Portage and Lake Superior Canals Records

Identifier: GLMS-0018

Collection Overview


The records in this collection partially document the operations of two canals constructed between 1860 and 1873 to connect Keweenaw Bay on the east side of the Keweenaw Peninsula to Lake Superior on the west. Under the 1890 River and Harbor Act, the U.S. government purchased both canals and made extensive improvements. Included in the collection is a daily journal (Aug. 1891-Dec. 1891) that describes the activities of the engineer in charge of the Portage Lake and Lake Superior Canal during the period when the federal government was improving the canal. Statistical registers (1898-1901, 1919-1929) record, by day, the names of vessels transiting the waterway, their tonnages, cargoes, and whether they were eastbound or westbound. The canals were of critical importance to the copper mining industry of the Keweenaw Peninsula.


  • 1891-1929


1 Reels (1 reel of 35mm microfilm)


Scope and Contents

Two types of records are included in this collection. A daily journal, covering the period August 9, 1891-December 11, 1891, describes the daily activities of the assistant engineer in charge of the Portage Lake and Lake Superior Ship Canal. Included is information on maintenance of the shipping channel, office procedures, and ship passages. The journal dates approximately from the time the federal government assumed control of the waterway, thus containing much information on the improvements made then. Inventories of federal property at the site also are included, as are some preliminary plans for harbor improvements.

The statistical registers (April 17, 1898-December 6, 1901; April 13, 1919- November 26, 1929) record, by day, the naems of the vessels transiting the waterway, their tonnages and cargoes, and whether they were eastbound or westbound. Included in the statistical register for 1898-1901 are summaries for the seasons 1897-1899, and 1901.

Agency History

The Portage Lake Ship Canal, linking Lake Superior's Keweenaw Bay, on the eastern side of the Keweenaw Peninsula, with Portage Lake, was opened in June 1860. It was constructed by several local individuals, who later organized the Portage Lake and River Improvement Canal. Its purpose was to provide easy water access to Lake Superior from Hancock, Michigan, an important copper-mining center.

In 1864, the Portage Lake and Lake Superior Ship Canal Company was incorporated, its purpose being the construction of a canal linking Portage Lake with Lake Superior on the western shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula. This waterway, together with the other canal, was to provide a water route completely across the peninsula. Excavations were carried out from 1868 to 1871, but in the latter year the company (by then known as the Lake Superior Ship Canal, Railroad and Iron Company) suffered financial problems and was dissolved. After litigation, the work was completed in 1873 and sold under a decree of disclosure. A new Lake Superior Ship Canal, Railroad, and Iron Company was organized to operate it.

Under the 1890 River and Harbor Act, the United States government purchased both canals for $350,000, after which it made extensive improvements. The waterway later was known as the Portage Lake and Lake Superior Canals, the Portage Lake Ship Canals, and the Keweenaw Waterway.

Conditions Governing Access

No known restrictions on access.

Conditions Governing Use

This collection is in the public domain.

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Existence and Location of Originals

The original Portage and Lake Superior Canal records are held by the Canal Park Museum in Duluth, Minnesota.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The records from the Portage Lake and Lake Superior Canals were loaned to the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University, for microfilming by the Canal Park Museum, Duluth, Minnesota.

Guide to the Portage and Lake Superior Canals Records
Mark Sprang
June 2018
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