA OM5 (819–994–2913; email@example.com)
Algoma- Kinniwabi Travel Association, Algoma Country Vacation Guide. Parks Canada, The Sault Canal, no date.
Harrington, C. & You, J., St. Marys River Background Study, Algoma University College, Sault Ste. Marie, 1996. St. Marys River Nomination Group, CHRS Nomination Document for the St. Marys River 1997.
Heath, F. M., Sault Ste. Marie: City by the Rapids, Burlington, Windsor Publ.. 1988.
Friends of the St. Marys River, The St. Marys River Water Trail, 1995.
Warren, W., History of the Ojibway People, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984.
Conway, T., Archaeology in Northeastern Ontario – Searching for the Past, Ontario Ministry of Culture& Recreation, 1981.
Bray, M. & Epp, E., (editors), A Vast and Magnificent Land. Ontario Ministry of Northern Affairs, Toronto, 1984.
Osborne, B. & Swainson, D., The Sault Canal: A Chapter in the History of Great Lakes Transportation, Parks Canada, 1986.
Mcdonald, G., “The Ancient Fishery at Sault Ste. Marie”, Canadian Geographic, 1966.
Martin, B., The Island of St. Joseph and the St. Marys River, Words Unlimited, 1991.
Bayliss, J. & E., River of Destiny: The St. Marys, Wayne University Press, Detroit, 1955.
Sault & District Anglers’ Association, Sports Fishing Map. (Available locally for $ 10)