2019 : First Ship of Season Passes Through Soo Locks

March 26, 2023 all-day

The Great Lakes 2019 navigation season officially kicked off at 12:01 a.m. today, with the first 1,000-footer to ply the inland seas snagging this year’s bragging rights as the first ship through the Soo Locks.

The Stewart J. Cort arrived at the lock system just before midnight. Ship enthusiasts had been tracking her progress through the Lower Great Lakes. Fans gathered near the huge lock system in Sault Ste. Marie as the Cort pulled into the Poe Lock, which handles all the big freighters upbound for Lake Superior.

The Soo Locks had been closed for its annual winter maintenance work since late January. More than 73 million gallons of water were drained from the Poe and MacArthur locks – the only two of the four locks still in operation. Repairs were made, the bottoms of the locks were cleaned out, and then refilled last week.

Less than a week ago, a trio of Coast Guard cutters from the U.S. and Canada were the first vessels to lock through into Lake Superior, where they began breaking up ice so freighters could start making their way to the Soo for the opening of the shipping season.

In past years, there’s been some close jockeying by freighters to see who will enter the St. Marys River first and make the big date at the Soo Locks. This year, the Cort was clearly ahead of her competition.

This video by DRE Designs – Great Lakes Marine Products shows the Cort’s arrival, and the fans’ reaction. For more coverage of Opening Day and in-depth coverage of Great Lakes freighters year-round, check out their Facebook page.

Early today, the big freighter was met by an official welcoming committee made up of local leaders, who had some Soo Locks swag for the Cort’s captain.

“An annual tradition, dignitaries from the City of Sault Sainte Marie, the Soo Locks Visitor Center Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau came to greet the first ship and present Captain Sipper with plaques and other commemorative gifts,” said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District, which oversees the lock system.

At daybreak today, a marine tracking system showed the Stewart J. Cort and fellow 1,000-footer the American Century stopped around Whitefish Point. It’s unknown if they were stopped because of ice, but the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw was shown to be nearby.

Each year, the locks handle more than 4,500 vessels carrying up to 80 million tons of cargo on the Great Lakes. Iron ore, limestone and coal make up the bulk of what is coming through on the big freighters.

The locks, located in the St. Marys River, help ships and boats move from the lower-level waters of Lake Huron to the higher-level entrance to Lake Superior. A new lock is expected to be added in the future.

The three big Coast Guard cutters working in Lake Superior – two from the U.S. and one from Canada – will soon be joined by other vessels, the military said. They will be working areas including Michigan’s Whitefish Bay and Duluth, Minn. before breaking ice in western Lake Superior ports like Silver Bay, Two Harbors and then Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada.

By the end of March, they expect to break out any ice left near Michigan’s Marquette and the Keweenaw Waterway.

Nine Things You Might Not Have Known About The Soo Locks

There’s something for everyone in Sault Ste. Marie, from historic open houses, to spectacular vistas plus the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the great Soo Locks. Check out these nine interesting facts about the Soo Locks to inspire your visit from Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.


Sunset at the Soo Locks
Photo courtesy of Carol Roose 

A man-made marvel and the busiest lock system in the world, by cargo tonnage, yes the Soo Locks! On average, between seven and ten thousand ships come through the locks during the shipping season each year.  Built in 1855, these locks connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron and beyond.  We have repeat visitors every season; they call themselves Boat Nerds, that watch ships from all over the world use this free lock system.  Now here are some facts about the locking system and the St. Marys River.

1. $500.4 Billion. The value attributed to the iron ore shipped through the Soo Locks each year. An average of 80 million tons of cargo moves through them each year.

2. 7,000 passages each year. Crews at the Soo Locks complete these lockages during the 42- week- long navigations season. They are open 24 hours a day.  Can you take your personal boat through the locks? Yes, as long as you have a motor and permission from the lockmaster.

3. 2,342 miles.  Ships from all over the world visit this port as the locks are a part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which connects Duluth, Minnesota to the Atlantic!

4. 22 Million gallons of water to lift a boat. The locks are powered by gravity itself!  Water moves in and out of the lock chambers by just opening and closing valves.

5. 1000 foot boats. There are 13-1000 footers on the Great Lakes, and the largest boat that comes through the Soo Locks is the Paul R. Tregurtha, in at 1013 feet 6 inches which is larger than three football fields! The first vessels on the great lakes were 40 foot-long canoes.

Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie.JPG

6. 9 hours. The time between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, it takes a freighter about nine hours to pass through the St. Mary’s River system

7. 21 foot drop. A thick layer of bedrock holds back the waters of Lake Superior where it joins the St. Marys River. This drop prevented boats from passing through. This reddish sandstone lines most of Lake Superior southern shores and is about 1000 feet-thick. The Fairbanks Scale Company, which is still in business today, built the first permanent lock, State Lock.

8. 3-4 cents per ton- From 1855 to 1881, this was the toll, but today it is free.

9. The propeller in Soo Locks Park is from a steamer named the Independence, which exploded just northwest of today’s locks.  One crewman is said to have survived a trip down the rapids on a hay bale from the ship.

Now that you know more about the Soo Locks, come and visit the Soo Locks Park anytime between late March and Mid-January to see the freighters go through the locks and get up close and personal with this engineering marvel!

Article courtesy of Pure Michigan.

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