Historical travel guide to the Soo Locks, where, each year, over 7000 ships travel from Lake Superior to global waterways.
During an economic boom in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, shipping from Lake Superior became imperative. The Lake is 7m higher than other Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, prompting the historic construction of the Soo Locks.
Name: The Soo Locks
Where: Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, USA-Ontario, Canada Border
Location: 46.502137, -84.350664
What to do: View massive ore freighters transiting from to/from Lake Superior.
Getting there: Walkable from downtown Sault Ste. Marie.
The waters of Lake Superior have a tumultuous and sordid history to them. They are one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world, despite its relatively remote location. For the last 200 years, boats shipping out the locally mined copper ore have passed through the Soo Locks.
Straddling the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northwestern Ontario, the Soo Locks provide a safe and efficient means for boats, ranging from small, personal craft to 1000-foot freighters to pass safely from icy waters of Lake Superior to the rest of the Great Lakes. From here, they can continue onto Chicago, Detroit, or even onward all the way to the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
The Story of the Soo Locks
Prior to the Soo Locks’ construction, the waters between Lake Superior and Lake Huron were impassable by boat due to the rough rapids of the Saint Marys River and the 21 foot (~6.4 meter) change in altitude between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. This hindered not only early exploration into Lake Superior, but the subsequent industries that were emerging based around mining and timber.
A Brief History of the Soo
Sault Ste Marie (pronounced “Soo Saint Marie” from its original French — and colloquially called “The Soo”) is one of the oldest European settlements in the Great Lakes. However, the violent waterway between Lakes Huron and Superior meant the section was nearly impassible, making an overland portage through the Sault settlement the only viable way of getting materials between the two lakes. This made the town an indispensable trading post throughout the entire colonial period but, along with the temperamental winters, did not allow for further large-scale settlement into the Lake Superior shoreline.
This began changing in the mid 19th Century. During this time, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hosted an economic boom based around its local natural resources, namely copper, iron, and timber. Not only did this birth new settlements where no exist prior, it brought in large immigrant populations, particularly from Cornwall and Finland who came to work the mines and lumberyards. However, these burgeoning industries needed a more efficient means to ship their cargo out than unloading on and off of trains — a labor- and time-intensive process known as portaging — which had been done up until this time.
A Century of Lock-Building
This rapid growth of these new industries prompted the construction of a canal to level and calm the rough rapids found in this narrow channel between the two Great Lakes. Along with this channel, the first lock in the Soo, known as the State Lock, began construction in 1852 and opened in 1855.
However, the State Lock soon became insufficient for the amount of commercial traffic passing through. Operation of the Soo Locks was handed over to the U.S. federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers in 1881. Since that time, several locks were subsequently constructed to allow ships up to 1000 feet (~305 meters) to be safely raised and lowered between the differing elevations of Lake Superior and Lake Huron. These are the Poe Lock (1896, expanded 1986), the Davis Lock (1914), the Sabin Lock (1919), and finally the MacArthur Lock (1943), which was the first constructed to handle ocean-going vessels that can also fit through the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
A single lock was also constructed on the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River in 1895 and has operated since. This lock is suitable for small and recreational vessels, but cannot accommodate large cargo ships.
With these locks constructed and natural obstacles cleared, freighters known locally as “Lakers” and “Salties” are now passing through, creating the busiest locks by cargo weight in the world. These ships can regularly be seen traversing Lake Superior in order to bring the iron and copper ores found along its shores to the rest of the world.
Visiting the Soo Locks
The heydays of the timber and mining industries around Lake Superior have long since past, with many of the thriving boomtowns now relegated to a fraction of their former glory or abandoned entirely with only ghost towns remaining. Influences from the rapid influx of these immigrant cultures still exist in institutions like Hancock’s Finlandia College or even the local delicacy of the Upper Peninsula, the Cornish pasty.
Sault Ste Marie remains a relatively vibrant town, along with Marquette farther west, and the Soo on the Canadian side is actually decently sized city — with both Soos housing a large university population. According to an anecdote I once heard from the locals, university students on the American side would cross to Canada to drink at age 19, while Canadian students would cross to Michigan to drink cheaply.
Approaching the Soo Locks from the Michigan side, Sault Ste. Marie’s unintuitive street plan and frustrating one-ways make the town center a bit confusing to drive around. However, the Soo Locks waterfront and the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge dominate the area and provide an easy way to orient yourself.
After finding a parking space along one of the town’s streets, it was a quick walk over to the Soo Locks Park, a riverside park alongside a heavily guarded border and operation area. This park contains a raised observation platform which provides a clear view of the locks in operation.
Although the mining industry is no longer what it once was, freighters shipping raw ore still utilize the Locks daily. If you happen to be there when one of the 1000-footers (actually up to 1,013 feet 6 inches — the largest ships in the Great Lakes) happens to be passing by, it is really an awe-inspiring sight to witness up close.
When viewed from the Soo Locks Park viewing platform, it looks as if a massive skyscraper is slowly passing you by. There will also be leisure and government boats using the locks at any given time as well, but no other viewing experience matches being so close to these massive freighters.
How to Get to the Soo Locks
GPS Coordinates: 46.502137, -84.350664
The Soo Locks Viewing Platform is located in Soo Locks Park along West Portage Ave, in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. While the can also be observed from the Canadian side, the park in Michigan gives the best up-close view from its elevated observation deck.
You can easily walk to Soo Locks Park from anywhere in downtown on the Michigan side.
Alternatively, there are boat tours available which take you through the U.S. Side of the Soo Locks. Tickets for these boat tours begin at USD 13..00 per person. These tours are only available during the warmer months from May through October.
More information on tours can be found at Soolocks.com
Massive ship used for transporting goods. Compared to a normal train car’s capacity of ~4,400 tons, a 1000-foot Great Lakes freighter can carry up to 40,000 tons.
A town nearly or entirely abandoned.
Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario located in North America along the U.S.-Canada border. Collectively these lakes hold 21% of the world’s fresh water.
The largest and deepest of the Great Lakes.
U.S. State bordering Canada and 4 of the 5 Great Lakes.
Most populous Canadian Province bordering the United Sates and 4 of the 5 Great Lakes.
Saint Lawrence Seaway
Waterway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.
Saint Mary’s River
River connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron and the St Lawrence Seaway.
Sault Ste. Marie
French settlement along the St. Mary’s River which served as an important trading post. Known locally as “The Soo”.
Artificial locks built in first built in 1855 to facilitate safe passage between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes.
The northern peninsula of Michigan.
Endonym for people inhabiting the Upper Peninsula (U.P) of Michigan.
- “9 Things You May Not Know About the Soo Locks.” Pure Michigan, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, www.michigan.org/article/trip-idea/things-you-may-not-know-about-soo-locks.
- Lange, Alex. “The Mighty Soo: Construction of the Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.” The Unwritten Record, National Archives and Records Administration, 5 Jan. 2017, unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2017/01/05/the-mighty-soo-construction-of-the-locks-at-sault-ste-marie-michigan/.
- Nordahl, Karen Grota. “Behemoths of the Great Lakes.” Door County Pulse, Door Country Livin, 29 June 2016, doorcountypulse.com/behemoths-of-the-great-lakes/.
- “Soo Locks History.” Detroit District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, www.lre.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/Soo-Locks-Visitor-Center/Soo-Locks-History/.
- “The Old State Lock” display. Tower of History Museum, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, United States.
- “The Soo Locks, Sault Ste Marie.” Sault Ste Marie CVB, 18 Oct. 2019, www.saultstemarie.com/attractions/soo-locks/.
We recently visited the Panama Canal. I didn’t expect to like it, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting places we visited on this trip. Now I’m all about locks! Great post.
It’s not something I’d really have thought either, especially after watching such large ships pass by in the distance on the Great Lakes so often. But seeing them passing by up close is quite the impressive sight.
Great post on the Locks, it’s an impressive system.
Very interesting. Thanks for the info!