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Soo Locks - a Wonder of Engineering and Human Ingenuity

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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. 

They are legendary in the maritime world - a group of mighty Locks that have provided safe passage and a vital shipping connection within the Great Lakes for nearly 160 years. But they are so much more. They are a wonder of engineering and a living, breathing history lesson. They provide a flight of fantasy as one imagines the highs and lows of a life spent on the seas. They are the destination for nearly 1 million visitors annually - each taking something different and fresh away from the experience. How can something so old feel so new? Visit and see for yourself!

Whether tracing the path of a 1,000-foot freighter aboard a tour boat or watching the action from the observation platform located within Soo Locks park, first-timers and old-timers alike flock to the Soo Locks to see vessels haul vital cargo and share a wave and a smile with the merchant mariners aboard these massive ships.

The first State Lock was built in 1855. Up until then, explorers, fur traders, and Native Americans portaged their canoes and cargoes around the rapids. Everything would change when a 21-foot drop in water levels was rendered less important with the construction of a Lock. Much has been written about the history of this impressive facility.

During its first year of operation, the canal was navigated by 27 vessels. In recent years, nearly 5,000 vessels pass through the Locks annually hauling 86 million tons of cargo.  The four Locks operated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers - the Davis, Sabin, MacArthur, and Poe locks - continue to provide the much-needed connection between Superior and Huron. Currently, all ships utilize the larger Poe (1,200 feet) and MacArthur (800 feet) locks.

The Soo Locks Visitors Center is open from Mid-May through Mid-October from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Wondering when the next ship is anticipated? Call the Vessel Recording: (906) 253-9290 
 

For information off-season please call the Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau: (906)632-3366

 

Visit our Sault Boat Watching Blog (seasonal)

The First Locks

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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.

The Federal Government and the Soo Locks

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photo by John Shibley/LSSU

The Federal Government took control of the property and the lock system in the 1870's. 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.

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. The region's earliest days, 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 also 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.

See the Ships & Explore the Park

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Observation Platform, as seen from Portage Avenue

From a brand-new observation platform 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. Unique vessels are occasionally sighted, including tall ships, sailboats, cruise ships, and military crafts. The observation platform features both enclosed and open air areas and is handicap accessible. The park, observation platform, and visitors center are all open to the public and free of charge.

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 are found. Whether walking the park or relaxing on a bench, visitors enjoy a peaceful day in Soo Locks park.

Also on the grounds, the historic 1899 U.S. Weather Bureau Building houses the administrative office home of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Open year-round, the building offers a public exhibit, museum store sales area, and access to the Shipwreck Society’s noted Great Lakes Images and Papers Collection.

Friends and Facts at the Soo Locks Visitors Center

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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.

Concerts in Soo Locks Park

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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.

Are You Ready for Locks Quest?

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Are you ready for Locks Quest?
Laugh and learn while exploring Soo Locks Park
 
     Pass through the gates of Soo Locks Park and come face to face with 159 years of maritime history. But there’s more to see and do than just watch the freighters, barges, and tugboats as they navigate the 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Mom and Dad may appreciate the MacArthur Lock and the Poe Lock and the 86 million tons of cargo that pass by viewing platforms every year, but what’s a kid to do?
     Locks Quest is a simple scavenger hunt of sorts, challenging kids and adults to find the answer to 26 questions by exploring the beautiful grounds and informative visitor’s center at the Soo Locks. To get your questions, just open the file below.

Soo Locks Lock Quest Questions