A German Traveller Visits the Soo in 1855 – Winter 1956

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Johann Georg Kohl
Translated by Henry C. Koch

On June 18, 1835 the Illinois, small wooden steamer, locked through the Sault Canal, first vessel to pass though the channel which had been two years in the building. It was an object of both Public and commercial amazement, certainly a sight worthy to be included in the itinerary of all travelers in the Great Lakes region.

It was to be expected then, that Johann Georg Kohl, a professional traveller and geographer from Germany, should stop at Sault Sainte Marie to inspect this new feat of American engineering, on his steamer tour of the Great Lakes.

Johann Georg Kohl

Kohl was born in Bremen in 1808 and was educated in law at Gottingen, Heidelberg and Munich. He was a private tutor in Courland for several years and travelled extensively in Russia later establishing himself in Dresden. From this city as a base, he made excursions to nearly every country in Europe and carefully and thoughtfully described what he saw in a series of publications. He was an observer of social and economic conditions as well as of people and scenery.

Kohl arrived from Berlin in 1854 and spent the next four years traveling and searching for early maps of this country and its Atlantic Coast.

After Kohl’s return to Germany be was employed as state Librarian at Bremen. He then wrote a number of important works on early American geography and exploration, among them the eight volume, A History of the Discovery of the East Coast of North America … from 990 to …  1578, which contains facsimile copies of many of the earliest maps known to exist. His Kitchi-Gami, Wanderings round Lake Superior is an exhaustive and valuable treatise on Indian life, – according to one bibliographer the best ever written.

Kohl’s account of his visit to the Soo is contained in Chapter 29 of his Reisen im Nordwesten der Vereinigten Staaten (2nd ed., New York, 1857), from which the following is translated. He began his lake trip at Chicago in early July, 1855, embarking on the steamship Traveller. He broke his trip now and then to see major cities and points of interest, but by August he was ready to leave Mackinac for Lake Superior.



On the Fifth of August I shipped on board the steamer Louisiana for Lake Superior and especially for the famous waterfalls or rapids of St. Marie at the outflow of this lake. It is a very interesting journey of about 70 miles. At first we travelled in beautiful weather over the northwestern end of Lake Huron and then we sought the entrance to the canals and channels in which the waters of Lake Superior flow southeast.

A chain of large and small islands swings in a semicircle around the northern end of Lake Huron and divides it into two (waterways), the so-called Georgian Bay and the North Channel. These islands are called the Manitoulin and for the present are primarily inhabited by Indians. The only whites on these islands are some pious Catholic missionaries who preach Christianity among the natives.

Only at the entrance to the inner waters, on Drummonds Island, have white people broken through the forest. They have drawn up the plan of a small city in the hope that the small harbor there would be at a propitious spot. I met the owner and proprietor of this city and he told me that among other things on his island that were useful for building a town, he had discovered a quarry where the rock had been split by nature into pure square stones so that one could choose square blocks of all sizes ready for construction. There were not only perfect horizontal cracks through the rock, which formed strata of similar thickness, but there were also perpendicular cuts across the rock which completed the dissection into cubes and parallelepipeds. I heard later that this quarry was already known in Detroit and that houses had already been built there of these square stones chiseled by nature.

Again this appeared to me as a small part of the American Mother Nature which provided everywhere for its spoiled American children in such an astonishingly maternal manner. If the Americans are neither enervated nor degenerate, and if they preserve their vigor and efficiency, then we must strike out the famous line of Goethe, where he says that nothing would be more difficult to endure than a long series of fortunate, prosperous days.

We crossed the North Channel, perhaps 15 miles wide, and landed in Bruce Mines in Upper Canada. The English have opened a copper mine here which, to be sure, is not as productive as the famous mines on the United States side, or as a German-American miner whom we had on board, expressed it: on the “States-side.” On the States-side, this man told me, they paid better wages and they took out pure copper by the hundredweight. Here on the English side, as in Europe, they had to take the copper out laboriously, fragment by fragment, smelt it, refine it and put it through all sorts of processes. Half of the people in the American mines, he said, were German. He himself had also worked there. However, during the previous winter, at the time of the Depression, when they frequently reduced the wages, he thought he would rather turn to farming and had asked a friend to buy him a piece of land near Chicago. He had already paid ten dollars in advance as down payment. Now, after having seen his land, he was feeling very low. It had been so terrible down South that he had left his land and ten dollars behind him and quickly come back up North again, where conditions had now improved and where one felt much better.

Bruce Mines, Canada

Since it was Sunday the entire population of little Bruce Mines, all dressed up, had come down to look at our steamer. There were several hundred curious and colorfully dressed men, women and girls standing at the end of the pier, eager to pick up any news we might have brought. I looked with the greatest interest at this small collection of subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.         I must say that a breath of good old Europe wafted across to me. The women looked very lively and nice and men appeared stronger, sturdier and more robust. It also appeared to me as if the people were more wide-awake and talkative. I don’t know how to account for it directly, but it was certain that in this little band of people everything looked different from a similar group on the States-side. I will not say that it was all to the advantage of the English side, but a European, even a German, can perceive much of the Fatherland at this most extreme northwest end of Canada. (sic) In front of one of the houses I saw a poor old woman mending the clothes of her children. She must have been either very poor or perhaps a French Catholic, since she did this on Sunday. She had an amazing amount of wrinkles in her face, wore large glasses and worked very diligently. Such a poor wrinkled old woman I had not seen in the young West.

“Briefly, sir,” I said to an American standing next to me, “this little Canadian town really pleases me very much.” “It is a poor place,” he answered, “doesn’t pay at all. The people are fools that they don’t come over to our side. The land is hard and thankless, and even in September the potatoes sometimes freeze on them.” That was true, to be sure; as friendly as were the Sunday people, just so bleak was the sight of their coast land. Nothing but dark, almost black granite rock which extended in islands out into the water.

For the rest of the journey, almost up to the rapids, the landscape remained rather wild and bleak, although not at all uninteresting, especially on so magnificent a day as today. Our entire broad waterway, called the St. Mary’s River, was strewn with a mass of large, small and tiny islands, between which the channels of clear water flow, dividing and uniting. The rounded dark granite rocks of Bruce Mines recurred here and there and at one place I saw a row of rocks in the water with such rounded backs that it appeared as if the whole mass had been run through a sausage machine.

Everywhere the scenery is wild and lonesome; both banks of the river are rocky, marshy and trackless with neither a village nor friendly church for mile upon mile. The villages which do lie upon the river banks usually have but one resident. For example, there is Churchville where Mr. Church lives, and if I remember correctly also Brownsville with Mr. Brown and Paymentsville with the Payment family. I have a special chart of this river on which all those cities are plotted for the future with their proposed streets and public squares indicated, as if they were old city-states. We visited the population of one of these cities, i.e. Mr. Church. He had chosen his site very well and had built some blockhouses on a peninsula at the entrance of a lake. There he carried on a flourishing business with the passengers of the steamships which did him the honor of landing for a few moments in his harbor.

In spite of the apparently impenetrable wilderness the Indians on the American side had been driven away by civilization and had entirely disappeared. On the Canadian side, however, where more consideration is taken of the Indians, there is still a village whose huts and tents stretch along the bank for well over a mile.

Long Sault Rapids

The only really active point on the entire length of the river is near the famous cataracts and rapids. From either side they have always been the terminus of voyages heretofore, and have thus given rise to the establishment of a small harbor town and trading post. On the English side the Hudson Bay Company has established one of its forts, which in turn has drawn fishermen, farmers and customs officials. On the American side lies the small center of Sault Sainte Marie, first an old Catholic mission, then an Indian gathering place and a small trading post of the French and Canadian trappers. Now, when the place has become more and more Americanized, it is also the seat of a Catholic bishop of the newly created diocese which embraces all the extensive wilds which surround Lake Superior.

The English and Americans call this place simply: “the Sault,” or rather according to their pronunciation: “the Soo .” This is indeed laconic but not as pretty and sonorous as the Latin name which still lives in the title of the bishop of this region: “Villa Sanctae Mariae ad Cataracts.”

To me it has always been a truly remarkable circumstance in the history of this region that these cataracts and Lake Superior were discovered by the French even earlier than the ends of the lower lakes, Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan and their connection with one another. I could produce some very interesting old maps, which I copied in Paris in the Marine Archives, on which Lake Superior is represented with geese and ducks swimming on it as a special branch of the St. Lawrence system, and some of the southern lakes again as another special branch. It is explained by the fact that the French did not come here from lake to lake on the route of the main channels, but on a roundabout way through the Ottawa River.

The river falls about 16 feet within the cataracts on a stretch of one mile. Although this is not high, the roaring and bubbling, the foam and splashing of the clear waters make a powerful impression. The strangest thing is that in the midst of this stirred-up stretch there are completely calm and mirrorlike places in which the water comes almost to a standstill through counter-currents. These are favorite spots of the fish and the Indians, skilled with their canoes in the cataracts, especially seek out these calm places to fish.

These rapids would be an insurmountable barrier for any other than Indian boats and boat men. Since the lake water never rises appreciably, the rocks and sandbars never disappear during the year, as they do at similar rapids at Louisville on the Ohio, and the difficulty remains constant all year long. As a result Lake Superior remained to a large degree isolated and cut off from the lower lakes. It had, as it were, its own flotilla, but this was extremely small. Aside from a great many Indian canoes and Mackinaw boats, it consisted of a few small cutters of the Hudson Bay Company and some small American propeller boats which, however, did not have power enough for the frequent heavy storms of the lake.

The canal which they had long wanted to build to avoid the cataracts did not need to be very long, but it presented a large and expensive difficulty. It had to be hewn entirely out of rock. Up until the discovery of the great wealth of copper on the south bank of Lake Superior, the interest in the navigation of these waters was never great enough to support sufficiently such an undertaking. But the more treasure that was taken out of the copper mines, and consequently the more the small harbors on the south bank of the lake were populated, so much more urgent became the demands for a penetration of that vexatious barrier.

For this purpose there was finally formed a company with the necessary capital and the enterprise was stimulated by a gift of a million acres of land. The company was to choose these million acres from the unsettled government lands in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan according to its own discretion. In this way the amazing excavation finally could be carried out. A sufficiently broad and deep groove was blasted out of the rock plateau alongside the rapids, was provided with the necessary sluices and now, finally, for the first time at the beginning of this year of 1855 the canal, which now connects Lake Superior with the rest of the St. Lawrence system, was given over to navigation and commerce.

Immediately a half dozen of the best and most elegantly fitted-out steamers were sent in this direction, bringing hundreds or rather thousands of curious travelers up to the newly discovered lake, bringing them into its most westerly corner, and also collecting from all these corners and small harbors the large quantities of ore which were now brought down to the southern smelting furnaces.

With justice the Americans consider this remarkable Sault Sainte Marie canal as a great national enterprise. It is probably the largest and most interesting undertaking which they have recently achieved within their broad frontiers. It removed the separating isthmus between the two largest freshwater seas in the world. For this reason it is so much more to be regretted that it was not more solidly and more pleasingly carried out. The great American construction of canals and roads is not altogether distinguished by taste, not even the much praised canals of New York nor the Erie Canal. The reply is: “And yet they have already held for a good long time and serve the purpose of commerce.” That is true. It is also true that the main work of the St. Marie canal, the deep cut in the rock, is actually there and cannot easily be obliterated.

Sault Locks in 1865

Concerning the locks, however, and the masonry with which the canal is enclosed, although I am no competent expert I will risk saying this, that if a Dutch, or English or French canal is compared with it, this St. Marie will appear as a superficial and careless piece of work next to conscientiously and solidly finished work. Even a layman can understand that it cannot be called a Roman work. The wood in the sluices is already splintered with many cracks and holes. The stones and boulders with which the walls of the canal were finished were so loosely thrown together that it is doubtful if they can withstand the first frost let alone the rigors of a northern winter, where the Romans piled mass upon mass without cement they still lie there unmoved after a thousand years. If one goes along this year-old St. Marie canal, one already finds many of the stones shoved out of their place, twisted and out of balance. Many parts of the walls are made of the small red sandstone rocks which are so common in this region, not cemented together but stuffed together. It will be said that this is a matter of secondary interest; the clever construction of the sluices and the cut in the rock is more important. Nevertheless, in the end this new work will have to be made more solid or annually repaired and cleaned out.

It is also annoying for me to see that there is not a trace of aesthetic care to be discovered in this work. I admit that canals in general little provoke the fancy; but this canal did. The circumstances demanded something just right for it, to build something not merely useful but also something beautiful. The canal is very short; it can be seen from beginning to end almost with one glance. As has been said it was all cut out of the bedrock and thus because of its difficulty and importance it was worthy of a monumental embellishment. If the Egyptians had had to do this they would have put obelisks at both ends of the canal, the Austrians have carved lions out of the rock where they have had to widen the channel of the Danube. If they didn’t want obelisks and lions here they at least could have planted an avenue of trees and an orderly path along the canal. There is not even a railing here and so the canal has already served as a grave of many nocturnal wanderers. If many Americans should find this too much to ask at least they will wonder with me that there is not even a memorial tablet in Latin, or for all I care, in English…. And if they don’t want any of this, then they should at least force their company to remove the refuse, rubble, fallen stone and excavated dirt which lies in long disorderly piles. Everywhere else in civilized countries this type of thing is obliterated or so used and piled up that it is somewhat concealed. – Did I say in civilized lands? No, have not the old, only half-civilized American aborigines, in the erection of their tumuli and other earth monuments so destroyed all trace and remains of their work that we do not yet know where they obtained the earth?

With this rather pompous little lecture Herr Kohl concluded his stay at the Soo and continued his boat trip though the Great Lakes.

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About the Translator: Mr. Koch, who made this translation, is head of the Literature and Social Sciences Division , Michigan State University Library

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