Bernie Arbic is a long time resident of Sault Ste. Marie Michigan. We talked Sault history on the deck behind his home. He said an under-appreciated bit of history is the French influence. “The first European to be in this area, was a Frenchman, Etienne Brule, he was here, I give the date 1620 just because that’s such an iconic date in our history, give or take a couple years maybe, 1618, 1622, sometime this young Frenchman was this far in the interior.”
To give you a perspective on how early that was… ”This area was known to the French almost 50 years before they knew anything about the Detroit River,” Arbic said. “We tend to think everything comes from the south, I like to say the first man to visit Detroit made his travel arrangements with an agent here in Sault Ste Marie, ‘cause we do pre date Detroit by about 50 years in terms of the European knowledge of geography.”
Arbic said when the French discovered Sault Ste Marie, they were searching for the Northwest Passage. Because of the rapids, they had to stop. Since they were fur traders, they set up a trading post. They interacted with Native people, and then, as the story often goes, they tried to ‘save’ them.”First mission was established here in 1668 by Father Marquette, that’s, he’s perhaps the best known of the french explorers.”
Sault Ste Marie survived on the fur trade for many years. Then in the 1800’s the city took leaps forward. In 1822, Fort Brady was built. Thirty years later, one of the Sault’s most famous attractions appeared. Although, Arbic said, the Soo locks of the mid-1800’s looked and operated differently than the ones tourists visit today. ” The first lock opened in 1855, and it was really, it was built by the state of Michigan, they charged tolls, uh, it was what’s called a tandem, a pair of locks really, now a days, ever since 1881, the locks is a single chamber, with a 20 ft lift, the first looks were two in tandem, with 10 ft lifts.”
But, Arbic said, the building boom of the 1800’s wasn’t done yet. in 1888, the railroad was built. And that brought in tourists.”In the late 1800s folks that would run people down the rapids in a canoe. For some reason it seems to be mostly women that wanted to do it, that’s kind of interesting it, wearing hats and stuff, and here they are shooting the rapids with these two Native American river guides, taking them down the rapids, so, there were, there were those things; fishing and shooting the rapids.”
Sault Ste Marie had one more use for it’s precious river. In 1898, construction began on a hydroelectric power plant. Think of it as a sort of farewell to the 19th century. Work was completed in 1902, and the city began harnessing the power of the St Mary’s to light homes and businesses. Even today the plant produces power.
Some of the notable industries in the Sault included Union Carbide and Northwestern Leather; both major employers for half a century. Fort Bradley was decommissioned; the property is now home to Lake Superior State University. In 1962 the International Bridge opened, linking Sault Ste Marie Michigan with its Ontario sister-city.
Time has changed the city, but the river has provided consistency. It is Sault Ste Marie’s past, present and undoubtedly it’s future.