Soo Locks – Freighter Elevator

Soo Locks Sault Ste. Marie Michigan

The Soo Locks are the four waterways to the left. The

largest lock, the Poe, is second from the left.

Soo Locks Sault Ste. Marie Michigan

A small powerboat enters the lock from Lake Superior.

Soo Locks Sault Ste. Marie Michigan

The gates close behind the boat so it is now sitting in

a private bathtub.

Soo Locks Sault Ste. Marie Michigan

The boat takes a long line from the line handlers so it

can tie up to the side of the lock during its descent.

Soo Locks Sault Ste. Marie Michigan

The water has drained out of the lock and the gates

open so the boat can emerge onto Lake Huron.

Soo Locks Sault Ste. Marie Michigan

The 1,000' Walter J. McCarthy appears on Lake Huron

McCarthy aims for the Poe Lock which will raise it 21 feet to the level of

Lake Superior.

This is the biggest sized ship the locks can handle and it takes a

long time to get it situated in the lock.

The gates open for Maritime Trader, a smaller 670'

freighter which has shown up on Lake Superior.

Maritime Trader glides into the lock.

Line handlers appear on deck and on shore.

These guys make it look easy.

A line is walked towards the cleat on shore.

A line handler loops the line over a cleat.

Additional lines are led to other cleats.

Almost ready to close the gates behind the Maritime

Trader, we can see the bow of the Walter J. McCarthy

in the next lock over.

Maritime Trader begins its 21' descent from Lake

Superior to Lake Huron.

Meanwhile, Walter J. McCarthy is being raised 21'

from Lake Huron to Lake Superior.

The bridge towers over the back end of the ship.

The McCarthy rises higher and

higher while the Maritime Trader

sinks lower and lower.

The McCarthy emerges through the doors of the lock

onto Lake Superior

McCarthy steams off into Lake Superior.

Meanwhile, Maritime Trader turns on its engines and

churns the water in its lock as it heads out onto Lake


Maritime Trader heads off on the rest of her

journey on Lake Huron.

The Soo Locks: Lake Superior-Lake Huron, MI

Late June, 2009 - The maritime traditions run deep in the Great Lakes,

and after visiting the Hessel area and its many reminders of the wooden

boats of old, we took a trip to the Soo Locks where modern freighters

transit between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

The Great Lakes offer a relatively easy way to transport goods from one

region to another.  Some 11,000 freighters ply the waters each year,

moving tons of raw materials, mostly iron ore, coal, stone and grain (in

2008 shipping was down 45%).  Lake Superior sits a little higher above

sea level than all the other lakes, and in the early days of the fur

trappers, the only way to get your canoe from Lake Superior to Lake

Huron was to carry it past the rapids of the St. Mary's River.  This

method of "jumping" the river is said to have inspired the French to

name the area "Sault Ste. Marie" ("sault" meaning "jump").  In 1797 the

first lock system was built (on the Canadian side) so that ships could

float between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, and eventually the French

"sault" morphed into "Soo."

There is a fantastic visitors center and large viewing area at the Soo

Locks.  As we stood there waiting for some action, suddenly a small

open powerboat with four people in it drove into the lock.

We watched with fascination as the doors slowly closed behind the little

boat and a line handler gave them a line to tie onto their boat.

Slowly the water in this bathtub-like lock began to drain out and the

little boat disapeared from view.  The locks operate entirely on gravity,

as water either pours into the lock from Lake Superior or drains out of

the lock into Lake Huron.  Eventually the gates opened at the other end

of the lock and we caught sight of the little boat motoring onto Lake

Huron.  What a cool excursion for them!  It had taken all of 15 minutes

or so, and we found out later that for recreational boaters transiting the

locks doesn't cost a dime.  Just show up and the magic happens!

We were satisfied to have seen Soo Locks in action, and we were

about to leave when the lady at the visitors center said, "You really

should stick around.  There are going to be two huge freighters in

these locks at the same time in about an hour."  One of the ships

would be the 32-year-old, 1,000 foot freighter Walter J. McCarthy, one

of just forty ships of that size that works the Great Lakes.

Before long, the McCarthy showed up in the distance,

gliding towards us from Lake Huron.  It would be

entering the Poe lock, the largest of the locks and the

second lock out from our viewing area.  It was traveling

from Lake Huron into Lake Superior, so it would be

riding the lock system's "elevator" up 21 feet to the

level of Lake Superior.

It fit very snugly into the lock, and the handlers took an

especially long time getting the ship situated before they

closed the doors behind it.  It looked to me like there was

barely a foot or two to spare between the two ends of the ship

and the doors at either end of the lock.

Meanwhile, the

Maritime Trader,

a smaller ship of

just 594 feet,

showed up in

the distance

coming in the

opposite direction

from Lake Superior.

The gates opened

and the ship slid into


The line handlers on the ship and on

the shore loosely looped the lines

around enormous cleats.  It all

seemed very casual and easy for

them, but the hundred or so people in

the viewing area were all hanging

over the railings, excitedly snapping

photos every few seconds.

Once positioned correctly, the doors

of the locks were closed behind the

Maritime Trader, the water began to

drain out of the lock, and the ship

slowly descended to the level of Lake


Looking across the deck of the

Maritime Trader, we could see more

and more of the McCarthy in the

next lock as water filled that lock

and the ship was raised to the level

of Lake Superior.

Eventually, the water in the lock holding the McCarthy was even with

the water of Lake Superior, the doors of the lock opened, and the

freighter steamed out.

Simultaneously, the Maritime Trader had descended all the way

down, and the doors of its lock opened onto Lake Huron.  The water

in the lock churned behind it as it started its engines and moved out in

the opposite direction onto Lake Huron.

A few days after we left the Soo Locks, construction crews

broke ground on a pair of dams that will hold back the waters of Lake Superior for the next few

years while the two oldest and smallest locks are rebuilt into a single brand new big one.  Only

one of the three currently active locks can handle a 1,000 foot ship (the lock where the McCarthy

had been), so this new lock will allow more of the 1,000 footers to get between the two lakes.

Interestingly, the same thing is happening at the Panama Canal.  Rather than three single lock

systems like the Soo Locks, the Panama

Canal is a huge system of three

channels that moves ships through a

series of 26 locks separated by a lake.

It takes the ships up 13 levels through

the first 13 locks, sends them across the

lake under their own power and then

lowers them 13 levels through 13 more

locks to the ocean on the other side.  In Panama, a new lock system is

being built parallel to the other three to support the mammoth modern

supertankers that ply the world's oceans today.

Our visit to the Soo Locks capped off our time in the Upper Peninsula.  It

was time to make our way south again, this time along Michigan's eastern

coast where we visited some choice shoreside spots along Lake Huron.