Ship Viewing in the Soo, Michigan

The town of Sault Ste. Marie (commonly just called “The Soo”) straddles the U.S. Canadian border  and made a name for itself because of the shipping locks which are the spine of the coal, iron ore, and grain industries.  Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Canada are divided by the St. Marys River which connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron.  The name Sault Ste. Marie in French translates to “Rapids of the St. Mary” and the rapids explain the need for the locks.  Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan settled by Native Americans and was a crossroads of fishing and trading of tribes around the Great Lakes.  In the 18th century, the settlement became an important center of the fur trade but the falls proved to be an obstacle with moving goods.  Boats and supplies would have to be ported around the falls which was a difficult and lengthy process sometimes taking weeks.

In 1796 a canal was dug on the Canadian side to allow ships a safe passage bypassing the rapids of the St. Marys River becoming the first lock.  The lock was destroyed in the War of 1812.  The first American lock, the State Lock, was built in 1853 and instrumental in improving shipping traffic as it was much larger and more efficient.  Over the years, the lock system has expanded and improved and sees more than 11,000 ships and millions of tons of cargo that pass through its gates.  Today there are four locks on the American side (one of which is closed) which has become a popular tourist draw. 

Image result for sault ste marie ontario
The locks are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and there is an on-site visitor center and viewing area (both of which are free).  The visitor center plays a series of movies and has exhibits talking about operations and history of the locks.  A board displays the times, names, and lengths of ships moving through the locks and their estimated time of arrival so you can make sure you get to see the locks in operation.  Step outside  the visitor center to the viewing platform where you rise above the locks for a great view of the ships moving the 21 feet up and down in the lock.  This is especially impressive when it is a 1,000-foot long freighter in the lock.  For those wanting to experience the locks first-hand there are boat tours that will do just that.  They take you through the large locks on the American side and then back through the historic lock on the Canadian side.  While we were there we saw a Canadian Coast Guard ship and the 858-foot freighter the Roger Blough move though.


Gravity alone moves water in and out of the lock chambers.  Huge culverts run below the lock floors allowing water to flow in or out of the lock depending on which valves are opened.  To raise the level, the emptying valve at the lower end of the lock is closed and the filling valve is opened allowing water to flow into the chamber from the Lake Superior level.  To lower the lock the filling valve is closed and the emptying valve is opened allowing water to flow out to the Lake Huron level.  It takes 22 million gallons of water and an average of 40-60 minutes for boats to pass through the locks.

How the Locks Operate
The lock on the Canadian side is quite smaller and used for pleasure craft and much smaller boats than commercial freighters.  The original lock was constructed in 1895 and later updated in 1998 was and is flanked by historic buildings and is  an interesting contrast between the old smaller locks compared to the large ones on the American side.  The area is a National Park and also hiking trails that take you to the rapids and around the locks.  Two foot bridges span the locks which you are allowed to stand on during operation so as you straddle the locks you watch the water rise and fall.


A while back someone referred us to a restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie that he claimed has the best hamburgers.  When he also mentioned that it was a nothing to look at, eat in your car restaurant under a bridge, we knew we had to go there.  So off to West Pier Drive–In with empty bellies and high expectations.  The cheeseburgers were huge and really good with a bargain price of $5.50.  If you are in the Soo, we highly recommend dropping by for a bite. 


While in Canada, I decided to check out the Bushplane Museum while Spirit and Betsy went for a walk along the waterfront.  The museum is dedicated to preserving the history of bushplanes and incorporates their role in forest fire management in North America.  Inside the 64,000 sq. ft. hangar are 24 vintage aircraft many of which you can venture inside while others are transformed into interesting simulators giving you a birds-eye view.  Interestingly they have exhibits on the original style pontoons that were used in water drops and demonstrated how they were filled by being dunked into a water source and then released over the fire.  The museum has two movie theaters one of which is a really cool 3-D movie on wildfires and wildland firefighting that gives you an incite as to how aerial assault on forest fires is performed with amazing aerial footage.  The other movie takes you along on an adventure with a bush pilot flying over the Canadian wilderness.  The scenery in the movie is stunning and you understand the difficulties of flying in such remote areas.  Admission to the museum is $7 which I found worth it especially because of the emphasis on firefighting and my past experience as a wildland firefighter.


The town of Sault Ste. Marie definitely embraces its shipping history which is seen throughout the town.  There is the Long Ship Motel, the Lock View Restaurant, the Soo Locks Brewery, and many more businesses with names regarding the shipping industry and the locks.  To maximize your ship viewing opportunities, simply logon to the website BoatNerd which has real time data on ships in the Great Lakes.  Click on a ship icon and it will tell you where it is going, what it’s cargo is, how fast it is going, its length and other facts.   I found this website quite interesting and helpful to predict when the lock traffic was picking up.  The great thing about Sault Ste. Marie is that there are a couple of campgrounds (and an Elks Lodge for you members) right on the water so you don’t have to leave the campground or the RV to see the ships pass by. 


Comments are closed.

COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease) Notification - Escapees RV Club is monitoring the situation closely. For up to date information affecting members, please click here.

More Info