Most people know all about the locks between the Canadian and American twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie. The waterways are good for trade.
But at one time the Soo locks were all on the American side. This ended with the opening of a lock to the north in 1895. Although not openly discussed, one the most important reasons for building a Canadian lock had its roots in an event which took place a quarter century before.
As Canada became a country with Confederation in 1867, a giant firm had to change its way of doing business.The Hudson’s Bay Company could no longer operate as if it were almost a feudal entity within Canada.
As the Bay gave up its huge land holdings in 1869, the action troubled the Metis people of the Red River in Manitoba. They feared their land would be taken up by new settlers.When they banded together under Louis Riel to establish a new government, a clash with Ottawa was inevitable.
The Governor-General talked about peace for the Red River but as he did so, the government sent a large expeditionary force to make sure that any opposition was put down.
A British officer, Colonel Garnet Wolseley led the heavily armed force on what was officially called an errand of peace.
The undertaking was logistically complicated. Wolseley’s men, animals, armament and equipment had to be shipped west in a hurry across a vast area where roads were mostly non existent.
At the time the railroad boom was in full flower in the US midwest. So it would seem logical to ship the party through the states by train to Minnesota and then down the Red River by boat.
But such a move was not acceptable to the Americans. They just gone through the Civil War and had little stomach for any troops, let alone foreign ones on their soil.
So the long way round entailed a forced march to Collingwood. Next would come ship passage to the head of Lake Superior and finally both march and boat ride to the Red River country.
The Canadian government was sensitive to the wishes of the Americans. No one realized that the vessel chartered for the run on the Great Lakes would be considered unacceptable to southern neighbours.
The ship that caused all the trouble was the S.S. Chicora. Many people knew it had acted as a blockade runner during the war between the states.
Even though the ship had been refitted and changed in appearance, Canadian authorities did suspect that its passage through an American canal might cause trouble.
So Wolseley’s plan was to offload military stores and soldiers in the Soo, take the offending vessel through the locks, and then load her up again in Canadian waters.
But when the ship steamed up to enter the US lock, what became known as the Chicora incident took place. This meant that the American military commander refused to allow the ship passage, with or without Wolseley’s party.
Ever since the War of 1812, Canada and the United States had been at peace. There had of course been affairs which strained relations along the world’s longest border.
One was during the American Civil War when southern states used Canada as a haven for various activities. Another was the troubling Fenian Raids where Irish sympathizers from below the border attacked Canada.
In this case the orders to hold up the Chicora likely did not come from the military at Sault Ste.Marie. Rather there was no doubt the US government of the day was behind this international incident.
Fortunately diplomacy prevailed and the boat chartered to carry men and equipment to the Red River was allowed to pass without further incident.
Years later history repeated itself and troops were once again sent west to the Red River. This time though they travelled partly by the new CPR rails and there were no international incidents.
Canadians are sometimes hesitant to spend money. In budgeting to build the Soo lock, memories of a long gone border incident loosened the federal purse strings.
Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario. [email protected]