If it’s tough to imagine what life in Michigan was like in 1658, head to Sault Ste. Marie, on the northeastern coast of the Upper Peninsula and international border with Canada.
The state’s first permanent European settlement celebrates its 350th birthday this year. While sampling the results of a whitefish fry-off to celebrate the region’s fishing tradition, or watching a re-enactment of the city’s founding, you’ll see that life is still centered around the St. Marys River passage and a past that seems to never have left.
There are amenities of a modern sort, to be sure. In today’s Sault Ste. Marie, you’ll find a French-style creperie and creative microbreweries, galleries with art made from found objects, and a store themed around flavorful oils and balsamic vinegars with clever names like the Edmund Fig-gerald (after the lost Great Lakes ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald). Massive freighters move cargo through the Soo Locks, the engineering marvel that connects the Great Lakes region with the world.
But history remains center stage in museums within a freighter and atop the city’s tallest tower, around historic homes staffed with costumed interpreters, and in the stories behind the Native American burial ground in a downtown park. There’s also a touch of the northern wilderness that greeted the region’s earliest explorers. Watch along the boat docks for the frequent splashing of playful muskrats, for example, before you try on a kitschy, fun fur cap at a souvenir shop and imagine yourself a contemporary of 17th century fur traders. All of it offers clues to the reason this place in Michigan’s wilds is the spot where Michigan was born and still remains a center of world commerce.
“Most of the country doesn’t understand that people traveled by water and not by land,” says Tom Nemechek, director of the Upper Peninsula Tourism and Recreation Association. “People on our locks tours have gotten the question: ‘Why did they put them here? Why not closer to big cities?’ They think we put them here as an attraction and don’t always get the fact that it’s the busiest lock system in the world, carrying iron ore and grain and food all around the world.”
Historian Bernie Arbic, author of several books on Sault Ste. Marie’s past, says the St. Marys’ churning rapids, as well as waterway geography, were key to the settlement itself, and were detailed in reports from early missionaries.
“The reason the Chippewa were here was because of the whitefish in the rapids,” he explains. “The Jesuits set up camp because of the Chippewa—to convert the Chippewa. They came to fish for souls, or so they’d describe their mission in early writings.”
The Chippewa called the site Bahweting, and lived in this “place of the rapids” for thousands of years before Etienne Brule arrived in 1623. The young fur trader, dubbed the “Columbus of the Great Lakes,” visited at about the same time the Pilgrims were landing on Plymouth Rock. The French named this spot Sault de Gaston after the brother of their King Louis XIII. It would be a few decades before Father Jacques Marquette in 1668 officially settled Michigan’s first city as Sault Ste. Marie, after the Virgin Mary—but still a full 50 years before New Orleans became a city.
The Soo was at the crossroads of a 3,000-mile fur trade route stretching from Montreal. With what is now Sault Ste. Marie, Canada across the St. Marys River, both sides of the rapids were busy fur trading posts. The mining of mineral riches in the western Upper Peninsula cemented the area’s status as an international center of commerce, Arbic says. But the precipitous 21-foot difference between Lake Superior and Lake Huron required a portage that would take up to six weeks to haul a several-hundred-ton schooner around the drop. Construction of the first permanent lock in 1855 solved that transportation issue, and today’s two parallel locks handle thousands of ships and other watercraft each year.
The Soo Locks, the region’s economic driver and largest tourist draw, are a part of the city streetscape. Watch the operation from the free viewing platform, or take a two-hour Soo Locks Boat Tour to experience “locking through.” You’ll travel from the lower-level Lake Huron into a chamber that initially feels like a pit where, as if by magic, millions of gallons of Lake Superior water pour in, noticeably lifting the boat. Within 20 minutes, the gate opens and you’re on your way. After a short cruise and close-up views of freighters, the tour boat returns to the locks to repeat the process in reverse.
A Soo Locks boat tour is just one key stop on a visit this birthday year, says Linda Hoath, executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Convention & Visitors Bureau. “What people will see is how the river and water is so important to us. You can see the progress through the years and how we’re such an intricate part of the country and world because of what we have with the Soo Locks. And it’s not just 350 years we’ll be celebrating but the thousands of years of Native American settlement before that.”
Join the Party
The major anniversary party takes place July 20-27, and combines a festive atmosphere with culturally significant, even sacred events. A highlight will be the rededication of Brady Park, both the site of the founding settlement and a tribal burial ground. At various points in the week, tribal elders will lead programs in native music, storytelling and crafts. That will take place among events like canoe building, live music and competitions for best fish fry and best pasty (the hearty miners’ meal wrapped in a flaky crust). The week will culminate with the Rendezvous in the Sault festival in which costumed interpreters bring the past to life with re-enactments of early battles and the city’s founding.
Paddling trips offered through Bird’s Eye Outfitters let you travel through the Canadian locks by canoe and glimpse freighters from a waterline point of view. Other trips in the eastern U.P. focus on nature sightings of bald eagles, osprey, deer and the occasional moose. The unique business cooperative houses the adventure company, outdoor gear sales and rentals, a BBQ restaurant, bar and coffee shop in a rehabbed downtown building.
Sip and Eat Local
Whitefish—fresh from Lake Superior—is the star at spots like the Lockview Restaurant, where tabletop condiment holders are shaped like the ships you’ll see passing through the locks across the street. Try the fish maple planked at Karl’s Cuisine, which also boasts a lock view, or head to Clyde’s Drive-In, right on the waterway, for a famous Big C Burger. The venison poutine is popular at quirky Antlers Restaurant, where a couple of hundred mounts (there’s even a lion and a polar bear) decorate ceilings and walls and offer sure conversation starters. Travel the BARmuda Triangle, a three-block area of downtown with 13 establishments including Soo Brewing Company, where the micro brews have playful names like GoldiLocks and Sooper Yooper, and 1668 Winery and Lockside Brewery, which honors early settler John Johnston with his own Ultra Pale Ale.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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