Trails, Histories and Canals : Sault Ste Marie

The past couple days we've spent exploring (or at least trying to explore) Sault Ste Marie, resupplying, and making a very frustrating and largely futile attempt to sort out the logistics of hiking the sections of Great Trail that are stretched along the wild, rugged, and beautiful north shore of Lake Superior.

Sault Ste Marie is the third largest city in northern Ontario, and it is located on the shores of the St. Mary's River, which exists at the heart of the Great Lakes, linking Lake Huron to Lake Superior, and existing at the point where they connect to Lake Michigan. Prior to European colonization, the area was used as a meeting place, and for fishing and trade by the Ojibwe, who called it Baawitigong, meaning "place of the rapids." For explorers, missionaries, and fur traders the 125 km long river provided a gateway to the west.  The St Mary's River is recognized as a Canadian Heritage River for it enormous ecological, cultural, and historic importance.

On the other side of the St Mary's River, and connected by the International Bridge, is Sault Ste Marie's twin city of the same name, which is located in Michigan. These two towns were originally one, until a treaty following the War of 1812 established the US - Canadian border through the middle of them. The border is currently sealed as a result of Covid 19, but there were still a few transports and cars crossing the bridge when we walked the waterfront. 

We began our exploration of the city on the John Rowswell Hub Trail, which is a 25 km non-motorized trail that circles the central portion of the city, linking neighbourhoods and taking hikers, cyclists, and joggers along the downtown waterfront and which serves as a local segment of the Great Trail. John Rowswell was one of the longest serving mayors of Sault Ste Marie.

The waterfront park is a beautifully landscaped green space which featured a demonstration wetland, a bricked walkway and paved cycling path, many flowers and pollinators, a lookout observation deck shaped to look like the prow of a ship, and many historical plaques.

One of the first plaques we encountered caught our interest. It was for Anna Jameson, who lived from 1794 - 1860, and was married to the Attorney General of Upper Canada, Robert Jameson.
Unescorted, she travelled from Port Talbot, to Detroit, to Mackinaw Michigan, then took a boat to Sault Ste Marie, descended the rapids, met with a Native Council on Manitoulin, and finally returned to Toronto by way of Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe. She published an account of her travels and explorations which I think would be very interesting to read.

Not far down the boardwalk was an art exhibit entitled Rising Spirits. This glass and metal panelled structure was meant to represent the unfailing spirit of the community that worked together to save the local economy by restructuring and rebuilding Algoma Steel in the wake of a recession.

From this monument we could see a very large brick building across the river on the American shore. A sign explained that this was the Edison Sault Electric Building. It was built in 1887, and was the first hydroelectric generating station in American waters on the river. It is the longest horizontal shaft hydro facility in the world at 400 m, and still provides up to 36 MW of power to the Edison Sault Electric Company's customers on the Upper Peninsula.


As we continued along the waterfront we found ourselves in the Roberta Bondar Park. This is a familiar name to us, because Dr. Bondar was Trent University's ninth Chancellor when we were students there. She was born and raised in Sault Ste Marie before becoming a nationally recognized hero with the distinction of being the first Canadian woman to fly in space. She is also an accomplished neurologist, scientist, pilot, astronaut and photographic artist who holds the NASA Space Medal and is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a laureate of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. She holds 24 honorary degrees. It makes you wonder if there is anything she's bad at doing. Clearly she is an incredibly gifted human being.

Next we came to the Rotary Arch, which displayed the claim 'Sault Ste Marie: Algoma's Friendliest City.' The pillars supporting the arch were from the original welcome sign built in 1938, which greeted visitors and people returning home on the international ferry dock. We aren't sure if this is the friendliest city in the north or not, but we've noticed a unique regional greeting within the city. Many people give a low grunt as they pass, with no hint of a smile, yet it seems to be intended as a friendly greeting rather than a grunt of derision. At least we hope so.

We passed a Great Trail Pavilion, and next to it was another stop on the Group of Seven Trail. As far as we could tell, the painting on display, which was created by JEH MacDonald and entitled 'The Wild River' reflected a scene farther along the Algoma Central Railway.


We had intended to visit the Algoma Art Gallery while in Sault Ste Marie to learn more about the Group of Seven and their activities in Algoma, but on walking past it we discovered it is only open to the public on Wednesdays.

Perhaps it is due to Covid 19, but we've noticed that many of this city's shops and attractions including the Sault Ste Marie Museum, Bushplane Museum and most downtown shops are closed Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. While this is understandable, it is a little frustrating, and leaves us wishing they'd rotated the days on which things were closed.


When we reached the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site we discovered that it too was closed until Wednesday. There were three buildings on the site: the Ermatinger Old Stone House, the Clergue Blockhouse, and the Heritage Discovery Site.

The Ermatinger Old Stone House was the original building on the site, and was constructed between 1814 and 1823. It is believed to be one of the oldest surviving houses in Northern Ontario, and was built by a former North West Company fur trader named Charles Oakes Ermatinger. It has apparently been restored to depict life in the 1800's as it would have looked when Charles lived there with his family.

The Clergue Blockhouse was originally a powder magazine at the North West Company trading post before it merged with the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. When the property eventually fell into disuse, the American promoter Francis Hector Clergue purchased it, and transformed the former powder magazine into a living space. Clergue became a leading industrialist in the Sault Ste Marie area, purchasing a hydroelectric facility and canal in the area, and opening up the Sault Ste Marie Pulp and Paper Company (now St. Marys Paper), the Canadian Copper Company (now Inco), Agoma Steel, and the Algoma Central Railway. His house was moved to preserve it in 1956.

At the western edge of our trek we reached the site of Shingwauk Hall where upon only the wood framed and stone church known as Bishop Fauquier Memorial Chapel.  This site was once the location of a Victorian Anglican residential training school and whose property has now been transformed into the wonderful but quiet campus of Algoma University which is the smallest undergraduate only university in Ontario which holds as its purpose to foster and cultivate a cross-cultural learning between Aboriginal populations and other communities.

Further along our route we came upon the impressive Precious Blood Cathedral whose colourful gardens lit up the community.  Originally constructed in 1875 to replace a wooden missionary post, this structure was initially intended to serve as the local parish church.  However in 1904 the Diocese of Sault Ste Marie was created this beautiful building was chosen as the regional cathedral. 

As we made our way back across town, we enjoyed seeing many references to the city's rich history.
One of the first that caught our attention was a stone noting that Sault Ste. Marie was the site of a World War I Interment Camp where between 1915 and 1918 thousands of Ukrainians and Europeans were detained as 'enemy aliens' and shipped to the local Armoury here in Northern Ontario.

Plaques marked the site of the old City Hall, which was built in 1908, and noted a spot where maps drawn by Samuel Champlain in 1632 suggested seven Ojibway cabins were located. Another informational plaque showed the location of a Hudson's Bay trading post.


We also enjoyed seeing a wide variety of street art throughout the town. As we ventured, we found long beautiful murals on the sides of local buildings as well as down alleyways. 


  One of my favourite murals showed two intertwined Ring-necked snakes, and it was created by Mishiikenh Kwe and Rihkee Strapp. These two artists first began working together in Nimkii Aazhibikong, and Mishiikenh likes to focus on snakes as a result of her work with endangered species. One of her goals is to honour snakes and build appreciation for them.

During out time downtown we took a few moments, as we like to in each town, to pay our respects at the Veterans Memorial  set in a wonderful park and which included two thoughtful and reflective depictions of those from the region who sacrificed so that we might live in peace. As always the shear number of names and the centuries of conflicts which people from each region have given their lives to is humbling to witness.


After wandering the city we walked along the waterfront boardwalk to the Sault Ste Marie Canal National Historic Site of Canada.

The Sault Ste Marie canal was built in 1895, and when it was completed it created an all-Canadian waterway stretching from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. The locks allowed ships safe passage over the rapids, and transported them between Lake Superior and Lake Huron over a drop of 6 - 7 m.

The Canadian waterway was formed by a series of eight canals that provided uninterrupted passage for vessels carrying cargo and passengers from Thunder Bay to Quebec City and Montreal. The Trent Severn Waterway and the Rideau Canal, which we have crossed paths with on this hike, are part of this continuous waterway.

As we explored the National Historic site we watched an American sightseeing boat coming through the lock. It was about half full of American tourists, most of whom were wearing masks and giving the spectators a friendly wave.

The Canadian Sault Ste Marie locks are mostly used by passenger and pleasure craft today. The Soo Locks, located on the American side of the St Mary's River, are much larger and are used by cargo ships and larger vessels. Roughly 7,000 vessels carrying nearly 86 million tonnes of cargo pass through the Soo Locks each year on freighters up to 1,000 feet in length.

The Canadian National Historic Site is located on a small island that is adjacent to Whitefish Island, which is home to the Whitefish Island Indian Reserve. The Batchewana First Nation is an Ojibwe First Nation whose traditional lands run along the eastern shore of Lake Superior from Batchewana Bay to Whitefish Island. Much of this land was made a Reserve for this First Nation in the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, but then surrendered in the Pennefather Treaty of 1859. Band members and Chiefs have been fighting with the Crown ever since to reclaim lands that were lost, gain the compensation they were promised when the lands were surrendered, and win damages for the destruction of the traditional fishing grounds and fishery at Whitefish Island that the Crown promised to protect. Most of these battles remained unresolved.

After spending a few days in Sault Ste Marie our impression is that it is a city that sits at a crossroads - geographically, historically, culturally, industrially, and economically.  There is a mix of wealth and poverty, industry and outdoor recreation, historic and modern, and Indigenous, Canadian, and American cultures. It was an interesting and thought provoking place to visit.

See you on the trail!

Remember to follow our entire adventure here :