Origins of Hydroelectric Power in the St. Marys River, MI
John Larsen Jr.
Similar to many other villages founded in the late 1600s, Sault Ste. Marie was located on a waterway to enable trade of goods, which at the time consisted mainly of furs. Prior to early French exploration, the site that is now Sault Ste. Marie was inhabited by Chippewa Indians who utilized the location for fishing as well as a route from the upper to lower Great Lakes (The Soo Locks). Following French settlement, it became apparent that the location could prove vital to the movement of furs from the north to other settlements in the southern region of the lakes. Over time, trade evolved from the transport of pelts to important minerals and lumber from the western end of Lake Superior, leading to more permanent colonization of Sault Ste. Marie.
Following the construction of the first lock in the St. Marys in 1855 (The Soo Locks History), the economic boom tapered off but the idea for a new business venture took hold in the form of hydroelectric power. Similar to many other business initiatives, original plans were found to be inadequate, investors filed for bankruptcy, and doubt plagued the idea that a canal and hydroelectric facility would ever be constructed. Finally, in 1898, construction of the canal and power plant began when H.W. Hubbell and Company and E.O Smith Co. were awarded contracts for the canal and Mason and Hodge for the power plant. The anticipated completion date for the Michigan Lake Superior Power Company hydroelectric plant was intended to be early 1900 but “this date had to be steadily moved backward as construction got under way and things began to go wrong.” (Library of Congress, 1978) Delays led to the power plant not being completed until 1902 with water first being let into the canal in August of that year. On October 24, 1902, there was a massive attendance at the grand opening of the powerhouse (Image 1902) and a celebration was held on the second floor of the newly constructed plant.
Post-construction and grand opening, problems arose regarding land ownership, water diversion, and structure failures within the canal itself. Resulting from ongoing issues and massive debt, MLSPC was taken over by Union Carbide in 1913. Eventually, Edison Sault Electric Company took over control of the facility and currently it is operated by Cloverland Electric Cooperative. Through all of the struggles, the power plant was a massive feat of engineering as it was completed in 1902 and is still operational today, supplying power to Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding areas. “Not only is it still operative, but the plant remains in very good condition” (Library of Congress, 1978), further adding to its engineering legacy.
Historic American Engineering Record. Michigan Lake Superior Power Company Hydroelectric Plant and Canal. Library of Congress, 1978. (Available online: http://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/mi/mi0000/mi0085/data/mi0085data.pdf)
This source outlines the origins of hydroelectric power production from the St. Marys River. It provides background information about individuals and companies that were involved with the initial plans, failures, and successes regarding hydroelectric power. Additionally, it contains images, letters, and other documentation focused on the projects of the time as well as some original project blueprints.
Powerhouse grand opening in October 1902, from Cloverland Electric Cooperative: Our History, (http://cloverland.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/our_history1.pdf)
This image that was taken on October 24, 1902 shows individuals gathered for the grand opening ceremony of the Michigan Lake Superior Power Company hydroelectric plant. The photograph was taken near Portage Street at the intake for the power facility. The photo demonstrates public support for the largest local development of the time.
City of Sault Ste. Marie. History of the City: The Soo Locks History. (Available online: http://www.saultcity.com/historic-homes)
Michigan State University. The Soo Locks. (Available online: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/SOOLOCK.html)