Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory
Fun in Sault Sainte Marie
By Tom and Joanne O’Toole
You'll love this focal point of three of the Great Lakes
Dating back acouple thousand years before Sault Sainte Marie was established on the eastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the area was referred to as “The Gathering Place.” Explorer and Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette built a mission here in 1668 and called it Sainte Marie du Sault, or Saint Mary of the Rapids. Sault is French for “jump,” and referred to the spot where people “jumped” their canoes overland from one lake to another. More than 100 years later the Treaty of Paris established the Saint Mary’s River as the boundary between the U.S. and Canada.
The oldest city and European settlement in the Midwest, it was an important fishing, hunting and meeting place within a relatively easy canoe paddle of three of the five Great Lakes—Superior, Huron, and Michigan. The entire area is laced with unspoiled scenic beauty, dense forests, waterfalls, rivers and wildlife.
Centuries earlier its first settlers, the Chippewa, discovered this paradise for hunting and fishing that took them through the four seasons. Many descendents are still residents of the Sault.
Today, most visitors don’t have the time or get the opportunity to savor the endless sights and sounds of this gateway to nature’s wonders. Yet, Sault Sainte Marie, the locks connecting Lakes Superior and Huron, along with the many nearby sites and attractions are more than enough to whet your appetite. For many, the town is an opportunity to board one of the tour boats through the locks, enjoy a sunset dinner excursion on the river, take a lighthouse cruise with stops along the way, and experience a floating fireworks display around Independence Day.
Warmed by the noon sun we boarded a tour boat to “lock through.” With beverage cup in hand, we made our way back-and-forth to either side of the boat a couple dozen times to capture the changing scenery and activity as we followed a mammoth ship through the locks. There were very few passengers who stayed in one place very long.
The famous Soo Locks complex, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since 1881, serves as a vital gateway for Great Lakes shipping. This stretch of water is the 63-mile-long Saint Mary’s River, and it falls 21 feet from the level of upper Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes. Most of this drop occurs at Saint Mary’s Rapids. Each year more than 11,000 vessels transit through this system of locks along the eastern bank of Sault Sainte Marie, from great ore ships and 1000-foot-long freighters to the much smaller tour boats and pleasure craft. There are four U.S. locks and one Canadian, although not all are in use.
Along the way,tourists see the massive Edison Sault Hydro-Electric Power Plant which generates more than enough electrical power to operate the machinery at the Soo Locks, as well as supplying power to all the homes, businesses, and surrounding communities. At the Soo Locks Park visitors can get up close by watching the ships from an observation tower. At the visitors center in the park there is a working model of a lock that explains the operation, a 30-minute film, along with artifacts, charts, maps and photos of the building of the locks. Visitors can also board the Soo Locks Train Tour for a one hour guided ride around the American side of town, or a two-and-a-half hour Canadian adventure.
Rising 210 feet above Sault Sainte Marie and the Soo Locks, is the Tower of History with observation platforms for visitors to get spectacular views and photos of the world's busiest inland shipping channel. On a clear day the view from the tower is spectacular, and you can see for miles. At the base of the concrete tower is a small museum. An elevator whisks you to the top. At the River of History Museum are a number of galleries interpreting the 8000-year history of the Saint Mary’s River Valley.
Nearby is the permanently docked maritime Museum Ship S.S. Valley Camp, a retired (1917), 550-foot-longsteam powered Great Lakes ore freighter containing exhibits from shipbuilding to shipwrecks. Here too are displays and explanations reliving the ill-fated journey of the Edmund Fitzgerald on a stormy November night on Lake Superior,along with two of its recovered lifeboats.
The city of Sault Sainte Marie (population “about” 15,000) is laced with historic churches and vintage homes. The main street, Portage Avenue, once the ancient trail used to “portage” canoes around the rapids, is now a favorite stroll past gift shops,ice cream parlors, and local stores.
The soaring 2.8-mile-long International Bridge near the locks crosses the river into the Canadian Province of Ontario, and to the sister city of Sault Sainte Marie,Canada. Visitors who have the time should definitely take the ride on the Agawa Canyon Train Tour through the Laurentian wilderness into Canada’s Agawa Canyon Park.
Also outside Sault Sainte Marie (on the U.S. side), is a wilderness journey to Tahquamenon Falls State Park will take you to upper and lower Saint Mary’s Falls. With more time,there are three themed driving trails, each focusing on one of the three Great Lakes, as well as inland attractions. For the less adventuresome, you can join locals and other tourists just outside downtown at the popular Kewadin Indian Casino for a taste of Las Vegas, Sault style.
Exploring Michigan’s oldest city in the state’s Upper Peninsula is not some dusty trudge through boring history. Rather, it’s a fun and interesting experience, coupled with outdoor beauty, a sense of adventure, and if you choose, a littleka-ching!
For a wealth of sight seeing information, brochures, and a map of the area, contact the Sault Ste. Marie Visitors Bureau, 536 Ashmun Street, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, 49783. The local telephone number is (906) 632-3366, and toll-free is (800) 647-2858. The website is: saultstemarie.com.
Still more information is available from the Sault Area Chamber of Commerce, 2581 I-75 Business Spur,Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, 49783. The local telephone is (906) 632-3301.
There are varying narrated boat tours of the locks, a lighthouse tour, boat excursions that include a continental breakfast, sunset dinner cruises, short and long outings, and all at varying prices. The visitors bureau will gladly send the brochures. However,details, schedules, costs, and information are free by contacting Soo Locks Boat Tours, Post Office Box 739, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan 49783. The local telephone is (906) 632-6301 or toll-free is (800) 432-6301. The web site is:soolocks.com.
More information on The Great Waters, detailing the sites and adventures of the themed driving trails,is available by going to: greatwaters.net. The telephone numbers are the same as those for the visitors bureau (above).
The tourist season in theSault Sainte Marie area is generally from mid-May to early October, with the prime time from Memorial Day to a few weeks after Labor Day.