1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Great Lakes of North America, The

GREAT LAKES OF NORTH AMERICA, THE. The connected string of five fresh-water inland seas, Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, lying in the interior of North America, between the Dominion of Canada on the north and the United States of America on the south, and forming the head-waters of the St Lawrence river system, are collectively and generally known as “The Great Lakes.” From the head of lake Superior these lakes are navigable to Buffalo, at the foot of lake Erie, a distance of 1023 m., for vessels having a draught of 20 ft.; from Buffalo to Kingston, 191 m. farther, the draught is limited, by the depth in the Welland canal, to 14 ft.; lake Superior, the largest and most westerly of the lakes, empties, through the river St Mary, 55 m. long, into lake Huron. From Point Iroquois, which may be considered the foot of the lake, to Sault Ste Marie, St Mary’s Falls, St Mary’s Rapids or the Soo, as it is variously called, a distance of 14 m., there is a single channel, which has been dredged by the United States government, at points which required deepening, to give a minimum width of 800 ft. and a depth of 23 ft. at mean stage water. Below the Sault, the river, on its course to lake Huron, expands into several lakes, and is divided by islands into numerous contracted passages. There are two navigated channels; the older one, following the international boundary-line by way of lake George, has a width of 150 to 300 ft., and a depth of 17 ft.; it is buoyed but not lighted, and is not capable of navigation by modern large freighters; the other, some 12 m. shorter, an artificial channel dredged by the United States government in their own territory, has a minimum width of 300 ft. and depth of 20 ft. It is elaborately lighted throughout its length. A third channel, west of all the islands, was designed for steamers bound down, the older channel being reserved for upbound boats.

Between lake Superior and lake Huron there is a fall of 20 ft. of which the Sault, in a distance of 1/2 m., absorbs from 18 to 191/2 ft., the height varying as the lakes change in level. The enormous growth of inter-lake freight traffic has justified the construction of three separate locks, each overcoming the rapids by a single lift—two side by side on the United States and one on the Canadian side of the river. These locks, the largest in the world, are all open to Canadian and United States vessels alike, and are operated free from all taxes or tolls on shipping. The Canadian ship canal, opened to traffic on the 9th of September 1895, was constructed through St Mary Island, on the north side of the rapids, by the Canadian government, at a cost of $3,684,227, to facilitate traffic and to secure to Canadian vessels an entrance to lake Superior without entering United States territory. The canal is 5967 ft. long between the extremities of the entrance piers, has one lock 900 ft. long and 60 ft. wide, with a depth on the sills at the lowest known water-level of 201/2 ft. The approaches to the canal are dredged to 18 ft. deep, and are well buoyed and lighted. On the United States side of the river the length of the canal is 12/3 m., the channel outside the locks having a width varying from 108 to 600 ft. and depth of 25 ft. The locks of 1855 were closed in 1886, to give place to the Poe lock. The Weitzel lock, opened to navigation on the 1st of September 1881, was built south of the old locks, the approach being through the old canal. Its chamber is 515 ft. long between lock gates, and 80 ft. wide, narrowing to 60 ft. at the gates. The length of the masonry walls is 717 ft., height 391/2 ft., with 17 ft. over mitre sills at mean stage of water. The Poe lock, built because the Weitzel lock, large and fully equipped as it is, was insufficient for the rapidly growing traffic, was opened on the 3rd of August 1896. Its length between gates is 800 ft.; width 100 ft.; length of masonry walls 1100 ft.; height 431/2 to 45 ft., with 22 ft. on the mitre sill at mean stage.

The expenditure by the United States government on the canal, with its several locks, and on improving the channel through the river, aggregated fourteen million dollars up to the end of 1906.[1] Plans were prepared in 1907 for a third United States lock with a separate canal approach.

The canals are closed every winter, the average date of opening up to 1893 being the 1st of May, and of closing the 1st of December. The pressure of business since that time, aided possibly by some slight climatic modification, has extended the season, so that the average date of opening is now ten days earlier and of closing twelve days later. The earliest opening was in 1902 on the 1st of April, and the latest closing in 1904 on the 20th of December.

The table below gives the average yearly commerce for periods of five years, and serves to show the rapid increase in freight growth.

Statement of the commerce through the several Sault Ste Marie canals, averaged for every five years.[2]

Years. Pass-
Net Tons.
Net Tons.
Iron Ore.
Net Tons.
M. ft.
Net Tons.
1855–1859* 387 192,207 6,206 4,672 19,555 None. 34,612 2,249 1,248 27,206 320 55,797
1880–1884 4,457 2,267,166 34,607 463,431 681,726 5,435,601 936,346 81,966 107,225 867,999 79,144 2,184,731
1885–1889 7,908 4,901,105 29,434 1,398,441 1,838,325 18,438,085 1,213,815 74,447 175,725 2,497,403 197,605 5,441,297
1890–1894 11,965 9,912,589 24,609 2,678,805 5,764,766 34,875,971 1,738,706 87,540 231,178 4,939,909 510,482 10,627,349
1895–1899 18,352 18,451,447 40,289 3,270,842 8,319,699 57,227,269 23,349,134 164,426 282,156 10,728,075 832,968 19,354,974
1900–1904 19,374 26,199,795 54,093 5,457,019 7,021,839 56,269,265 26,760,533 646,277 407,263 20,020,487 999,944 31,245,565
1906 alone 22,155 41,098,324 63,033 8,739,630 6,495,350 84,271,358 54,343,155 1,134,851 468,162 35,357,042 900,631 51,751,080

 * The first five years of operation.

Around the canals have grown up two thriving towns, one on the Michigan, the other on the Ontario side of the river, with manufactories driven by water-power derived from the Sault. The outlet of lake Michigan, the only lake of the series lying wholly in United States territory, is at the Strait of Mackinac, near the point where the river St Mary reaches lake Huron. With lake Michigan are connected the Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal, the Illinois and Michigan, and the Illinois and Mississippi canals, for which see Illinois. With lake Huron is always included Georgian Bay as well as the channel north of Manitoulin Island. As it is principally navigated as a connecting waterway between lakes Superior and Michigan and lake Erie it has no notable harbours on it. It empties into lake Erie through the river St Clair, lake St Clair and the river Detroit. On these connecting waters are several important manufacturing and shipping towns, and through this chain passes nearly all the traffic of the lakes, both that to and from lake Michigan ports, and also that of lake Superior. The tonnage of a single short season of navigation exceeds in the aggregate 60,000,000 tons. Extensive dredging and embankment works have been carried on by the United States government in lake St Clair and the river Detroit, and a 20–ft. channel now exists, which is being constantly improved. Lake St Clair is nearly circular, 25 m. in diameter, with the north-east quadrant filled by the delta of the river St Clair. It has a very flat bottom with a general depth of only 21 ft., shoaling very gradually, usually to reed beds that line the low swampy shores. To enter the lake from river St Clair two channels have been provided, with retaining walls of cribwork, one for upward, the other for downward bound vessels. Much dredging has also been necessary at the outlet of the lake into river Detroit. A critical point in that river is at Limekiln crossing, a cut dredged through limestone rock above the Canadian town of Amherstburg. The normal depth here before improvement was 121/2-15 ft.; by a project of 1902 a channel 600 ft. wide and 21 ft. deep was planned; there are separate channels for up- and down-bound vessels. To prevent vessels from crowding together in the cut, the Canadian government maintains a patrol service here, while the United States government maintains a similar patrol in the St Mary channel.

The Grand Trunk railway opened in 1891 a single track tunnel under the river St Clair, from Sarnia to Port Huron. It is 6026 ft. long, a cylinder 20 ft. in diameter, lined with cast iron in flanged sections. A second tunnel was undertaken between Detroit and Windsor, under the river Detroit.

From Buffalo, at the foot of lake Erie, the river Niagara runs northwards 36 m. into lake Ontario. To overcome the difference of 327 ft. in level between lakes Erie and Ontario, the Welland canal, accommodating vessels of 255 ft. in length, with a draught of 14 ft., was built, and is maintained by Canada. The Murray canal extends from Presqu’ile Bay, on the north shore of lake Ontario, a distance of 61/2 m., to the headquarters of the Bay of Quinte. Trent canal is a term applied to a series of water stretches in the interior of Ontario which are ultimately designed to connect lake Huron and lake Ontario. At Peterboro a hydraulic balance-lock with a lift of 65 ft., 140 ft. in length and 33 ft. clear in width, allowing a draught of 8 ft., has been constructed. The ordinary locks are 134 by 33 ft. with a draught of 6 ft. When the whole route of 200 m. is completed, there will not be more than 15 m. of actual canal, the remaining portion of the waterway being through lakes and rivers. For the Erie canal, between that lake and the Hudson river, see Erie and New York.

The population of the states and provinces bordering on the Great Lakes is estimated to be over 35,000,000. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, south of lake Erie, there are large coal-fields. Surrounding lake Michigan and west of lake Superior are vast grain-growing plains, and the prairies of the Canadian north-west are rapidly increasing the area and quantity of wheat grown; while both north and south of lake Superior are the most extensive iron mines in the world, from which 35 million tons of ore were shipped in 1906. The natural highway for the shipment of all these products is the Great Lakes, and over them coal is distributed westwards and grain and iron ore are concentrated eastwards. The great quantity of coarse freights, that could only be profitably carried long distances by water, has revolutionized the type of vessel used for its transportation, making large steamers imperative, consolidating interests and cheapening methods. It is usual for the vessels in the grain trade and in the iron-ore trade to make their up trips empty; but in consequence of the admirable facilities provided at terminal points, they make very fast time, and carry freight very cheaply. The cost of freight per ton-mile fell from 23/100 cent in 1887 to 8/100 cent in 1898; since then the rate has slightly risen, but keeps well below 1/10 cent per ton-mile.

The traffic on the lakes may be divided into three classes, passenger, package freight and bulk freight. Of passenger boats the largest are 380 ft. long by 44 ft. beam, having a speed of over 20 m. an hour, making the round trip between Buffalo and Chicago 1800 m., or Buffalo and Duluth 2000 m., every week. They carry no freight. The Canadian Pacific railway runs a line of fine Tyne-built passenger and freight steamers between Owen Sound and Fort William, and these two lines equal in accommodation transatlantic passenger steamers. On lake Michigan many fine passenger boats run out of Chicago, and on lake Ontario there are several large and fast Canadian steamers on routes radiating from Toronto. The package freight business, that is, the transportation of goods in enclosed parcels, is principally local; all the through business of this description is controlled by lines run by the great trunk railways, and is done in boats limited in beam to 50 ft. to admit them through bridges over the rivers at Chicago and Buffalo. By far the greatest number of vessels on the lakes are bulk freighters, and the conditions of the service have developed a special type of vessel. Originally sailing vessels were largely used, but these have practically disappeared, giving place to steamers, which have grown steadily in size with every increase in available draught. In 1894 there was no vessel on the lakes with a capacity of over 5000 tons; in 1906 there were 254 vessels of a greater capacity, 12 of them carrying over 12,000 tons each. For a few years following 1890 many large barges were built, carrying up to 8000 tons each, intended to be towed by a steamer. It was found, however, that the time lost by one boat of the pair having to wait for the other made the plan unprofitable and no more were built. Following 1888 some 40 whale-back steamers and barges, having oval cross-sections without frames or decks, were built, but experience failed to demonstrate any advantage in the type, and their construction has ceased. The modern bulk freighter is a vessel 600 ft. long, 58 ft. beam, capable of carrying 14,000 tons on 20 ft. draught, built with a midship section practically rectangular, the coefficient frequently as high as .98, with about two-thirds of the entire length absolutely straight, giving a block coefficient up to .87. The triple-expansion machinery and boilers, designed to drive the boat at a speed of 12 m. an hour, are in the extreme stern, and the pilot house and quarters in the extreme bow, leaving all the cargo space together. Hatches are spaced at multiples of 12 ft. throughout the length and are made as wide as possible athwartships to facilitate loading and unloading. The vessels are built on girder frames and fitted with double bottoms for strength and water ballast. This type of vessel can be loaded in a few minutes, and unloaded by self-filling grab buckets up to ten tons capacity, worked hydraulically, in six or eight hours. The bulk freight generally follows certain well-defined routes; iron ore is shipped east from ports on both sides of lake Superior and on the west side of lake Michigan to rail shipping points on the south shore of lake Erie. Wheat and other grains from Duluth find their way to Buffalo, as do wheat, corn (maize) and other grains from Chicago. Wheat from the Canadian north-west is distributed from Fort William and Port Arthur to railway terminals on Georgian Bay, to Buffalo, and to Port Colborne for trans-shipment to canal barges for Montreal, and coal is distributed from lake Erie to all western points. The large shipping trade is assisted by both governments by a system of aids to navigation that mark every channel and danger. There are also life-saving stations at all dangerous points.

The Great Lakes never freeze over completely, but the harbours and often the connecting rivers are closed by ice. The navigable season at the Sault is about 71/2 months; in lake Erie it is somewhat longer. The season of navigation has been slightly lengthened since 1905, by using powerful tugs as ice-breakers in the spring and autumn, the Canadian government undertaking the service at Canadian terminal ports, chiefly at Fort William and Port Arthur, the most northerly ports, where the season is naturally shortest, and the Lake Carriers’ Association, a federation of the freighting steamship owners, acting in the river St Mary. Car ferries run through the winter across lake Michigan and the Strait of Mackinac, across the rivers St Clair and Detroit, and across the middle of lakes Erie and Ontario. The largest of these steamers is 350 ft. long by 56 ft. wide, draught 14 ft., horse power 3500, speed 13 knots. She carries on four tracks 30 freight cars, with 1350 tons of freight. Certain passenger steamers run on lake Michigan, from Chicago north, all the winter.

The level of the lakes varies gradually, and is affected by the general character of the season, and not by individual rainfalls. The variations of level of the several lakes do not necessarily synchronize. There is an annual fluctuation of about 1 ft. in the upper lakes, and in some seasons over 2 ft. in the lower lakes; the lowest point being at the end of winter and the highest in midsummer. In lake Michigan the level has ranged from a maximum in the years 1859, 1876 and 1886, to a minimum nearly 5 ft. lower in 1896. In lake Ontario there is a range of 51/2 ft. between the maximum of May 1870 and the minimum of November 1895. In consequence of the shallowness of lake Erie, its level is seriously disturbed by a persistent storm; a westerly gale lowers the water at its upper end exceptionally as much as 7 ft., seriously interfering with the navigation of the river Detroit, while an easterly gale produces a similar effect at Buffalo. (For physiographical details see articles on the several lakes, and United States.)

There is geological evidence to show that the whole basin of the lakes has in recent geological times gradually changed in level, rising to the north and subsiding southwards; and it is claimed that the movement is still in gradual progress, the rate assigned being ·42 ft. per 100 m. per century. The maintenance of the level of the Great Lakes is a matter of great importance to the large freight boats, which always load to the limit of depth at critical points in the dredged channels or in the harbours. Fears have been entertained that the water power canals at Sault Ste Marie, the drainage canal at Chicago and the dredged channel in the river Detroit will permanently lower the levels respectively of lake Superior and of the Michigan-Huron-Erie group. An international deep-waterway commission exists for the consideration of this question, and army engineers appointed by the United States government have worked on the problem.[3] Wing dams in the rivers St Mary and Niagara, to retard the discharges, have been proposed as remedial measures. The Great Lakes are practically tideless, though some observers claim to find true tidal pulsations, said to amount to 31/2 in. at spring tide at Chicago. Secondary undulations of a few minutes in period, ranging from 1 to 4 in., are well marked.

The Great Lakes are well stocked with fish of commercial value. These are largely gathered from the fishermen by steam tenders, and taken fresh or in frozen condition to railway distributing points. In lakes Superior and Huron salmon-trout (Salvelinus namaycush, Walb) are commercially most important. They ordinarily range from 10 to 50 ℔ in weight, and are often larger. In Georgian Bay the catches of whitefish (Coregonus clupeiformis, Mitchill) are enormous. In lake Erie whitefish, lesser whitefish, erroneously called lake-herring (C. artedi, Le Sueur), and sturgeon (Acipenser rubicundus, Le Sueur) are the most common. There is good angling at numerous points on the lakes and their feeders. The river Nipigon, on the north shore of lake Superior, is famous as a stream abounding in speckled trout (Salvelinus fontinalis, Mitchill) of unusual size. Black bass (Micropterus) are found from Georgian Bay to Montreal, and the maskinonge (Esox nobilior, Le Sueur), plentiful in the same waters, is a very game fish that often attains a weight of 70 ℔.

Bibliography.—E. Channing and M. F. Lansing, Story of the Great Lakes (New York, 1909), for an account of the lakes in history; and for shipping, &c., J. O. Curwood, The Great Lakes (New York, 1909); U.S. Hydrographic office publication, No 108, “Sailing directions for the Great Lakes,” Navy Department (Washington, 1901, seqq.); Bulletin No. 17, “Survey of Northern and North-western Lakes,” Corps of Engineers, U.S. War Department, U.S. Lake Survey Office (Detroit, Mich., 1907); Annual reports of Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries (Ottawa, 1868 seqq.).  (W. P. A.) 

  1. Statistical report of lake commerce passing through canals. Col. Chas. E. L. B. Davis, U.S.A., engineer in charge, 1907.
  2. Statistical report of lake commerce passing through canals, published annually by the U.S. engineer officer in charge.
  3. Report of the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, in Report of War Department, U.S. 1898, p. 3776.