This column has been updated at Feb. 1, 11:00 a.m.
“Whoa! Hold on a minute. What’s this up-the-line and down-the-line and over-the-river stuff?”
Our Toronto born and bred son-in-law stopped us short with that question. It was his initial visit to the Soo and, during a casual conversation at a family gathering, a look of bewilderment had gradually crept over this first-timer’s face.
It had started when someone allowed as how they had to go down the line the next day to their camp at Tunnel Lake.
“I’ve heard that Northerners call their cottages ‘camps’ and I imagine Tunnel Lake is a recreational body of water somewhere around here,” our guest blurted out, “but what the heck do you mean by down the line? And somebody also mentioned up the line and over the river. What line? What river?”
Having been born and raised in the Soo area, the rest of us burst out laughing at the consternation our “patois” was causing our visitor. It had never occurred to us until then that someone from “away” would find these expressions confusing. What ensued was a kind of parlour game where we decided to see how many local expressions we could come up with.
The result was a pretty fair starter list of words and phrases that could make life easier for visitors to and new residents of an area the Ojibwe – the indigenous Anishinaabe inhabitants of the region – originally called Baawitigong (Bawating), meaning "place of the rapids."
After the visit of fur trader and explorer Étienne Brûlé in 1623, the French called it Sault de Gaston in honour of the brother of King Louis XIII. “Sault” was the old Gallic word for rapids – or leaping waters – stemming from the original spelling of the verb “sauter”, meaning “to jump”.
In 1668, French Jesuit missionaries renamed it Sault Sainte-Marie, and established a mission settlement on the river's south bank – the present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Later, a fur trading post was established and the settlement expanded to include both sides of the river.
There – that’s the backstory of one of the oldest French settlements in North America. Now let’s set out a compendium, in no particular order, of useful key words and expressions that will have Soo neophytes chattering away like old-timers…
Down The Line – Highway 17 East from The Soo toward Blind River.
Up The Line – Highway 17 North from The Soo in the direction of Wawa.
Over The River – A short jaunt over the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge spanning the St. Mary’s River to the Canadian Soo’s twin city in Michigan.
The Magic Stick – The nickname given the lounge at a long-time watering hole, The Majestic Hotel, that thirsty Canadians would visit “over the river” once the bars had closed on the Ontario side of the border.
The Back Door – Another Sault Michigan lounge that enjoys a large Canadian clientele – especially the younger crowd – now that the border between the U.S. and Canada has reopened after the COVID pandemic.
Point A Par – The way local residents pronounce the French place name “Pointe aux Pins” (roughly translated as region of pine trees) – a cottage area about six miles west of the Soo on the St. Marys River that visitors often phonetically call Point Ox Pins.
Point Duh Sheen – Local pronunciation of the “Pointe des Chênes” beach area west of the Soo near the airport. In English, this translates more or less as expanse of oak trees.
Tie Plates – The “pizzelle” that made Sault Ste. Marie famous! Pizzelle is the Italian name for a crisp, flat, anisette-flavoured confection, with the root word “pizze”, roughly translating as round and flat – ergo another familiar word “pizza”. But only in Sault Ste. Marie, you say? Yup. As the story goes, Italians settling in the Soo in the early part of the 20th century weren’t able to find pizzelle irons that they’d used back home to bake one of their favourite treats. To overcome the problem, they “borrowed” a substitute from the workshops at the Algoma Central Railway – a metal contraption that held steel rails firmly to the wooden ties on the railbed. The name “tie plates” thus came into existence.
Genettis – The nickname for Anginetti or Italian Wedding Cookies. They’re more widely known in Northern Ontario by this moniker than elsewhere. Bakers in Southern Ontario usually give you a blank stare when you ask for genettis. The ones our daughter makes resemble large, cream-coloured half walnut shells, also anisette-flavoured, and topped with a thin vanilla icing.
The Bug Lab – The Great Lakes Forestry Centre on Church Street was built in 1945 in response to a massive outbreak of the tree-killing spruce budworm. The building was a joint effort between the provincial and federal forestry departments, with the province providing the building and the federal government supplying the staff and equipment.
Steelton – A former town that amalgamated with Sault Ste. Marie in 1918. The Steelton area is roughly bounded by Carmen’s Way in the west, North Street in the east, Bay Street to the south and the Second Line to the north.
Buckley, Bayview and Tagona – Areas in the west end of Sault Ste. Marie where early newcomers settled in order to be close to their jobs at the Algoma Steel Corporation.
Jimmy Street – A thriving commercial area in the city’s west end for many years that has since lost some of its lustre due to urban renewal. It’s actually called James Street and, with its proximity to the steel plant, it is thought to have been named in honour of Sir James Dunn, whose financial wizardry saved the steel works from bankruptcy in the mid-1930s.
Korah and Tarentorus – Two townships that amalgamated with The City of Sault Ste. Marie in 1964. Korah was located to the west of the original municipality and Tarentorus was situated to the northeast of the pre-amalgamation city – which more than doubled its size when the three entities merged.
The P Patch – With streets called Pentagon Boulevard, Palace Drive, Princess Crescent, Passmore Road, Pinemore Boulevard, Pawating Place and Partridge Court, it shouldn’t take newcomers very long to figure out how this subdivision in the former Township of Tarentorus in the city’s northeast got its nickname. The pickle-picker Peter Piper would feel right at home here.
The Vic – If you never had the privilege of sipping a cold draft on a hot afternoon or evening at the venerable House of Chow – The Victoria House tavern at the corner of Bay and Queen Streets – you really missed out on an important part of the Sault’s heritage. An existing hostelry on the site was purchased by Hong (Charlie) and Fu Chow in 1920, and this popular watering hole would eventually be run by their sons – John, Albert, Joe, Jimmy and King. More information on this long gone and much lamented pub can be found in an earlier SooToday article here.