Proposed New Lock at Lake Superior

The case for building a new lock at Sault Ste. Marie received a big boost with the publication of a report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which detailed the critical importance of the locks to the U.S. economy.  The report, entitled: “The Perils of Efficiency:  An Analysis of an Unexpected Closure of the Poe Lock and Its Impact” was completed in October of 2015, and reported on MLive on March 13, 2016.  

The “Soo” locks were completed in 1855, just in time for the brigantine, Columbia, to haul 130 tons of iron ore to be delivered to Cleveland, Ohio.  Prior to the use of the locks, ships and cargo had to be portaged around the falls.  As David Brown writes, in White Hurricane, “With a vertical drop of 19 feet from Superior to Michigan and Huron, ships could not carry iron ore directly to the lower lakes.  A wooden tramway with iron banding for rails was constructed in the 1840s to allow transshipment of ore around the rapids, but the demand was still not satisfied until the first canal and lock system was opened in 1855.”

The construction of the locks was a significant factor in the outcome of the Civil War.  The shipments of ore through the new locks enabled the manufacture of weaponry and ammunition necessary for the Union to win the war.  Of the locks, the Poe Lock, constructed in 1896, and updated, in 1968, came to be dominant in shipping and a crucial underpinning to the U.S. economy.  MLive describes the Poe Lock as “…the largest of the Soo locks in Sault Ste. Marie and the only one able to handle the 1,000-foot freighters that carry 70% of Great Lakes cargo.  From the day of construction completion of the locks in 1855 to 1898, shipping quantities increased many times over.  The cost of moving heavy or bulk freight dropped to very competitive levels as the efficiencies of water-based transportation took hold of the steelmaking economy.

Originally, the ore found in the Upper Peninsula and Minnesota was so pure, it could be fed directly into the blast furnaces on Lakes Michigan and Erie.  As time passed, the purity of the ore diminished and was replaced by a baked ore known as Taconite.  Taconite is a marble sized and shaped pellet of high-grade iron ore.  Whatever the grade of the iron ore, industrialization in the United States grew up around the transport of a raw material across water to processing plants based on the waterfronts.  The industrial infrastructure of the growing nation conformed to the shipping patterns.  

So, what would be the consequence of an interruption of shipping through the Soo locks?  The DHS reports unemployment would go through the roof.  MLive reported that the national unemployment rate would reach 11.3%.  The report further predicts that the States of Texas, Michigan, and Ohio would lose 800,000 jobs.  The report additionally calculated a drop in U.S. gross domestic product of $1.1 trillion.  The consequence of a breakdown, then, at the Soo, or worse, say, a terrorist strike would be enormous.  Enough so that Michigan and Ohio congressional delegations support the construction of a new lock.  Governor Rick Snyder has called for the construction of a new lock.  Senator Gary Peters has supported plans to create a new larger lock comprised of two antiquated locks, the Sabin and Davis locks.  

Some do not take alarm as a breakdown at the Soo could be overcome by trucking and rail.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  There are not enough rails cars in the country to compensate.  Nor are any of the processing plants configured to receive raw materials by rail or truck.  The interstates are barely adequate to handle the traffic they currently host. A significant increase is out of the question.  

Brown writes: “The importance of the Soo locks to the industrial development of the United States cannot be overstated”.  That was true in the early stages of industrialization and it appears to be even more so in 2018.

(Editor’s note:  A special thanks to new Board member Jim Hettinger of South Haven for this factual and historical article about the Soo Locks.  Jim’s article was previously published in Gannett newspapers.)

Update:  On October 10, 2018, Congressional approval was given for water resources legislation that contains critical Great Lakes provisions including authorization for a new large lock at the Soo Locks complex.  The Act now goes to the president for his signature.  

The legislation includes additional provisions to support efforts of states, provinces and other partners on key challenges facing the Great Lakes. For example, the Act:

  -  Directs the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake research on the management and eradication of aquatic invasive species, including Asian carp and zebra mussels;

  -  Directs the Army Corps of Engineers to implement a five-year harmful algal bloom technology development demonstration program;

  -  Authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out a Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study; and

  -  Adjusts the cost share to 80% federal, 20% nonfederal for operating and maintaining measures to prevent the upstream movement of Asian carp through the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Chicago.


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