From Superior to Huron via the Soo Locks
12 Sep 2011
|We got underway shortly after 8:30 this morning to drive the 50+ miles north to go on the tour of the Soo Locks, located in Sault Ste. Marie. For those non-Michigan residents, “Sault” is an Indian tribe in the area and it is pronounced like the woman’s name – Sue! It is also a name given by early French explorers for “falling water”. Whenever we told anyone we were going to be in the UP, nine times out of ten we would be asked if we were going to visit the Soo Locks!
One little interesting tidbit about “Sault”, as the locals call their northern sister city, is that it is the second oldest city in the United States, only behind St. Augustine in Florida and we are staying in the third oldest city, here in St. Ignace, founded and established in 1671!
Sault Ste Marie is the location of the Soo Locks that links Lakes Superior and Huron. At the foot of Whitefish Bay, grand Lake Superior narrows to a close at the St. Mary’s River, the sole waterway that connects it to the other Great Lakes. Because Lake Superior is twenty-one feet higher than the others, the St. Mary’s River naturally erupted into a series of falls and rapids. The Army Corps of Engineers maintain the locks and a visitor’s center near where the tour boats depart several times a day, rain or shine. AND, we were thinking twice about going on the scheduled 10:00 tour we planned to join – as soon as we left St. Ignace, we were socked in a fog that literally was like “pea soup” and so thick it was scary driving (spoken from the passenger’s perspective here). But, after reaching the ticket office we both decided “we’re here, let’s just do it” and we did!
Back in the mid 1800s, approximately fifteen ships had been portaged around the rapids, but as the shipping capacity on the big lake continued, it became apparent a canal would become a reality and the state built a set of locks to by-pass the St. Mary’s Rapids. The two-lift or tandem locks were each 350 feet long, 70 feet wide and 13 feet deep. Back when this was all first developing, the cargo size was 132 tons of iron ore, now more than 150 years later, the sizes have increased to over 70,000 tons! Hard to fathom, leastways for me!
We got on-board the Nokomis – built in 1959 by Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The vessel is 65’ long and 25’ wide. Nokomis is the Native American grandmother of Hiawatha in Longfellow’s epic poem “Hiawatha” – the poem contains the legends and stories of the Chippewa Indians in the Sault area. The tour was to last for two hours taking us through the U.S. lock system and then into the Canadian waters and their locking system. Along the way the captain and crew pointed out various areas of interest along the journey and the large manufacturing companies that exist along the American and Canadian shores; equally dependent upon one another for various services provided.
After the perfunctory introductions of the crew and the safety features, we were underway and the skies were starting to “lighten up” just a tad and at least we weren’t experiencing anything liquid falling from the skies. We chose to sit on top to take advantage of the over cover and hopefully facilitate better pictures too! We cruised by the many points of interest with the first being the Tower of History, a 210’ concrete triple observation town containing five observation platforms enabling visitors to see (on a clear day) 15-25 miles in all directions. It is also a memorial to the early French missionary explorers, who arrived in the area over 300 years ago. It was also pointed out to us that we were “parked” by the Edison Sault Power Plant – this plant was built in 1902, at a cost of $6M. It is one-quarter mile in length making it the longest horizontal power plant in the world with 74 turbines that can produce a maximum output of 40 megawatts of electric power – the average output is 26 megawatts – and yes I copied that!
We reached our first lock shortly after we were underway. There are four locks in the Soo Lock System, the lower gates are painted black and the locks are numbered one through four from left to right. We entered Lock number one. It opened in 1943, is named the MacArthur, after the General and is 800 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 31 feet deep at this level. The walls are 12 feet thick at the top widening to 36 feet thick at the bottom. Ten million gallons of water are required to raise the vessel to the upper level in this lock – or twenty-one feet to raise us from our entry point on Lake Huron to the Lake Superior level of the St. Mary’s River. The other three locks are the Poe, Davis and Sabin and all named after someone either in maritime history or with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Sabin is now inactive. The Soo Locks consist of two canals and three locks with the Sabin now being inactive and allow vessels of all sizes to go through this system heading east or west – and the lock used is dependent many times of the size of the particular vessel.
It was fun was to watch folks who had never experienced this before watching the water level rise and seeing more and more of the people in the viewing platforms alongside the locks. Once all the water was replaced, the gates opened and on we went with our tour. A few interesting tidbits shared by the captain during our wait was hearing that no tolls are charged to any ship of any nationality to use these locks. The American locks are operated entirely toll free by the U.S. Corps of Engineers with funds provided by the United States Government.
Naturally the locks are only operational pretty much from late spring through early winter depending on the weather of any particular year. But certainly has proven to be one of the more cost effective ways of commercial shipping vessels today. The savings is a staggering $455M to the nation. And the one most interesting fact to us was the knowledge that from the time a vessel leaves Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior to the time it reaches the Atlantic Ocean they traverse through a change of over 600’ in elevation from Lake Superior to the St. Lawrence Seaway. From Sault Ste. Marie it is over 1600 miles and takes an average vessel over six days to complete the journey!
We also went through the Canadian Locks, first through the ‘Old Canadian Lock’ where you could see the gates to the original Canadian lock, painted red and constructed from Douglas Fir from British Columbia. From there, we continued on the canal to the ‘New Canadian Lock’ and the canal narrows. The gates closed behind us, the filling valves at this end of the lock will be closed, and the emptying valves at the far end of the lock will be opened; which will allow the water in the lock to flow under the gates and returning or, or dropping us back down twenty-one feet to the Lake Huron level once again. And we proceed forward to our final destination; home port!
We enjoyed our two hours spent going through the locks of the United States and Canadian sides of the Soo Lock System and found it most interesting to experience. Hope you have enjoyed the experience along with us as well.
Till the next time . . .