When visiting Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, don’t miss the Soo Locks! Watch the video of our visit to Sault Ste. Marie and keep reading to learn all about the Great Lakes lock system here and how you too can visit!
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In this post we’ll share the best ways to see and learn about the Soo Locks!
About Sault Ste. Marie
Sault Ste. Marie is on the eastern side of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is known as “Michigan’s first city” and Michigan’s birthplace. There are lots of things to see and do here, especially as it pertains to the area’s rich maritime history, including the Soo Locks.
How To Get To Sault Ste. Marie
Sault Ste. Marie is located on the St. Marys River at an important crossroads linking the Great Lakes and the U.S. and Canada. Take a road trip over from northern Wisconsin, or drive up from Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Visiting Soo Locks
The Soo Locks are the locks between Lake Superior, connecting it through the St. Marys River, to the lower Great Lakes, and Lake Huron in particular.
Where To Watch
There is a large observation building in the Soo Locks park running along the canals and locks with several levels which is a really nice place to view the locks from. Definitely use this viewing platform to watch the activity at the locks. It has ramps that make it accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.
It’s especially nice because you’re elevated and can get a clear view both across and down into the locks. It’s covered and some areas are enclosed so you can be up there in all weather.
How To Know When Boats Are Coming
There are webcams that you can watch to see the activity at the locks. They might be a bit delayed because when we looked on the webcams after being at the Soo Locks for a bit, we were just then seeing a very large ship that we saw when we arrived quite a while before on the webcam.
But the most useful website is one that will show you the positioning of the boats. From monitoring this site, we could tell which ships were in the area and looked like they were going to come through the Soo Locks.
Near the end of our visit for example, we saw that there was another large 1000 footer about to come around the corner called the American Integrity. So we knew we wanted to wait for that ship and see it come in rather than leaving too soon and missing it.
The Visitor Center staff also post an estimated boat schedule.
In front of the observation platform is the Visitor Center which has tons of great information inside and exhibits we hear. But the month of our visit they happened to be closed Wednesdays and Thursdays which is when we were there. We highly recommend you come on a day when you can take advantage of the Visitor Center if possible.
But there is also so much information online. Their website is wonderful. They have a YouTube channel playlist. They have PDFs and PowerPoints that mimic a lot of the exhibits that are in the Visitor Center.
Definitely take a look before you arrive if you can because you will learn a lot of fascinating information that will enhance both your understanding of the Soo Locks and your experience.
The History of the Soo Locks
The first lock that you see nearest the observation platform is the MacArthur Lock followed by the Poe Lock and then the Davis Lock and the Sabin Lock as you look further across. The Davis and Sabin Locks are actually scheduled to be replaced with one lock that is the same size as the Poe Lock.
The Poe Lock is 1200 feet long and 110 feet wide. And even though the Poe and the MacArthur share the duty of the ships coming through, the Poe Lock sees the majority of the traffic. The MacArthur Lock is a little bit shorter and narrower at 800 feet long and 80 feet wide.
How They Started
The Soo Locks are a National Historical Landmark.
The first lock was opened in 1798, and it was actually a lock on the Canadian side. It was destroyed in the War of 1812 by the Americans. For the next 40 plus years all the boats had to be unloaded and cargo shipped around. The reason for that was that there were a series of rapids here. The rapids dropped 21 feet so it was impassable.
All the cargo had to be manually moved around until that first lock and then again for 40 years until 1855 when the first lock on the U.S. side, the State Lock, was constructed. The State Lock was operated by the state of Michigan until the year 1881 when it was transferred to the federal government.
Thereafter, the order in which they were constructed were:
- the Weitzel Lock in 1883,
- the original Poe Lock in 1896,
- Davis Lock in 1914 (closed in 2010),
- Sabin Lock in 1919 (also closed in 2010),
- MacArthur lock in 1943 replacing the Weitzel Lock,
- and current Poe Lock in 1969 replacing the original.
Now the Army Corps of Engineers works in tandem with the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Office to maintain the locks.
They do close yearly between part of January and March for preventive maintenance and inspection. The locks can even serve as a dry dock during this time.
How Boat Locks Work
The way the locks work is when a boat comes in from the low side and wants to go up, it enters the lock with the level of the water already low. They close the gates, pump in the water until it is at the level of the higher lake, and it passes through.
When a boat wants to go in the other direction, it comes in from the high side with the water level already up, and then they pump the water out until it is at the level of the lower lake, and it moves on.
Soo Locks Boat Tours
While visiting you may see much smaller boats going through the locks as well. You can take a ride on a tour boat and go through the locks both upbound and downbound.
Large Cargo Ships
For us it was most interesting to see the large cargo ships come through. A neat thing to think about is that the Poe Lock is 110 feet wide and the ship we saw was 105 feet wide. That means they get about two and a half feet margin for error on either side. That’s not very much and makes this seem even more impressive.
When the tour ships came through the locks, which are small in comparison, you could hardly see them. Just the very top of their masts were visible as came in from the low side until the water level was raised.
Comparatively, when a large ship comes in, you can see quite a bit of it. It was very impressive when they raised the water level and the massive ship comes up even higher towering above you.
We hope this convinces you to check out the Soo Locks yourself and learn more about the Great Lakes lock system!
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