It's hard to imagine a community in Michigan that rapids have had a greater impact on its history than Sault Ste. Marie. According to Bernie Arbic, with the Chippewa County Historical Society, "the first people living here were the Anishinaabek better known as Ojibwa or Chippewa. They called this place Baawting which means place of the rapids"
It was those rapids on the St. Mary's River that pooled the whitefish and drew the Anishinaabek here. Rapids that centuries later would spur the construction of the locks. Rapids that would serve as the boundary between two nations. Rapids that would impact for more than 4 hundred years a placeFr. Jacques Marquette named Sault Ste. Marie.
At the time the pilgrims were at Plymouth Rock on the fringe of the new world, French missionaries were already deep in its interior at Sault Ste. Marie. Bernie says "We can lay claim to being the first European settlement in what was to become the state of Michigan at 1668, but there is a period in the Sault's history from 1700 to 1740's when very little is recorded."
Little was recorded because very few people actually called this place home, the threat of war would change that. As tension escalated leading up to the French Indian War, and as the land surrounding the Sault began to become even more critical for trading, in 1751 a French fort was established.
The war would pass, but the foundation for the Sault's future would remain. Bernie explains "the American government wanted to plant the flag so to speak, so in 1820, territorial governor Cass lead an expedition, came through the Sault, got a treaty with the Ojibwa here for a grant of land that coincides with the city of Sault Ste. Marie. So in 1822 a fort was built here, Fort Brady."
The fort stood on what would become Water's Street. With soldiers, came opportunities, in the form of hotels, saloons, billiard halls. Soon a fledgling business district took root. Bernie says "for probably 50 years Waters Street was the main commercial area for Sault Ste. Marie"
What took decades to build was wiped out in a single day by a massive fire, the biggest threat to a wooden downtown. The Sault would rebuild further to the south on higher ground. Back at the water front, a different construction project was taking shape, something to deal with those rapids. As Bernie explains "the rapids on the St. Mary's were a barrier to Lake Superior shipping. When copper was beginning to be expected in the 1840's there was enormous pressure to try and get rid of this barrier." Something had to be done to move the cargo heavy ships, 21 feet down or up, the elevation difference between Lake Superior and the St. Mary's River. The solution was simply. They needed to build locks. Over the years, the folks in the Sault built a lot of them. With the first in 1855 came a boom in shipping as well as other industry along the waterfront in the form of electrical generation, union carbide and Northwestern Leather Company, which produced boots for our troops in World War II.
Once again the threat of war would shape the Sault. The locks fed the steel mills that were driving the war effort, to protect them; the Sault saw a boom with more than 70-thousand troops assigned to serve at Fort Brady. When the war ended, the troops headed home, and there was little purpose for a military fort. But the barracks and buildings wouldn't sit empty for long. Replacing soldiers preparing for war were students preparing for life at what would become Lake Superior State University.
Over the years, the Sault has battled against, and capitalized on those rapids. For freighters, the solution was in place. For drivers looking to get from here to there across the rapids, a fix took a little longer. As Bernie says "for many years the traffic went by ferry crossing between the U.S. and Canada. In 1962 theInternational Bridge for cars and trucks opened up."
Today the Sault is a melting pot, a town of industry, of hope, of resilient people, with a rich history that flows like a river.