The Locks

The Locks at Sault Ste. Marie (Soo Locks) are a national historic landmark and an engineering marvel run by Army Corp of Engineers. It is the only way that U.S. ships carrying critical commodities, including iron ore, coal, limestone and wheat, can get from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean. So let’s take a dive into the Soo Locks in a three part series. In this segment we will look at the history and value of the Soo Locks. This will be followed by part two, on the current threats and problems with the Locks, and part three, on solutions we need the federal and state governments to support.

The Soo Locks have been integral to our nation since the first lock was built by the State of Michigan in 1855 to eliminate a water traffic barrier to Lake Superior and facilitate trade. The federal government assumed responsibility for the locks in 1881 when more resources were needed due to the increasing number and size of ships passing through it. Today, only one of the four Soo Locks, the Poe Lock, is large enough to accommodate modern 1,000 foot vessels.

The Soo Locks enabled the United States to build “industrial might” during World War II as over 300 million tons of iron ore mined in Minnesota and Michigan was then shipped to steel mills in the southern and eastern Great Lakes region. This steel was then used for battleships, aircraft carriers, tanks, artillery, and individual helmets.

The Soo Locks remain just as critical today; it is the busiest lock system in the world.

7,000 passages move about 80 million tons of freight through the locks each year during a 42 week long navigation season. Maritime shipping is the most efficient, environmental friendly, and cost-effective mode of transporting this much cargo through the U.S. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) 2014 study, the average savings of shipping on the Great Lakes’ St. Lawrence Seaway system in 2007 was $14.80 per ton compared to all other modes.

The tremendous value of the locks is further demonstrated. In 2012, $500.4 billion, or 3.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, was attributed to the iron ore shipped through the Soo Locks.

For a system that is so integral to our country’s national security and economy, why are we looking at “a single point of failure” for the industries that rely on shipments through the Soo Locks?  Stay tuned for part two of this series on the Soo Locks.


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