The St Marys River drops 21 feet from Lake Superior to Lakes Huron and Michigan. The only water connection between Lake Superior and the other lakes, the natural barrier of the rapids made it necessary for the construction of the locks. Canada built the first lock in the late 1700’s. That lock was destroyed in the War of 1812. The first lock on the U.S. side was constructed in 1853.
The locks have been rebuilt and enlarged many times since to accommodate the increase of freighter size, some now 1000 feet long.
As many as 11,000 vessels pass through the locks annually. We were told now, though, due to the poor economy, as few as 6 – 8 may traverse the locks daily. With that in mind, we were fortunate indeed, to ascend to the top of the observation deck just as a large freighter, the Alpena, entered the area.
Boat rides through the locks are available, and just prior to the Alpena entering, a tour boat entered the locks, as did a coast guard boat.
The tour boat looks fairly large, until you see how little of the locks it occupies.
The Alpena seems huge coming into the locks, then the loudspeaker announces that it is 500 feet long. That’s only half as long as some of the ships which use the center lock. Some of these vessels enter the locks with as little as one and a half foot clearance on each side. We learned later that radar equipment helps the captain steer into the lock.
The Alpena must seem huge to the tourists, bearing down on them. Workers on the dock secure the Alpena in place. The water is raised 21 feet before the upper gates open, allowing the vessels to continue into Lake Superior.
Here the gates are opening, and the boats prepare to leave the lock.
After lunch, we browsed the street fair on Main Street.
The Museum Ship Valley Camp at Sault Ste Marie, Michigan is the World’s Largest Maritime Museum housed in a Great Lakes Freighter, the Valley Camp.
Much of the ship has been kept as it was when in use. The cargo holds, once bearing loads of coal, iron ore, and limestone, now house more than 100 exhibits showcasing maritime memories, shipwrecks, lighthouses and local history. One exhibit relates the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in 1975, taking its crew along.
We toured the holds and the engine room, then went up on the upper deck to see the pilot house and walk the length of the ship, peeking into the galley, dining room and living quarters of the officers and seamen. Then it was down into the depths of the ship where there are four 1200 gallon aquariums, holding fish varieties common to the Great Lakes.