The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 1 Jan 1878

Full Text
The Story of the Navigation of the St. Clair Flats.
Early Cargoes from Lake Superior and Portages Around the Sault.

SAULT STE MARIE. - The improvement of the waterways of the great lakes came about gradually. The growth and development of the country and the demand for cheap transportation made the deepening of channels, the building of canals, lighthouses, and harbors of refuge a necessity, but sometimes accidental causes hastened the construction of those improvements.

Capt. McKay, one of the best known of the lake navigators, told me the story of how the present channel at the St. Clair Flats came into use, which illustrates very well how great enterprises sometimes receive their impetus from personal animosities. Two of the leading ship owners of the lakes in former days were Capt. E. B. Ward, of Detroit, and his uncle, Capt. Samuel Ward, of Marine City. At one time they were together in business, but afterwards dissolved partnership, and upon occasions encountered each other sharply. About the close of the forties Capt. Sam Ward built a swift steamer for the river and coasting trade and named her the Ruby. Capt. E. B. Ward, to retain his share of that trade, built another, as he hoped, swifter and better steamer, calling her the Pearl. These boats left Detroit on alternate days, and made all landings going up Lake Huron as far as Saginaw Bay.

The rival captains began to crowd their steamers, and when one accomplished a quicker run than the other the public soon heard of it. Each boat had its champions, and the question of speed was never satisfactorily settled. There is an Indian reservation on Walpole Island, about the only remnants of the race of red men to be seen near Detroit.* They are of the Chippewa Tribe, and being largely aided by the Canadian Government, are a well-to-do set of people. In those days a good many Indians lived at Algonac and other places on the St. Clair, and did business in the way of basket-making, selling furs, fish and game at Detroit, making frequent trips to the city. Capt. Sam Ward would talk to them in Chippewa, had early gained their friendship by proper consideration, and by consequence the Ruby had no more loyal patrons than the Indians. The master of the boat, Capt. J. B. Goodsell, was popular with the Indians, too, and they were always willing to help "wood up" and save time at the landings in the interest of a quick trip.

The main channel of the river then navigated was the north channel - the channel which runs by Algonac and leaves Harson's Island, and the old light-houses on the flats, up on the left hand in coming down stream. The Indians themselves, in their canoe trips took the south channel - that which skirts Walpole Island and the hunting grounds of the Canadian Club - finding it much easier and more direct. There were extensive shoals at the mouth of this south channel, but that, of course, never interfered with canoes. One day an old Indian friend suggested that the Ruby take this channel, and thereby gain time and distance on the Pearl. The idea took with Capt. Sam Ward, and he employed his Indian friend to stake the intricate part of the channel and pilot the Ruby across the flats a few times. The results were very good indeed. Capt. Goodsell for a time enjoyed a great triumph, making better time than ever before, greatly to the wonder of Capt. E. B. Ward and the adherents of his steamer. At last the secret came out and thereafter the Pearl began to use the south channel. Capt. Goodsell, thinking over a way to steal a march on his rival, or his Indian friends, coming to it by a trick natural to them, took up and misplaced the stakes. The first time the Pearl sailed by the stakes she went aground, had to be towed off, and did not reach port until the next day. Capt. E. B. Ward was furious; threatened vengeance; did try to go to the law about it, but found he had no remedy, the poles having been set on the shoals by an individual whose privilege it was to take them up, or set them over upon a new system, for his own advantage or amusement.

Capt. E. B. Ward appealed, not to the courts but to Washington, and the government engineers came and staked out the channel for the use and behoof of all navigators. Most of them were shy of it, all but Capt. Paul Peltier, a half-breed raised about those parts, and the commander of the Henry Clay in this time of sharp opposition between the Pearl and the Ruby. The Henry Clay was a propeller of an original type, having two screws - a waste of power as shipwrights soon discovered. The theory that speed was gauged in proportion to the length of the screw, and the more spirals the greater the headway, was after a few trials seen to be fallacious, and the single screw is now the only thing.

If the double screws of the Henry Clay did not make her more swift they served a useful purpose in the sand bars at the flats. Capt. Paul Peltier never stopped to consider the depth of the water at the flats but loaded his propeller with all she would carry, something that his rivals could not at first understand. It was very simple. When he came to the new channel he turned the Henry Clay around and navigated stern foremost, the double screws plowing their way right and left through the sand which forms the flats of St. Clair, deepening the passage; making available for vessels of great draught, until the sands washed in and filled it up. About that time Capt. Peltier came along again and reopened it. His success set E. B. Ward to thinking: and those who resort to the little Venice of pleasant homes at the mouth of the river, as well as the thousands who traverse the St. Clair for other destinations, see the result in the government canal whose piers extend across the flats - one of the first fruits of the River and Harbor Bill. At that time most of the vessels on the lakes carried at the mast head a flag calling for "Harbor Improvements."

Capt. Paul Peltier is said to be the first who navigated a heavy draught steamer through Mud Lake, as the wide expanse of the St. Mary's, below the Neebish, is called. Some of the old settlers here at Sault Ste Marie say that Capt. E. B. Ward was the first to ship iron ore from the newly discovered mines of Marquette County. The shipment consisted of five tons, and as there was neither tramway nor canal around the rapids of the St. Mary's, the ore was transferred on carts across the portage into one of Ward's steamers - the Samuel Ward probably - and carried to Pittsburgh, where it was smelted and made in to bars. The severest tests were applied to these iron bars; they were heated, cooled, drawn out, hammered and bent cold, and everybody became satisfied that it was the best iron ever made in America. When the great forge masters of Pennsylvania were convinced of the merits of Michigan ore, the development of the mines followed rapidly.

Some small shipments of iron ore were made before Capt. E. B. Ward took down the experimental five tons, but, if he is not entitled to the honor of making the first shipment, he can claim that of being the first to establish a line of steamers between Sault Ste. Marie and Detroit and Cleveland. There was then no iron to ship, and the Michigan copper mines were just beginning to yield their great stores of wealth. The rich conglomerate veins were undiscovered or unworked, and the so-called "mass" was the only copper product. Some of these masses were of enormous size and weight, not to be handled by hand except by the use of multiplying pullys and cranes. When too large they were laboriously cut through with hand tools at the mines and made of shippable weight - say a ton or two. The smaller pieces were packed into barrels. The only copper smelting works in this country at that time was in Baltimore.

The late John R. Grout, coming to Detroit with some experience in metallurgy, had his attention directed to this fact. He saw the opportunity, and going to Connecticut interested Israel Coe, the inventor of the monkey wrench, in the organization of a company to build smelting works at Detroit. When his furnaces were ready Grout imported a lot of smelters from Swansea, the copper emporium of Wales, and the fires were started. The Welshmen, thinking that they alone had the secret of making copper into ingots, gave Grout a world of trouble. It was impossible to satisfy them and the prospect was discouraging. There was employed about the copper works a young farmer from Oakland County, James R. Cooper, of level head and good powers of observation, and by study and attention he soon came to know more about copper than any of the graduates of Swansea. His capacity in time made itself known; he was soon manager of the works and became the greatest copper smelter in the world. The venture proved immensely profitable for Coe and his partners. The greater part of the product of the works was shipped to Waterbury, making that Connecticut town and Ansonia, in its immediate vicinity, the chief seat of the brass industry on this continent. Waterbury has, in fact, made a great deal more out of Lake Superior copper than has Detroit.

Ward's boats, in the days of the wagon portage at Sault Ste Marie, took up supplies and machinery for the mines, and had for return cargoes, besides the copper, furs and whitefish. The whitefish were packed in pine half-barrels. These barrels were all made "below" - that is, at Detroit or in its vicinity. It was a curious sight to see how they were piled around the rail and on the hurricane decks of the upward bound steamers, taking up a vast amount of room. The catch of fish was something wonderful. John P. Clark, of Springwells, sailed up with a schooner load of salt, dropped his nets in Whitefish Bay and caught fish faster than he could cure them. This trade lasted for a long time, but is now small , and unless the Michigan Fish Commission succeeds in keeping within limits the size of the messes in fish net, will entirely disappear before long.

In the office of the Chippewa House, the landmark hotel of the Sault, there are pictures of old-time steamers of Ward's line and others. Landlord Smith avers that none of the modern boats have ever beaten the record of the North Star, which made the trip from this place to Detroit in twenty-five hours and sometimes even less. He exhibits, also, photographs of S. Dow Elwood and others of the enterprising, courageous and adventurous young men of that day who resorted to the Sault and says they will avouch the fact.

It is strange how intimately the name of Ward is bound up with the development of Lake Superior and how inevitably the inquirer into the history of modern commerce here runs across the traces of energy and business qualities of one of the greatest ship owners and manufacturers the Northwest ever gave birth to. Ward's career, beginning as a sailor boy and ending as the principal iron master, glassmaker, mine owner, lumberman, railroad builder and navigator of that period - heaping up an enormous fortune, dying suddenly in the public street while on his way to Lansing to take vengeance upon Zach Chandler, his former political friend, and the confused state of affairs which dissipated his fortune, so that his own children and family receive nothing, while his widow and assigns derived great wealth from it - makes a story that has all the interests of a romance.

Capt. Ward's life was, if we might so describe it, a magnificent business success, but that was all; the fruits of his success collapsed the moment of his death. His own family, - whose youth had indulgence and plenty, whose maturity struggles and poverty - must wonder sometimes if the story is not the baseless fabric of a vision. Not the least remarkable of the events that succeeded his sudden death was that of the mansion with its marble front, built by him with care and superbly finished in its interior, should become the home of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd - the mildest, best-conducted, most thoroughly humane of prisons - but still a prison. He had many friends in the days of his activity and they, forgetting his shortcomings, remember that he was princely in his favors and magnificent in his enterprises. There is no memorial of him anywhere unless it be in the houses of these friends. A portrait in oil of the great merchant prince, who built gigantic mills and factories and opened mines beneath the waters of the lake, was some years ago stored among the lumber in one of the rooms of the Governor's office at the State Capitol.

Capt. Ward appears to have gone into iron mining to help the shipbuilding industry. The first blooms made in Lake Superior he sent to Pittsburgh in 1848 and had forged for his new steamer Ocean. That same year he acquired extensive tracts of iron land in Marquette County. E. K. Collins, the owner of the first American steamship line across the Atlantic, the recollection of whose fine ships and their quick passages still exists, became interested with Ward in the iron business, but the financial panic which came on before the enterprises were fully established caused his withdrawal. Capt. Ward, paying less attention to the mines, spent large sums trying to produce steel cheaply, but whatever success he might have had was anticipated by the discoveries of Bessemer. Saying nothing about this he is certainly to be credited with doing more than any other individual to improve the navigation of the great lakes, and that brings us to the most stupendous work of all, the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal.**


Media Type:
Item Type:
*Walpole is still largly populated with aboriginal people, though no longer all Chippewa/Ojibway.
**i.e. Soo Locks.
The extact date of publication of this piece is unknown.
Date of Publication:
1 Jan 1878
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Dave Swayze
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.

Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 1 Jan 1878