Central to the story of Sault Ste. Marie is the St. Marys River, now designated a national heritage river. This waterway is at the heart of a network that has transported people, animals, and goods for millennia.
The 6.4m-drop (21 feet) at the west end of the river is the only connection between Lake Superior and the rest of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This unique geography played a fundamental role in the development of the region. Historically, the St. Marys River rapids caused travellers to stop here and move goods over land around the dangerous waters. Originally called Baawitigong, or “the place of the rapids,” many different Indigenous peoples gathered in this area from time immemorial to rest, fish, and trade.
It was French explorer Étienne Brûlé who introduced the term “Sault” to the area, naming it Sault de Gaston after the King of France’s brother in 1623. This antiquated French word is generally agreed to refer to the rapids. In 1668, Jesuit priests renamed it Sault Sainte Marie (or Sainte Marie du Sault), from which the present-day name of the City derives.
Located at the base of the rapids, the City has grown from its origins as a natural meeting place. The river is still a lifeline of the region, forming part of a multi-modal transportation network that connects Sault Ste. Marie to the rest of the world. It is a driving force of industry, shipping, energy, and recreation. Although Sault Ste. Marie now looks quite different from the ancient gathering point, it remains a meeting place of cultures to this day, with local residents and tourists hailing from all over the world to enjoy the area’s beauty and bounty. Experience the richness of the City’s three converging cultures – Indigenous, Francophone, and Anglophone – as well as that of many newcomers from dozens of countries around the globe.
Click to view the timeline where you can learn more about the history of the Sault area.
Did you know?
Items made from local copper, as well as local plants, have surfaced all over North America. They are evidence of the vast trading networks that have existed across the continent for millennia.
In the 1600s, the St. Marys River was called Winnebago River, and Lake Superior was called Lake Winnebago.
Decades ago, horse-drawn sleigh races were held on the St. Marys River when it froze over in the winter. Giddy-up!