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Soo Locks Years of Service to Our Nation
Get a glimpse of maritime history at the Soo Locks, where freighters, barges, tugboats and more traverse the 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron every day.
The Soo Locks Visitors Center is open from Mid-May through Mid-October from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Vessel Recording: (906) 253-9290
For information off season please call the Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau: (906)632-3366
History of the Soo Locks
The Federal Government took control of the property and the lock system in the 1870's. Their stewardship continues today, administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Soo Locks are the busiest locks in the world, and include the largest lock in the Western Hemisphere, completed in 1968.
Throughout the colorful history and on into the future, the roots of our heritage go back to the native residents of the area.
The St. Marys River is the only water connection between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. There is 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. This natural barrier through navigation made necessary the construction of the locks project known as the St. Marys Falls Canal.
The world-famous Soo Locks form a passage for deep-draft ships around the rapids in the St. Marys River. Before white men came to the area, the Ojibway Indians who lived nearby portaged their canoes around the "Bawating" (rapids) to reach Lake Superior from the St. Marys River.
Early pioneers arriving in the territory were forced to carry their canoes a round the rapids. When settlement of the Northwest Territory brought increased trade and large boats, it became necessary to unload the boats, haul the cargoes around the rapids in wagons, and reload in other boats.
The First Locks
In 1797, the Northwest Fur Company constructed a navigation lock 38 feet long on the Canadian side of the river for small boat s. This lock remained in use until destroyed in the War of 1812. Freight and boats were again portaged around the rapids.
Congress passed an act in 1852 granting 750,000 acres of public land to the State of Michigan as compensation to the company that would build a lock permitting waterborne commerce between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. The Fairbanks Scale Company, which had extensive mining interests, in the upper peninsula, undertook this challenging construction project in 1853.
In spite of adverse conditions, Fairbanks' aggressive accountant, Charles T. Harvey, completed a system of two locks, in tandem, each 350 feet long, within the 2 year deadline set by the State of Michigan. On May 31, 1855, the locks were turned over to the state and designated as the State Lock.
Toll Pay and Federal Government
Boats which passed through the State Lock were required to pay a toll of four cents per ton, until 1877, when the toll was reduced to three cents.
Within a few years, commerce through the canal had grown to national importance, and the need for new locks became clear. The funds required exceeded the state's capabilities, and thus, in 1881 the locks were transferred to the United States government, and were placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has operated the locks, toll free, since that time.
Ships,Ships, and More Ships
The two active Locks, the MacArthur and the Poe, handle an average of 10,000 vessel passages per year, which means visitors are almost certain to get a glimpse of one or more of the many ships that ply the Great Lakes. From viewing stands situated at the Lock’s edge, enjoy an up-close-and-personal glimpse of life aboard freshwater and ocean-going freighters, some of which can carry as much as 72,000 tons of cargo in a single pass. In 2008, a stunning 80.6 million tons of cargo passed through this engineering marvel. Unique vessels are occasionally sighted, including tall ships, sailboats, cruise ships, and military crafts.
A stroll in the park
A few steps from the water’s edge, a serene park of shady grass, defined walkways, manicured gardens and a democracy of trees representing those found throughout the Upper Peninsula await you. Take command of a comfortable benche for freighter watching or stroll the length and breadth of this beautiful green space.
History comes alive
The story of the Soo Locks is a fascinating history lesson that comes alive in the Soo Locks Visitors Center. Illustrative displays and scheduled films tell the story of Native Americans, French explorers, fur traders and others who portaged canoes and cargo around the impassable rapids until the discovery of iron ore and copper in the Lake Superior basin led to the push for a more cost-efficient means of bypassing the rapids. This free facility is a must-see location, but don’t worry about missing some of the action in the Locks. The helpful staff monitor radio transmissions and are willing to share news of an arriving freighter.
Music to your ears
It is the definition of the perfect summer evening. The warmest months bring a certain artistic flair to the Soo Locks, when a weekly concert series is featured at the eastern end of the park. Free to the public, the annual series features a variety of music groups and entertainers. Bring a lawn chair and a sweater (this is the Soo, after all) and find your own grassy vantage point that combines music, water, and ships. The colorful, dancing waters of a nearby fountain provide a romantic backdrop and a not-to-be-missed photo op. When the concert is complete, there’s always an ice cream parlor or fudge shop beckoning from nearby.