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Great Lakes Article:

Low water levels in 1926 rival today's
Rick McGee
The Sault Star (Osprey Media)
Posted May 10, 2007

Anxious words from Sault Ste. Marie's top civic politician long ago could be spoken with as much relevance today.

"We are in the midst of a critical position in regard to the lake levels," said Mayor Thomas J. Irwin in the spring of 1926.

As temperatures climbed and winter ice melted away, shorelines around the upper Great Lakes stopped short of their traditional high-water marks. Lower-than-usual levels were clearly visible within the city and beyond its boundaries.

Data from the Canadian Hydrographic Office measured the changes in various ways. Lake Superior's May 1926 level was 0.77 feet below that of May 1925. Other calculations revealed that the big lake's depth was 1.82 feet below that month's 10-year average.

Similar patterns applied to Lake Huron, which had established a record May low one year earlier. But a new standard emerged in 1926 when the lake fell another 0.32 feet, placing it 2.21 feet below the average over a decade.

Eight-one years ago this spring, wharves east of the Sault rose six to eight feet above the water's surface. The normal distance would have been four or five feet.

Associated problems went beyond more difficult cargo and passenger transfers. Lower water levels left docks' supporting logs exposed to air and decay.

Conditions at Blind River made formerly routine landings a challenge.

Other tricky passages faced vessels moving through the "inside" channel between St. Joseph and Sugar islands, as well as the Wilson Channel east of Richards Landing.

Farther east, 1926 depths around Manitoulin Island often ended up three feet below chart listings. Shallow water prevented boats from docking at Kagawong to load shipments from the hamlet's paper mill. Sears, Roebuck & Co. had planned to use the mill's total output for catalogues.

Back in the Sault, International Joint Commission officials considered shutting down the rapids. Closing all compensating gates would have stopped the flow but at great cost to fishing stocks. Still, without heavy rain in the relatively near future, drastic action would have been necessary.

Tensions between Canada and the United States grew as the consequences of lower lake levels mounted. Economic impacts included having to lighten loads on freighters to prevent them from hitting bottom.

Differing theories tried to explain low water levels. Many people - from both countries - blamed Chicago and its diversion of water from Lake Michigan.

Criticisms accused the city of "stealing" water for the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Some Canadian engineers believed Chicago's existing diversion reduced the Dominion's waterways by six inches.

The American president of the Great Lakes Harbors Association shared that opinion. William G. Bruce visited the Sault and offered support:

"I trust that as far as the contest is concerned between you as Canadians and we as Americans, in the end justice will prevail and the water commerce will thrive and come into its own as it ought to."

Canada had other significant allies in opposition. Several states voiced strong opposition to Chicago's actions. A Michigan congressman called the Chicago Sanitary District (the regional authority) a "monster organization." Then he added, "Chicago has attracted world-wide fame because of its lawlessness [and] because of its gangsters. Those enemies of society are not the only lawless individuals of Chicago."

The Canadian government made every effort to protect the smaller nation's interests. The concept - offered by Americans - of paying for water used didn't sit well with Ottawa. "We are not asking for compensation for the diversion, we are asking for the water itself," said the Hon. Charles Stewart, minister of the interior.

Other approaches attempted to address differences through dialogue. Sault Rotarians seemed to hope an international organization built around goodwill could facilitate problem solving.

On behalf of the local club, J. W. Curran, editor and publisher of the Sault Daily Star, wrote to fellow Rotarians in Chicago. The letter read, in part: "Canada is now asking where Chicago's diversion of lake water is going to end. Is the treaty covering the disposal of Great Lakes water to be only a scrap of paper? What dependence can Canada even place on a U.S. treaty if this one (the 1909 Boundary Water Treaty) is to be ignored? Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, sees its future compromised by the lowering of the lake."

Curran's letter drew a testy response from E.O. Griffenhaggen, representing a prominent engineering and accounting firm in Chicago. "It is well known, among many engineers at least, that the diversion at Chicago has been responsible for only a very small fraction of the lowering of the lake levels in recent years," Griffenhaggen stated.

Later he noted: "If the diversion at Chicago were materially cut down, it would mean disaster and death. It would absolutely cut off any fresh water for a community of over three million people."

Griffenhaggen wasn't alone in minimizing diversion as a problem.

Climatic factors, some people argued, caused levels to drop.

Unusual spring weather complicated the situation for the Sault and area in 1926.

Reports from the Michigan Soo Weather Bureau indicated that the early spring of 1926 had been the driest in 38 years.

April 1926 had less than half an inch of precipitation. That amount compared with average April precipitation of over two inches. And 12 months earlier, April 1925 had turned out to be the driest on record since 1887.

April patterns continued into May when precipitation amounted to about half of normal. Then the trend continued into early June. But heavy rains during the month's second half rotted potatoes in farmers' fields and came close to damaging hay crops.

Lakes Superior and Huron began rebounding in 1927. By 1929 the depths of both had surpassed their long-term May averages.

Rick McGee is a history buff, who writes a column twice a month for The Sault Star about people and events of Sault Ste. Marie's past.

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