1829 : Charles Thompson Harvey Born, Saint Mary’s Falls Ship Canal Builder

June 26, 2024 all-day

Soo Locks

Courtesy Chippewa County Historical Society

The State Locks are shown here in about 1865. Native American houses and fishing sheds populate the space between the locks and the rapids. The inset photo is of Charles T. Harvey, who convinced his bosses to bid on construction of the first U.S. lock and then oversaw the project.

Charles Thompson Harvey was born on June 26, 1829, in Westchester, Connecticut. His parents were Reverend Joseph Harvey and Catherine Dèsirè Seldon. He attended elementary school and later was enrolled in various academies, near Thompsonville, Connecticut. In 1852, he was in Northern Michigan recovering from a bout of typhoid and doing business as an agent and salesperson for the Fairbanks Scale Company. Harvey heard that Congress had passed an act granting 750,000 acres of federal land to any company which could build a canal around the Saint Mary’s Falls located at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

With his employers backing him, Harvey revisited Sault Ste. Marie and the Lake Superior region to investigate the economic benefits that could be gained with such a project. Based on his enthusiastic report, the owners of Fairbanks Scale Company, and several other investors joined in a contract to build the canal. Harvey was appointed as the general agent in charge of operations. Despite the fact that he was a salesman and accountant, he became the primary contractor and engineer. Learning on the job, he built the Saint Mary’s Falls Ship Canal, which opened in 1855.

With an eye to the future development of commerce, Harvey had urged that the locks be constructed to accommodate the largest steamboats on the lakes, and thus the Michigan act improved upon the law passed by the U.S. Congress by requiring two tandem locks 70 feet wide and 350 feet long. A survey and draft plans for the canal had been done by Captain Augustus Canfield of the U.S. Topographic Engineers, who volunteered his services without pay. His estimates amounted to $557,739.00!

Starting on June 4, 1853, Harvey encountered a number of unique obstacles while building the canal. The most prevalent was a readily available workforce that was not available locally. People were recruited in Detroit and New York, and then shipped to the Sault. At its peak of construction, between two to three thousand men were employed. Their living quarters and medical needs needed to be improved. The list of hardships kept on piling up and constantly threatening the project: labor disputes were frequent; cholera epidemics occurred in 1854; scandals, lawsuits; extreme working conditions during the winter months; jeopardized careers; disrupted schedules; and constant financial difficulties.

Despite major setbacks and unusual challenges to be overcome, the canal was built within 2 years, when certificates of completion were filed on May 24, 1955. The actual cost for the construction of the locks was $999,802.46! Over the budget increases were experienced, as an example, because of an additional one foot excavation beyond the 12 foot initial requirement, costing in excess of $100,000.00! The total expenditure for the excavation and filling of the locks amounted to $403,362.20; the masonry was $247,999.11, while salaries went over $33,000.00! A full accounting report was provided to the stakeholders in September 1858.

On May 31, 1855, the locks were turned over to the State of Michigan, for operation. The State Locks opened on June 18, 1855 and the Illinois with Captain Jack Wilson at the helm was the first locked up-bound to Lake Superior. On the same day, the steamer Baltimore with Captain John Reed passed through the locks, down-bound eastward.

After building the Soo Canal, Harvey became in 1859 the General Agent for the Northern Iron Company. He was instrumental in erecting a furnace for the construction of an iron fence on the southern shore of Lake Superior. He patented the coal kiln and also founded the town of Harvey, Michigan, while residing there during construction.

From 1863 to the end of 1864, Harvey served as Chief Engineer in the construction of the Peninsula Railroad. This became the first railroad to reach Lake Superior, extending from the headwaters of Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Marquette, Michigan.

Later in 1865, he settled in New York. One of Harvey’s major achievements was the construction of an experimental section of the world’s first elevated railroad, located in New York City. When he completed the project in 1868, his wife shared her husband’s enterprise by becoming the first female passenger. His rights to expand the project were suppressed by the “Tracy Clique,” which acquired a majority of the stock and thus forced Harvey out of the enterprise. Subsequently, Harvey spent over twenty-five years appealing his case in an effort to gain compensation for this elevated railway patent. Two bills dated in 1891 and 1892 were passed by the New York legislature for compensation in this matter, but both were vetoed.

The path to his final endeavors led him to the following enterprises: 1889, he was a member of the Advisory Board of Engineers for the Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua. Finally, in 1895, he became the Acting Chief Engineer for the Sault Ste. Marie and Hudson’s Bay Railroad Company, and later promoted to Manager and Chief Engineer in 1897.

His personal life was one of happiness, conquests, but yet sorrows. On June 10, 1858, he and his wife Sarah Van Eps were married in Utica, New York and raised seven children. Three of them survived to live to a ripe old age, Van Eps (1859-1924), Anna Emily (1866-1952), and Sarah Evangèline (1870-1934), while four passed away at a young age: Richard Seldon (1862-1864), Charles Henry (1864-1864), Walter Underhill (1867-1877), and Emily Lillian (1877-1878).

Harvey died in Manhattan County, New York on March 11, 1912, at the age of eighty-three. Sarah was born on April 19, 1858 in Vernon, Oneida, NY. She passed away on November 22, 1916 at the age of 77, at her residence in Memphis, Shelby County, TN. They are both buried in Vernon Village Cemetery, Vernon, Oneida, NY. May they all rest in peace.

Reposted from Charles Thompson Harvey – Canal Builder (1829 – 1912) Part 1, River of History Museum Blog

Bernie Arbic, Nancy Steinhaus, “How the Soo Locks Were Made“, Lake Superior Magazine, July 27, 2015.