Any good Michigander knows about the Soo Locks…but a lot of us take it for granted and rarely visit. If ever.

So I thought I’d rustle up some old photos of the locks and give some brief details on its conception.

According to Michiganology, for years, Michigan was theoretically on its knees asking for locks and a canal at Sault Ste. Marie. Unfortunately, at the time (early 1800s) there were snooty members of Congress that pooh-poohed the idea, stating that the Michigan Territory’s Upper Peninsula was “beyond the remotest settlement of the United States”, further stating that putting locks and a canal there would have just as much effect as if you put them on the moon. Michigan kept up their argument that not only would Michigan would benefit from them, but the entire country as well.

And then in the 1840s, the gods smiled on Michigan. Copper and iron were discovered in the western Upper Peninsula. But how could they ship all that mined ore through the shallow St. Marys River to Detroit and Cleveland for processing? They needed the canal.

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For the time being, to get their goods and cargo past the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, everything…yes, EVERYthing had to be taken off the boats and portaged around the rapids. This took excruciatingly long hours, not to mention all the money it cost.

I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the greedy politicians who originally scoffed at the idea all of a sudden saw dollars flying away…..not to mention maybe a little profit for them as well? The outcome? They agreed to locks and a canal at Sault Ste. Marie - and in late summer 1852, the government graciously gave 750,000 acres of land to fulfill that request.

Excavation and construction kicked off the following summer, with men working 12 hour days at a whoppin’ twenty bucks a month. Added to the lousy pay were freezing winters and a cholera epidemic that wiped out many workers.

Finally, in May 1855, the Soo Locks opened for shipping. A month later, on June 18, 1855, the S.S. Illinois was the first ship to christen the locks.

1855: 1,500 tons of iron ore came through the locks
1860: 120,000 tons

As ore supplies grew, larger ships were built, which meant the locks had to get bigger as well. In 1968, the last lock opened.

In a nutshell, the Soo grew from a “politically scoffed-at” suggestion to one of the world’s busiest locks.

Thanks again to Michiganology for the details. Check 'em out for more in-depth info.
Now take a look at some vintage photos of the Soo Locks!

Soo Locks


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