History of the Trans-Canada #17 Wawa to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario
Following the war, construction on the missing segment of Highway 17 between Schreiber and Sault Ste. Marie proceeded slowly; in the meantime, the completion of Highway 11 between Nipigon and Hearst already provided a road between the east and west.
Highway 17 from Schreiber east towards Wawa had been under construction since the mid-1930s, but the harsh rugged terrain of Lake Superior's north shore had prevented swift completion of this highway. Similar difficulties were encountered highway 17 was extended northwards from Montreal River Harbour when it reached the mountains north of Agawa Bay. This left a gap of 165 miles between the Agawa River, about 150 miles north of Sault Ste Marie, and Marathon, appropriately called "The Big Gap".
However, in 1949 the federal government signed the Trans-Canada Highway Act, which provided up to a 90% subsidy to provinces to complete their portion of the highway to the required standards. Two portions of Ontario's route were eligible for this subsidy: Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Sudbury, and Highway 17 along the north shore of Lake Superior.
Amongst some of the most difficult terrain encountered in Canada, engineers blasted 2,087,234 cubic metres (2,730,000 cubic yards) of rock, removed 5,982,641 cubic metres (7,825,000 cubic yards) of earth, and cleared 6.97 square kilometres (1,720 acres) of forest in order to bridge the 266 kilometres (165 mi) of wilderness known as "the Gap".
The "Big Gap" area was rugged, inaccessible, and still had stands of virgin timber, which required the clearing of a 50 metre (150 ft) right-of-way, even before road construction could begin. The first clearing contractor quit the job in frustration, and a second had to be hired. The area had a number of deep gorges, sprawling swamps and wide rivers that needed to be crossed by 25 newly-built bridges to be built.
The Gap was completed and opened to traffic on September 17, 1960, and the stretch of the Trans-Canada between Sault Ste Marie and Wawa is completed and officially opened n 1962, when the Sault-Ste. Marie International Bridges opens.
Wawa is the Ojibwa word for wild goose, and is the name of a small mining community at the west end of Wawa Lake. The town and lake lie on a flat sand plain, which is is one of a series of terraces formed when, during the retreat of the glaciers, Lake Superior basin waters were much higher.
Wawa began as a gold rush town in 1896, following the discovery of a vein of gold by William Teddy, an Indian resident while on a Sunday picnic outing. After the gold boom, interest shifted to sources of iron ore, which was shipped, after initial refining, to the steel plant in Sault Ste Marie. Most is shipped by rail, with some shipped via lake freighters from the ore docks at Michipicoten Harbour to the Sault.
Since the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway, Wawa has become an important tourist center. Everyone takes photos of the giant Canada Goose statue. The surrounding forests and lakes abound in wildlife, particularly moose, beaver, bear and waterfowl.
About 10 miles (16.0 km) north of the southern boundary of Lake Superior Park, a short access road on the west side of the highway takes us to a rugged and picturesque trail leading to Agawa Rock, which rises 100 I't (3,048.0 cm) above Lake Superior.
At its base are 35 Indian rock paintings or pictographs said to illustrate the story of an Indian war party from the south shore of Lake Superior, that destroyed an enemy village near here 150 years ago. The first mention of these pictographs in literature goes back to the early 1800s in a collection of Ojibwa folklore made by Henry Schoolcraft, a United States Indian agent of that era, which were the basis for Longfellow's epic poem Hiawatha,
At Agawa Bay, there is a scenic stop with a panoramic view of Agawa Bay and its islands. Agawa means "making for safety. The islands, the bay and the river mouth must have provided the Indians with welcome sheltered water along this fairly straight shoreline.
The 65-mile (104.0-km)-long Montreal River, which empties into lake Superior at the village of Montreal River through what appears to be a crack in the earth's surface. This opening into the lake is actually an eroded dike, made of igneous rock that was injected (while molten) into a fissure and over many years, eroded faster than the surrounding granite, creating a steep-walled canyon for the river.
Three are four hydroelectric generating stations on the river, which supply power to Sault Ste. Marie area residents and industry. Historically this river had one of the few known populations of river-spawning lake trout which lived in Lake Superior.
Mamainse is the site of ancient Indian copper mines, which may have been worked as long ago as 6000 B.C. Copper ornaments from Lake Superior were traded throughout North America before the arrival of the Europeans. Etienne Brule, the first white man to visit lake Superior, carried news of the copper back to the King of France in 1623. but mining did not begin until 1772. At Mamainse, a mine was opened in 1889. and for 5 years a bustling community of 400 existed on this site. When the ore ran out the people moved to similarly shorUived communities along the shore.
The lighthouse commemorates the Charles Hibbard, a lake freighter which sank off these rocks in 1902. Before roads and railroads were built, miners, loggers and settlers relied on the lake for their link with the south. From December through April, these people were isolated. During the spring and fall, winds sweeping the length and breadth of Lake Superior made travel dangerous. Many boats were swept ashore in storms.
Pancake Bay and Batchawana Bay are shallow, protected, and-the warmest along the eastern shore, and have a cluster of cottages. Lying above the narrow shoreline band of sandstone are the hills of the Shield, with some of the highest elevations in Ontario, with peaks reaching 2200 ft (670.5 m) above sea level.
Pancake Bay was named by fur traders, who camped and had a pancake breakfast here, at the mouth of the Pancake River. The provincial park and campground here is great for year-round recreation, and has. over 100 miles (160.0 km) of snow machine trails.
"Batchawana" comes from the Indian word Obajewunung meaning "narrows and swift waters there", which referring to the swift-flowing river flowing into Lake Superior through a narrow mouth. A Hudson's Bay Company fur trading post was built here near the mouth of the Batchawana River in 1824 to collect beaver pelts from the Ojibwa. A community of 200 grew up around the post, but famines and a decline in the number of pelts available forced the closing of the post in 1894. The town has grown because of copper mines. logging operations, and tourism.
There is a plaque at this point marking the halfway point of the Trans-Canada Highway
Here the rounded granite hills of the Canadian Shield rise suddenly from the surrounding lowland. This is a zone of lakes, waterfalls and streams, many of which have been stocked with trout to supplement declining fish populations. In low· lying areas, swamps, marshes, fens and bogs provide a wide variety of habitats for waterfowl. shore birds, moose and beaver. Maple forest dominates the higher ground, while white birch is common on the poorer sites and pine on exposed ridges. Timber stands in this area were first logged over a century ago, and the wood was brought to Sault Ste. Marie for processing.
Mile Hill affords an excellent view across the lowlands that were once inundated by Lake Superior. The cool. moist microclimate of the valley floor provides suitable habitat for conifers such as black spruce, jack pine and white pine. Hardwood forests flourish on the surround· ing hills. Through this valley meanders the Goulais River. with little elevation to give it a more direct Course. On a crisp. clear winter night. as you climb Mile Hill. if you listen carefully you may hear the mournful howl of the brush wolf in the distance.
Sault Ste Marie Bypass
In 2007, Highway 17 bypass was completed with a four lane at-grade expressway, to bypass a number of small communities on the St Mary's River, from the east end of Sault Ste. Marie to east of Echo Bay. This route has a path cleared west to continue the expressway to Great Northern Road heading north of Sault Ste Marie, to be built at a future time.
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