One of the best ways to get a close look at a Great Lakes freighter is to watch it pass through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Every year, the Soo Locks raise and lower thousands of ships 21 feet so they can pass through the St. Mary’s River, carrying grain, iron ore, and other raw materials to factories and ports throughout the region.
The Army Corps of Engineers operates and maintains the four locks, only of two of which are in use. The Poe Lock—named for Orlando Poe, the engineer who designed it—is the only one that can handle ships longer than 800 feet. Congress approved construction of a second Poe-sized lock in 1986. But it hasn’t been built yet. And at this point, Lt. Col. Dennis Sugrue says it could take up to a decade to do the job.
“We have two to three years left of design work to be done on the project, and we’re estimating five to six years in construction,” Sugrue says.
President Donald Trump noted the deterioration of the nation’s inland waterways in his proposal to fix America’s infrastructure.
“Our inland waterway system requires $8.7 billion in maintenance, and the maintenance backlog is only getting worse,” the president says, adding that many locks and dams are past their 50-year lifespan.
Sugrue, the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District, says the Poe Lock has reached the end of its design life, making the need for a new lock more urgent.
“It’s really a question of long-term reliability,” Sugrue says. He estimates that 70-million tons of commodities pass through the locks every year, including all of the country’s iron ore.from the Mesabi Range to steel mills on the Great Lakes. If the locks were to shut down for any reason, it would disrupt a number of industries that ship products on the lakes. Sugrue says the MacArthur Lock shut down for 19 days in 2015, but most closures last only a few hours.
“We have a very talented and dedicated team who keep those reliably operating,” Sugrue says.
If Congress reauthorizes construction of a new lock, Sugrue says it would replace two others that are not being used right now, the Davis and the Sabin locks, which were built in 1914 and 1919 respectively.
Click on the audio link above to hear the conversation with WDET’s Pat Batcheller.