The Soo Locks – Marvelous to Behold 9/6/2011

Ted and I met Barb Metting and Jim Deemer at the entrance to the St. Marys Falls Canal.  The first words out of Jim’s mouth, after the introductions, were to me.  “Please tell me you have some closed-toed shoes in your car,” he said, looking down at my sandaled feet.  My mouth formed a big “O”.

“I don’t!”  I said.  “Is there a problem?”

“I’m afraid you can’t go into some of the places we’re going today in open-toed shoes,” Jim said.

I glanced across the street and spotted a sign advertising moccasins on sale.  I grinned.

“I always wanted a pair of moccasins!”

Five minutes later I was the proud owner of a pair of genuine buffalo leather Minnetonka Moccasins!

Before we go inside the gate for our special tour, I think a little history lesson is in order.  I’d been hearing about the Soo Locks ever since we started coming to Michigan, but it was the Panama Canal Zone Locks I had studied in my high school history classes.  I knew nothing about these locks at the northern edge of the U.S.

The St. Marys River, which we looked across yesterday into Canada, is the only water connection between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes.  A section of the river known as the St. Marys Rapids, where the water falls about 21 feet from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes, creates a natural barrier to any vessel.  Long ago, the Ojibway (Chippewa) Indians, who lived in the area, would carry their canoes around the rapids to reach Lake Superior from the St. Marys River.

As European pioneers arrived, creating larger settlements with increased trading, the need for larger boats grew.  The pioneers would have to unload the boats, haul the cargo around the rapids in wagons, and then reload alternate boats on the other side.  Soon, the need to build a lock became apparent, and the world-famous Soo Locks were built to form a passage around the rapids in the river.

In the late 1700s a Canadian company built a lock on the Canadian side of the river, but it was destroyed in the War of 1812.  A private American company built locks on the U.S. side of the river in 1853.  These locks were turned over to the State of Michigan in 1855 and were designated the State Locks.  Even though the state charged a lockage toll, commerce grew, and the locks became important on a national level.

The locks were transferred to the U.S. government in 1881, giving jurisdiction over the locks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Whether the smallest passenger craft, or a 1000 foot freighter, the Corps operates the locks toll free to any vessel wishing to pass through the St. Marys Falls Canal.

There are four parallel lock chambers, each running east to west.  These are:

  • The Davis Lock, named for Colonel Charles E.L.B. Davis, Detroit District Engineer from 1904-1908.  It was constructed in 1914 and is 1350′ long.
  • The Sabin Lock, named for L.C. Sabin, the only civilian to serve as a Detroit District Engineer (1918-1919).  It was constructed in 1919 and is 1350′ long.  This lock is now closed.
  • The MacArthur Lock, named for General Douglas MacArthur.  Constructed in 1943, it is 800 feet long.
  • The Poe Lock, named for Colonel Orlando M. Poe, Engineer Officer during the Civil War, and twice assigned as Detroit District Engineer.  The Poe Lock was constructed in 1968 and is 1200′ long.

If you look toward the opening of this lock, there is a shelter with a slanted roof about half-way down the canal on the right. This is a public viewing area, and it sits very close to the MacArthur Lock. This is as far as the public can go, but it's a really great seat to watch the freighters come in and go out of that lock.

We crossed over the closed bridge of the MacArthur Lock to walk over to the Poe Lock, where a 1004' freighter is being raised to the level of Lake Superior.

Even photos can't begin to show how incredibly LONG this freighter is. I know it looks like it is just sitting on the cement, but it is actually inside the Poe Lock Canal. We stood still and watched a few moments, and we could see the freighter rising!

The gate in front of the freighter was still closed, and we were given permission to walk across it. We stopped in the middle to get this shot looking directly at the center of the ship. You can see just how close to the sides of the canal the ship is.

We were now on the north side of the Poe Lock where we went into this control center for the gates . . . .

. . . and now that the freighter has been raised 21 feet, the gates swing open, and she begins to move out of the canal.

As the James R. Barker slowly moved past us, Barb stood next to the railing to get a size comparison . . .

. . . then reached out and touched the ship as it slipped by.

How Does it Work?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's a diagram showing how the locks work. It's all about gates, valves, gravity, and water seeking its own level.

It was truly amazing how long it took for that freighter to pass the spot where we stood.

Finally, the stern of the freighter passed us . . .

. . . and the Poe Lock was empty once more.

At this point Jim asked if we’d like to go down UNDER the locks.  I said, “Define UNDER the locks, please.”

Jim explained that there are tunnels under the locks that are used sometimes to go back and forth between different areas and that also house important equipment.  He said there were ten flights of stairs down (which equates to ten back up – yes it does), but we were all game to give it a try.

The tunnels were narrow and damp. I could just imagine all that water over our heads, and all it would take would be one tiny little c r a c k . . . .

. . . but Jim assured us we were perfectly safe, and I believed him - even when he said we were now 90' underground and directly under the Poe Lock. Sure was glad that freighter had already moved on! Oh, by the way, Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs had been in these same tunnels a couple of years ago during the winter when the locks were closed. He shot an episode on cleaning the floors of the locks when all the water is drained out while the locks are inoperable.

Back above ground, our next stop was to be the Administration Building and the control tower, but while we were underground, another freighter, the J.W. Shelley, had entered the MacArthur Lock.

At the same time, a small pleasure boat had entered the Poe Lock from the West and was being lowered to the level of Lake Huron. Hanging on to the side of the canal as the boat is lowered keeps the small craft from rocking so much.

Again, the perception is that the ship in the MacArthur Lock is sitting on top of the ground, when actually the bottom of the freighter is many feet below groundlevel.

Once again, you can see what a great view the visitors in the public viewing stands have of the MacArthur Lock.

The inside of the Administration Building was like stepping back in time to the historical old courthouses in small Southern towns. The building was gorgeous and over 100 years old. You could tell it was being lovingly cared for.

Beautifully ornate . . .

. . . with fireplaces in almost every office . . .

. . . and a curved staircase with brass spindles. Wow.

View from a second story window.

For our last stop, we’d been given permission to go up to the control tower at the top of the Administration Building.  To reach it, the four of us squeezed into a tiny elevator and rode to the top of the tower.

The view from the tower control room was just spectacular. We watched as the J.W. Shelley sailed out of the lock and under the International Bridge into Lake Superior.

The "back" view - looking toward the lower Great Lakes - the U.S. on the right, and Ontario, Canada on the left.

Watching the freighter sail into the distance.

We learned that over 11,000 vessels, carrying up to 90 million tons of cargo pass through these locks every year.  Most cargo contained in these ships is either iron ore, coal, grain, or stone. 

The Poe Lock, the largest of the four locks, was rebuilt in 1968 to accommodate 1000 foot vessels.  It took six years to build and is the only lock ever rebuilt over an existing lock between two operating locks.

The Corps has plans to replace the Davis and Sabin Locks with a larger state-of-the-art lock, similar to the Poe Lock, to assist in handling the larger vessels of the Great lakes fleet.  The new lock will be the first lock built at the Soo since 1968.

The Hydropower plant, just north of the locks, generates more than 150 million kilowatt hours of electrical power each year to operate the locks.  Whatever power is not used at the locks is distributed to homes and businesses in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and surrounding communities.

What can I say?  It was an amazing, amazing tour, and one Ted and I will never forget.

Thank you so much, Jim, for your kindness, professionalism, and great knowlege about the Soo Locks. It was quite evident that you love what you do.

And thank you, Barb, for thinking this south Georgia girl just might like to write about this great area and for inviting Ted and I along. We loved every minute!

P.S.  On the last Friday of every June, the public can cross the lock gates and get a better view of how the locks work at the annual Engineers Day Open House.

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28 thoughts on “The Soo Locks – Marvelous to Behold 9/6/2011

  1. WOW!! All I can say is WOW! I’m gonna have to read this a couple of times to let this all soak in. What an amazing trip this must of been….I’m sure this is something you will remember for a long time….

  2. Very good job. You made it super interesting. You saw so much more than I saw a couple of years ago. So fascinating to see the inner workings of the locks. I really liked your Valley Camp article too.
    Have you taken a tour of the old (Mackinaw City) and the new (In Cheboygan) Mackinac Coast Guard cutters?
    I love your new moccasins too. (Bonus!) 😉

  3. Fantastic post, Brenda! I loved it!

    I meant to get up to the Soo Locks on my last trip north in May, but I just couldn’t get there. Thanks for letting me see it anyway!

  4. What a good job! Wow! These engineering wonders fascinate me. I love the news that they might rebuild another lock – great for us here in the lower Great Lakes! I’m so glad Barb invited you, and that you went, and that you told us about it with beautiful pictures. What fun! Thank you!

  5. Thanks for sharing your tour of the locks. I love visiting the locks and standing in the visitors area as the boat lock up and down. The pictures of the tour are great. Not sure I could have done the under water tunnel part. Barb thanks for sharing with Bree so she could share with all of us.

  6. Spectacular doesn’t begin to cover this. I’m always amazed at the complexity of a relatively simple idea. Great blog.

  7. Whew-I’m with Hilde-I’ll need to go back over this one to make sure I catch everything! I love the architecture of the Admin building. So beautifully preserved. I’d love to see someone slide down that bannister- that would be one heck of a ride…

  8. I want to send a big THANK YOU!!! to Jill for taking care of Bear and Maddie so Brenda and Ted could travel to the Soo that day. Your help was greatly appreciated!!! 🙂

  9. Nice write up on your visit to the Soo Locks, Brenda. It was a pleasure to give you, Ted and Barb the tour and, yes, I feel blessed to work at such a wonderful and historic place as is the Soo Locks. May you and Ted enjoy the remainder of the Michigan summer and have a safe and enjoyable trip down to Georgia later this Fall.

  10. Great post and I also LOVE that the JW Shelley was one of the boats in the post. I used to follow Boatnerd.com a lot and the boats/freighters. Back in the day my favorite boat was the Algocen. Word came around 2005 that it was going to be sold to scrap as many freighters do, especially older Canadian vessels which spent a lot of time in the salty Seaway area near Quebec and Montreal. We went to Port Huron, a whole group of us, to see the Algocen on her last trip down. After she unloaded in Montreal she was sold as a spoils/scrap storage barge to a company in New Jersey. Something like four years later the rumor was that the Algocen was coming back, it had been resold and flagged Canadian once again. The boat was brought back to the Great Lakes under the company Vanguard Shipping as the JW Shelley. I don’t think another time in history has a boat been sold to a scrap purpose like that then come back the the lakes. The Shelley/Algocen is a remarkable vessel with a remarkable story and still my favorite freighter!

    • Oh my gosh, Jeff, what a great story, and I’m so glad that was one of the freighters in the story! You know the most amazing things! Ever think of blogging?

      • Cool story, Jeff! My favorite old-school freighter is the Lee A. Tregurtha which, as you probably know, has also had several names, including the William Clay Ford.

      • I have thought about it but I don’t think I have enough discipline!

        Barb, yes the Lee A. had a few past names as a freighter, Walter A Sterling under the famed Cleveland Cliffs company and yes William Clay Ford under the Ford company. But her most interesting name was definitely USS Chiwawa as she did serve in World War II has a tanker before being converted to a freighter. Cleveland Cliffs had another one of these former tankers, Cliffs Victory. Another would be the Golden Hind. However the only two that remain are the Lee A Tregurtha sailing for Interlake and the American Victory, formerly the Middletown which sails for American Steamship Co. However she has been in long term lay-up since 2008. But the Lee A was recently converted to diesel and she has lots of years ahead of her on the lakes!

  11. Great post. Thanks for the lesson Bree and Jeff. Living near Lake Erie as a child I’d get a glimpse of the freighters once in a while. They still fascinate me. I’m going to ck out the site Jeff talks about. Thanks to both of you. Great photos, as usual Bree! I also love yesterday’s fog photos.

  12. Hello Brenda. I am Jim’s wife Sue. What a wonderful article! Such great photos too! Jim really enjoyed showing you guys around. You also did a great job of explaining the locks. I felt as if I were there!

    • Sue! Thanks so much for writing! We had absolutely the best tour anyone could ask for of the Soo Locks. Jim is a wonderful guide – so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his work. We loved every minute, and my readers have enjoyed their private tour so much. Thanks to Jim again for letting us tag along with Barb!

      • Hi Brenda! I forgot to mention — I love the shoe store pic. Jim felt so bad that you had to buy new shoes. They didn’t used to have that rule for all the other tours he’s given. I hope the moccasins were comfortable! 😉

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