The heart of Soo is the water. St. Mary’s River supports a quiet, essential, environmentally clean industry: freighters shipping ore, coal, wood, wheat, to name just a few products, from Lake Superior, through the locks to Lake Huron, then either to Lake Michigan or Lake Erie majestically passing through the locks. As a youngster growing up in the Soo, at night the fog horns and the boat whistles, one long, one short, guiding the freighters to and through the locks would lull us children to sleep. Outside, in the still of the evening we could hear the rapids splashing head over heels on the rocks. With all this water, our drinking water was always cold and delicious. The air was fresh and clean.
It was very common for residents, as it still is today, to have a “cabin” to spend the summers and weekends. Such a luxury was not ours. Instead, we relied on either some one driving us to the beach or taking the bus. This was during the 1930’s and 40’s. For a very long trip we could get the bus at the corner of our house at Carrie and Johnson. With towels and swim suits we waited patiently for the bus. A shorter trip would be to catch to bus downtown. Our destination by bus was Sherman Park, or the Pumping Station where water was purified and send to the city for our use.
The park was fun for children because we could wade out quite a distance and be safe. There were play swings and slides and, of course, a concession stand. Often on Sunday families would gather there for a picnic so the mothers would catch up on the gossip of the past week as they guardedly kept an eye on their children.
Swimming was not the only delight for us. The river provided us access to the large park after walking across all four locks. There we could climb huge rocks and pretend we were the king of the castle. We looked for “clay babies” and Indian arrowheads and paused to watch the big kingfishers swoop down to catch a fish. We could actually see the rapids and had to shout to be heard. That was before the hydraulic plant hushed the rapids.
How generous can a river be? It gave us a chance to visit a foreign country by taking us “across the river to Canada” on the ferry boat. My father, Chris Gianakura, owner of the American Café, served many Canadians when they came to the Soo. He gave their Canadian money to my mother who saved until she had enough to take the family to Canada for a day visit. We walked from Carrie Street to the Portage Street dock. With a Canadian dime in our hands, we placed it on the ledge of the check-in window and then walked through the turnstile. Off we ran to the dock where the ferry boat was waiting for us. We couldn’t decide whether to stay on the main floor or mount the iron stairs to get higher for a better view. Cars rolled on to the ferryboat as the worker waved one car at a time. Seagulls flew about swishing close to us. They were looking for something to eat.
In no time at all, we were in a foreign country where the King and Queen of England were displayed everywhere; where we could buy English bone china teacups for $1.25; where we could buy English toffee in decorative tins and best of all, bite into a Butter Raisin Tart, catching the syrup with our fingers. This was an adventure that only the St. Mary’s River could provide and it was right in our back yard!
The locks were closed during World War II robbing us of our dearest pleasures. But these pleasures are now priceless memories and to this day, the St. Mary’s River never lets me forget them.