When did the idea for a local park begin?
Many years ago, the areas of Pointe des Chenes and Gros Cap were being considered as potential park locations. Both being located on the shores of Lake Superior, Pointe des Chenes was eventually chosen. The realization of a park didn’t come to fruition for more than a decade after its conception.
In 1938 the Pulp and Sulphite Worker’s Union and the Algoma Steel Workers Union sent letters to the Minister of Land and Forests in the Ontario Cabinet.
City council had also chosen a committee of three men to join in and support the union’s request, which was to ask the province of Ontario if they could purchase the land. The committee consisted of Harry Waite (Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Local 2251 United Steelworks of America), Alvin Virene (local businessman) and Arnold Upper.
Being very invested in the dream, Harry Waite was given an aerial view of the parcel of land along the upper St. Mary’s River, when he was taken on a flight by the famous bush pilot, George Phillips.
Other community members also made their voices known. Their collective desire was to have the property operate as a park by the municipality of the City of Sault Ste. Marie. Having the park would ensure that local citizens would have access to a free, outdoor space for themselves and their families to enjoy.
However, at that time, the municipality was not allowed to purchase land that was outside of its own boundaries.
The idea of a park was also brought forth to Sir James Dunn and due to his influence and efforts, the provincial government also began to warm up to the idea. In spite of a number of challenges, it seemed as though Sault Ste. Marie would finally get its park but unfortunately, another roadblock occurred. All plans were halted with the declaration of World War II.
When the Second World War ended and as life eased back into normalcy, the idea of the park still lingered.
On July 27, 1945, the Minister of Transport in the Federal Government, the Hon. C. D. Howe gave permission to the City of Sault Ste. Marie that they could have their park but with stipulations. The proposed, nearby airport, had to be considered and therefore, no tall buildings could be constructed on the property as they could interfere with air flight.
There was overwhelming excitement on August 28, 1950, which marked the official opening of Point des Chenes Park!
Although the name (in English) means Oak Point, there are not many oak trees left on the property but mainly white birch, soft maple, balsam and spruce. Most of the oak burned in fires well over 100 years ago.
This tract of approximately 71 acres of wooded land is located along the upper St. Mary’s River. Hosting a beautiful sand beach, the property (which also includes the now-closed campground) reaches approximately three-quarters of a mile along the riverfront and reaches back inland about half a mile.
On its official opening day, as many as 1000 people attended its grounds. This jewel of land would draw families and friends together for years to come!
An article in the Sault Star in 1957 stated that the park was taking shape and was described as one of the finest public parks wholly owned by any Ontario city. Its chief attraction being its close vicinity to Sault Ste. Marie.
Throughout the years of the park’s operation, there have been many efforts to implement unique amenities for people of all ages and diversities.
Back in the early 1950s, sturdy picnic tables and barbecue pits were placed among the trees, a large playing field intended for games of all sorts and public washrooms were also available.
In the 1970s, a city bus made regular trips to the park for those who didn’t have cars and wished to escape the summer heat.
Day camps for children were run there too where children could learn water safety and canoeing skills in the cool shallow waters off of the sandy beach. Even horse-drawn carriage rides were offered for a time.
Thomas Johns of Heritage Livery in Prince Township was granted approval to operate a horse-drawn carriage service back in 1983 at a cost of $5 for adults and $2.50 for a child.
In September 1971 an erosion control program took place in an effort to keep the beach sand from eroding. This is where the need for breakwaters came from and the construction of wooden groynes were followed by the construction of nine long stone cages also known as gabion baskets. Visitors to the park beach can see that the gabions are still in place today.
Storms on the Great Lakes can compare to hurricanes in their intensity and the one that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975, had sustained winds of 67 mph, with gusts up to 86 mph, and waves reported up to 35 feet according to another vessel in the area that survived the storm. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Whitefish Bay about 17 miles from Point des Chenes Park.
The park weathered this historic storm but did not come out unscathed. A huge amount of erosion took place overnight, ripping up many of the shore’s trees and eroding the beautiful sandy beach.
In 1977, the City of Sault Ste. Marie received a Wintario grant for $13,500 to help open up Pointe des Chenes Park to handicapped persons. The grant almost covered the $15,000 cost of ramps and four-foot walkways that connected the parking lot, the shelter, the washroom the store and the swimming areas. Visitors of all abilities enjoy the paved walkways to this day and might not realize that this was a deliberate act of inclusivity over 40+ years ago.
Over the years, Pointe des Chenes has been extremely popular, being a go-to destination on a hot summer day. In the 1960s, 3,000 sun-worshipers daily was a common occurrence, and numbers swelled even higher on holiday weekends.
At the official opening ceremony of Pointe des Chenes Park, Alderman Robert Conway is quoted as saying, “This park is a silent symbol of the peace and beauty Canada’s private citizens long for so desperately, they are willing, as a nation, to fight for them.”
In addition to his sentiments The Rt. Reverend W. L. Wright, Lord Bishop of the Algoma Diocese of the Church of England in Canada, read the dedication and pronounced the benediction, “We must remember, that this grand park has been given to us for the refreshment of body, mind and soul!”
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.