Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula

Soo Locks Park & Visitor Center

Great Lakes freighter up close
There's no better place to experience the sheer massiveness and gritty details of a Great Lakes freighter than from the Soo Locks viewer stand.

A key link between the Great Lakes, the Soo Locks give a close-up view of giant freighters. They are on the American side of the river. Constructing the locks in 1855, and building the ensuing lighthouses needed as navigational aids for the greatly increased shipping traffic on the Great Lakes were big, big federal projects at a time when the national government and its powers of taxation didn't amount to much. The completion of the first Soo Locks in 1855 were what really kicked off the development of the Upper Peninsula as an area of any significance. In 2005 the 150th anniversary of that momentous event is being celebrated with several weekends of special events. See the calendar at .

The smaller Canadian locks, built in 1895, was once busier than the Ameican locks. It is now used for pleasure boats and a Canadian locks tour boat. Parks Canada's Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site with a visitor center is on an island near the foot of the International Bridge.

Canadian Venture
Canadian Venture - entering Soo's MacArthur Lock upbound.

The St. Marys River connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron, then to the lower Great Lakes, and ultimately to the Atlantic. The American locks, four in all, enable vessels to bypass the St. Marys Rapids, a gradually descending drop of 21 feet. (So much water has been diverted by the locks and power canal that the rapids are far less impressive than they once were.)

For watching big boats up close, there's hardly a more dramatic place anywhere than the elevated viewing stands. They are in front of the visitor center operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed and maintains the locks and operates them toll-free. You can look down onto the main deck of each massive vessel, barely six yards away, as they move into the MacArthur Lock, the closest to shore. You see the crews of the locks and the ship moving about as the valves in the lock's floor open to let in or release water and the ship floats slowly up 21 feet to the Superior level or down to the Huron level. (It's all done by gravity; no pumping is required.)

At 800 feet long, the MacArthur Lock (built in 1943 and named after the controversial general Douglas MacArthur because of his Corps of Engineers connections) can't handle the current generation of thousand-foot vessels. They lock through the Poe locks farther north. "Discussion continues about building a new, even larger U.S. lock in the space now occupied by the Davis and Sabin locks," writes Roger LeLievre in The Soo Locks Visitor's Guide (24 pp., about $8, available at local shops). It is the clearest and most authoritative guide to the locks, past and present. A new lock, LeLievre writes, "would relieve the pressure on the Poe, the only lock able to handle vessels more than 730 feet long and 76 feet wide. Cost of such a lock was estimated at $225 million in 1999, and would be paid for by the Federal government and the states surrounding the Great Lakes."

Alongside the locks, the Soo Locks Park is a beautiful, peaceful place to linger when it's not too crowded. It has the air of a European park, with its benches and neatly planted rows of same-size trees. The park is especially pleasant in the evening, when lights reflect on the water and illuminate the trees. Recorded music plays, and colored lights illuminate the fountain.

Often the Sault is foggy in spring and fall, giving it a haunting atmosphere. In an age known for its speed and instant connections, Locks Park is an entry point to the slow-moving world of shipping, and it has a real allure for visitors. Some people find it so relaxing that they hang around for days.

Each Wednesday evening from late June through August the Superior Concert Series brings to Locks Park acoustic music, often pertaining to the area's maritime and ethnic heritage: voyageur ballads, folk, Celtic, sea shanties, plus bluegrass, barbershop, and country swing. Bring lawn chairs or blankets.

Nowadays you should expect to wait a while to see a big boat pass through the locks, or plan your visit for the arrival of a ship. One big cargo ship comes through the locks every hour and a half on the average, though ships sometimes bunch due to bad weather and waits at the Poe Lock. The number of big boats is steadily dwindling on the Great Lakes, well under the 180 U.S. and Canadian cargo vessels less than half a decade ago. That's largely because efficient, high-volume thousand-foot bulk carriers are gradually replacing 600-footers with the same number of crew but less than half the capacity. Also, the collapse of the Soviet Union means much less Great Plains wheat is being shipped overseas.

The Corps of Engineers' elaborate and interesting Soo Locks Visitor Center is open long hours from mid-May through mid-November. (See below.) In 1995 it doubled in size and added new displays. The locks' story is told with brochures and diagrams (quite helpful to boat-watchers) and with interesting photographs going back to construction of the first American lock in 1853-5. (A very small lock had been built on the Canadian side in 1797.) By 1853 the Upper Peninsula boom in copper and iron mining had created a pressing need for efficient shipping. The 's remote frontier location made it hard to get a federal land grant to be able to fund lock construction. Senator Henry Clay scoffed that a canal here would be "a work quite beyond the remotest settlement of the United States if not in the moon."

Visitors can see a 4 short videos on the locks' history and operations. The films are shown in continuous 2-hour cycles. As ship traffic and vessel size have increased, new locks have been built over the decades. Also on view is a large working model of the locks and a display about the environment of Lake Superior. An arrival schedule on the wall tells which freighters are due the next two to three hours.

Nine thousand vessels pass through these locks each year. About one half are huge cargo vessels, some carrying as much as 70,000 tons. In summer 2000 an average of over thirty freighters a day went through. Of the 85 million tons of cargo that passes through the locks each year, well over half is iron ore from the Upper Peninsula and Minnesota. Coal sent up from the lower lakes makes up another 15 million tons. Minnesota wheat accounts for 9 million. Other downbound vessels take iron taconite pellets from the iron ranges to steel plants on the lower Lakes, while upbound Great Lakes freighters are most likely to be carrying coal, stone, steel, cement, fuel oil, and road salt.

Most of the boats you see going through the locks are strictly Great Lakes vessels. But there are also ships that come from all around the world. These oceangoing vessels are easily recognized for their salt stains and three angled masts. The principal cargo of these "salties" coming from Lake Superior is grain grown in the North American heartland that feeds people around the world. To identify the owners of every ship on the lakes, consult Know Your Ships, the boatwatcher's bible, available in stores and on the web site.

Locks Park extends east to the ends of the Poe and MacArthur locks, permitting a dramatic view of the massive gates opening and closing around the vessel locking through. The 1896 stone Administration Building with its observation tower gives a stately presence to the scene. A wonderful aerial view of the falls and locks is afforded by going over the impressive International Bridge to Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.
To reach the locks, take either I-75 Business Loop exit. Get on Ashmun St. and go north to downtown. At the T intersection, turn left (west) onto Portage. Locks are in one block. The shipping season is usually from March 25 through Jan 15; Locks Park open from 6 a.m. to midnight. Visitor Center open daily 9-9 from May 15-Oct 15. Park along Portage or adjacent streets. If space is tight, look west on Portage. The Corps of Engineers information center phone changes from year to year. Call (800) 647-2858 for current phone.
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Return to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

Soo Locks Park & Visitor Center. This is the place to get really close-up views of giant freighters, plus see some interesting exhibits ... more

Portage Avenue shops and beyond. Shops of note in the central part of town ... more

Soo Brewing Company. Serious ale brewer will fill you growler for $8 ... more

Soo Locks Boat Tour. This 2-hour excursion provides a dramatic look at the big locks, the quaint Canadian locks, and the Twin Soo's waterfronts. ... more

River of History Museum. Life-size dioramas bring to life scenes from Sault Ste. Marie's long history and prehistory. ... more

Riverfront walk along Water Street and Brady Park. See upbound boats waiting at the locks at beautiful Brady Park, site of the 19th c. fort. See interesting historic monuments from Sault Ste. Marie's aspiring years, including idiosyncratic Chase Osborn, the only U.P. governor. ... more

Bingham Avenue historic buildings. An avenue of grand 19th-century buildings, from a time when locals saw a grander future for the city than actually unfolded ... more

Tower of History. An oustanding view of the area from a 21-story tower. ... more

St. Mary's Pro-cathedral. This 1880s cathedral has a wonderful interior, with richly colored stained glass and striking wall accents ... more

Water Street Historic Block. Three of the earliest and most significant houses in Upper Peninsula history ... more

George Kemp Downtown Marina . A nice picnic area at a beautiful marina ... more

Museum Ship Valley Camp . A 1917 Great Lakes steamship is the vehicle for an interesting maritime museum ... more

St. Mary's River Lighthouse Cruise. A 4-hour journey past landmarks like the lighthouse at the entrance to the St. Marys River ... more

Edison Sault Power Plant & Alford Park. This 1902 quarter-mile-long landmark never attracted the industries it was built to serve, but still generates electricity ... more

Mission Point, Aune Osborn Park & Sugar Island Ferry. It's been called the #1 place anywhere to see Great Lakes freighters in motion ... more

Sugar Island. Once a favorite Chippewa sugaring spot, the island still has many maples and still is a popular stop for migrating birds ... more

New Fort Brady/Lake Superior State University. Begun in 1893 as an Army fort and barracks for 20,000 troops, this overlook now is the site of 3,300-student Lake Superior State University ... more

International Bridge. Connecting the 5,000-mile Trans-Canada Highway with 2,000-mile I-75 to Florida, this 1962 bridge does much more than connect the two Soos ... more

Sault Ste. Marie Wi-fi Hotspots. Bayliss Public Library has public computers. 541 Library Drive. Take last US exit on I-75, turn right on Easterday, turn left at traffic light onto Ashland St. to Library Drive. Lake Superior State University campus is a wi-fi hotspot. 650 W. Easterday. ... more

Our new interactive map to U.P. motels that offer exceptionally low rates. See also our useful detailed maps to U.P. TOWNS. These custom-made maps locate landmarks and attractions.
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Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Hunts' Guide to the U.P.

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