Top Cultural Attraction in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: World’s Busiest Lock System!

If you ever go to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, be sure to take time to visit the Soo Locks, which is the single most significant cultural contribution the Yoopers (“folks from Michigan’s upper peninsula”) make to American heritage.

Alan and I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, so we sort of took the Soo Locks for granted, although we loved sitting together by their lovely fountain even 50 years ago!

However, since traversing the Panama Canal a couple of years ago, we now have a new appreciation for the importance of the Soo Locks, so on our recent “Roots” tour, it meant a lot of us to be able to take some of our kids and grand children there and tell them “all about it!”

Source: Unknown. Found at http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/SooLock.html

Begun back in the early 1800’s and opened in 1855, the Soo Locks was one of America’s great infrastructure engineering feats, making it possible to ship the resources from the Lake Superior region to the rest of America’s Great Lakes (and beyond).

Michigan Survey Map. Wiki Commons
(mauve-colored areas to north and east are Canada)

The project was heroic, as it meant forming a lock to accommodate the 21-foot drop in water level from Lake Superior to Lake Huron via the existing rapids along a 1000-foot-thick sandstone river bed on the St. Mary’s River.

Poster at Soo Locks Visitor Center, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

Although the Soo Locks are one of America’s National Historic Landmarks, they continue to be a vital part of the modern shipping trade, receiving ships from around the world, and by cargo tonnage they are the busiest locks in the world!

Soo Locks, Aerial View. Wiki Commons

They consist of four individual locks that allow between 7,000-10,000 ships carrying more than 80 million tons of cargo (including over $500 billion’s worth of iron ore) per year to pass free of charge through their gates.

Photo from Soo Locks Visitor Center

The locks are powered entirely by gravity, and each traverse requires 22 million gallons of water to fill the lock.

View of the locks from a walk across the International Bridge Alan and I took in 2013. https://kathrynwarmstrong.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/walking-the-international-bridge/

A complete transit takes about 9 hours through the St. Mary’s River system.

Because they are part of the transportation system from Duluth, Minnesota all the way to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway, cargo ships may be on a 2,342- mile trip when they traverse the Soo Locks, although ships from around the world have passed through this port.

The biggest freighters that come through the locks are up to 1,013 feet long (which is more than three football fields!), but the morning we visited, we got to see the Joseph H. Thompson pass through.

Joseph H. Thompson passing through the Soo Locks

Although the Thompson is only 706 feet long, it is one of the Great Lakes’ most historic vessels.

It was originally built in 1944 and has served both on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, during wartime and peacetime!

Although impressive to watch, even for youngsters, it’s really helpful to go to the Visitor Center, where there are excellent explanations on the history and technical aspects of how the locks work.

Soo Locks Visitor Center

The most fun (and educational) exhibit for kids is a hands-on display where you can “open” and “close” the locks and let the ships go through.

Observation Deck at the Soo Locks

Obviously, you want to be out (or better yet, up on the Observation Deck) when a ship is passing through the locks, but if you have time beforehand, I almost think it’s better for people with young children to see the Visitor Center first so they have a better understanding of what it is they’re seeing.

Reflecting on our trip, I couldn’t help but think about how much we humans take for granted. Alan and I—as young kids fifty years ago—enjoyed the ambience and lovely gardens around the locks as just “the garden in our backyard” without any deep appreciation for the significance of the locks. Our grandchildren had a similar response. They had fun running around watching the big freighter come in and exploring the park, but they reacted with a simple acceptance of what “is” without any apparent wonder over the locks’ complexity or significance.

Another photo from our bridge walk in 2013. This is of the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario side of the St. Mary’s River. There are twin “Soo” cities, and the locks are on the border between the U.S. and Canada, although the four U.S. locks carry the commercial trade.

My grandchildren remind me of myself! In so many ways, I am completely oblivious to the vast complexities of both God’s creation and the world’s civilizations. I find myself taxed trying to figure out how to use and care for the material blessings in my life—everything from turning on our video system to caring for the flowers in our garden—but I couldn’t begin to make a video system or create a flower! Could you?

However, like a child, I want to learn, and experiment, and grow in my understanding of what’s around me, and I am thankful for the wondrous world God has made! I’ll never learn everything, but I want to understand the most important things about life, and for that, I turn every day to the God’s Word! 🙂

The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

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