Lakes of the World Lake Superior

About Lake Superior the largest fresh water lake in the world, history, size, and geography of the American lake.

LAKES

LAKE SUPERIOR

Lake Superior is the world's largest body of fresh water. Of all inland lakes and seas, only the Caspian is larger.

One third of Lake Superior lies within Canada, the other two thirds in the U.S. It is 383 mi. long and 160 mi. wide (31,820 sq. mi.). Its surface lies 602 ft. above sea level, and its maximum depth is 1,333 ft.

Superior is fed by 200 swift rivers. Its overflow waters are discharged to Lake Huron through the 62 mi. of the St. Mary's River.

The rugged northeastern shoreline is made up mostly of steep cliffs, 300-1,500 ft. high. America's southern shore is generally low and sandy except for the 300-ft. cliffs of Keweenaw Peninsula and the adjacent Munising area. The lake has numerous islands, the largest being Isle Royale, a national park.

Like the other North American Great Lakes, Superior was part of the Mississippi River's drainage system till the Pleistocene glaciers pushed the dirt around and dug deep depressions in the ancient Canadian Shield rocks.

The Chippewa Indians called the lake Gitche Gumee. French explorer Etienne Brule stumbled onto Gitche Gumee in 1623, while he searched for a passage to the Pacific. Fur traders moved into the area in 1659, and priests built the first mission six years later. The English built the first canal from Superior to Huron in 1798, but the Americans destroyed it during the attack on Canada in the War of 1812.

Today there are four American canals and one Canadian canal, which collectively handle over 22,000 ships during the eight navigable months of the year.

In the 1960s, Superior and the other Great Lakes had become so polluted by sewage and industrial effluents that the water was unfit for swimming. Fish literally suffocated from lack of oxygen. But in 1972 Canada and the U.S. signed an agreement to try to stop all pollution. Over 400 industrial plants were ordered to begin cleanup operations. Within only a few years, beaches reopened and the sturgeon, trout, and whitefish made dramatic comebacks. In 1976 U.S. News and World Report declared Lake Superior to be the cleanest of the Great Lakes.

Nov. 11 is Superior's unlucky day. On that day in 1913, a storm sank 12 ships, killing 254 people. Seventeen years later to the day, another storm disposed of 5 ships and 67 people. And in 1975 a large ore-ship, the Edmund Fitzgerald, broke apart in bad weather and took its 29-man crew to the bottom, again on Nov. 11.

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