The Soo Locks - The Jewel of Sault Ste. Marie
The Attraction for Visitors
The shipping locks in Sault Ste. Marie, (normally shortened to Soo Locks), are a marvel to behold! Located on the U.S., (Michigan), and Canadian border they are located in an area of unspoiled beauty. The thought of taking a ship that is 1000 feet long with a cargo of several thousand tons, elevating or lowering the ship so that it can continue its passage is something that draws thousands of onlookers each year.
The spectators range from tourists who make this the destination of their vacation, to more serious ship watchers that are often referred to as "boat nerds." Many people who come to this area are drawn by curiosity and are quickly overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the area along with the fascination of the locks..
Many of the local businesses in the area have a "Soo Lock" theme. Eateries have large windows where you can watch the ships while you dine on your Superior Salad or your scrambled eggs called Golden Locks. Motels in the area offer very good rates and many are right on the St. Mary's River as well.
As with all engineering projects, the Soo Locks were created out of need. In the photo above you can see the four locks on the Michigan side on the right, one small lock on the Canadian side to the left, and the rapids in the center.
The water comes out of Lake Superior at a height of 602 feet above sea level, and drops 21 feet as it covers the rapids and continues in to the St. Mary's River. Because of the rapids, this area has seen settlements for hundreds of years.
The Ojibwas settled in the area because food was plentiful, especially during the salmon runs in the early Autumn. When Father Jacques Marquette learned of the Ojibwa village, he built a Catholic mission here in 1668. The area quickly expanded to a fur trade center and has been an important settlement ever since. As the years passed, larger vessels inhabited the area that transported goods in and out of the area. Soon the need came for ships to travel greater distances. Ships had to get around the rapids some way.
Video done by Bob Kovac
The First Locks
The first lock was built in 1797 and was 38 feet long. It was on the Canadian side of the river and was built by the Northwest Fur Company. The lock remained in service until it was destroyed during the War of 1812.
The next lock that was built was in 1852 by the Fairbanks Scale Company. It was a set of 2 locks that were side by side and each lock was 350 feet long. Due to the amount of solid rock that had to be removed, the project was finished on schedule but was three times the estimated price. The locks cost just under $1,000,000.
Despite the cost, this proved to be a worthwhile project with growing copper, taconite, and gypsum mines in Michigan. The locks were run by the state of Michigan until the U.S. Army took them over in 1881. The total tonnage of iron ore that passed through the first year was 1,447 tons. 100 years later the estimated tonnage of iron ore that passed through was over 100 million tons.
Present Lock Configuration
The present lock configuration starting with closest to the rapids:
- Sabin Lock - Built in 1919, it is 1,350 feet long. It currently is not used and is in need of maintenance that would cost approximately $5,000,000 to get back in shape.
- Davis Lock - Built in 1914, it is also 1,350 feet long. This lock was last used in 2008 for about 14 days to handle extra vessel traffic. This lock along with the sabin lock may be combined into one larger lock to handle current vessel sizes.
- Poe Lock - Originally built in 1895 and later rebuilt in 1968 and is 1200 feet long and 32 feet deep. This lock handles the large 1,000 foot ships that carry taconite.
- MacArthur Lock - Built in 1943, it is 800 feet long. This lock is used by many ocean going vessels.
- Canadian Lock - Located on the Canadian side of the river. It is 77 feet long and used for pleasure craft and tour boats.
Navigating the Lock System
As a ship transits the St. Mary's River, there are "call" points where the ship's Conning Officer will make radio contact with the Lock Master to announce the vessels approach. This gives the Lock Master time to have the appropriate gate open with the needed water level. The Lock Master will radio back to the Conning Officer to confirm the correct lock for the vessel to use.
The vessel slowly enters the lock and when correctly positioned, the vessel will send mooring lines to the dock workers. Once secured, the gates of the lock close and the vessel constantly adjusts the strain on the mooring lines as it raises or lowers. Once the level is reached, the lock gate is opened. The vessel will retrieve its lines and continue its journey.
Each year, the locks will shut down for about a 10 week period. This is normally between January 15th and March 25th. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will empty all of the water out and do a thorough inspection, making repairs and cleaning out accumulated mud. During this time Lake Superior will be cut off from the other Great Lakes.
Workers will work in shifts around the clock to make sure everything is ready to go when the shipping season re opens. Sometimes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will use a lock as a dry dock for their vessels so that hull inspections can be made during this down time.
A Worthy Cause
The locks at Sault Ste. Marie have opened the gates of commerce for the United States as well as Canada. Places like Duluth, Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario are now opened up to the rest of the world by water. Taconite can be shipped to steel mills to be turned into things like automobiles and "I" beams to build buildings. Wheat and grain can be loaded onto ships and sent around the world. Paper mills can get their product sent to needed printing presses and the list goes on.
Even if you are not interested In international commerce, the Soo locks are a fascinating place to visit. I miss the days of piloting a ship through the locks. You can get a first hand experience of what is like by boarding a tour boat and locking through. A great experience indeed!