Harbors of the Great Lakes

IN a recent article upon “ The Great Lakes,”1 we remarked, that, from the conformation of their shores, natural harbors are of rare occurrence. Consequently, for the protection and convenience of commerce, a system of artificial harbors has been adopted by the Federal Government, and appropriations have been made from time to time by Congress for this purpose; and officers of the United States Engineer Corps have been appointed to carry on the work. It is to some extent a new and peculiar kind of engineering, caused by the peculiar conditions of the case.

Most of the lake-towns are built upon rivers which empty into the lakes, and these rivers are usually obstructed at their mouths by bars of sand and clay. The formation of these bars is due to several causes. The principal one is this: — The shores of the lakes being usually composed of sand, this is carried along by the shore-currents of the lake and deposited at the river-mouths. Another cause of these obstructions may be found in the fact, that the currents of the rivers are constantly bringing down with them an amount of soil, which is deposited at the point where the current meets the still waters of the lake. A third cause, as we are told by Col. Graham, in his Report for 1855, is the following : —

“ Although the great depth of Lake Michigan prevents the surface from freezing, yet the ice accumulates in large bodies in the shallow water near the shores, and is driven by the wind into the mouths of the rivers. A barrier being thus formed to the force of the lake-waves, the sudden check of velocity causes them to deposit a portion of the silt they hold in suspension upon the upper surface of this stratum of ice. By repeated accumulations in this way, the weight becomes suflicient to sink the whole mass to the bottom. There it rests, together with other strata, which are sunk in the same way, until the channel is obstructed by the combined masses of ice and silt. In the spring, when the ice melts, the silt is dropped to the bottom, which, combined with that constantly deposited by the lakeshore currents, causes a greater accumulation in winter than at any other season.”

These bars at the natural river-mouths have frequently not more than two or three feet of water; and some of them have entirely closed up the entrance, although at a short distance inside there may be a depth of from twelve to fifteen or even twenty feet of water.

The channels of these rivers have also a tendency to be deflected from their courses, on entering the lake, by the shore-currents, which, driven before the prevailing winds, bend the channel off at right angles, and, carrying it parallel with the lake-shore, form a long spit of sand between the river and the lake.

Thus, in constructing an artificial harbor at one of these river-mouths, the first object to be aimed at is to prevent the further formation of a bar; and the second, to deepen and improve the riverchannel. The former is attained by running out piers into the lake from the mouth of the river; and the latter, by the use of a dredge-boat, to cut through the obstructions.

These piers are formed of a line of cribs, built of timber, and loaded with stone to keep them in place, and enable them to resist the action of the waves. They are usually built about twenty or twenty-five feet wide, and from thirty to forty feet long. They are strengthened by cross-ties of timber, uniting together the outward walls of the crib. Piles are usually driven down into the clay, inside of these cribs, and they are covered with a deck or flooring of plank. As the action of the currents is constantly tending to remove the bed on which the cribs rest, and thus cause them to tilt over, their bottoms are constructed in a sort of open lattice-work, with openings large enough to allow die stones with which they are loaded to drop through and supply the place of the earth which is washed away.

The effect of these piers is to concentrate and deepen the river-channel, and to retard the formation of bars, though they do not wholly prevent it. In the spring it is often necessary to employ the services of a steam-dredge-boat to cut through the bar, before vessels can pass out.

The portion of these cribs above water is found not to last more than ten or fifteen years; so that it is now recommended to replace them with piers of stone masonry, wherever the material is easy of access.

As to the cause of the shore-currents which produce this mischief, Col. Graham says, in one of his Reports,—

“ The great power which operates to produce the littoral or shore currents of the lake is the prevailing winds; just as the great ocean current called the Gulf Stream is produced by the trade-winds. The first-mentioned phenomenon is but a miniature demonstration of the same principle which is more boldly shown in the other. The wind, acting in its most prevalent lakeward direction, combined with this littoral current, produces the great power which is constantly forming sand-bars and shoals at all the harborentrances on our extensive lake-coasts. To counteract the effect of this great power, upon a given point, is what we have chiefly to contend for in planning the harbor-piers for all the lake-ports intended to be improved. The point which an engineer first aims at, in undertaking to plan any of these harbor-works, is to ascertain as nearly as possible the direction and force of the prevailing winds.”

The length of the Chicago piers is as follows:—North pier, 3900 feet long, 24 feet wide; south pier, 1800 feet long, 24 feet wide; and they are placed 200 feet apart.

Harbors of this kind have been constructed at Chicago, Waukegan, Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Manitoowoc, Michigan City, and St. Joseph, on Lake Michigan; at Clinton River, on Lake St. Clair; at Monroe, Sandusky, Huron, Vermilion, Black River, Cleveland, Grand River, Ashtabula, Conneaut, Erie, Dunkirk, and Buffalo, on Lake Erie; at Oak Orchard, Genesee River, Sodas Bay, Oswego, and Ogdensburg, on Lake Ontario.

For Lakes Huron and Superior it is believed that no appropriations have been made, the scanty population of their shores not seeming as yet to demand it, and those two lakes having in their numerous groups of islands more natural shelter for vessels than Michigan or Erie.

Besides these river-harbors, Col. Graham recommends to Government the construction at certain points on the lakes of sheltered roadsteads, or harbors of refuge, to which vessels may run for shelter in bad weather, when it may be difficult or dangerous to enter the rivermouths. These are proposed to be made by building breakwaters of crib-work, loaded with stone, and extending along the shore in a sufficient depth of water to admit vessels riding easily at anchor under their lee. Many lives and much property would undoubtedly be saved every year by such constructions; for it is a difficult matter for a vessel to enter these narrow rivers in a heavy gale of wind, and if she misses the entrance, she is very likely to go ashore.

Another very important work to the navigation of the lakes is the deepening of the channel in Lake St. Clair.

Between Lakes Huron and Erie lies Lake St. Clair, a shallow sheet of water, some twenty miles in length, through which all the trade of the Upper Lakes is obliged to pass. At the mouth of the river which connects this lake with Huron, there is a delta of mud flats, with numerous channels, which in their deepest parts have not more than ten feet of water, and would bo utterly impassable, were not the bottom of a soft and yielding mud, which permits the passage of vessels through it, under the impulse of steam or a strong wind.

Mr. James L. Barton, a gentleman long connected with the lake-commerce, thus wrote some years ago upon this subject to the Hon. Robert McClelland, then chairman of the House Committee on Commerce : —

“ These difficulties are vastly increased from the almost impassable condition of the flats in Lake St. Clair. Here steamboats and vessels are daily compelled in all weather to lie fast aground, and shift their cargoes, passengers, and luggage into lighters, exposing life, health, and property to great hazard, and then by extraordinary heaving and hauling are enabled to get over. Indeed, so bad has this passage become, that one of the largest steamboats, after lying two or three days on these flats, everything taken from her into lighters, was unable, with the powerful aid of steam and everything else she could bring into service, to pass over ; she was obliged to give her freight and passengers to a smaller boat, abandon the trip, and return to Buffalo. Other vessels have been compelled not only to take out all their cargoes, but even their chains and anchors have been stripped from them, before they could get over. To meet this difficulty as far as possible, the commercial men around these lakes have imposed a tax upon their shipping, to dredge out and deepen the channel through these flats.”

Col. Graham, in one of his Reports to the Department, writes as follows upon the importance of this improvement in a military point of view : —

“ Since the opening of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal, the only obstacle to the cooperation of armed fleets, which in time of war would be placed upon Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron, with that which would be on Lake Erie, is at St. Clair flats. That obstacle removed, and a depth of channel of twelve feet obtained there, which might be increased to sixteen or eighteen feet by dredging, war-steamers of the largest class which would probably be placed on these lakes would have a free navigation from Buffalo at the foot of Lake Erie to Fond du Lac of Lake Superior.

“ It would be very important that these fleets should have the power of concentration, either wholly or in part, at certain important points now rendered impracticable by these intervening flats. It would no doubt often be important as a measure of naval tactics alone. It would as often, again, be equally necessary in coöperating with our land-forces. It might even become necessary to depend on the navy to transport our land-forces rapidly from one point to another on different sides of the flats.

“When a work like this subserves the double purpose of military defence in times of war, and of promoting the interests of commerce between several of the States of the Union in time of peace, it would seem to have an increased claim to the attention of the General Government. If any work of improvement can he considered national in its character, the improvement of St. Clair flats, in the manner proposed, may, it is submitted, justly claim to be placed in that category.”

The pian proposed by tlie United States Engineers for this improvement is to construct two parallel piers of about four thousand feet long, as a permanent protection to the channel-way, and to dredge out a channel between these piers, six hundred feet wide and twelve feet deep. The cost of this work is estimated at about $533,000. This may seem a large sum of money; but when it is considered that the value of the commerce which passed over these flats in the year 1855 was ascertained by Col. Graham to be over two hundred and fifty millions of dollars, or considerably more than the whole exports of the Southern States for the year 1860, more than a million of dollars per day during the period of navigation, and that the increased charge on freights by reason of this obstruction is more than two millions of dollars per annum, which of course has to be paid by the producer, the investment of one quarter of that annual charge in a work which would do away with the tax might seem to be a measure of economy.

To show the importance of these lakeharbors, and the vast amount of commerce which depends upon them, and which has grown up within the last twenty years, we will give an extract from another of Col. Graham’s very interesting Reports, upon the Chicago harbor.

“ The present vast extent and rapidly increasing growth of the commerce of Chicago render it a matter of absolute necessity, in which not only Illinois, but also a number of her neighboring States are deeply interested, that her harbor should be kept in the best and most secure state of improvement, so as always to afford, during the season of navigation, a safe and easy entrance and departure for vessels drawing at least twelve feet water.

“ The States which are thus directly interested in the port of Chicago are New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The shores of all these are washed either by Lake Michigan or the other Great Lakes, with which Chicago has a direct and very extensive commerce through the St. Clair flats. The other States and Territories, which do not reach to the Great Lakes, but which are nevertheless greatly interested in the preservation of Chicago harbor, are Iowa and Missouri, and Nebraska and Kansas. A very large portion of the wheat and other grain produced in those last-mentioned States and Territories will be brought by railroads to the port of Chicago, to be shipped thence to the Eastern Atlantic markets.

“ The average amount of duties received annually at the Chicago custom-house for three years, 1853, ’54, and ’55, was $377,797.86. The imports at Chicago for 1855 were, —

By lake shipment, $100,752,304.41

“ Illinois and Michigan Canal, 7,426,262.35

“ Railroads, 88,481,497.90

Total Imports in 1855, $196,660,064.66


By lake shipment, $34,817,716.32

“ Canal, 79,614,042.70

“ Railroads, 98,521,262.86

Total value of exports in 1855, $212,953,021.88

“ Aggregate value of imports and exports at Chicago in the year 1855, $409,613,086.54.2

“ These statistics have been obtained by much labor and perseverance, with a view to the strictest accuracy. The result has amply justified the labor; for the published statistics of this commerce, which have gone forth to the country through the newspaper-press of the city, fall far short of its actual extent. On discovering this fact, I felt it to be a matter of duty to obtain the information directly from the only authentic sources, namely, the custom-house, mercantile, and warehouse records.

“ Such are the claims which, in a civil point of view, are presented in behalf of the preservation of this harbor.

“ There is still another, of not less magnitude, which is exclusively national. It is the influence it would have on the military defence of this part of our frontier, and the success of our arms in time of war. A single glance at the general map of the United States will be sufficient to show the importance of Chicago as a military position in conducting our operations in defence of our northwestern frontier in time of war.

“ The great depth to which Lake Michigan here penetrates into a populous and fertile country totally devoid ot fortifications would constitute an irresistible inducement to an enemy to aim with all his strength at this point, should he find it divested of any of the chief means of defence which are by all nations accorded to maritime ports of chief importance, He would find Chicago very much in such a state of weakness, if the harborworks here are allowed to fall into a dilapidated condition; for then our naval force would not itself be secure in hovering about this port, or in cruising in its immediate vicinity for purposes of military defence. There is scarcely a week in the year that a fleet might not have, occasion to take refuge from the lake-gales in a safe harbor. Deprived of this advantage, the only resort would be to take the open sea, and there buffet out the storms. On their subsiding, this defensive fleet, on attempting to resume its proper position, might find it occupied by an enemy, with all the advantages, in a combat, which ought to be secured to our side.

“ An enemy, once possessing this harbor, could by a powerful fleet cover the landing of an army in pursuit of the conquest of territory, or designing to lay heavy pecuniary contributions upon the inhabitants. Peace is the proper time to prepare against such a catastrophe, and the protection of the harbor is the first element In the military defence that should be attended to. With the harbor secured permanently in good condition, the port of Chicago, through the enterprise of the people of Illinois and the surrounding States, will possess the elements of military strength in perhaps a greater degree than any other seaport in the Union.

“ The immense reticulation of railroads, amounting to an aggregate length of 2720 miles, which are tributary to this port, now daily brings into Chicago the vast amount of agricultural produce exhibited in our tables. These are their peace-offerings to other nations. In the emergency of war, however, these railroads could in a single day concentrate at Chicago troops enough for any military campaign, even if designed to cover our whole northwestern lake-frontier. Besides this, they would be the means of bringing here, daily, the munitions of war, and, above all, the necessary articles of subsistence and forage, to sustain an army of any magnitude, and to keep it in activity throughout any period that the war might last. In other words, Chicago would be in time of war the chief point d’appui of military operations in the Northwest.”

In regard to the military importance of the command of the Great Lakes, history ought to teach us a lesson. At the breaking out of the War of 1812, this matter had been entirely neglected by our Government, in spite of the earnest appeals of the officer in command in this quarter. The consequence was the utter failure of the campaign against Canada, and the capture of the principal posts in the Northwest by the British, who had provided a naval force here, small, indeed, hut sufficient where there was no opponent. It was not until the naval force organized by Commodore Perry swept the British from Lake Erie that General Harrison was able to recover the lost territory. From these considerations, the importance of strong fortifications in the Straits of Mackinac, to command the entrance of our Mediterranean, would seem to be evident.

The early advocates in Congress of these lake-improvements had to encounter a very violent opposition from various quarters.

First, the abstractionists of the Virginia school— men who “would cavil for the ninth part of a hair” —affirmed in general terms, that this Government was established with the view of regulating our external affairs, leaving all internal matters to be regulated by the States; and then, descending to particulars, declared, that, while Congress had the power to make improvements on salt water, it could do nothing on fresh. Furthermore, they argued, that, to give the power of spending money, the water must ebb and flow, and that the improvement must be below a port of entry, and not above. Another refinement of the Richmond sophists was this : — If a river be already navigable, Congress has the power to improve it, because it can “regulate” commerce ; but if a sand-bar at its mouth prevents vessels from passing in or out, Congress cannot interfere, because that would be “ creating,” and not “regulating.” Other Southern orators and their Northern followers denounced these appropriations as a system of plunder and an attack upon Southern rights, forgetting the fact, that, in these harbor and coast appropriations, the South, with a much smaller commerce than the North, had always claimed the larger share of expenditure. Thus, from 1825 to 1831,

New England received $ 327,563.21

The Middle States, including the Lakes, 982,145,20

The South and Southwest. 2,233,813.18

Others joined in this opposition, from ignorance of the great commerce growing up on the lakes; and frequently, where bills have been passed by Congress, Southern influence has caused the Executive to veto them. In spite of all these obstacles, however, this great interest forced itself upon the attention of the country; and in July, 1847, a Convention, composed of delegates from eighteen States, met in Chicago, to concert measures for obtaining from Government the necessary improvements for Western rivers and harbors. This body sent an able memorial to Congress, and the result has been that larger appropriations have since been made. Still, however, much remains to be done, and it appears by the last Report of Colonel Graham, that his estimates for necessary work on lake harbors and roadsteads amount to nearly three millions of dollars, to which half a million should be added for the improvement of St. Clair flats, making an aggregate of three and a half millions of dollars, which is much needed at this time, for the safe navigation of the lakes.

It may be remarked, in this connection, that the lakes, with their tributary streams, are furnished with nearly a hundred light-houses, four or five of which are revolving, and the remainder fixed lights,— Lake Ontario having eight, Lake Erie twenty-three, Lake St. Clair two, Lake Huron nine, Lake Michigan thirtytwo, and Lake Superior fourteen.

When we say that Chicago exports thirty millions of bushels of grain, and is the largest market in the world, many persons doubtless believe that these are merely Western figures of speech, and not figures of arithmetic. Let ns, then, compare the exports of those European cities which have confessedly the largest corn-trade with those of Chicago.

1854. Bushels of Grain.
Odessa, on the Black Sea, 7,040,000
Galatz and Brailow, do., 8,320,000
Dantzic, on the Baltic, 4,408,000
Riga, do., 4,000,000
St. Petersburg, Gulf of Finland, 7,200,000
Archangel, on the White Sea, 9,528,000
Chicago, 1860, 30,000,000

or three-quarters of the amount of grain shipped by the seven largest corn-markets in Europe ; and if we add to the shipments from Chicago the amount from other lake-ports last year, the aggregate will be found to exceed the shipments of those European cities by ten to twenty millions of bushels. Will any one doubt that the granary of the world is in the Mississippi Valley?

The internal commerce of the country, as it exists on the lakes, rivers, canals, and railroads, is not generally appreciated. It goes on noiselessly, and makes little show in comparison with the foreign trade; but its superiority may be seen by a few comparisons taken from a speech of the Hon. J. A. Rockwell, in Congress, in 1846.

In the year 1844, the value of goods transported on the New York Canals was $92,750,874

The whole exports of the country in 1844 99,715,179

The imports and exports of Cleveland the same year amounted to the sum of $11,195,703

The whole Mediterranean and South American trade, in 1844, amounted to 11,202,548

And if, as we have shown, the trade of one of these lake-ports, in 1855, amounted to over four hundred millions, we may safely claim that the whole lake-commerce in 1860 exceeds the entire foreign trade of the United States.

A few statistics of the lake-steamboats may not be uninteresting. They are taken from Mr. Barton’s letter, above referred to.

“ The ‘ New York Mercantile Advertiser,’ of May—, 1819, contained the following notice: —

“'The swift Steamboat Walk-in-theWater is intended to make a voyage early in the summer from Buffalo, on Lake Erie, to Michilimackinac, on Lake Huron, for the conveyance of company. The trip has so near a resemblance to the famous Argonautic expedition in the heroic ages of Greece, that expectation is quite alive on the subject. Many of our most distinguished citizens are said to have already engaged their passage for this splendid adventure.’

“ Her speed may be judged from the fact that it took her ten days to make the trip from Buffalo to Detroit and back, and the charge was eighteen dollars.

“In 1826 or ’27, the majestic waters of Lake Michigan were first ploughed by steam,—a boat having that year made an excursion with a pleasure-party to Green Bay. These pleasure-excursions were annually made by two or three boats, till the year 1832. This year, the necessities of the Government requiring the transportation of troops and supplies for the Indian war then existing, steamboats were chartered by the Government, and made their first appearance at Chicago, then an open roadstead, in which they were exposed to the full sweep of northerly storms the whole length of Lake Michigan.

“In 1833, eleven steamboats were employed on the lakes, which carried in that year 61,485 passengers, and only two trips were made to Chicago. Time of the round trip, twenty-five days.

“ In 1834, eighteen boats were upon the lakes, and three trips were made to Chicago. The lake-business now increased so much, that in 1839 a regular line of eight boats was formed to run from Buffalo to Chicago.

“ In 1840, the number of steamboats on the lakes was forty-eight. Cabin-passage from Buffalo to Chicago, twenty dollars.”

About 1850 was the height of steamboat-prosperity on the lakes. There was at that time a line of sixteen first-class Steamers from Buffalo to Chicago, leaving each port twice a day. The boats were elegantly fitted up, usually carried a band of music, and the table was equal to that of most American hotels. They usually made the voyage from Buffalo to Chicago in three or four days, and the charge was about ten dollars. They went crowded with passengers, four or five hundred not being an uncommon number, and their profits must have been large. The building of railroads from East to West, such as the Michigan Central and Southern lines, and the Lake Shore and Great Western, soon took away the passenger-business, and the propellers Could carry freight at lower rates than those expensive side-wheel boats could pretend to do. So they have gradually disappeared from these waters, until at present their number is very small, compared with what it was ten years ago, while the number of screw-propellers is increasing yearly, as well as that of sail-vessels.

Great as is this lake-commerce now, it is still but in its infancy. The productive capacities of most of the States which border upon these waters are only beginning to be developed. If in twentyfive years the trade has grown to its present proportions, what may be expected from it in twenty-five years more ?

The secession of the Gulf States from the Union, and the closing of the Mississippi to the products of the Northwest, could we suppose such a state of things to be possible, would still more clearly show the value of the lake-route to the ocean.

Run the line of 36° 30° across the continent from sea to sea, and build a wall upon it, if you will, higher than the old wall of China, and the Northern Confederacy will contain within itself every element of wealth and prosperity. Commerce and agriculture, manufactures and mines, forests and fisheries,— all are there.

  1. See Atlantic Monthly for February.
  2. This is more than half of the value of all the exports and imports of the Union in the year 1860, King Cotton included.