Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Our Empire On The Lakes
Illustrated American, 23 Apr 1889, p. 449-452
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THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN presented in its issue of April 9th an account of the U.S.S. Michigan, which forms the sole naval protection offered our enormous commercial interests on the Great Lakes. It presents in the current issue some statements showing how vast those interests are.

A recent writer on the geology and physiography of America, Prof. James Richardson, has published some most interesting and in some particulars novel information regarding the prehistoric lacustrine condition of portions of North America. His statement shows that in a general way all those arid plains now covered with alkali and sage-brush lying in the West, and extending through Utah and Nevada, with outlets into mountain ranges near by, were, not so many ages ago, practically the great lake region of North America. Both Frémont and Stansbury came to that conclusion; and generally, also, it is found that north of the deserts at present existing in Utah there was an expanse of fresh water which stretched across Idaho and Southeastern Oregon, a distance of about four hundred miles, filling up the valley between the Rocky and the Blue Mountains. Again, other sheets of eau douce, amounting to "great lakes," covered the greater part of Central Oregon and Washington. There was much more of the same quality of fresh water between the Cascade Range and the Coast Range, while a long narrow lake, five hundred miles by fifty, filled the great valley of California, and drained out into the ocean where the Golden Gate now opens up the Pacific capital of San Francisco.

All through the Rocky Mountain ranges, and where the Gila, the Colorado, and the Green Rivers now are, were a vast number of small lakes, the fact being, according to the surface and general geological presentment, that all that portion of the continent was superbly affluent in fresh water, and in the conditions of soil which so depend upon that factor for their value. Professor Richardson, while contemplating this interesting condition of the land, naturally enough diverges amid the resources of the imagination, aided by science, and if he does not people those lands with human beings, he certainly does very picturesquely and probably endow them with animal and vegetable life, to the fullest extent.

In those days the lands watered by those lakes swarmed with "gigantic beasts, hog-like in character, elephantine in size." "Great herds of mammoths and elephants, specifically distinct from any elsewhere known, trampled the banks of the water-courses, and browsed on the trees which bordered them; while troops of deer, horses, camels, and other herbivorous animals cropped the fresh pasturage of the adjacent plains." "In prehistoric times the continent seems to have been the special home of horses, something like thirty fossil species having been already discovered." "Alaska and Greenland enjoyed a climate as mild as ours, and were clad with forests whose lineal descendants now flourish in China, in California, and on both shores of the Atlantic. Fan palms with leaves fifteen feet broad grew as far north as the Yellowstone River, and a tropical or sub-tropical climate prevailed in the region of the great lakes now passed away.

The Great Lakes of North America are Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, and Lake Erie. Lake Superior is the largest body of fresh water in the world. Its area, according to Government survey, is 31,200 square miles; its length, 412 miles; its maximum breadth, 167 miles. Lake Michigan, the second in size of the Great Lakes, and the only one lying wholly in the United States, is 320 miles long and 70 miles in mean breadth, being almost exactly of the same even depth and the same height above the level of the sea as Lake Superior. A curiously interesting and exceptional feature with regard to this lake is, that it has a lunar tidal wave of three inches. It contains a total area of about 22,400 square miles. Its outlet is through the Straits of Mackinaw into Lake Huron at its northeast extremity, near the old trading-post of Mackinaw. It has important fisheries, white-fish and large trout being taken and exported in large quantities, both fresh and canned. Lake Huron, which is the third in size of the Great Lakes, is about 250 miles long and 190 miles wide, having an area of about 21,000 square miles. Its height above the level of the sea is about that of Lakes Superior and Michigan. Meanwhile its surface is 19 feet above the level of Lake Erie, and 352 feet above the level of Lake Ontario. Its depth is very great in places, as soundings have been made 1,200 feet below the level of the Atlantic without finding bottom, Lake Ontario is 190 miles long, and 50 miles broad in its widest part; its circumference is about 480 miles. It is connected with Lake Erie by the Welland Canal, with New York by the Erie and the Oswego Canals, and with the Ottawa River by the Rideau Canal. It has many thriving ports, of which Oswego and Sackett's Harbor are the most important on the American side, and Kingston, Toronto, and Hanover [sic: Hamilton] on the Canada shore. Lake Erie is 240 miles in length, and in breadth varies between 30 and 60 miles, having an area of 9,600 square miles. It is very shallow, its mean depth being stated at 130 feet.

It will be not uninteresting to mention, side by side with these great bodies of water, those which answer to them, to a certain degree, in Europe, though these latter are of salt water, and generally viewed as seas. The Caspian Sea, for instance, is 700 by 200 miles in extent, with an area of 180,000 square miles. The Black, or Euxine Sea has about the same length, but varies in breadth, and covers an area of about 172,000 square miles. It drains nearly one-fourth of the surface of Europe, and also about 100,000 square miles of the surface of Asia. Lake Aral, which is the largest lake in the steppes of Asia, is of about 200 miles in dimensions either way. It is stated, in regard to this lake, that its area has been dry twice within historic times once during the Greco-Roman period, and again between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries A. D. The Sea of Azov is a shallow inland lake, which is connected with the Black Sea by a long narrow strait, and occupies an area of about 14,000 square miles.

It is interesting to know, with regard to the nature and importance of the commerce of the United States via the Great Lakes with the rest of the world, beginning at Chicago, that, crossing four of those vast bodies of water, the extent of country traversed from Chicago to the Straits of Belle Isle is about 2,200 miles, or one-half the distance between Chicago and Liverpool by this route. The connection between the southern and eastern lakes and Lake Superior is made practicable by the Sault Sainte Marie Canal, Michigan. When one reflects that the great Lake Superior country claims the richest copper and iron mines of Northern America, besides the vast wheat shipments which go by Duluth, the importance of this canal can hardly be exaggerated. The "Soo," meaning the "Sault" or rapids, first became known through the missionaries in 1641, but it was not until nearly twenty years later that these rapids were passed by canoes, nor until 1771 that the lake was named by the Jesuits, Supérieur, or "Superior." Of course, all that section of country was originally opened up to commerce and the spreading of wealth broadcast through the world by the old fur companies, including the Hudson's Bay and that of John Jacob Astor. "Shooting the rapids" with canoes laden with peltries, and guided by the old voyageurs, was hardly an indication in the early part of the eighteenth century of what would happen in the nineteenth.

The Sault Sainte Marie Canal began in 1852 by a grant of public lands amounting to 750,000 acres, which was made to the State of Michigan for the purpose of defraying the expenses of its construction. The canal is not extensive, being only 7,000 feet long, 108 feet wide, and 16 feet deep; but this fact makes its working ability, in comparison with that of any other canal in the world, simply marvellous. It was begun June, 1853, and two years later was navigated from Lake Huron to Lake Superior, steamers being passed through a lock having two cells, each 320 by 70 feet, with a depth of 11 feet 6 inches, the volume of water required in the opposite cell to obtain a water-level with the lower one being nearly 4,000,000 gallons. After some years it became evident that these locks were insufficient to answer the demands upon the canal, and in 1870, under United States Government contracts, an enlargement was begun, the result being the present canal. By this time the production of iron ore, copper, wheat, and lumber in the Lake Superior region had become an enormous factor in the commerce of the entire country. The present lock-cells will admit vessels drawing not more than 16 feet 6 inches, the volume of water contained in the lock when full being nearly three times the quantity contained in the old one. The capacity of the lock for vessels ranging between 800 and 1,200 tons is about ninety-six vessels per day. The tonnage which passed through the Sault Sainte Marie Canal in 1889 amounted to 7,221,925 net tons, being 9,576 vessels; in 1890, 10,557 vessels and 8,454,435 net tons. For comparison, it may be stated that the traffic in the Suez Canal in the latter year, 1890, was 3,389 vessels, registering 6,890,014 net tons, as against 3,425 vessels and 6,783,187 tons for 1889. As a matter of fact, the "Soo" passed through its lock in 1889 eleven per cent. more tonnage than the Suez Canal, and in 1890, 22.8 per cent. more.

When one remembers that the amount of registered tonnage which passed through the "Soo" in 1855 was only one hundred and six thousand two hundred, the tremendous volume and the increase of Northern commerce may be appreciated; but it is designed to still further increase the capacity of this canal by building a new lock — the one which is now approaching completion — and which will permit vessels drawing nineteen feet to pass. This improvement will be, in fact, the paralleling of the present lock. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that nearly ten per cent. of all the vessels which pass through the canal are Canadian, and that no toll or charge for the passage of any vessels through the canal is levied. In the meantime, the traffic which passes through the Sault Sainte Marie Canal at present with comparative ease, and speedily will be sufficiently free for all practical purposes, is now, and must be until further improvements are perfected, completely congested by the condition of the Welland and Lachine Canals. While it is stated that the building of this canal has drawn from the trunk line railroads, for nearly two years, freight amounting to many millions of tons of coal, iron ore, and copper, and many millions of bushels of wheat, this statement is denied by railroad men, on the ground that the lake traffic is more than the canals can handle and that the surplus goes to the railroads. This will hardly be the case when the Welland and Lachine Canals shall be enlarged sufficiently to meet that difficulty. It is authoritatively stated that the ton mileage of the Great Lakes for 1890 was 18,849,681,384 ton miles, at an average rate on lake freight of 1.1 mills per ton mile, amounting to the sum of $207,346,495.22. Now, it is to be considered that this, which is simply the cost of the lake freight, is about one-seventh of the cost of railroad freight for the same mileage. Of course, this has no practical bearing on the gross value of the freight itself, which will appear later.

Meanwhile, the Government of the Dominion of Canada has not looked on idly with regard to the improvements in transportation facilities on its border. The Welland Canal and a portion of the St. Lawrence canals have already been deepened to fourteen feet, and work is in progress to bring the remaining canals of the St. Lawrence system to the same depth. The Dominion is also building a new canal at the Sault, on the Canadian side of the river. Within five years from the present time there will be a clear channel for vessels drawing fourteen feet of water, through Canadian territory, all the way from Lake Superior to the sea. This is the key to the situation. When the Great Lakes have a connection with the ocean through Canada, the lake cities will practically become seaports for Canadian vessels, with the coasting trade of the Great Lakes as their only resource. At that time, grain and pork will be taken by Canadian vessels from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Duluth, either direct to Liverpool, or with transshipment at Montreal. This is practical. If it costs twenty cents to carry grain by way of New York, via the Erie Canal, or by rail from Buffalo, when it can go by way of Montreal for ten, it is pretty certain that grain will go by way of Montreal.

The total freight passing the Detroit River through the Straits of Mackinac in 1890 amounted to 35,000,000 tons. Through the Welland Canal it was less than half a million. Of all of this Chicago furnished the largest quantity, with Buffalo, of course, second. Leaving out Lake Superior, the total dock-space for ore alone is over 10,000,000 square feet, and the total storage capacity of the Lake Erie ports alone is sufficient to include the entire output of the Lake Superior region for 1891. The competition of the lake lines with the railways has brought about the rapid growth of steam transportation, and altogether the ton mileage of the Great Lakes for 1889 amounted to one-fourth of the total ton mileage of all the railroads in the United States. Meanwhile, shipbuilding on the lakes is equally progressive, and every invention and improvement possible to apply to the construction of vessels for lake navigation is eagerly grasped at. The introduction of the whaleback alone is going to make a revolution, not only in lake commerce but in the entire freight traffic of the United States with Europe, not to speak of the possibilities of this form of vessel in times of war. All of these little points are to be considered. It is claimed that the lake transportation in comparison with that by rail saved to the public, in 1889, about one hundred and twenty millions of dollars. Anthracite coal is carried from Buffalo to Duluth, a thousand miles, for thirty cents per ton. The population of Buffalo by the present census is 255,664; that of Detroit, 205,876; Milwaukee, 204,468; Duluth, the thriving Lake Superior city, has 33,115. The aggregate entrances and clearances for the year 1890 of the city of Chicago, for the Great Lakes, numbered 21,054, measuring more than 10,000,000 tons, and being nearly one-fourth of the entire Great Lake traffic. Milwaukee shows entrances and clearances numbering more than 20,000. The great shipping port for the Lake Superior iron ore district is Escanaba, on Lake Michigan, which shipped nearly one-half of the total shipments by vessel of Lake Superior ores during the year. Mackinac is the centre of the fur industry, and Alpena, on the St. Clair River [sic], is the centre of the lumber industry, producing nearly 200,000,000 feet per annum. The tonnage returns of Detroit are extraordinary. In 1889 they amounted to nearly 10,000,000 tons more than the entries and clearances of all sea ports in the United States. When we come to Buffalo, we find that the receipts of grain by lake at Buffalo during 1891 were 128,993,020 bushels, being a gain of nearly two-fifths on 1890. The lumber receipts aggre gated by lake 262,729,000 feet. By the Erie Canal the aggregate shipments of grain and flour from Buffalo fell off about ten per cent. in 1891 from those of the previous year, but amounted to nearly 25,000,000 bushels of grain. The traffic by the Sault Sainte Marie Canal for 1891, as com pared with 1890, the figures of which have already been given, shows nearly double the shipments of wheat, with a larger number of steam-vessels, but a smaller num ber of vessels altogether; the total valuation of freight shipped by this route, as compared with that of 1890, being as follows:

1890 — 102,214,948.70

1891 - 128,178,208.51

The tonnage of the port of Buffalo is 321 vessels, 164,070 tonnage. The entrances and clearances for 1891 numbered 10,869 vessels; tonnage, 8,928,763.

Duly considering the impossibility of giving in regular order exact details in regard to the importance and value of our lake commerce, these figures are to be considered as merely illustrative. The total number of vessels on the Great Lakes on December 31,1889, according to the Eleventh Census, was 2,784. The total net tonnage was 780,119. The total freight passing the Detroit River through the and the commercial valuation was $ 48,809,750. This is to be considered in connection with the subject in hand. According to the same authority, we find that the ton mileage of the lakes is equal to 22.6 per cent. of the total ton mileage of railways in the United States. Of this, mines and quarries give 54.22 per cent., lumber gives 23.84 per cent., and the products of agriculture 16.50 per cent., the small amount left being devoted to miscellaneous carriage. The Eleventh Census shows that the net tonnage of the Great Lakes increased in five years to 1891 by about one-third. The estimated value of the vessels increased 90 per cent. The general tendency was toward replacing sailing-vessels by vessels propelled by steam.

The progress and the importance, not only of the commerce of the Great Lakes, but of the cities and towns which more immediately depend upon it, are shown, for instance, in the growth of the city of Duluth. Ten years ago Duluth was an insignificant village with less than 3,000 population. Its population has grown to twelve times that figure in the decade under consideration; its prop erty valuation is $40,000,000. It has a system of grain elevators with a capacity of 21,000,000 bushels, and transacts the business of the greatest primary wheat market in the world. Its wealth per capita is greater than that of St. Paul, Chicago, Philadelphia, or New York. The total value of the freight tonnage which passed through the "Soo" Canal last season amounted to $ 102,214,848.70, and a very large share of that was Duluth traffic. The re ceipts of wheat at the Duluth elevators for the year 1890 amounted to 15,847,280 bushels; 1891, 40,391,974 bushels. The banking business in 1890 amounted to $ 104,572,349.31. The lumber business is estimated at $ 240,000,000.







Item Types
Illustrated American
Date of Publication
23 Apr 1889
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Our Empire On The Lakes