I couldn’t help it… the song “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot kept buzzing in my head as we stood standing on a steel platform some 25 feet from the ground, looking down onto the “Alcocen” freighter as it glided through the Soo Locks. This vessel had come up river from the St. Mary’s River, and had a load of cargo that needed to be delivered that would take him on a journey through the sometimes treacherous waters of Lake Superior. But in order for him to do this he needed the engineering marvel of the Soo Locks to make this voyage possible.
All boat traffic regardless of their size that flows into or out of Lake Superior must move through the locks of the St. Mary’s River, at Sault Ste. Marie. The St. Mary’s River is the only water connection between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes but with it’s 21 feet difference in water levels makes it impossible for boats to maneuver through the rapids without the help of the locks.
In the beginning, Ojibwa Indians would stop here, carry their canoes around the rapids just to reach Lake Superior, as these waters were crucial to their health and livelihood. The long hard winters took a toll on them and food was scarce, fish were plentiful here and was needed for their survival. Early pioneers arriving in this territory were also forced to carry their canoes around the rapids and later when settlement of this area brought increase trade as well as larger boats, wagons became necessary to haul cargo around the rapids to load onto other boats to Lake Superior. Therefore the need for the Locks became apparent and opened in June of 1855.
Today the “Soo Locks” have the distinction of being the busiest locks in the world with an average of 12,000 passages each year. All different size boats pass through the locks from small passenger boats to large freighters, some as long as 1000 feet. This facility is operated and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The locks operate most of the year, but are closed from January 15th to March 25th for yearly maintenance.
We could see the freighter entering the locks from the river side and quickly ran up the stairs of the steel platform for a better view. As it rose to the level of Lake Superior the ships magnitude seem to explode right in front of our eyes. We were now standing directly in front of this enormous vessel and ready to see it off on it’s journey towards White fish Point. It only took a few minutes it seemed for the locks to fill up with water to the level it needed to allow the “Alcocen” to continue on its way. We even got a friendly wave from the crew as it headed out….
On the grounds there is a very informational Visitors Center which has lots of fascinating material regarding the locks such as it construction, navigational charts, maps, artifacts, photographs as well as a working model of the locks. There is also a video that provides a historical perspective on the need and use of this maritime marvel that is very interesting to watch.
If you arrive and there is no ship currently using the locks then head to the Visitor Center to see the posted schedule of arriving ships, which also provide some general information about them as well like there size, the cargo it’s hauling, and its destination. TVs are also mounted on the walls so you can watch the vessels as they approach the locks from the St. Mary's River. The Visitors Center is open from 7am to 11pm from mid-May to November.
There are many park benches around the park to sit on and enjoy the ships as they sail on in, so don’t feel like you have to climb the steel platform to witness them. However, the observation platform will give you the best perspective and almost a birds-eye view. The grounds also offer several permanent outdoor artifacts as well as a model-size exhibit of the locks that we especially liked.
Also offered is a Soo Locks Boat tour that will take you through the locks, exactly like the huge cargo ships do. We didn’t do this, due to a time crunch, but my husband’s cousin worked his way through Lake Superior College by being one of the narrators on these cruises years ago. He said if you get an opportunity… do this, and experience first hand how and why these locks are so impressive.
There’s no doubt about it, the locks are a man-made marvel, and its waterway traffic system is the largest of this kind on earth. There is no where else in the US you can see huge freighters, within a few feet from you rise or fall some 21 feet in just a matter of minutes. So regardless of if you are into boats or not, this is definitely worth the visit if you are in the area.