Lake Superior Navigation History

Lake Superior Navigation History (through 1922)

For hundreds of years the Indians sailed Lake Superior in their frail canoes, clinging to the shore and venturing into open water only when the waves were calm. In those fragile canoes the early explorers felt their way through the inland sea and reached the head of navigation. In the birch canoes the fur traders carried on their commerce, building them so strong and large that eight tons was a fair cargo.

For a hundred years the canoe and the flat bottomed batteau which could be dragged over the portage on rollers were the only craft on the great lake. But in 1731 the French brought the rigging for a bark from Canada and built the hull above the Sault, a droll creation of forty or fifty tons’ burden, of the quaint pattern of old merchantmen with high poop and stubby prow, cross-rigged on the foremast and carrying a lateen sail aft. A picture of the boat from which this little ship, the Griffin, was designed, was found in an old book left by Hennepin.

She was flagship of the trading fleet on the lake till after the conquest of Canada by the British and soon after that disappeared.

A great vessel, carrying as much as seventy tons, was launched above the falls in 1772, when the English were looking for copper in this region, but after a little that dropped back into the fur trade also.

By the time the war of 1812 was declared the English had all four vessels on the lake, one stout enough to carry six guns. Three of them were captured by the Americans; the fourth was hidden in a harbor of Isle Royale.

Half a dozen little sloops flitted on the lake under the reign of the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company after the second war, of which all but one -were wrecked, and that was run down the rapids, so that in 1830 there was no boat on the upper lake larger than a batteau. When the missionaries were coming and the fur traders were going, there was no sail on Superior bigger than a blanket.

The American Fur Company began modern navigation on the lake in 1835 with the John Jacob Astor, a schooner of 113 tons, followed by one or two others. But in 1840 the business of building boats on the lower lakes had advanced so that it was cheaper to haul the vessels over the rapids than build them on the upper lake, and most of the craft for the next ten years came overland. The first of these amphibious creatures was the Algonquin, of fifty tons, which was wrecked at Duluth in 1856, the year that Duluth was born. For several years the Algonquin, the Astor having been wrecked, was the only boat on the lake above the size of a dory, and carried in one bottom all the commerce of the lake.

Five small vessels followed the Algonquin over the rapids and then the Swallow, of eighty tons, which was, however, pronounced too big for Lake Superior commerce and was run back to the lower lakes.

But in 1840 the boldest feat of all was accomplished, the portage of the first steamboat on the lakes, the Independence, of 280 tons. Capable of making four miles an hour under steam, she relied mainly on her canvas after all. The schooner Napoleon that followed her converted into a propeller, had a wonderful reputation for rolling. Passengers used to aver that she could pick up fish with her smokestack.

Other steam vessels followed over the rapids till the Sam Ward, owned by Capt. Eber Ward in 1853, ended the procession, for the canal was then built past the falls.

This was not, however, the first canal at the Sault. For the Hudson Bay Company, some time in 1790, built a sluice way up which batteau could be dragged, with a nine-foot lock almost forty feet long. Ten years ago the timbers of this primitive lock were discovered on the Canadian side and reconstructed in masonry to show how things have changed.

The modern canal projects began with the first message of the first governor of Michigan in 1837, advocating a survey for which $25, 000 was granted, afterwards enriched by a gift of 750, 000 acres of land by congress. But that was not till the project had been agitated for fifteen years and the discovery of copper had turned the country’s attention to the Lake Superior region, which a statesman as astute as Henry Clay had declared as late as 1843, “a work beyond the remotest settlement in the United States, if not in the moon.” And Clay was the great protagonist of an expansive policy.

Charles T. Harvey, a Vermont Yankee, took up the project and to the dismay of some of the warmest friends of navigation on the lakes, insisted on locks 350 feet long and seventy feet wide. Even Eber Ward opposed the specifications as fatal to his long cherished hopes. It would cost more to build such a canal than the land grant was worth, so that no responsible contractor would undertake it, while the canal would be useless in anything like those dimensions, seeing the largest boats could not climb the narrow and treacherous river with its maximum depth in shoal places of eleven feet. As for deepening the river that was a work too vast to be undertaken during the present century. Before the century was over the captain saw a twentyfoot channel, with plans afoot for a depth of twenty-six feet.

However, the lands were worth more than Captain Ward guessed. Harvey picked out some of the choiest locations in the upper peninsula, including what afterwards became the Calumet and IIecla property, worth alone thirty times the cost of the canal.

The work was prosecuted with tremendous energy, stopping not for fearful cold, nor shortage of supplies brought from distant markets, nor the cholera epidemic of ’54 nor any other obstruction. It was finished in April, 1855, at a cost of just within $1, 000, 000, a project more than a mile long, with locks greater and deeper than any other ship canal in the world.

While the copper and iron deposits of the Michigan peninsula furnished the reasons for building the canal and the lake fisheries were the only other commerce in mind, the effect was to attract attention at once to the great highway of the lakes.

Minnesota at that very time was being settled, county after county, in the new territory dating its organization from the years ’55-’57. The lake’s guidance to the head of navigation was instantly seen and first Superior and then Duluth signaled the pioneer, the land boomer, the eager-eyed men who outrun the advancing wave of population. Regular commerce was woven between Marquette and the older ports of the lower lakes, but the fast increasing fleet quickly spread to the head of the lake carrying the founders of the new cities, the provision for them, without which they must have starved, and the supplies for their building and living.

Commerce grew. The railroad to the head of the lakes and the rapid settlement of the northwest established a traffic that the first canal could not carry. In twenty years it was already obsolete and a new work on a larger scale was undertaken by the federal government in 1870.

General O. M. Poe, who designed the second canal, was criticized as Harvey had been for the extravagant ambition of his plans. Locks with eighteen-foot lift, a channel with sixteen-foot depth, harbors to correspond-it was absurd and outlandish.

Nevertheless, before it was completed in 1884, the sixteen-foot channel was too shallow and the third lock was planned. Begun in 1888, a third lock with twenty-two feet depth of water and 800 feet length, with a lift to overcome the falls and rapids in one lockage, was completed in 1896. It was designed to lock four vessels at once. It barely accommodates one of the present leviathan build.

Meanwhile the Canadian government began the fourth canal, with twenty-two-foot locks 900 feet long, and the United States found itself compelled to go one better still.

As fast as the canal increased its capacity the builders of ships were in advance. From dinky little vessels of 100 feet length, they grew year after year, until in 1882 there were fairly monstrous creations almost 300 feet long. In 1880 the first steel boat was put out over 300 feet long, the Spokane. In 1895 came the first 400 footers, and in 1900 the dimensions approached 500 feet. Within ten years another enormous advance has been made, till the ships of the last two years have a length of 600 feet and can walk off with cargoes of 12, 000 tons on a depth of twenty-one feet.

Further increase in length seems out of the question now and the next step is an increase of draft to twenty-six feet, for which the vessels now on the stocks are designed, to be realized as soon as the government has furnished channels and harbor basins that will accommodate these huge craft.

From the birch canoe and the batteau to vessels that hold in their bowels the farm products of a county, the change has been accomplished within the life period of an aged man.

Duluth and Superior, one port today, were a long ways apart and bitterly at variance from the arrival of the first townsite promoter down to modern times. They contested for the railroad; they contested for the harbor and for the entry to it, a contest that was carried through all the courts and that involved two states in a legal battle for their communities.

The natural outlet of the St. Louis river, seven miles from Duluth, was the natural inlet to the harbor. But the river made a crooked course through its silt, shallow and shifting with every wind and wave, and the bay was slack water, marshy and shoal.

Boats drawing more than eight feet were often shut out from Superior, whereas the new canal and its channels below the Soo would accommodate eleven feet.

That was Duluth’s talking point. As early as 1852 the prospectors who had surveyed the still forbidden Canaan, saw that the water was deep to the very shore on this side, and that a little promontory near Fifth avenue, east, could serve as the base of a mole for an outer harbor, while for a refuge vessels could creep into the inner basin if only a canal was cut through the sand bar that forms Minnesota Point. As a matter of fact, nine times out of ten a small boat could lie at the outer dock as safely as at any port on the lakes, sheltered from any but a wind from the northeast to east.

But neither then nor till the railroad came was Duluth under the observation of the government engineers. They took for granted the natural entry and the port of Superior. The first official draft of plans for making a harbor was submitted by Lieutenant-Colonel W. F. Reynolds in 1866, who found that by running two piers out into the lake, one 2, 000 feet and the other 3, 000, the channel could be kept clear to deep water.

The action of vessels had somewhat improved the narrow and crooked channel, which varied from nine to eleven feet deep and could ordinarily be followed with only three turns, unless the wind changed and shifted it. Henry Bacon a year later proposed to move the entry a mile and a half up Minnesota Point, where the Point is only 200 feet wide and it was only 600 feet to deep water instead of more than half a mile. The improvement of the natural entry was decided upon and work was begun in July, 1868. For the first fifteen years after Superior was started no other work had been done except to buoy the channel.

Only a year after that the railroad got within signaling distance of Duluth and the harbor problem grew acute. The same Duluth crowd who had incorporated the Minnesota Point Ship Canal Company by act of the legislature in 1857 had never let up on the project, but neither had they gained much headway.

When the rails and supplies for the railroad contract were brought here in 1869 they were landed at Da Costa’s dock on Rice’s Point, after a ticklish trip through the natural entry and over the bars in the bay, with frequent lighterage.

Meanwhile the Duluth people were busy building a breakwater out into the lake near Fifth avenue, east, and the Citizens’ dock into the open water from St. Croix avenue. The breakwater, or riprap, was extended 400 feet, enough to give partial shelter for vessels, and a grain elevator built by Philadelphia people was ready for the first train when it came in 1870.

The government engineers, meanwhile, were milling over their report. The Captain Cuyler who was sent to look the ground over had reported that a breakwater half a mile long costing $387, 000 would make an outer harbor, that a canal through the point and dredging a harbor basin would cost $270, – 000, which was the better proposition, or that a channel could be made for $132, 000 from the natural entry up the bay. The third plan was the one adopted by the government on the recommendation of Maj. J. B. Wheeler that it would amply accommodate the commerce of Duluth for some time to come. And so it should by the measure of the commerce there was then. One must have been a prophet and a bit of a visionary to glimpse the coming traffic of the port of Duluth.

Prophets and visionaries were the people here, every man of them; prophets and visionaries were men like Banning and Branch, who were building the road; at least a touch of prophetic vision must have been given the Philadelphia Quakers, who invested money in docks for which there was no commerce, and elevators with not a bushel of grain within a hundred miles, and a railroad through a wilderness. Even men of mediocre prophetical abilities caught the infection and had not been more than a few minutes on shore before they started the gift of tongues.

The harbor afforded by the breakwater would not do at all for the commerce they saw coming. The Philadelphia people, who were thoroughbreds, were ready to move the breakwater a mile or two down the shore and make a real harbor in the lake. The Duluth people saw more virtue in the canal through the point and the railroad managers agreed with them. In the city charter which Duluth got from the legislature in 1870 was authority to construct a canal through the point, or delegate it to some other body, and to use a strip 300 feet wide wherever it might be convenient.

The council began right off, letting the contract for a canal 150 feet wide and sixteen feet deep, with piers long enough to reach eighteen feet of water it the lake.

Work began in the fall of 1870 and was resumed first thing in the spring of 1871, so that before the month of April was over the water was flowing through the canal. Duluth hustled like the mischief to get the canal done, expecting there would be some opposition from Superior.

And there was. It was not mere jealousy, but genuine fear that the current of the river would be diverted, leaving the natural entry to fill and the bay to choke. The government engineers believed the same thing and expected the government work would be made useless. Already the current flowing through the natural entry was weakened.

So complaint was filed under direction of the attorney-general by C. K. Davis, then United States district attorney, forbidding the city and W. W. Williams & Co., the dredge contractors, to interfere any more with the harbor. The complaint had the backing of the Wisconsin legislature, which appropriated $3, 000 to assist Superior’s fight. The case was brought before Judge Miller at Topeka, Kan., because Judge R. R. Nelson of the district court had large interests in Superior and refused to hear the case on that ground.

The case turned largely on the unanimous opinion of the government engineers that the jetties they were building at the natural entry would be of no use unless the channel was kept scoured by the river current. Duluth got a friendly tip that the case was going adversely and hustled more than ever. The canal, which had been enough for the passage of a dory at the end of April, by digging day and night with the kindly assistance of the current, was some fifty feet wide with eight feet of water by the time the injunction was issued, June 13.

The court allowed in its order that if the city would build a 139  dike to prevent the river from deserting the natural entry there might be no objection to the canal. Duluth was quite willing, believing the river would be more likely to deposit a sand bar in front of the harbor than anything else, and a proposition submitted by the city was accepted by the government and approved by the court. That the city should have leave to finish its canal on condition of giving bonds for $100, 000 to build a sufficient dike across the bay. Duluth acted so quickly that the injunction was dissolved before the order got here. We patted ourselves on the back effusively; we had the jump on Superior. That we were broke already, $50, 000 in debt and going in debt another $100, 000 did not embarrass us a minute– not then.

Eminent counsel for the other side were dismayed. Cush Davis, to tell the truth, never sweated much blood over the case, being a Minnesota man, but Matt Carpenter, retained by Wisconsin in Superior’s interest, promptly protested against the settlement.

The bay of Superior, he maintained, is one body of water in which the state of Wisconsin has interest, to which in every part it is entitled to access. When the court permits half that bay to be fenced off from Wisconsin, the state is grievously wronged.

Superior folks meanwhile were having nightmares. One witness soberly reported to General Humphreys that within three days after the canal had been completed the water in the natural entry shoaled from ten feet to seven feet, six inches. The only explanation of that is that it was not so, but it worried the Superior people just the same.

After various memorials, from the legislature of Wisconsin, from the legislature of Minnesota, from Governor Fairchild of Wisconsin to the secretary of war and to various officers of the engineer corps, the plea that Wisconsin was entitled to entrance to all parts of the bay was put into litigation in June, 1872, by the attorney-general of Wisconsin in a bill for injunction in the United States court.

By arrangement with the railroad company, the Northern Pacific was carrying out the construction of the dike, its credit being more capacious than the city’s, and the city was giving its bonds to the company in payment. So that the proceedings ran against the Northern Pacific, the city, and Sidney Luce, mayor.

Ensign and Stearns represented the city and C. K. Davis, more congenially employed than before, was for the railroad company.

H. N. Setzer was attorney for Superior, managing the case for the attorney-general, the same H. N. Setzer who was only a little later a valued citizen of Duluth.

As it was in building the canal, so with the dike, the Duluth people had not been idle while waiting for the courts to decide.

The dike was already finished when the case came up for hearing.

And that was the occasion for sundry representations on the part of Superior that the dike should be finished at once; that it should have gates in it to give traffic to all parts of the bay, or-which was always the proper course from Superior’s viewpoint the canal should be plugged.

As for the outer harbor the railroad company had doubled its length to 900 feet. A storm had ruined it; the government had extended it to 1, 200 feet; another storm had all but washed it away. It had been backed by riprap with the idea that the rwaves would build up a shingle, and-all within two years further work had been given up because the inner harbor was so much more enduring.

The first skirmish for the second battle was quickly ended.

Judge Miller dismissed the bill, having no jurisdiction of a case in which a state was a party, and it had to be begun anew in the supreme court.

But in the meantime the government engineers had changed their views, having observations to go on instead of anticipations.

They could not see after frequent tallies that the canal hurt the Superior entry at all. While these things were pending Governor Washburn of Wisconsin asked for a report on the conditions in the bay. The government appointed Maj. D. C. Houston and Wisconsin appointed W. II. Newton, of Minneapolis.

Mr. Newton did not have the resources of the government.

He had the previous reports of the government engineers and what passed for common report among the people of Superior.

From which he found that the works of Duluth were in defiance of natural law; that the channel was shallower than it had been that the bay, which always used to be a foot above the lake, was now on the lake level and that the bay was generally shallower than before.

Major Houston had the benefit of elaborate soundings. He found that the channel was deeper than ever; that the natural entry and the canal combined had: less spreadoutness than the  entry before it was jettied; that the current was swifter, therefore, and the scouring more effective; that the lake was sometimes higher and sometimes lower than the bay, as the wind changed. And what was more significant than all, there was more water flowing in one channel and out the other than was coming down the river. That was something they had not figured on, the swirl of the lake which never ceases in one direction or the other.

General Humphreys accepted the report of his subordinate and transmitted it to the congress, still holding, however, that the bay should be protected by a dike because it was so promised.

But the second attempt in the courts being the third skirmish was begun in the fall of 1872 by asking the United States supreme court to make the Duluth people and the Northern Pacific tear down the dike and plug up the canal. The Northern Pacific officials were figuring on their Ashland extension in Wisconsin at that time and did not want any trouble. A friendly talk between General Cass, president of the company, and Governor Washburn resulted in a conference of the three interested in New York in January, 1873. That was attended on the part of Duluth by Sidney Luce, mayor; J. B. Culver and B. S. Russell, whose expenses-oh, joy-were covered by a special appropriation of the legislature, which approved all Duluth had done, assigned the attorney-general to help Duluth if needed and appropriated $5, 000 for expenses and $10, 000 for legal contingents.

They had a very pleasant time in New York with General Cass. Governor Washburn and the Northern Pacific made a treaty by which the line to Ashland should be built within eight months after right of way was given, the company pledging itself to give equal service to Superior and Duluth and to build an elevator in Superior.

Governor Washburn got from the Duluth people an entirely different idea from any he had before, and said that he never would have written that last saucy message if he had understood it.

And the whole party descended on Washington, where by their good offices the Wisconsin and Minnesota delegations united in a request for improvements of the whole harbor and both entries, for which they got $100, 000. The idea of working together instead of fighting was the most valuable part of the whole transaction and the commerce of the lakes has been the gainer from that day to this.

By the terms of the bargain the dike was to be removed.

Nature had partly attended to that. For when the spring floods came down and the cribs were undermined and the wind drew the water away from the outer side, the dike crumbled and rolled over in the bay. Part of the ruins lay there for twenty years until the enlarged harbor basin disposed of the last of it.

It was a good $100,000 wasted by a town that was bankrupt already; and yet it was worth while.

Nevertheless, there was one more battle in the courts. In 1874, December, a new attorney-general in Wisconsin began a new action in the supreme court, setting up the old claim that Wisconsin had rights in all of the bay; that Superior was on the natural outlet; that this canal had turned the immemorial current of the stream; that the water no longer stood as aforetime a foot to eighteen inches higher in the bay than in the lake; that the government had spent $100, 000 in improving the natural outlet which would be wasted unless relief was obtained, and prayed once more that the canal be plugged up.

H. N. Setzer had by this time moved over to Duluth and was appointed with C. K. Davis to defend the city’s case. A long, long answer was made, reciting everything that had been done and calling on all the reports of the United States engineers and all the available statistics, and reviewing all the former proceedings, the compromise and the confirmation of it by the Wisconsin legislature.

It was two years before a decision was reached, and then Justice Miller passed over all the elaborate arguments and found that the canal was there; that congress had recognized it as navigable water in its appropriations, and that the engineers had employed it as part of their system and adopted it Henry N. Setzer was born in Missouri in 1825 and came to the St.

Croix valley in 1843. He represented Marine Mills in the first territorial legislature. He represented Washington county, including Itasca, Chisago, Superior and Doty counties, in the seventh and eighth legislatures. He was a member of the Democratic wing of the constitutional convention. His early occupation was that of a lumberman, and he fitted himself to practice law while serving as register of deeds in Isanti county, at Cambridge. He moved to Superior in 1869, and there became prominent in harbor litigation.

He moved to Duluth in 1874, and became prominent at once in city politics.

He moved back to Taylor’s Falls in 1877.

143  as the best mode of making a safe and accessible harbor. Even while this ease was pending the congress had made further appropriations for maintaining the canal piers. And that being the case, the court had no jurisdiction to forbid the work or prescribe the manner in which it should be conducted. That decision, given in 1877, ended the long litigation.

But it was not till 1894 that the two cities got together after their first brief rapport of 1873. In that year a voluntary harbor commission was formed of which Captain McDougall was chairman and four others served from either side of the bay. Up to that time the total appropriations for Duluth harbor in twenty years had been $850,000, for Superior $700,000. The commission set to work systematically, arrayed its facts, pressed them home, took a congressional committee round the harbor and accidentally lodged them on a sand bar, and obtained $3,000, 000 for making a real harbor here, in the very years when congress was determined to go slow on public improvements.

From year to year the work has been carried on since then without serious hindrance. The importance of lake navigation has been fully appreciated and the necessity of making the principal harbors adequate to the general scheme of things has been apparent. Ten years ago a further enlargement of the plans was adopted in reconstructing the canal piers at the Duluth entry, making solid concrete monoliths, 2,000 feet long, with a channel 300 feet wide between them.

The harbor basin has been enlarged till it covers 270 acres immediately in front of Duluth and 420 acres in the several parts of the bay. Seventeen miles of ship channel has been dredged to a depth of twenty feet or more. Dock lines have been established running forty-nine miles on the face of the several bays that make the combined port.

Still the demands of shipping require larger measures. Work now contemplated will not be finished till there is a waterway through the chain of lakes for vessels drawing twenty-four feet and harbors capable of accommodating the huge carriers of such dimensions.

Forty years ago there was no harbor save the shallow bay reached by the tortuous channel of the St. Louis river winding through shifting sand bars and through loose silt, with variable depths of eight to ten feet. By the pluck of the Duluth engineers and the well measured plans of the government systematically carried forward the last twenty years, the dubious roadstead has been transformed into a port where the mightiest fleets of the ocean might ride at ease in absolute security.


From Walter Van Brunt’s Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3.  The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.